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Non-Reader Spotlight: Mary Hamilton photo

For this edition of the Non-Reader Spotlight, I’m thrilled to be talking about reading and not reading with Mary Hamilton. Mary and I met in our first grad school class together: The Pragmatic Approach, where we were supposed to learn how to manage our time and not feel bad about ourselves as writers and allow ourselves to watch TV if that’s what sounded fun. At least that’s what I remember.  After we both received our MFAs, Mary cofounded the Quickies Readings Series in Chicago which gained tons of success and fame, and was regularly my favorite night of the month. Mary had a chapbook of her stories, We Know What We Are, published by Rose Metal Press in 2010 and you can find more of her stories in numerous literary mags, like SmokeLong Quarterly, The Indiana Review, and The Collagist. Mary is also an optician and eyewear aesthete who knows exactly what glasses belong on your face. I’ve heard Mary declare on numerous occasions, “I don’t read,” and always found it a confusing statement. Here, I’m finally taking the time to figure out what she means.

Jac Jemc: You are very possibly the only writer I know who claims she doesn’t read. I know that the situation is a bit more complex than you not reading at all. Can you tell me a little more about why you say this and where you draw the line of being a reader vs. not being a reader?

Mary Hamilton: I used to read a lot and I liked it. But I have very little patience when it comes to reading. If I don’t like something, I stop reading. Sometimes it just takes a paragraph. Sometimes I’m halfway through something and I’ll just get pissed off and stop. I still remember when I gave myself permission to stop reading a book halfway through because I didn’t like it. I was 22 at the time and I’m pretty sure that was the first time I had done that.

I don’t think there’s really a “line” between being a reader or a non-reader. I think most of the people I (or we) know read more than the average person. I also think I read less than the average person and I really don’t finish reading anything I start, even when I have the best intentions. All of that combined maybe makes me feel, in perspective, like a “non-reader.”

JJ: Ah, okay, this makes sense to me. So you said sometimes it just takes a paragraph to get you to stop reading. I’m curious: I feel that oftentimes when I’m reading it might take me awhile to get involved in a text.  Maybe I need to figure out the voice or maybe I need to figure out what the situation is. Or maybe I was lazy with my reading and didn’t put in the effort or attention needed to engage. I’m actually the opposite of you, I think, in that I feel obligated to finish a book once I start it. I really respect and even envy your ability to put a book down. I’d waste less time reading stuff that isn’t my bag, but I think I’m always worried I’m going to miss something. Do you ever worry you’re going to miss something? I think I worry too much. Are there times when you push through something that maybe isn’t grabbing you because you’ve heard great things about it or you want to like it?

MH: I think you worry too much! I mean, it’s a book. Whoever wrote it chose that beginning for a reason. They edited it and probably slaved over it. They very carefully created that paragraph so it could set the tone for the rest of the book. If they didn’t, they’re an asshole.

But, keeping that in mind, if that opening paragraph or sentence or page isn’t interesting, there’s no reason for me to believe that this author put more effort in later. And if they did, if that first paragraph is a turd on the sidewalk in front of a magical candy palace, well, that’s just rude on the part of the writer and I don’t want to go to their stupid candy palace because there are plenty of magical candy palaces that don’t have turds covering the sidewalk.

JJ: What are some of your favorite books that you most enjoy reading?

MH: I just rearranged my books. Moved them from one shelf to another. All the poetry got moved to the front. So next to my bed I’ve got Langston Hughes, Pablo Neruda, Charles Olson, and Frank Stanford.

JJ: Poetry! Do you re-read a fair amount then? Do you have favorite poems you’d be willing to share? Do you often abandon poems mid-read? How is the experience of reading poetry different?

MH: I don’t abandon poems mid-read. Unless it’s a long poem and it’s boring. I think I like to read poetry because it just makes sense to me. Even if I really like fiction, a lot of times I feel like I’m trying to make conversation, but with poetry it feels like an old friend I can just talk and talk and talk to. Most of the poetry I read is re-reading poems. I’m revisiting Langston Hughes. I fucking love Langston Hughes. Here’s a favorite: Daybreak in Alabama

JJ: I really love that distinction between making conversation and talking to an old friend. That’s pretty gorgeous. Do you read a lot of stuff on the internet? What kind of stuff? Why does or doesn’t that count to you as reading?  

MH: I don’t read the Internet fiction. I like to send my work to the Internet journals. I like that they like my work and I like that people who read them like my work. It totally counts as reading. Why wouldn’t it? But I don’t do it. I don’t read it. Not from any stance against it. I just don’t.

JJ: Did you used to? I feel like I remember you turning me on to certain journals when we were starting out in school.

MH: Nope, never. Anything I recommended was from good word of mouth.

JJ:  Are there books that you’ve heard about recently that you’re interested in reading?  What are they? Why?

MH: My friend just recommended “The Wizard of Earthsea” by Ursula le Guin. It sounds good, I may just check it out.

JJ: I know you had a summer reading list up at the Indiana Review and I was wondering if you could talk a bit about that? Why would a non-reader make a reading list? Are you reading any of those books?

MH: Well, I thought of that more as a list I aspire toward. I’m about halfway through one of the books. It’s called “Pigeons” and it’s really good, so far. I mean, they asked me to make a reading list, so I did. What would I read, if I read? There it is.

JJ: All those books were non-fiction. Do you have specific feelings about reading fiction vs. non-fiction?

MH: Part of my impatience with fiction comes from the time spent with the work. It’s an agreement, I feel, between me and the author. If I give my time and energy to the work it should, in some way, enhance my world. Many times, it does not. When I read non-fiction, no matter how good or bad the writing is, I’m pretty much guaranteed to finish the book with some greater knowledge of the world around me.

There is some fiction I like. Short stories, mostly. Novels rarely give me good vibes when I’m done. Even if they do, half the time I think the novel would have been better as a short story.

JJ: Are you saying the novel vs. story thing is matter of return on investment? Like if you spend 30 minutes reading a story or 7 hours reading a book, at the end of the book you want to come away with 14 stories worth of satisfaction?  What about a story with a really engaging plot? Like, I haven’t read them, but The Hunger Games books? Or maybe you’re talking about certain types of novels? Can you provide a handful of stories or novels that have appealed to you?

MH: It’s not all about time spent with the work, but it is about the value of the time. If you’re asking someone to spend a portion of their life to listen to what you have to say or to read a story or a novel that you wrote or look at a painting or listen to a song, it had better be worth it. Because it’s really selfish and egotistical to think something you made (I’m using “you” in the general sense, not “you, Jac Jemc”) is worth someone devoting hours of their life to. These people could be talking to their mom on the phone or learning to sew or going for a run, but instead they are spending time with this book or story. I think that’s why I so easily stop reading something I start. I’m scared of losing the fading minutes of my life.

I don’t know why everyone gets all wrapped up in novels being the best things ever. Just because it has more words doesn’t mean it’s better. There are good novels and there are bad novels. There are good stories and there are bad stories and length doesn’t really have anything to do with it. I just prefer stories. Some people prefer country to rock ‘n’  roll. It’s a taste issue. I did read The Hunger Games trilogy. It was awesome, but I found the end lacking and it disappointed me, but not as much as the last paragraph of Snow Falling on Cedars--see I remember these disappointments. With stories, I don’t really remember the ones that disappointed me. Maybe this is a form of self preservation. Maybe I’m just a reader of poetry and stories because I remember the ones I love but not the ones I hate.

JJ: I’d like to clarify that I don’t think novels are the best thing ever, and, like in the last month’s interview, when the non-reader said he didn’t really like short stories and only read novels, I asked him for similar details about his preferences.  I think it’s fascinating that you remember novels that disappoint you, but not stories or poems. I think this might be true for me, too. If a story or poem doesn’t really grab me, it’s easy to sort of brush off, even if I read the entire thing, but novels that aren’t satisfying stick with me in a different way. I wonder if it’s something about having more time with characters or how novels are just sort of naturally messier because they’re bigger with more parts and you have more time to form expectations, and so they can let you down more easily. Anywayyyyyyy.

Do you think that you do something else that takes the place of reading, like in the time that otherwise reading might happen?  Or that satisfies you in a similar way to reading (if you ever find reading satisfying)?

MH: Oh, I find reading satisfying! I just don’t read often. I also find going to the beach satisfying, but I haven’t been to the beach in months.

The thing is, I work a lot. So a lot of my time is taken up by work work work (I have two jobs). Not that working a lot is an excuse, but when I’m not working, I spend a lot of time lying in bed or on the floor or on my couch listening to music and daydreaming. I like looking at clouds. I like to browse Wikipedia and YouTube. I play with eye make up and I do my nails. I have crazy neighbors that I watch from my window.

JJ: I understand this. I feel like I just used to read in free time, like waiting for someone or on transit or something, and more and more I think of it as an activity I have to choose to do. Like, “Today I’m going to read this book.”  I feel like it’s very healthy to look at your evening and say, “I will be happiest if I lay on the floor and then paint my nails while listening to the neighbors talk about lemons.” Reading has become almost stressful to me because I feel like I need to keep up with new books that are coming out while still catching up on older books that it feels like everyone has read.  I can still enjoy it, but it can feel like real work.

MH: In a way, that sucks. I don’t think it should feel like work. But it’s not bad if it’s challenging. The books I put down are not difficult books, if anything the books I put down are those that don’t challenge me. The thing is, I love my job, totally love it, but there is a lot of busy work to it and THAT feels like work. The stuff that makes your mind bend is the stuff that isn’t work. So when I paint my nails, I don’t just paint them red, I paint designs or words or flowers on them. When I listen to music, I listen to new stuff and try to find something new. When I read--and this is why I like non-fiction, it’s finding something new. So, given the limited spare time in the life of a busy working lady like myself. It’s filtering through to find the challenging stuff. And that requires a lot of tossing books aside and saying “Ehhh, fuck it.” I don’t really care about reading the books that everyone has read, unless someone looks me in the eyes and says “This book will change your life,” and, what do you know! It’s Anna Karenina or something. Then I’ll give it a shot.

JJ: You seem content, proud even, to say that you don’t read. Have you ever called yourself a reader? What changed?

MH: Not proud. Honest. There’s no reason to put up some pretense that I am what I’m not. I would love to be more engaged in the literary world and maybe I will be at some point. I’m not taking a stand against reading, I do have a library card.

JJ: I just looked it up and the number of books an average American reads in a year is somewhere between 9 and 17. Apparently 25% of Americans read NO books a year, but I’m actually pretty surprised by that 9-17 range for the rest of us. It’s higher than I imagined.  Perhaps I have no faith in humanity or I’m a snob or something.

Okay, so the last person I interviewed, I asked him if he wanted to read a book that was out of his normal realm and read it with me. I also said that if he’d prefer to pick the book, I’d happily read what he picked, and then we could talk about it, and how he liked it or didn’t like it or didn’t finish it. Would you wanna do this?  We’d maybe take two weeks and see where we were when that time was up?  No pressure. I know it’s a real time commitment, but it brought to light some more relative questions in the last discussion and I’d love to talk about a book (or part of a book) with you.

MH: I love you and I’d love to say yes, but I’m gonna say no. Because I know there are two things that would happen:
1-I wouldn’t read the book
2-I’d start the book and then get distracted by another book and then you’d check in with me and I’d be all “Jac! Did you know that cockroaches haven’t changed or evolved in 5000 years?!” and you’d be annoyed because I was supposed to be reading Tristram Shandy.

JJ: Ha. Fair! Thank you for being honest. I would not have been annoyed if you didn’t read. It would have just been one possible outcome! But also, just being forthright and declining the request is another possible and totally acceptable outcome. Tristram Shandy. I am going to pray to the lord our god in heaven above for a non-reader that would agree to read that with me.