My 2021 Journey in Getting Back Into Reading

In January of 2021, I just picked up a book. Everyone has their pulpy, soap opera, lore bait extravaganza that they get into. Magic: The Gathering is one of mine. I had fallen behind on the published stories and decided to get caught up. I also had bought myself a brand-new fancy Kindle and wanted to use it. I combined these two desires. The act of sitting down and reading a book reminded me of what I was missing, even if it was as something as smooth and banal as a Magic: The Gathering book.

I went to Barnes and Noble, reupped my membership card and bought some books. One of which was Night Train. A book I knew nothing about other than its title and cover. I followed it up by restarting A Dreamer’s Tales, a short story collection by Lord Dunsany I had bought many years ago before leaving it on the nightstand untouched. I was at this point, scouring Amazon’s ebook deals and my own shelves. I was just picking up books and reading them. It sounds so simple, but after so many years it was mind blowing to me that I could just do that.

The next step of my journey was Mistborn. My best friend had gifted me the box set of the trilogy for Christmas/Birthday years prior. So many books lay fallow on my shelves due to my mired inaction. I think I had one of my best varied reactions to a book all year to it. I stayed up long after I should have gone to bed in order to finish that last 100 pages, I was so hooked. Then I had to decide what to read next. I picked up its sequel, a natural idea; after all I owned the whole trilogy.

For some reason, so many years ago, I stopped reading and I didn’t know why. When I was young, I had made reading a part of my personality. It was something I actively enjoyed. Then it wasn’t. It was such a slow and subtle change to the point I hadn’t really realized it happened. Over the course of last year, I’d ask myself what happened, and my many self-reflections would come up with many answers. I thought of reading the next Mistborn book but stopped in the face of the first of my self-reflections.

Getting me back into reading was a multi-front effort. Among those fronts were several fandom podcasts I had started the previous year. They were for book series I was quite into during my life. The relevant one for this story is The Shrieking Shack, the podcast that reread the TERF written fantasy series one chapter at a time and doing a deep dive analysis on them. Listening to that did something to my brain. It released my mind from a stranglehold I was only dimly aware I was in.

I’ll admit it. I got obsessed for over two decades. Technically, I never stopped reading; I read a lot of fanfiction. And it was in being released from the mental stranglehold that I realized the state I had been in and how I had excluded all other books and ideas. It was not the only factor, but it would be a lie to say it was not a major contributing one.

It was not the series itself, but my own obsessive nature. It didn’t have to be that fantasy series; it could be anything if I was not careful. So, I put down The Well of Ascension, Mistborn’s sequel. I said to myself, “next year.” And so, I made a rule. For 2021, at least, only one book per series. Later, I would adjust this further to only one book per author. It may sound draconian, but honestly, I never noticed the restriction.

In total, I read 17 books that are part of a trilogy or larger series without continuing them. It was the best thing I could have imposed on myself. Some of those series I will return to, others, not so much. The good that rule did cannot be overstated. The ones I’m going return to didn’t overshadow my experiences or lead down a new rabbit hole. By that same metric, those series that I’m not going to continue reading didn’t take advantage of my obsessive nature and impose themselves on me simply by being unfinished.

You forget what a book is capable of doing after so long away from them. Being without starved the mind. For all the years I put into video games, none felt as nourishing as even the most garbage of books I read in 2021, — looking at you Murder in the Glass Room — even if it was just to refute their ideas instead of absorbing them.

The simple pleasure of reading words again eventually gave way to a truly mind-altering transcendent experience when I got to The Crying of Lot 49. A book I had tried to read twice in college for different classes and failed both times. I never got more than a dozen or so pages in. This time I sat down on my couch at 11pm and didn’t stand up until I had finished it around 4am. I still don’t know how to qualify anything about Lot 49, except as a product of a mind and a time I can only understand through the portal created by the book in whole. What was awe inducing wasn’t just how the book influenced my mind, but the fact I was capable of reading it straight through in the first place.

Ultimately, I read 52 new books in 2021. It averages out to one a week, but I certainly did not read them anywhere close to that rate. The Crying of Lot 49 and pulp junk like Pines I did in a single night. Others like The Complete Cosmicomics or The Magic World took me weeks to finish. However, on the other side of the year, that pace seems less important than the overall effect.

I didn’t regret any of the new ideas, points of view, or ways of expression that I allowed into my mind. Quality was of a lesser concern, than just getting books into my head. I did digest them, understood them better, much better than I ever would have in my youth when they were only stories to complete, back when I was more concerned with having read the books that in reading them. About halfway through the year something began to happen.

I am not an original thinker. It’s something I may have always known about myself, but refused to admit. I digest what I watch, hear and read others say and repeat them. Occasionally, I’m able to combine two statements. It may be why the most beloved of my D&D characters by the other players at my table was a Kenku named Who. A character that was only able to repeat what others have said and can speak no original statements. I was right at home.

When I was arrogant enough to think I could be a video game critic, I struggled. I would play a game and all I could think to say were amalgamations of what others had already said. Other times I would play something no one had talked about yet, and had feelings about, but no words. Since I could not come up with new things to say, I rarely expressed my opinions. What would be the point? They felt copied. That’s still true.

Part of it is all my opinions sounded the same. I felt I was repeating myself in so much of my writing. I was at a loss. All the things I was trying to write about looked the same, played the same and thought the same. The experiences created were at their heart all the same and it added to my feelings of helplessly standing still.

It’s like I had been trying to speak by having mastered all the grammar rules, but ultimately trapped by a limited vocabulary. And then suddenly a dictionary was downloaded into my brain. I was blind and now I see. I was dumb and now can speak. I was fogged and now can think.

How little of that would have happened had I read so many fewer authors, no matter how good their books were?

I am happy with what I was able to achieve. Friends and co-workers seem impressed when I told them I read 52 books in a year. Yet, to me, the achievement feels small, only good in the context of having starved myself of words for so many years. I have shelves of unread books waiting for their turn, so many books, in fact, that I had to buy new shelves last year to accommodate them all. I think of all the wasted years that passed me by in stupor and depression and I can’t help but get melancholic.

The reason I gave above for losing all that time with books I might have had is not the only one. I wouldn’t place all the blame at the feet of one boy wizard, for it would be not only unfair, but a lie.

I never figured myself as depressed let alone subject to clinical depression. But looking back at my behavior and feelings of the past several years if not decade, I can’t help but think how many times I’ve looked at myself and declared “I hate you.” How I could never get myself to do anything. How stunted my emotional responses to anything were. Invisible chains holding me down and I still can only blame me for letting them do so. Like not wanting to get out of bed, why exercise what I think of as my most important muscle when none of it matters? Slothfulness breeds slothfulness. A poison of the mind’s own making.

Of course, I still don’t know if that’s true. I haven’t been diagnosed by a professional and I shouldn’t label myself as such no matter how glaringly obvious it may be to a layperson. And yet there’s something wrong in my mind that makes me do this to myself, even if I don’t know what it is officially.

After reading Everything I Never Told You, a book I only knew existed because of the now defunct Idle Thumbs Book Club podcast, I lamented at how many good books are out there that I’ve never heard of, would never hear of. I thought of my time in college. How I could rarely force myself to read the assigned books because I could never get over the initial hump. How wasted all the available resources of a university library were to me. I could go up to a random shelf and pull a book down and have an experience I never would have known about. Then I stave off that turn to melancholy by remembering I did exactly that this year.

While Night Train didn’t live up to the promise of its premise or its cover, The Unbroken was awesome and I hope C.L. Clark gets to publish more. Likewise, Blackfish City staggered me with its world building and characters.

There’s so much literature out there. “Please read another book.” I read 52 and it wasn’t enough. Actually, I could continue on with my self-imposed restriction and read from 52+ new authors and still not struggle to find new engaging material. In fact for the first half of this year, I did that by sheer happenstance. But Asimov, Austin, Butcher, Calinvo, Chandler, Christie, Jackson, London, Nesbit, Pratchett, Sanderson all call to me. Not to mention the boxed trilogies of N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials sitting on my shelf still in their shrink wrap.

Several of the books (and a few TV shows/movies) inspired new things I wanted to say. But they never got further than idle thoughts. There’s one essay I fully wrote out in my head, several drafts of it in fact, but never put a single word to page. Maybe that’s my next step in 2022. Continue doing what I’m doing and add the one extra thing. Some of the things I have half or fully written in my head are too late to be of any relevance. But then I think, ‘who cares?’ It’s my blog and no one’s ever read anything I wrote before.

I have the need to create something. The itch has intermittently been scratched by my Thursday D&D game. But I need more. I don’t want to feel that empty again.

I feel my entire post college life has been an ongoing, failing struggle to get my feet under myself as they’re whipped out by the tides of time before I could take the next step. And now I find myself in my mid-30s with nothing to show for all the implicit promises made to me in my youth than an expensive one bedroom apartment and a technically part-time, manual labor job.

I still pay for this site, despite having not posted anything new in over 4 years. Sometimes it feels like the only thing that is really mine. As sad as that is, given it is a representation of a decade of failure, the only thing sadder, I feel, would be to let it go.

I never was good at selling myself. I was always naïve enough to think I was selling words. Yet, words are not just words. A year of reading books has disabused me of that notion. There is to know a thing and to understand a thing. I’ve been stuck forever on the former. I knew words are not just words. I know words are not just words. They are a bit of the person placed on the page. Selling them is selling a piece of you. I was never good at selling me. I’m not an original person. I didn’t think there was anything to sell.

My twitter bio has the line “Everyday I get closer to knowing what the hell I’m doing.” It was true 14 years ago when I wrote it as it is today and will continue to be. The concept of selling myself, even for the purpose of writing or for a job, still skeeves me out. So, fuck that. Maybe what I want to write is years too late. I’m not selling it. I just need to get over the hump. It’s the next step and I hate that I’m standing still.

My mind is alive with the sound of ideas. This is what a year of reading can do.

Full list of finished new titles in order of completion:

*Some of these books I listened to via podcasts that narrate books. Free audiobooks basically. Which means I could not keep wholly to my rule, subject as I was to the show runner’s choice in material, hence why Wilkie Collins and Maurice Leblanc show up multiple times on my list of completed books.

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