Sunday, August 9, 2009

What does reading do to your personality?

I just got back from a family vacation, where, despite my abiding love for my extended family, I found it kind of difficult to engage with others. Part of the problem was the absence of Rhian, who couldn't make it this year and on whom I've come to depend for smoothing out the edges of my sometimes, erm, imperfect personality, especially when there are a lot of other people around.

But sometimes I wonder if reading has sort of semi-ruined my relationship to the physical world, and the world of real people. Of course, reading and writing have long been my primary way of engaging with the world, and on balance, books have represented a positive influence. But I also fear that reading has turned me into an introvert, or at least allowed me to overindulge the part of me that is naturally introverted. I envision myself whiling away my declining years on an easy chair, with a big pile of Dickens on the table beside me, like some frightened pensioner in a Ruth Rendell novel. (There I go again, casting potential reality as a version of fiction!)

Needless to say, I wasn't the only one retreating into books over the past week--my parents, kids, cousins, uncle and aunt are all pretty dedicated readers as well. And everyone got along great. But for some reason I kept feeling a little guilty about my desire (often deep and intense) to withdraw into the imagination. And now that I'm home, I think about how completely the literary world has devoured my social life. I work with people who think about books all the time, I'm raising people who think about books all the time, I socialize with people in my reading group, and I find that half the conversations I have are about books and writing.

Of course, I love living like this--it's a blast. But aren't we supposed to strive to know all kinds of different people, with different perspectives? A writer likes to think he has a broader perspective than the average joe--we should be able to think our way (if not actually live our way) into different social and cultural groups.

And yet it's books themselves we end up talking to friends about--the writing of them, the reading of them, the publishing of them, the habits of their creators. Admit it, litpersons--the first thing you look for when you walk into the home of somebody you just met is the teetering piles of books. And when you don't see them, a little part of you starts writing off the relationship (so to speak).

Which is it? Have books made me, or have books ruined me?

21 comments:

rmellis said...

This is such a huge subject, I can't even figure out what angle to tackle it from.

If we got along well with people in the first place, we probably wouldn't read so much.

And it's constantly surprising to discover, as one does when one leaves Bookworld, how very few people Out There actually read at all. From here it feels like the whole world; out there, it's a tiny little satellite of the world.

More later...

Pete said...

Everybody retreats into their circles of personal interest, whether it's reading or golf or auto mechanics. More than half the guys in my office (I'm in banking) are obsessed with golf, but my eyes glaze over after about thirty seconds into their longwinded, impossibly detailed accounts of their latest round. But in tuning them out, I don't think I'm being any less social than when I sequester myself with my literary friends. Nor am I any less social than my two brothers-in-law (both city workers) when they retreat from family gatherings to talk shop.

And reading hasn't caused your introversion - instead, one of the reasons you read is *because* you're an introvert. Reading is a natural pastime for those of us who engage less than enthusiastically with the outside world.

jrlennon said...

Rhian confronted me in the kitchen with the fact that, actually, I'm not an introvert at all. It's more like, a lot of the time, I'd just as soon be alone.

I do suspect you're right, that reading is the effect, not the cause...but I do think that the written narrative has subtly, and permanently, reshaped the way I see social reality.

sjwoo said...

But aren't we supposed to strive to know all kinds of different people, with different perspectives?

It's like communism -- great on paper, sucks in reality. At this point in my life, I'm fairly comfortable with the people I know and don't have an overwhelming desire to meet any new ones. It's like music -- I have enough to keep me happy for the rest of my life. (Though I still do listen to new music all the time, because I make a mix CD at the end of the year, but I digress.)

I'm not sure about this introvert-extrovert thing with writers -- at the Ann Arbor Book Festival this year, during one of the seminars, someone said writing is "acting for introverts." I think that's right on target. Even though we do live in another world during our writing times (at least if it's going well), there's a fair amount of extrovertness when it comes to promotion and giving readings and whatnot. Of course not every writer likes the latter, but almost everyone does it, and from what I've seen, they're all right at it.

I agree with Rhian -- one thing all writers do have in common is the need to be alone. If one can't stand being in a room alone for hours on end, that person probably should find another line of work.

jrlennon said...

Hey Sung, I just left some comments on your site...the poster is hilarious, and thanks for the review!

I like "acting for introverts"...writing can feel like a performance, a very private performance that you can perfect before anyone sees it.

rmellis said...

Funny, I'm writing a review of the forthcoming Roth novel, which is about an actor who loses his ability to act. I couldn't help but see the parallels with writer's block.

Most writers I know are a strange mix of intro- and extravert. They thrive on social situations, but love being alone, too...

zoe said...

I struggle with this all the time. Actually, it's other people who struggle with it really more than me. Often I'll be talking to perfectly nice, interesting people and I'll either be thinking, hmmm, that would be a good story or, I would so much rather be reading or writing at the moment. It can lead to a lack of connection or a low tolerance for being peopled-out.

On the plus side, I think that the compulsion to give a narrative to everything makes things that can be quite meaningless to other people much more interesting to me. That said, it's also sort of like going through life constantly looking for things to dress the set with.

As for needing to know loads of types of people to help your writing -- that's difficult. In theory, I know I should, but I'd still rather read.

jrlennon said...

I'd still rather read, too! And I think many writers, myself often, choose to do exactly that. Which means that most books are probably amalgams of things read in other books.

I suppose this is my worry--that what I write is increasingly removed from reality, and more the product of my literary influences.

Ray said...

I think there might be some influence on your thinking by teaching writing. When a writer finishes writing, he can get a fifth of Jack Daniels and take the rest of the day off. When a writer/teacher finishes writing, the day goes on, even when he's reading police procedural novels. Academic discipline has more influence on our lives than the writing itself.

Ray

jrlennon said...

Ah yes, being blotto 19 hours a day...now those were enlightening times.

jon said...

It very hard to articulate, but I feel increasingly that being a writer has distorted me. It has certainly distorted me as a reader. I hate the idea of experiencing reality through a screen of fiction. Reality, or real life rather, is essential to me as a writer, but I feel like a vampire, living off of the blood of others. All situations, all people, little tags of conversation, anecdotes, golf games, are potenmtial material. As Johnny Cash said, when asked about covering a Beatles song on his last record, "No one's safe." At some point I unconsciously gave into it. But it is hard to say what it is exactly I have yielded to. It may just be that as people age they become more and more what they do, and what writers do is read and observe the world ruthlessly. Eventually it all looks like art. Oh yes, and I believe (based on corproate brainwashing sessions) that an introvert is someone who is energized by being alone. It's not that an introvert is necessarily anti-social, it's just that an introvert gets exhausted by social interaction and must, to stay sane, retreat into their self and be alone to get re-energized. Extroverts get bored and restless when alone.

jrlennon said...

Jon, I feel very similar to you about all that. Does life itself become more self-referential over time, for those of us who obsess over the imaginary? By the time we're old, we'll be thoroughly postmodern.

Your comment also explains why we never encounter one another, even though we work a couple hundred yards apart.

jon said...

I think having me work in a library is like giving an obese man a job at a China Buffet.
I used to see you in room 305! but I was never sure it was you until Maja said you liked to work on campus. (this was in your pre-professor days). Probably my eyes and brain had lost human recognizition capabilities and were straining to read the fine print somewhere.

jrlennon said...

Actually, whenever I get a lousy room assignment (like the first floor of Rockefeller), I sign up for the third floor room in Olin with the windows facing the tower and lake. It's a great view, and the students all wake up when the bells begin.

Anonymous said...

As a writer, recluse, and snob, I like being alone and living in the world of imagination. It's more satisfying.

Anonymous said...

As a book addict in a science department here at Cornell, I am compelled to break my standard procedure of following your blog in creepy silence to say that I am jealous. I am surrounded by people with an apparent four-minute maximum for non-research-related conversation. My devotion to my field was, in fact, publicly questioned recently for reading a novel during a conference lunch break rather than gaping in awe and attempting to glean as much as possible from the more established scientists around me. So, I would argue that, no, reading does not destroy your personality and/or social skills; the fact that none of your comment posts include the phrase "see the paper by SoAndSo et al. for support" tells me that each of you has greater social capacity than my usual crowd. I agree with Pete, that everyone falls back into the same comfortable topics with the same comfortable crowd as much as possible- be it literature, golf, or the various uses of tin foil - but any of you who think that you are socially challenged in any way needs to spend some time over on the engineering quad.

~Lonely Romantic Among Empiricists

jrlennon said...

Ha, thanks anonymous! Stop by Goldwin Smith sometime for a tour of the heart of darkness.

Russell said...

Hmmm. I agree with rmellis: and I think this subject maybe seems huge because it's potentially intimate. Speaking of the intimate, I discovered a long time ago that being in bed with a book beats most other activities. Sure, I get out (I have a family to support, colleagues to meet from time to time [when sharing documents alone isn't quite enough: consensus around a table is a wonderful moment in any collaboration, be it cooking or writing]). But when I'm in bed, taking time "off," I have to explain to people around me that I'm not only doing something; in fact: I'm working. In any case, I get along with people just fine. It's simply that I'm called to read. I once fell in love with Virginia Woolf—her haunted loveliness—only to realize that though my love was probably genuine, it might be best not to talk about it! . . .

Anonymous said...

Well I don't know, I'm reading Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys and it's sure as hell ruining me for Paris.

Anonymous said...

Well I don't know, I'm reading Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys and it's sure as hell ruining me for Paris.

Michelle Panik said...

What a gutsy post!

I agree that existing too much in the fictional world isn't good for one's psyche or social skills. I am a runner and triathlete, and think the contrast these activities give my life (both in being very physical and other types of people I spend time with) makes me a more interesting person, and also improves my writing.