When I was at school, I used to read on my way to the bus stop. I like to think that as a result I have developed excellent peripheral vision, but this claim has never been tested empirically. I was a chain-reader: as soon as I finished one book, I started another. I can remember pacing around the house at bedtime, looking for ‘my book’ (at that time in my reading life, ‘book’ was synonymous with ‘novel’), unable to go to bed until I had found and recovered it from its place next to the washing machine, or on top of the fridge, wherever I had happened to have been when my reading was interrupted.
Living in a country town in the nineteen eighties, before Amazon and Abebooks, Booktopia and The Book Depository, books came from the school library, the municipal library, and very occasionally from a book shop. My grandparents picked up books at secondhand shops, and my parents always made sure that Christmas and birthday gifts included books. I’m so grateful to them, and to the school and municipal librarians who stocked their shelves with good books. I would never have thought to ask for a recommendation, but by luck or fledgling literary snobbery and plenty of highly pleasurable browsing I found the novels that helped shape me.
Reading then was a compulsive, immersive experience. It’s not quite like that now. I don’t have as much time to myself. My reading material is diverse, and fragmented. I’m rarely reading a book, but several different kinds of things. Over a week I might read bits and pieces from passed on copies of The London Review of Books or The Guardian Weekly, the Australian Author Magazine, always turning first to Angelo Loukakis’s update on industry matters affecting the rights and livelihood of writers, and the books section of The Australian’s Review (now and then a review of my own will appear there and of course I immodestly read that first, even though I already know exactly what it says).
I read poetry, as duty and as pleasure, and sometimes even non-fiction, though I often find I get about half way and tail off, feeling I’ve got the gist. The exception, lately, is reading about reading. My lovely neighbour, Dot-from-over-the-road, volunteers in an op shop that has lots of books. She spotted a book Five to Eight by Dorothy Butler, published in 1986 (when I was fourteen) and picked it up because Butler was her maiden name. She saw it was a book about children and reading and full of recommendations for books for children, and so passed it on to me. It’s a wonderful book that has insights about parenting as well as reading. We’ve sought out some of the books that are recommended, for ourselves and as gifts. Many are out of print now, of course, but thanks to the secondhand booksellers online, foxed and dog-eared paperback editions of these out of print titles arrive from New Zealand, the United States, and Great Britain from time to time.
Maryanne Wolf, who was diverted from her plan to spend her life studying poetry when she was confronted with a classroom full of kids who were having difficulty reading, investigates reading from a neurobiological point of view in her book Proust and the Squid. She transformed from a devoted humanities scholar to a scientist, devising experiments, looking at fMRI scans of the brain, and developing interventions for children with what is generally called dyslexia. The insight she makes that resulted in an audible intake of breath for me is that humans invented reading, that is, the ability to read is not innate. Our brains have evolved to have strengths in visual and language processing, but must rewire themselves in order to be able to read. The reason reading is so powerful, such an extraordinary technology, Wolf argues, is that it can become such an efficient process that we are able to think and reflect while we read. We can read, and think about what we are reading, simultaneously.
I came across this thrilling idea as I was reading an article on declining literacy rates in the United States that was published online in The New Yorker. Reading online is another regular practice. I dip into The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Review of Books. When I have a couple of minutes to spare I’ll admit to trawling through Facebook, which often leads to interesting bits of reading, though I try hard not to be seduced by the silly stuff, and I also have a regular round of craft, cooking and gardening blogs that I believe genuinely enhance and expand how I live and think. No, really.
I read to my children every night, recent favourites being Bob Graham’s picture book The Wild, Shirley Hughes’ Alfie books, E.B. White’s classic Stuart Little and Alison Lester’s horsey Bonny and Sam series. The sheer volume of books required for bedtime reading means we would be spending, on my rough calculations, at least ten thousand dollars a year on children’s books if Wollongong City Council didn’t have a library service. It takes the sting right out of paying the rates when you do that sum. And they throw roads and rubbish and recycling collection into the deal.
I’m in two writing workshop groups, one that sees Illawarra writers Andrea Gawthorne, Linda Godfrey, Elizabeth Hodgson, Susan McCreery, and Fay Ryan meeting in person every week, and The Alphabeticas, Dael Allison, Julie Chevalier, Linda Godfrey and Bron Mehan, who workshop online each month. This means I am privileged to read work in progress by those extraordinary writers, and am learning how they make their work, and how they read the work of other writers. It’s a rare and stimulating kind of reading: active, writerly.
The way I read now is very different to my former practice of burrowing into a novel and not coming out (except for meals, showers, sleep and the bits of school in which you couldn’t get away with secretly reading) until it’s done. I’m not sure what changed. Perhaps the invention of the World Wide Web, or just the discovery of more things to read and more things to do. Perhaps meeting more people and having more responsibilities. I rarely find myself reading a novel to the exclusion of all else, but when this does happen, it is a pleasure like no other. For this reason, I try to avoid starting a novel when I have a writing deadline, because I know that the book will lure me away from my own writing. I can read non fiction, perhaps a magazine or journal, some poetry, while I’m writing, but long form prose fiction is an irresistible distraction.
Reading is solace and interest, distraction and enquiry, amusement and work. Reading has become intrinsic to my identity, to my cognitive processing of the world. I forget names until I see them written down. I can’t follow verbal instructions, but if I see it written down, I can work it out. Reading can change me, change the way I think, even the pattern of my thoughts. Is there a name for that condition in which one begins to think and, in unguarded moments, even to speak, in the rhythms and language of the book that one is reading? Possessed by the text to the extent that even the interior voice that emerges when one begins to relax and let go of conscious thought speaks like the lines that have occupied the reader? How intimate. How powerful.
Ali Jane Smith is a poet and critic. Her chapbook Gala was published by Five Islands Press in 2006. She lives in Wollongong.
05 Mar 14 at 16:28
Is there a name for that condition in which one begins to think and, in unguarded moments, even to speak, in the rhythms and language of the book that one is reading?
I know the condition although I do not know its name. I received some odd looks years ago when deeply immersed in “The Canterbury Tales” – and one lovely reaction from a teacher librarian who immediately identified my reading from my speech rhythms.
09 Mar 14 at 20:23
Does the condition have a name? There’s that lovely line in AS Byatt’s ‘Possession’ where Randolph Ash and Christabel La Motte are falling in love and he talks about moving through his days to the rhythms of her writing. I don’t have the book with me, so I can’t quote it exactly.