The titles stand like dead trees.
I was at the school board meeting last week. Kids were getting certificates for doing things that lift our hopes near the end of another hard year. The first middle-schooler called up had participated in a program called the Million Word Challenge, a six-week contest to read a million words. I can’t imagine enticing a young teen to read one hundred words, let alone a million.
How much is a million? My latest book barely registers, clocking in at about 38,000 words. Small words, too. So 25 times that.
The principal bubbled over when introducing the honoree, a slender girl behind a curtain of dark hair who had read two million words in the contest period.
After the awed applause, a board member asked the girl what she had read. The answer was nearly inaudible.
“I can’t remember,” she said. The man behind the mike repeated it so everyone could hear, and we chuckled, as if she had instantly disqualified herself. She read two million words and didn’t retain the title of even one book.
And then I thought: Yes!
Yes! Read two million words just to read them. Read five million for no reason. Read a billion without knowing how. Use them for kindling, for compost, for dust rags. Swallow, spit, shit, and forget. Take your certificate home and leave heads wagging. That’s what reading is for.
I read a lot in the last year. I wrote a lot in the last year. The two are indistinguishable. What did I read? So much that I didn’t keep track — couldn’t keep track — can’t say and don’t remember. I read poetry every day, first thing in the morning or last thing at night. I read bestsellers and no-sellers, big names and not. Two books a week or was it three? My appetite was fierce, my need consuming. I read whatever there was to read today, no waiting, for free, from the e-book library. If I scroll through my device I can tell you what they were, but not what they were about. The titles stand there now like dead trees, empty shadows. What did they give me? I don’t know. They fueled an invisible, molecular process, the combustion of dirt, air and water, and from it, came this glorious, shimmering waste.
Read, read, read, and don’t remember why.