I do Zoom calls with my neurologist – don’t ask – every six months. During our last session, I allowed myself to sit in front of the 25×10 ft. wall of books in my office. I usually avoid this backdrop because it makes me feel like I’m a remote guest on a TV show. Yes, I’m the person who obsessively stops the video and zooms in to look at the actual titles of the books on CNN experts’ shelves.
My doctor, who is also a professor, seemed literally joyful when he saw my books. “You read!” he said. “Nobody reads books anymore.”
“I know,” I said. “Actually, most all of my own reading is in digital formats now.”
“Well,” he said, “I mean most people don’t read at all, at least not at depth – digital or otherwise.”
He went on to explain that reading, as anyone who reads a lot knows, isn’t just about the input of information. It’s also about the development of critical thinking and the imagination’s ability to think and feel outside our immediate circumstances. If I had to claim a hobby beside the gym, it would be reading, but I’m ashamed that I rarely read fiction or poetry now. It’s so odd, since opening books and falling into stories was my refuge from the difficult times of my youth. Reading and writing poetry were curative. Language structures our thinking and the less you challenge yourself, the more prosaic and selfish your thought is likely to become. Literalism, which reduces the world to individual personal desire, is the soul-crushing curse of our time. Literalism despises subtlety and loves to burn books – or snatch them out of the hands of drag queens and keep them off the library shelves. How dare we allow anyone to compare, with love, their suffering to our own!
This subject – let’s call it voluntary illiteracy – came to mind rather brutally last month after publication of my column about being overwhelmed by painful memory and the longing for some meaning in the face of it. People on the Voice’s Facebook page read the headline and saw the photo of the Colonnade, where my experience occurred, and immediately concluded it was a negative restaurant review. I get how that could happen, but it simply does not make sense to me that without reading the column, you would write a review of a nonexistent review. This column has not been about restaurants in two years. No amount of clarification mattered to the mean girls, who proceeded to backslap one another in their dismissal of me as a “malcontent,” an “old queen,” and a “curmudgeon.” I’ll accept the labels, but get your damn evidence straight. I learned many years ago, after being trolled to hell, not to read comments, which are usually personally motivated, but a friend just had to point out that someone I have great respect for had joined the onslaught in this case.
The response to the column was led by a suggestion to call the paper’s publisher to complain. Others clutched their pearls and cried, “Shame on Georgia Voice.” In that, they really were behaving no differently than those Proud Boys endeavoring to shut down drag queens and curtail information. I love the Colonnade, fools! Just read, people!
I was also moved to think about the decline in reading by the death of Michael Denneny, probably the most important editor of gay literature since the ‘70s. In fact, a collection of his own writing, “On Christopher Street: Life, Sex, and Death after Stonewall,” was published just a few weeks earlier, and I watched an interview with him on the Politics and Prose YouTube channel. Besides his work in bringing momentous books like Randy Shilts’ “And the Band Played On” to publication, he co-founded the gay literary magazine, “Christopher Street” that published from 1976 through the ‘90s. In the interview, Denneny, who was seriously mentored by Hannah Arendt for years, says the world of his book and magazine – a world where social consciousness was our main concern — “no longer exists” and doubts that younger queer people, supposedly preoccupied with domestic concerns like childrearing, have any interest in that world. I think he was wrong about that, being somewhat more conservative than many of us in those early years, but definitely seeing the world through the lens of great privilege by the time of his death at 80.
I routinely make the promise to myself to begin reading more fiction and poetry, but usually find my fingers itching for the keyboard to read, say, the New York Times, which now appends a “reading time” to each article. I mean, woo-hoo!, Paul Krugman’s essay, “Plutocratic Power and Its Perils” is a “4 MIN READ.” Hey, who can’t give something four minutes of attention? A part of me is so disgusted by the headline and the silly reading time that I want to just dismiss it as bullshit in a comment – sort of like my boys did with my column last month. That would feel good. But I read it and it wasn’t that bad. Which reminds me: Thanks to the many readers who responded positively to my column via my own Facebook page!
Cliff Bostock, PhD, is a former psychotherapist who now offers coaching to people seeking solutions to blocks in creativity related to their work and lives; cliffbostock.com, email@example.com; 404-518-4415.