My self-esteem is suffering. It has everything to do with NaNoWriMo, and only a little to do with writing.
It’s because I haven’t been reading.
You could say I am a bit of a “scorekeeper” when it comes to books read. I’ve never met a Goodreads reading challenge I didn’t like, and I’ve been known to waste many hours delving into the recesses of my memory to come up with the approximate date that I read a book in elementary school, so that I can add it to my Goodreads “read” shelf. There’s something immensely satisfying about getting “credit” for having read all these books, even if I didn’t enjoy them, or worse, if I barely remember them at all. For me, scrolling through my own “Read” shelf is also a way of taking stock: What have I been thinking about? What made me laugh? What am I now more inspired to do? I reflect on all these things when I review what I’ve been reading. As the music-nerd record collectors in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity attach heavy meaning to their stacks of albums, books I’ve read are an important part of how I validate how I’ve spent my time.
And now it actually is becoming a problem, because I haven’t read a book cover to cover since I started NaNoWriMo. I’ve started two (On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee, coming out from Riverhead in January 2014; and On Writing, by Stephen King—both really, really wonderful books, deserving of rich praise and fast reading), and both of them languish on my bedside table, begging to be opened, read, tucked back into the shelf, added to Goodreads. Next to them are unfinished issues of Real Simple, Entertainment Weekly, New York Magazine, and People Magazine.
I’ve been blowing off these books and magazines because a militant typist inside my head scoffs at me when I reach for them. “You should be writing. You’ll never win NaNoWriMo if you spend all your free time reading!” (I have exactly 19974 words, and I need 50K to “win.” I feel hugely behind schedule.) So I skulk away from the books, but not toward the computer. I get sidetracked by my TV, Twitter, and my cat. Double guilt: no books read, no words written. The technical term for how this plays out is “shame spiral.”
On Monday morning, I decided that enough was enough. Instead of thumb-typing in my NaNoWriMo document as I took the subway to work, I played an audiobook instead: I Kiss Your Hands Many Times, by Marianne Szegedy-Maszak, a family memoir that came out from Spiegel & Grau. It’s subject matter has nothing to do with my NaNoWriMo project: It is about an aristocratic Hungarian family in the first half of the 20th century.
The audiobook of I KISS YOUR HANDS MANY TIMES is read by the author, and I was reminded of Elizabeth Gilbert, who also narrated the audiobooks for her memoirs. Both women have smart, warm voices—they are natural storytellers who bring their family stories to life in a way that makes them feel both rare and universal. Almost immediately, I started to chill out and get really into this book, which combines a sweeping romance with a great deal of historical research about complicated topics like anti-Semitism and Catholic conversion in Hungary, the Treaty of Trianon, and bourgeois values in Budapest during the interwar period. These were subjects I studied with great interest in college—I studied abroad in Budapest for a semester, living just a few blocks from the Dohany Street Synagogue, mentioned often in Szegedy-Maszak’s book. I rode the same subways that the author’s family did while living out these scenes, and the prose taps into that deep well of wonder I had as a young person delving into a new place, startled and amazed by what I learned of it.
My NaNoWriMo project does not take place in Hungary, but the main character is a college student far from home. Simply thinking about my own college memories brings up all kinds of things from that time I had forgotten about: How often I ate Subway sandwiches for dinner, because I didn’t know how to cook anything; how exciting it was to be invited to a party, and how much planning went into the outfit that I would wear; how easily I got lost when I went to a new city, not just because the city itself was new, but also because I didn’t yet know how to go to a new city—how to find out what I didn’t know.
This fall a discussion developed on the Book Country discussion boards about whether reading was “an acceptable procrastination technique,” and our members were almost uniformly in support. One member, Carl E. Reed, wrote that “Everything is grist for the mill when you’re a writer.”
I thought of that as I sat back down with my NaNoWriMo project this week. I KISS YOUR HANDS MANY TIMES is an unlikely source of inspiration for my particular work-in-progress, but it remains one just the same. Carl and the rest of the Book Country community were right, and because of that, I’ve resolved not to feel guilty about reading during NaNoWriMo anymore. You never know how a good book might jumpstart your own Nano inspiration.
Lucy Silag is the Community and Engagement Manager for Book Country, Penguin’s online writing and publishing community.