In the Land of the Non-Reader « The Bygone Bureau

In the Land of the Non-Reader

Jonathan Gourlay stops reading books. This is what happens to him.


Photo by Kim Mason

A few months ago, I stopped reading books.

At night I crawl into bed and thumb my iPhone to life. I watch Star Trek: Voyager on the Netflix app. It’s not a bad show. But somehow it is difficult to compare the weeks it took to complete the seven-season voyage through the Delta Quadrant with Capt. Janeway and the weeks I spent reading my favorite books — thick books by Eliot, Laxness, Dickens, and Pamuk. I know there is an argument that serialized television drama is as complex and soul-nourishing as a good book, but, unfortunately, I don’t care for the shows that are usually held up as modern classics for non-readers: The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, etc. I have never seen an episode of these shows. If you want to reach me, say it with alien explosions and busty cyborgs.

Back when I was a reader, it often troubled me when friends claimed that they had no time to read. Was it possible that their lives were so full of wonders that they could not spend five minutes here or there to read? How was it that my life, in comparison, seemed to offer so many chunks of reading time throughout the day? A train ride, a late-night break, and an office wait. Through marriage, babies, graduate schools, and new jobs, I always found time to read for pleasure.

Alas, dear reader, the term “pleasure” doesn’t capture the mental and physical need for books I once had. Without a book nearby I felt bereft, purposeless, barely human. Once upon a time I lived in a far-flung foreign swamp with an extended family of non-readers. I frightened them one night when I stumbled home drunk and ransacked the house for a lost tome. A nice cousin had cleaned the house and of course she, like most people, would never feel a deep compulsion to read all of Dickens. So my book got cast off or put away or tossed to the silent frogs in the swamp. (Yes, they were silent frogs.) I screamed, “Sid, where are my drugs!” in my best, cackling Nancy Spungen voice and I laughed for being woozily hilarious to myself but could find no rest without a page of my book to send me to sleep. Books were a long-time lover whose steady weight I needed to feel in bed before sleep was possible. It turned out that the swamp heathens had used Bleak House to balance a very wobbly chair.

Books can steady a chair and a soul. The former use is not recommended for Kindle.

The last book I read was…

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