The following appears at the beginning of an article in The Telegraph about the burden of e-mail:
In the London Library, the natural habitat of the London writer, there are two main rooms where people work. In one, the Reading Room, people do exactly that - read.
In the other, the Computer Room, they tap away on computers.
Over the past couple of years, I've noticed an odd thing. The really prolific and distinguished writers - A N Wilson, Sir Tom Stoppard, Alan Bennett - tend to sit still, reading in the Reading Room.
to which I responded:
The reason "the really prolific and distinguished writers" have so much to write about is that they do exactly that. It's the old principle from Ecclesiastes 3 that there is a time for everything.
They have learned what our parents tried to hammer into us that you can't do two things at the same time to which we responded by sticking a piece of chewing gum in our mouths and walking out the door taking care to slam it behind us of course.
Oh we knew it all, didn't we?
One of the most common pieces of advice given to an up-and-coming writer, other than to write about what they know, which I've already passed comment on, is to read. And here we find old, established writers still doing exactly that. Why? Because writers need something to write about? Partly. But even Bennett, who excels in his ability to make the trivia and minutiae of existence endlessly fascinating, still feels, I imagine, the need to keep his writing skills sharp, and there is no better way to do that than by reading great writing, preferably not your own. But I suspect it is something simpler than that: reading has not turned into a busman's holiday for these men. They still enjoy the act of holding a good book in their hands and turning the pages not knowing what they might contain.
Reading is one of those activities that often gets fitted in. Most of mine has been done on buses and trains clawing back the time. My wife and I even picked where we lived to give ourselves more time to read on the bus. But we all know what Burns said about man and his plans even if we don't know what "agley" means exactly.
The thing is, and this is something that embarrasses me no end, I find reading hard. This is nothing to do with old age hanging round the corner; I've always found reading hard. With a few exceptions, writers like Philip K Dick and Richard Brautigan, I struggle to get through most books. I persist in reading for the same reason that I insist on eating my greens, because I know it's good for me. I just wish I enjoyed it more. Of course, now I'm older I relish the greens I used to have to force down as a child but I still don't take as much pleasure in reading as much as I'd like.
The problem is always the same: subject matter. I find it hard to read something I'm not interested in no matter how technically brilliant it is in exactly the same way as I find it hard to listen to certain types of music. Can I draw the reader's attention to exhibit one: opera. I don't like opera. I don't get opera. I have listened to all kinds of opera from Die Fledermaus right through to Eight Songs for a Mad King and I don't like it. Any of it. Okay, maybe a bit of Carmen. It bothers me that I can't acquire a taste for it but there you go. Sometimes when I'm listening to the soundtrack to Alien Resurrection I skip over 'Priva Son D'Ogni Conforto' but mostly I'll listen to it in the vain hope that one day I'll actually enjoy it. Just don't expect to find me sobbing into my glass of Chianti during the death scene in Tosca any day soon.
I just wish there were more books out there that excited me as much as hearing The Wall for the first time. (Okay, so it's a rock opera – sue me). The irony is that, opera excepted, my musical tastes are expansive; there not much I don't like though a little thrash metal does goes a long way.
There're still a couple of Brautigan novels I've not read yet. I think it's time I broke down a bought one of them for a treat. Thankfully my wife bought me a copy of William McIlvanney's, Weekend, for Xmas but it won't last forever.