Reading in a Second Language

I am a born story teller. I love to tell stories. That alone, sadly, does not make me a publishable writer. Before I write, I must read. Before I read, I must learn to read.

I moved to Scotland when I was eight years old, soon moved to the US, then returned to Japan in 1975. Both the time and place is important. Firstly, Japanese is such a complex language, you normally could not read very much at age 12 at the best of circumstances. If you had spent half of your childhood in another language, you would have trouble reading at all. I could have read English, except the nearest book store that sold paperbacks in English was about three hours away be train. Not easy to go to when you are 12 years old and you normally do not get to have a car in Japan while you are in high school. And they had only one shelf full, some semi-recent best sellers and Penguin classics. So I had the desire to write, but I never really developed a reading experience or even a preference when I should have.

If you think you are in a poor environment for developing yourself as a writer, think again. If you have been speaking the same language all your life and had access to a book store and library in the same language, you are already immeasurably ahead of me.

I am also the oldest son of a doctor from a long line of doctors. In Japan in the ’70s and ’80s, it meant that you had to become a doctor and nothing else. My parents, like all perverted parents, could not even be supportive about making a doctor out of me. They could only nag incessantly about how I would never make a good doctor. Forget about writing. If your parents and teachers are not supportive of your writing, at least they are not demanding that you be something else AND insulting you tirelessly for not living up to their demands.

But having crazy parents is good material for a writer. Being born to an unreasonable environment is good material. Adversity, however trivial, is good material. Any experience that warps your personality is good material. Nothing is bad for writing.

Almost nothing. Not being able to read is bad for a writer. To me, Japanese is as much a second language as is English. I cannot really read in either. If a book fails to hold my interest, I fear that it is my lack of linguistic ability that is making me miss the appeal of the book. If I put down Dickens half way through, or cannot picture the scenes in Conrad or get confused by the rhythms of Nabokov, I blame myself. I am pretty sure it is my fault that the mysterious mists of Kerouak’s atmosphere sporadically disappear like a faint scent in the air and I fail to grasp it again. When I am not touched by writing, I do not know whether it is simply not my taste or that I am not up to the task of understanding it.

I have had pretty much the same experience reading in Japanese.

I am fifty two years old. I should have a stockpile of reading experience behind me. I do not. I have read few volumes and absorbed even less. The more I reflect on it, the more I realize that I cannot read. You might call it reader’s block. There once was a time I believed it was an inevitable symptom of wanting to write. Just like writer’s block. I tried to accept it in the same way body builders accept muscle pain as an inevitable part of their endeavor. If it doesn’t hurt, you are not trying hard enough. That kind of effort may help transport me into the world of the novel, but it will not make me resonate with readers who read for pleasure.

Sometimes I can read. I can feel the loneliness of Kajii Motojiro, and the despair of Dazai Osamu. I could visualize some of the hallucinatory imagery of William Burrows, or taste the irony of Kurt Vonnegut. I marvel at the cleverness of elaborately constructed stories. I am impressed by the clever usage of words. And then I turn back and ask myself, what did I miss?

The best advice I ever got was, if you are bored with a book just put it down. I do not remember when I got that advice or who gave it to me. But I was already an adult when it came home to me. I have no obligation to struggle through a book if it does not hold my interest. But if you have spent a lifetime struggling between two vastly different languages, you come to hold a prejudice that every book you put down is an act of surrender. It is the evidence of your own failure and not the fault of the book, especially if the book is a recognized classic. It even leads you to believe that the books you CAN enjoy are escapist fantasies and a way for you, as a reader, to cop out and dumb yourself down.

When I say that reading is a chore, anyone in his right mind would reply that I should not become a writer. They are right about the conclusion but they are wrong about the reason. I do not lose my qualification as a writer because I do not enjoy reading, I fail to enjoy reading because I read as a writer. Reading has become work, hence writing should not be my work. It is a helical downward Catch-22.

I wish I could read. I wish I could learn to read. So that I can be a writer.

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