Monday, 28 July 2008

Reader's Block

Interesting article in the G2 on Friday about Reader's Block.

...we are anxious about not having read the great works of literature. So we buy them to silence that anxiety. We present our purchases to the sales assistant with a superior look, and then cry a little inside on the bus home as we realise that we are now going to have to read the monstrous things in the bag on the seat next to us, some of which seem to be in foreign languages that we never took the trouble to learn.

But we only rarely overcome this anxiety. Hence reader's block. We start (War and Peace, Proust, Goethe, Anne Enright's Booker-winning The Gathering), but we don't finish: we leave them on page 42 in the loo, a constant reminder of our lack of resolve. That, incidentally, is why there is a global shortage of bookmarks.

Despite my appearance as a fervent bibliophile, I know this phenomenon very well indeed - suffered from it, in fact, for much of my teenage years. From being a precocious, voracious reader as a child, by the age of thirteen I found it difficult to commit to any book beyond the least challenging (although with characteristic and embarrassing intellectual snobbishness I wouldn't touch anything remotely pulpy - no Babysitter's Club, no Goosebumps, no Point Romance, no Judy Blume, even). This went in cycles, with six months of struggle followed by a period where I read everything I could lay my hands on, with the hunger of a person who hasn't eaten for days, and about as much discrimination. Even now, my reading is sporadic at best, because the last thing I want to do when I've spent all day in the library is to settle down with another book, and even in the holidays, I tend to waste my days reading blogs and watching tv on the internet (never daytime tv - see previous parenthesis on intellectual snobbery). Not because I intend to, but because once I've started it's hard to stop. Like chocolate.

In fact, I've come to the opinion that reading is very much like exercising. As in, you have to train for it. No-one would expect someone to run a marathon without training for months and drinking those scary energy shakes and mainlining carbohydrates. So why are we expected to be able to dive straight into Crime and Punishment and read it comfortably, beginning to end, no problem, thank you very much? Penguin published a bookmark for War and Peace on which was printed a glossary of the names and potted biography of all the important characters who appear in the book; that this was even contemplated shows how difficult the thing is to follow - no one printed such a bookmark for Winnie the Pooh, did they?

The fact is, to get to Tolstoy level, or Dickens level, even to get to Austen level (which, in the case of Emma, I still have yet to achieve), takes work. It takes adjustment, familiarity with a more complex syntax, unfamiliar vocabulary. It takes time and energy. We recognise the difficulty of reading a novel written in dialect - Trainspotting, say, or Londonstani - why not Dickens?* So rather than tackling the marathon head on, one must first run round the block; warm up with "easier" books and progress slowly to the harder, maybe with so-called "modern classics". After my GCSEs, I read Brideshead Revisited and Catch-22, making the most of my academic fitness, and having worked up to it by reading Vile Bodies (a similarly excellent Waugh book, in my eyes, and always sidelined).

The article includes six tips to beating reader's block from National Literacy Trust director Jonathan Douglas, all of which I'd recommend, all of which have worked for me. It's always worth giving up a book you're strugging with - it doesn't mean you're a failure, it just means the book isn't right for that moment. I had to start Wuthering Heights three times, before my interest was caught. And then I couldn't put it down.

Moreover, I resent any implication that unless you're reading Dostoevsky you're somehow Not A Proper Reader. My mother and I had a recurring argument for about seven years about how I didn't read "properly". Never mind that I wasn't out getting drunk or impregnated, she couldn't bear it that I wasn't devouring the classics. The classics bore me, quoth I, with the sweeping generality characteristic of teenage opinion. She practically disowned me on the spot, and I'm sure that my Professor of English grandfather was turning in his grave. I've moved on since then, and I romped through North and South last term (yea, verily, during termtime!) but that opinion remains only marginally unchanged. It currently stands at "Many classics bore me". But I feel fairly certain this will change as I grow up, although perhaps only if I keep myself in training. The signs are good: after all, the classics I've actually managed to get through are almost all now on my Favourites list - Middlemarch, Persuasion, Jane Eyre, Grapes of Wrath and so on. That they are scattered among Melissa Nathan's The Nanny, Eva Rice's The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets, and everything written by Terry Pratchett, or that His Dark Materials is counter-balanced by the Georgia Nicholson books by Louise Rennison, is neither here nor there. Leaving aside the fact that those books are excellent (and I will expound on why at exhaustive length given the slightest encouragement, so don't let me start), reading them keeps me in training for tackling the harder stuff, gives variety, and quite simply, is a lot of fun. Better to read a Georgette Heyer than nothing at all. But it's also worthwhile to give a "classic" a bash now and then, if only to see if you can do it. After all, you may surprise yourself, as I have, and discover a favourite for life. Or not, but at least you tried - and will be in good company.

*At least everyone admits Ulysses is virtually unreadable.


  1. I couldn't agree more. And I'm with you on the snobbery - I refuse to read anything with a Richard and Judy bookclub sticker on it, having once read The Shadow of the Wind, which is the biggest load of tripe written since Jordan 'wrote' an 'autobiography'.

    (That said, you missed out on the ol' Judy Blume. Cracking.)

  2. Like you, I went through a phase starting around my early teens, when I would alternate between reading loads and reading virtually nothing.

    I'm also guilty of a certain amount of literary snobbery: I have never read (and will never read anything by that ex-politician J.Archer!

    Shakespeare is one author I feel I somehow ought to read but I still have a block about him. (Him and most of the other 'classic' authors.) My aunt (now sadly no longer with us) owned a Complete Works of Shakespeare (and loads of other classics) and seemed to have read them, too; at least, she used to know all the answers if they came up in crosswords. Me? Can't even bluff my way through. Ain't that shocking?

  3. Absolutely spot on. I am still, in my (ahem) 'middle years' trying to get over my reader's block of Proust. I'm having another go at the moment, and although I'm enjoying it much more this time, I have to intersperse it with plot driven stuff. Snobbery does not prevent my compulsive reading of anything within reach, my sons' trashy thrillers included, but it does prevent me telling you what they are!

  4. I was one of those odd children that went straight from Swallows and Amazons into Dickens. I'd had Dickens, Austen and Bronte on audiobook, so I knew the stories, which made reading them that much more appealing and easier, I think.

    I also have a snobbery with regard to books. I somehow want to read things less if everyone else is reading it, perhaps because everyone else in the world wanted to read the Da Vinci Code, and look how that turned out - hours of my life I'll NEVER get back!
    I will buy things with Richard and Judy stickers, but I normally *want* them because I've seen them mentioned somewhere else (the Booker lists, or Andrew O'Hagan's column, or something), and then I question that want when I see the sticker, and wonder, 'can it really be worth it' - and then pick it up on 3-for-2.

    Like you I read in fits and starts - I read history all day, so when I go home I watch TV or a film, or play on the internet, and don't read. Much of my reading, especially of the "classics" that part of me thinks I should read, and a lot of me wants to, because I've enjoyed other stuff by the same author, is done on holidays and travels. This is because they are often Big and Will Last. So I read Anna Karenina in California (and The Name of the Rose, actually), Crime and Punishment and Don Quixote in Uganda, War and Peace in Greece, and I took The Brothers Karamazov to Japan (but since I completely failed to finish Pynchon's Against the Day it didn't get started). Things by Austen and Gaskell are more likely to get read at home, because they're shorter.

  5. Hannah - I have read one vvvg book from the R&J Book Club which you SHOULD read - How To Talk To A Widower by Jonathan Tropper. Marvellous book, funny and terribly sad, about a guy trying to cope with losing his wife and looking after his teenage stepson. Brilliant. Maybe if I bought it for you and quickly whipped off the sticker? :D

    Also, I quite like the Shadow of the Wind, but I did read it pretty quickly. It was that or look out at the Outback. AGAIN.

    The Frumplingtons - (Hello!) Nope, won't touch Archer. Awful man. But Shakespeare - much more difficult than people admit. Horrendously so. I know the stories of most of the plays, but the only reason I know any of them in detail is because I was taught them very very well at school. Otherwise, I wouldn't have a clue. I think the only way to love Shakespeare is to see it performed well.

    Swiv - I'm terrible at reading Big Stuff on holiday. Sometimes it works, but sometimes it's just all too heavy and I want something happy to read instead...