I’m on a train back to Fukui, barely a month after I left, finally finding myself with time to edit my life. I thought a life in Tokyo would mean constant trains, and yet, most of the time I’m walking places. This post is actually one I started months ago when I was still fantasizing about my life in the city. I’ve got a backlog of posts similar I have to go through and reorganize, but plan to push out here soon. I guess this is a start.
When I lived in New York I read so many books. The first two months on the subway I went through two books of Game of Thrones just riding on those metal carriages. Back then there wasn’t WiFi to be found. An hour completely underground can pass by unnoticed while flipping the final pages of a 400 page novel.
Coming to Japan my reading has been staggered. I started the book list with the goal of finishing in two years. That put me at roughly one book every two weeks — a type of math I didn’t bother figuring out. As my astute comrade in Spanish poetry and renowned literature Nico Sanhueza pointed out: reading merely 20 pages a day from Infinite Jest (the last book on my list) would take me almost two months. I tried and succeeded in the very beginning. After travelling, and having over a month to get settled to my new small life in Japan, I found the amazing Tokyo-based English bookstore Infinity Books to spend enough of my new salary. Without a car and the onset of winter, I burrowed in my one room apartment (not studio, mind you, this was much smaller than a studio) and flew through the first couple books without a problem. Then I met Virginia Wolf with some of the best and most dense story telling I’ve ever encountered (there are two short stories weaved into the otherwise tough novel To the Lighthouse which is among the best writing fathomable). I actually skipped over her for a while, and then spring came, and I was outside, and lazy, and enjoying nothing. After struggling with the enormous paragraphs of Michael Chabon soon after, I decided to quit literature all together. After all, the original goal was to finish the list before I left Japan. At the time I thought that’d only be two years, but… things change.
After a year in Japan I started to notice a few slips in my vocabulary. You see, at a junior high school level of teaching English, the scope of your corrections are pretty redundant. Things are very interesting. Students try hard. Tokyo Disneyland is a great place. Because its fun. Surrounded by a bunch of other expats who are involved in the same thing, your language starts to clip the longer words. The grammar also evolves, to match those non-native speaking minions you interact with everyday. The result is a strange abandon of usual language, for something more direct and less verbose.
Learning another language, also, doesn’t support the retention of the former.
Moments (which are now too familiar) started happening in the middle of conversation. I’d be telling a memory, or a story, or just asking for a favor.
“Did you stay at a capsule hotel in Osaka?” “Oh, I wanted to, but there we no… open beds? Free spaces?” “You mean, vacancies?”
“The new bakery sells huge cinnamon rolls, but they’re not very… great? enjoyable? delectable? … Satisfying!”
“In Minnesota you always hear about accidents with drunk people driving on… winter… jet… skis, but you know, like jet skis for the snow.” (I actually can’t remember what they’re called right now, and have too much pride to Google: winter jet skis.)
It happens at least once a week. I can see the word flash in the front of my mind whenever I think about it. A shining, well outlined … piece? shape? … thing that disappears as soon as I think of it. “Come back!” I cry, as its rolls off the tip of my tongue cackling into oblivion. Instead I’m left defenseless, degrading my language to amend the situation, pondering what could have been.
I looked at the stack of books holding shape against my wall. Each a sword against this latency in language. There are the ones I definitely can’t handle right now: Catch-22, One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Dharma Bums. Then there are the slimmer volumes, the ones written for the common people, sometimes inventive (Slaughterhouse Five) but more often objective (Casino Royale). Even a poignant story like Fahrenheit 541 has a chase scene in it. Those were my jam, those I can do. Even the unwinding accents in As I Lay Dying are comprehensible through the short three page chapters. They become manageable escapes from mundane lifestyle.
The problem with reading, though, is the actual process. I recently wondered what I was like without a cellphone, or even without a smart phone. Many times I recall keeping my Gameboy stuffed in my pocket, but equally as often I would carry a book with me, a finger poised between two pages ready to continue the story at any moment. So smartphones are the culprit right, or internet at large, offering more distractions than necessary. Consuming our time with nonsense.
This can’t only be the case, for even on weekends when the news is on a break, the apartment is clean, the outside is raining, I can’t be helped to pick up a book. It’s the sense of time prioritization. When I was a kid and didn’t have to worry about what would happen to me, I had the time to bury my nose into a story. As an adult I’m constantly thinking of what to cook, what to clean, what to buy. My value of books is suppressed by the sense that my time would be better spent somewhere else. Not to mention the rate that I read a single page is snailish. I try to absorb every detail, and in such focus often have to reread from missing the bigger picture.
In Fukui, I drove to work every day, forty minutes there and forty minutes home. The onset of winter dragged that even longer: one hour, one and a half. Someone would say I should invest in things like Audible (I do keep waiting for a sale), but there’s something to miss in listening versus reading. Sure, I swear by the Jim Dale versions of Harry Potter over any printed form, but not every author has the time, dedication, or voice as great as local author Ben Percy. I’ve found quality narration reserved for just the bestsellers of the latest season, and my list knows no bounds.
Instead I turned to Podcasts. I’ve been listening to them for almost three years now. I first got into Serial right before I came to Japan, and broaden my spectrum since my former neighbor and professional backpacker, Mac, introduced me to Stuff You Should Know. It still strikes me that their popularity hasn’t truly reached the mainstream. I consume them while doing everything else in my life. They probably run at least four hours of my speakers everyday. Even today I’ve already listened to NPR’s Up First, APM’s In the Dark case about Jacob Wetterling, Vox’s The Weeds, and Dan Pashman’s The Sporkful interview with Michael Pollan. I guess it’s a result of not having internet access. I just download podcasts all at once somewhere and run them through the day or week. Still, it’s not enough. Unlike a book, if I miss something in a podcast, I just let it run until the story catches my attention again.
Originally, when I first thought about this post, here is where I’d talk about my solution to start reading again. How living in Tokyo would mean that I’d once again be stuck in a train without WiFi and all the opportunities granted by faded paper. It’s almost still something I long for. Except in Tokyo, the commutes are cramped and drudging. Where in New York I could buy a monthly unlimited pass for around $120, in Tokyo each time you ride a subway costs at least $1.50. I decided this was not the way I wanted to start my mornings and waste my evenings. I actively sought out places within walking, or biking distances from my work. I exceeded my original expectations with where I live now, but there is a part of me that thinks about the books.
Overall, I’m more than relieved to cut the two hours of sedentary transit from my daily life. I was hoping to have one final hurrah with my car, but that’s a subject for another post. I still ride a train every week to get to my Japanese lessons, and occasionally on weekends if I need to go out across the city — or on my way to Fukui. Recently I’ve downloaded the Kindle app to my phone and found digital books can be read just as effectively for some genre. Except in those cases, stopped on the train, there always seems to be so much more worth planning. Multiple trips to be sorted. Photoshoots to arrange. Then of course, keeping in touch with you in the simplest way possible. After all, why read when you can write?