On Reader’s Block

Or an unrelenting sentence on an unrelenting subject.

It comes, usually, in the dizzying aftermath of a great commotion—often in my personal life, of course, as sudden shifts in my routine (e.g., breakups, deaths, relocation, existential crises, etc.) turn both the act of reading a book and the comprehension of its contents into real Sisyphean nightmares during which I not only feel some intense quod me nutrit, me destruit-esque betrayal at literature’s inability to pacify me at my neediest and emptiest (except here there isn’t some Footprints in the Sand-type B.S. answer about being carried by books in those times but merely the reiteration of the stark truth behind even our deepest passions, namely, that they’re as illusory and ineffable and transient as anything else and when considered in such a light less meaningful and less connected to anything larger), but in those cases the fact that picking up a complex novel or a thoughtful essay collection arouses dread in me rather than my typical nerdy enthusiasm reflects—obviously—the depression such private cataclysms inevitably cause and offers little in the way of teachable material and is thus much less appropriate to be discussed here but so is hereby acknowledged and now promptly moved passed—but this ailment, so to speak, this reader’s block, can also come from incredible and joyful experiences found within reading itself, incidents of literary delight so pleasurable that its passing emphasizes the discordant dormancy of regularity, and that although this kind of reader’s block isn’t nearly as devastating as the aforementioned-but-hereafter-I-promise-not-mentioned-again depression kind, it is in all sorts of intellectual and philosophical but also deeply personal ways much harder to pull yourself out of, because the impetus for the whole crises to begin with was a book, a novel, a thing like the things that now don’t seem like things, one that succeeds so effortlessly in its delivery, so beautifully in its rhythm, one that creates new delivery methods and modes of narrative percussion, and that this work, being a book itself, affects you so powerfully as a reader that it not only fills you with all the conventional thrills and thralls of language and storytelling but that also makes you reconsider all your ideas about language and storytelling, so that when the last page has been turned, the object no longer obstructing your view to the remaining unread volumes, all purchased or borrowed or collected pre-This New Stuff, before you knew whatever it is you know now, and so are all suspect, questionable, inadequate to the abruptly rollicking progress of literary epiphany, i.e., none of the crap you own sounds good anymore, not compared to your discovery, this fresh-in-your-mind masterpiece, no way—and so in one of those lamely ironic twists that life is limpidly full of and we so enjoy pointing out, as you move deeper into your passions, the more the less resonant stuff falls by the wayside, pretty much permanently, and with increasing frequency, as Great Book by Great Book leaves countless Less Interesting Books their wake, whole categories even, your once indiscriminately expansive love for literature has been chiseled down into an ornately constructed and maybe even in some way impressive but ultimately very tiny piece of the original slab, so that in a sense the more you love something the less of it you love—or, instead, the longer you love something the less you need of it to get by, how what we love is always teaching us, slowly, gradually, how to let it go.

Featured image: crazystocker/Shutterstock.com

About Jonathan Russell Clark

JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK is a literary critic and the author of An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, Tin House, The Georgia Review, and numerous others.

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