Not-Reading Is Fundamental

June 30, 2010 | 10 books mentioned 10 3 min read

cover“The gizmo, the golden, deceptive, brass-filled gizmo, was gone at last.”  So reads the final sentence of Jim Thompson’s con-man sleaze-romp The Golden Gizmo, which I finished last week.  Though it ran under 200 pages, the story was crammed with double-crosses, faked deaths, and a massive talking dog.  There were shady gold dealers and exiled Nazis, a femme fatale and a hag of a wife.  I’d been mildly confused throughout, but the ending tied things up efficiently enough.  I had questions, but not many complaints.  After rereading the final line, I admired the cover image: a grainy photo of hundreds being shuffled.  I flipped to the last page and inspected books “Also Available From Jim Thompson.”  And with that, I had squeezed all that I could from The Golden Gizmo.  I returned it to its narrow gap on the shelf, scanning the books that I hadn’t yet read.  But I didn’t pick a new one, not just yet.

In recent months, that moment of lingering, of browsing my own library, has become one of my favorite aspects of reading.  In the past, I’d immediately swap the book I’d just read for a new one, a literary chain-smoker.  But now I take my time—luxuriating in possibility, enjoying expectation, and pondering what’s next with a real, idle pleasure.

covercovercoverAnd after finishing the Thompson book, my options seemed endless.  I’ve lately been in stockpile mode, picking up The Curious Case of Sidd Finch, Lush Life, and A Prayer For the City.  A friend had given me Lonesome Dove, The Bronx is Burning, and Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life.  There was The Punch, about Kermit Washington’s near-fatal swing at Rudy Tomjanovich during a 1977 NBA game.  And of course, the dozens of titles—by T.C. Boyle and Frank Herbert, Pete Dexter and Chris Elliot—that I’ve owned for years and have never quite gotten to.  From all of these, I happily chose nothing.

Instead, I let my mind drift around the books’ edges, nourished by thoughts of what they would bring: Plimpton’s erudite humor, Price’s ordered chaos, Bissinger’s knowing outrage.  I could conjure T.C. Boyle’s dexterity and Pete Dexter’s toughness.  Though I denied myself the satisfaction of engagement, I also avoided disappointment: did I really need to read a 1,000-page western—or, for that matter, anything by Chris Elliot?  I don’t even really like westerns, and Get a Life was axed when I was still in Reebok Pumps.  Better, perhaps, to let those remain abstract and idealized.

coverIn this nebulous state, anticipation is also fed by jacket design.  The Punch looks especially awesome: the cover is spare, with bright orange type over a blown-out picture of the titular incident.  It’s violent, discomfiting, hard to ignore.  The book looks so good that, to be honest, I don’t want to spoil things by actually reading it—getting bogged down, as I suspect I will, in the minutiae of Carter-era neurology and Kermit’s deep regret.  Nonetheless, The Punch calls to me.  Knowing the sex won’t be as good as you’ve dreamed is no reason to keep your pants on.

Post-Gizmo, I spent five days like this—weighing my options, considering my desires.  I caught up on my comic books and magazines, cleared out unread newspapers.  And then, with private fanfare, I walked upstairs for a book.  I’d recently bought And Here’s the Kicker, a collection of comedy interviews—but after glancing through it, I found I wasn’t in the mood.  Mamet’s Bambi vs. Godzilla was enticing, but something—maybe its candy-colored fight-night cover—pushed me past.  The Punch, too, would have to wait.  In the end, I picked Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life.  It looked breezy and smart, and had come highly recommended.  I took it down, laid in bed, and began to read.  It was wry and nostalgic, serious and absurd.  I’d made the right choice.  It even contained a line I found relevant to my dilatory new habit: “Most of us go about our duties of commerce and leisure in a state of perpetual longing.”  I thought about that.  My postponement of reading was a way to embellish that longing, to make it even more deliciously perpetual.  After thirty years, I’d found one more way to wring enjoyment from books—even as they sat on the shelf.

is a staff writer for The Millions and an associate editor at MAD magazine. Find links to more of his work and follow him @Jacob_Lambert.


  1. Hoo boy, did I need to read this. It sounds exactly like my end-book-start-next-book routine, except the ENJOYMENT part! I fret when I can’t settle on the next title. Now I will sit back, relax, and take my time.

    One other benefit of not-reading: the ‘voice’ of one writer often makes me stumble over the ‘voice’ of the next, until I find his or her pattern, cadence, etc. It’s a chance to clean the palate.

  2. Do you really need to read a 1,000 page Western? I hope you will. The characters in Lonesome Dove and the epic journey they take will stay with you forever – at least they have with me. It’s a wonderful, memorable book that I’ve recommended to many friends, and they’ve all loved it as much as I do.

  3. Lonesome Dove is the only Western you ever need to read.

    The Golden Gizmo is a great, weird book, slightly off tangent from Thompson’s mainstream, wacky in a way his other books aren’t.

  4. I read New Yorker/Harper’s etc feature articles for a day or so between novels, unless I my next book is nonfiction.

    St. Agnes Stand by Thomas Eidson is short, thrilling and perfect for people who don’t ordinarily read westerns. Apaches and nuns, how strange and original is that?

  5. Great piece! I tend to fret more in the days between books. I worry about making the wrong choice, instead of enjoying the process. Maybe I need to calm down a little.

    This also may be why I often read multiple books at once. So even when I’m finished, my slate is never totally clean. You make it sound so nice, though.

  6. “Lonesome Dove is the only Western you ever need to read.”

    Tom, surely you are mistaken. Or, half-serious?

    Blood Meridian still stands up as one of my favorite books, not just “Westerns.” I haven’t read Lonesome Dove, but I would add McCarthy’s amazing book to that small list of Westerns you have to read.

  7. Half-serious. Blood Meridian is a great book, but I tend not to think of it as a Western in a genre sense, while Lonesome Dove bathes happily in the genre, and is something of a greatest hits package. You can read it and have a strong feeling for what the Western genre does well. Blood Meridian’s not that way; it’s doing other things.

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