There should be a disclaimer on every literature course description in college: Warning.  This course should not be taken by persons who enjoy reading books, or hope to enjoy reading books in the future.  You should not take this course while reading a book, or if you have high cholesterol or blood pressure.  Side effects include vomiting, diarrhea, and in some cases an inability to read for fun.  Ask your doctor if this course is right for you.

Had there been such a disclaimer on the classes I signed up for in my college career, I might’ve chosen a bit differently. When I was little, I read books not because I didn’t have a TV, but because they were flat out more fun.  When I did watch TV, it was tuned in to Reading Rainbow.  I devoured the Magic Tree House series.  I flew through the Hardy Boys and all their knock-offs.  Together with my neighbor I spent the bus rides to and from school reading Animorphs, even though it made me heavily carsick.

Like every good reader I went through phases, focusing on one series or another for a month or two, switching genres when one started feeling too redundant, picking it back up a year later just to feel the sense of homecoming that came with it.  Back then I had the ability to get fully immersed in a book.  I’d find a bed or chair or couch that I thought could host my bony backside for more than a few hours, and I would become the main character for the day.  It was like focusing a camera lens: everything in the room that existed beyond the pages of the book was just a blurry mess, but the book and everything it was about became the focus of all five of my senses.    For me, reading was more than a pastime—it was a compulsion.  And then, following what I presumed to be a logical course of action, I decided to go to college to study what I enjoyed so much: writing and literature.

With college literature came words like “allegory” and “symbolism” and that forced you to realize that the Lord of the Rings was more than just an incredible fantasy tale, to read every sentence of every novel with a focus on the writing rather than on the story itself.  If that wasn’t bad enough, the upper level courses came loaded with the dreaded “-isms,” words like “cosmopolitanism” and “abstractionism” and “globalism” and “modernism” and the ridiculously named “post-modernism” and finally “criticism”: the collection of mind-numbing books written about other books, chock full of the aforementioned –isms.  These courses teach you that good literature—as opposed to just “books”—makes a statement about our “global condition,” or something equally intangible.  Stories weren’t just stories anymore.  They had layers.  They had an agenda.

Now, don’t get me wrong: these classes were probably invaluable when it comes to writing instruction.  As much as I despise the loftiness with which some professors of literature pronounce their title, there is plenty of good that comes from studying literature theory and discourse; it gives you exposure to new styles and tools to use in your own writing.  But when it comes to reading, these courses are like a kid with a saltshaker, and I’m the pathetic slug.  For three and a half years, I read only what I was assigned to read.  I stayed away from light reading for the same reason we stay away from the playgrounds we used to frequent as youngsters: the slides and ladders, once magnificent, now seem a bit less grand.  I was afraid to risk the disappointment of opening a book and being unable to just read it for its own sake.

But a few months ago, I decided to give it a shot.  I picked up the copy of Robert Ludlum’s The Ambler Warning that had been sitting on my desk acting as a coaster for the past few semesters, settled in on the living room couch and waited.  How would I know if I was doing it right?  Being away from it for so long, would I even recognize the feeling?  I figured Ludlum was a solid choice: I’d always gotten caught up in the pace of the Bourne books.  Sometimes, after reading a particularly vivid chapter, I’d stay intoxicated with the Bourne character long after I’d set the book down.  The simple act of writing out a rent check would seem amplified and dangerous.   I’d rip open a desk drawer to choose a pen, half expecting to find a loaded gun.  I’d contemplate signing it under an alias—who might be following my paper trail?  This was the zone that I was hoping to revisit.  I wasn’t expecting Bourne quality thriller action this time around, but I hoped it might come pretty close.

Well.  Either the book sucked, or I sucked at reading it—I’m still not sure which.  Since I don’t recommend it, I’ll spoil the story for you: it was almost as if Ludlum had decided to publish the first draft of his Bourne series, completely unrevised, under a different title.  American assassin, amnesia, Parisian settings—the only big difference was the ending that involved the assassin’s love interest betraying him, an ending that any self-respecting mystery reader could have predicted just a few chapters into the book.  I never once found myself in the zone, caught up in the story.  In fact, my post-literature-course self seem determined not to allow the book any control at all.  I found faults almost everywhere: the stereotypical characters, the predictable plot, the sub-par pacing, the awful dialogue, forced metaphors and bad clichés every other page.

The easy way out would be to blame it on Ludlum, call it a fluke, a dud, the book equivalent of a B movie.  But deep down I know it’s my fault.  I’m too demanding now.  I’ve been trained to read every page with the word “critique” in the back of my mind.  I can hear the voices of my literature professors constantly chattering, asking me what each character represents, what the themes of the book say about the time period it was written in. What is the book trying to say about identity, or about any other literary buzzword or –ism?  I can’t accept that a book might just be what it appears to be: a story about a confused assassin, trying to get his revenge on the government that messed him up.  The fact that he can shoot a guy’s eye out from half a mile away doesn’t say anything about anything.  It just says that he kicks ass.  Ludlum’s not trying to be literary.  He’s just trying to be an entertainer, and I need to relearn to read him as such.

Advertisements