Promiscuous Reading

Do you ever happen across a phrase – just a quick marriage of two or three words your mind had never brought together – that exacts an epiphany of self-realization?

“Yes!” you cry, “That’s me! Now I know myself!”

Some labels you have to fit yourself around, add caveats and amendments. They’re too expansive, too restrictive, too one-size-fits-all. It’s like the first homecoming dress you pull on in the dressing room at Nordstrom: it fits, it’ll do; you’re not embarrassed to be seen in it. But the excess fabric falls just a bit too far onto the floor and the shiny polyester feels a bit abrasive. But you’re told the blue brings out your eyes. If you’re fifteen, you buy it anyway.

And sometimes, that’s the best you can do. But sometime later, maybe in college, sitting in a crowded lecture hall or even a church auditorium, you experience that singular exuberance of finding words that so totally compliment your beliefs or quirks. Those jeans you pulled off the shelf in a moment of desperate hope, mold to you like a hand made $5,000 suit, no tailoring, no concessions, just a perfect fit.

I had one such experience today while reading Micha Boyett’s blog*. Because guys, I too, am a promiscuous reader.

The phrase seems to have been coined over at the New Yorker by Mark O’Connell, who suffers from (read: thoroughly enjoys) the same affliction. And I thank him for it.

Because you see, I can’t commit to a book. A flit between them easily, finished or not, without apologies or remorse: a memoir at lunch, historical fiction after work, then perhaps some theology before bed. Sometimes I’m bored or disinterested. Usually, I just get distracted; I walk through Barnes & Noble and glossy new hardbacks call out to me like sirens. So I curl up with a new book, promising to return to the freshly shelved edition as soon as I’m finished, but inevitably this one, too, is interrupted.

They all get finished eventually; I’m not heartless. But it is never a clear, linear progression from chapter one to epilogue. My journey through a book of Christian discipleship is fraught with detours through the forests of Narnia and a meandering foray into Dickins’ London. Atticus Finch’s closing arguments must pause to make room for one of Gatsby’s parties.

My iPad is my great enabler. Every book just a tap and a swipe away. I just purchased Behind the Beautiful Forevers, and it’s just lovely. But then I found David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest for just $5.00. And it’s calling to me, waiting just behind the light-printed words I’m reading. Its intelligent and obviously emotionally complicated author just adds to its appeal. I’m trying to stay strong, but the fascinating stories of the children of Mumbai might be set aside for 1700+ pages of dense prose.

The great exception is YA novels. Those are quick, staccato bursts, beginning to end, that dot the landscape of my tangled literary maze.

And that’s the way I like it.

Just to prove my point, here are the books I’m currently reading:

  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
  • Prayer
  • The Poisonwood Bible
  • The Magician’s Nephew
  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers
  • Some marriage book I can’t remember the name of because I loaned it to David, and  he left it in Tulsa
  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • A Tale of Two Cities
  • The Know-It-All
  • Till We Have Faces
  • The Art of Fielding
  • A Million Miles in a Thousand Years

Some of them I’ve been reading for years. The Poisonwood Bible I think I’m going to have to start over because I can barely remember what was happening. And I like them. I really do. I haven’t gotten around to finishing them.

With books, as in no other area of my life, I make no commitments, no promises of fidelity. I simply let my reading heart lead me into the chapters of any and every book it desires.



*If you’d like, Micha links to a diagnostic guide of reading styles. It calls me a “multi-tasker” but I think we need to be more honest with ourselves than that.

David, incidentally, is a pure chronological reader. Which is why he has finished The Origin of Species, along with every book (one per week) that was assigned in his Senior English class. I think he judges my promiscuity a bit. :)


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