Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 26 October 2014



The best moments in reading are when you come across something—a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things—which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours ― Alan Bennett, The History Boys: The Film

I don’t read in bed. I don’t read on the loo or in the bath. I don’t understand people who do. I think the reason is—now I’ve given the matter some thought, because before I began writing this a few seconds ago I’d hadn’t given the matter any thought—that I don’t particularly enjoy being in any of these places.

Beds are for sleeping in. If I’m not sleeping then I want to get up and do something. Sleep’s a waste of time. I resent how often my body wants to do it and when. For some reason I often get ideas last thing at night when I’ve no time—because I have to go to bed—to do anything with them. Some get scribbled down in the hope I can make something of them later—the best ideas don’t need you to strike when the iron’s hot but will wait for you—but most get lost out of pure laziness. There are few things old age has going for it but the one thing I long for is the ability to get by on three or four hours a night especially since by then the amount of years left to me will be considerably reduced by then and every minute will count.

Toilets are a necessary evil. If I ever got the chance to buttonhole God on the subject one of my top peeves will be how unpleasant the elimination of bodily waste can be. Especially solids. Surely he could’ve dreamed up something more agreeable. But either way it’s a job I want to get done quickly and efficiently so I can get back to doing more interesting stuff instead. I do like the idea of multitasking however. And so I tend to think while I’m on the loo. I frequently get good ideas too whilst cloistered away for those five or ten minutes, in fact quite often when I’m struggling with a problem and have to heed the call of Nature the break proves to be exactly what was needed to provide a solution or at least a new direction.

Baths I don’t take anymore. It’s been showers for years now. We never had a shower growing up and I can’t say I was overly impressed with the whole showering experience when I got introduced to it but now the utilitarian in me likes to get the whole bathing experience over with as swiftly and proficiently as possible. (Yes, I know that’s just another way of saying ‘quickly and efficiently’.) Bathing’s another one of those things I resent. Why when I don’t’ go out of my way to wallow in muck does my body insist on getting filthy? I spend most of my days sitting in a chair reading or writing. Where’s all this dirt and grime coming from? If I did still take baths I certainly wouldn’t read in them. The idea of holding a paperback with soggy hands just upsets me. I look after my books. I don’t turn down the corners of pages or break the spines or take them into rooms full of steam and soapy water.

I tend to read in two places in this flat: my leather armchair in my office or the Ikea Poäng armchair in the living room. I prefer the former if I’m reading a paperback because I have a lamp beside the chair. If it’s an e-book—I mostly read on a tablet—then I’m happy in either chair but if my wife’s up I’ll sit beside her and read. I’m not an especially fast reader. Nor can I fall into a book for hours and hours. I’m always very conscious that I am reading a book. If I’m reading a paperback I always count how many pages are in the chapter I’ve started so I know how long I have to go before I reach a natural stopping point. (I don’t like that you can’t do that easily with e-books.) Forty pages used to be my absolute max. Twenty was typical. Recently I’ve been getting better and I’ve even managed a hundred pages in one sitting but that’s rare. I read seventy-five yesterday and the same today but in two sittings; I was getting tired and had to leave the last fifteen pages until I’d had a nap.

3 writers

I don’t read for pleasure. I don’t hate reading but if I want to relax I’ll watch TV. I read to educate myself. I’ve always wanted to be the kind of person who people regarded as ‘well read’. I don’t think I am. Well, that’s not true. I am well read in that the majority of books I’ve read have been good books—Auster, Beckett, Camus… that’s my kind of ABC—but I’m not widely read. The list of authors I’ve never read upsets me every time I think about it although one has to draw the line somewhere and mine comes in round about 1900. I’ve read virtually nothing prior to the twentieth century apart from the Bible and feel no great pressure to do so. I’ve never picked up a Dickens or an Austen and can live with myself. The TV and film adaptations have filled any gap there.

I do wish I retained more of what I read. I have a bad memory—I mention it often (it’s the bane of my life)—which is why I always write reviews of the books I read—if not on my blog then at least on Goodreads—as a way of reinforcing what I’ve read. What is the point in reading a book if you can’t remember a damn thing about it? I’ve books on my shelves that I read in my twenties and literally all I can tell you about them is that I once upon a time I turned all their pages, looked at all the words contained therein and retained sod all. Waste … of … time. When I was twenty I had time to waste. If I last as long as my parents that’s probably all the time I have left. That’s a sobering fact. Of course medical science is improving all the time and it really would be nice not to snuff it when I hit seventy-five but let’s say I do. That means I’ve got some 7300 days left. Or 1040 weeks. So if I only read a book a week I could reasonably read another thousand books before I die. I should make a list.

When writers are asked to give advice to newbies one of the things they usually tell them to do is read: read, read, read and then read some more. It’s not bad advice but I think it can be overemphasised. Read, yes, do, but do be selective in what you read. You can learn quite a bit from reading rubbish—what not to do, what doesn’t work—but once the lesson’s learned move on. Don’t keep reading tripe. Same with good books. You don’t need to read every book by every author but do try and read something by every author, every major author and certainly every author who chimes with you. This is why I feel no desperate need to read Dickens or Austen. They may be great authors but they don’t speak to me. Stumbling across an author who does though is a wonderful thing. It happens rarely. (It’s happens to me rarely and I can’t imagine it happening to anyone else more often.) You can even benefit from reading authors whose views you’re diametrically opposed to. (See Why It’s Important to Keep Reading Books By People Even If They’re Monsters.)

On 14 October 2013 Neil Gaiman gave the second annual Reading Agency lecture at the Barbican Centre, London. You can read the whole thing here and there’s a lot good in it but I’d like to quote just one section:

[A]s Douglas Adams once pointed out to me, over twenty years before the kindle turned up, a physical book is like a shark. Sharks are old: there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs. And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else is. Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath-resistant, solar operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them.

Not so sure about the ‘bath-resistant’ but other than that I agree with him.

I like books. I like being in a library in the same way I like being in a supermarket. I love looking at all the packaging. I don’t always like what’s inside the boxes or the packets or between the covers of a certain book but I do like to be surrounded by them. The idea of throwing a book away really bothers me and probably the only ones I have consigned to the recycling have been technical books that are now outdated. And even ridding myself of them bothered me a wee bit. I try not to romanticise my feelings for books—they’re only books after all—but I find it hard. I have never known a world without books and I struggle to conceive of one without them even if they do all end up being turned into endless streams of ones and zeroes on some übercomputer somewhere in the distant future. I can imagine a world without sharks before I could imagine one without books.

Of course the Internet is full of lists telling you why you reading is important, Top Threes, Top Fives, Sevens, Eights, Tens but I don’t need a list to tell me why I should eat; I just eat because I enjoy it. Of course there’re reasons why we need to eat but once you start breaking things down like this, for me anyway (who doesn’t have a scientific bone in my body), it takes all the fun out of the thing. I feel better when I eat. I feel better when I read. It’s not complicated. I know that not everything that makes you feel good is necessarily good for you and, yes, reading has its minuses—tired eyes, sore neck, missing your bus stop—but that’s where we need to be grownup about reading.

My mother had a saying (it’s not hers but she made it hers): “You are what you eat” and as I may have mentioned here before in later life she lived off microwave chips so I’m not sure what the moral here really is but if you are what you eat then I suppose it’s just as true to say: You are what you read. My mother had another saying (this one was hers): “I don’t buy rubbish.” And you can see where I’m going here: I don’t read rubbish. What’s the point?

I have a daughter. I mention her periodically and if she bothered to read my blogs more often she’d probably be pleased that I mention her; people do like to be thought of. Before she was born she had a library of over one hundred books. I Tar Babyremember scouring the bookshops in Edinburgh looking for a complete set of Enid Blyton’s retelling of the Brer Rabbit stories—the first books I remember having a real effect on me (especially ‘The Tar Baby’ and ‘Mister Lion’s Soup’)—because I had a single ambition for my daughter: I wanted her to be a reader. That was it. Some parents try to live vicariously through their kids—that was never my intention—but if I have one regret (actually I’ve a list) it’s that I was never a voracious reader. I was never discouraged from reading but neither was I encouraged. I did not want that for my daughter. I wasn’t desperate for her to become a writer although it pleased me that when started writing poems and I have one of hers framed by my bed (one of the few she ever let me read) but it was important that she became a reader. Which she did. Everything else was gravy.

Why read? Why indeed? There are so many quotes I could insert here, pages and pages of them. I chose Alan Bennett to lead off this article because it was the one I related to most strongly but it’s only one of many and there’s some truth in all of them. Do we really need one more? Let’s have a go: Reading is the doorpost we measure ourselves by. Even on tiptoe few of us reach the lintel.

I’ll leave you with that lecture I mentioned earlier:


martine said...

Thanks for this, a very uncompromising argument for the importance of reading. I have to disagree with you on just one point, it was not a waste of time to read things you have now forgotten; they mattered at the time and may still have had an impact on all sorts of things about your life even if the story or characters have faded away.

Jim Murdoch said...

I stand corrected, Martine. No, you’re quite right. It underlines what my mum said. We are the sum of all our experiences even the ones long forgotten; everything counts.

Milo James Fowler said...

I believe we have the same Ikea armchair, sir. I like the spring it puts in my seat. Since I've started pursuing my writing with a vengeance, it's difficult for me to read for enjoyment. I can't turn off my brain when it wants to pay attention to what authors do well and what they don't do so well. Even when I watch TV, I'm either impressed by the writing or annoyed by it. I need a break from thinking.

PhilipH said...

Good post. I do not read as much as I should; tend to close my eyes after twenty minutes as I become tired. But it's so good to read.

My thoughts on education are that all children should be taught how to read (and write) over and above all other disciplines. If you can read you can then teach yourself whatever interests you.

Why force maths, geography, history, sports et al on kids who may just be bored with such things? Instead just get them to listen to you reading them a story. All children LOVE a story. Get them interested in reading one for themselves. Cultivate a desire to read above all else.

One of my favourite authors is Quentin Crisp, the late great "Stately Homo of England". He was such an HONEST person and a brave chap. However, I recall that he once said that reading is a waste of time! Can't believe he said that, but he did. Still, I'll overlook that lapse; I'm sure he meant well - somehow.

Jim Murdoch said...

It is horrible isn’t it, Milo, this urge to reshape everything in our own image? I want to rewrite just about everyone I read. But there are the exceptions, writers like Murnane, Brautigan and Beckett, people with such a unique voice that you know who you’re reading after two or three lines. I love when I come across a text like that. So rare. And, oh yes, the same goes for TV although I don’t so much want to rewrite that. I’ve never really been interested in anything other than words. My one stage play has one set and one character—it’s essentially a dramatic monologue rather than a play—and I’m fine with that. I’ve been reading a lot of dialogue novels this year and I have to say I find them so refreshing.

And, Philip, I’m a lot better than I used to be. I used to get bored so quickly and I still do if the author waffles on and on about things that aren’t really pertinent (IMHO) to the story. That’s why I think the novella is such a gem. Two days—three at a push—and you’re done. I’ve read a lot of novellas this year in fact if the figures on Goodreads are to be trusted the average length of the hundred and eleven books I’ve read so far this year has been just over 200 pages.

I’ve never read anything by Crisp and really all I know about him was contained in the two dramas The Naked Civil Servant and An Englishman In New York. I don’t understand homosexuality—I don’t have much time for men in general (woman are far more interesting and attractive)—but I do understand what it’s like to be different and not understood and I suspect that’s why I’ve always had a soft spot for Crisp. I’ve just checked on Amazon and am surprised to see how much he’s written. Must investigate further.

awyn said...

Your mentioning that you're always very conscious that you're reading a book, and Milo's comment that he can't turn his brain off noticing what authors do or do not do well does not mean a particular phrase, line or passage in a book can't utterly take you so deeply into the story that you actually forget you're reading/evaluating the printed word. This phenomenon of instantly establishing resonance with the reader, keeping him/her glued to the literal 'scene' (or idea) described or implied (such that the reader stops to reflect or is momentarily stunned with an insight), may or may not depend upon the quality of the writing (though it's usually the better-written stuff that accomplishes that). The power of mere words to take us consciously, totally, elsewhere, where it's just us and the words themselves, as transporters, all else being peripheral! It actually occurs more frequently than one thinks, I think. Every writer's dream -- to get the reader so involved he forgets he's reading.

Kass said...

Such wonderful thoughts here. I got a little emotional thinking of anyone framing a poem of mine. What a warm fatherly gesture.

The Neil Gaiman lecture was so good. I especially liked his reference to people who read developing EMPATHY. I felt a little strange watching Neil online, but all forms of media have their place, as long as we preserve libraries.

Gwil W said...

No time time to read this just now, but must say that's a cool photo at the top.

Jim Murdoch said...

It would be untrue to suggest that I never get caught up in what I’m reading, Annie. I do wish it happened more often. There have been a few instances this year were I’ve got excited by what I was reading: You & Me by Padgett Powell was just wonderful as was The H-Bomb and the Jesus Rock but these books are rare. Of course most books have their moments, a line or a paragraph or two but I’m just a hard guy to impress. I’m the same with films. I, for example, thoroughly enjoyed the last Star Trek film but I still couldn’t stop myself keeping a track of things I’d mention to my wife when I talked to her about it (she must’ve been in the States at the time) like fact that the Enterprise was under water at the start of the film for no other good reason that the Enterprise emerging from the water made a heckuva sight onscreen. Made no sense otherwise.

A couple of people have said they were going to frame poems of mine, Kass. Not sure if they ever did but that they’d even make the suggestion was nice. One girl wanted to leave a copy of my short story ‘Over’ in her loo so people could read it whilst engaged in their business. I talked her out of that. But it was still flattering in its way.

And, Gwilliam, you’re taking the mickey, yes? That’s the chair in my office. I mostly read in the living room these days but if I get up in the night that’s where I read so as not to disturb the bird more than I have to although usually I’m sprawled in the chair with a leg halfway up the bookcase but that doesn’t make a great photo.

Gwil W said...

Jim, the mickey? me? not guilty your honour, but maybe we'll get treated to the chair sprawling photo one day? I look forward to that!

Gwil W said...

ps - I admit I'm something of a sprawler too. You have to do something with the rest of you when the nose is in the book.

Ken Armstrong said...

Another good one. :) Nice to see Neil Gaiman here. Have you read much of him? (There's probably a brace of reviews on here). I would highly recommend 'The Ocean at the End of the Lane' and 'The Graveyard Book'. I feel you might like them both though not on the toilet or in the bath or...

Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve read The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Smoke and Mirrors and I used to own every Sandman comic as well as the two Death spin-offs. Checking Wikipedia I find I haven’t read much else comicwise, Ken. I’ve seen the adaptations of Neverwhere, Mirrormask, Stardust and Coraline and, of course, his excellent work on Doctor Who but that’s about it. I’ve no doubt I’d enjoy reading anything by him—he never disappoints—but there are only so many hours in the days. My daughter speaks highly of his novels; she bought me Smoke and Mirrors.

Ping services