Reading Is Hazardous To My Health

I am an avid reader. I will choose a good book over every other form of entertainment every time. Of course adult life offers limited opportunity to read as much as I would like, but over the summer I have made an effort to read more, and I have done well, reading a half a dozen books or so since late June. When I was a kid it probably wouldn’t have taken more than a couple weeks to read the same amount, but those endless hours of lying on the couch with my head in a book just aren’t available anymore. I read mostly nonfiction military history written by the men who were there. There are a handful of historians who I have read on a regular basis, but I am always looking for insight into the human experience that you can only get from the men that were actually present at the moment of history. Historians tend to focus on the larger picture leaving out the day to day experience of the men themselves. I have read hundreds of these books (one of my ideas for a new blog was to write reviews and create a resource for finding good military history reading) beginning when I was in Junior High. By the time I was in eighth grade I had devoured the school library’s options and was learning how to use interlibrary loan to get new titles. I have a clear memory of a being deeply disturbed by one of these books when I was about twelve, but I chalked it up to being too young. In recent years I have been upset by a couple more titles including one this summer, and less so by the one I am reading now. I once wrote a long post about how popular culture has affected my mood, and I am beginning wonder if my reading choices are also contributing to my anxiety.

I was that kid who hid a flashlight in his room and when my parents turned out the light I would grab a book and read under the covers. I thought I was being all sneaky, but in retrospect I am sure my parents knew why I was using all those C cell batteries. When I was about twelve I started reading The Diary of Anne Frank. When I started the book I knew that she was a victim of the holocaust, but at the time she was just another of six million victims. As I got into the book I discovered a girl about my age who, aside from her exceptional circumstances, was talking about things and experiencing things that anybody that age could relate to. She of course never imagined that the world would one day read her thoughts and it offers a completely uncensored look at her life. I began to feel I knew her as a person, and that feeling led to an unbelievable sense of sadness and loss because I knew she was dead. I remember looking at the picture on the cover of the book, and crying. I remember expressing my sadness through tears to my mother. I was a sensitive kid and I am sure my mother never put much more thought into it. She suggested I stop reading the book, but I wanted to see it through and I did finish it along with Tales From the Secret Annex, an anthology of her short stories. I have often thought back to that book and the impact it had on me. I figured that given my sensitive nature and somewhat tender age that I was probably just too young to have read it, and never really gave it a lot more thought.

I don’t remember another book being a problem until I was an adult. I may have mentioned this somewhere in this blog before, but several years ago I stumbled across a book called One Bullet Away written by a Marine who served in Iraq at the start of the second Gulf War in 2003. Within the first couple pages I realized that he and I had been in the same officer training program while we were in college in New England. I don’t remember him at all, and I was unable to complete the program due to a football injury that was aggravated by the physical demands of the program. The problems that I discuss in this blog would have kept me out as well, but they had not yet surfaced in any meaningful way while I was in the program. I had dreamed of a military career since I was a kid, and losing that commission was the third in a string of failures that eventually shut the door on that career path. It doesn’t haunt my daily existence, but it is a source of regret and disappointment for me that I was unable to serve. This sense of regret and loss was intensified after the attacks of September eleventh. By that time my world had been crushed by anxiety and depression, and there was no chance of serving in any capacity. I felt it was my responsibility to serve and was very upset that I could not. Finding that book offered a window into what could have been. A window to what in my mind should have been. As soon as I discovered how close to home the book was going to hit I put it down for several days. I considered the potential impact of reading it, but eventually my curiosity got the best of me and I read the book.

This summer I was wandering through my local small town bookstore when I stumbled across Outlaw Platoon by Sean Parnell. The book looked interesting so I picked it up on a whim. It sat around on my coffee table for a month while I read a couple other books, but when I picked it up I simply couldn’t put it down. I would highly recommend it to anybody with the slightest interest in what modern combat in Afghanistan looks like. It was stunning. It probably answered the question of “what does it feel like?” better than anything I have ever read. The problem came from a couple directions. The first was the same old story of feeling as if I should have been there. I don’t feel like I missed out on anything, in fact I am undoubtedly healthier for not being there, I just believe it was my duty to go and I could not. This may seem like idealist nonsense to many, in particular in today’s jaded world, but I was raised on some very simple truths and I still believe in most of them. I recently heard somebody declare “what was so great about the past that we would want to go back?” in response to some political rhetoric. In many ways the world has become a better place and there is not much to go back for, but I would suggest that there was a time in this country when people felt a responsibility to things greater to themselves. This is something we are quickly losing and the consequences are likely to be dire, but back on track…

The second problem was one that often pops up when I read harrowing tales, but for some reason it hit closer to home with Outlaw Platoon. When I read stories of unbelievable courage I am always catching myself imagining my own reactions and behaviors in these circumstances. It is clear from the tens of thousands of pages that I have read on the topic that nobody has any idea how they will react in these extreme circumstances until they are there, but nonetheless I frame the circumstances in terms of a guy with an anxiety disorder and I know I would not have measured up. I never really picture myself as having self image issues, but there are a few deep insecurities and these books will often expose them.

I am currently reading The Long Gray Line by Rick Atkinson. The book was written in 1989 and follows the experience of selected members of the West Point class of 1966. These young men entered the Military Academy in a 1962 America that still embraced the ideals of the Greatest Generation and graduated into the chaos and social revolution of the mid 1960’s. Most were eager to get to Vietnam and confounded by the antiwar movement. As time passes and many begin to have doubts as to the mission and management of the conflict they are challenged by questions of loyalty, duty, and patriotism. These challenges echo in our current circumstances and I can imagine similar struggles in the West Point classes of 2001 and later. As always when I begin to relate deeply to the stories I am reading my mood becomes somewhat unpredictable. This book includes descriptions of unimaginable violence, bravery, and heartbreaking tragic loss happening to men you spent the first third of the book getting to know as young college students. It is proving to be a powerful story. I don’t expect this book to have a significant impact on my mood, but certain things have stayed with me after I put the book down and I am left feeling a little uneasy.

The question at the beginning of this very long post was whether or not my reading choices are contributing to my elevated levels of anxiety. After laying it all out here I would have to say the answer to that question is yes. I am not sure what to do with the revelation as I have no intention of changing my reading habits. It may make sense to avoid the books coming out of our most recent and current conflicts, but then again the stories of bravery and heroism from Iraq and Afghanistan are no less relevant that stories from the twentieth century, and it seems somehow disrespectful to ignore their sacrifices. Maybe I will just pick up a piece cheap and easy fiction while I mull it over.

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2 thoughts on “Reading Is Hazardous To My Health

  1. This is what it means to be human. To feel…For you, it comes out in many forms, and anxiety if one of those feelings. And, anxiety is an emotion on a spectrum, too. It’s commendable that you don’t look away from something that many people choose to ignore. There’s a price for doing that–looking. Examining. There’s also a price to pay for living an examined life. But, I suspect you know that as do I. It’s worth it.

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