One of my reasons for starting this web log was to read better. I’ve been reading for oh, a hundred years or so, since my mother taught me before I went to school, and it is my favourite pastime, if one can call something which shapes your personality, fills your dreams, haunts your imagination and spills out of your ‘spare’ time into the time you should be devoting to more practical or lucrative pursuits a ‘pastime’.
(Jessie Willcox Smith, 'Girl Reading', illustration from A Child's Garden of Verse by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1905 edition, found here)
Perhaps it’s the consequence of studying literature at university, during which one doesn't just read a novel, one thinks and learns about it. Perhaps its origins are earlier than that, in having to ‘explain’ to some adult what happened in the book I had just read in order to prove I understood it. Perhaps it was some version of the Protestant work ethic surfacing; as a lapsed Catholic I don’t really know about this but I expect that having been surrounded by it in British culture, it must have seeped into my bones somehow. Anyway, more and more I had been feeling my reading was undisciplined, thoughtless; I’d just devour one book and turn to the next, without having truly absorbed the book or given any attention to it as a work of art. I thought I should be ‘improving’ myself as well as having fun. Having fun is, well, fun, but I was craving something more.
I started reading a little non-fiction. Years have passed when all I ever read was novels (and newspapers), so this was positively daring. I found it not as daunting as I expected. I could follow the plot; it didn’t matter if there was no central character; the prose style was often pleasing. And I was bound to become a more rounded person.
But this didn’t actually address my central problem. I was still not bothering to reflect. The only way I ever really find out what I think about things is by writing them down. Thus, the web log.
What writing here the few pieces on books I have managed to wring out of my resistant, lazy brain, I have now struck on a second cause of my dissatisfaction: shallow reading. I have a dreadful memory and forget so quickly everything about a book except the prevailing emotions it inspired in me. My friend R, who can recall not only all the names of the main characters in a novel but also individual scenes – ‘You remember in Bleak House when X says...’ ‘Erm, no’ – fills me with envy. Writing about the books may help with this. However, when somebody asks me something along the lines of, ‘Have you read The Brothers Karazamov?’, rather than replying, ‘Yes’, I’d like be able to have a conversation about it, or Dostoeyevsky, or the Russian novel, or something more than just ‘Yes’.
And so I am mulling over plans for a spot of ‘deep’ reading; reading around a theme to sharpen my understanding, placing books alongside each other to see how they play or not, reading some theory or history or biography. I have not quite decided what the theme will be – maybe there will be more than one – and I’ll probably read other things as well, if I feel a bit too programmed or things start to flag or I spot something I must immediately plunge into. And now I am excited and humming away. There will be lists and stacks of books and a little learning. It’s all a bit like going back to school. A whiff of sharpened pencils. Autumn term at a gallimaufry.