Ask MFA students what they are looking forward to post-graduation and chances are they will say something about gaining back control over their reading. Throughout most MFA programs, and for very good reasons, the reading list is determined by curriculum, faculty, genre track, workshop focus, seminar assignments, and other factors. Some students have input (three of my four faculty mentors considered my ideas when developing the semester reading list). But it's not just that the reading list is more or less dictated, but other factors are too: the speed at which we must read, the staggering quantity and the nature of the reading, and the necessity of reading with notebook nearby, jotting thoughts for annotations and/or critical research theses.
As an MFA student moves through the program's two (or three or four) year cycle, perhaps like me, each accumulates a bigger than usual stash of "to be read" books either on their shelves, or on an overlong list. "I can't wait to read what I want when I want," is a common lament.
What's that expression? Oh yes, Be careful what you wish for.
In the nine months since my MFA program ended, I've read and read and read. Anything I want, anytime I want. At my own pace. Just because. Reading heaven, no? No.
There are many days when I wish I had a list, an annotation deadline, a seminar prep requirement based on an assigned book. In other words, now that I can read what I want when I want, as quickly or as slowly as I want, there are days when I have no idea what I want.
I would like a new reading list, please. For life.
For a while I determined to read the literary classics I was too embarrassed to admit having never read in their entirety (or at least not for decades). I bought Speak, Memory, but constantly forget it's on my shelf. There too, sits most of Jane Austen. I did begin St. Augustine's The Confessions (reportedly the first Western autobiography ever written). I guiltily admit I abandoned it on page 11, though I did read the entire 31 page preface by Patricia Hampl (see below).
In less ambitious moments, I declared (to no one except myself) that once the MFA was over, I'd read any old dumb book I wanted, just for fun. Or, having concentrated on nonfiction during the MFA, I vowed to read only novels, and maybe even some not-so-great ones, too. Then there was the long list of books and authors I wanted to check out, those recommended by faculty members and visiting authors and fellow students. I planned to read the dozen or so newly published books written by recent graduates (and fellow students) of my program. And those published by members of the rich, extended writing community at home, which I'd dutifully purchased – and stored. These now stand, along with (oh God, I am going to say it in print – the nearly 200 other not-yet-read books), in one bookcase in my home office, fully dedicated to future reading, their spines uncracked.
So you'd think I wouldn't have any trouble deciding, on a day to day basis, what to read. You'd be wrong.
Here's what happens. I stand before the shelves. Wonder what kind of a reading mood I'm in. Ask myself if there's anything I should be reading. Muse over what I want to read that day – fiction, memoir, biography, poetry, essays, history, genre fiction, the newspaper, a cookbook, 100 Klean Korny Jokes for Kids?
You see the problem. It's a combination of riches – so many books, so much time, too few outside expectations. (Well, the abundant time is actually a fallacy, but compared to the amount of "leisure" reading time available during an MFA program, I feel positively overrun with "free" time now.)
I stare at the shelves. I scan titles. I pull out one and then another and another book and make a small pile of "possibles." I read the first pages of each, the acknowledgments page, the jacket copy. Then I put them all back on the shelf and start again with another pile. Finally, I choose a handful of books and scatter them around – night table, breakfast counter, car, desk, coffee table. I may start all of them at once and see which one wins me over. I may start just one and work my way methodically through the group. I may lose interest altogether and find myself back at the shelves, staring.
The only three exceptions to this debilitating dithering are: if I'm writing something which leads me naturally to wanting to read a particular author or book; if I've recently promised someone I would read their book and respond; and if I've been assigned a book review. (See – expectations and deadlines are just grand, no?)
It's not that I haven't been enjoying my reading time post-MFA. It's just that I often don't have the sense, which I did all through the program, that whatever it is that I'm reading at the moment, has a purpose. And I also miss the delicious ability to say to my family, "I'm busy reading for school." (Yes, I know that for a writer, reading is an essential part of writing, indeed as essential as the actual writing. Try explaining to hungry kids and a spouse who just arrived home through 90 minutes of rush hour traffic, that dinner is not ready because Mom was reading.)
Lately when I look over the books I've read in a given week or month (ready to be reshelved in the "already read" cases), I get a sick feeling – not because the reading experience itself was not satisfying, but because I wonder: Was there was something I should have read instead? Did I read closely enough (as closely as if I had to annotate)? Or I panic at the overall "message" my reading might be sending (to whom I don't know).
And then there's the (lack of a) method of how I choose books lately – you'd think I had no literary education at all. Last week I read Jane Hamilton's terrific novel, A Map of the World. Why? Because my son, who loves maps, saw it on my shelf and asked, "Mom, what's this book about?" I'd forgotten I had it. So I read it. And was glad I did. But is that any way to choose? A few weeks ago I read Our Lady of the Lost and Found by Diane Schoemperlen. Why? I needed a pick-me-up and the cover art reminded me of my sister. Not too long ago I read An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Home in New England by Brock Clarke. Reason? Maybe because the cover was red or the fact that I'd recently returned from New England. Then I re-read, for perhaps the fourth time, the first half of The Florist's Daughter by Patricia Hampl. This at least I understood. For anyone who attempts to write memoir and falls into a crevasse of doubt – or maybe I should say for women over the age of 45 who attempt to write memoir and find themselves straddling too many familial lines -- a lifeline from Hampl seems only natural.
For a while I thought it would help if I reported here on the blog on what I was currently reading, or had just read, or was about to start reading, that perhaps I'd make wiser or richer literary decisions that way. But it was far easier just to stop putting that information on the blog, instead.
None of this haphazard book selection malaise is in evidence when I choose reading material for my students. Then, I make sure-footed decisions and present precise lists of books and authors, carefully curated to address specific writing issues. And perhaps those students find themselves thinking that once the 8- or 10-week class is over, phew, then they can go back to reading what they want.
I wish them well. But I've found that being one's own reading czar is not as much fun as I'd anticipated. And now, I need to end this post, which I have a feeling was just another way to put off choosing a few books for the week ahead.