It’s Not Self-Isolating, It’s Reading
How many times in your life have you been called anti-social for reading quietly in a room? Or being told you’ll hurt your eyes, you need to go for a walk, get some fresh air, stop stuffing your head with ideas? Well, nobody’s saying it now – it’s the most enjoyable part of the new locked-down world. Reading builds your interior life, something that’s very important to Britons because except for the odd spot of organised sports we are fundamentally indoor people happier developing ideas than muscles. Nerd nation.
The trouble is, we’re evolving away from gregarious gatherings. According to John Cary’s ‘A Little History of Poetry’ verse functions in a part of the brain that’s shrinking – the area connected to our past. We need speech rhythms to develop cognitive skills. COVID-19 may have come along at the worst time, when the generations are evenly split between those whose communication abilities rely on being around others, and those who shun all forms of personal interaction. Literacy is not reading intelligence. Discernment in speech and the printed word only comes after prolonged exposure to said words.
I’m astounded by the level of inarticulacy I hear. On TV last night a woman kept saying ‘I don’t patron those places’. I realised she was uncomfortable saying ‘patronise’ because she thought it meant something different. These things seem small to many, but they aren’t to me. They’re more like mine canaries – when they start to fail we need to worry. My one fear in the ageing process is loss of clear communication.
As the world goes into hibernation (still an overreaction, it seems to me, for what is essentially a bad flu year) it’s a good time to reflect on the calming power of reading. I periodically de-clutter and upgrade my library so that it remains a living thing. Gradually I’m weeding out books which are not interestingly written, and adding books which are. This means that quite a few highly regarded classics have been shunted out simply for being Not To My Taste.
Now I find I’m subconsciously searching for present day parallels when reading books like those above. Mollie Panter-Downes’ wartime stories paint a very different picture of the war years. She wrote ‘letters from London’ for the New Yorker right through the war, paying great attention to small details. As she writes it is almost impossible not to find a resonance today.
‘A few cars crawled through the streets (…) while Londoners, suddenly become homebodies, sat under their shaded lights listening to a Beethoven Promenade concert interspersed with the calm and cultured tones of the BBC. (…) and the big houses and cottages alike are trying to overcome the traditional British dislike of strangers, who may, for all they know, be parked with them for a matter of years, not weeks.’
Most of the other choices explain themselves, although you may be unfamiliar was Geoff Ryman’s astonishing novel ‘Was’, less recognised than it should be, a kaleidoscopic look at Frank L Baum and Judy Garland, the Hollywood system and the real Kansas.
What I notice in my selected reading and rereading is how very few of the books I buy are of the moment. I’ll get to ‘The Mirror and the Light’ in due course – it’s not going anywhere, and is timeless, and also a very long read – but for now I’m still catching up with earlier writers. The benchmark, as ever, is the deportment of words, graceful sentences, concision, involvement. Everything else goes out of the window.