I’m feeling a little sheepish. That’s the disclaimer. I hope I can corral my thoughts well enough so that this doesn’t seem defensive.
Andy Miller wrote an article for the Guardian called ‘We are losing the art of reading’*. Distilling some of the thoughts from his book event ‘Read Yourself Fitter’ and his recently released book ‘The Year of Reading Dangerously’ (but not a replacement for either – you should just READ THE BOOK and try to ATTEND THE EVENT) he argues for the renewed pre-eminence of reading, suggesting that there’s a culture of ‘better to speak volumes than to read them’ that denigrates our focus on the activity at the core of ever increasing debate: reading.
I confess, my knee-jerk reaction to the article was a thought that I should leave twitter (just as earlier, when I learned that amazon had bought goodreads, I thought I should leave that, too. This is perhaps related to a profoundly unhelpful tendency I have to ‘rip it up and start again’ which we won’t delve into just now). So Miller’s words have again got me on the ropes, gasping for breath, trying to work out how to avoid being knocked out.
Firstly, the trial. How guilty am I of getting stuck in to the debate about books and reading? Crucially, does that involvement impair the way I read? Of the former, I’m reasonably guilty. I’m most vocal on twitter about books and reading and literary stuff; I haven’t bothered to get into goodreads and prevent it tweeting my book ratings, even though I hate the five-star system; the people I follow that I don’t know are almost entirely bookish types. I’m afraid to say, though, that I’m not sorry about that damning evidence. There are two reasons: feeding the habit – through twitter I learn about books and writers that I might not otherwise come across; community – call me needy, but it really helps to know other people who can empathise about the power a book can hold over you. Of the latter, however, I’m still wondering – can I attend to something longer than 140 characters? Yes, I frequently do. Do I clamour to make my enthusiasm known? Probably more often than not. Do I clamour to make my opinion about a book known? Hardly, but when I do share my opinion, it’s because I can’t not… it’s because the act of writing or discussing helps me discover, or better understand, what I think.
I find the weight of great literature incredibly heavy. It’s enriching, without doubt, and illuminating. But it can also be excruciatingly painful. On finishing ‘A Man in Love’ recently, I was elated and bereft (and I still haven’t found the words to describe this, but I can’t shake the feeling it has etched on my being) – it seemed impossible to live, to continue an existence so removed from the creation of things that matter, to carry on without discovering and then welding myself to a significant purpose. The response is just too much for one person (okay, for me) to bear, and so I tried to reach out to those around me – to my local bookseller, for the book preceding the one I’d read; to my lover, best friend, confidante, to explain why I wasn’t ‘present’; to my sister, to scratch away at how relevant this book was to me; to a very special friend, to share the depth of feeling; to a host of readers, in a bid to start an echo – and little by little, the weight dissipated. But hasn’t, and I don’t believe it will, vanish.
This experience encapsulates how vital I feel a community is. I long to be part of a strong community, one that’s diverse, liberal, thoughtful and equitable: a community that can both absorb and reflect experiences that are too intense to be carried by one person alone. A community that holds a space of honesty and authenticity, that doesn’t hold with pretence or posture – for I’ve never felt that ‘innate human desire to look cleverer than we are’. I’ve benefited from not knowing, from admitting the limits of my intelligence and experience. I’ve benefited from being the stupidest person in the room, on so many occasions. But, though I’m tempted to say that twitter embodies this community for me, it doesn’t, and it couldn’t. I have solitude and contemplation in abundance (I’m working on patience) and I value those things greatly. But I’m acutely aware that those things alone aren’t enough for a fulfilling existence. I’d argue that discussion, debate and ‘speech’ are sometimes as necessary as patience, solitude and contemplation in order to come to terms with a book and its impact.
Perhaps idealistically, I think that the attentiveness and engagement that Andy Miller is lauding when he writes about reading also applies to developing friendships, developing a community. It’s clear that not all forms of discourse are created equal, and a life of surface debate and instant gratification is impoverished indeed. But it also seems to me that the answer isn’t always to disconnect or to think asynchronously. I think we need to put as much effort into cultivating relationships with reading as with people – recognising the danger that this brief and instantaneous ‘social’ age could have on the way we connect with others. Because we might not have all the answers within, we will need to refer to the wisdom and perspective of others (through life as in books) in order to learn, develop and grow.
* I don’t know if Andy chose this provocative title, but I suspect he didn’t chose the tags for the article – ‘Michael Gove’ and ‘teaching’. What? ‘Donna Tartt’ and ‘Baileys Prize’ would be helpful (probably most of those readers need to read this) and what about, you know, old fashioned ‘reading’? FFS