My mom likes to joke that I was the easiest kid to keep occupied during any activity – shopping, doctor’s appointments, church – that might have bored me: She’d give me a book and I’d be fine for hours. I would truly read anything I could get my hands on; if I didn’t have a kids’ book handy, I’d read the encyclopedia, the dictionary, my dad’s chemistry textbook, a book of Pogo comics (I understood everything except for that one), whatever. The Moby Books “Great Illustrated Classics,” abridged versions of classic novels, were popular in the late 1970s – even sold at Toys R Us, which is kind of hard to fathom at this point – and I read maybe 30 of them. (None stuck with me more than their collection of four of Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories, Tales of Mystery and Terror. The Amontillado! That hideous heart! The cipher in “The Gold Bug!”) I can think of only one movie adaptation of a book – Joanne Harris’ Chocolat – that I enjoyed more than the book itself. (The book is virulently anti-Catholic, but the film recast the priest character the secular mayor.) I was – okay, I still am – Henry Bemis, just without the glasses.
There was never any plan to my reading when I was younger; I’d find something I liked, and I’d keep reading. I started reading at two, with Eric Carle’s The Mixed-Up Chameleon; apparently an aunt of mine was convinced I’d actually memorized the book and tried to test me with something else, only to have me read that too. I remember reading part of The Hobbit in church when I was about ten. I stumbled on Asimov’s first Foundation novel when I was 15, while in a Walden Books at the Smith Haven Mall with a friend of mine, and ended up reading the whole series, then the whole extended fourteen-novel sequence set in the Foundation universe. I picked up Dune one summer in college, loved it, then read every sequel, each of which was logarithmically worse than the previous one, in some vain hope that the series would recapture the glory of the first title. (No such luck.) I’d read pretty much anything on math or science that I could handle; when I was in sixth grade and my junior high school decided to place me in eighth grade math, I went to the library, got Asimov’s Realm of Algebra, and taught myself the subject over the weekend. I remember my father being annoyed with me because I took a lengthy novel, Moris Farhi’s The Last of Days, while going to an academics summer camp because he was concerned (rightly, if I’m to be totally fair about it) I’d get lost in the book and not pay enough attention to the classes. I’d sit in the back of the classroom in high school and read whatever novel I was into at that point, which was almost never the book we’d been assigned to read in English class. (I didn’t appreciate most of those novels until later in life, and I often think about how the curriculum seems calculated to ruin teenagers’ interest in reading, ignoring some far more accessible classics and offering some very peculiar choices among more modern literature.)
I always tell young or would-be writers who ask me for advice that you can’t be a great writer unless you are first a great reader, and part of why I say that is because I’ve lived it, at least the “great reader” part. I was assigned Catcher in the Rye twice in junior high school, the first time when I was just ten years old, and still to this day remember two vocabulary words I gained from it: qualm, which was simple enough, and prostitute, which confused the hell out of me even after I looked it up in the dictionary. (I also failed to grasp Salinger’s expression “giving her the time,” because, you know, I was ten when ten-year-olds didn’t know about that stuff.) I still write down new words I encounter when reading, most of which are uselessly obscure, with the occasional gem popping up – limicolous, sciamachy, obverse, arrogate, scapegrace, quondam, peroration. (The first two were from The Recognitions; the last two from A Dance to the Music of Time.) But it’s more than vocabulary; if you read a lot of writers in a lot of genres, you will learn through experience (or osmosis) how the language can be used for different ways of expressing similar concepts. English is malleable, adaptable, and you can twist it and bend it to do and say all kinds of things, sometimes to the point where you might lose some readers – ask James Joyce or Gertrude Stein – but to create beauty, or evoke laughter, or invite the reader into a select club of those who catch an allusion. I don’t know if reading so much has made me a great writer or even a good one, but it’s made me the writer I am.
When I read books, it’s nearly always for pleasure, which means I opt for books in which I can just get lost, either in a great plot or in a strong non-fiction narrative. I don’t read baseball books, because baseball is my job, and reading is a hobby, and I don’t like to let my job bleed into my hobby even though a former hobby ended up becoming (or at least informing) my job. I see a six-hour flight to California as a chance to read a 300-page book cover to cover, leaving a little time for a nap too. On a flight from LAX to Taipei in 2004, I slept for seven hours, ate two meals, and read the whole fifth Harry Potter book. (Then I had to carry it around for the rest of the trip.) Traveling the way I do means I eat a lot of meals by myself, yet I never quite feel like I’m by myself if I’m in the company of a great story. I’ve been known to disappear in Bristol during some dead time between the production meeting and the first BBTN of the night to meditate and read. Anyone looking for me can take solace in the fact that I’ve gone to a better place.
The Harry Potter series actually spurred me to begin reading again for pleasure after a lull in my early 20s where I fell out of the habit, particularly out of reading fiction. J.K. Rowling reminded me what it was like to be completely absorbed in a cracking good story – to this day, hers are the only novels I’ve enjoyed so deeply that I’ve dreamed I’ve been in the books – and sent me back to the used bookstores of Arlington and Cambridge and Boston, where I’d gladly pick up even some shorter classics at which I would have scoffed as a teenager. When I started traveling more in 2002, my first year with the Blue Jays, I started keeping a list of the books I was reading, getting to 70-something by the end of the season before I burned out on Hemingway’s The Son Also Rises (sorry, Papa, I just didn’t like it). I’ve always been a listmaker anyway, but something about recording what I’ve read, the ability to look back and see it like I accomplished something tangible (if meaningful to no one but me), has driven me to keep up the habit to this day.
The following year, my wife bought me a copy of Daniel Burt’s The Novel 100, the literature professor’s ranking of the hundred greatest novels ever written, as a Christmas gift. I assumed I would have read half or more of them, but not only was I off by a factor of about four (I think I’d read just fourteen), I’d never heard of thirty or forty titles on the list. This made me irrationally angry, and I started reading with purpose, hunting down anything on the list that was under 1000 pages, because it bothered me that I’d read so little of the western canon even though I don’t think there was a person on the planet who gave a damn that I’d read so little of the western canon. No one had ever accosted me to ask if I’d read Vanity Fair, but dammit, I was going to read it just in case. (Still waiting.)
That led me to more lists – someone on an old cooking-related message board that I frequented and that often veered off-topic posted the TIME 100 with a “how many have you read?” topic title that read to me like an accusation. Someone else bought me the Bloomsbury list of 100 Must-Read Classic Novels. I found the Modern Library’s list of the best novels from the 20th century, which is a hot mess, and then the Radcliffe Course’s response list, which is a different but equally hot mess, but still read three-fourths of the titles from each anyway because I’m stubborn. (I draw the line at Ayn Rand, who appears twice on the Radcliffe Course’s list, because if that’s what passes for “literature” we might as well just revert to oral traditions.) This striving led me to start some books I might never have started yet ended up enjoying, like Bleak House and Middlemarch, and to finish some books I might have abandoned, although whether that latter point is a good thing is a matter of much debate (which occurs entirely in my head).
The prompt for this was a personal milestone, one towards which I’d been working for about the last decade. A chiropractor I’d used in Massachusetts about that long ago noted that I always had a book in hand when I visited her office, and mentioned that her sister was also an avid reader who claimed to have read a thousand books in her lifetime. She asked me if I thought such a thing was possible, and I said it probably was, although you’d have to read somewhat obsessively. (I don’t think the irony in me calling another person’s reading “obsessive” was lost on either of us.) And that led me to try to list all the books I’d ever read – novels, non-fiction works, collections of short stories – to see how far short I was of that number. I figured if I kept up my regular pace of 60-70 books a year, I’d hit a grand sometime around my 42nd birthday; I’ll turn 42 in June, and I read my thousandth book earlier this week.
Three-quarters of the books I’ve read have been novels, with a bunch of narrative non-fiction filling in the rest. For all the classics I’ve read, I’m still very much a fan of genre fiction. I’ve read more works by P.G. Wodehouse than any other author – 34 novels and five short story collections – followed by Agatha Christie (29 novels plus Poirot Investigates), Isaac Asimov (19 plus 3, but none since 1995!), and Graham Greene (18). I’ve got another thirty by the holy trinity of detective writers: Chandler, Hammett, and Stout. I’ve read everything Jasper Fforde (11), J.K. Rowling (10), and Alan Bradley (6) have seen fit to publish, and eagerly await more by each. Then I look at my list and see how much more I could read by Bradbury and Le Carré and Richard Stark, and I know I’ve got some more Dickens and Hardy to tackle and could spend the next two years reading Balzac (no umlauts). I’ve still yet to read Parade’s End or Stranger in a Strange Land or The Jungle or The Stories of John Cheever. Should I even think about tackling Finnegan’s Wake given what an effort it was to get through Ulysses? Isn’t life short enough as it is?
I think now that I’ve reached so many of these arbitrary goals I’ve set for myself – hitting 1K, finishing the TIME and Bloomsbury lists – I’m back to reading for pleasure and only for pleasure. I’ve still got thirty-odd books on the to-be-read shelf, but I look at that queue just as books I’m dying to get to, some I’ve wanted to read for years but put aside in favor of classics that I needed to read to finish some list. My goal is usually to read for an hour a day; my daughter has to read for twenty minutes each day as her primary homework assignment, so I sit next to her and we read together, and then I work in more reading as I want a break during the rest of the day. (It’s a better choice for me than arguing on Twitter.) Sometimes I make that into more of an obligation – oh my God, I didn’t read my usual 60 pages today! – than it should be, which is just another manifestation of my anxiety plus, I assume, a bit of lingering Catholic guilt. Maybe that needs to be my next big reading goal. After all, a great story is one that tells you when you’ve read enough for the day.