Monday, April 19, 2010

Catching up on a little reading...

In the early 90s, when I was working at the U.S. General Accounting Office, I sometimes brought a bag lunch from home and took it down to the dungeon-like lunchroom that had been set up for library staff. Usually there would be a woman sitting there, intently reading the Washington Post, too busy to talk to anyone else.

I admired her dedication. She started with the front section and worked her way through every page, in page order, section by section. I seem to remember her running her index finger under the type, making sure she caught everything. Then one day I realized that K. wasn't reading that day's Washington Post, but one from three months previous.

When I asked her about this, she said, "I didn't get to read it then, so I'm reading it now." Oh, I thought, she must bring papers to work that she missed reading at home. That's a good idea. No fear of losing a fresh paper in the shuffle to and from work. But the next time I saw her, she was reading another Post from almost exactly three months before from that day's date.

"I'm three months behind," she said, when I asked her why. "So I'm reading them in order." She then explained that she wouldn't read any current issue until she had finished all the previous issues. K. was still doing this when I left a couple of years later. Her news was always three months old—the weather forecast was for the wrong season, the movie listings were useless, the people in the obituaries long buried.

If I had more time or imagination, I would make K. a character in a short story. But I don't, so I'm leaving her here (though I imagine that Joyce Carol Oates, if she had read this far, would already know K.'s fictional destiny).

What brings me to write about her is that I have a similar relationship with the New Yorker. I subscribed to the New Yorker full of hope and excitement a couple of years ago (taking advantage of the unbelievable offer of $25/year). The best magazine in the United States would soon be coming to my mailbox. I eagerly started reading the first issue that arrived, but too soon the next arrived, and then the next.

I tucked a couple of issues here and there—in my beach bag, in a reading basket in the bathroom, in the car. But it was no use. It felt like I was waging a losing battle, each new arrival a fresh defeat.

I let the subscription run out. Now a pile of two-year-old New Yorkers hovers above me on a tall shelf. I can't throw them out because they're too full of good writing to just toss them into the recycling bin.

Another bargain offer to the New Yorker arrived in the mail last week; I was so tempted to check "yes" and mail it back, but that pile of unread NYers taunted me. I tell myself that I don't want to turn into K., so I let them gather dust. Yet perhaps such neglect is a fate worse than hers, for at least she tried to continue the task, no matter how desperate or impossible it grew to be.

No comments: