This week, I read a book. A fairly unremarkable statement from someone whose life has been defined by books, by stories, by reading and writing, and yet at this particular moment it feels like something to pay attention to. Like many of us, I’ve been operating with my brain at half (or less) capacity since the COVID pandemic shut down my city, my country, and my life at large, and the large portion of my brain cells normally devoted to deep, luxurious, at times critical reading was reallocated to fear. Of sickness and death; of grief and anger; of the past I didn’t make the most of and the future I have no way of controlling.
In the early days of quarantine, I looked with hope at my large open bookshelf, the centerpiece of my living room, and decided this was the perfect opportunity to have at it: to finally read all the books in those stacks and rows that I said “one day” to. I would start at the beginning, and the first book on my alphabetized shelf was one that felt oddly apropos to the moment. It took me five weeks to get through that novel (author last name B); and those weeks consisted of me turning the pages as I noticed there were curious black markings on them.
As the weeks went by, and the overwhelm I felt around the pandemic got more complicated, I found myself farther and farther away from this activity that, in all other circumstances, would have been the perfect solution to my problems. Everyone I spoke to, my friends IRL and on social media, and therapists I worked with one-on-one and read articles by online all suggested pastimes like reading as ways to get through the uncertain days at hand and ahead. With more unstructured time, and perhaps more desire than usual to escape reality, why not curl up with a good book, even a mediocre one?
I tried, really, but going near books elicited a physical repulsion unlike I’d never felt before about anything. Looking at my bookshelf, instead of seeing the infinite worlds of great artists’ imaginations, people with whom I could connect and learn and grow, places to which I could travel without leaving my couch, all I saw was tree corpses, a cruel reminder of one of the many atrocities afflicting our world and my heart. It was like my brain was protecting itself from more input.
“Why don’t you try poetry?” a well-meaning literary friend suggested. It seemed like a good idea—poetry had held a special place in my heart, also during difficult times of crisis—and within days of our conversation I received a care package from her with beautiful, thoughtfully chosen volumes. I opened one to a random page. I read the poem. Nothing. On top of the anxiety I had about the world, I could now layer on the anxiety of feeling completely alien to myself—unable to concentrate, but also unable to care about books.
Lacking my typical coping skills and longing for distraction, I fell deeper into the podcast habit I had recently developed for my long subway commutes between Brooklyn and Manhattan. Commuting was no longer a thing, so I decided to take the voices of the show hosts with me on my daily walks. I cycled through three or four main programs, one of which is the Ezra Klein Show. Rooted in literary excavation, Ezra’s (we’re on a first-name basis, in my head) interviews are almost always with authors whose new releases focus on some facet of current events; he ends the shows by asking these authors for three book recommendations, which feeds the literary cookie monster to go searching for more. He sometimes has fairly intense runs of interviews about deep, upsetting political topics, so I was pleased when an episode about “deep reading and critical thinking” came up on my queue. Maybe the answer to my reading problem would be here, I thought.
Ezra’s guest, Nicholas Carr, had written a book about how the internet has destroyed our attention; the click bait and 30-second videos that inundate our devices have made it impossible for our brains to engage with long-form reading, which requires focused attention. I was on board from the intro, but it wasn’t until Carr got into some history that the proverbial lightbulb turned on in my head. “Our brains are constantly adapting to our environment, and when there’s a change in the environment, there’s a change in the way we think. It’s a biological change, not just a change of habit,” he said. “When we adapt to a new medium—whether printed page or television or, more recently, the internet and social media and so forth—more and more neurons get recruited to the particular brain processes that you’re using more often thanks to the different information technologies. But ways of thinking that aren’t encouraged by the technology—we begin to lose those abilities.”
Carr was talking about larger historical shifts in people’s environments that led to their ability to engage with printed text, then screens, and now who knows what. Yet another such seismic shift, it seemed to me, was happening right here and now. Dropped into a new world order literally overnight, I would have been foolish to expect my brain to be able to hold onto its old mechanisms for escaping, coping, even deriving pleasure. If I wanted to be able to read again, I needed to adapt and rewire how my brain engaged with stories.
Later in the interview, Ezra relayed a personal anecdote of how he’s able to slip into states of deep sustained consciousness, devouring whole books, while on airplanes. While in the air, separate from his usual environment and cut off (mostly) from typical means of connection, his body can zero in on words and ideas that set of sparks for his own writing and further inquiry. The reading becomes a two-way experience, a conversation of sorts, because of a set of physical conditions that open up channels for energy and inspiration to flow.
Listening to this as a yogi, my own sparks started to light up. I didn’t need to board a plane to be able to open my channels for inspiration, to converse with other stories (not that I could, and even if I could I wouldn’t since planes are deeply destabilizing and troubling for me). I needed to move. I needed to breathe. I needed to practice yoga—to take it off the mat, as we love to say, and let it help me remember what I had forgotten about reading.
During this period, my yoga practice was also undergoing seismic-seeming shifts. My classes could have been described, in the before-times, as moderate- to fast-paced, with snappy playlists, and interesting sequencing. Once we went online, I found this style inappropriate for the climate—as well as difficult to demo in full while speaking on video. Everything just slowed down, and whether I was practicing or teaching I began to notice, to listen, much more closely. I heard a story of loss from my joints as they popped and cracked, my bones not knowing how to talk to each other at their points of articulation in the face of the new enormous spaces that had entered my consciousness; I heard a story of constriction and rigidity from my skin as I anointed my skin with oil as part of my daily routine, trying to coat myself with something like love; I heard a story of curiosity and vigilant regulation from my voice while I led class, navigating my own emotions in the room where I taught, alone, and being with the people on the other side of the screen.
The slower I let my body be, the simpler the language it started to speak in. I ditched my ten-dollar postures for ones that brought my body into a place of ease rather than performance; fewer adjectives and adverbs, more nouns and verbs and punctuation. I did the simple sequences—salutations to the sun and moon, shapes like animals and invocations to the deities—that I didn’t have to think about because they’d been ingrained into my tissues from hundreds of hours of practice. “Attention, breath, and body,” I heard my teacher’s voice reminding me of the few ingredients I needed to open the lines of communication among my heart, mind, and layer of sweet juicy sap, the trifecta of wisdom that kept me going even when my ego resisted.
Vladimir Nabokov wrote in praise of rereading:
Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader. And I shall tell you why. When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation. When we look at a painting we do not have to move our eyes in a special way even if, as in a book, the picture contains elements of depth and development. The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting. In reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. We have no physical organ (as we have the eye in regard to a painting) that takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy its details. But at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave towards a book as we do towards a painting. However, let us not confuse the physical eye, that monstrous masterpiece of evolution, with the mind, an even more monstrous achievement. A book, no matter what it is—a work of fiction or a work of science (the boundary line between the two is not as clear as is generally believed)—a book of fiction appeals first of all to the mind. The mind, the brain, the top of the tingling spine, is, or should be, the only instrument used upon a book.
Having never been led astray by Nabokov before, I always agreed with this philosophy but rarely had the opportunity to indulge in because there was always more to read. Revisiting these movements over and over, though, I realized I was doing a lot of rereading, the full-body sense of taking in information, by staying with that “tingling spine” instead of bypassing it altogether for my troubled mind. Maybe if practiced enough, I could relearn to read by going one pose, one breath, one flicker of an eye at a time. The way you eat a good meal, bite by bite, then settle into fullness at the end while the flavors break down and transform inside you.
I started with a book I had plucked off the shelf (last name T—I was going rogue) earlier on but hadn’t been able to finish for all the reasons. It was long and pretentious with characters I knew I would never want to be friends with. The first three-quarters were a lot of build-up toward a rather meaningful and poignant peak crisis moment, which I was grateful to have kept going to discover. I read the last 200 pages laying in the grass, settling my body into a nook between the roots of our big tree, the summer breeze cooling my skin as I sat with the characters’ remorse and questioning how to live their lives after a single action shattered them.
Then I decided to try out a way of reading I’d long been curious about: audiobooks. There was a new book about a heavy topic that I felt would be too heavy to have in print, the stack of tree corpses a reminder of the souls lost during the centuries-long massacre our society managed to justify as democratic and just. I took the reader along with me for my walks—a new friend—whose velvet voice helped me feel my feet more solidly on the ground with each step; a grounding that would allow me to digest the facts being told to me with novelistic artistry, an ugly-beauty I was not tempted to look away from because I was hearing it. At the end of the book was silence, then a rustle of wind. The same air grazed my skin as did the skins of those long past whose stories I’d just heard; I was here, away from it all, but with them, too.
On a whim I signed up for a three-week poetry course with Holly Wren Spaulding, where I built a writing practice from the ground up. I copied out the lines forged by other poets’ pens, my hand slowly and rhythmically retracing their same steps across the page. Soon my hand started to hear its own rhythms, scratching out the verses that I couldn’t yet speak.
Another friend joined me on my walks—Pádraig Ó Tuama, host of Poetry Unbound, who recited poem after poem in his sweet Irish brogue like secrets. The meter found an easy syncopation with my footfalls; my body remembered how it felt to pray when he read the words of Faisal Mohyuddin: “ unfasten / your cluttered mind / from the tangible hold of secular / trances bow down . . . here now / you can plunge into the most secluded / chamber of the soul.”
I went online and ordered a book that was about birds but not about birds. The woman who lived inside it tried every which way to not live—to fly away like the souls who had left her alone on the ground. I knew her pain, the pain of light pushing against the skin so you could finally dissolve into nothing and everything. But I stayed with her, giving her my eyes, my fingers turning the pages, my tears. And when she flew I did not have to.
Looking at the bookshelf, I have a flicker of worry: Now that I know how to read with my body, do I have to go back and reread all those tens of thousands of pages? Had I even read them at all? Then I remember I’m already doing it, always doing it. Rereading, remembering, with every tingle of my spine.