Peter Seth: Addicted to Reading

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Portrait of cute girl sitting on pile of books and looking at camera

I’ll admit it: I’m addicted to reading. Every morning, I read three newspapers: The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal.

And if I wake up before my papers are delivered – which happens all too frequently – I’ll read yesterday’s papers, or something from the stack of magazines on the bookshelf in the kitchen, or the cover of the box of cereal that I’m eating.

Or I’ll read my e-mail on my phone. Or I’ll read my favorite websites (Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo, Daily Beast, Drudge, Alternet, Realclearpolitics, Daily Kos, Arts and Letters Daily, Open Culture, and even Newsmax) until the papers arrive.

It’s almost as if my eyes need to vacuum up words – “content” – constantly, or my mind becomes restless. It’s been that way since I was a kid. I never considered myself a “book worm.” I just grew up liking information, and the best way to acquire information is still reading. And now I can’t stop.

MAGAZINES

I love magazines. I grew up loving magazines. I remember that my not-rich family got Reader’s Digest and LOOK. And my brother got a gift subscription to Sports Illustrated, one that he maintains to this very day. I remember reading all the magazines in the school and public libraries, bound in those long, wooden magazine wands.

When the TG started working as the assistant to magazine publicity contact at Paramount Pictures soon after college, and we started getting a lot of magazines, I was hooked. Every week we would get Time, Newsweek, People, US, New York, Variety, Hollywood Reporter, The Atlantic, The Nation, Mother Jones, Rolling Stone, all the women’s magazines, etc., etc. My appetite for magazines grew and grew until my capacity is virtually limitless. I read them all.

I personally have subscribed to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books since my twenties. It might sound silly, but these two publications are essential for my intellectual life. They help keep me in touch with what the smartest, best writers are thinking and doing. In fact, my family teases me, calling The New York Review of Books my “Bible.”

I also subscribe to RING magazine, “the Bible of boxing,” Jim Hightower’s newsletter, Arts and Crafts Homes, Art in America, and a few others that will occur to me later sometime.

But things change, and so has the world of magazines. The TG stopped being a magazine contact long ago, and we eventually simplified our lives, dropped our subscriptions to Time, Newsweek, People, and quite a few others. We kept some: Vanity Fair, Vogue, “the trades” for the TG, etc. It’s possible to live without getting twenty magazines a week. Besides, I can get all the news and junk reading I want on the web – for free. And therein lies the problem.

Everyone except the 1% is so strapped for money that a magazine subscription is a luxury these days, one that can be easily forgone. You can get all the reading you want on the web. “Everything is free.”

Have you looked at the size – or lack of size – of most magazines these days? Sports Illustrated is a pamphlet! All the advertising dollars are leaving “print” and going elsewhere. Onto the web, mainly. I don’t know how magazines will survive. Maybe the print magazine itself will become a “loss leader,” supporting a brand that makes its money on the web and what it can sell there.

BOOKS

When I’m deep into writing fiction – as I am now – reading fiction can be a tricky thing. I love reading fiction, but I have to be careful. Sometimes I start to read something that’s too good, too influential, that I fear the style might start to bleed into my own writing (I only wish!). I had to drop INFINITE JEST and anything by Alice Munro for just that reason.

But I can’t not read fiction. Great fiction is oxygen for me, and inspiration, too. So I read but selectively. I always go back to my favorites: Tolstoy (panoramic) and Raymond Chandler (gnomic). I could never dream of writing like either of these giants, but I can try to absorb their spirit.

That’s why I mostly read non-fiction when I’m novel-writing. (Sometimes for research, sometimes for pleasure.) It’s less complicated.

My current read is THE GREAT BRIDGE by David McCullough. Like a lot of older men, I like reading books about history. Before I’m gone, I’m trying to understand where I’ve been.

I’m about halfway through it, and it’s a lot of fun. McCullough is a decent enough writer, and he brings together a wealth of material. Some of it is pretty technical – the bridge was an enormous feat of engineering – and I don’t understand the particulars of a lot of what McCullough describes. But it’s a good look at 19th century New York and Brooklyn, with an entertaining cast of characters including Boss Tweed, Henry Ward Beecher, and the father-and-son who are mainly responsible for the bridge’s construction: John and Washington Roebling.

I’m also happy to see that my birthplace – Brooklyn – is now just about the hippest place on the planet. That’s another reason why I’m reading the McCullough: Brooklyn deserves its own history, and I felt like I should know more about it.

I’m also constantly reading from my fairly enormous collection of art books. (There are books that I got for my birthday in March that I still haven’t fully mined, much less read cover-to-cover.) I like keeping an art book open on the table in front of me when I’m watching TV, in case there’s a lull in the programming. There’s something about a big beautiful art book that you can’t get on a Kindle.

And then there are the books that I am always consulting and re-reading: mainly my opera and classical music books, as I try to learn and re-learn about the music I love. But also sports and movie reference books.

I’ve also been reading a lot of travel books about England for a vacation we’re planning.

And I’m constantly dipping into my library, looking up facts to support things in this blog. Not everything is on the web. Sometimes I can find things faster on my own shelves.

Then there is the delicate category of “bathroom” reading. There are a couple of convenient books that I can never stop dipping into: OFF THE RECORD: An Oral History of Popular Music by Joe Smith and BULLWHIP DAYS: The Slaves Remember, the Federal Writers’ Project oral history.

I’ve also been reading some children’s books lately. I’m very happy to see that my almost 1-1/2 year-old grandson Calder is in love with books, too. When I visit him, he’ll often drag me – by one finger — over to his bookshelf, take out a book, and back up into my lap so that I can read it to him.

One of his favorites is “A Is For Activist,” a good lefty board book. And I got to read him GOODNIGHT, MOON recently. That was a thrill. I hadn’t read that in quite a while. I’m looking forward to a lot of good reading with him.

But mainly, I’ve been reading – and re-reading – the first draft of my new novel. Over and over and over again. From the beginning, and middle pieces, and at the point of attack. I can see the finish line from here.

And then the real work starts.

Of course, the real joke about this whole blog is that the TG is the real reader in our family. She is ten-times the reader that I am, the one who reads “everything,” who knows the books that people talk about at parties. From current bestsellers (fiction and non-fiction) to Swedish mysteries to late Henry James to anything about her beloved “Marcel.”

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings – “Everything Is Free”

A documentary about the Brooklyn Bridge

Hart Crane’s “Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge” – the prelude to his epic “The Bridge”

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On May 20, 2016
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