Monday, 10 November 2008

On Reading

Now that things have settled down again, and we are safely ensconced in our new home, I find myself coming back to my natural habitat, which is books. I am never happier than when I am in a library. I feel safe amongst all those jostling spines. Sometimes I get a little frightened, though. There is so much to read, and I shall never have time to get through it all in one lifetime, especially since I am such a slow reader. My husband can plough through a novel in a day, especially when he is on holiday, and has nothing else to do. Whereas I never take less than a week, and always get a feeling of elation at the achievement of finishing when I close the back cover, along with the sense of disappointment that it is all over.

As a writer, though, reading is part of my profession. It has to be. A painter cannot paint without being aware of other painters’ work. Stephen King recommends spending your mornings writing and your afternoons reading, as a way of feeding your muse. I don’t know that I am fit to write in the mornings, but afternoons are certainly my reading slot.

Today I have begun to ‘return to work’ as they say, and spent the afternoon rolling in the unaccustomed luxury of working out what I need to read next, of making a list, and considering my plan of attack for my current projects. I have made a list of the next four novels I am going to read on a scrap of cardboard which I am going to use as a bookmark. It is a hangover from my school days, when the same thing was done. The books in the blue, green, red, or whatever, level readers you were on, were recorded on your bookmark, and then crossed out in turn. It is delicious to score out a title and know that you are one step closer to achieving your goal, which then was to move up to the next level, but now is – what? I suppose that my goal is to cross out one more book on the huge ‘reading list’ of life. Another notch on the bedpost, so to speak.

And where does it get me, apart from the satisfaction of having finished something for a change? Virginia Woolf read for a living, making meticulous reading notes in a notebook which she kept at her side as she read, and then producing from her notes dazzling critical essays for publication in the literary magazines of the time. Her analysis of the Elizabethan poets, of Hardy and Galsworthy amongst others, all informed her manifesto of ‘stream of consciousness’ fiction, the Modernism that she, along with others like Joyce (whose ‘Ulysses’ manuscript she rejected for publication by the Hogarth press, while admitting ‘it has something’) shaped, and which makes possible the literary fiction we read today.

They say there is no new story, just the old ones rehashed time and again. We all write in the context of our peers and those who have gone before us. As women writers, we live in the post –‘A Room of One’s Own’ world, a world which Woolf helped to create. How can we not read, taking that into account?

Another reason why we must read is that if we don’t, we will forget why we are writing in the first place. If we lose sight of the pleasure of what it is to read a good story, then we will lose our own readers. Often writers are guilty of not respecting their readers, Sol Stein reminds us. We must never forget the pleasure of a good book, so that we know WHY we write in the first place.

The final reason we must read is the same reason young artists have for centuries sat before the works of the Great Masters and copied them. It is part of the apprenticeship of any craftsman to emulate those who are Masters of their craft. As writers, we read a book differently. We do not simply say, this is good, we ask, why is this good? And that is the best way to learn.

All this theorising does not clarify my own reading schedule for the coming weeks. There is my ‘work’ reading and my ‘pleasure’ reading. For work, I have embarked upon a programme of May Sarton’s ‘A House by the Sea’, followed by Joanne Harris’s ‘Holy Fools’ and Kate Morton’s ‘The House at Riverton’, and concluding with Jane Harris’s ‘The Observations’. These choices are all somewhat female and domestic in nature, not really what I write, but for quality I feel I shall learn from them. And for pleasure, by which I mean, the stuff I read before I go to sleep at night, I shall plough on with my re-reading of Terry Pratchett’s more recent books, because tthey make me laugh, and you need to go to bed happy.