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ON THE 11th HOUR: when the war went quiet
I read “The Making of a Surgeon” by William A. Nolen while I was sitting in a wicker-bottomed stiff-backed chair on the front porch of someone else’s summer cottage in Brooklin, Maine, maybe 45 years ago.
I don’t remember the exact date, just that my hair was ridiculously long that summer because I was in the midst of a long-running, ultimately fruitless battle with my mother about who was going to cut my hair, and how. (She had been cutting it the same way for years, a nipping-clipper buzzcut that was always a source of great hilarity for my friends.)
But back to “The Making of a Surgeon.”
I took it out from the Brooklin Library because it looked interesting.
Nobody told me it was a good book or a bad book — no one told me I “had” to read it.
It was just on the shelf in the library, and I was quickly engrossed in it, sure I’d become a surgeon, too, despite my near-visceral aversion to blood, stitches, and the idea of cutting into another human being. Foggy days, sunny days, it didn’t matter: I read that book until it was done. Then I moved on to the folksier, but every bit as gritty “Emergency Room Diary” by Theodore Isaac Rubin, simply because it was on the same shelf.
I thought about all of that after reading a column in the Globe and Mail by Elizabeth Renzetti, where she talked about a trip down the trashy reading rabbit-hole of finding and devouring Arthur Haley’s “Airport.” In the column, Renzetti talks about having books she’s supposed to read — but can’t build the energy to even open.
And I wanted to shout, “Hallelujah!”
I write books and I read plenty — you can’t write without reading, can’t improve without seeing how other writers handle the tricks and curves and pitfalls of language and description.
But I often run aground on the shoals of the “Important Books.”
You’ve all seen them; you’ve probably all bought them: books on important issues that have been extolled as necessary reads, the way measles shots are (and they actually really are) necessary inoculations.
If you’re like me, sometimes you’ve found that you’ve opened them, closed them, tried hard to open them again, and failed. You’re told they are the things that absolutely have to be read — but it doesn’t matter. You don’t care for the people, the plot, the message. You can’t find a way inside it, yet can’t move on because you haven’t finished this very important thing.
We have too few hours to spend walking our way through the sheer wonder of reading a good book, to instead spend the time on a forced march through a necessary read.
It’s more than OK to read to learn things, or to find different shoes to walk around in.
But I’ve given up on the idea of reading particular books either out of duty or as some form of prescription. We have too few hours to spend walking our way through the sheer wonder of reading a good book, to instead spend the time on a forced march through a necessary read.
(And, not incidentally, I honestly feel that reading-as-work will eventually drive away even the most passionate of readers. As a writer, I recognize there are too many other things that need any reader’s attention. Any book that logjams a reading table can’t help but push other books away.)
It’s absolutely fine to read the things you like.
In fact, I’d encourage it.
When reading becomes a chore or a mere lesson plan, the magic of it flees. Not only flees, but is boxed up and buried in the yard.
And books do nothing for you if, some time after starting, you can’t bring yourself to reopen the cover.
Life is too short.
Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org — Twitter: @wangersky.
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