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I don't love reading
The writer origin story you've never heard
I don’t love reading. I like it fine, the way you might like green tea, but I don’t love it, I don’t crave it, and I never have. I read very slowly, and I often have to re-read a paragraph after my mind has wandered. My extended family has some lore about the mild dyslexia in all our genes, but I’ve never been diagnosed and who knows if that’s a factor. Whatever the cause, it’s pretty rare that I think, “man, what I most want to do is curl up with a book and read.” Most often, the act of reading is accompanied by an uncomfortable sense that I should be processing the books faster than I am. Reading feels laborious, and I feel inexpert and slow.
If you ever listen to an interview with a talented writer, or if you talk to anyone who knows anything about becoming good at writing, you will almost invariably hear one theme: “good writers are good readers.” It doesn’t matter the genre or the age, this message seems to be wholly accepted as truth.
“If I were a young person today,” wrote Maya Angelou, “trying to gain a sense of myself in the world, I would do that again by reading, just as I did when I was young.”
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one,” wrote George R.R. Martin
And, perhaps my favorite, for the pure drama of it, from Virginia Woolf:
“When the Day of Judgment dawns and people, great and small, come marching in to receive their heavenly rewards, the Almighty will gaze upon the mere bookworms and say to Peter, “Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them. They have loved reading.”
The power of origin stories
This theme presented a major problem for me as I tried to conceive of myself as a writer. I would inch towards the sparkling identity of writer, one that I had always wanted to try on, I would peep around a corner at it, I would creep towards it hesitantly. Then I would listen to a podcast with yet another writer for whom books were her singular passion as a ten-year-old, who has always and will always find solace in books, and who cannot imagine the paucity of meaning in her life that would exist if she had not found books as a child. And suddenly, I would be scurrying away from calling myself writer, ashamed that I ever considered it.
I have been thinking about origin stories since I wrote about my own story, or rather the story I used to tell about my startup, and how disingenuous it felt to me. In that case, I adopted the type of story that a startup founder is supposed to have, even though it didn’t feel true. I see now how that act of complicity both helped me succeed at my startup and made me feel like I was constantly lying, which caused me significant moral injury.
Perhaps even worse is that, by following the template of the founder story, I perpetuated the idea that founders must have a certain type of origin story, one where your whole life has led to the founding of the company and you are determined to change the world with this revolutionary idea. This story, which cannot possibly be true about most companies, is exclusionary. People who aren’t willing to lie in that way don’t usually get the attention of investors required to get the company going. These people might naturally think, “I’m not the type of person who can start a startup,” even though their willingness to tell the standard founder story has little bearing on their talent for running a company.
In other domains, it seems like the standard cultural origin stories can have a similar effect. A person who did not stand out in middle school art class might adopt the conscious or subconscious stance: “I’m not creative.” For me, the fact that I don’t love reading made me feel for many years like I could not be a writer.
Now, it is highly tempting to hide my tepid feelings about reading. How much neater would it be if I just said that I voraciously consume books about women’s health, that I just cannot get enough? But that is not true. And I am determined to do my origin story differently this time.
The China book
When I graduated from college, I got a grant to do research in China. I had studied Chinese in college, and I thought that applying for this one-year grant would be a fabulous adventure. Ever the opportunistic type, I proposed a research project on trucking in central China. It was a topic that I did find interesting to an extent, but which, mostly, I thought would win me the grant. It did.
Not long after I settled in Chengdu, a massive city in central China, I began hitchhiking with truck drivers. For six months, I hitchhiked six thousand miles around central China, spending overnights in the passenger’s seats of truck cabs, traversing icy mountain ridges, waiting for hours in line at gas stations.
Does this sound like a very interesting story? I thought so too. When I returned from my year in China, I decided to write a book about it. What richer material could there be than a twenty-two year old white American hitchhiking with Chinese truck drivers. The characters! The setting! The suspense! The relevance to the US economy and politics!
Here’s the thing, though. By the time I was done with that trip, I wasn’t really interested in pursuing a career focused on China. I was done with it. I was exhausted. I missed my family and friends. Even so, I spent the next five years forcing this China book out of me like a constipated person expelling waste (and what would a Rae Katz essay be without a reference to poop). I pushed myself to read histories of China in which I had no interest, and I dragged myself out of bed before work to write and re-write chapters.
I got a literary agent. I re-wrote the book again. I re-wrote the book again. My agent finally deemed it ready, and she sent it out to dozens and dozens of publishers, in waves. Wave 1: all rejected, wave 2: all rejected, wave 3: all rejected. The book was roundly rejected by every publisher who read it, including, humiliatingly, by one of my friends from college.
Now, this was obviously heartbreaking because of all the time and energy I had put into the book. But the heartbreak was of a very specific type. I was heartbroken about being rejected. I was heartbroken that I would not become a published author before the age of thirty. I was not heartbroken that my work wouldn’t be read. I had no desire to self-publish. I wasn’t connected to the work, really, I didn’t feel compelled to get it out in the world for its own sake. I had done it, mostly, in service of being a writer, not in service of the work itself.
That said, my years writing that book served as my primary education in writing. During some of that time, I took adult writing classes, and was able to apply what I was learning to my draft, the absolute best way to improve. Re-writing and re-writing helped me evolve my voice and develop taste for what parts of my work I liked. That project laid a foundation for the work I do today, and also helped me see the rightness in my current relationship to the work. Unlike then, I now believe wholly in what I’m writing. I’m drawn to it naturally. Of course I want readers. Of course I want recognition. But I also just, plainly, want to write this stuff.
So this experience holds a complex place in my personal history. It is a chapter of my origin story, as is Jack’s English class.
As I was processing the unanimous rejection of my book in my late twenties, a therapist advised me to print the manuscript, gift wrap it, and put it away on a shelf. I still have that stack of paper, wrapped in colorful paper with a bow on top, in the back of the closet. Who knows if I will ever open it again, but it reminds me that the project was in many ways a gift.
About the pesky question of reading
Here’s the thing: I actually do think that I need to read widely in order to be a good writer in the genres that I love, which are personal essay and memoir. Personal writing is broadened and deepened immeasurably by bringing in the ideas of other thinkers. My topics, including women’s health, require actually knowing facts that are contained in books. Unlike in the case of the China book, I am genuinely interested in learning the ideas and facts relevant to my current writing, even if I don’t particularly love the means by which I need to learn them: reading.
But the fact that I need to read doesn’t mean that I need to have an inborn love for reading that began in the womb. What it means is that I have to find an approach to reading that works for me, in order to support what I actually love, which is writing. The approach I have landed on is to schedule my reading time into the day and employ a timer to ensure that I actually spend the allotted time with the selected book. I almost never disappear into the pages and emerge hours later shocked at how much time has passed.
What I am trying to say, to you but really to myself, is that this reality is fine. I am constantly battling nagging feelings that I read so goddamn slowly and that I’m definitely missing out on tons of useful ideas because I can’t even finish this one freaking book. But I am also more certain than ever that I am a writer, even if I don’t have the requisite love for reading.
Standard cultural origin narratives are magnetic, and it is sometimes hard to conceive of a different path. But even if you don’t fit the going narrative, you’re still eligible to adopt that glittering identity to which you have always been secretly drawn. I really believe this. I have to, as a writer who doesn’t love reading.
✍️ Join me in the comments
Do you love reading? If not, do you ever feel kinda bad about it?
What part of your ‘origin story’ do you want to officially renounce? Get it off your chest!
Let’s talk about it in the comments.
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