Edit: Re-posted after technical difficulties.
The 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded a few weeks ago to the journalist, Svetlana Alexievich, for her collected work of non-fiction on Soviet history. Like the performance artist, Anna Deavere Smith, Alexievich uses interviews to document the human impact of different historical events. Her most famous book is undoubtedly Voices From Chernobyl, in which she interviewed hundreds of people involved in the nuclear disaster that took place in the Soviet Union in 1986.
As you might expect, Voices from Chernobyl is a dark, dark read, and I struggled at times to even pick it up. Each interview was understandably depressing, telling a story of predominate hopelessness. But what I didn't expect was to come away with so many individual stories of suffering, unhappiness, and fear. How the firemen experienced early attempts to put out the fire at the reactor was incredibly different from how a soldier emotionally processed the situation a few weeks later while evacuating the exclusion zone. How the women went through that same time was often quite different from the men. That doesn't mean it was pleasant to read, but it helped me understand this event in a more personal and deeper way than what I had previously understood from the paragraph that is typically dedicated to Chernobyl in high school history books.
In a disaster, we tend to lump everyone's experience as one story, but if you think about it, of course each individual suffers very differently. How a father grieves the death of a son from a radiation contaminated hat is a different kind of pain than what a village experiences after losing track of a disabled woman during the evacuation. How a woman grieves for the lost chance at having a healthy baby is different from how a family mourns their already "damaged" or dying children.
Different levels of knowledge about nuclear energy and radiation also created very different experiences. The scientists near Chernobyl and Minsk understood the dangers of the total radioactive contamination and their instinct was to balk party orders during the early days of the disaster, and get the hell out before they and their families were poisoned any further. But peasants, who knew nothing about radiation, looked around their fields and saw healthy crops and blue skies. They didn't understand why they had to leave everything behind. On the surface, things appeared normal, beautiful even. To give up their ancestral homes, their gardens, their dogs, for what seemed like to reason at all? They were told that everything, absolutely everything they owned, even their own bodies, had been poisoned and furthermore, had become another source of the poison. Even their livestock had to be buried alive to prevent further contamination. One of the men involved with this "liquidation" of radioactive material during the evacuation said of the peasants, "We annulled their labor, the ancient meaning of their lives. We were their enemies," (p. 185).
You can't see radioactive elements clinging to dust particles, but it was everywhere around Chernobyl and quickly drifting across Europe. The interviewees often seemed more at odds with this radioactive paradox than they were angry at the Soviet corruption and incompetence that had led to the disaster in the first place. Of course they were mad at the government, but their completely transformed lives maybe made blame an almost secondary, perhaps even trivial emotion in comparison. How could everything be poisoned? they kept asking. The milk, the apple trees, the salami in the store? How could you really live knowing that everything you touched would eventually kill you. That you too were a source of poison and would be subsequently shunned by the rest of the country. There was no where to run. No where to live. And there was no context for that existence, no way to understand it or know what to do next.
Voices From Chernobyl recounts what is essentially the non-fiction equivalent of science fiction, and I'm glad to have read it, but I'm sorry that so many people had to live and die through such a nightmare.
Rare double-post today because it was just announced that Svetlana Alexievich has won the Nobel Prize in Literature for her work in non-fiction. Until this morning, I'd never heard of Alexievich, but her work sounds incredible, focusing on different conflicts in the Soviet Union and the post-soviet world (a topic that has always interested me). I will definitely be picking up a copy of Voices from Chernobyl, in which Alexievich interviewed survivors of the infamous 1986 nuclear plant meltdown.
Have you read any Alexievich?
The lineup. The four publications I cannot resist.
Most Saturday mornings, I get up and prepare to do a little writing. I keep the same schedule on the weekends as I do during the week, which means a 4:45 am wake-up call (courtesy of my cat, Hans, who keeps better time than an atomic clock). I'll feed the animals, get my coffee, and start to walk upstairs to my office...when I'll notice it. Sitting right there on the kitchen table. A fresh, just delivered paper copy of The New Yorker.
Before I know it, I'm comfortably ensconced on the couch and getting started on the letters to the editor.
Just one more page, I'll tell myself. Just the first column. Maybe the second too.
Ah, but this article on immigration reform is fascinating. Have to finish it.
Suddenly, it's 8 am, the dog wants to go the dog park. The husband wants to go to the lake. My New Yorker is half finished and I've written zero words.
You'd think the weekends would be my most productive, but the extra hours are deceptive and too often they're filled consuming other people's great writing in place of doing any writing myself. Or, Saturday and Sunday quickly turn into a combination of fun and chores and the opportunity for undisturbed writing time, outside the early hours of the morning, becomes more and more remote.
So, yeah, reading is actually a problem for me! If it's not The New Yorker, then it's the WaPo, or the NY Times. Like a cat burglar, The Atlantic sneaks in through the window that is Twitter and absconds with my time. I'm going to blame the authors. There are just too many talented journalists and writers out there and they've never been so accessible before.
If I'm not reading a magazine or a newspaper, then I'm reading a book. Yet, maybe books are easier to put down? You know you won't finish the story in one sitting the way you can with an article. But it's still time spent that could have been used for writing. If left to my own laziness, I'd consume and consume and consume every decent word out there without contributing a single one of my own.
We all know reading helps you be a better writer. It exposes you to new ideas, narrative structures, vocabulary. But that's only meaningful if you take the necessary step of actually writing.
I could divide my life into a pie-chart of time, and it's undeniable, reading just takes up too large a slice. Reading sometimes competes with my husband and my animals (sorry!). It often becomes a distraction at work.
I guess it's kind of a problem.
But what to do? Stop reading? Read less? Doesn't that sound...wrong? Sometimes, I have to be firm with myself. Put the magazine down. Go upstairs. Write. I'll listen to myself maybe half the time. I'm much better at sticking to a schedule during the week and more prone to sporadic, but epic writing sessions on the weekend (i.e. it's 1500 words, or nothing at all).
Is reading a problem for anyone else? Do you do anything about it? Do you even want to do anything about it?