Time-Wasters Anonymous

Hi, my name is Katherine, and I… am not a reader anymore.

I came to this realization a few days ago, and it has triggered something of an identity crisis. Being a reader is a part of me in the same way that being a woman is part of me, or being Canadian. It’s defining to my sense of self. It’s something I’m proud of.

And yet, I don’t sit down to read a book anymore. Not a paper book, not an e-book. Not regularly. Not like I used to.

I used to stay up past my bedtime to keep reading. Just to the end of the page… just to the end of the chapter… just five more minutes… I knew the exact cadence of the creak in the stairs, and I could time it exactly so that I switched out my light before my dad could see it as he rounded the corner at the top of the stairs.

I got caught in grade five reading By The Shores of Silver Lake (one of the Little House on the Prairie books) under my desk when I should have been doing schoolwork. I was so ashamed of getting caught that it was years before I could pick the book up again.

When my father told me my grandfather died, I ran upstairs and picked up my book and kept reading until I could stop crying.

Books were my escape. Always.

When my mom and my stepfather moved us from the city where I grew up out to a house in the middle of nowhere, the little local library was my saviour. I didn’t mind the countryside so much, but I did not like my stepfather. We drove into town on Saturday mornings to run errands, and I camped out in the library while my mom went grocery shopping. I always left with a stack of books and spent the whole weekend reading.

My mom doesn’t believe me when I tell her I’m not a fast reader. She remembers the stacks of books I used to go through. But it’s not that I read quickly, I just read a LOT.

As an adult, I have spent a lot of time travelling or relocating for my job, and I always drag a stack of books with me.

It’s just that recently I haven’t actually been reading them. I keep buying new books, because I still believe I am a reader, but they end up languishing in my to-read pile. There just doesn’t seem to be any time.

The internet has become my one giant, insidious time suck. I waste hours just noodling around, either falling down the Wikipedia rabbit hole, or planning my next trip, or reading about writing. It’s not that I’m not learning things, not accomplishing anything, necessarily. It’s just that I seem to be able to wander in Internet limbo indefinitely. And often with the television on in the background.

An additional consequence of stewing in this glut of stimuli is that my attention span is in tatters. I, who used to be able to read the same book all afternoon, cannot focus on anything for more than five minutes without checking my email, or Facebook, or my WordPress stats.

So today I forced myself to read. That, as a thought, feels so wrong, so alien. As though I had to force myself to be Canadian. I took my book and went for brunch. Then after my errands were done, I curled up in my armchair with a blanket, a cat, and a cup of tea and read for two hours. It was wonderful. It felt like home.

I don’t get to call myself a reader again until the book it my unconscious go-to rather than the internet or the television. But I least I recognise the problem now.

Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name…

This evening, I intended to go to a new writers’ group. I found it in some local listings, and it’s been on my calendar for more than a week. I printed out copies of my piece and everything. I thought it would be a good chance to workshop a piece that’s getting ready for submission and to meet some new people at the same time.

I didn’t end up going. My day changed shape at the last minute – my boss turfed me out several hours earlier than expected, and I had a wide open slab of time to get some errands done I’d been stressing about finding time for. And by the time I’d gotten all of that done, I was on the wrong side of the city and had burnt out all of my energy.

There’s always next time.

And what ended up happening instead was so much more magical.

Back in late 1995 or early 1996, when the internet was just learning to crawl, I was a regular visitor to an mIRC channel. Internet Relay Chat. It was kind of a precursor to Twitter, I guess, but instead of individuals making statements, it was a giant conversation that everyone on the channel participated in. And there were no character limits. The channel I was a part of was all about Babylon 5, a science fiction television show that was airing at the time. That was meant to be the main topic of conversation, and it often was, but we talked about anything and everything. The people in that channel became good friends of mine, back in the day when people looked at you funny when you said you had friends on the internet.

I was a regular in the Babylon 5 channel until late 2000, when I moved away from home and started travelling with my job. I didn’t realise until today that it was a part of my life for five years. I’d never counted before.

In recent times, some of us from the channel have been finding each other on Facebook, and a couple of weeks ago a conversation with one of them led me to go exploring and see if mIRC is still a thing. It turns out that it is. So tonight, we decided on the spur of the moment to meet up on mIRC again. We rounded up as many of the old guard as we could. I was impressed and amazed at how many of us had stayed in contact, if not as a group, then in small pockets.

It was… mind-blowing. The program, for all intents and purposes, has not changed AT ALL in nearly 20 years. It still looks exactly the same as it did in 1996. Everyone reclaimed their old nicknames, and… it’s hard to explain. It was like a family reunion. Or a glimpse back in time. We talked about people I hadn’t thought of in years. We resurrected in jokes and old habits that were 15 years old. We struggled to remember commands and shortcuts that had once been second nature. (It’s as if, some time in the future, you found yourself struggling to remember a hashtag for the first time in two decades.) And I began to remember the physical construct the channel had once taken on in my head. It had an architecture, a geography. And furniture. There was a couch, a big couch in the middle of the room. And a tree. And with each comment, with each “do you remember…”, a new piece of that construct would come into focus. I could feel my brain stretching to find the old dusty files in the back corners of my memory. It was a wonderful experience.

And I’m so glad that I got to be a part of it. It was an excellent reward for my laziness.