Monday, 7 October 2013

Reading for pleasure: an affair to remember

"The books gave Matilda a comforting message: you are not alone" - Roald Dahl 

One of the most life-altering, on/off, up/down, sometimes difficult - though ultimately fulfilling - relationships I've ever experienced has been with not, unfortunately, George Clooney, but rather...reading. And at the moment, reading and I are getting along quite nicely. In fact, I’d say we’re experiencing something of a second honeymoon, after going through a bit of a bad patch.

People sometimes find that while taking a relationship to the next level – be this moving in together, or maybe even getting married – may be the expected course of action, it isn’t always the best of ideas. All of a sudden, things have changed: got more serious; become restricted somehow; lost a bit of the original fun and carefree appeal. This is exactly what happened to reading and me when I stepped things up a gear and made the decision - second only in terms of seriousness where reading is concerned, I’d say, to embarking on War and Peace - to study English Lit at uni.

I know I know, it’s not exactly rocket science, and I’ll be the first to admit that, relatively speaking, a BA in English isn’t the most testing of degrees (though YOU should try getting your head around post modernism - and no, I still don’t really know what it means). But importantly for me, any association it had previously held with ‘pleasure’ went out of the window when reading became just another of life’s obligatory tasks.

Admittedly, my frequently unwise modular choices didn’t exactly help, and the compulsory ones often only made things worse. Let’s just say medieval literature and I did not get on. This isn’t to say that I spent the entire three years in the midst of an existential crisis, questioning my very point on earth (or at least at the university) – I could recognise good literature when I saw it, even if I didn’t necessarily enjoy reading all of it, and there were some gems that I did like along the way.

But all the same, I started to think that maybe reading and I weren’t really meant to be. One of the blessings of doing an English degree is that you became fairly adept at the fine art of bullshitting – or at least I feel I certainly did – but it became apparent in seminars, as we sat there in all our literary student splendour, sharing our oh so enlightened thoughts with the group, that unlike me, some people had genuinely really enjoyed reading Spenser’s Faerie Queene. And my lecturer certainly must have, to devote his entire life to analysing the shit out of it.

Luckily though, in recent months, with my degree over, and these mildly torturous reading restrictions lifted, I’ve been able to remind myself why I had once thought it was worth committing to what is really, when it comes down it, just words on paper. One of my biggest mistakes at uni, and one which went a long way in my fall out with reading, was to presume that just because my lecturer clearly thought something was an enjoyable read, that I should feel the same.  

And, if I didn’t, that I should somehow see myself as less worthy as a reader, and definitely of less intelligence (though admittedly my PhD possessing professor probably did have the edge on me there). Too many of us are conscious of what we feel we should be reading, and not just going for something we might enjoy. Obviously there are some classics which it is possible to gain pleasure and entertainment from, but for god’s sake, if you’re struggling through Middlemarch and every finished paragraph feels like nothing but a victory over your better judgement - which is probably willing you to pick up the TV remote - just PUT IT DOWN.

Abandoning a book halfway through is still one of life’s last taboos. But why should it be? If you’re devoting your last waking moments of the day to reading something, why bother if it literally bores you to sleep? I'm about to be bold - brace yourselves - and confess that I recently gave up on A Tale of Two Cities. According to Dickens, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, but for me, it definitely felt like more of the latter. I did the usual battling with my English student conscience – Dickens is one of the best novelists in history! Giving up would mean that I was both a failure AND couldn't recognise what is supposed to be some of the best literature of all time. But then I essentially just thought...fuck it, life’s too short.

People look for different things in a book – escapism possibly, and something completely alien from their day to day reality, while others might want something they can relate to; there’s certainly something amazing about seeing a feeling you had previously thought you alone experienced, articulated exactly there on the page in front of you. In recent months, I’ve been experiencing something in the middle - working my way through the novels of women with lots to say (which, if you’ve stuck with me after about 800 words or so, I’m sure you can tell is something I might relate to), but with the kind of success I could only ever dream of: Tina Fey, Lynn Barber, and pretty much everything Nora Ephron ever wrote. Each one of them is incredibly talented and creative and inspiring, and I'm enjoying every word. Yep, things are going well for reading and me – and I really hope it lasts.