Thursday, August 24, 2006

On Failing to Read

Norm cites Nick Hornby as saying 'if you're reading a book that's killing you, put it down and read something else'.

That may be so for some people and some books. However, most people have picked up a book in a bookshop or a library and started to read and taken the book home. And there it sits. By a favourite chair or on a table by the bed. And it is picked up. And the first pages are read. Something happens. The telephone rings. The television gets interesting. What's that music playing? Worst of all, you fall asleep.

Distractions prevent you from being enveloped by the book. You want to read it. You really do want to read it. It's just that you haven't got the time. It's just that you haven't got the energy. So many books to read. So little time.

Last year I bought David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. It's a big, multi-stranded narrative of a world. I carried it in my bag for weeks. I'd pick it up while waiting for Rullsenberg. In coffee shops I'd drink my filter coffee and try and read. I just couldn't concentrate for any length of time. Too much noise. Too many distractions. Just too much everything stopping me.

I was about to give up and blame the book. But then I started reading in a quiet coffee bar in the Djanogly Art Gallery. And I finally got into it. And a damn fine book it is too.

But there are just too many books to read. In "So Many Books", page 22, Gabriel Zaid wrote
"In the first century of printing (1450 - 1550), 35,000 titles were published; in the last half-century (1950 - 2000), there were a thousand times more - 36 million. ... Books are published at such a rapid rate that they make us exponentially more ignorant. If a person read a book a day, he would be neglecting to read four thousand others, published the same day. In other words, the books he didn't read would pile up four thousand times faster than the books he did read, and his ignorance would grow four thousand times faster than his knowledge."
To read voraciously is to gaze into the abyss of the finite when infinity is needed to even approach completion.

Zaid, ibid page 24, goes on to say
"And maybe the measure of our reading should therefore be, not the number of books we've read, but the state in which they leave us.

What does it matter how cultivated and up-to-date we are, or how many thousands of books we've read? What matters is how we feel, how we see, what we do after reading; whether the street and the clouds and the existence of others mean anything to us; whether reading makes us, physically, more alive."

If you're interested in reading and want to read about reading I would recommend "Gabriel Zaid's "So Many Books", Albert Manguel's "A History of Reading", Sven Birkert's "The Gutenberg Elegies", Anne Fadiman's "Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader". There are many more good books on reading, and readers, but that's a good list with which to start. If that doesn't float your reading boat just go and read.

No comments: