On reading

I’ve spent the last couple of years working on my second novel. Looking back on it, my pattern of work seems to have been to have worked like a demon for short patches of time (say two months) and then to leave it, neatly marked-up and post-it-noted on the corner of my desk for long stretches of time, at one point up to a year. Some of those down times were because there were other things going on (writing a thesis, moving countries, cooking meals because oh god, they want to eat again?). Some of them were because what’s the point, insecurities, whatever made you think you could write a book blah blah blah and so on for ever and ever. And some of those breaks were because I was trying to solve a problem of where to go next and I needed a bit of distance.

One of the things I used to do when I was trying to solve a problem in my writing was to read like a demon. Mostly I read authors who write like I want to write, looking for answers to my problems (is it okay to have more than one narrator, is it all right to move through time so quickly, what about all those italics I’ve always loved can I get them to work?). I do find answers. I don’t copy the people I read – I don’t think I do anyway, In a strangely, counter-intuitive kind of way, reading also gives me more confidence in my writing. Not that I ever finish reading Ann Patchett and think, ‘I’m as good as Ann Patchett any day.’ More that I think, ‘It is possible to finish writing a story, look at this, she’s finished quite a few.’

But apart from that, somehow or other I’ve once again got out of the habit of reading and I don’t feel like I spent all that much time reading last year. I know I was busy last year, but for me reading is more to do with being in or out of the habit than it is about busy-ness (though of course being busy does have an impact on habit). Netflix isn’t helping because I’ve started ending my evenings with an episode of Grace and Frankie or whatever Scandi-noir-landscape-damaged-but-I-could-save-him detective currently holds my interest. And then there’s the whole problem of read a bit, put the book down, leave it there for a week another week another week and then so many weeks that I’d really have to start again.

So what I’ve been trying to do is to read books as quickly as possible by which I mean in the shortest timeframe. Like, say to myself, ‘I’m going to read Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth now, and that’s the main thing I’m doing until I’ve finished it.’ This attitude takes a bit of work because even those of us who do consider reading to be a valuable, ethical, rightful use of our time find it hard to place reading in front of life’s many other important tasks such as feeding our children and earning our living. But it’s reminding myself to add ‘book’ to the ‘purse, keys, phone’ grab on my way out the door, or picking up my book instead of scrolling through the news app on my phone (I don’t know about you, but I am constantly refreshing that app at the moment I think trying to reassure myself that it’s going to be okay, it’s going to work out fine, I mean we’re humans right the most sophisticated beings on the planet we can fix this, but mostly terrifying myself like actual, deep-seated fear that I think has become a constant in my emotional repertoire). It also means that I’m choosing books based on my ability to read them quickly – so length primarily. And I was going to say complexity, but that’s not at all true, because I read Grief is the Thing with Feathers a few weeks ago and that might be short, but it lacks nothing in complexity.

And here are some words just to let you know that this is an abrupt ending, but it’s started to rain and I have to go and get the clothes in off the line and I’ll probably never get back to this if I don’t finish it now.

One thought on “On reading”

  1. I know there is a certain allure to paper and I’m going to sound like a crazy tech evangelist, but buying the kindle back in 2010 really transformed reading for me – so easy to cart about, to spontaneously buy books, to binge-read like crazy (while washing up, cooking, folding laundry, knitting &etc).

    I’ve been avoiding most news since mid-December. This has been excellent for the mental health, but I do feel rather irresponsible doing so.

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