ASSAY: A JOURNAL OF NONFICTION STUDIES
My grandmother kept a copy of the local newspaper and the most recent Reader’s Digest on the table next to her favorite chair. She had a little desk in her bedroom where she did her numbers, which meant paying bills. She wore reading glasses, and I picture her, head bent, signing checks or doing a crossword puzzle. There was an intimacy to these activities, a privacy she created that, even as a child, I recognized as sacred. I liked numbers and crossword puzzles and Reader’s Digest because I loved my grandmother; everything she did was automatically great. I’m not sure I even knew, at the time, what a “digest” was, and remember feeling frustrated that certain stories were abridged and, therefore, deficient...but I reasoned that I could find the sources if I wanted to, and I appreciated the appeal of a volume that could be dipped into for just a few minutes. My grandmother’s reading was tucked around the edges of her day and, although it was different from my youthful reading habit, which felt like unquenchable appetite, I recognized the appeal of bite-sized pleasure and loved when she’d mark a story in Reader’s Digest especially for me even though she knew I’d devour the whole volume.
I learned to read before I started school, an advantage of being the first child of a devoted mother. (That, along with being able to ride a bike without training wheels by kindergarten—first child, devoted father—gave me a 5-year-old’s version of street cred.) I read voraciously and indiscriminately, traits I was not taught but perhaps inherited from my mother, whose genre of choice was fiction. When she finished a novel she would swoon and say “it was such a great story” or “I wish it never had to end.” I loved her wistfulness and reliable enthusiasm. Whether she’d read Tolstoy or Dickens, Toni Morrison or Barbara Kingsolver, whether it was James Baldwin or Dan Brown or Amy Tan, Alice Walker or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whether it was Danielle Steele or Jamaica Kincaid or Stephen King, she loved them all, believed they all wrote great stories, wanted none of them to end. On the extremely rare occasion that she didn’t care for a book, she’d bite her lip and grimace, unwilling to say out loud anything against the author or the story. I attributed this to her general good-heartedness, but perhaps some superstition was involved, as though saying aloud that she didn’t like a book might jinx her love for reading.
While my mother focused on novels, I was more of a goat, consuming words wherever I could find them. Books were great, but magazines, pamphlets, newspapers, grocery lists, t-shirts—all were fair game. In order to sate my reading fix first thing in the morning, as well as to block out my siblings’ noise, I’d build a semicircle fortress of cereal boxes around my seat at the breakfast table and read every word on every box. I learned at a young age what riboflavin was, could list ingredients by memory, and began a corollary obsession with comparative data. What had more magnesium—Cheerios or Corn Chex? Which had more protein? More potassium? I didn’t know what any of those ingredients were, but I liked the factual authority of the nutrition panel.
We were expected to be more or less social and civilized at supper, but my parents allowed me to isolate myself behind my cereal box rampart each morning. Those cereal box forts may have been my first attempts at creating a room for myself, my first efforts to have a study. When I had all the cereal boxes memorized, I graduated to reading actual books at breakfast. My first breakfast books—books read primarily behind the palisade of boxes, which morphed from actual reading matter to privacy shield—were series novels. It didn’t matter what the series was, nor if I read them in order. Nancy Drew was by far my favorite, largely because of the vocabulary. I learned words like sleuth and sedan, and the concept of having a housekeeper. I loved that Nancy had a “boyish” friend, because I felt rather boyish myself, although I had no idea, at that time, what the connotations of “boyish” were. The idea of luncheon delighted me and seemed, in some inexplicable way, so much more sophisticated than mere lunch. I also read a series that featured a nurse, and in one installment learned how to perform an emergency tracheotomy at a roadside accident scene using a bottle of alcohol, (which apparently drivers kept stashed in their back seats), a razor, and a regular pen. I was under the impression that this could prove to be an important first aid skill.
By high school I had fallen in love with poetry and discovered, by accident, literary criticism. It had never occurred to me that a regular person could have a job wherein they read books and wrote smart things about them. This was revelatory in much the way that “boyish” would turn out to be revelatory in the not-distant future, but at the time my plan was to become a painter, live in France, smoke cigarettes, have many lovers, and be world-famous, so I set aside the literary critic idea. I reserved the option of reading and/or writing for a living as an unlikely but agreeable fallback plan. I had taken to reading the New York Times, both adoring and despising the physicality of its large pages. I had a small wingspan and the Times had big wings; I never mastered the longed-for degree of cool that allowed other readers to turn the page and fold it back all in one graceful move. I envied the little shimmy-shake that eliminated awkward creases, and marvel still at subway/bus/train readers of the Times who seem suave and erudite, not because of what they read, but because of how they read.
I read a book a day for many years, and tucked around the edges were newspaper articles, song lyrics, sexy Cosmo quizzes and much more. But eventually reading was part of what I was expected to do, what I was required to do as a college student, grad student, professor. The demands of my studies and profession steadily eked out most pleasure reading; papers and assignments and my own writing filled in the gaps. This was not a negative development so much as a phase of evolution.
That evolution was not linear and absolute, however, for I’ve cycled back around to an early love: breakfast books. I set aside 20 or 30 minutes every morning to read while I eat. Not all books work for these brief, private, ritual-like readings, but my breakfast books tend to have two qualities in common.
Breakfast itself is part of this practice, and my habits are simple. I eat cereal in a white bowl, which I often place on the counter the night before so I don’t have to bang things around. (There is nobody to disturb; I live alone. Silence is part of the ritual.) I set a coffee mug out as well, a white one, although it will hold tea. The tea is unremarkable; it’s not the flavor that matters but the caffeine kick. There is always fruit to add to the cereal—ideally strawberries or blueberries; if they’re not available I’ll settle for a perfectly (barely) ripened banana. If I’m lucky, there will be peaches. Peaches launch me into the stratosphere of pleasure, relegating reading to a sidekick role, but it’s temporary for peach season is fleeting in central New York. (As I write this, grocery stores and farmers’ markets have peaches on full display, but this is FALSE PEACH SEASON. The peaches are not really ready, but every year I waste several weeks falling for these beautiful displays, being disappointed in the peach quality and then, just as I’m about to despair, TRUE PEACH SEASON begins. By the time anyone reads this, true peach season will have passed. Please pause for a moment of silence, as I am probably slicing an overripe banana for my cereal.)
All food needs to be ready to consume before the reading begins, and this is where splayability comes into play: the book needs to be either splayable or, at least, of a size and quality where it is easy to turn the pages with one hand while the other is occupied with a spoon. This rules out many books, unless you’re willing to break the binding. Confession: I am hard on my books: I splay, break bindings, dog-ear, underline, write in margins, set down a cup of tea on a page to hold it open, rip out blank end pages and use them for grocery lists and, once I know I won’t return to the book again, rip out full pages and mark them up with erasure poetry. I do all of this without guilt, although I have students and friends who have audibly gasped at this litany of abuse. (I am entirely respectful of library books and, should I ever borrow a book from you, I swear I won’t hurt it.)
If I’m reading a hardcover book, I remove the dust jacket and set it aside until the book is completed. I appreciate dust jackets’ purpose and often love their designs, but they feel slippery to me and, let’s face it, a book would need armor to be protected from my version of affection. It’s laughable that I’d be concerned about a book getting dust on it, although I once experienced the near tragedy of my favorite dictionary being marred by irreparable stickiness when I spilled sugar-water on its cover while attempting to feed some hummingbirds. (Dictionary was saved, hummingbirds were fed.) So I undress the book, rest it on the table, splay it to wherever I left off, and enjoy 20 or so minutes of morning reading as I eat. Right hand for spoon, left hand for turning pages. Yes, it’s a bit erotic, but mostly it’s immersive, a throwback to childhood and my fortress of cereal boxes that created the semi-private world that fed a young writer.
I’ll mention two recent breakfast books of note. (Both are books I loved—real love, not “I’m afraid to say I didn’t love it” superstitious love.) The first is Hunger, by Roxane Gay, a narrative that grips and rattles the reader. I needed to put it down every few chapters, each of which are brief. Relatively few books truly shake me up, but Hunger was harrowing, honed like a knife blade. Surely there are readers who will want to complete it in one sitting—it is that compelling—but I felt almost woozy in places and was thankful for my time parameters. Hunger will resonate for those who have reckoned with issues of shame, abuse, race, weight, class, sexual identity—a hint of Gay’s range—but it will make an impression on any empathetic human. Hunger is a clear-eyed, fierce-hearted work and I recommend it if keenness of vision is how you prefer to start your day. A final note: Roxane Gay has written wisely on trigger warnings. I will not warn anyone away from this work, but if you appreciate content warnings, imagine a thread of them stitched into the text from start to finish. But it’s the tenderness—and lack thereof—that you should really prepare for.
By coincidence, another writer named Gay offers a different kind of breakfast book. The Book of Delights by Ross Gay is perfect if you appreciate a good-humored start to your day. An avid exclaimer, (“Look at the MOON!” “I love that BICYCLE!”), I am at home on any spectrum that includes glee, pleasure, and flat-out exuberance, all of which Gay remarks upon with ease and familiarity.
The Book of Delights takes as its premise—soon broken—that the author will address one short “delight” per day for a year, starting and ending on his birthday. The rigorous schedule is interrupted, as is the literal sense of delight—there are entries that venture into more serious and knottier territory—but the title is literal. Both in subject matter and tone, the book is delightful. See if your own delights overlap with Gay’s, as mine did—the waitress who calls you “honey,” for instance, or kids with light-up sneakers or shoes with wheels. Reading The Book of Delights is like ambling through a twisty garden, where you don’t know what startling flower or exultant songbird awaits around the next turn. From time to time he’ll want you to sober up, but for the most part this is the reading equivalent of a perfect glass of champagne shared with your best friend from college; the metaphorical tipsiness might help you face the chaos of our current “real world.” Gay deeply appreciates the value of happiness and joy—they are not the same—and that value cannot be underestimated.
Breakfast books set the tone for the day; choose your reading wisely. If you dip in and out of them over the course of several weeks, a single book can influence a whole season. You might march into the thick of it and read Roxane Gay’s Hunger, which will pull you into rough spaces, incite you to bear witness to complex and enduring struggles. You might pick up The Book of Delights by Ross Gay, and feel like a friend is sitting next to you on a park bench, gleefully slapping his knee once in a while or gazing into the distance, murmuring “yeah…that’s fucked up…” Pivot again and take a look at Lily Hoang’s A Bestiary, a difficult-to-classify, fragmented hybrid with section titles like “on the Way to the Temple of Ten Thousand Skulls” and “on my Birthday, Dragons, and Intestines.” The pages look a little like poetry, the writing blends smooth jazz and hand-dug myth, the pieces accumulate into something that thrilled and moved me, and I hated to finish this collection of utterances, this connect-the-dots version of story, of truth-telling, that made me cry and made me think. And last but not least, if you’re a renegade reader and are willing to cheat on the whole premise of small serving size breakfast books, then try Mary Ruefle’s prose collection The Most of It, which holds 30 exquisite pieces. Are they fiction? Nonfiction? Are they prose poems, or micro-narratives? I don’t much care; they are wonders and—just as Ross Gay abandoned his one-joy-per-day-for-a-year task—you might be forced to abandon any limits on absorbing this book in limited helpings. I tried, reader, I tried to maintain it as a breakfast book. But it became something else altogether; it transformed into a Magic Book, one I can pick up any time, anywhere, and read a paragraph, a page—it might take just a sentence—and then literary alchemy occurs and inspiration boomerangs. It’s like illumination via proximity: I catch the spark, I have something to say, I have my own writing to dive into.
Annie Dillard—a foundation of my own reading practice—is frequently quoted. “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” she says in The Writing Life, and that’s usually where the quotation ends. But she continues: “What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days.”
It is so hard to catch a day; our nets, even our very best nets, allow so much to sift through, to drift away. But maybe we can savor the odd hour, dose with reverence breakfast or dusk, invite our truest, our shakiest selves to be altered by the words of another. “Well, I will not keep you from your canoes any longer,” Mary Ruefle promises in The Most of It. “But today when you are out rowing upon the waters, I hope each of you will take a moment to consider the strength you possess in your own two arms.” Pick up the book, pick up the spoon. Pick up the pen, pick up the slack. Cast your nets widely, navigate wisely. Bon appetit.
Donna Steiner’s writing has been published in literary journals including The Sun, Fourth River, Radar Poetry, Under the Gum Tree, Brevity, and Stone Canoe. She teaches nonfiction, poetry, and literary citizenship at the State University of New York in Oswego. Her writing and art can be sampled here.