Dame Jane Francis is a remarkable-sounding woman, Director of the British Antarctic Survey and Professor of Palaeoclimatology, she was on the radio the other day to discuss the topical subject of self isolation. In her work, she explained, she can spend weeks on research expeditions in the Arctic and Antarctic, in tents, sometimes with only one other person for company. It provides a chance to slow down, she said, gain perspective – and to catch up on those fat books that you haven’t been able to get into.
Ah. We all have one or a few of those, don’t we? A book, dauntingly fat or not, that we’ve been able to make little progress with. Often a novel that everyone else is raving about as it garners glowing reviews, or else a classic work of great distinction. Everyone’s talking about Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, sequel to Man Booker-prize Bringing up the Bodies, in its turn the follow up to Booker-prize winning Wolf Hall… The Wolf Hall, that has sat, fatly, on my shelf for—well, it must be years. No. Can’t get into it.
It didn’t hit me until my thirties. I think it came with children, the distraction of them, the need to be alert for them, less sleep. Less time of course. I have remained ‘a reader’, you might say, but a more skittish one, more likely to pick up books and put them back down again, more in need of light, popular reads to intersperse with the ‘heavyweights’. More prone to reader’s block.
I haven’t really had wholesale reader’s block, the inability to become absorbed in any extended text, but there have been times when I’ve experienced the serial inability to find a book to settle into. I mean okay, give up on the occasional book, by all means—life is short. But there is also a reward in persistence, surely. It is commonly accepted that good literature is meant to be challenging as well as compelling—in the sense that it is more than a passive diversion.
Distraction aside, I think it’s also the sheer volume (pun intended) of choice that makes it hard to settle on one book. In 1450, shortly before William Caxton introduced the printing press to England, one of the richest men and biggest landowners in the country, Sir John Falstof, was said to own a personal ‘library’ of nineteen books. These precious manuscripts would have been written, and painstakingly illustrated, by hand. UNESCO keep data on books published by country, and it estimates that 2.2 million new titles are published worldwide each year – though those data are somewhat out of date, being largely from 2013.
And it’s so hard to choose. We’ve become more reliant on book reviewing. Reviews used to be something we read in the Sunday papers, penned by venerable literary types. Now we have Amazon reviews, Goodreads, Barnes & Noble, literary blogs… All to help us in the agony of decision.
Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s recommended trick was to open a book at page 69 and read that, rather than relying on the opening page. If you liked what you read, then try the whole book. Whether that works for you or not, it’s interesting that it is something e-Books have taken away. We can download or take a peek at the early pages of online reads, but not browse through the whole thing. It’s not just reading eBooks that has removed this ability to peruse but simply buying online, too.
Come to think of it, anecdotally, I think I am more likely to abandon books on my eReader than those printed on paper. Maybe that is my antidote? Give up the reader for a while and be ‘paper exclusive’.
In fact, I am glancing now at page 69 of Wolf Hall… Cardinal Wolsey spars with Thomas Boleyn. I like the line ‘Boleyn turns in a sweep of dark silks…’ Mantel’s descriptive powers are wonderful. Maybe I will…
And maybe soon, many of us will be in self isolation, with more time on our hands than we had wanted, after all. Stay safe.