Reading My Vitamins


Came across this passage while reading Charles Johnson’s The Way of the Writer and immediately thought ‘yes, I can relate!’ To “…the same innocent enchantment I had when I was a reader of twelve or thirteen…”

Often, when I am ordering my next read from the library (’cause I’m cheap like that!), I always have a little internal sigh, where I miss those days when I just used to wander up and down the aisles (in my earliest days, at the British Council library in Piassa in Addis, or at the Kennedy Library at Addis Ababa University), picking books for no other reason than their title, back when it never even occurred to me to read the author bio on the jacket, or the Acknowledgements page, or go find reviews. When I picked up a book having no idea what the experience would be like, but also feeling sure that it would be amazing.

Sometimes I do try to recreate such an experience when I go into a used book store. I wander the aisles looking for what seems interesting, telling myself I’m going to pick a book the way I used to pick a book when I was a kid, with no preconceptions or expectations whatsoever. But inevitably I end up picking the book I ‘should’ read, because it’s ‘hot’ right now/everyone is talking about it/I’ll be ‘expected’ to have read this (i.e. it’s by a black author)/I can’t call myself a writer if I haven’t read this/I can pick up some technique or other from reading this/I know the author so I should read this/I might come across the author or editor or publisher so I should read this, etc. etc.

There’s still tons of pleasure in reading those books (the ‘vitamins’ I call them), but there’s always some other intention behind what I’m reading at any given moment. Gone are the days of reading being a surprise, a discovery, where I read without any judgement or preconceived idea of what I was going to be reading. Or, on the rare occasion when I do read something totally random, I call it a ‘guilty pleasure’ because I know it will require minimal mental energy to absorb what I’m going to be reading. It will be the equivalent of eating a bag of chips (preferably Lays Salt N’ Vinegar) or popcorn (preferably Smartfood White Cheddar) or Doritos (preferably Nacho Cheese)(ideally, all three tossed in a bowl, kind of like a salad) – not much to digest there, no nutrients to absorb, but still it hits the spot that needs to be hit in that given moment (the way I’ve heard habesha folks describe that compulsion to eat injera).

According to my Goodreads records, my last truly guilty read was a toss-up between The Girl on the Train (2015, I got it for free because of some promotion)and The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2015,  I had to find out what happens to Lisbeth and whatshisname, didn’t I?), and The Paying Guests (2015, unsure if it really qualifies as a guilty pleasure…). Clearly, 2015 was a special kind of year for me, and it seems I’m two years overdue for a new bowl of guilty goodies, or at least one mini bag (you know, the ones they sell for $1.49 and conveniently put right by the checkout counter at the supermarket). Oh wait, never mind, I recently had The Zahir (cue the outrage from a galaxy of devoted fans…)

The strange thing is, when there have been times that I just stumbled across random books, they’ve all been packed full of vitamins and minerals and whatnot! Such as Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro (found in a random cupboard at a school), or Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (found on a random shelf at a pub), or A Passage to India by E.M Forster (found on a random shelf in a teachers’ lounge). I guess, in direct opposition to my actual eating life, I am naturally drawn to healthy reads. Well,  as tempting as it is to wish that it was those last 10 pounds I could be losing instead of 10% of my brain capacity, I wouldn’t have it any other way!


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