What am I reading? Where do I start with that?
With the pile of books that towers over me as I sleep? The short story ‘book snacks’ I dip in and out of between books? The open articles in my browser? The book I currently slide into at night, slipping off to bed to enjoy cold sheets, the pale bedside light and pages turning quietly beneath my fingers?
Growing up, books were discovered and passed around from mothers, aunts and friends. All given with no description—just ‘you should read this’. Or ‘I enjoyed it’ as it was handed over, well-thumbed. As my book hunger increased, this joy of stepping into the unknown became associated with the library—the ultimate lucky dip, where books were selected sometimes because they were the only ones there I hadn’t already read.
So many books.
Wonderfully, this community of recommendation has swelled with age. Now it’s often represented by little cards at my local bookshop—recommendation stars with Jamil liked this! or Deb’s pick! Much like when I was growing up, I’ve learnt to associate each recommender with a particular mood. Perhaps a Christine pick today; or maybe a Kat pick will scratch my itch? There’s a Kat pick waiting on my bedside table currently: Enter Ghost by Isabella Hammad. Just knowing it’s there suffuses me with a calm excitement, the anticipation of something to sink into. Still enjoying my current read, I look at the new book’s cover and occasionally lift it to flip through the pages. It’s not unknown for me to sniff it.
This smell, so evocative, has changed much across my life. The memory of thick, slightly yellow paper, older books, much handled and loved, is perhaps why I am still, determinedly, a physical book reader. I love turning the page, I love knowing if the book slips from my grasp (which happens fairly frequently) I have a physical awareness of where I am in the story, and what the page looked like. I had an e-reader once—still do, in fact. It’s lying obsolete and flat in my bedside drawer. It’s still there because I’m unable to throw it out while it contains the only two books I read on it: Skippy Dies by Paul Murray and Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker. I can’t bear to part with either, even though, being unable to physically leaf through them, I will never pick them up again. It all just reinforces the idea that it’s corporeal books for me.
And yet, much of my reading is also online. Science journals and magazines are my joy—the free ones, gleaned from the half dozen newsletters I’m signed up to. These are my seeds, the ideas that germinate into thoughts and questions that flower into something more. They range from climate change through psychology to biomedical science and vulcanology—seemingly disparate topics that are nevertheless intimately connected.
I’m reading people, I suppose. Reading the species.
Which is what we do with reading, isn’t it? We read each other.
I enjoy Scientific American for its broad-ranging approach. I get limited free access each month, so I choose my articles carefully (and I certainly don’t use a private browser to access them for free after my limit run has out). STAT provides all my biotech and drug company gossip news. Nature I love not just for their own articles, but also for directing me to articles and publications I’d otherwise have not found, such as Quanta Magazine.
Science writing can be hypnotically poetic—and also, unfortunately, calmly catastrophic. I like to balance the informed certainty that—absent massive behavioural change—we’re all doomed, with gorgeously written articles about lacewings and the mysteries of metamorphosis.
Currently I’m reading about how metamorphosis remodels the insect brain. It seems fruit flies are unlikely to remember their larval stage because their brains melt and rewire during metamorphosis. Genetically-engineered fruit fly larvae neurons that fluoresce red when drugged collide with philosophical questions of memory and being. Those nascent insects metamorphosing, losing the capacity to register input and output—what an image! Becoming an individual with no context: ‘it’s just me, now.’ A creature that doesn’t share memories across its states, so that the ‘end’ fruit fly is not the same creature as the larva but also, it is. Essentially, by doing this, insects create multiple identities through time. My coffee sits cooling and untouched as I read.
I was forced by the overwhelming horror of my open tabs and bookmarked pages to create a digital folder, which I called ‘Seeds’. In it are hundreds of haphazardly-organised articles and pieces from psychology to geology—right across the scientific spectrum, all of them sparking something. All of them seeds to other thoughts, all of them special.
These reads are ‘writing day’ reading. Reading them is like throwing billiard balls haphazardly into the space of my mind and seeing what they hit. Sometimes the results are heavy, satisfying clunks that set off unexpected chain reactions. Sometimes it’s little more than echoing silence and a yawn. (Sometimes it’s concussion.)
This reading time is strictly limited, and by that I mean I give myself until my morning coffee is done. Which is to say sometimes, on the days I sip it stone cold to read just one more article, the definition of ‘strictly’ is fairly loose.
It’s reading that is exciting and generative and sometimes tedious and unpleasant, but always fruitful. Very different from my book reading, which can be broken into two distinct states: bedtime reading, now a slow, luxurious thing; and daytime reading, a rarer beast, usually enjoyed only when the kids are sprawled reading nearby, all of us lost in our heads.
For a time, in the two years or so after my first book was published, book reading became something rather less calm: a frantic scrabble to read all the books.
Books by people I had met or would meet, books I needed to read for festivals or in-conversations, other books I felt I needed to read. Which is not to say it was unpleasant, but the feeling changed. Reading became hectic, timed—like work for a job you love, but that always has a hundred more tasks piling up behind you.
It wasn’t until recently that, due to surgery, oxycodone and Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver, there was a reckoning with what my reading had become.
I started reading Demon Copperhead in the week before I was due to have an operation. I had assumed I’d fly through it, then there would be room for something less demanding as a suitable recovery read. This is not what happened. Often, I’d find myself lying with the book spreadeagled across my chest, staring at the ceiling and thinking about Demon. And addiction, intergenerational trauma, the aggressive exploitation of whole populations for profit…and the massive elegance and talent that went into the writing of the story. It was not a pity party, nor was it trauma porn—it was open and stark. And beautiful. The voice of Demon extended from the pages, slipped through my skin and squeezed my insides. He would not be rushed.
The day arrived; I had the surgery; I came home, the book still unfinished.
The experience of reading about people on Oxycodone while on Oxycodone is not something I’d recommend, nor is it something I ever want to repeat. Having started Demon Copperhead prior to my operation, I was hesitant to take the prescribed drugs after surgery. I held off until the pain was like fine high-voltage wires inserted from surgery site to brain—until I wanted to slap my head, tear off my skin, sink to the floor and dissolve. The expression beside myself with pain took on new meaning.
I took the pills.
Mindful of what they could do, I took the smallest amount possible, which had the unfortunate result of leaving me off my head and in pain.
48 hours of reckoning passed for me. Everything slowed, time, breath, thoughts. I saw my kids’ pale faces watch my creep from bedroom to bathroom and back again. I became nothing but wretched sensation.
As I slowly came back to myself, Demon was waiting for me. Shaken, I read like I walked, gingerly, aware of every step. And the book unfolded. Reading it was a rediscovery of the magic that was reading before the hectic crept in, before the musts and shoulds pressurised what had always been a release.
I finished the book and now keep it within sight of my desk. A little reminder to savour. To respect the years of work that went into a thing by giving it time and space to reveal itself. To sink in.
My book reading has once again become joy. Currently that joy is exploring Yellowface by Rebecca Kuang, a squirming delight that I’m experiencing in exquisite mouthfuls, slowly, appreciatively.
Emily Spurr lives in Melbourne with her partner, their twins and the ghost of a deaf, geriatric cat. Emily’s first novel A Million Things was shortlisted for the VPLA Unpublished Manuscript Prize, voted BookBrowse Best Debut Novel of 2021, longlisted for the 2022 Margaret and Colin Roderick Literary Award and Highly Commended for the 2022 Barbara Jefferis Award. Emily’s second novel, Beatrix & Fred (September 2023), is out now.
Image:Deivis Sandoval, Pexels