I have to confess a problem. I have been writing for dontreadtoofast.com since its beginning – in fact I was one of its a Co-Founders and am one of its Editors. I have been an avid reader for several years (since my last year at university before which I did what was necessary). To my mind, reading is about personal development, a source of mental health and strength, just as running or walking or going to the gym are sources of physical health; physical strength. But recently, I have not been reading, or at least not well. There is a small pile of books with dog-eared, bookmarks poking out of their tops which lie unfinished in my bedroom. Among them The Tin Drum, Molloy, The Magic Mountain, Thinking Fast and Slow. The list is gently lengthening. The time I spend reading gently decreasing. The pleasure I derive from forcing myself to do something for which, in my mind at least, I do not have time nor capacity for concentration, is also on the wane. This is problematic because I am not reading and I edit a blog about reading. But there is also some consolation: I understand what some people mean when they say they do not have time to read. Before my dry patch struck, I was happily cracking along at around a medium length book per week (300 or so pages). It wasn’t particularly straining me to read at that pace but it took a little effort and some organisation. Now it seems a distant and heroic past.
So, I have been thinking carefully about the conditions that have created this new and unproductive pattern of half-reading. My first thought is that I have changed my commute as a result of work. Where I used to spend half an hour on London’s Central Line each day, I take a fifteen minute underground train, a fifteen minute overground train and a fifteen minute bus. Where I once had a linear journey, apt for concentration, I now have a haphazard and broken one, always looking to the next leg, always watching to check that I will make the right train to be on time to my first meeting of the day. My commute is emblematic of the problem, but it is not the problem itself. More worryingly, it is a metaphor for the mental fragmentation that I have allowed in, that I have accepted – thinking about my career, about my short and medium term future, about my family, about my past, about going for a run, about reading a book, that is to say, thinking about life. That is a far more likely and honest cause.
I have increasingly found myself cannibalising my well-read-favourite books for posts, rather than reading new material – no bad thing in itself but worse for being involuntary. I confess to rushing posts out in the evenings or early mornings rather than taking my time to craft them as I like to – which is brewing the idea for a few weeks before pouring it out in a quick rush on a Saturday afternoon in the library. It reminds me of one author interviewed in the Paris Review (forgetfulness perhaps also a sign of the fragmented mind): “If writers let life get in the way, no books would be written at all.”
This brief introspection has forced me to focus on the place of reading in my life – its constance – that delicious boredom that comes two thirds of the way through a book like a silence promising an end as a reward for my perseverance. Perhaps it is the mental equivalent of the sound that mountaineers hear on their way toward the summit – nothing but the blowing wind, the long view back down the mountain and the certain difficulty of the last push to the peak in an atmosphere at times lacking in oxygen. I have not experienced this on a mountain but I have read about it in books.
I am not sure I have broken my patch of ‘reader’s block’ by writing a post about it but I am looking for lessons to take from it. I am not yet entirely overawed by the pile of books yearning to be finished in my room, by the short fragmented opportunities for reading them, by the long list of things to be done before there is time for reading but I feel close. I know that reading is the best of the things available for me to do. For a while it seems however life has kidnapped me; taken me to a place of movement without reading. I long soon to return from it but in the meantime I am hopeful, even confident, that at least some of reading’s reward can be had from the attempt.