Clearly I’m running late on my March reading. The pile of books looks impressive though, doesn’t it? March must have been a good month, for reading. (Okay, the Knausgaard, A Man in Love, stretched over to early April – and here’s my instant response posting on it, that I wrote when I should have been writing this.)
Some of the books were read to external deadlines – the Patrick Ness, Ruth Ozeki and James Meek all had to be written about – and so tended to be fitted around life. They got read in bed, at the desk, in a random chair, always with half an eye on the page count and half an eye on the calendar. Never the best circumstances for reading, and of course that ends up being reflected in what you write about the books. A book review is a particularly clumsy form, a rushed attempt at a pre-emptive backwards glance, a quasi-historical contextualisation before that context has had time to adhere.
Others, though, got read in their own time, those pockets of space that occasionally, if you’re lucky spring up for a book, or around a book, or in response to a book, and coax it into being read, and read properly.
(This is part of the greater argument about the novel as bourgeois object, that it flourished in response to middle class people having time to read novels… which argument goes on to say that the novel is doomed not because of its internal flaws, but because of the culture in which it lives. It’s an argument I think I probably agree with.
It’s not just that television takes up so much of that precious bourgeois time (‘quality time’ – can there be a more bourgeois phrase?) in most people’s lives – think of the rise of the box set as middle class cultural artefact, and of the digital hard drive attached to the TV… people have long talked of having more books in their house than they will ever have time to read. Now, for the first time, people have more television selected and stored in their house than they will ever have time to watch.
It’s not just that. It’s also the replacement of the novel as diversion of choice for the commuter. You’re tired. It’s been a long day at work. Why wouldn’t you want to listen to music, or watch a TV show, or play a game – all on your phone – rather than apply yourself to a narrative, with all the effort that takes?)
Anyway, here are some instances of books finding their moment in my life, during March:
I went with my family to see one of our boys perform a dance piece with his school at a local theatre. I hadn’t booked a ticket. It was sold out. (NB: I had been to other similar events at the same theatre where there had been plenty of empty seats.)
[Insert scene of barely repressed marital disharmony played out in front of parents of children’s schoolfriends here.]
Happily, we managed to find enough tickets for my wife, and other two sons, and ANOTHER PARENT WHO ALSO HADN’T BOOKED IN ADVANCE.
But not for me. I went to the pub across the road. (Readers of this blog who are also parents will be relieved to learn that I was able to see the performance at the end of term school assembly, and videoed it on my iPhone… email me if you would like a copy.)
It was a Friday night. The pub was busy and noisy. A normal, drinkers’ pub, not a family-friendly gastropub type thing, you know, with a makeshift library of books to browse or borrow, and quiet nooks in which to read them. (One of my local south London gastroboozers has a shelf full of Routledge Classics, for crying out loud. Deleuze and Guattari, with your roast lunch and real ale. I must post a photo.)
I bought a pint and found, eventually, a quietish stool behind a pillar in which to read. What did I have in my bag? I had Earthbound, Paul Morley’s contribution to the Penguin Lines collection of short books on the London Underground (see my Friday Book Design Blog on them here). I had skimmed the beginning of it, found it a little dull, but had read good things on Twitter, so wanted to give it another try.
Well, it was noisy, and I was drinking my beer, which does have an effect on you, but as I read the book, I found myself getting tugged into the page. It was a bit like going for a walk along a blustery beach. At first you think the external elements are disruptive – the shifting pebbles underfoot, the air shoving and tipping you off balance like a gang of aggressive teenagers – but in fact it’s the opposite. The external world creates a bubble, in which you can shelter. The wind protects you from the wind.
Earthbound is a narrative essay, which means it treats a topic, or series of topics, but doesn’t proceed rationally, or logically, but allusively, intuitively, recursively. The opening section, which I had previously found predictable and thus boring (Morley recounting his first uses of the Tube, his sense of disorientation, its difference from Manchester’s metropolitan transport system) was in fact the foundation of what was to come. Like the opening theme of a concerto it was interesting not in itself, but for what would be found in it, for the ends to which it could be put.
Earthbound continues in predictable vein – how Morley got into journalism; the link between his own sense of success and development, and London as the place that represented that; of the Tube as the underlying structure that made it possible – but gradually it alights on particular moments and works away them, opens them out.
One exemplary instance is the fact that in 1979 Morley made his usual tube journey work listening to an early model of the Sony Walkman that his girlfriend had brought back for him from Japan – making him probably the first person in London to listen to music entirely of their choice while riding the Tube.
What is wonderful about the excursion that Morley builds out of this fact is not its discussion of music formats, but its analysis of the changes they wrought: “The Walkman was a conceptual product that helped you conceptualize your own life,” he writes on one page, and, on the next, “People started to collect experiences rather than things, and used technology to generate and record these experiences.”
Morley, in effect, is explaining to me exactly how I’ve been living my life since my teenage years. But it’s more than licensed nostalgia. It’s also required reading for any of today’s ‘youth’ who accept digital culture and portable technology as a natural part of existence. It’s cultural criticism as incisive, if not as revolutionary, as anything Benjamin or Barthes wrote, showing “how lived memory evolves into historical memory” as Morley puts it at one point. It’s a telling quote. He’s not just remembering, he’s interrogating how remembering functions.
But then it goes into writing like this:
It remains the line where, a few stops either side of Baker Street, on my own, with no one else in the carriage, as the platform slips away, heading to the station where I change on to another line, another dimension, closer to home, and love, sat amidst incandescent electric light as midnight approaches, I can feel as lonely as I have ever felt, with only the fading, flickering Tube travelling traces I have left behind over the years for company, phantom set into the shuddering window opposite me, just me, moving nowhere fast, as though the light will keep getting brighter and brighter, trapped inside all that immense surrounding darkness, until there is nothing left but almighty lightness and implacable motion, a noise like the flowing of water over rocks, and a feeling that the outside world had drifted beyond my reach, into oblivion, and the next stop never arrives.
Imagine me, sat in the pub, on my second pint, buffeted on all sides by the noise of Catford drunk and drinking on a Friday night, aged 40… and here comes Paul Morley to take me by the hand, like Virgil, or Satan, and show me how I’ve been living my life. And not just that, he’s showing me how it will end, with an extinction that might just feel like how I sometimes feel when a pop song ends (the littler, the littlest death).
Perhaps that’s enough for now. I’ve gone on. What I really wanted to do was see which other of the books from March’s list I can link to the context and environment of their reading:
Freud’s Leonardo da Vinci, read in a café in Forest Hill in half an hour’s dead time before collecting kids from school.
Camila Batmanghelidjh’s contribution to the Penguin Lines, Mind That Child, that I read on the sofa, one evening, with the kids in bed and my wife out: a passionate and disturbing collection of stories from abandoned and maltreated children in London that have been helped by the Kids Company charity. The kind of book that makes you thoroughly aware of the comfyness of the sofa you’re sitting on, the quality of the red wine you’re drinking, the protective shell of the house that allows you to read what you’re reading.
We’re back to the sociological model of reading.
Perhaps we need to break our reading habits. (I remember once standing on a chair to reach down a Graham Greene paperback, opening it to check if it was the one I wanted, and then wondering: what would happen if I stood on this chair, reading, until I had finished the book? Like some saint in the desert… Would it affect the reading experience?)
These books that I mention… Morley, Freud, Batmanghelidjh… can be read in one sitting. They can wait for or find their particular nook in the gastropub of contemporary middle class life to open out into and bloom. For a novel it’s harder. A novel, by definition, is a book you have to fit around your life – and there is so much that is great about that, that a novel opens up a continuum in your life, an invisible narrative that tunnels alongside you, keeps pace with you, while you get on with other things, like that second tube tunnel you catch glimpses of out the window, running in parallel, that sometimes, for just a few seconds, holds another train, with other passengers, looking at you as you look at them.
The problem with the picked up/put down novel is that the specific moments in your busy life when you do read can come to dominate it. The book that is picked up for five minutes in bed before lights out is always going to be contaminated by that context. The life affects the book, not the book the life. The cause and effect is reversed, like that thing I read once: that house music was designed to match the needs of the drugs, rather than vice versa.
So, the book you take away on summer holiday, that book can be read properly (2666, Your Face Tomorrow, Omega Minor, A Passage to India, The Unconsoled, Platform, The Elementary Particles all spring to mind). But apart from that, beware.
Stolen from my April reading: two thirds of A Man in Love was read, by myself, in a hotel, a pub and on the bluff above the beach in St Ives. And Tim Parks’ Sex is Forbidden (Friday Book Design Blog here) was read on the train back. An interesting case in point – I dallied too much at the start, and found myself rushing the ending as we pulled into Waterloo, wanting the book to end with its allocated pocket of time, worried that it would get lost without it.
A final thought: does matching a book to a pocket of time mean that the moment actually swallows it up, consumes it, ie it isn’t able to latch onto the rest of your life in the way that a picked up/put down novel does, and so essentially becomes lost? Is there something about synapses and long-term memory that favours extended, interrupted reading, rather than the single sitting experience – which is, after all, the whole ‘selling point’ of the novella?