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A resolution to get back to the books

Harper Lee of To Kill A Mockingbird fame once wrote, “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved reading. One does not love breathing.”

Which is how I’ve felt since I first learned to read more than 60 years ago. Reading books was as natural eating or sleeping for me. On various applications I filled out in my younger days, under hobbies I listed reading until I one day I realized the error of my ways. Collecting stamps or building model ships were hobbies, but reading for me belonged in a nameless category all its own.

Even in the busiest time of my life, when I was operating two businesses in Waynesville, one of which was a bookstore, and when I was teaching adult basic education to prisoners in Hazelwood, homeschooling my children, and scrambling like a maniac to pay debts and bills, I found time for books. I’d snatch a few moments from the daily whirl and take in some pages from Shelby Foote’s magnificent The Civil War: A Narrative, or drink in the latest Anne Tyler novel, or bring John Gardner’s Mickelsson’s Ghosts to bed with me. 

In the last year or so, however, my lifelong love affair with books has taken a dive. Oh, I still read, but now, like so many Americans, I find myself swept up by online news and commentary about the coronavirus, the bitter divisions in our country, and the presidential elections. Books read for pleasure or instruction have taken a backseat to the ephemera and distractions of the Internet.

Time for a change. 

What first inspired my shift in navigation was a conversation with a New York friend who works as an editor. While we were talking, she lamented her neglect of books, claiming the national news had eroded her former engagement with novels and works of history. Her words acted as a mirror for me, for like her I had pushed books aside and was spending several hours a day skimming through articles about the here and now on my computer.

This realization brought to mind four friends with whom I’ve had recent conversations, two in North Carolina, one in Virginia, and the last in Minnesota, who remain inveterate readers of books. When we speak by phone or in person, they bring up authors and titles that have captured their interest and imagination, and then ask me what’s on my reading list. I usually mention some book I’m reading for review, but rare is the book read for my own enjoyment. 

Of these friends, three do spend time online every day — the woman in Minnesota is a writer and an editor, and her job requires her to keep a sharp eye on the news — but my Haywood County buddy, Anna, reads either books, real newspapers, or book catalogues, and rarely visits the Internet. “So why don’t you look at things online?” I asked her this past week. “Screens annoy me,” she said, “and I recognize it’s too easy for me to waste time that way.”

Screens don’t annoy many of us — that Anna put it this way is one of many reasons I enjoy talking with her — but we can certainly waste a truckload of time looking at them.

At any rate, New Year’s is fast approaching, that time when some of us determine to hit the gym or lose weight — I could stand to do both — and I hereby resolve to read more books. 

I’m not particularly good at keeping resolutions. I’ve even broken New Year’s resolutions and Lenten vows within 24 hours of making them, which illustrates that old saw, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” I always start with good intentions, but sooner rather than later find myself stumbling once again down the path of broken promises.

Once I did discover the willpower to keep such a resolution. Three years ago this month, I vowed to read Will and Ariel Durant’s mammoth 11-Volume The Story of Civilization in one year. By early December, I closed the final volume and congratulated myself for having climbed Mount Durant.

But I can’t claim all of the credit for that show of resolve. Most likely, publicly posting that resolution on jeffminick.com helped me reach the top of that summit. My fear of failure in the eyes of others motivated me to keep up on climbing.

So here I go again.

No matter what 2021 brings in terms of news — and you can bet the bank it will deliver plenty — I’m going to read a book a month above and beyond the books I will read weekly for review. Since some other people write reviews here from time to time, this means I should read about 60 books this year. 

Some of the books I read on my own time will be new, others old. I’ve already started Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, for example, and when I finish that novel, I’ll move on to Independent People by Nobel Prize winner Halldor Laxness. I’ll also read contemporary novels, biographies, and histories. 

Starting today, I’ll pour a cup of tea, sit in a chair with a book in my hand, and reacquire a lost habit. 

We’ll see how this resolution pans out.

Goal for next week: A review of Banjo Man by June Titus and 100 pages of Ivanhoe. 

(Jeff Minick reviews books and has written four of his own: two novels, Amanda Bell and Dust On Their Wings, and two works of nonfiction, Learning As I Go and Movies Make the Man. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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