I’ve been having a hard time reading this year. I know my perception of “hard time reading” and “not reading much” differs from the average person — I did just finish my 70th book, so I’m clocking about two a week — but it’s weird when you’re used to reading more than 100 or 150 books at this point in the year and you’re just not.
But my reading this year has been so much more satisfying than in previous years. Not necessarily because the books are better. Rather, it’s because I’ve let myself refill the well over and over, and I’ve listened to my instinct far more on what I’m choosing to pick up and what I’m choosing to put down.
Last week, I went on vacation with my husband to one of our top dream places: Marfa, Texas. We’d lived in Texas for a few years, but we never made the 6.5 hour drive out to west Texas. This time, we made the intentional decision to do it; we’d fly into Austin, then make the drive out to the desert.
Earlier in the summer, the two of us took a half a week trip out to the Denver area to see some friends, so this was our second couple trip together in the last couple of months. And one thing I figured out pretty quickly in that first trip was something I applied to this one: I don’t read.
I used to love the whole process of picking my vacation reads. I’d spend days debating which books make the cut and which ones would stay behind. But the truth of it was, I rarely read on these trips. I’d pack 4 or 5 books, and then I’d pick at a couple of pages while waiting at the airport and quickly discard it in favor of pacing the airport itself. When I get on the plane, I’m one of those lucky people who falls asleep nearly instantly. Then when I reach the destination, I’m conscious of leaving everything behind and living right in the moment.
What I did pack for both trips was my Nook. Out in Colorado, I did read. I woke up before anyone else did, since I’m a morning person, and I’d use the time to read a few chapters. I finished Kali VanBaale’s The Good Divide during one of those morning reading sessions, and I updated my husband on the story when he’d wake up. I loved the book, and I loved the slow, deliberate reading sessions, knowing that I was being intentional of when I was reading and I was fully aware of the moment I was in while reading (on an air mattress, in the home of good friends). The story and the setting coalesced into a wonderful experience.
I loaded up my Nook before this trip, but I wasn’t particularly excited about any of the titles on there. A couple of books I’d wanted to read expired, and given that this was a Dream Trip, my excitement was a bit dispersed.
Then we hit travel snags, and I suddenly needed a book to read. Right now. Something that would distract me from hours and hours of sitting at an airport.
I hit the O’Hare bookstore (note, this wasn’t the airport we originally had tickets to fly out of) and hemmed and hawed about what book to read. I picked up and put down tons of them. I left without a book. Then I went back and picked up more options, then put them down. O’Hare’s bookstore had some of those beautiful classics, including a cover for The Metamorphosis I hadn’t seen before (I was tempted). I ended up choosing the mass market edition of The Girl on the Train, which I hadn’t yet read. I picked up Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars for my husband.
And then I didn’t read.
For many more hours, I wandered O’Hare. And then when the flight finally came to be, I fell asleep, my dreams peppered with images of bowls of queso and margaritas.
I was disappointed about the delays. The trip was to begin with grabbing lunch with Kimberly, who I haven’t seen in a few years. My disappointment meant my concentration wasn’t there. Which meant my reading mind wasn’t there. There was some comfort in buying a book, but there was no response in reading it.
The morning after our flight, my husband and I tag teamed the drive out to Marfa. When we drive, I do not read. We have an understanding that when we drive like this, neither of us gets to read or sleep — we’re the second set of eyes. With driving such a huge expanse of Texas, it was hard not to keep looking out. It was beautiful and breath taking and there was so much to take in about the beauty of the land around us.
It hit me on the drive I wanted nothing more than to read a book about living in west Texas. About homesteading. About how you don’t feel like an insignificant speck in a part of the country where there is one person per square mile (a nifty fact gleaned at a rest stop Google session — one of my favorite parts of driving, the looking up of the things you see and know nothing about).
Marfa is a tiny artist town close to the Mexican border. But they have a pretty nifty bookstore, and as we discovered on the first evening there, a beautiful library with a lovely note to the community on the outside. I didn’t get a chance to go in, but I loved the love letter to the town. We did hit up the bookstore, located inside one of the new hotels downtown (…most of Marfa is downtown, I guess). It was a lovely specialty shop, filled with books about the artists who played a huge role in the community, as well as an extensive selection of Cormac McCarthy books — No Country For Old Men was filmed in places around town. Nothing caught my eye or scratched the itch of the kind of book I needed to be reading.
I didn’t read while on the trip. Instead, I explored. I saw the mystery lights. My husband and I and the other people who were out there watching the show that evening shared stories and theories; we learned one guy brought his family to this space ten different times and this was the first time they’d ever seen the lights. We wandered the campsite we stayed at, pet the dogs of other people staying there, and we even ran into another Wisconsinite, with whom we shared stories of travel, of how unbelievable the sky out in this space was. Even when I grabbed my book to read in the hammocks around the campsite, I put it down and instead watched the vast sky around me, felt the breeze, listened to the utter quiet of being in the desert.
One of the best parts of the trip, though, was stopping into the visitor centered. The woman running it was wildly enthusiastic about Marfa, and she told us about all of the places we needed to see, as well as the stories behind them. Our immediate trip after that was to the Chinati Foundation, where we wandered out into the land to see the famous Judd concrete sculptures. The Foundation is built on decommissioned military land that served as a German POW camp during the second World War. The sculptures, as well as the surrounding buildings filled with art, were the response to getting the land and making it mean something completely different.
Between the trip through the concrete sculptures, as well as our drive out to see the Prada Marfa installation, my husband and I had stories and theories to tell one another, as well as things to look up and read to one another. What did these things mean? How did they change over time?
Our reading wasn’t books. It wasn’t what we picked up or packed. It was what we were living right then.
One of the last stops on our last night in Marfa was one of the big hotel gift shops, and it was here I found the book I was looking for: a story about a girl whose grandparents made a homestead out in west Texas in the 1950s and 60s and what it was like for them to live in such a desolate place: A Stake in West Texas by Rebecca D. Henderson.
It’s a book that scratches all of my itches, and it’s one I cannot wait to read for the story, as well as the story behind where I got it, what it means to me, and what the longing I had to learn about this place meant to me before and during the travels. It is, as I type this, lost in transit with our clothes, our toiletries, our toothbrushes, our shoes, jars of honey, bottles of beer, and a number of other things. I’m eager to be reunited.
When we got back to Austin, our first stop was Book People, my all-time favorite bookstore. It was a sanctuary for me for the time I was living in that city by myself. On Saturday mornings when I wasn’t working in someone’s garage archive, I’d hop on a bus, then another one, then spend a few hours wandering the two-story store.
Remember when I said I didn’t pack anything but my nook?
That was in part because I knew I’d pick up a few things at Book People. And $125 later, I’m pleased to say I bought myself two books — including one that had expired from my Nook — and one for my husband.
We flew back to Milwaukee and when I got on the plane, everything changed. I needed to unpack the trip, the stories we heard and the ones we told, and the best way for me to do that was to read.
I pulled The Girl on the Train out of my bag and flew through 300 pages as we were in the air. Then the moment we got home, I tore through the remainder of the book. It was precisely what I needed when I needed it: a quick thriller which made me keep turning pages and put me back into my own space and turf. As soon as I finished that, I picked up another book, which I’m elbow deep in now, less than 24 hours after returning home.
There is a weird pressure to keep reading, to pick up the next book, to do more, more, more, when you make your life about books. When you identify as A Reader. You feel guilt when you’re asked if you’ve read something and you say no, you haven’t. Or worse, when you’re told about a book and you’ve literally never heard of it (the friend we stayed with in Texas asked me about a book by a UT Alumna, wherein I had to look it up and add it to my to-read ASAP).
The truth is, though, reading and one’s reading life is entirely personal. And sometimes being a “reader” means that you’re listening to stories in ways that aren’t about printed or electronic pages. Sometimes, it’s about experiencing stories in the moment, of asking people to share their stories, of reading those plaques on the side of the road, of paging through art books in a tiny collection, of enjoying the beautiful libraries in the middle of the desert.
Those are moments of refilling the well. Of remembering why it is you love to read.
Taking this break and leaning into it, rather than pushing to fix it, meant stopping and pausing. It meant finding momentum again upon return. It meant finding the hunger and passion again for stories, no matter how they’re told.
All photos above are mine. I started taking photography classes earlier this year, and it’s been another piece of my refilling the well. The stories you can tell visually, through little more than the lens of your phone, continues to impress and inspire me.