‘All my work has to do with books. I teach books, write books, edit books, or talk about books. It is all one thing.’ – Toni Morrison
You triggered what follows.
I read a lot, something like [XX] books every month; last year this added up to a total of [XXX]. Since September 2015 I have read [XXX] books, including A Brief History of Time, Daniel Deronda, Kindred, Finnegans Wake, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, Milkman, In Search of Lost Time and all [XX] of Anita Brookner’s novels, of which my favourites were the [X]rd, the [X]th and the [XX]st. I finished all the books and I didn’t skip bits, which is incredible when you think about By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. I loved approximately [XX]% of them and only hated a few – maybe a [XXXXX] at most.
Now let me explain why the numbers have been redacted.
The first time I was made aware that people don’t like it if you read a lot was at a literary festival. I was taking part in an event about books and reading. When asked by the chair how many books I read a month I replied, as above, roughly [XX]. Over a year that must really add up, said the chair. Well, I replied, I have to read for work, for research, for Backlisted (a podcast about old books), for reviews and even for pleasure because, you know, I do love reading but yes, I suppose it does; and then I said, almost as an afterthought, last year it came to something like [XXX]. And the audience booed.
Making an audience at a literary festival boo you for reading books is clearly some kind of shit achievement
Now. Making an audience at a literary festival boo you for reading books is clearly some kind of shit achievement. And in one respect, I was not entirely telling the truth. In the year in question, I had not read ‘something like’ [XXX] books; I knew it was precisely [XXX] books. Why did I equivocate? Perhaps I sensed at that moment that the crowd was turning against me and it was necessary to self-deprecate as a matter of urgency. But that ‘something like’ was nothing like enough. What I should have said was ‘I don’t know exactly how many! A lot! I don’t get out much haha! Hahaha!’ And the audience, sniffing the air, would have turned its slavering attention to Lionel Shriver or someone and lumbered off in pursuit of where she gets her ideas from.
Photo by Eli Francis on Unsplash
At the end of every month I post a photograph on Twitter of what I’ve been reading. I remove the fruit bowl and the piles of paperwork from the kitchen dresser, stack up the books – it usually is a stack – and take a picture of them; I usually add a line to say which of the books were my favourites; and then I press ‘Tweet’. I’ve been doing this for nearly [X] years. I think I intended it to be a regular bulletin or update for people who followed me because they’d read The Year of Reading Dangerously, were interested in my life as a reader and author of books but who had also had to endure simultaneously many more tweets about old episodes of Top of the Pops than they had anticipated or felt comfortable with. It was meant to be a bit of fun.
Anyway, whatever I intended, this regular update has become something else, or several other things simultaneously, most of which are beyond my control. Some people cannot see the books for the stack; ‘How do you read so much?’, they enquire with varying degrees of politeness. So when a few weeks ago the Sky News presenter Adam Boulton quote-tweeted April’s dispatch with the words ‘Well done. Do you have a job or a family?’, unbeknownst to him he was just enacting a monthly ritual, albeit one that usually takes places on a smaller scale and does not lead to national news stories. (Please note: Adam Boulton read English Literature at Oxford University and does not follow me on Twitter.)
It’s not all bad. People often want to chat about the books themselves
I really love reading. The thing that drives me crazy about social media – about life, in fact – is the presumption of bad faith where none exists. Motives attributed to me for regularly posting, and it’s hard to emphasise this enough, A PHOTO OF A PILE OF BOOKS ON A KITCHEN DRESSER include: lying; boasting; publicity-seeking; ego-boosting; product-shilling; cultural-gatekeeping; trying to make individual correspondents feel guilty about the quantity and/or quality of their reading; and, of course, reminding hard-working, family-loving men of the pleasures they have sacrificed by working hard and loving their damn families, one of which is the reading of books. When they discover I have a job and a family too, that only makes it worse.
And that’s why I have withheld the numbers from this piece. They tend to get in the way.
It’s not all bad. People often want to chat about the books themselves: did I enjoy In Search of Lost Time as much as they had, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is their all-time favourite novel and is it now mine, they couldn’t finish Milkman, and so on. And other people are very nice and tell me they derive inspiration from these monthly visual diaries, these bookworm trails. Which is great and better than being called a boastful, publicity-seeking liar who, by implication, doesn’t love his family. Very occasionally someone will compliment me on the dresser. But when it comes down to it, it’s still a photo of a pile of books.
That something so innocuous can provoke such a range of strong responses is very interesting. How can a quantity of books represent a reproach to some and a celebration to others? To me, as the perpetrator, they are neither. Over the last decade I have tried to be candid about reading and the place it occupies in my everyday life, its frustrations and rewards. These monthly updates are in the same spirit of full disclosure as The Year of Reading Dangerously or the Backlisted podcast. In one respect, they may be construed an encouragement. As W.N.P. Barbellion wrote in his diary (published as The Journal of a Disappointed Man) in June 1916:
‘I toss these pages in the faces of timid, furtive, respectable people and say: “There! that’s me! You may like it or lump it, but it’s true. And I challenge you to follow suit, to flash the searchlight of your self-consciousness into every remotest corner of your life and invite everybody’s inspection. Be candid, be honest, break down the partitions of your cubicle, come out of your burrow, little worm.” As we are all such worms we should at least be honest worms.’
By making one’s reading public, it becomes performative – by default – and that is not to everyone’s taste
The reading I undertook in my [XXXX]ties, described at length elsewhere, affected me more deeply than any reading since childhood. It was neither the number of books nor the impact of individual titles that changed my life but rather the cumulative effect of the process itself. Throughout this period I had – still have – a job and a family. If I can do it, anyone can; the trick is to keep reading. These photos, and the quantities of books they record, are the by-products of that ongoing process.
By making one’s reading public, it becomes performative – by default – and that is not to everyone’s taste. We read a book; we tell other people; they infer what they will. What alters the meaning of the transaction is context. There is a substantive difference between recommending a book to a friend in conversation and publishing an illustrated recommendation on the Internet. But why keep that enthusiasm bottled up? Why hoard it?
What do we see when we see a picture of a pile of books? I am now over [XX] so what I see is time running out. As the novelist Shirley Hazzard recalled of her friend and editor William Maxwell, ‘Bill said that he did not fear death but that he would miss reading novels’. Let’s assume we only pass this way once and that reincarnation, if it exists, offers no guarantee of returning as something able to read books; God forbid I come back as a hummingbird or a TV news anchorman. I probably have [XX] good years left and my eyesight is already failing. There will not be time to read everything I want to; and the difference between reading or not reading Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, say, or Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park or Shirley Conran’s Lace or Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns or Richard Allen’s Teeny Bopper Idol or Enid Blyton’s [X] Go Off in a Caravan – to name but [X] – is making the time to do so. Or die trying, motherfuckers!
Anyway, because I am an honest worm, this is how I read so much. NB. Numbers have been reinstated because I like you really.
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash
I usually wake up at 5am. This gives me about an hour before the members of my family get up for work and school. If required I make them cups of tea and packed lunches. Before starting work myself – which may or may not involve reading a book – I usually take the dog for an hour’s walk to the accompaniment of an audiobook. If I have to commute into London (1 hr 15 mins approx.), I read on the train in preference to watching a DVD, reading the Metro, looking at my phone etc. So that’s three hours reading, minimum, and it isn’t even lunchtime. I like watching DVDs, reading the Metro and looking at my phone too and I don’t sit on the train congratulating myself on not doing those things. But I usually choose to read a book instead; and you can get a lot of reading done in three hours.
When we read a book we love, far from escaping we are being taken into ourselves
In the afternoons I work; again, that may or may not involve reading a book SO SUE ME. If I make tea, do the dishes, hang the washing out etc. again I might do so whilst listening to an audiobook. And in the evenings and at weekends, sometimes I watch Netflix or go out to dinner or listen to music or see friends or visit my mum; and sometimes I go to bed early and read a book, because I can.
Whatever happens I always read 50 pages a day, a habit now so ingrained that it has become practically automatic. I did it this morning before sitting down to write this. Might read some more later. QED.
In an essay on her childhood reading of Tove Jansson’s Moomin books, Ali Smith disputes the idea of reading as an escape, an alternative to life, something that takes you out of yourself. When we read a book we love, she says, when we are fully engaged with it, far from escaping we are being taken into ourselves; and the experience of reading that book will be remembered as a vivid, thrilling part of our life, not as an alternative to it. It is being alive.
Which is how – and why – I read so much.