Reset reads

In praise of the ‘Reset Read’

When you lose your reading momentum, it’s useful to know a book or an author who always gets you back on track. What's yours?

In 1980, an energetic young Texan called George H. W. Bush stood before the American public to declare himself in possession of a rare and priceless gift.

“Now they will be after me, howling and yowling at my heels. What we will have is momentum. We will look forward to Big Mo being on our side.”

Bush Senior (as he’d later be known) was fresh from a surprise win in the Iowa caucus, and felt certain he was being carried on the winds of fate towards securing the Republican presidential nomination and a place in history. 

He was wrong, of course. Soon after Bush’s boast to the American people, his political rival Ronald Reagan rediscovered some momentum of his own to clinch victory and, eventually, become the 40th President of the United States. Bush’s ‘Big Mo’ vanished as quickly as it arrived.

Reading is also a momentum game. Get on good run, and you can feel unstoppable, dancing from book to book as the pages part in tribute to you, the World’s Best Reader. Everything you open seems to be a masterpiece, and an inspired follow up to whatever you read before. When it comes to bragging to friends about the last great book you read, you're spoiled for choice.

This is the good place, where all readers want to be. But what do you do when it all comes screeching to a halt?

The Reset Read is the book or author you turn to when nothing is working. When the words “I just can’t get into anything a the moment!” tumble miserably from your mouth, and you start to seriously doubt you even like books at all. It’s your root back to yourself, your North Star, your rest stop that allows you to dust yourself down and go again.

Some may confuse the Reset Read with a Comfort Read, but they’re not the same. One of my most effective reset reads are the early short stories of Ernest Hemingway, which centre around his youthful fictional stand-in Nick Adams. Melancholy and often desolate affairs, they lack the swashbuckle and epicurean warmth of his novels and function more as a sort of stylistic throat-clearing. One of best known among them, 'Big Two-Hearted River', is a very long two-parter about a young soldier who goes camping on his own, looks at some scenery, then leaves without seeing or speaking to anyone.

Why this works for me, I can’t quite say. My best guess is that the simplicity of the language and the sparseness of the action works as a sort of palette cleanser, the way you’re meant to have goat’s chevre between the smellier acts of a cheeseboard. 

But the Reset Read is entirely subjective, which is really rather the point. A friend of mine swears by Jane Austen, despite knowing the novels almost by heart, because it takes her back to a rich, pre-university era of reading purely for pleasure. Another leans on the essays of Zadie Smith, finding their calm intelligence both soothing and invigorating. Poetry and short stories are both popular and logical choices: a little splash of brilliance from your favourite writer to set you straight, the equivalent of a pep talk from an old friend.

Why we get into reading ruts in the first place is almost as unique as how we pull out of them. Sometimes its because you’ve been binging on the same type of book for too long, it starts to lose its flavour. Sometimes the pressure to stay on top of the zeitgeist and read the Next Big Thing can be overwhelming (you can’t; there’s too many). 

At the other end of the scale, you might finally sit down with a classic novel you’ve had earmarked all your life, glowing with anticipation of experiencing a high point of human creativity – then grow despondent as it dawns on you that actually, no, you won’t ever be able one of those people who can honestly say they've finished Middlemarch. Sometimes a favourite writer lets you down. Sometimes you just run out of ideas. But you'll always have your Reset Read.

It took Bush almost a decade to regain enough momentum to finally become President (and it didn’t last long – a silver-tongued upstart from Arkansas called Bill Clinton came along with some of his own). Thankfully, reading is a little more forgiving than politics. But in both, a wise and trusted counsel comes in handy. Keep yours by the side of the bed.

Illustration: Ryan MacEachern / Penguin.

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