I read a lot, I can’t put it down –
Sometimes it’s easier to retreat into yourself, to shut up shop, “shut out that stealing moon” – as Thomas Hardy described it – and simply exist in a penumbra of your life. When I sense I’m becoming maudlin and self-absorbed or over-burdened with worries, both real and imagined, I read. Reading gets me out of the shadows and helps me re-engage with the world. I have always at least 2 or 3 books on the go but when I get into one of my prolonged dark moods I seek out an extra level of compensation from the written word. Years of reading has helped me to help myself when it comes to choosing a book or an author to revive a part of me that feels undernourished, overlooked or sadly lacking in vitality.
For example I’ve been reading classic Westerns by writers like Zane Grey, Larry McMurtry and Louis L’Amour. Their books help me escape from an insistent gut feeling that I’m chronically (as well as chronologically) out of step with the modern world and should simply accept it rather than fight it. There’s something liberating about imagining yourself as a cowboy or a rancher facing his inner and outer demons in difficult environments devoid of the technologies and support systems that we now take for granted. Like the great hard-boiled crime fiction writers these authors of the Old West knew how to look both at and beyond outward appearances, how to judge a man’s character and worth in the blink of an eye and then across hundreds of pages test their protagonist’s mettle both at pace and with panache. It’s satisfying to read simple morality tales in complex story-lines. I come away from a book like The Riders of The Purple Sage feeling more straightforward and less abstruse. It’s as if a super-efficient librarian has been in my head to rearrange the cluttered shelves crammed to bursting point with my negative thoughts and protracted problems and has date-stamped them all as ‘Returns’.
I like to think I’m a well educated chap. However as I get older I feel increasingly more stupid and ignorant about pretty much anything and everything. My mental pick-me-up is the Socratic Paradox: the only thing I truly know is that I know nothing. A philosophical bumper-sticker takes the edge off for a short while but I still retain a compulsive urge to exercise my brain’s intellectual abilities lest it decides to permanently shut down dormant nodes and put up notices of eviction along my frontal lobe. Hours can go by where I sense my brain’s gone on an extended holiday and has left its lowly stem in charge, an underling working far above his pay grade whose only meaningful task is to turn the lights out at the end of the working day. To put myself in a position where I’m being intellectually challenged is a conscious choice, one that I’ve never shied away from and one that year on year feels increasingly like an act of self-preservation rather than self-improvement.
To aid me in this endeavour I’ve been reading books from the revived Pelican imprint “for those topics you are interested in, but feel you don’t know enough about”. I’m half-way through Tim Lewins’ The Meaning of Science, an enjoyably provocative and enlightening personal perspective on the subject. The book focuses on the philosophy of science – the why of it all – and in doing so Lewins reminds me once again how the concept of science is only a couple of hundred years old, a by-product of the Age of Enlightenment and, in some ways, an extended postscript to an intensely fertile period of human intellect, ingenuity and creativity, a time when highly curious men and women with great and open minds were at their happiest and at their most productive by working as polymaths across many disciplines rather than as specialists in one field. What have we lost by limiting the scope of our minds through the imposition of labels such as “artist” and “scientist”? In a day-to-day world where so many people depend on me for answers it’s affirming to be reminded that knowing the question rather than the answer is usually the greater personal reward.
If this all sounds a bit too cerebral and worthy I do also seek out levity and jollity. A book I’ve enjoyed dipping in and out of recently is Kevin Jackson’s Carnal To the Point of Scandal, a collection of this pataphysician’s essays and musings down the years. As a writer he is simultaneously amusing and informative, revelatory and celebratory in equal measure. He writes extensively with wit and wisdom and without cynicism or contempt (either for his subjects or his readers). He casts his net wide and playfully: encounters with Genesis P Orridge and Sir Christopher Frayling, new perspectives on old films like Kind Hearts and Coronets, vampires. Japanese writers, Italian eroticism and John Ruskin. If there is a theme to Jackson’s writing it’s the entertaining way he repositions arcane footnotes from art and culture as the main event; like Stoppard did with the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Never has marginalia been so funny and stimulating and the lines between highbrow and lowbrow become so convincingly blurred as to not matter. With one eye on your funny bone and the other on your streak of curiosity Jackson may very well be the ultimate Afterword contributor!
To aid me in my quest for literary sustenance I took out a subscription to The Literary Review last year. It was partly a desire to keep pace with new releases and new books but it was also a begrudging acknowledgement that there simply was not enough time to read everything on my wishlist and that my literary magpie tendencies were no longer sustainable with all my other commitments and responsibilities. I decided that instead I would vicariously enjoy books that I will never find the time to read by reading the reviews of them by critics and writers who, more often than not, have as deep a knowledge of the subject matter of the books they review as the authors themselves. This month alone I have been enlightened by snippets of knowledge concerning 19th Century Australian miners eating sandwiches filled with £10 notes, that Jonathan Swift imagined Lilliput was in the general vicinity of Tasmania, that the seven condemned signatories of the famous Proclamation of the [Irish] Republic and instigators of the 1916 Easter Uprising would, in all likelihood, have ended up as political and even military enemies if they’d avoided the firing squad and how Hitler’s hatred and fear of being ridiculed fuelled his hatred and fear of Jews.
So many books and so little time. It’s the act of reading though that helps me come to to terms with whatever is impeding my way, physically or mentally. Reading takes me far away from myself without ever really leaving and it’s in that exploratory hinterland between my physical world and my imaginary world that I find, if not the answer to the problem, then at least a better question with which to address it and, in the asking of it, something to help me dismantle the barriers I’ve constructed around the problem. An apple a day may well keep the doctor away but it’s books that keep me away from the black dog and from the self doubts that insist on trying to become permanent fixtures in my life.