Sunday 18 November 2012

Bookish Epiphany Part 1: What the hell happened to my reading?

Sometimes a post really needs to be written.  On this blog there have been very few such posts, but they have all been written from the heart, with total and complete honesty, and have received some fantastic responses from other people who have found themselves in a similar predicament, or are simply reaching out with advice and kind words.  This is one of those posts – a set of posts, in fact, or it’s going to get stupidly long - because it comes from the kind of epiphany that is going to completely change the way I read.  Here’s the crux of the matter – I used to read very differently to the way I do now.  And I used to enjoy it an awful lot more.

These past few weeks have left me with plenty of time to think.  Time to reflect.  Knowing that we’re moving house soon has a tendency to do that to a person; you start to consider everything in your life in a different way as you prepare to make a fresh start.  Done right, this ends up stretching across the entire spectrum of your existence, from the objects in your room to the books on your shelves to the very way you live and work on a day to day basis.  As I’ve started to think about all these things, something has been bothering me.  My reading.  My approach to the internet and television.  The way these things work themselves into my life each day.  And so I decided to go back and study the way I used to read, the way I used to interact with media, and how I felt about that reading and that media then compared with the way I feel about it now.  

Okay, bear with me here...  To really understand how things have changed and what that means, I’ve gone right back to the moment I decided I wanted to be a literature student.  I hadn’t taken English Literature as an AS Level – looking back now, I wonder why the hell not – but during a visit to Sheffield University, standing in the middle of the literature section of their library, surrounded by tattered old Bronte and Dickens hardcovers, I realised I HAD to take those exams.  I just had to.  In my single-minded way, I volunteered to take the AS and A-level courses the same year, combining classes with extra tutoring to complete everything in time.  I loved it!  I was in my element.  Over previous years I had devoured other texts in the classroom – Macbeth, The Outsiders, Of Mice and Men, A Kestrel for a Knave, Romeo and Juliet – and now I did the same all over again, sinking deep into the exquisite language of Measure for Measure and Othello, and soaking up the cadences of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  The only book I didn’t like was The Color Purple, which just didn’t click with me.  The rest?  Brilliant.

The following year I went off to York University as a combined English/History of Art student, and the love affair continued.  I adored most of my literature modules.  I ultimately decided to switch courses, but this was more to do with the way the course was structured (and staffed) than the literature itself.  It didn’t seem right to me that combined course students routinely got lower marks, got their last choice of modules, and that we were forced to spend ridiculous amounts of time (and money) on certain pet topics according to the mysterious lottery that formed our tutor allocation.  The last straw came when I got landed with a Joyce-addled, Ulysses-obsessed sociopath of a professor determined to make us splash out on his expensive version of the texts we were studying; that was it for me.  Over and out.  But before this, I HAD enjoyed, for example, John Bowen’s lively lectures on Dickens, and listening to John Barrell (or ‘Santa’ as we knew him) passionately extolling the virtues of his favourite literary greats. I picked apart one of Keats’ Odes for a tutorial and spent a seminar debating whether Fanny Price was, in fact, a ‘wet lettuce’ or actually just a nice person.  It was great!

In between days at the library and nights frantically writing essays, fuelled by chocolate, Red Bull and cigarettes (a habit I’ve put behind me, kiddies, before you gasp and tut), I kept my personal education ticking over in other ways.  I used the university library to track down books on topics I wanted to know more about, just for the hell of it (a photographic exploration of flamenco, for example, and lots of books relating to consumerism and marketing).  In the evening I’d switch over to documentaries on literature and history on BBC4, watch amazing movies just because they were there, and geek out big-time with my then-boyfriend Adam ploughing through box sets of Charmed, Mythbusters and Stargate SG-1.  And I’d read!  By the river, while Adam was playing video games, in the college cafe, wherever.  It was what I did.

Now, fast forward to 2012.  What exactly do I do with my time now?  Well, I work, yes.  But that really takes up no more of my time than cramming for tutorials or reading swathes of criticism ever did.  Less, in fact, since technically my working day is basically seven hours of sitting doing whatever I want, punctuated by admin.  Unless it’s a REALLY busy day, there are only so many sales, customer requests, questions, shelf-filling duties and so on to be done.  I’ll freely admit that I find it harder to read in public now; I get distracted far more easily, perhaps because of my tendency to keep one eye on my customers and one eye on my book.  Instead I usually take the lazy way out and allow myself to get pulled down the rabbit hole that is the internet, where I can spend an entire day trawling Pinterest boards for fun stuff, or article hop for three hours, or skip from blog to blog until I finally hit a distant end point, only pausing for breaks every time a customer approaches or it’s time to make more coffee.  It’s just too easy.

And what about the rest of my time?  My mornings, until we leave at 9:15am to get to the shop?  My evenings, when we get home at about 5:30pm and start winding down?  Well...  I do try to read a little in the morning.  Quite often I’ll sit on my bed, or on my bedroom floor, sipping coffee and munching a chocolate chip muffin for breakfast, waking up gently with the help of caffeine and my book.  This can topple anything from five to twenty-five pages or so, I suppose, before it’s time to get off my ass and finish getting ready.  On other days, however, I’ll turn on my laptop and catch up on a few blog posts from the last 24 hours, or watch something on iPlayer, or video-hop on YouTube. 

After work the possibilities are even more tempting – but no matter how often I tell myself that tonight I’ll settle down and read for a few hours before bed (at university I would often read until I fell asleep), or get everything done so that I can watch a great movie, this never actually happens.  Part of this, I’m sure, is due to the change in my routine.  At university I regularly went to bed at 2am and didn’t get up until well gone 9am for breakfast, which clearly isn’t good form when you’re working.  These days it’s more like up at 6:30am and in bed by 10:30pm – but all that really means is that my time has shifted slightly, right?  So why do I always wind up watching the same comedy episodes over and over on E4, or getting dragged back down that internet rabbit hole, instead of doing what I really want to be doing?  Every night I hit 10pm and think, “What have I done with my evening?  Where the hell did that time go?” 

Okay, this is getting rather long, so consider this Part 1 of my Reading Epiphany.  The next part(s) will get to what I really wanted to talk about – that is, what my reading used to be, how it has shifted, and why, and what I need to do about it to get my passion for books back again. 

Thanks for reading this far – and do comment if any of this sounds even remotely familiar, it’s always reassuring to know you’re not the only one!