No Time To Read?
When I was young I used to have a framed print of Charles Edward Perugini’s ‘Girl Reading’ on my wall. It’s amazing how many paintings there are of women reading – perhaps because it was considered a genteel, passive image, demure, ladylike and calming. It also suggests virginity or purity; the girl in white, the uneaten apple.
How do we read, physically? The small child lies on their front, calves lifted, feet wiggling, hands on the sides of the forehead, a comic between the elbows. As a child I had a process for reading comics different from reading novels. The comic placed open on the dining table, a mug of tea one side, biscuits on the other; a ritual.
Then the student phase; sprawling, slinking, dangling, the legs raised, the head hanging off a sofa, the book suspended from above, a dozen impossible positions. Experimental novels, angry stories, tales to explain the world. I read walking, in queues, in stations, cafés, waiting rooms, the thought of being without a book quite sick-making.
That’s the physical part, but how do we read? How do we transform marks on a piece of paper or on a screen into images in our head? Each time I go back to a favourite book I imagine it a little differently. Some books change completely according to the age at which they’re read. Our ability to enjoy linguistic complexity changes along with our patience and tolerance. I skip a lot of books I might once have at least tried. There are an awful lot of books on the syntax and origins of writing.
Books describe, but scripts are different. You can always spot good scriptwriters (I’m not one) because their pages often appear completely unreadable. The theatre director Richard Eyre described the writer Charles Wood’s work;
‘His work is not easy to perform. The dialogue is so highly distilled and insistently singular…there is no contemporary writer who has received so little of his deserved public acclaim.’ He goes on to claim that Wood was responsible for the 20th century’s theatrical revolution, not John Osbourne. Trying to read his work on the page is not easy because nothing is what you think it is. For instance, what is Sir Geoffrey talking about?
For a start he’s not Sir Geoffrey, he’s a jobbing actor fulfilling a role, and he’s not discussing the sky but a woman’s black eye. Playscripts are designed to be read aloud. People do not speak as we read, and nor do we wish them to.
Reading demands time and attention and quietude. In our modern world the attention fragments. Victorian and Edwardian books were intended to be read in peace. This typical sentence from the highly readable HG Wells comes from ‘The History of Mr Polly’, a book that disturbed me as a child.
Nothing can better demonstrate the collective dullness of our community, the crying need for a strenuous intellectual renewal than the consideration of that vast mass of useless, uncomfortable, under-educated, under-trained and altogether pitiable people we contemplate when we use that inaccurate and misleading term, the Lower Middle Class.
Today such a sentence would be broken into five bite-sized parts, the better to comprehend it. Henry James takes the unreadable sentence to new heights. But a languid facility with language also marks us out as people with time on our hands. How we used to read is not how we read now because of time, not just education. Here’s Charles Dickens writing to his clockmaker;
Since my hall clock was sent to your establishment to be cleaned it has struck the hours with great reluctance, and after enduring internal agonies of a most distressing nature, it has now ceased striking altogether. Though a happy release for the clock, this is not convenient to the household. If you can send down any confidential person with whom the clock can confer, I think it may have something on its works it would be glad to make a clean breast of.
A person in command of language may use it as a plaything. Joyce Carol Oates is cut from this cloth, painting with words in a way that gives us back time to read. She writes more than many ever read. Like Dickens she is profligate with words but always in control.
In ‘Apeirogon’, Colum McCann writes a multi-faceted novel that manages not to be a novel at all but a rotating tableau vivant. His protagonists are an Israeli and a Palestinian who both lost daughters in conflict and unite to open a conversation between the entrenched sides.
Instead of following a linear development, the author divides the book into hundreds of small sections, each thematically illuminating a detail. I found it wonderful and exhausting in equal measure. It’s an approach Craig Brown takes more lightly and in some ways to better effect in ‘One Two Three Four’, his book about those tangentially affected by the rise and fall of the Beatles. Dare we consider the farcical tragedy of the West Bank against the career arc of a boy band? Why not if they both affected lives?
Non-linearity breaks the time barrier – we can pick up and leave these books whenever we want. Perhaps it could provide a way forward in this time-poor era. It may not be the only answer but it’s a start.