The Way I Read Now

November 18, 2009 at 12:59 am (Uncategorized)

My novel-reading habits have changed in the past couple of years, and I think I’m beginning to understand why. Prior to the PhD, all novel reading was simply for pleasure; I’d absolutely include undergraduate reading in this, because if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t read it. I was not a discerning student so much as a slack one. One primary result of reading for pleasure is that it always allowed me, no, encouraged me, to savour each novel one at a time, much in the way one delights in each delicious, different meal (and believe me, a decent sandwich is exciting stuff). But postgraduate study meant becoming an All You Can Eat Buffet-style reader, the sheer volume of required reading – and the limited time with which to absorb it – meaning that I piled things onto my plate in a panic, and then gorged myself, often until I felt quite sick. Sleepy and plagued by heartburn. Bloated and uncomfortably stupefied. Addled.

Now that I write for a living, have worked reviewing novels, and am trying to develop the skills required to write my own for the rest of my life, I find I’m unable to ease back into the simple reading-for-pleasure mode. Don’t get me wrong – reading remains intensely pleasurable – but my brain appears to have rewired itself without permission, so that it now regards the act of reading in more professional terms. The main manifestation of this change is my current ‘multiple read’ strategy. There comes a time in every reader’s life when they look around and think, “I’m running out of time. I’m not getting through all these books fast enough.” It’s a depressing moment; it makes you feel old and tired even if you’re neither, because seconds later you invariably realise – with a nasty shuddery feeling – that you’re never getting through them all. Not possible. Not even if you repaired to bed for the remainder of your days. So what some readers do – and this is certainly what’s happened to me – is start reading several titles simultaneously.

Maybe I’ll fit more in this way…

This is a marked change for me, a real shift in my reading habits. At its worst, it reeks of desperation, and even at its best I’m finding it highly unsatisfactory that it’s taking me longer to get through each novel. I’m still reading my birthday books, and Cate Kennedy’s short story collection Dark Roots, and Andrea Goldsmith’s Reunion (a gift from Darkling Jenny), and as you know I’ve got my beadiest eye fixed on Brothers and Sisters – is it any wonder I only just finished Lilian’s The River Midnight? It’s terrible! I feel like I’ve been reading it for months – a totally unacceptable state of affairs. I think it was finishing The River Midnight that made me realise how haywire my new system makes me feel – it’s just chaos, I tell you, chaos. But when I consider trying to return to those sweet one-book-at-a-time days of old, something catches in my throat and twists. It’s that anxiety of missing out; of Time, that fickle Lothario, rushing off to greet someone else – some other, younger reader – with wide open arms, even as he turns his back on me.

“Time is running out” – what is this but proof of a feckless lover’s desertion?

I think I need another coffee. Hold that thought.

Right. Coffee cup (found in a gorgeous Shanghai ceramics store during one of our day-long rambles, purchased after we were invited to take tea with the owner) refilled and now I must get a grip. Actually, I wanted to tell you something else that occurred to me as I reluctantly closed The River Midnight, having read the entire glossary of terms and the reading group questions (okay, put it down now, it’s really over). Yes, there is great pleasure in drawing out the reading. Definitely. So that’s one thing in my current strategy’s favour. But the other is that this was such a different story for me – life in a Polish shtetl at the end of the nineteenth century – and it made me realise that I’m still just bone lazy. After all these books and all these years, I stand before you, a slacker. A reader staggering stupidly down the path of least resistance.

I look at my shelves, and I see an easy majority of Western contemporary literature. This says something of my tastes, for which I don’t apologise, but it also says something about my lack of application, as it were. One hardly need apply oneself to reading novels reflecting one’s own world. I speak the same language as these books, and while that’s very comfortable and cosy (read complacent), it’s a bit stunted, too. Oh, I’ve got Indian writers, Dominican, Mexican, Nigerian, even Danish writers here, and many others besides, writers whose work I love and am so enriched by, but so much of what I read these days is of my own time, and of my own Western liberal humanist milieu, that reading Lilian’s debut meant I really paid attention in a different way, because there were religious rituals entirely new to me, language I’d never read before, food I’d never heard of, and countryside I’d never seen described. Universal elements abound as in the best stories they always do, and I laughed along with the villagers as they joked and gossiped throughout (how clearly I could hear them!), and yet there’s no question I experienced this old world primarily as something new. This in turn made me realise how little historical fiction I read. Not because I’m not interested – I ate it up, I loved discovering the Blaszka ‘that shines through the stones’ – but because I think I’m too easily distracted, fascinated (an open-mouthed child twisting in her stroller) by the bright baubles and sometimes empty emblems of the present day. What I read, how I live, who I am. I must strive to always keep broadening all three. Thank you, Misha the midwife, Hayim the water carrier, and all the residents of Blaszka (and their loving creator, of course).

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12 Comments

  1. litlove said,

    I know what you mean about multiple reading as the vain hope of getting through more books at once – although I’ve found as I get older that I need to micro-manage variety. An appetiser of a short story, followed by the main course of a novel and then a chaser of non-fiction means I actively can consume more print, if you see what I mean. But then again, it all does get too much at times, and sinking into just one book for a monogamous relationship (sorry, mixing my metaphors!) can be just what’s needed.

    I thought I was a well-read person until I began blogging! Then I realised I’d read lots of contemporary British stuff, lots of French and German novels, and not much else. It is alas true that the more we know, the more we realise we don’t know. I’m really looking forward to Lilian’s novel. I know I have to be in the mood for something completely different when I read it and life and work have been tough lately so it’s been comfort fodder all round. But I know it will be marvellous when I get there.

    • doctordi said,

      After thinking about all this long and hard, LL, I am going to try to return to monogamous reading. It just sits better with me. My one hesitation is a small suspicion that multiple reads are better for keeping those neural pathways at work – thus resisting any move toward the Alzheimer’s that may lurk in my future. I think the general advice is to keep surprising and testing your mental agility – and leaping across narratives and indeed forms definitely does that.

  2. Lilian Nattel said,

    What an interesting perspective, Di. I don’t think it’s laziness. I’ve had to push myself to read fiction set today because my most recent novel was set in 2006 and I felt that I had a gap in my reading. I’m so interested in history, that it’s been where most of my reading has been, until lately, now that it’s popular of course! (see me roll my eyes). I’m wrestling right now with whether to go back to the historically set novel I was working on and put aside for the current one or not. I feel like on the one hand it’s interesting historically, but on the other hand, I so enjoyed writing in my own time.

    I can relate to what you say about reading. I’m always noticing technique and craft. If a book carries me away so far that I stop doing it, I’m very impressed.

    Factually I don’t see how reading 3 books at once is any faster than 1 at a time. I mean 3×1 = 1 + 1 + 1. Your eyes and brain go at the same pace. Lately studies are showing that multitasking slows people down because there’s always a little pause as you shift gears from one task to another.

    I usually read one at a time, but sometimes interrupt it for another book that grabs me. I’ve been reading The Good Mayor, but in the middle wasn’t feeling well and read Shakespeare. Now I’m back to TGM.

    • doctordi said,

      No, no, it’s definitely not faster, Lilian… maybe it’s simply that sense that once you’ve started reading a novel, you’ve entered that world and therefore know something of it, if not the whole. Multitasking may not be a time-saver but is it a mind-saver?! This is what is preoccupying me, it turns out, and not the temporal question so much at all! Have you made a decision about which it’s to be??

  3. Lilian Nattel said,

    Oh and most importantly thank you for what you said about RM!

  4. Pete said,

    Sometimes I read no books at the same time – as in No Books. It’s shocking but I’m waiting for three to arrive through the post and don’t want to get started on something else yet. Both LL and Lilian’s reading points made sense. I’ll just read what I can.

    • doctordi said,

      No books? NO BOOKS??!! Nope, sorry, I’ve tried imagining this, Pete, and I just can’t. No books… (furrowed brow, concentrating hard)… still nothing. Inconceivable.

  5. Grad said,

    I never read more than one book at a time. Now, I might stop reading a book to pick another one up, but that always means I was not enjoying the other book in the first place, and will not pick it up again. Time is a cruel and evil master. I see the sands running out of the hour glass every day at an ever alarming rate and I realize, sadly, that I’ll never have time to do it all – but hopefully I’ll have time to do enough.

    • doctordi said,

      Graddikins, in the past I have carried on through a really awful book with no other sustenance solely because of my one-at-a-time habit… even now, knowing time is of the essence, I find abandoning a book midstream nigh on impossible, even if I’m hating it. I’m the same with films; only Forrest Gump has the dubious honour of forcing a walk out. I wish that like you I could ditch and move on. Sometimes it would really be best all round.

  6. davidrochester said,

    I have found, since I started editing, that it is very difficult for me to read anything at all without fussing myself intolerably over printer’s errors, failures of style, or just any little thing that even slightly interferes with my reading experience. As a result, I can hardly read anything written after, oh … 1955, I think, is about the cutoff date; perhaps a bit earlier.

  7. doctordi said,

    Typesetting done by hand certainly made for a meticulously realised text, I’ll give you that. I’ve seen some thoroughly sloppy line editing in the past few years in particular, and a little something inside always keels over and dies.

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