Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Learning to Love Reading Again

I know, what a silly thing for someone in publishing to say. But it's true, despite the fact that my job revolves around reading, I found that I wasn't loving it as much as I used to. And unless I was reading for work (either at work or at home for freelance), I wasn't reading at all.

Growing up, I read a lot. It started with the Nancy Drew and Baby-sitters Club series, and moved on to R. L. Stine and Christopher Pike before getting to school assignments . . . that I really didn't read. It's true. I remember reading only a handful of school-assigned books from beginning to end: Romeo and Juliet; To Kill a Mockingbird; The Color Purple; The Scarlet Letter; Alas, Babylon; Othello; and maybe Lord of the Flies. That's it. Oh, and that includes college.

I'll let the record screech for a second.

It wasn't that I didn't love to read, I did. I read a lot in the summer and when my family traveled throughout the year. I just hated being told how to read and when to read. I hated writing papers on how I interpreted the book, only to be told how I misinterpreted something. (I'm talking to you, TA from my sophomore English class at A&M, the only person to give me a C on an English paper, ever. And yes, I did read the whole thing, though the "whole thing" refers to a short story that I read from beginning to end.) I became a fabulous BSer as I navigated eight years of writing papers on things I had skimmed or read partially. It was a skill, a skill I was both proud and ashamed of because I knew I was missing out on some great literature.

So when I graduated college, before I even thought about getting into publishing, I sought to rectify this. Now I could read at my pace. I could interpret the book the way I wanted to. I bought many of the books I should have read by then: Catch-22, Fahrenheit 451, The Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby, 1984, Slaughterhouse Five, etc. And when I decided to move to New York, I packed all these books, plus others I owned and wanted to read or re-read, in a box that my parents would bring up in a couple of months.

When my parents and my books arrived, I decided first up would be Pride and Prejudice, which I had tried reading at least three times, and just couldn't get into. I think I made it the farthest this last attempt, but still nowhere close to finishing it. (I actually think this is the book that prompted the whole not-reading thing in high school, because it's the first one I can remember not enjoying at all as we read and discussed it in class.) Anyway, tried that, and then got distracted with other things, for instance, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out, so I felt the need to reread the first six books for the umpteenth time before reading the conclusion to the series. I can reread this series a million times and never tire of it.

And when I moved out of my grandparents' place, it was decided that I didn't have the space to take my new library with me. So, for "safe keeping," my grandfather moved the box to his basement, which is much like the Island of Misfit Toys—what goes down there rarely returns.

Two years into my job, I started freelancing quite a bit. I love freelancing. A lot. It allows me to read books in a variety of genres, some good, some bad. But it also creates some issues when it comes to time management (balancing a full-time job, a social life, and a side gig is hard enough, without trying to find time for more reading). When I tried to read a book for fun, I'd:
  • get interrupted by a new freelancing job, thus having to put down the book I was reading for pleasure for at least two weeks, if not more (freelancing always comes in waves, I usually have two jobs at a time or none at all).
  • have a hard time remembering I was reading for pleasure and would therefore look for things that I'd mark up as if it was a freelancing job.
  • find that after reading at work, then freelancing for a couple of weeks straight, I didn't really want to read something as much as I wanted to watch TV.

Enter The Book Thief, which I started reading on the plane coming back from California. It was a long flight so I got through more than half of the book, a point in books that I wasn't getting to before without being interrupted. It took a chapter or two to get into it but once I did, I really liked it, and I knew at that point I might as well finish, so I slugged through it, even with freelance going on.

Then I started Before I Go to Sleep on my way to Mississippi. Again, enjoying it and getting to a substantial point before getting back to the daily grind of work and freelance. So I finished that one too.

And then I changed jobs and my commute doubled. Before, it took me thirty minutes to get to work, and most of that was on foot. Now it takes me an hour, most of which is on public transportation. With enough time to do some damage, I started reading Hunger Games. And if you've read Hunger Games, and liked it, I'm sure you know how quickly you can gobble that one up. (Ha, just realized I used a pun unintentionally, so now I'm going to leave it in.) While waiting for the second and third books to arrive, I read Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, which I didn't love, but didn't hate either. Parts were really good and interesting, and other parts felt like filler, but nonetheless, I didn't put it down like I had done with other books. Then came Catching Fire, which I promised myself I would not start until I had finished the freelance project I had. Oops. I wanted to read just two chapters, and ended up spending all night Saturday (the weekend of Irene), reading and finishing the book. Back to freelance, and then for the commute on Monday, I started Mockingjay.

It appears I have not only found my love of reading again, I've found a balance as well. I am now reading Stephen King's The Stand, which is going to take me the next month, at least, to finish (it's more than 1,100 pages and I have two freelancing jobs at home, so I'm reading on the commute only). And that's okay. I don't have to be a fast reader, I just have to keep all the stories/author's stytles separate in my head. I started this one because it's one of Mike's favorite books, and I figured after he read Harry Potter for me, I should read something of his—and I'm not quite ready to jump into the Dark Tower or Game of Thrones series. I haven't been able to completely bench my freelancer's cap, though I try not to intentionally look for the errors. (Once I spotted a typo four pages in, it was hard not to notice some other errors in The Stand.)

I feel like the long-ago version of me. The one that went straight from one book to the next without thinking twice or taking a break. I'm happy that I'm reading for fun, that I really do find pleasure in it again, even after spending all day, and most of the times all night, reading and editing. I'm happy that I can finally participate in goodreads.com and not feel like a failure, or suggest new books to people when I'm asked. Or, you know, not feel like the black sheep of the publishing industry, hiding a deep, dark shameful secret.

I'm excited to go back to my original goal of reading all the books on my years' long list. So . . . does anyone want to go on a treasure hunt with me in my grandparents' basement?

Friday, September 9, 2011

"Where Were You on 9/11?"

No need for a creative title this week, I think the fact that it's been ten years since the 9/11 attacks is on everyone's minds.

This week already feels strange. Mike and I haven't really been sleeping, and on Wednesday morning we were both up at 5 a.m.—too awake to fall back asleep, but too tired to get up and do anything productive. So we found ourselves on the couch watching television. Except the only things on our DVR were the interviews with Rudy Giuliani and George W. Bush on the National Geographic Channel. So we watched them—no, it's not a particularly great way to start your day (and the fact that we had no hot water two hours later didn't help either). But it's not like we can avoid the anniversary, it's all over the city, in the papers, on the news and radio, in passing conversations, and in storefront windows:

As if this week couldn't feel more strange, last night there was an announcement of a "credible though unconfirmed" terrorist threat. Not that this came as a surprise with the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 approaching. And on the way to work this morning, as the trains slowed, coming to stops in between stations, I could see people looking up from their books, e-readers, and iPods to see what was going on, to see if anyone thought this stop was any different than a routine "We are delayed due to traffic, we will be moving momentarily." Turns out it was different, and there was a police investigation at 34th street and all trains would be by bypassing this station. I haven't heard what the investigation was for, so obviously it has since turned out to be nothing serious.

I can remember that ten years ago, my high school newspaper column following 9/11 started/contained something like this: Our grandparents remember where they were during Pearl Harbor. Our parents remember where they were when JFK was assassinated. And now, our generation will remember where we were on 9/11. (Obviously there's a bit more overlap with grandparents and parents remembering 9/11 too, but my high school self didn't address that.)

And this week has brought back that proverbial question: "Where were you on 9/11?"

I was in high school, a senior, and I kept my books in the newspaper room instead of my locker. After first period, I swung by to pick up my World History text, only to walk in on my teacher, Mrs. Hall, watching something on the TV. She was the one to break the news to me, she was the one I was with when I saw the towers smoking.

I walked to my second period class in a daze, trying to process what I had seen on TV. No announcements had been made yet and not many of my fellow classmates knew.

When the bell rang for second period to begin, the principal came on to make an announcement about what was happening in New York. We were told to go about our day and more announcements would be made. I then made an announcement of my own: I would not be taking the test my teacher was preparing to pass out. I was told life would go on and that I would take the test. I explained to her that I was from New York, that I had family who worked down in the Financial District (thankfully not in the WTC), and that I couldn't possibly think about a world history test when world history was changing right now. This is one of the only times I can remember talking back to a teacher.

I don't remember taking the test. I might have. I might have stared at it and written down nothing. I do remember the bell ringing for the class to end and I went straight to my sister's third period classroom (she was a freshman that year). It was our routine, I had to pass by her classroom to get to mine, so I would wait for her to show up so I could say hello, give her a hug, wish her luck on a test, etc. This day felt so much different.

I remember we were both scared as we hugged. I promised her I would get a hold of Mom to see if our family was okay, and I assured her that I thought they'd be fine. I told her I would call Dad to see if he was okay too. (There were all sorts of rumors as to what cities were also going to be hit. Houston, with its oil companies, was one of the rumored cities. . . . Where this rumor originated, I couldn't tell you, but it made me uneasy nonetheless to know that my dad wasn't working from home that day.)

I had two periods of newspaper, which meant I had two hours of watching the news, not that I enjoyed what I was seeing. It was scary as shit, I think we can all admit that. I cried a lot. I watched a city I loved, a city I identified with, change so drastically—the lives, the skyline, the attitude. I was able to use the phone in the newspaper room to call my mom, who had heard from my grandparents and aunts and uncles about the rest of the family. All were okay. We couldn't get a hold of my dad, since phone lines were so clogged up, but by that point we had realized that all the other cities rumored to be hit, were just that, rumors. I was thankful, though I mourned for those who were not so fortunate.

After school, I went to work at the photo lab at Eckerd's. I ran film from a disposable camera through the developer, and then I nearly fell off my chair when I put the photos through the printer. There was a panoramic photo of the New York skyline with the Statue of Liberty in the foreground. I cried some more. When the gentleman who had taken the photo came in, he looked at his photos and stopped at that one. "I was just there last week," he told me. I explained to him that my family was from New York, and asked if he would mind if I made a copy of his photo for myself. He said that was fine. So I did, and I still have it.

I went home and hugged my parents and sister. I called the families of my new friends at NYU since I couldn't get a hold of either of them on their cell phones and I wanted to make sure they were okay. They were. And then we watched the news, and sat in horror as we saw all the images from the day.

Now it's 2011, ten years later. I find it ironic that on 9/11, I was a production editor at my school's newspaper. As I remember telling Mrs. Hall, I thought she had made up the position when she made one of my friends the editor in chief and the other the copy editor but didn't want to leave me behind without an editor's position. She did make it up, there hadn't been a production editor before, but I've obviously come to realize over the last four years that a production editor is, in fact, a real role in life . . . obviously. Back then, I thought I'd end up back in New York (which is silly because I originally went to school for marine biology, so had I continued on that path, why would I have been in New York? I guess my subconscious knew I was never going to do marine biology.) Now I am working in a building that was part of the blocked-off area during the days following the attacks, a building that had views of what was happening down at World Trade Center.

When people up here ask me, "Where were you on 9/11?" I just reply, "High school." Because I'm no longer in far-away Houston, I'm at the epicenter. I live somewhere where a lot of people didn't have the day I had, they didn't consider themselves fortunate. Where I had only possible brushes with personal tragedy, people around me now lost family, friends, and coworkers that day.

It's already been a weird week. And I wonder what Sunday will be like. I get chills thinking about the hush that could fall over the neighborhoods during the moment of silence. And then I wonder if NYC is capable of actually being silent. Metaphorically, NYC and its residents are as loud as ever. It mourned, it's rebuilding, and on Sunday, we'll remember.

Texas A&M's Red, White, and Blue-out in 2001. I wish I could have been there.