Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

July 27, 2009

Visiting from the Land of Books

My maternity vacation is over and I have been back to work at the book room for two weeks now.

I have to confess that I have been cheating on my all-Canadian reading diet.  One of the great hazards of working in a book store is of being distracted from the task at hand by any number of new, wonderful and enticing books sitting on the shelf.  So while I do have Therese and Paulette sitting on the shelf behind me, 60 pages read, I haven’t been very faithful to it.  I keep passing little curiosities, flipping them open and thinking, “well, it is only 150 pages.  I can read this before lunch and then go back to something else.”

Most avid readers will tell you that they read four or five books at a time.  Me, I try to focus on one.  If I don’t apply some discipline then I will play favourites, tending to ignore the harder books I’ve undertaken.  But then, a consequence probably of the fact that the harder or more boring books can sometimes take me months to get through, I don’t read as much as some people do.  I certainly don’t read as much as I’d like to.  In a good year I will read 40-50 books, in recent years (I blame knitting and child-rearing) I’ve barely read more than 20.

Two of the books I have read since being back at work, Books:  A Memoir by Larry McMurtry and The Beats: A Graphic History by Harvey Pekar & co. feature autodidactic protagonists whose reading habits are described in the same terms as their hedonistic drug habits (well, maybe not McMurtry’s).  They binge, they read obsessively, they escape for weeks, months into libraries and stacks.  The great writer is the great reader, end of story.

Having modest aspirations to writerhood myself I am therefore critical of my reading habits.  Should I read more books?  Better books?  Am I better served by spending three months slogging through, say, Dostoevsky’s The Adolescent (my nemesis) or by reading back to back 6-8 shorter, more varied titles: some poetry maybe, essays, some more sparse novels?  I go back and forth.  And I cheat. Most ridiculously, I feel guilty about it.

Scattered and undisciplined as book store life makes me, however, it has its benefits.  Customers, not unreasonably, always expect me to have read every book in the store.  Is this any good?  Have you read this?  How does it compare to this?  If I didn’t engage in little episodes of literary philandering I wouldn’t be able to bluff my way through these little interrogations quite so well.  Customers who know me ask me my opinions without hesitation; they really do assume I’ve read it all.  This isn’t as good as having read it all but it is flattering.  The reading hasn’t reached full gestation and burst forth in a great literary creation yet but I am an awfully good bookseller.  Maybe there’s something to be said about my destiny there.

So am I making excuses for dabbling and cheating and reading little bits all over the map?  Probably.  This is how I maintain my balance after all, but swinging back and forth between a disciplined assertion that good reading should hurt and a freer spirit of impromptu inspiration.  In the end I get both done.  Is it any wonder that our great writers (and readers) were all crazy or drug-addled?  A person’s reading habits are a case-in-point expression of their neuroses.  Does anyone read in a careful and measured way?  Maybe that’s what casual readers do.  Back at the book store torn between reads like a woman with too many lovers it occurs to me that even when I can’t squeeze many books in my reading is anything but casual.  What to read entertains as much of my thinking as the read itself.  Good lord.  But I’m in good company, I’m learning.

As for blogging, by the way, it is and will be a more sporadic activity from here on in.  Between work, reading, school, toddlers and living it has to exist between activities.  My apologies if you prefer regiments and reliability!  But I’m not gone, and continue to welcome your visits.

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