Tag Archives: Reading

Lines of Life

Our friend Gwyn recently shared his 2020 reading list on Facebook, having scored each book out of five. He mentioned having received the gift of a Heffers of Cambridge book subscription, a bespoke service whereby the bookshop sends a title to the recipient each month. Over the year, Gwyn read those and many more. Perhaps unsurprisingly, subscription services have become popular during periods of lockdown. It’s interesting to see what others read and I enjoy the various social media posts on people’s favourite books, as well as the book club exchanges. For one year only – 2019 – I compiled monthly collages of the books I read, and in August that year, I wrote a post about my book harvest.

The signing

For Christmas 2020, we were delighted to receive a Box of Stories, from Trevor’s eldest, Ellie, who clearly understands our love of reading. It’s a subscription club and as they say on their website, every time you open a box, you will discover an author or a book you might not have otherwise come across or selected. A percentage of their profits go to charities working for literacy.

The selection contained in our Box of Stories

I had already read one of the selection, The Rapture by Claire McGlasson, rightly described by The Guardian as a clever fact-based debut about The Panacea Society in Bedford. Trevor and I attended a launch event at the St Neots Library, organised by Jacqui, the manager of Waterstones, St Neots. After Claire’s intriguing talk, I bought a copy of her novel and went over to where she was sitting, in order to get it signed. As I waited to attract her attention, another member of the audience decided to form a queue from the other side. After a minute or so, Claire looked up, saw me, and assumed I was trying to push in front of the (by now) lengthy line of eager fans. She asked if they would mind her signing my copy first, and they said it was fine, lending weight to the false impression that I had not been there first. Such incidents come back to haunt you.

Solace in books

I’ve always found great solace in books and concluded in recent years that reading, rather than counselling, may guide me out of the emotional torture chamber that my mind had become (needless to say, this had not been brought about by the book signing mishap). For many of us, reading is a form of therapy. In her novel, Possession, AS Byatt describes ‘personal’ readings that ‘snatch’ for personal meanings, and I’m drawn to those lines of life that, as she says, describe the indescribable, taking us out of time and towards not blindness but understanding.

The practice of bibliotherapy has a long history, although the term was not coined until 1916, by the North American Unitarian Minister, Samuel McChord Crothers. The author Ann Cleeves, who created the fictional Northumberland detective, Vera Stanhope, once worked for Kirklees Libraries in West Yorkshire, where the Chief Librarian established a bibliotherapy project, attaching three part-time ‘therapists’ to GP practices who prescribed books. Apparently, literature can relieve chronic pain and dementia. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, bibliotherapy is, ‘The use of reading matter for therapeutic purposes in the treatment of nervous disorders.’ I needed to open what the author, Penelope Lively, called that, ‘medicine chest of works.’ I needed to self-medicate.

Although by this time I was using a Kindle, I was not inclined towards an exclusively digital bookish experience and would put the device to one side and employ various ways and means to replenish my supply of solid, hold-in-your-hand-put-on-your-shelf books, with varying degrees of success. Initially, my strategy was aimless; going with the hype, whatever wins the prizes; making a list and playing ‘pin the book’; waiting for a sunny day and grabbing the book on the shelf with a yellow spine, or a sombre day and going for blue; searching the bookshelves of friends in the expectation of a loan that, frankly, would never be returned; picking up books left behind in cafés.

For some months in 2019, I attended a book club in a gastro pub. With each session I grew more exasperated with our club leader who juggled the scoffing and scrolling when searching for reviews on her mobile phone, but it was worth it. As I re-read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies for this club, I was struck by Ralph’s comforting daydream of his bedtime routine at home, where this seemingly civilised boy could reach up and touch his beloved dog-eared books, and for a brief moment, everything was all right.

Margaret Fuller Ossoli, North America’s first full-time book reviewer (and the first woman permitted to use Harvard’s library), saw books as, ‘a medium for viewing all humanity’.

Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1810-1850) journalist, critic and women’s rights activist.

Over a century later, in 1968, when the late Lithuanian scholar and human rights activist, Irena Veisaitė, encountered an American bookstore for the first time, she realised how much the Soviet government had stolen from her, by making books so inaccessible in her home country. As she would say, “All of those books and the ideas collected in them belonged to me too!”

Irena Veisaitė (1928-2020), Lithuanian theatre and literary critic, taken by Alma Pater

Never imagining what it must have been like to have been so deprived, I have always taken my access to books for granted. Reading defined my universe and helped me to grow. The author, Virginia Woolf, who believed that we all learn with feeling, said that after the dust of reading has settled, we must open our minds to a fast flocking of innumerable impressions.

Through reading, I would gain greater insight into the human condition and find a way of unlocking my own emotional truth and through reading, I would learn to accept what I could not change.

How to remedy excessive day dreaming & get writing

In August I published a blog post entitled ‘Book Harvest’, in which I observed how much I enjoy reading at any time of the day and pretty much anywhere. Whilst this still applies, I’ve found it difficult to concentrate on my reading in recent weeks, due to discombobulation brought about by various happenings on the home front as we accelerate our longer-term plan to seek a new home and studio in Lincolnshire. Things have now settled down and I’m pleased to have completed my book club reading for this month; ‘My Sister the Serial Killer’ (2018) by Oyinkan Braithwaite, ‘A Ladder to the Sky’ (2018) by John Boyne and ‘The First Men in the Moon’ (1901) by H.G. Wells. A broad selection, to say the least. I’ve now started ‘The Rapture’ (2019) by Claire McGlasson, a novel keenly anticipated since I attended an interview with the author at St Neots Library in September, facilitated by Jacqui from the town’s branch of Waterstones.

Rapid Reading

That restless feeling brought to mind a second-hand book I purchased in July entitled, ‘Rapid Reading’ (1964) by Geoffrey A. Dudley, B.A. (b1917), part of a haul from the wonderful Torc Books in Snettisham, Norfolk.

In his rather quaint and dated fashion, Dudley aims to equip readers with the ability to read material of any kind, rapidly and with comprehension, for business, for study or for relaxation. He lists the benefits of rapid reading e.g.

Rapid reading saves time: it enables you to avoid constantly having to renew your library books or being tempted to keep them beyond the allotted time and having to pay a fine when you do eventually return them.

(This is not a problem for me today but when the children were small I did take the liberty of stealing unauthorised extensions to their book borrowing. Violating the library code somehow seemed more acceptable when it came to the supply of reading material for the little ones. The fines, which I paid of course, were stacked up on THEIR library dossiers.)

Rapid readers keep up with the Joneses: it enables you and your family to keep up with the Joneses by showing that you are the equal of any other person who reads rapidly.

(Intellectual snobbery is an unbecoming trait, often exhibited by those who lack scholarly credentials and sometimes by those who don’t. I like to imagine The Two Ronnies practicing one-upmanship in rapid reading.)

The Two Ronnies

Rapid reading gives you prestige and popularity: it gives you a greater opportunity to pass on what you learn to other people. You thus gain prestige and popularity.

(And a reputation as a smart alec.)

Dealing with distraction

Dudley says that before one can learn to read faster one must first learn to concentrate, and in order to do so one must deal with any distractions. These include ‘outer’ and ‘inner’ distractions, loss of interest in the subject matter and a conflict between imagination and will. His practical hints on removing obstacles to concentration include:

  • Satisfy your eating and drinking requirements and give attention to the call of nature before you embark upon a piece of reading;
  • Remedy excessive day-dreaming by arranging one’s life so as to achieve greater satisfaction in reality; and
  • Deal with emotional conflict, which interferes with concentration more than anything else.

Dudley took an interest in self-improvement and in dreams, writing several publications on these topics such as, ‘How to be a good talker: a practical self-instruction programme for effective self-improvement’ (1971), ‘Double your learning power: master the techniques of successful memory and recall’ (1986) and ‘How to Understand Your Dreams’ (1957). His book on, ‘Your personality and how to use it effectively’ (1996) appeals. Many of his books were published as mass-market paperbacks or pocketbooks, cheap editions sold in convenience stores, supermarkets and airports.

Dudley’s readers in 1964 would not have had the additional distraction of network tools online such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter or indeed, email. The American academic Cal Newport admits that knowledge work (which is what I do) is dependent on ubiquitous connectivity which generates a, ‘devastatingly appealing buffet of distraction—most of which will, if given enough attention, leach meaning and importance from the world constructed by your mind’.

Ah yes, Professor Newport. Knowledge workers, or ‘edutainers’ like me, do indeed spend much of our working day interacting with these ‘shallow concerns’.

My son, George, a bona fide knowledge worker, does not use social media at all and introduced me to Newport’s writing by recommending, ‘Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World’ (2016). Like Dudley, Newport declares that the ability to concentrate intensely is a skill which must be learned and regularly exercised. He recognises that undistracted concentration is treated as a habit, like flossing, ‘something that you know how to do and know is good for you, but that you’ve been neglecting due to a lack of motivation’. This implies you can easily switch from distraction to focus, thereby ignoring how difficult it is to focus properly and how much you need strengthen your ‘mental muscle’ through practice.

Spotted on a cafe wall in March, Cambridgeshire, 2019

Dudley suggests we try ‘negative practice’ developed by the American psychologist, Dr Knight Dunlap (1875–1949). This involves setting aside say, five minutes at a time for twice a day, in which you deliberately practice the undesirable habit you want to overcome. When applied to day-dreaming or worry, you should sit down and deliberately let your mind wander or force yourself to worry. As you observe doing this you should tell yourself that you are doing it with the aim of breaking yourself of these habits which impair your concentration. You’re likely to find that if you keep on with this practice you will eventually realise that day-dreaming and worry are not in your best interests.

Dudley says we can break the vicious circle of day-dreaming or worry and turn it into the straight line of positive thought and action. Newport recommends we practice ‘productive meditation’ by focussing our attention on a single well-defined professional problem such as outlining an article or writing a talk, whilst undertaking some physical activity; walking, jogging, showering and even driving. This could perhaps be an alternative to negative practice, by simply turning your attention to a more constructive topic no matter what you’re doing.

For me, as a period of intense work progresses, aspects of the project constantly percolate in my mind, no matter what else is going on. Even with a longer-term venture such as the part-time doctorate I finally completed in 2015, eureka moments were somehow distilled from the mash of daily existence.

Rapid writing

It’s some time, however, since I’ve had a spell of regular intense writing, the last of which resulted in ‘The Curious History of Mazes’ (2018). Having a tight schedule set by the publisher helps to focus the mind. This year I’ve instead been using the extended writing time for reading, and have finished 71 books to date. Although, as we fast approach the beginning of NaNoWriMo, the annual writing fest open to writers everywhere, I’m seriously considering signing up as an excuse to focus on a particular non-commissioned project. I’m booked on the Cambridge Writers HQ Retreat, 9 November, and I’ve listened to a few ‘Preptober’ podcasts on how to approach NaNoWriMo, including advice from the best-selling ‘authorpreneur’, Joanna Penn. I appreciate it’s going to take more than that to reach the standard NaNoWriMo 50,000-word target.

Who am I kidding? No way am I going to write that many words in one month.

Still, at least for the next few weeks I’ll have a better chance of shutting out any distractions caused by the prospective relocation and de rigueur family bickering about arrangements for the season of goodwill.

Good luck to all those participating in NaNoWriMo 2019.

Book harvest

I enjoy reading at any time of the day and pretty much anywhere. I also like to have my dear husband close at hand. Wherever we go, I have something to read and Trevor has his sketchbook. Trevor works on a drawing as I read. That is, if he isn’t carrying my books.

Trevor carrying my birthday book haul in Plymouth, July 2019

Choosing which book to read can be tricky, although unlike people, books that disappoint are easily discarded. As Proust proclaimed, with books there is no forced sociability. If we pass the evening with books it’s because we really want to.

I do read a lot in my spare time, which is also taken up with writing, learning French, running, visiting art galleries with Trevor, helping out the Cambridgeshire Association for Local History and (more recently) participating in Extinction Rebellion activity. But mainly, I read and write.

Having joined one book club in January, and formed another of my own, some of my reading material this year has been chosen by others. For an entertaining piece on book clubs, see ‘Book Club Bust-Ups’ by Stuart Heritage.

At the end of each month I compile a collage of the books I’ve read, alongside a selected quotation from one, which more often than not relates to my writing. The themes are easily discerned. You will find January to August 2019 below.

January 2019
February 2019
March 2019
April 2019
May 2019
June 2019
July 2019
August 2019

These are not reviews of course, and I do need to be more active on that front. A page turner for me is a well researched biography such as John Hunter’s life of Samuel Smiles.

It’s interesting to see what others like to read and I enjoy the various social media posts on people’s favourite books, as well as the book club exchanges.

Here’s to more happy reading and reviewing.