I’m in a long-term relationship with the book City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg.
I started reading this massive novel in the summer of 2016. While on a cross-country trip, I picked it up at an airport Hudson News during a long layover. I made it an eighth of the way through the book, reading voraciously for the remainder of my itinerary. It’s a slow-paced, lovingly detailed mystery set in New York during punk rock’s early years. The characters are vibrant, the storyline is engrossing, and Hallberg’s prose style is beautiful, sometimes nearly poetic. City on Fire-and-me was a match made in heaven—at least, so it seemed while on holiday.
I vowed to keep up my reading momentum after traveling, so much had I yet enjoyed the story. But in my naiveté, I hadn’t accounted for—well, for pretty much any aspect of normal life. Upon return home, busy routines set in. Leisure time was in limited supply. I set City on Fire aside in lieu of other pursuits.
But I hadn’t forgotten it.
A sucker for the tradition of New Year’s resolutions, I formally resolved at the start of 2017 to read more books in the following year, specifically in exchange for social-media time. I won’t get on a soapbox about this, because I don’t believe everyone has the same anxiety-provoking experience with Twitter, Facebook, and their ilk. But for me, titrating down my regular overdose of online-profile-plugged-in-ness was a big deal. City on Fire was my forced substitute in the evenings, and I started over again from page one.
At first, reading a book seemed a poor tradeoff for all that dopamine-pinging, phone-glowing scroll/click/lurk/like behavior. Although I’d realized for some time that it worsened insomnia, anxiety, and depressive symptoms, I still found daily social media engagement to be a surprisingly tough habit to break. For a former bibliophile, that’s hard to admit. What a powerful addiction.
But I stuck with the tradeoff. City on Fire became regular evening reading. Sometimes this meant just a couple pages per night, but the important thing was that it kept me off soc med before bed.
By the end of the year, reading before sleep had become second nature, and previous device-centric habits had happily fallen away. My sentimental attachment to City on Fire is solidified forever for what it has come to symbolize: freedom achieved from a toxic groove.
But… I still haven’t finished it.
The paperback version is over nine hundred pages. Reading a page or two per night hasn’t gotten me very far. However, I recently started a new job with a bus commute, and I’ve gained a sudden bounty of reading time. Since the new commute, in less than one month, I soared past the midpoint of the tome. I’m on a roll.
And now I even have an e-reader—and yeah, okay. Many years ago, I vowed I would never choose to read a Kindle over a real paper book. But in my naiveté, I hadn’t accounted for the sheer gravity-attractive mass of City on Fire. So I checked out an electronic copy from the library and put it on my, y’know…. my device.
The poetics of personal irony do not go unappreciated around here.
Again, no soapbox: I adore the e-reader in my backpack. But I certainly still love the big dog-eared paperback on my bedside table. I can do both. And I hereby resolve that 2018 is the year I finish this book, one way or the other.
I just won’t be hashtagging and oversharing online about it.