Maybe this happens to you: I've been going through a period of, now, more than three months during which I have been unable to complete more than three book-length works of prose. To neither brag nor apologize, it is customary for me to read more like a dozen books in that time. To some, that will sound like a lot, like bragging; to others, not at all but three or four -- at least mentally disposable novels -- books of some kind normally pass (I want to say beneath my scan, but I've long since given up the practice of reading something only because I have started it) across my ken from cover to cover. These slumps have occurred often in the past and I haven't worried much about it, but this is an abnormally long period of time we're talking about and it makes me wonder. Old age? A heightened sensibility now so acute that anything less than "great" is no longer acceptable? Laziness? It must have more to do with old age and laziness than the other thing, because while I do not make a habit of reading the work of others less accomplished than myself with a sentence, I rarely find a shortage of authors better than I am -- at least at something. Whatever it is, my attention span is challenged and this worries me. I have often made the flippant (and erroneous) comment that reading has saved my sanity. Certainly it has not, but I suppose what I mean by that is that I would be far loonier, that is, exhibiting behavior born of being restless, irritable, and discontent, than otherwise. Books have been friends, of course, but also babysitters for a man with a huge streak of the infantile, and a psychiatrist among other things.
I have a lot of books, but probably fewer nowadays than at any other period in my adult life. This is due to moving a lot, failed storage payments, selling valuable books during lean times, and general carelessness or worse. I still have several hundred or so, and I'll tell you, really, what is on the nightstand next to my bed. I will include the embarrassing ones in hopes of eliminating charges of pretentiousness. Deserved as they might be, I still wish to avoid them.
Here is The Nightmare Reader, an anthology of supernatural horror fiction with contributors like Madame Blavatsky, Washington Irving, Thomas De Quincey, H.G. Wells, and Aleister Crowley among others. Beneath that Santa Steps Out by Robert Devereaux; Escape From Sonora by Will Bryant; Storm Front by Jim Butcher (birthday present); The Tale of the Body Thief by Anne Rice (read almost half); The Poetry of Boris Pasternak ed. by George Reavey; Hard as Nails by Dan Simmons; My Wicked, Wicked Ways by Errol Flynn; The Chasm by Victor Canning; No Man Is an Island by Thomas Merton; Marchers of Valhalla by Robert E. Howard; Master-at-Arms by Rafael Sabatini; and Raymond Chandler: A Biography by Tom Hiney.
Those are on one side of the bed and some of them half read, all of them dipped into at some length. Why do I feel I need to make excuses? I haven't done anything -- or rather my lack of reading them fully should require no excusing. I suspect this has to do with mortality and the desire to make every expenditure of time count. This is absurd when compared to the amount of time I spend watching The Sopranos or Curb Your Enthusiasm on DVDs borrowed from the library, the hours at my friend Bill's house trying to record on his four-track (or is it eight?) a definitive version of a -- flatly obscene in spots -- country and western song I wrote called I'm a Queen in a King-Sized Bed, and the amount of time (now comparable to a man-sized ball of string collected for no reason) spent doing absolutely nothing in the shower while I wait for the hair conditioner to really sink in.
And I keep buying books. The acts themselves of browsing for and buying them are gratifying in a way almost similar to reading them. Freud would have my father all over this issue, the buying of books: a pleasant association with him and this ritual. On the opposite nightstand I have books I have recently bought, mostly used. Here is V.S. Naipaul and Tobias Wolff alongside more Anne Rice and interesting Brit fantasist Neil Gaiman, Cash by Johnny Cash, a Stephen King and a Robert Silverberg on top of Ursula K. LeGuin and Joseph Conrad.
Sooner or later I have to deal with the concept of commitment, or rather the fear of commitment. As it ties in with mortality I think it is ineluctable. The issue of commitment in relationships with women has blessedly passed. At 55, no one is shrilly demanding my commitment to him or her. My girlfriend (joke of a word at this age) probably spends more south of midnight reflection on the whys of her commitment to me than anything else. So do I want to commit hours, days, weeks of a diminishing supply in something less than Proust's Remembrance of Things Past or all the Anthony Trollope novels? Stephen King's multi-volume Gunslinger series, for example, or The Da Vinci Code when I've never even read a decent biography of Da Vinci?
The honest answer to that one is most surely, "Yeah, I guess so. Why not?" Because no matter how long I stall, what I say, or what my intentions may be, I will, in fact, read more crap if there's any fun to be had in it. And if I miss Trollope or Proust and have to console myself with William Boyd, Richard Price, re-reading (even!) Graham Greene and James Joyce (because there is fun to be had there as well, oh yes) then so be it. I won't die broke.