I logged onto Goodreads the other day for the first time in years. Some of the books in my Currently Reading list were long finished, others I had abandoned and forgotten about. It was hard to think of books to put on my virtual shelves. I remembered the books I had read over the last few years that stood out: Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey, The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu. Others that I thought I had read only a year or two ago were already in my shelves: Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges, The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead. Which each book I added, I found I had read more in my absence than I had thought. Time is elastic when it comes to books.
These days, it takes me months to finish a book. I read in little snippets of time, usually alternating between two or three books that are as different as possible: fiction, nonfiction, a history of American law and a book about a magical boy with four ears. I used to be able to read a book in a couple of days. Or at least, sometimes I did. When I try to remember when it was that I reliably read books back to front before they were due at the library, I can only think of elementary school: fifth grade, reading huge adult fantasy hardbacks with dragons on the covers. I’m not that person anymore. So why do I still hold myself to that standard?
It seems like during college, when I had an enormous amount of reading for class, was when I lost my ability to read the way I used to. Even the assigned books that I enjoyed had to be read at a breakneck pace, which was exhausting. I was too burned out to read for pleasure. But when I first read The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann in my senior year of high school, it took me months – and I was won over by a quote in the foreword that gave me permission to take as long as I needed: “We shall tell it at length, in precise and thorough detail – for when was a story short on diversion or long on boredom simply because of the time and space required for the telling?”
One thing I miss about diving deeply into a genre was how well I came to know it. I could easily identify the type of fantasy book I had picked up by the first few pages, and I skimmed over books in the library based on their covers. Fantasy book covers really do reveal something important about the type of book they are. I could easily differentiate between sword and sorcery, what I thought of as dragon books (the ones with plenty of dragons in them), the kinds of fantasy where magic has many rules in a highly structured society… all high fantasy, maybe, but each felt like a different genre to me.
I don’t know what the fantasy genre is up to these days. I know I have some fantastic historical fantasy novels on my bookshelf – Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik that begins with His Majesty’s Dragon. The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater brought me back to the days when I walked past the creek near my house and imagined that fairies lived there. The King and the Corpse by Heinrich Robert Zimmer told me some stories I had never heard before through the critical gaze I learned to appreciate (and criticize) in college. Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés is a bridge between stories and the ways we can use them to understand ourselves.
I have not read exclusively fantasy books in a long time, but that is still how I think of myself: as a one-time fantasy reader whose priorities have fallen by the wayside. I still have a deep love of fantasy, but a variety of books hold my attention now. I came to realize just how much I loved learning about almost anything when I was in college. Nonfiction books now provide me with what school always did: new information and new ideas. I haven’t read any dragon books in a long time, but The Three-Body Problem gave me the same sense of wonder and something much larger then ourselves or anything we know on earth today. Speculative fiction is still as dear to me as ever. It just isn’t the only thing I read.
Since I last logged onto Goodreads, I read my first work by Gloria Steinem, Moving Beyond Words, which told me what I hadn’t fully grasped: just how many feminist and social issues we struggle with today that are not new by any means. The Summer We Got Free by Mia McKenzie told the stunningly beautiful queer story my adult self had hoped existed but hadn’t been able to find. The Grey Album by Kevin Young opened a window for me into the aspects of African-American literature I hadn’t been able to see in college. I started Gifts of the Crow by John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell, finally learning things about my favorite animals after years of wanting to know more about them, and finished The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, which made trees even more magical to me. And, of course, the many books I have not finished, either because they bored me, or I didn’t like them, or didn’t like what the author had to say, or I simply ran out of time before someone put a hold on them at the library.
Every time I choose a new book and look at what I have just finished, my choice of reading material feels more like inconsistency than variety. But looking at the miniature book covers all at once, my last few years of books form a mosaic that spreads across the page. I have read fantasy novels, sci-fi novels, fiction, nonfiction about nature, nonfiction about literature. My reading habits are more textured than I had realized. The years it took to read them collapse into nothing.
It is freeing to realize how little of my identity is tied up in what I read. Fantasy books used to be a huge part of who I was. But these days, I can sit down with anything and find a piece of myself inside.
With that, I’m going to go read a book.