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).