The time I set aside for pleasure reading has become, in a word, unpleasant. Like you, I have obligations that irritate the ulcers. Bills to pay, a job to attend, a body to take care of, domestic insects to kill or exterminate. The other day I had to rest a glass of apple vinegar atop my bedroom dresser to trap gnats (they love the stuff—who knew?). My girlfriend was “seriously convinced”it was a glass of pee.
Among the detritus of everyday life, like contributing to the genocide of bugs, it’s often nice to turn to the literary big hitters for a respite from the banal. We let Nicholson Baker make us feel dirty; allow Mark Twain to make us laugh; invite Poe to exercise our imaginations and neuroses. If only we didn’t stab them in the back.
While I do happen to harbor my fair share of neuroses, my particular irrational fixations fortunately do not pervade my End of the Day Time to Go To Bed times. I like sleeping and I like walking, but I’ve never sleepwalked. I’m no psychiatrist, but it seems to me a condition afflicting those whose adventures in waking life have taken a turn for the disenchanted. Having the fortune of sound sleep, it’s hard to relate to the woes of the sleepwalker, or, as a matter of fact, any rigors of debilitating nocturnal activity (sleep eating, sleep apnea, sleep talking, sleep onanism, the grinding of the jaw, or that kind of bodily sprawl that ends with a dull, but loud THUD as a loved one graces the floor). But I can speculate that the body does these things to reconcile anxieties. Among which lies boredom.
From my past as a musician with a practice-until-your-fingers-bleed type dedication, I know that an in and out, day after day routine can bludgeon one’s piece of mind. In the 1960’s Guy Debord, a French Situationalist, imagined a serum for this kind of anxiety. Debord conceptualized Dérive, an experimental behavior that encourages one to make new what has become plebian, everyday, boring. Normally, this is done by making urban landscapes exciting again by drifting (literally, walking) through the city, taking directional cues not through street signs, but through the contours of the town’s architecture. Just kind of feeling your way out through new, unexplored terrain to invigorate the drifter from routine. There is no destination; only, perhaps, in the mind: to find something out about yourself and your city. Debord encourages getting hammered beforehand.
Instead of sleepwalking or any number of bodily injustices, I tend to reconcile my boredom and routine with books. Like dérive, reading provides me with a way to make new whatever spits out of the mental wheelhouse, an answerability to life’s big questions and the smaller ones as well. As a means of escape or no, literature excites the mind. Usually.
Reading as a kind of dérive promises great rewards at great risk. The promise: becoming lost and voyeuristically involved in a world that will force you to exercise foreign modes of thinking that, more often than not, embolden and strengthen the ways you relate to what’s around you.
The risk? Imagine, returning home after a day at the job. You’re actually tired from sitting down. Actually tired from directing your gaze at a stupid screen and erstwhile thinking about being tired. Bored on the drive home, bored of being bored of the stupid routine that you insist is, all things considered, most productive, time-wise. Post grabbing the post from its box you heist a beer from the fridge and relax on your springy old bed. Your head is enveloped by the encased fluff that has mostly ceased to be fluffy. You open to that page where you left off. You felt bad last time putting a bookmark in the middle of a chapter, but you were extra ordinarily tired, so it’s cool. You began to read re: the saggy vernal moss gently assuming itself upon the crags of a certain well-known mountain your certain well-known protagonist is stranded on (and consider briefly its etymology: Greek’s agon for ‘conflict.’) You read on. The wind blows the swoop of the protagonist’s hair westward as he turns his visage below the mount, encountering a silky bed of rhododendrons and willows, a leprosy of fallen sycamores lay horizontal on the earth providing homes for those kinds of insects you’d kill in your own home, but perhaps respect in the wild. You revisit the idea of the Sublime, a high-flown ideal one of your professors once went on about. A dated idea for certain. You turn your attention back to the text. Although you struggle relating to the aesthetics of the scene, you realize the author is attempting to behoove you to contemplate man’s position in relation to nature. How nature is something to be feared, but to be beheld by our species as a constituent of the Sublime and almost noxious…and…how…it’s really, like, serene, and…wake up with cosmic pangs of guilt.
If you’re reading the lovely stuff, prose truly beautiful and moving, why does the mind surrender to the body? This kind of thing happens with music too. Paying two hours’ wage for upper seats at the opera, only to be awakened when the contra alto whinnies an ineffably pitchy G sharp. Feelings of guilt indeed. Perhaps something about the rhythmic buoyancy of the eye across the page—the repetition. A cruel paradox: The quiet that rewards and lends itself to an environment of close, critical, meaningful readings is the same environment that also provides rest. Coffee, does it help? Music, does it hinder?
This is a surface level kind of sleep. It does not rejuvenate. A one-syllable kind of reprieve. After it happens: colossal bummer. You have gutted the author after stabbing its back, then sold their fillings to the markets. The white mass in your hands is now a ceremony you are no longer invited to. These are the nosebleed seats of shame.
Upon drudging through our PoMo tomes and staid poems, perhaps we should take heed to the first yawn we silently bellow; its portents are serious. Let’s keep our literary goals reasonable. Let’s meditate on that tiresome “quality not quantity.” Let’s remember that cushions are temptresses in whose throes we should only commit acts beginning wish “S.” Let’s accept that this kind of thing happens. Let’s admit that it’s not the author who’s at fault, it’s us. Let’s not pretend the somnolent writing in question is the work of an author who is rolling in her grave when we drift off to her work. Let’s read responsibly. Let’s dérive with caution.
Aaron Dawson is a graduate student who spends most of his academic efforts examining cultural studies; spends most of his time watching YouTube videos of how-to coffee tutorials; and spends most of his money on burritos.