This is the last Mark Read column of the year and all I can think about is the weather. Portland feels like it’s been raining for hundreds of days. It hasn’t — it hasn’t rained for most of the summer, so it could be raining the longest since early October — but we’re in the humid northwestern doldrums. The once beautiful leaves have long since turned into silt that clings to boots; the gratitude I felt for the rain when it fell on the bushfires has turned into a kind of grudging respect.
Even my books look a little damp and unappetising, which is a weird feeling during what may be the best reading season of the year.
I’ve written about reading slumps and season books before, but while this feeling is right with both ideas, it’s also its own. December can be a lot in this country: the expectations, the obligations, the feeling that you have to feel festive somehow. There are beautiful lights everywhere! People make all kinds of cookies! If you’re the kind of person – which I am – who likes to have an evening drink on a bar patio, then those patios are more likely to offer hot drinks right now! What’s not to love?
Lately I especially like soft pants, and also staying at home.
I think I have a book hangover. Worse than that? A series of hangovers. I’ve finished The Expanse and I don’t know what to do with myself.
SFF fans have plenty of shows that we would love to see an end to. But wanting to know what happens, to see how it all ends – to, ahem, learn who? real sitting on the Iron Throne or having it melted down into scraps – is not the same as wanting the story to be over. (Although we may have all had those reading experiences too, where you just can’t stop reading, even if you’re just doing it for the miniscule satisfaction of knowing what the hell happened.)
In a way, The Expanse doesn’t feel quite over yet: The show’s final season has just started, and there’s a lot of hope that the adaptation will return in one form or another. And I’m certainly not complaining about the ending; the last book is extremely satisfying in a way that feels untouchable – could it have happened any other way? – but I know it isn’t. (I also know that not everyone has the time to read a book that long in a small number of days!)
What the hangover from the book is however, talking about that sense of an ending, the way all that great closing can feel so big and heavy and intense, and how that great finale feeling coincides with the end of a very strange year is a lot to take in a little reading heart.
Do you ever put aside a book you’re reading because it’s just so good, so perfect, so exactly what you wanted that you can’t bear to get to the end? Imagine that feeling — that anticipation tinged with dread and dread — except you’ve already finished the book. That is a book hangover. The anticipation overflows and makes you think that every book, really every book you pick up after that, will be perfect! But the fear ruins everything. No book is the book you just finished. No book can ever satisfy. Even the one you just bought. Why did you buy it? On the shelf it goes, possibly sitting there until the heat of the universe, or at least your next move.
So you switch. You read long and depressing articles about whether we’ll ever go back to ‘normal’ and wonder why ‘normal’ can’t be improved. You read something completely different. I’ve read bits of Matthew Salesses’ Crafting in the real world, slowly, because it is brilliant and wise and I want to remember it. I’ve made piles of stuff I think I’d like to read next, fantasy interspersed with short stories with a non-fiction book about punk rock and out of print. I’ve been thinking about the general form and composition of my talk this year and how I might want to offer myself some different flavors, concepts and ideas over the next two weeks. Maybe spend time with really challenging brains. You might just find a totally captivating adventure that I can obsess over as a cleanser for the mental palate.
Maybe I need a book dessert. Maybe I need a reading schedule. Maybe I need a lecture solution.
Although I don’t really believe in that. If there’s one thing I hope people learn in these columns, it’s that reading is personal and intimate, and as long as you’re reading broadly and diversely and curiously, you’re actually doing well. You don’t have to make lists or tick off reading goals or be determined to read a history novel every decade of the 20th century. You can, if it floats your boat and turns your pages. But I’m not sure if those structured (and often corporated) projects are as helpful as a sense of exploration can be. Let your reading life take you from one book to another, from one interest to another, from one author to a writer they recommend.
A hangover in a book is particularly weird to have in the season of the year’s best lists and most anticipated lineups and the annual revival of Americans talking about Iceland. jolabokaflod, where books are given as gifts on Christmas Eve and then spend the night reading. If you’re not a big Santa, the solstice is here, a perfect alternate evening for hot drinks and purring cats and a new book. Luck! It really is the season.
But still, I just want to watch hawk eye.
If you’re not in the Christmas spirit, come sit with me. I make some pretty hot grog and I can talk about just about every SFF series currently on TV, even though I really don’t understand why everyone loves it The Witcher this much. We can watch that Christmas episode of buffy and discuss why that is so Eleven Station really feels like it should be a January show instead of a December show.
And when the book’s hangover wears off — as always, and as always — the books will still be waiting. They will sparkle invitingly in the glow of nondenominational Christmas candles. And we can all help decide where to start.
What do you want to read next?
Molly Templeton lives and writes in Oregon and spends as much time as possible in the woods. Sometimes she talks about books on Twitter.