Posts Tagged ‘reading’

Too many books! (again)

November 11, 2022

I’ve written about my problem before; since then, before moving house a few months back, I sold or donated to charity several hundred volumes I knew I’d not need again, that I’d never want to re-read, or that had been sitting in boxes in the loft for years.

This time, there’s another issue to mention: I keep reading book reviews and thinking, “there’s a book I must read!’ The problem here is lack of time, as well as lack of physical space for all those potential new acquisitions. Will I actually ever get round to reading that must-read book, or will the moment pass and my attention move on, leaving another book to gather dust on the waiting-to-be-read shelf? That shelf, incidentally, is probably two metres long. I have got better over the last couple of years at resisting temptation, and reached the stage where purchases have dwindled to less than two a month on average, but the built-up mental pressure of the backlog of books I really want to read is increasing. This is then compounded by the books physically on the shelves which call to me for a re-reading; I have been tackling a reasonable number of those recently, on the grounds that once I’ve re-read them, they’re probably surplus to requirements and so can safely be disposed of. Re-reading inevitably brings new discoveries, and revives old interests…

But then there’s the thing I have about loving to be surrounded by books, having a library of old favourites and good friends, as it were, that I can’t bear to part with. This leaves me feeling guilty about the problem I leave my eventual heirs: what the hell to do with all those cubic metres of paper?

As has always happened, any interesting reading opens potential new paths to follow, that I’d really like to pursue: again, realistically there’s so little time I feel I must be brutal; mentally I make a list and occasionally joke about saving those books for my next existence…

And then, there are the books I very occasionally think about writing myself. In my student days I imagined writing science fiction, and doubtless somewhere are the pieces of paper with ideas scratched and scribbled on them in drunken and stoned moments so very long ago. There is a dissertation, and also a thesis, from a couple of my research degrees, and there are two or three study guides for A Level students penned during my retirement years, the royalties from which I count as my whisky money, but there’s nothing of great moment there. Words, words, words, as someone once said. And they are swamping me. But I love them.

Reading differently

September 11, 2021

Just a few brief thoughts here as I realised the other day just how much the act of writing this blog for the last decade or so has changed the ways I read. Not in any dramatic fashion, because as a lifelong student of literature, once the bug had bitten me in my teens, through three different degrees at universities and a lifetime’s career, I feel that I have always sought to go below the surface. But for a long time, in the middle part of my life, I ‘just’ read books… one sometimes leading to another.

Now there is a greater deliberateness to my approach. Yes, I’ll allow myself to be sidetracked by a sudden discovery, but there’s more of a sense of planning to what I read and when, as I’m increasingly conscious of limited time. I’ve set some time aside this November for reading the new Olga Tokarczuk novel The Books of Jacob, which is finally scheduled to appear in English translation – and I’ve resisted buying the French version which is already out there because I like the work of her English translator Jennifer Croft – and there’s a part of me that remembers, every now and then, that I need to live long enough to read the final part of Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust trilogy…

So I read a little more carefully now, with a slip of paper and a pencil to jot down ideas and thoughts, links and comparisons and anything else that occurs to me as I read. And I rejoice in the modern technology which means that if my phone is with me, I can look up words and references instantly, without leaving the sofa, and I do look things up rather more than in the past.

I’m thinking more about what I’m reading, with the discipline of this blog in the back of my mind: my promise to myself was that every book I read would get a post, and I don’t think I’ve broken this rule. And, if I’m honest, I’m getting more out of the reading that I’m doing, which can’t be bad.

How I write

April 6, 2021

It took me quite a while to see myself as a writer of sorts. I spent years teaching students to write. And I managed to forget that I’d written countless essays as a student, then a dissertation and finally a thesis. Then, since I retired, I have written some study guides. And there are a thousand plus posts in this blog…

Once I started the blog, I decided I would write about every book I read, and I think I have managed to do this; if I skim a book rather than read it, then I don’t usually write a post about it. But the decision has sharpened up the way I read, now, which I’m quite pleased about: I’m more attentive, because I know I will be writing about the book, and I tend to think about other books that it reminds me of (quite often I get an idea for what to read next, which disrupts my original reading schedule).

I take a small (A6) piece of paper which I use as a bookmark, and I keep a pencil close by; every now and then I will jot down either a salient idea, or a new reflection, or an opinion. It’s a fairly scrappy process but I haven’t found a better way of doing it; some books will amass quite a few of these small slips as I read and reflect.

When I finish a book, I always note down the date I finished it, in pencil inside the back cover. This way I can keep track of how many times I’ve read a particular book, and it’s interesting to know when I last read it, if I come back to it. I’ve been doing this since I went off to university nearly half a century ago. I also log the book in my ledger, which is a record of all the books I read each year, so I can keep tabs on my habit; here I get my stats for the end-of-year blog posts on what I’ve read in a particular year.

I take my little note sheets and sit down at the laptop and write. The sentences do manage to come out with reasonable fluency. Posts have seemed to work out at somewhere in the 5-600 word region, although some books get longer pieces; I don’t set myself a limit deliberately. Often I’ll wait a day before I come back to proof-read and polish a piece, correcting all my errors and tidying up expression: I wasn’t an English teacher for 30 years for nothing… That delay often allows ideas to finish maturing in my mind and I frequently do end up finding a better way of saying something second-time around.

I tend to avoid telling the story: if my piece is interesting enough to a reader, I hope they’ll want to hunt down the book and read it themselves, so no spoilers intended, really. I’ll pick out what I think is important or interesting, and obviously I’ll always give my opinion. I’ll make links and connections or comparisons with other books or writers that occur to me. Finally I hunt down a thumbnail of the book’s cover if I can find one; I like to have one of the edition I possess if that’s possible, but given the age of some of the books in my library, that’s often not possible. A few tags to help the search engines, and I’m good to go.

This is getting just a little ridiculous

January 31, 2018

Is there anything better about what I do, compared with watching TV every night, binge-watching box-sets, playing computer games for hours? Am I any the better or wiser for all this hoovering up of knowledge? Surely I’m just frittering my life away like everyone else does?

What got me this evening was realising that I have a reading list longer than the rest of my life, and it’s growing; occasionally I joke with friends that I’m saving this or that activity or place to visit ‘for my next existence’, and it has become no joking matter. Currently I’m re-reading Je suis de nulle part, a sort of biography of Ella Maillart (see my last post) by a contemporary admirer of hers. It’s reminded me I need to re-read Oases Interdites, her account of travels in China and India in the 1930s, and then also News From Tartary by Peter Fleming, as the two made the same journey together and wrote different and equally fascinating accounts of it. Then, as Maillart travels to Afghanistan with her friend Annemarie Schwarzenbach, I fell the need to re-read her account of the same journey, and also several more books of hers that I haven’t yet read; so far I’ve resisted the temptation to order them all…

And then it turns our that Maillart knew Erika and Klaus Mann; I read Erika Mann’s fictionalised account of the gradual Nazification of her homeland last year and wrote about it, then took Klaus Mann’s autobiography down from the shelf – bought in 1987 and still unread! But now I want to read that, and, of course that reminded me of Stefan Zweig, and I have been wanting to go back to his autobiography for a while now…

You can see how I might be starting to feel that this is becoming ridiculous. Then I will set all these books up in a pile waiting to tackle them, read a couple and get side-tracked onto something else, and eventually have to put the rest of then away for another time. I’d already mentally made a couple of plans for which book I’ll take away with me to read on my Ardennes walking holiday in April, and will have to revise those plans.

Sometimes, I imagine giving up reading for a year to see what it would be like. One day, perhaps. Meanwhile, I need to calm down and come back to my senses: lying on the sofa with a good book, Bach or Chopin playing, and a bottle of good beer to drink… there’s not much better to do at this time of year.

On an enigma: older men read less fiction

November 6, 2017

Somewhere, recently, I came across an article based on some research that suggested that older men read less fiction. I glanced at it, aware that nowadays there’s all sorts of ‘research’ into all sorts of things, and a lot of which either does not make sense, or is soon proven to be incorrect or biased… but the notion stayed with me, and got me thinking.

I must be one of those ‘older’ men being referred to. And I don’t tend to read very much fiction any more. In my life, I’ve read lots; on my bookshelves ‘awaiting reading’ there’s quite a bit of fiction that I’ve felt moved to buy, but that I haven’t read yet. Every now and then, in the search for what to read next, I’ll pick up some of these novels, flick through them, remind myself of the blurb on the back cover… and put them back on the shelf, for ‘later’. Not ready to read that yet!

What is going on? Given the choice and the availability, I will read travel writing, or history, or something else factual rather than fiction; if I do read any fiction, it’s quite often a re-read, something I’ve enjoyed previously and decide to go back to. So, recently I re-read (again) Joseph Skvorecky’s The Engineer of Human Souls – and thoroughly enjoyed it again. But when it came to Ismail Kadare’s Spiritus – and Kadare is another of my favourite writers – I was aware of forcing myself to read it at various points. I hadn’t read it before, it had been sitting on my shelf for years, and I did enjoy it in the end. But what?

This feels like a real challenge: what is putting me off reading new – ie previously unread – novels?There’s almost a fear – reader’s block? – of not enjoying a book, of not being able to get into it, of not wanting to meet and engage with new characters and their lives, fictional though they may be. I’m wondering if this may perhaps be because I’ve read so much fiction earlier in my life, lived vicariously so much that now I no longer want to, and in my declining years/ older age want instead to engage with issues and ideas. Is there nothing new under the sun, to quote the sage?

I’ve written before about books that I’ve outgrown, moved on from, books that were significant, powerful, meaningful in my younger days but are no longer so… but books I have yet to read cannot fall into this category. Do I buy books on spec, and then the moment passes? But that’s something I’ve always done. Is it a phase I’m going through, or is it going to be like this from now on – no more new novels?

I’m curious to know if this is a phenomenon shared by any other of my older male readers (though I don’t know how many of them there are!) and would be interested in their thoughts. And then I cheered myself up by remembering how much I’d waited for and enjoyed the new Philip Pullman, and to which I will be going back very soon…

Reading and not writing

October 17, 2017

I’m not often brought to a halt by something I read, but this happened as I was reading Diarmaid MacCulloch‘s Reformation, and it was the question of a separation between being able to read and to write that brought me up short, and led to a length discussion with my other half, who, as a retired primary school teacher, was exactly the right person to have at hand…

I’d been familiar with the idea that, until the early Middle Ages, reading had not been a silent activity, that is that a person when reading would vocalise what s/he was reading, either silently or aloud (which of course slows the reading process down considerably), and that it had been a revelation when it was discovered that this vocalisation was not necessary – one could ‘just’ read, as it were, just as we do now… and children, of course, need to learn this, or realise this, or perhaps they just pick it up.

Anyway, to me the processes of reading and writing had always gone hand-in-hand; I’ve never separated the two, particularly as, in my experience, we learn to do them at the same time, in the early years of our schooling. I’d never thought any further about this until I came across the idea that a person might be able to read, but not be able to write, and it took me a long time to make sense of this.

It was carefully explained to me that there are various different ways of teaching children to read, some of which lend themselves to learning to write rather more easily than others. And then, there are a whole range of fine motor skills and also secretarial skills involved in the process of writing, which also have to be learnt, and might not be. And then there is the whole question of sentences.

We do not tend to speak in sentences: a transcript of any conversation will demonstrate this. So the units of meaning necessary to writing also have to be taught and learned. Not only does a child need to learn to write in sentences – something which, from my experience as a teacher, a good many never do with any great competence – they also need to work out how to articulate their ideas into sentences before they attempt to write them down. And this is pretty difficult, as primary teachers will testify.

Once I understood this, I realised how the two processes, which are clearly very different, could have been separate from each other in the past: it’s only current educational systems that have linked them together, for convenience’ sake. And then: what does a person actually need to write? If you are a person of any note or importance and cannot write, you can have someone who will do that for you. People in India still make their living as public scribes for those who cannot write, but may occasionally need something written out for them. Perhaps you only need to write lists, or figures. You may need to make a mark to authenticate a document. But do you have a need to write in sentences? And to learn all that complicated stuff?

Then I found myself thinking about the advent of technology, and the difference it may make or be making to these processes. Gone is the need for pencil control and other fine motor skills when there is a keyboard, either physical or on-screen, to produce perfect, identical letters for you. And I suppose a grammar checker – bane of my life – can help you identify when you haven’t formed a proper sentence. Spellcheckers can allegedly help with correct spelling, although I used to remind students that a spellchecker is only as intelligent as the person using one. But technology can’t frame proper sentences for you: you have to be able to structure and articulate what you want to say first…

I’ve often wondered why there hasn’t been that much progress in ‘speak-write’ technology (even Orwell had it working perfectly in the Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-four), and I can see that apart from removing the need for any keyboard skills at all, it will not advance the work of a non-writer any further than we have currently progressed.

And yet, writing skills are disappearing: many students do so much of their work using keyboards that they cannot write an essay longhand any more, and universities are working out how to allow students to complete examination papers using computers. If your smartphone can contain everything that you might ever have needed pen and paper for in the past, where does that leave the future of writing? I don’t know where we will end up in the future, but I do find questions like these absolutely fascinating…

Pleasures of reading…

March 26, 2016

I can’t really think of anything more enjoyable than reading. The other evening I was home alone and feeling a little under the weather. So I curled up on the sofa with my current book (Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads, since you ask, and I’ll review it when I’ve finished it), put some Bach on the hifi and spent a very enjoyable two or three hours.

I can read pretty much anywhere – on the sofa, in bed, in the smallest room, out in the garden on the bench in the sunshine. If you’re a regular reader of the blog, you’ll know my tastes are pretty catholic. Reading is often accompanied by music, sometimes by alcohol too – a session with a really good bottle of beer is hard to beat. Perhaps I’m too easily satisfied?

I’m also interested in the state of mind I gradually shift into; tranquil, restful, de-stressed but quite alert: I’m often deeply engaged with what I’m reading, thinking about ideas, sometimes pausing to reach for the iPad to look something up that is relevant at that moment, perhaps the book I’ll move on to next. Incidentally, I never thought I’d enjoy having a tablet that much, but it has displaced the need for dictionaries and encyclopaedias, and sits next to me on the sofa, replete with potential knowledge. Sadly, there’s still no replacement for the huge atlas. Don’t suggest Google Earth, it’s not the same. I often make notes on what I’m reading, sometimes for future reference, sometimes as preparation for my next blog post.

When you think about it, while reading, your mind is engaged, often with a kindred spirit, and sometimes with one of the better minds on the planet. And you can commune with someone who has long left it, too.

Sometimes I binge-read. This often happens when I’m ill and laid up in bed – I’ll work my way through several books in very short order, perhaps the same author or genre. It also happens in summer when it’s wonderful to be out in the garden, I’ve caught up with all the gardening jobs and it’s too hot to do anything else. And when I’m away on holiday.

Then there’s the physical pleasure of a new book: pristine cover, unopened pages, virgin territory. If you think about it, there’s something different about the newness of a new book, which you don’t get with other new things in quite the same way. Opening a new CD, DVD (if you still buy those) or a new gadget or garment doesn’t have quite the same thrill for me. A book becomes mine slowly and through quite a different process.

There’s a bit of me that’s uneasy at the thought of all this work and pleasure eventually going to waste, as it were: after I’m gone, all those thoughts, all that thinking and analysis, all those electrical synapse connections or whatever they are in my brain, will just vanish…

On being indecisive

February 14, 2016

I wonder if anyone else has this problem: I don’t know what to read next.

It’s not as if I’m short of unread books: no, there are lots of them, of all different genres, books that I’ve bought because I must read them, even though that ‘must’ was five, ten, twenty years ago… books that were impulse buys, because they seemed like an interesting idea at the time. And yet, I’ll get to the end of a book, reach for another, and I’m stuck.

At the moment, the default choice is travel, but eventually I feel tired of surrogate voyaging. Next is often a novel, but I have to confess to having serious problems with fiction at the moment, and I’m a bit mystified as to why. Novels often seem a bit forbidding, a bit long (there are several door-stoppers waiting on the shelf), and I find myself not wanting more invented lives, if you see what I mean. I’m starting to consider whether this has anything to do with growing older; certainly my appetite for novels has shrunk, and if I do fancy a novel, it’s just as likely to be something I’ve read before and enjoyed, rather than something new; in fact this is more likely to be the case.

I’ve written before about my interests changing. Now there’s more of a restlessness: I’ll surf to while the time away, I’ll do crosswords, I’ll read magazines and newspapers until finally that restless mind (sometimes) settles on a book. Perhaps it’s just cabin fever: I do hate winters, and feeling cooped up and unable to be out and about. But it’s also annoying: I do actually want to read all those unread books…

Reading is a solitary activity…

October 11, 2015

I’ve been thinking about reading, and what it has done to me. Linked in with this is my father’s comment, when I would challenge him about something, using evidence that I’d read, that ‘you can’t get everything from books’.

Reading is, per se, a solitary activity. By this, I mean not that you have to be alone to read, though you often are, but, that by reading you are cutting yourself off to some degree from your surroundings, including other people who may be in the same room. You are not conversing with them, or interacting with them, apart, perhaps, from an occasional comment or observation: otherwise, you aren’t really reading. And, as you have no doubt found, if you are reading and someone interrupts you, it can be very annoying. For me this is particularly the case when I’m working my way through the last few pages of something I’ve been really enjoying…

OK, you may say, nothing particularly new or astonishing there. And you are right. But then, I reflected on how much reading I do, and how much reading I’ve done over the course of a lifetime, and all the things I did not do with all that time, what else I might have been doing. Again, reading is usually in reasonably-sized time slots, though when I’m ill, for instance, I read for hours and hours non-stop (that’s how I read Lord of the Rings in a day and a half – I had flu at the time). So I can’t really say, well, last year instead of spending a total of, say, ten days reading, I could have gone on a cruise or walked Hadrian’s Wall.

But, I feel there are, and there have been, choices involved – unconscious ones that may have shaped the person I have ended up becoming. For, loving books from an early age, there were obviously many times when I chose to read rather than be sociable, or go out to the theatre or the cinema, many evenings when I’ve read rather than conversed. Days when I’ve sat and read rather than gone for a walk or a hike. Has this led to my becoming a rather quieter, more withdrawn and introverted person? Am I less inclined to do adventurous or risky things, when I can curl up safely with a book? Have I been missing out on potential experiences whilst living other, fictional, lives vicariously? Has reading been, if you like, a displacement activity?

Again, I read a lot of travel writing. Has this allowed me to be satisfied with others’ accounts of people and places, rather than making the effort to see them for myself? And, does this matter at all? There’s no point if it does, as rewinding the pages of time isn’t an option. I love reading, and don’t regret how I’ve spent my time: sometimes I just wonder, wistfully, what might have been.

Words, words, words, says Hamlet. Marvellous words, connecting with my mind and my reason, which are for me two of the greatest wonders of being alive. Or am I missing something?

How I read…

January 14, 2015

Now that I’m taking my blog seriously, I have found myself reflecting on what has happened to my reading as a result. Am I behaving any differently from before, when I was a teacher?

I’m still reading as widely, and as randomly as I used to: there will be a series of books on a similar theme or by the same author, and then I will strike out at a tangent. You can see that from the sequence of this blog. I think, however, that I’m applying critical skills more sharply and widely. Studying literature, which I suppose I must date from when I studied English Literature at A level, involved gradually developing skills: this continued as I went to university, and then did post-graduate research, and afterwards went into teaching. These skills originally were focused on my reading of prose, poetry and drama, and involved exploring and understanding how a writer works to achieve effects, and evaluating her/his success. Understanding context was also crucial, at least in the ways I was trained.

These skills have never left me (and I always used to be able to assure students who had taken their study of literature to a certain level and were then moving on to something different, that they had a reader’s toolkit for life), but I now find myself applying them to everything I read, whether literature or not. Evaluating and assessing a writer’s use of the language and their ability to communicate meaning effectively, as well as judging the quality of their argument, is what it is all about.

So now, I’m finding myself thinking rather more deliberately as I read, and often jotting things down that occur to me; I reflect on my reaction, on what pleases or annoys me, and consider why. I have often been asked whether having studied literature spoils my enjoyment of what I read, and occasionally students have complained that analysing and studying a book too much spoils it for them; I’ve never felt that to be the case myself, as no matter what skills or analysis I bring to bear on a text, that innocent first reading is always there, the desire to know ‘what happens?’ and the thrill of getting to the end. Even in a non-fiction text, there is still that discovery of newness, and the wondering whether the whole will contribute in a helpful way to my knowledge and understanding.

I love reading: somehow, it connects me to places, people and worlds I’d never otherwise encounter, and I feel more human because of this.

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