Geoff Dyer: Reader’s Block

Geoff Dyer is the author of But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz, Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence, a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award, Paris Trance, and Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. He lives in England.

The following essay is excerpted from Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews, coming from Graywolf Press in March 2011.

Don’t read much now.
Philip Larkin, “A Study of Reading Habits”

Could I have become a symptom, or is this an entirely personal indisposition?

Either way, I find it increasingly difficult to read. This year I read fewer books than last year; last year I read fewer than the year before; the year before I read fewer than the year before that. The phenomenon of writer’s block is well known, but what I am suffering from is reader’s block. The condition is creeping rather than chronic, manifesting itself in different ways in different circumstances. On a trip to the Bahamas recently I regularly stopped myself reading because, whereas I could read a book anywhere, this was the only time I was likely to see sea so turquoise, sand so pink. Somewhat grandly, I call this the Mir syndrome, after the cosmonaut who said that he didn’t read a page of the book he’d taken to the space station because his spare moments were better spent gazing out of the window. Sometimes I’m too lazy to read, preferring to watch television; more often I am too conscientious to read. Reading has never felt like work in the way that writing has, and so, if I feel I should be working, I feel I should be writing. Theoretically, if I am not writing then I am free to read but, actually, I always feel vaguely guilty, and so, instead of writing (working) or reading (relaxing), I do neither: I potter around, rearranging my books, clearing up. Basically I do nothing—until it’s time to catch a train, whereupon, like a busy commuter nibbling away at War and Peace in twenty-minute snatches, I plunge into a book, thinking, At last I’ve got a chance to read. In no time, though, I’m like Pessoa in The Book of Disquiet, “torn, in a futile anguished fashion, between my disinterest in the landscape and my disinterest in the book which could conceivably distract me.”

Back home there are plenty of books that I’ve not read and yet, gazing blankly at my shelves, all I can think is, There’s nothing left to read. Hoping to lance the boil, to get to the heart of the matter in the course of a transatlantic flight, I bought—but couldn’t face reading—Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader and Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading. Having resigned myself to not reading them (or any of the other books I’d bought for the flight), I scavenged around for anything to read: the in-flight magazine, the duty-free catalog, the emergency evacuation procedure. And yet, at the same time that I am ready to read scraps like this, I am an overdiscriminating reader. I am always not reading something in the name of something else. The opportunity cost of reading a given book is always too great. Some books, obviously, are a waste of one’s eyes. To feel this about airport blockbusters is perfectly normal, but I feel it is beneath me to read Jeanette Winterson, for example, or Hanif Kureishi. In fact, most so-called quality fiction that is story-driven seems a waste of time (time that, by the way, I have in abundance). This would be fine if I could transpose a reluctance to read James Hawes into a willingness to read Henry James, but I am unable to get beyond the first five paragraphs (i.e., four sentences) of The Golden Bowl.

The strange thing about this is that at twenty I imagined I would spend my middle age reading books that I didn’t have the patience to read when I was young. But now, at forty-one, I don’t even have the patience to read the books I read when I was twenty. At that age I plowed through everything in the Arnoldian belief that each volume somehow nudged me imperceptibly closer to the sweetness and light. I read War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Ulysses, Moby Dick. I got through The Idiot even though I hated practically every page of it. I didn’t read The Brothers Karamazov: I’ll leave it till I’m older, I thought—and now that I am older I wish I’d read it when I was younger, when I was still capable of doing so.

Even at this late stage, however, some books do slip through the net and get read. I could make neither head nor tail of the first part of Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea; normally I would have abandoned it, but, since the book was short and the end in sight almost from the first page, I finished it and realized that it was indeed the masterpiece everyone had claimed. Given that my faith in the canon remains relatively intact, why can’t I do that over a longer distance?

To an extent I’ve become if not a child then an adult of sound-bite culture, unable to concentrate on anything that does not offer immediate gratification. I have succumbed to what George Steiner in his essay “The Uncommon Reader” calls “the near-dyslexia of current reading habits.” (Just as I am often too discriminating to read, so my inability to read first manifested itself as a negative proof of my being, by Steiner’s definition at least—”a human being who has a pencil in his or her hand when reading a book”—an intellectual: I found I couldn’t read without a pencil in my hand.) It is in this sense that I am symptomatic

of “the fate of reading in the digital age.” The phrase is Sven Birkerts’s, the subtitle—and all I’ve read—of his Gutenberg Elegies. Appropriately enough, I look back elegiacally on my life as an obsessive reader, on my Bernhard phase, my Brodsky phase, my Camus phase, my DeLillo phase . . . I think of those sublime periods of lamp-lit solitude when, in Wallace Stevens’s phrase, “the reader became the book.” It can still happen, but it has something of the character of the occasional lovemaking of a long-married couple in that it reminds me of how things have changed, of how infrequently I am now consumed by a passion that was once routine. Losing myself in J. M. Coetzee’s Booker-winning Disgrace, I remember how I used to pass from one book to another in a tranced relay of imagined worlds. Looking at André Kertész’s photographs of readers sharing—however precariously perched—in the repose of the text, I find myself wondering and remembering.

Specifically, I remember two pieces in the American journal The Hungry Mind Review, which asked a number of writers to select a single book from this century that they would take with them into the next. Reflecting on the way he had gradually lost interest in fiction, Gerald Early asked if “this is how one, by stages, loses the ability to read or the interest in reading altogether.” This in turn, he thought, might be part of a process whereby one loses “slowly but inexorably the ability to feel deeply about anything.” For his part, Sven Birkerts chose Rilke’s Duino Elegies because “it is there we find the most potent possible distillation of subjective inwardness, our most endangered attribute.” Is this lack of “subjective inwardness” the malady of which my—and Early’s—declining ability to read is a symptom?

Perhaps not. In And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief As Photos, John Berger has speculated that the inability to remember might itself be a memory (of being a memory-less baby in the womb). In the same way, my declining ability to read is itself the product of having read a fair bit. If reading heightens your responses, shapes your idea of the world, gives you a sense of the purpose of life, then it is not surprising if, over time, reading should come to play a proportionately smaller role in the context of the myriad possibilities it has opened up. The more thoroughly we have absorbed its lessons, the less frequently we need to refer to the user’s manual. After a certain point subjective inwardness becomes self-rather than textually generated. Of course there is more to learn, more to read, but whereas, when I was a teenager, each new book represented an almost overwhelming addition to what I knew and felt, each new book now adds a smaller increment to the sum of knowledge.

When I was an eighteen-year-old in Cheltenham, waiting to study English at Oxford, my experience was radically circumscribed. I’d never been abroad. Except for teachers, I’d hardly met anyone who was not from pretty much the same working-class, non-reading milieu as my family. On the other hand, I was bursting with the limitless imaginings of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Dickens, Lawrence. A life devoted entirely to the study of literature seemed the highest possible destiny. No longer. Reading, which gave me a life, is now just part of that life, at the moment rather a small part.

Books played a crucial part in determining how I became what I am. That slghtly ungainly phrase is derived from the subtitle of Ecce Homo, in which Nietzsche delivers the pronouncement with which anyone who has learned anything from books—from his, at any rate—will agree: “Early in the morning, at break of day, in all the freshness and dawn of one’s strength, to read a book—I call that vicious!”

Geoff Dyer, “Reader’s Block,” from Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. Copyright © 2011 by Geoff Dyer. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota,

See Also:

Video: Geoff Dyer on But Beautiful, Out of Sheer Rage, and Paris Trance

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  • T.

    This shtick from Dyer is wearing a little thin isn’t it? Thomas Bernhard does it so much better.

  • C B

    A lot of this sounds like me: vacation (non)reading, the decrease in the number of books I’ve read the last few years, some books being a waste of one’s eyes. Maybe some reading slumps have to do with the eyes and how they are feeling? But unlike Dyer, I have NEVER looked at my shelves and said there was nothing to read, and could never imagine that. There is ALWAYS something to read. I really liked this essay though!

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  • I have been looking into this for a long time, thanx. I definitely liked reading this post. I enjoyed it!

    • Glad you liked it!

      • Are you seriously thanking a spammer for dropping by?

        I find the Dyer piece absurd, in that he’s attempting to pass off his own lethargy/anomie/whatever as some kind of symptom of the age rather than whatever internal malaise it in fact represents. I’m substantially older than Dyer, and I’m still happily devouring literature and can’t imagine losing interest.

  • Cody

    I really enjoyed this, and I feel that, for a writer, it’s admirable to be willing to confess to–and, thus, examine–an inability to do something so central to one’s craft. I agree, too, with comparisons to Bernhard, and I think this is to be applauded. Bernhard’s blunt examinations of the things that most of us only wish keep to ourselves is what makes him so powerful, and Dyer seems to be not just recalling this but examining it through a contemporary–and arguably even more neurotic–lens. Honest and quite insightful.

  • Brook

    this was too long to read.

  • S. Tate Penn

    “If you wait until you got time to write a novel, or time to write a story, or time to read the hundred thousands of books you should have already read – if you wait for the time, you will never do it. ‘Cause there ain’t no time; world don’t want you to do that. World wants you to go to the zoo and eat cotton candy, preferably seven days a week.” – Harry Crews

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  • Fabio Franco

    I can relate to Geoff Dyer’s experience — I got tired of reading myself. The very idea of reading vanishes as soon as I pick up a book from the table, the physical act of reading abolishing all desire to read. I hate to read. The mere thought of unfamiliar pages bores me. I can read only what I already know. Never read a book to the end, nor in sequence and without skipping. I didn’t read much in the various fields, but what I did read was enough to convince me that all reading and thinking are useless.

  • Pace Dyers diagnosis that he is ‘symptomatic of “the fate of reading in the digital age,”’ I wonder if maybe he may not be more symptomatic of the fate of reading in the post-canon age.

    In the medieval period, the canon was a solid base the education every member of the intelligentsia could expect to have. Knowing Homer or Seneca or Boethius was never frivolous because you could expect to encounter them at every turn. But since the invention of the printing press and the university system, and at an accelerated rate since the 19th century, we’ve moved into a post-canon age, where there’s no longer any absolutely essential corpus of literary fiction. Anyone who tells you otherwise is mostly stumping for their own personal favorites.

    Nevertheless, we continue to behave as though there were some mutually-agreed upon bare minimum for entrance into literary society. The result is a mosaic of competing and overlapping mini-canons. Enforcement is lopsided and ineffective. Someone might be effectively excluded from one clique for not having read Nabokov or Borges, but that exclusion won’t prevent them from traveling without hindrance in some other literary circle.

    It’s the internal toll that weighs most heavily, though, and Dyer’s piece is a testament to that burden. Many of us are hamstrung by the feeling of obligation to a tradition and community that, for the most part, simply isn’t there. The digital age didn’t write that ghost story, and it’s even possible — though no one has quite yet mapped this terrain — that the digital age could help us overcome it.

    • The Mad Architect is right. Reading needs to be a social activity that helps us navigate a shared world and gives us points of reference that we will share with others, not just in chatting about books, but in living. (In that respect we have something to learn from the medievals.) The dissolution of the cannon, and the post-modernist dismissal of anything solid that we might share are symptomatic of the decay that underlies the difficulty some of us have with reading.

      MA’s optimism toward the end is misplaced. There is absolutely no reason to think that a new technology (digital) promises an improvement. What the Germans called the lifeworld is under more threat than the humpback whale. The internet and all the blingy gadgets of the digital age do not constitute an iron lung that might revive it. Something else is needed.

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  • Paul McGlade

    I am in quite the boat, but came to it a slightly different way. At school, I loved foreign languages, and would sit myself down and force myself to try to read classic novels, laboriously looking up, noting down and learning words I didn’t know (by age 16 I knew about a dozen words for a horse cart/carriage).

    This followed its natural progress to studying foreign languages at University for BA then for MA. Each book a challenge, each (repeated) reading experience a exercise in critical analysis.

    After university (and switching to computing as a career), I just stopped. Unwilling to read more than a few pages of badly written books due to an unconscious contempt for the clumsiness of the writing, and unwilling to face the effort of reading a well written one.

    Luckily my parallel passion for whizz-bang-pow American comics didn’t abate so much, so I can still sluice my brain out occasionally with other people’s words and stories, well aware they are rubbish. But with bright colours and grotesquely accentuated physiques.

  • I spend all day sitting in front of a computer – reading and writing.

    It might be emails, spreadsheets or documents, but I spend all day engaging the eyeballs in an ever tiring game of chasing the letters around the screen.

    When I finally stop working, it is almost too tiring to sit down with a book and start something that is too similar to work in the muscles it engages.

    I manage maybe an hour in bed before sleep, but that is spent reading the weekly issues of current affairs and science magazines.

    I don’t have time for books.

    I don’t read books.

    Yet, I spend most of my day reading.

    • jhl

      ditto on the work/play divide. I read and write all day at work. I find I no longer want to focus with the same methods after hours; instead, I want to be out in the world, tiring my body, etc.

    • ed

      that could be me. i do blame the internet more than anything. except perhaps aging, yet dyer is two decades younger than i. also when i do read i much prefer non-fiction.

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  • CPX

    Dyer’s a pompous windbag. Doesn’t like to read anymore because, basically, he’s smart enough that he doesn’t need to read anymore, but you, you, dear reader, are not, which is why he is going to keep writing, so you have something to read.

  • Sarah

    It was Adam Levin’s The Instructions that put me off reading, that and the gmail chat at the Rumpus Book Club about it. Gah, it was so enervating.

    I’m only now beginning to enjoy reading again. Granta’s Latin American authors ish is helping to put me back on track. That, and the Disunion series in the NYT.

    Why are people giving Dyer such crap? I like his books.

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  • Nancy

    For me there was a shift in middle age that threatened to be fatal. Once I realized that I would never be able to read all the worthwhile authors (or even a subset of them that could stand in for mastery), I felt at sea about which ones to read. Inevitably, my life’s reading was going to be random.

    And once I accepted my reading could not be other than random, it didn’t feel as much like a loss to stop searching for the time and space to read.

    But then I’ll read a terrific book and think–of yes, that’s the reward of this reading business. You can be reborn as a reader, and it’s worth overcoming inertia to do so.

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  • katherine

    “Reading” in this discussion seems to be defined by fiction. How about some of the great nonfiction books published in recent years. Last year, for that matter: The Emperor of All Maladies, Four Fish, The Tenth Parallel, Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra, Jill Lepore’s The Whites of Their Eyes. And maybe, hmmmm, some fiction by women? How about A Visit from the Goon Squad, which experiments as interestingly as anything published recently with the novel form? This discussion seems awfully narrow.

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  • C.G.

    The awareness of death is often accompanied by an awareness that reading is flabby.

    Montaigne says most people would be better off playing tennis.

    And of course there is Emerson’s famous remark about books being “for the scholar’s idle time” — the Wittgensteinian ladder kicked away the moment it’s no longer needed.

    Wittgenstein, too, was a great intellectual who had little use for books.

  • Sam

    Granting that Dyer is describing a real problem many of us face, could someone out there please describe a solution?

    Anything, please. If you’ve made some headway back to reading, how did you do it?

    • zee

      1. Poetry. Short stuff. Conceding that the time spent reading interesting odds and ends, including this article, is valid reading.
      2. Travel. Not just the time to fill on flights, but the timely urgency of reading the literature of and about the place you are traveling to, which is a marvelous way of returning to the experience of being totally entranced by a book.
      3. Self-assignments with a purpose: I’m going to read all of X because I want to understand XYZ better. That gets past the guilt problem.

  • scott

    Read with purpose. Or not.

    If the latter – iow, if you want to read for its own sake, and wish to reclaim the enjoyment reading brought to your life – then I would think the better question, rather than “how can I enjoy reading again”, would be “what do I enjoy?”. Why does it have to be reading. Seems somewhat narrow and perhaps obsessive.

    If the former – read for purpose – … I recall Pound writing something to the affect that a book ought to be a burning light in one’s hands. I would tend to agree. Someone else suggested that one does not live when one reads. This is also true.

    If the above is true, then there are those who enjoyed not living and, older, simply wish to live.

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  • I’ve found it increasingly difficult over the last few years to read story-driven fiction especially, and I find most of my reading is small-press poetry and, of course, the incredible text that is the internet. A practice I’ve become increasingly devoted to, however, is typing out good books. This answers for me the guilt I feel about spending time I’d otherwise be writing (and all the other things in my to-do piles) as I feel I’m really learning from the texts, but it also adds the pleasure of typing into the mix, which helps me stay alert and entertained the fifth or sixth time through a text in the same way as when I first read it.

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  • Will C.

    Really painful piece to read, to be honest. It’s a strange mixture of self-absorption and unreflectiveness; Dyer is obsessed with his not wanting to read, fixated on it, looking at it through various angles, but never really examining himself. He can’t focus on reading–but it’s not reading itself, it’s reading long, serious texts, since magazine articles are fine. Maybe he’s mentally fatigued from work, from family life–maybe he’s feeling ennui. Maybe what he’s feeling is even a “symptom of the age,” as he suggests, but that doesn’t mean anything. Even symptoms of the age have very clear causes; the “fate of reading” for our time is just the fate of reading for all of us individuals, extended out. If Dyers just wanted to do nothing but list symptoms he could have done so far faster; if he really wanted to find what was causing the problem he would have to push a little harder on himself.

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  • witheo

    What, no mention of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533 – 1592)?

    No. Well, perhaps, it’s inevitable, this creeping loss of wide-eyed wonder? Not very unlike, come to that, the unaccountably incomplete account of evolution. This nagging, imperceptible perception. Insidiously invading, with every year of lived experience, the inquisitive reader’s involuntarily habituated insomnia. Induced by countless nights’ rumination, preserved for mindless contemplation in the afternoon, that this interminably astonishing human propensity for linguistically-inspired introspection is but a poisoned chalice. “To be or not to be …”

    Once having ascended the ladder of enlightenment, those by-now ridiculous lower rungs, by which ‘the songs of innocence’ suddenly seem to acquire a painfully naïve perspective, are lightly disdained, to the more mature strains of lived experience. Not forgetting, for a moment, that raw sensory data is nothing like information. Because information is by no means knowledge. Knowledge is not understanding and understanding is most certainly not wisdom. To paraphrase the Bard: If language be the substance of wisdom, give me excess of it … “That strain again, it had a dying fall.”)

    How to express in eminently pedestrian words the once devastating, now matter-of-factly accepted, because indefatigable, conclusion that words simply cannot express whatever’s going on up there, in “my” brain? This vexed, so-called ‘artificial intelligence’, much-vaunted of late, obviously relies on the preposterous presumption that ‘human intelligence’ – whatever that may eventually turn out to be – is not artificially contrived. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” – Wittgenstein. Suppose, incidentally, the first-person singular pronoun alone were the single most credible authority for “my (intensely private) consciousness of self-awareness”. Whence cometh this “unbearable lightness of being”?

    Can one seriously deny that lived experience is actually notoriously unpredictable? Besides incredibly irrational and hopelessly messy. Confined, furthermore, as would seem, much like any regular exposed cinematic film, to just one ephemeral moment of no dimension after another, each ‘present instant’, once perceived, already fast receding into the dark recesses of short-term memory. Can anyone honestly say, without the slightest doubt-riddled hesitation, just exactly what happened only yesterday? In every excruciating detail?

    Ergo, “my experience” is patently quite inaccessible to the rigorous protocols of utterly conventional vocabulary, grammar and syntax. Instead of which, the brain seems genetically pre-disposed to intuitively devise coherent, rational, eminently credible narratives, even during sleep, vivid stories, concerning what really happened and what surely happened next. And yet, while such eloquent accounting is never anything like what it was really like, had you but been there, one is nevertheless eventually resigned to accept, obliged in fact, quite sanguine in the knowledge that it is this all along and only such intimately familiar logical, rhetorical pieces of jargon, as are routinely formulated, under oath, as “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”, that is identified, within the traditional terms of a strictly conventional public discourse as, ‘Reality’ – “the world as it is”.

    As ‘they’ say. “You’re never too old to learn.” Perhaps, perhaps. Except that I would venture and prefer to believe one may also say, without fear of contradiction, that Mars (if ‘they’ ever get there) is without a doubt “no country for old men”.