It feels somehow appropriate that it is here, in the Mission district of San Francisco, that my writer’s block has finally begun to recede. For several weeks now, ever since I typed the last sentence of my fiftieth book review of the year, words had eluded me, replacing the year-long jackhammering of my fingertips for anxious table-tapping instead. Muddy’s Coffee House, at 1304 Valencia, is proving to be my long-awaited antidote, much as countless cafes and bars within walking distance provided a safe haven for yesteryear’s beatniks and the poets of today.
I am neither beatnik nor poet. I am, however, an Excel whiz: I create sales plans for an online company in New York, and I’m in the Golden State merely on business. But after reading Gregory Dicum’s recent feature in The New York Times, “A Book Lover’s San Francisco,” and eliciting a good friend’s boundless enthusiasm upon hearing of my trip to the West Coast, I decided a sign was a sign. Immediately after completing work today, I pointed my rental car, a Chevy Aveo with all the horsepower of a kitchen blender, in the direction of I-280 and my first-ever foray into the City by the Bay.
Although it has come to an end in San Francisco, mine is a literary journey that began last New Year’s Eve in Hong Kong, as I stood with my girlfriend atop the IFC mall to await the celebratory fireworks. She asked me if I had a New Year’s resolution. I’d always managed to steer clear of such reckless abandon in the past and, in retrospect, I blame the bitterly whipping wind and cacophonic house music emanating from the rooftop bar for my anomalous response: “I want to read fifty books this year.”
What soon followed was a rapidly growing stack of books that started with SuperFreakonomics and ended with Animal Spirits, swallowing over ten months and forty-eight books in between. To keep myself committed, I started a blog and reviewed each book as I read it, praising some, excoriating others, and – when hungry, tired or bored – barely devoted four paragraphs each to the rest. If, as some claim, a year is best measured in books, it seems I’d learned that lesson at long last. Other lessons, however, proved harder to grasp. Among axioms of literature, “reading a book is a journey” springs immediately to mind, a trope as true as it is clichéd. Yet my always-looming year-end goal rendered me the journeying equivalent of the five-year-old in the backseat, wondering, “Are we there yet?”
And so it seemed to me, just as to that precocious (hypothetical) toddler, that I never was. As the year progressed and the inaugural feverish pitch of my reading pace gradually ceded ground to work and procrastination, the practicalities of finding time just as subtly began to assert themselves. I decided, via executive fiat, to start reading shorter books. Cut out the dry non-fiction. Embrace short-story collections. These and other considerations crowded out my personal preferences, sacrificing the lengthy luxury of Jonathan Franzen’s 562-page Freedom and the satisfaction of Tolstoy’s War and Peace in favor of the immutable fifty-book bottom line.
Somewhere along the way, I became aware of the inevitable creeping sensation that my New Year’s resolution had shed its virgin luster. Where before was the refrain “only twenty-five left to go!” there now remained only a sulking “eight left until I’m finally done with this stupid thing.” The blog, too, had become a chore. The whole endeavor was feeling, quite uncomfortably, more and more like school.
This is not to say that the occasional book didn’t capture my imagination. Some certainly did, from Olga Grushin’s surrealist portrait of a declining Soviet Union in The Dream Life of Sukhanov to Michael Lewis’ hilarious recounting of Wall Street’s outsiders in The Big Short to Grégoire Bouillier’s self-psychoanalysis in his endlessly relatable memoir The Mystery Guest, and many more besides. But the act of institutionalizing my reading stripped the written word of one of its most potent weapons: the ability to fully immerse a reader into a world of the author’s creation. With a ticking clock as the omnipresent soundtrack, my suspension of disbelief was relegated to intermittent moments of reading, often lost amongst the more numerous minutes spent fretting over my remaining schedule.
While this may read like a cautionary tale against setting numeric goals for book reading, it’s actually something a little different: a suggestion to aim high but to learn to be satisfied with a less-than-100% success rate. Which is why, even as I celebrated the dissolution of my writer’s block in San Francisco, I suppose I’ll just have to accept the fact that I still didn’t finish this essay until now, back in New York.