Gaining Traction and Rediscovering my Reading Niche by Joel Malley

I have a confession to make. I am officially in a reading rut. I am a 1984 Ford Escort stuck in an icy parking lot in the dead of a Buffalo winter and no matter how frequently I rock between forward and reverse I cannot gain traction. The wheels are spinning, I’m consuming fuel yet I am heading nowhere fast.

A cursory look at my Shelfari bookshelf numbers bear this out. For the past three years I have averaged 42 books per year and throughout the past 36 months it would be rare that I wouldn’t spend a good chunk of each day reading. This year I’ve finished seven. Though I still read daily I am finding it impossible to gain any forward momentum. Right now on my bedstand are no less five books I am mired in. Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Bill Strickland’s Make the Impossible Possible, Danny and Katherine Dreyer’s Chi Running, Russell Banks Trailer Park and Tony Banks Round Ireland With a Fridge are all dog-eared and in varying states of completion. Problem is I can’t work up the desire to open up any of them. Usually I’ll freely abandon books that do not compel me back. Last year I ditched the Steve Jobs biography and Christina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban  without a shred of guilt. But every night I go to sleep and in the morning I wake up with this guilt-laden stack of books looking at me like a nagging drywall crack that I can never quite muster up the wherewithal to patch and paint.

I think that a huge part of the problem is that it feels like I am going through a midlife reading crisis. I don’t think I know what I want. My old go-to genre, fantasy-science fiction, has lost some of its personal luster. Right now I have multiple series where I’ve read the first book and have zero desire to read the next. I’ve read Veronica Roth’s Divergent but have no immediate plans to pick up Insurgent. I do not desire to pick up the second book in Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking series, the follow-up to Catherine Fisher’s Incarceron or the books that follow Lauren Oliver’s Delirium or Rick Yancey’s The Monstrumologist. And these are books that I enjoyed. Though it sits on my shelf I also have little motivation to finish the fourth book of Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance cycle. In fact, one of the things that made me set Oryx and Crake aside was when I learned that it was not a stand-alone apocalyptic tale but the first in a trilogy. I suddenly lost the inspiration. At first I thought that maybe my failure to find a reading foothold was just an advanced case of series fatigue.

But it might be more than that. As I near my forties I am developing the sense that my reading choices are becoming more pragmatic. Somewhere an inner voice is telling me that I need to gain something from reading over and above merely being engrossed in a tale. My reading conscience wants me to be better at what I do and maybe even develop the ability to bring up an interesting an anecdote at a cocktail party. Over the past few years some of my favorite books, Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run, Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bebe and Christopher MacDougall’s Born to Run have all been instructive and have added value to my life. The contemplation about running, eating and child raising that these books inspired have added value to my life. Much the same for Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. Even nonfiction that hasn’t been as instructive has awakened in me a sense of wonder and adventure. Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods come to mind. These books about interesting journeys have drawn me back by the simple power of their adventures. Someday I too may like to take a long walk or run and leave the creature comforts of home and even if I don’t venture out information about the Appalachian Trail, vegan athletes or Mt. Everest could come in handy during an awkward conversational lull over dinner.

However, I think it goes beyond pragmatism. As a teacher and parent I feel like my reading identity is pulled in many different directions. I do not only read for myself.  As an Advanced Placement Literature and Composition teacher I feel like I should be reading contemporary novels and short stories of literary merit to keep our shared reading current and interesting. As an English 9 teacher I feel like I need to be up to date on all the current young adult fiction so that I can make recommendations to my students to help them find their niches as readers. As a parent of a seven-year-old and four-year-old I need to find and share great books to help my kids along their paths to becoming avid readers. What’s more, there are all the professional titles I’d love to read though I can never quite find the time — books on teaching reading and writing and making in the English classroom. At times I feel like the Jack of all books yet proficient in none.

So, what’s to be done? Well, I think the answer is pretty simple. I have to sit down and read. Summer, a time of reading hope, is upon us. It is a time where I envision sprawling out in the shade of my maple tree on idyllic Buffalo summer afternoons reading in my lawn chair or reading deep into the night on my patio as fireflies flutter through my yard. It is a time unencumbered with the pressures of lesson planning and grading. Reading in the summer is an adventure of its own sort. Though I will not be engaging in an epic journey like Bryson or Strayed I still have a backpack full of supplies for my summer reading journey. My sack is filled with the short stories of Sherman Alexie, page turning fiction from Stephen King and Dan Brown, and, if the mood should strike me I might turn the pages of some professional reading about online course development or even up Insurgent. If I run out, my local library is down the street. In Joseph Campbell’s terms this summer there is no reading destination — no numerical dragon I want to slay — but more importantly the grail is the boon of finding and honoring myself as a reader. It’s about taking stock and answering those most basic of questions; Who am I? What do I need to know? What story might I like to hear?

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Joel Malley is a teacher at Cheektowaga Central High School outside of Buffalo, NY. He is a father, teacher, writer and teaching consultant with the Western New York Writing Project.