For this Non-Reader Spotlight, Kathryn Wakeman kindly agreed to chat with me about why she doesn’t read and what she does read when she decides to read and what she does instead of reading. Kathryn and I met writing e-learning at a tech company. Kathryn has an amazing, dry sense of humor. She’s smart and beautiful and girlfriend will teach you how to dress. In fact, that’s what she does for a living now. She’s got her finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist, but reading just isn’t her thing. I’ll shut up and let her tell you more with her own words though.
Jac Jemc: I crowd-sourced on Facebook and you said you qualified as a non-reader. Can you tell me more about this impression of yourself generally? How do you draw the line between being a reader and being a non-reader?
Kathryn Wakeman: I identify myself as a non-reader primarily because I have never been a pleasure-reader to a significant degree. Certainly I have read for my own enjoyment, and still do to a small degree daily, but the truly voluminous reading in my history has always been work-related. For school and college, nearly exclusively. Children’s work. In my mind, a real Reader reads a lot, all the time, without any major effort. A Reader naturally picks up with their reading at the end of the day, where as I flop in front of a TV/TV substitute. A Reader also finishes what they start reading. Compulsively.
JJ: I think I might not qualify as a reader under your strict standards! Haha. I don’t know that I’ve tried to define what a “Reader” is for myself, but I think if I had to, it would be something like “any person who enjoys reading.” I feel like I know a ton of people who consider themselves readers who wish they read more, and I know I have trouble making all the time to read I want, as well. I recently starting taking public transportation even more just to force myself to have reading time, because I, too, will default to TV on DVD as relaxation, especially if I’m not home alone. If I’m alone in my apartment, I’ll happily read, but I’m easily distracted, and watching TV feels like more of a communal activity to me. Were you a bigger reader when you were a kid? If so, what changed? If not, any ideas of why it was never your thing?
KW: I wasn’t a big reader as a kid. I was a sit-in-front-of-the-TV-playing-My-Little-Pony-while-my-parents-watched-the-news kid. I am a TV person. If I am reading, an article or blog or book, there are strong odds the content of my reading is related to TV or film. Or has been turned into a film, and now I am more interested that this story exists in two forms, which are slightly at odds with each other in my heart. I have never disliked reading, but I have always LOVED moving pictures.
JJ: You were a film major in college, right? What are your favorite films? Is there a certain brand of film theory you like or a certain work that really struck you? Did you have to take a screenwriting class? Do you write?
KW: My studies were equally focused on film and television, which has definitely contributed to my pursuit of TV as my primary entertainment. Any time I watch a movie or a TV series, I can justify it as research! I took a couple of screenwriting courses in school, both for feature length (so painfully hard) and TV (much more fun). And to write for both of those, the professors emphasized consuming films and shows we were emulating. For sitcom writing, that meant watching so much South Park. I dabble in comedy writing now, but I am using “dabble” very liberally. Comedies are my primary interest, both films and TV. Although I love a well-done drama, I’ve found my anxiety at the mercy of some TV dramas. When I go through stretches of watching “Breaking Bad,” I will grind my teeth in my sleep. It’s not that I am passionately, emotionally invested in the drama, I just identify more with the story arcs of comedies and the characters. I see more of my own life in funny stories.
JJ: Have any good memories or bad memories having to do with reading?
KW: What I remember most about my earliest associations with reading was 1- I was not a Reader, and 2- My friends who did not own a TV were. Two girls in particular were voracious. One of them read Little Women in a week. In the third grade. I STILL HAVE NEVER READ THAT BOOK AND LIKELY NEVER WILL. So perhaps not bad memories, as much as I am haunted by the shame of not being a Reader.
JJ: I have also never read Little Women and probably never will. High five.
KW: Suck it, Louisa.
JJ: Do you ever buy books thinking, “This sounds like I might actually read it!” Do you read it? Read part of it? What happens that makes you stop?
KW: I do buy those books, and I have read very few of them. Most of them I don’t ever start. A few I get halfway through and get tired by the emotional toll of reading, investing in the action of the story. I don’t have the physical energy to read at the end of the day, so most of the time I fall asleep. I will pick up books again and again to try to trudge through, but my success rate is something like 50%. And I don’t start many books to begin with.
JJ: Emotional toll! Do you just mean the effort it takes to read vs. being told a story on TV or in a movie, or do you mean emotional toll like reading is more affecting than watching something?
KW: I don’t think reading is more affecting than moving pictures. But reading is a lot of effort. My eyes, my poor tired eyes!
JJ: How do you feel about libraries? When was the last time you were in a library?
KW: I love libraries and have no beef with them, but my inability to read books in the time limit of a single checkout period reinforces my identity as a non-reader. I haven’t been to the library in Chicago in more than a year. Apparently, you need to get your library card here renewed every two years. I am putting it off.
JJ: What are some of your favorite books that you most enjoyed reading? You can go the traditional route and tell me what your favorite book is, but I think sometimes people pick an answer that sounds good there, like Moby Dick, when really it’s a good true crime book that really holds the key enjoyment-wise.
KW: My favorite book is East of Eden. I was raised Very Catholic, so I got a lot out of it. That was the last time I stayed up late into the night reading, because I was so immersed in the story. When I read it the copy came from the library, and I still had to renew it three times. I have more recently purchased a copy for myself to re-read, but I have never re-read a book. Real Readers reread books. The closest I have ever come is reading half of Emma twice in two different college courses. More recently, I rescued my sister’s copy of Eat Pray Love from the garbage during a move, and loved reading it, all silly movie and mushy topics aside. I latched onto Elizabeth’s initial pursuit of independence, and sincere self-discovery, and applied it to a corny degree in my own life. And although the book has a slightly dopey reputation, I have no shame in associating with it, because it only contributed to positive changes in my life. A Real Reader would have read it in 12 hours while it was on top of the bestseller list and never looked back.
JJ: I haven’t read East of Eden either! I should read that. You and Oprah make it sound great. I very rarely reread books. I know I’ve reread a few for classes, but I think the books I’ve reread for my own enjoyment I can count on one hand. There’s too much else to read!
KW: The “Oprah’s Book Club” sticker was the reason I picked it up! And I had read and enjoyed Steinbeck in school. Plus the movie (which I haven’t seen) was James Dean’s first film.
JJ: I’m glad you don’t have shame about enjoying Eat Pray Love. It’s a story! It affected you! It caused change in your life that feels positive? That’s awesome! What is reading that book going to hurt? Provided you don’t go into insurmountable debt trying to live the life that Elizabeth Gilbert was paid by a publisher to explore for a year, it seems like you could only benefit from reading a story and finding ways to identify or not identify with that characters. I’ve also never read Eat Pray Love or seen the movie. There is something about Julia Roberts with that little gelato spoon in her mouth on the poster that makes me want to punch. But that’s neither here nor there. You made a joke about constantly updating Gawker in a personal email. Why does or doesn’t reading the internet count in the realm of being a “reader?”
KW: Reading parts of the internet count, like long New York Times/Magazine articles. Substantial investigative pieces count. Blog posts? Blog posts referencing and repeating other already-existing blog posts? I don’t count those. There is minimal effort and investment of time on my part in those.
JJ: Are there books that you’ve heard about recently that you’re interested in reading? What are they? Why?
KW: I have been collecting William Kennedy novels with the intention of reading them, but we’ll see what I really get to. Being from Albany, NY, I am much more interested in that cities (city’s?) history and culture now from the safe distance of the Midwest.
JJ: I had to look up William Kennedy, which is pretty pathetic as I see he won a Pulitzer. I like this title of a book he wrote: O Albany!: Improbable City of Political Wizards, Fearless Ethnics, Spectacular Aristocrats, Splendid Nobodies, and Underrated Scoundrels. That sounds like a hoot. I remember visiting a friend in Albany once and he said it was a town of crooks. I had no idea Albany was so exciting! Is there anything you miss about reading? Do you regret not reading more or are you cool with it? Do you want to read more? Why or why not?
KW: I wish I could make myself a Reader. I have enjoyed reading immensely in the past, and there are always lots that I look forward to reading. I just don’t get to most of it.
JJ: Now, having established that it takes you a good long while to read a book and it’s not your preferred method of relaxation, I will make the same request I will always make after I’m done asking these questions:
1) Would you like to try to read a book with me of my choosing? It can be super short. And then I’d ask you a few questions about how you liked/disliked/abandoned the book.
2) Do you wanna pick a book that I read with you and we do the same? We talk for a short time about it?
3) The third option is to say, “Absolutely not.” I will not feel even a little bit bad.
KW: Sure. I do better meeting expectations when I fear letting someone down. My girlfriends from college and I tried to start a book club, and I was one of two (out of six) who actually finished the book.
JJ: Kathryn, you kindly agreed to read a book with me! I gave you a choice of books that I had on my shelf waiting to be read. I tried to choose a variety of five that I hoped might appeal to you. You chose Elissa Schappell’s Blueprints for Building Better Girls, a collection of stories. We started out with a deadline of having the book read in two weeks, but then extended to four. Let’s get to discussing! Have you finished reading it?
KW: Nope. I am still only half way through.
JJ: What story are you stalled on?
KW: “The Joy of Cooking.” 0% invested. In the real world, I am not so into cooking.
JJ: General thoughts on the book?
KW: It was interesting and enjoyable overall. At least what I did read.
JJ: Any stories you particularly enjoyed?
KW: So far, I most enjoyed “A Dog Story.” The themes of that story are more of what I am interested in reading on my own; something that could be at home in the New York Times “Modern Love” column.
JJ: That story is so brutal and funny at the same time. The narrator’s attempts at dealing with loss and jealousy is so weary and awkward. I really liked that one. I’ve followed Schappell on twitter and facebook for a long time, and she’s very outspoken when it comes to women’s rights, which I love and look to to help me parse current events. And I think her attempt to depict so many women’s lives with compassion and honesty is really noble, but there were times when I was surprised and thought, this is the story confrontational Schappell wants to tell? Some of them felt tame and didn’t challenge those expectations in quite the way I expected them to. Maybe I felt that way as I got further into the book, or maybe it’s sort of deeply ingrained misogyny I still need to purge from the depths of me. I try to be actively feminist, but every once in awhile, I find something nasty and wrong and cliche in my instincts somewhere. I feel like Schappell knows what she’s doing, and I trust her to be responsible and lead me through. Did you have any feelings about the characters that have anything to do with what I just said? Does any of this make sense?
KW: It was the feminist presentation of the book that motivated me to choose it to read! I thought if the subject matter was what I like to read anyway (I read a few feminist blogs), I would finish the book! I don’t quite follow where you find deeply ingrained misogyny in yourself for not being fully devoted to or moved by each and every story in a book containing several. I did have a similar feeling of unequalness from one story to another, that some were up front and strong about the content, and others hedged around it, which did turn me off. But I attribute those differences to the characters telling the story, not the author constructing the story. I don’t have the same relationship with the author you do, so I just took each story at face value; I liked it or I didn’t. I like the characters who make the story what it is, or I don’t. In this case I don’t hold it against the author, the way I sometimes do with creepy filmmakers who create creepy characters. Liking certain stories came down to whether I liked and trusted the characters or not, and some of those characters weren’t the most effective storytellers for me as a reader. I feel there is a fallacy about feminism that feminist stories and storytellers should make a connection with every woman. That feminist storytellers should be every woman. And that is a ridiculous idea. There isn’t a vibrant community where everyone is homogenous. Certainly there should be some empathy for women with stories that you struggle to identify with, but that doesn’t make that woman a great storyteller, including if she is fictional. Not liking every story equally does not devalue the author’s, character’s, or your own feminism.
JJ: I’m afraid of any sort of dislike for other women, I think! I feel like women still have so much to work against, that it’s my job to try to just support other women in their growth and complexity, no matter what their particular path was. I know that’s pretty unrealistic, but I worry about the woman-on-woman hate I see in the media, women criticizing other women’s choices and whatnot. In an interview, Schappell said this amazing thing in an interview at The Millions. She said, “For a woman to admit that she can’t do it all, or doesn’t want to do it all is to invite criticism from both sides...This is frustrating. Feminism was about giving women choices.” But I wonder if sometimes I still have issues understanding women that choose a role for themselves that was the default position was for so long. But there’s nothing wrong with that role so long as it’s been chosen, amidst a variety of other options. And that’s where my fear comes in, of disliking other women. Maybe it’s the empathy I struggled with in certain stories. I wanted to empathize with all of them, but some I just found annoying or couldn’t identify with enough to support? No matter what, this book got me thinking and questioning about how I encounter others and judge them. I feel afraid to talk about this stuff because it feels so delicate in my mind. Was the book difficult to get through?
KW: Yes. Although the short length of the stories was a motivator to keep pushing forward, knowing that the next story would be unrelated also created a break which freed me up to stop reading.
JJ: So we should have read a novel so that you would have kept moving forward! Lesson learned!
KW: Oh, I would find a way to stop reading.
JJ: When did you find time to read and where? What would you have been doing in these times before if you hadn’t been reading?
KW: I did most of the reading while traveling by air, which is not part of my daily life. So in day-to-day life, I probably wouldn’t have read at all. I did a little bit of reading commuting to and from work, but because of transfers and crowding, I don’t like reading on the bus and train. I spend more time looking around me, or drifting off in my own thoughts, than looking at the page. I can focus slightly more at an airport or on a plane, but inevitably I close the book and sleep.
JJ: Did you feel it was a worthy use of your time, or did you find yourself thinking you’d rather be doing something else?
KW: The self-imposed, task-like nature of reading did get me thinking, “Why did I do this to myself?!” And then I would remember that I chose this, and also maybe this isn’t the worst use of my time. And by then I had totally lost my place on the page, and had to re-start. I know that part of why I don’t read many books is that my habit of becoming distracted translates into being a slow reader.
JJ: I hear what you’re saying with the “Why did I do this to myself thing?!” I feel like I often commit myself to something and then think, “Why did I volunteer for that? I just want to do nothing,” and then I go through a similar sounding coming down period, where I think, “I will be happy I did this.” I’m interested that you were having these thoughts while reading. These feelings often cause me to procrastinate, but then once I get started, I’m not pulled out thinking about it. For you, it sounds like maybe you resented having committed to reading even as you were reading. I’m sorry! That does not sounds pleasant! Anything turn you off about the book?
KW: As the stories get going, character names are reused, and I was distracted with wondering if these are the same characters at different time periods. And I would try to look for context clues to solve this riddle, instead of reading on for more evidence either way. This aspect didn’t turn me off to the book itself, but off to myself as a reader! I am starting to think my subconscious hates reading.
JJ : Yes! I noticed that names are reused and was distracted by it as well. I looked it up and Elissa Schappell has this to say about that device: “I also wanted the book to get micro. To show the more intimate connections — sometimes tenuous, that join a cast of female characters, in order to show how whether connected by friendship, acquaintance, memory, gossip — we live in other people’s lives. I wanted the reader to get various perspectives on these women. To have the experience of meeting a character, and — as in life — form an opinion of them. Judge them. I wanted to give the reader access to the interior life of a character, as well as show them how she exists in the stories of other characters we know. The varied points of view allow the reader to see the characters as others see them, view their personas, even as we have our own intimate knowledge of their lives.” I think, in theory, that’s a neat idea: that you would get to meet a character first-hand and then see the way other characters refer to her in other stories. BUT, i worry I’m not a close enough reader to pick up on all of the subtle references, and while I made a couple small connections, I wasn’t good about going back and thinking, “Who was Amy again?” and trying to reconcile those different perspectives.
KW:I wasn’t totally convinced that they all circled back, but I still have 153 pages ahead of me.
JJ: Thanks so much for talking with me, Kathryn! And for entertaining my anxieties!