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.

27 comments on “It’s Not Self-Isolating, It’s Reading”

  1. Debra Matheney says:

    Reading Molly Panter-Downes right now. Lovely vignettes of daily life in war torn Britain are somehow comforting in these times. Her writing is graceful and yet forthright.
    I, too, am appalled at the poor English used. Trump is a perfect example. It saddens me greatly.

  2. Peter Dixon says:

    ‘You’ve always got your head in a book’ was a standard refrain through my formative years – the idea was that I wasn’t doing practical things and disliked team sports to the detriment of my future development. Happily my entirely self-educated grandmother loved reading: romance, detective, horror and science fiction, so as a child we visited shops with a book club where you could pay 3d or 6d and borrow books or comics and then return them and get 1d back, or we borrowed 13 library books at a time. Each.

    I have re-read favourite books (Chandler, Hammett, Wodehouse, Ballard, etc ad infinitum) and find that the whole thing changes after 10 years, 20 years, 30 years; as I get older I appreciate different things in a book – after a third reading it becomes a different version, almost a palimpsest which, together with other reading from the same era, adds a further richness to the story. A simple phrase in a vintage book can tell a more interesting story than a long description of something we already know about. People talk about gaslight but how many remember that gas mantles for heat and light existed in public buildings and shops in the UK into the late 1960’s?
    Its the sort of commonplace detail that exists in cheap fiction but doesn’t continue into literature.

  3. Phil Babbs says:

    Ah – gas mantles. In my local pub there was a working gas mantle that was there into the 1980s. When working there, on a quiet night, we would sometimes light it – an astonishingly stupid thing to do in hind sight! Unfortunately two awful attempts at redesigning have maent the loss of said gas mantle and pretty much anything else worth keeping in the place.

  4. Liz Thompson says:

    Yes, I remember visiting an elderly lady in the late 70s who had no electric. Gas boiler for washing clothes, gas lights. When I called, the gas mantle had broken. Could I fit a new one for her? She couldn’t see well enough, and they were fragile. In my 20s I had never changed one in my life, but somehow I rose to the challenge. So that was at least one day as a civil servant when I could say I had actually done something socially useful.
    So far as books go, I am an addict. I have 14 bookcases in my back to back terrace house. Plus three piles on the table of overflow books. At very regular intervals, I have to conduct a weeding exercise. Books I shan’t read again, OUT. Books I bought but didn’t like the style/ story line / characters, OUT. Books someone passed on, that I didn’t really want, but couldn’t say no, OUT. Mercifully, two good concerns, We Buy Books and Music Magpie, not only buy them from me, they collect the boxful for free! And when they pay me, hey-hoe for the bookshop again…

  5. Helen Martin says:

    I am putting off the day when I have to have the weeding discussion with my husband. I hope it doesn’t end up with “I’ll let you keep that if you let me keep this.” I was told that I didn’t learn to cook at home because “You always had your head in a book.” I don’t see them as mutually exclusive, but perhaps she didn’t think she should interrupt an activity she hadn’t been able to indulge herself. Yes, audible English is definitely deteriorating and that is one reason I value this conversation.
    Heard a clip from a 1950s interview this morning and was astonished at the upper class accent of the interviewer, a Canadian. The interviewee was a long time friend of the painter Emily Carr (and you really should have gone to her show, Chris; she was jolting the way the painters of the American Southwest were) and her accent was even more English than the interviewer’s. I had thought we had all developed Canadian accents by that time.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    Oh, and in L. Frank Baum’s book the slippers were silver so we are definitely attuned to the film images. The Pear Tree makes the events seem as immediate as any modern true crime story. I must read it again. The wall around the navy yards is quite startling but understandable under the circumstances, just not a pleasant neighbour.

  7. Martin Tolley says:

    Mrs T and I did some weeding about ten years ago. A whole wet weekend in January. Agreed on 6 out of the first 500, well 4 really, I gave in about 2 of them. That took until mid morning Sunday. We haven’t tried since.

  8. Ed DesCamp says:

    Tangential but I have to say how wonderful this blog and the usual gang members are. I’ve been struggling to catch up (and being quarantined for a fortnight should do it, as I’m up to June of last year now), and I just finished reading the Dream Casting entry and subsequent comments. Snowy’s reimagining of the canon was outstanding, and everyone brought excellent casting ideas. I shall lurk here until the end of my days! Thanks, Chris, for attracting and engaging with such wonderful people!

  9. Jan says:

    Yes absolutely Ed! Nicely put!

    Could I add that I really would like to thank Mr. F for doing this blog. You said it very well there Ed a really nice thing to say to Mr. F. which I wholeheartedly second. Thanks Chris.

    This blog place of the Fowler could become of an importance he could In no way have initially envisaged for some time into the future. In the next few months it may become a really very important place for us all, to be a part of this type of community. A haven for a motley bunch in what could be a few difficult days.

    Here Helen I was told once that a big thread of the Wizard of Oz was that it is partly a sort of odd financial parable almost that America should have linked its dollar to the value of silver. I can’t remember the full details of this theory. Of course Baum and his family lived through the 1920s financial crash. So along with the other homespun homilies he was saying something to an audience in the USA who at that time would have been more aware of what he was driving at and been much more familiar with the financial arguments. Follow the Yellow brick road was an entreaty to stick to some fixed standard for the dollar perhaps?

    That’s why Dorothy’s slippers were Silver to illustrate this link with the dollar. If course silver did not work on film and the ruby slippers took their place!

    I love all the stories around the Wizard of Oz. How many of the tiny people employed as dancers in the film got as drunk as skunks at the premiere- mayhem abounded apparently.

    The way “Over the Rainbow” turned into this little song for equality for gay people. That because of the film the whole idea of the “rainbow” symbol was formed. Isn’t it proper weird how things work out? Who knows what will become culturally significant? Funny old world.

  10. davem says:

    Glad to see JG Farrell in the picture at the top … he wrote 3 great books … such a shame he died young.

  11. admin says:

    Farrell died in a fly-fishing accident – up there with Joe Orton’s death for posing a ‘What if they’d lived?’ question.

  12. Andrew Holme says:

    I seem to have landed on Shirley Jackson at the moment, after re- reading ‘The Lottery ‘ for WBD in school. What a reminder of how a very short story should be written, the sense of unease at the beginning building to a relentless and logical conclusion. I dug out ‘Just an Ordinary Day’ the collection of stories published after her death. It opens with a lovely vignette on the meaning of fame, which made me laugh out loud. I’m doing 15 – 20 pages of ‘The Mirror and the Light’ every evening. It’s gorgeous. Sigh.

  13. It’s good to have a friendly place to visit especially in difficult times.

    Concerning Farrell’s accident, fishing is the UK’s dangerous sport.

  14. John Griffin says:

    Clocked in this lunchtime and relaxed into another world away from exams and viruses. Thank you Admin.

  15. Brooke says:

    Inarticulate or not well educated? Recently heard:”Use the entrant to the emergent room,” from nurse at hospital; “It’s our privates policy,” from bank clerk. I won’t repeat a phrase of a reference librarian.

    “Discernment in speech and the printed word only comes after prolonged exposure to said words.” How is this true? What happens if the prolonged exposure is to nonsense? E.g. Rap.

  16. John Griffin says:

    It is also a product of the auto spellcheck generation, the ‘cud of’ kids.

  17. Jo W says:

    # Ed DesCamp
    Ooh, am I a member of a gang? Please, no one tell the fuzz or I might be turned over, searched ( no, ok, leave that, I may enjoy it,)
    I had quite a shy time growing up, no chance of being in a gang, apart from being on the fringe of one of my bruvvers’ mobs.
    My name is Jo, I’m a member of a gang! Thanks Ed!

  18. eggsy says:

    Welcome Ed, and don’t just lurk – your fourpenn’orth will be appreciated. I did the catchup thing a few years ago after stumbling across The Victoria Vanishes in Oxfam. Many hours spent in that particular rabbit hole (if work didn’t want me to be doing that, they could disable internet access, couldn’t they?). Another suggestion to while away the isolated hours.
    If we’re a gang, does that mean Admin is our own William Brown?

  19. Roger says:

    “I was told that I didn’t learn to cook at home because “You always had your head in a book.” ”
    Better than ending up having your head in an oven, Helen Martin!

    Bimetalism – a combined gold and silver standard – was very important as an economic campaign in the late nineteenth century, especially in the USA, Jan. There were popular campaigns for it. US presidential campaigns were fought on it. The gold standard was regarded as a Plot by the Wicked Rich. William Jennings Bryan – when he wasn’t opposing the theory of evolution – stood against McKinley (who won) on a policy of bimetalism in 1896.
    I don’t know this via economic texts, but through the poem “Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan” by Vachel Lindsay, which begins:

    In a nation of one hundred fine, mob-hearted, lynching, relenting, repenting millions,
    There are plenty of sweeping, swinging, stinging, gorgeous things to shout about,
    And knock your old blue devils out.

    I brag and chant of Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan,
    Candidate for president who sketched a silver Zion,
    The one American Poet who could sing outdoors,
    He brought in tides of wonder, of unprecedented splendor,
    Wild roses from the plains, that made hearts tender,
    All the funny circus silks
    Of politics unfurled,
    Bartlett pears of romance that were honey at the cores,
    And torchlights down the street, to the end of the world.

    I haven’t got round to culling my books, but I’m actually reading all the ones I was going to read one of these days and I’ve almost stopped buying them. It makes going out very complicated. There are streets I daren’t go near and central London is a definite no-go area, even now. If I got into the basement of Any Amount of Books by repressions might erupt dangerously.

  20. Helen Martin says:

    Wasn’t it Bryant that “refused to be crucified on a cross of gold”? Of course McKinley was assassinated at the World’s Fair.

  21. Jan says:

    Thanks for that Roger it’s was sort of something I half remembered from somewhere.

  22. Ian Luck says:

    Debra – Rather amusingly, a BBC Radio 4 show gave a speech expert several excerpts of Trump speaking, and asked for an analysis. The expert’s opinion was that Trump had a tiny vocabulary, and spoke less eloquently than an average 15 year old, and often used words incorrectly, and often mispronounced them.

  23. Wayne Mook says:

    Remember youngsters use language to baffle and hide their intent from adults, slangs and trends of words change all the time. being Mancunian and working class I’ve been told people can’t understand me; I guess that is why I work on the phones as a civil servant most of the time.

    The loss of language has been bemoaned ever since I can remember, I find we can understand others increasingly, which is a good thing. Although when people say LOL, I always think Lol Crème of 10cc, now there was a Stockport band of note, Strawberry Studios weren’t forever.

    I’ve just got rid of a load of books, nearly 300, the read books under the bed, oh the dust. The charities of Chorlton has been inundated.


  24. Ian Luck says:

    Wayne – Strawberry Studios has suffered the fate of most interesting buildings – and I maintain that Strawberry is culturally important, too – it has become flats. It was opened as a studio for a weekend a year or so ago, to show people what it had been. I do hope it’s haunted by echoes of at least a few of the incredible talents who passed through it’s doors. Martin Hannett having a meltdown, must have imprinted on the fabric of the place at least.

  25. Wayne Mook says:

    I agree Ian, apart from the Beatles the north west seems to ignore most of its musical heritage.

    It was the 50th anniversary of Johnny Kidd’s death near Bolton a few years back, my friend went but he said nobody else did. Ho hum.


  26. Ian Luck says:

    Phil – did you know that the fabric part of a gas mantle is quite radioactive? The material is impregnated with radioactive salts of Thorium. I only found this out recently, and was simultaneously fascinated, disturbed, and impressed by this.
    I found out on the youtube channel of ‘Big Clive’, a Scots electrical wizard, resident on the Isle Of Man. He was demonstrating some radioactive medical quackery bought on ebay.

  27. Rupert says:

    I teach Was, with Wizard of Oz, on a university module about writing back to, and remixing/sampling, texts. The students tend to read Was as a 1980s history lesson of the AIDS crisis mor ethan anything, but they like the contrast with Bauman. Ryman’s other books are well worth a read too.

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