Book So Hard

When I say I have become a more sophisticated reader than I was as a child, I hope you don’t misunderstand me. Think less “improved vocabulary” and more “elevated snack game.” 

As a young sprog, I had the kind of active imagination that could endow mechanical pencils with human emotions and complicated backstories, but routine-wise, I was a real stick-in-the-mud. When I got a book, I would just read it. If I was in a tree, fine. If it was late at night, then I read beneath the covers. 

But after I encountered that scene in The NeverEnding Story when Bastian retreats to the attic with blanket, book and PBJ, reading was never quite the same. I am speaking of the movie, not the book. If it seems lame to get tips about books from movies, I’ll just remind you that Wikipedia wasn’t around yet, so what was I to do? If you are embarrassed to have just used Wikipedia to familiarize yourself with the plot of The NeverEnding Story, don’t be.

Bastian makes sense as a role model for anyone looking to book-so-hard. He’s so good at reading that the characters in the story directly appeal to him for help, and he ends up chasing down his former tormentors with a dragon recruited from the printed page. I’ve never matched that level of successful book-crushing, but since then, I have tasted the thrill of anticipation involved in prepping for a good reading session. If you carve out the appropriately comfortable setting, it makes opening that first page a reward in itself. You’ve already done what you can in terms of beach towels or ranch dressing or that stray dog you convinced to lie faithfully at your feet. The rest is up to the book.

But it’s possible that I drew the wrong lesson from the movie (not really a first). I think I’ve reached the point where my little rituals of comfort are starting to interfere with the actual rhythms of reading. It’s like that moment when you swallow the last bite of your GrubHub order and realize you are still rooting around in your Netflix queue for what you want to watch. As Bastian steals the book and reads it on the run, his hunger to enter into a world not his own is what makes the story so compelling to him. Books aren’t just relaxation accessories. Sometimes “compelling” is the key word for literature and not “convenient,” and free time isn’t just something to be filled out of habit. Not a revelation, just a reminder. And only sometimes. Sometimes you can sip a bit of tea by the fire, open a book for a single, pleasurable second, feel the day’s tension unspooling around you, and then snap the book shut without any regret. Job well done, book. Still plenty of time to check in on listicles about celebrity boat trends.

What’s true of reading applies to writing as well. Sometimes it is a victory to just get comfortable for the time you have carved out to rendezvous with the blank page. It might not seem like much, but just having a moment of story-building as something that you can look forward to in your day is a real treasure. But there is also a time to challenge yourself, to be dissatisfied with what you have written and to push on through dullness and discomfort to write better what you know can be. Because writing isn’t just relaxation. Writing is riding the dragon from one world into another.

- Ben