“I’m busy reading.”

A sentence I rather safely assume that many of us may have uttered at some point in our lives. A luxurious sentiment, to be reading—and to consider ourselves “busy” for doing so. To check out of life’s demands, to enter the page, to will ourselves into abandon, &c. &c.

In this current slice of life, I am coming to terms with yet another sense of “busy reading.” It comes barreling down the road, steamroller/tow-truck hybrid, dragging behind it dread and anxiety. “Exam reading,” it calls itself, and my free time shudders.

  1. That’s the number of books I have to digest, some literary analog to competitive eating, in the next six months. Spread out among three separate “lists,” these 186 will make or break me (so I am told), for what makes “busy reading” especially apropos if not for the requisite multiple-day written and oral comprehensive exams? Hence the newfound appreciation for this cadence of “busy reading,” of reading for pleasure and through pain, filling in the gaps of literary knowledge I should have bridged years ago.

If I sound whiny, forgive me. I’m cloistered amongst literal stacks of books with an academically sanctioned excuse just to read. That’s gotta be one of the most bourgy complaints imaginable. I did, after all, sign up for this; to dispel any notions of a crumbling mental infrastructure, I do, in fact, actually really enjoy this time, no matter how much of a hoop to jump through it may be. Alas, perhaps my current bout of reading match-ups explains my colored mood. I am a few months in already, and I have tried to come out swinging in order to fell the giants of my general “American Literature after 1945” list: Gravity’s Rainbow, Infinite Jest, House of Leaves. An á la carte stocked with angst, discontent, nervous conditions, po-mo ennui. And as I work through the fiction section of the 186, I realize just how out-of-shape my novel-reading has been as I’ve been immersed in poetry rather than prose. It’s hard work, this busy reading, this diligence at flipping pages for substance, trends, themes, at what is supposed to be a break-neck speed. (Just get me to the poetry already remains, however, a frequent visitor in my thoughts.)

Nonetheless, there’s a thrill of the chase, too: to race against the ever-waning number of hours in a day (and to test the limits of Interlibrary Loan) in order to scratch off another of those 186—…185…184….  I’ve also installed a mental revolving door for the passage of characters in and out, in and out. I enjoy spending time with the characters I meet, though I’m still getting used to the bittersweet acquired taste involved in their brief stay. In many ways, especially with the novels, this busy reading is less compatible with the willed invitation of picking up a book—or finding a publicly available e-text—and committing to it: whether capriciously as if speed-dating or unknowingly as if on a blind date.

But the real upshot? That the pleasure of reading reels me back in. Somehow. Amazingly. The ecstatic escape of “busy reading” holds fast, even for this kind of literary diet. This isn’t, after all, a post bemoaning the sorry state of grad-student life I occupy at present—though some readers may yet be unconvinced. Rather, I mean to marvel at the potentiality of reading, that no matter the number of books we’ve read or haven’t read, the common view of literature-as-transportation lingers, even during the weariest days of “busy reading.” And, by way of a brief epilogue of sorts, I take it as a good omen that the ol’ biennial thrill has begun bubbling up as we head into Festival season [!!!], busy reading and all.

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