Onward goes the new Fram!

In a fascinating twist of serendipity, I was astonished to read in the news today that the Mosaic expedition will repeat the landmark journey undertaken by the Fram, which I recently read about in Fridtjof Nansen’s book Farthest North. The expedition aims to learn more about the impact of climate change on the Arctic region, in particular the Arctic sea ice which is in retreat, and expects to complete the drift within a year, significantly more quickly than the three years it took Nansen and his crew. I will be watching the expedition with very great interest indeed.

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Farthest North by Dr. Fridjof Nansen

Image result for farthest northFridtjof Nansen is a name which should trip off the tongue as easily as that of Scott and Shackleton, though perhaps more so because his polar exploration activity was more successful if less dramatic. Nansen was a scientist, a biologist and an all-round good egg, and just before the turn of the 20th Century he embarked on an expedition to prove that there existed an Arctic current which transited east to west and which would carry a ship in the pack ice across the Arctic Ocean. Nansen’s plan, his theory, met with derision and doubt but in spite of this he commissioned the building of a special ship, called the Fram (meaning onward, or forward), which was designed to be lodged in the pack ice, specially bolstered so it would not be crushed like other ships had but rather would be squeezed up onto the ice like a cork being popped out of a bottle, thus avoiding the crushing action of the ice which had proven so fatal to so many expeditions. The Fram would be used as a scientific station, housing a small crew who would conduct scientific experiments and gather data about the Arctic conditions, the creatures and weather, the performance of the ice and the ocean itself as the vessel drifted with the ice along the current. Nansen hoped that the ice might carry them across the pole, which was yet to be reached by Western man (though arguably may have been achieved by members of one of the native tribes who lived in the Arctic zone, without record or acclaim), but if it didn’t the proof of an Arctic current and the information they could gather during that time remained worth the attempt. Nansen believed that the trip would take between three to five years, and thus he equipped his expedition in a manner so as to be comfortable and well provisioned in foods and activity. Though the trip meant leaving his young family (Nansen was 32 when the expedition began) for an indeterminate period, having dwelled on his theory for some time, and with the support of the Norwegian government, Nansen resolved to see it through. Farthest North is his account of this attempt.

The book follows the expedition chronologically from the planning stage, the gathering of the crew and provisions and the journey out through to the successful conclusion of the expedition. It’s apparent from the beginning that Nansen is planning a quite different type of expedition, one not centred around ‘adventure’ and ‘derring-do’ but one which was meticulously planned, which was about scientific discovery, intended to succeed, in which the key skill would be watching and waiting and waiting some more. This was not (quite) the man pitting himself against nature, testing his mettle and winning against the odds which typified so many expeditions of the time. Consequently whilst Nansen himself was respected, the idea behind the expedition was not and Nansen set out knowing that the community which formed his key circle didn’t believe he would succeed. He felt keenly the pressure upon him, the risk that he was taking seemed less about whether his expedition team would survive than that his reputation might be ruined by the discovery that his theory was flawed and that he had sacrificed several years of his life, and that of his crew, on a fool’s mission. Yet Nansen’s character was such that the error was unlikely, and his responsible attitude ensured that whilst his crew may well have suffered boredom, that they may at times have regretted their involvement out of sheer tedium, their safety was ever-assured. In fact the need for patience, to quell the action-desiring heart, proved a constant challenge during the Arctic night:

“Oh! at times this inactivity crushes one’s very soul; one’s life seems as dark as the winter night outside; there is sunlight upon no part of it except the past and the far, far distant future. I feel as if I must break through this deadness, this inertia, and find some outlet for my energies. Can’t something happen? Could not a hurricane come and tear up this ice, and set it rolling in high waves like the open sea? Welcome danger, if it only brings us the chance of fighting for our lives – only lets us move onwards! The miserable thing is to be inactive onlookers, not to be able to lift a hand to help ourselves forward. It wants ten times more strength of mind to sit still and trust in your theories and let nature work them out without your being able so much as to lay one stick across another to help, than it does to trust in working them out by your own energy – that is nothing when you have a pair of strong arms.

The c rew soon settled into life on the ice, structuring their time around lavish dinners, scientific work, the daily toil to keep the ship – ice-bound as she was – seaworthy and intact, and hunting. Their meals were incredible four course affairs, no scrimping and starving for this crew, and if there was a reason (excuse) to celebrate the crew of the Fram took it. Hunting was a significant activity, something approached with massive pleasure and energy perhaps because the rest of their life on the ice was so sedate as their glee at the opportunity to put a ‘ball in the head’ of anything that moved went somewhat beyond their need to supplement ship’s stores. I found this attitude somewhat discomforting, in fact their attitude to animals in general was a source of general discomfort as I read about the polar bears – mothers and cubs – chased and killed, the attempts to harpoon narwhals (which failed), the walruses shot and then lost, reindeer shot and left, and the dogs which were taken for sledge hauling activities which were slayed and fed to each other on Nansen’s third year when he and one of his expedition team, Johansen, left the Fram in an attempt to reach the pole. This latter caused me the most concern, particularly as Nansen points out that many of the dogs refused the meat of their former mates except after considerable time with no alternative. That the dogs were forced to cannibalise their kind when they clearly recognised what they were eating, purely so that a man might stamp his name on a meaningless patch of ice seemed like the worst excesses of vanity. Nansen and his men chose to be there, the dogs didn’t. Yet I don’t think that Nansen was entirely without conscience in his attitude and perhaps one of the causes of my discomfort is an awareness of my own hypocrisy. I’m quite happy to chow down a burger, whilst my cat lives like a queen on the processed flesh of chicken, fish, cow and sheep. Maybe he was simply more honest about it.

Animal rights aside, Nansen comes across as a generous spirited, responsible, decent and considerate kind of man. In the earlier sections of the book, when the ship is first trapped in the ice, Nansen writes beautifully of the experience, the scenery, his concerns for his crew, his uncertainty about their prospects, the joy and disappointments of the crew as they drift north and then south, north and south, edging imperceptibly slowly towards their hoped goal. He reveals a man who loves his wife and family, who feels guilt at pursuing this seemingly foolish goal while his baby daughter, less than one year old when he set off, grows up without him. But his writings about the Arctic are extremely beautiful, revealing a passionate and soulful man as the following passage shows:

“Nothing more wonderfully beautiful can exist than the Arctic night. It is dreamland, painted in the imagination’s most delicate tints; it is colour etherealized. One shade melts into the other, so that you cannot tell where one ends and the other begins, and yet they are all there. No forms – it is all faint, dreamy colour music, a far-away, long-drawn-out melody on muted strings. Is no all life’s beauty high, and delicate, and pure like this night? Give it brighter colours, and it is no longer so beautiful. The sky is like an enormous cupola, blue at the zenith, shading down into green, and then into lilac and violet at the edges. Over the ice-fields there are cold violet-blue shadows, with lighter pink tints where a ridge here and there catches the last reflection of the vanished day. Up in the blue of the cupola shine the stars, speaking peace, as they always do, those unchanged friends. In the sound stands a large red-yellow moon, encircled by a yellow ring and light golden clouds floating on the blue background. Presently the aurora borealis shakes over the vault of heaven its veil of glittering silver – changing now to tallow, now to green, now to red. It spreads, it contracts again, in restless change; next it breaking into waving, many-folded bands of shining silver, over which shoot billows of glittering rays, and then the glory vanishes. Presently it shimmer in tongues of flame over the very zenith, and then again it shoots a bright ray right up from the horizon until the whole melts away in the moonlight, and it is as though one heard the sigh of a departing spirit. And all the time this utter stillness, impressive as the symphony of infinitude. I have never been able to grasp the fact that this earth will some day be spent and desolate and empty. To what end, in that case, all this beauty with not a creature to rejoice in it?”

It is only when the book moves into the section where Nansen and Johansen leave the ship to make an attempt on the pole when the reading becomes a little tedious. Perhaps it is not surprising that a year spent in a land of ice and fog, of drifts and floes and lifelessness doesn’t make for the most riveting reading. Food was scarce (though all crew members, both on and off the Fram, put on considerable weight during their trip) and activity even more so. Nansen mentions the sparsity of his notes and the difficulty in interpreting them after the fact, covered in grime and dirt and with little of interest to report. The tone of this section is highly matter of fact; no more the lyrical descriptiveness that typifies the earlier part of the book, instead it becomes pedestrian, tedious and, I’m sorry to say, a little dull. But perhaps this dullness is telling in its own way.

Nansen and Johansen give up their attempt on the pole and Nansen never does make it there, instead the pole is ‘claimed’ by either Robert Peary or Frederick Cook several years later. But I don’t think it matters. It doesn’t matter to Nansen and it doesn’t matter to the crew of the Fram. They achieved what they set out to do and they learned a lot in doing it. None of the expedition members died (except the dogs, let’s not forget the dogs), instead they grew fat and bored and they learned the value of patience and humility and good work. Nansen may have been profligate (in my opinion) with non-human life, but human life he valued immensely. It is a trait which he carried through in all the activity of his life and later Nansen moved from science and exploration into a different kind of exploration – that of human social systems. It was work which resulted in him being awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in humanitarian work, particularly in the support of refugees. You can read more about this here. I can’t help wondering if Nansen’s experiences with patient, slow and difficult work in the Arctic uniquely prepared him for the patient, slow and difficult work in international politics and perhaps, for all the questionable elements of the trip, it was worth it after all. And it made me think about heroes, about the people who are seen as heroes and the activities they undertake to achieve that status. Perhaps we need more heroes like Nansen, those who are willing to commit themselves to the slow and steady path, meticulously researching and planning to minimise risk and, conversely, secure success. Sometimes I wonder what it is about ‘political correctness’ and ‘health and safety’ which is so often considered so deplorable? A healthy respect and consideration for human life? Imagine if everything we did took those two small measures as seriously as Nansen did. His journey was not without risk or adventure, but he did not wilfully risk other men’s lives for his own glory and, to me, this is a key differentiator which makes Nansen a worthy hero and worth reading about.

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[Interlude] Living outside cyberia

I’m in the middle of a longish book at the moment, but I’ve been finding time to read a few articles and I wanted to write a little about this one which appeared on the Guardian website last week and which resonated strongly with me. I don’t desire to live a completely disconnected life, but I’ve been feeling increasingly that the current technological age is forcing us into a light touch mode of being, there is a multitude of everything – articles, books, food, music, alcohol, drugs, clothes, information, pictures of cats, ways to connect, TV, games, competitions, downloads, freebies, buy one get one free – and we are encouraged to want more and more of everything, to look for the bargain, to buy two instead of the one we wanted (let alone needed), always being dissatisfied, feeling cheated or lacking in something. Powers of concentration are markedly curtailed, it is an effort to read a book or watch a TV series with a year’s break between one series and another, work which requires meticulous research or planning is considered tedious and everything is immediacy immediacy immediacy which equates to reactivity, stress, anger and anxiety. We all, or many of us in the Western world at least, are living perpetually on the edge of our seats waiting for the next thing to react to and anything which takes time is a waste of it and anything which is slow to deliver doesn’t get the chance. As Mark Boyle says:

“You become more acutely aware that industrial culture has replaced craft with efficiency, distinctiveness with standardisation, aspiration with ambition, rootedness with transience, contentment with progress, attentiveness with speed, and the natural rhythms of life with tight schedules.”

Perhaps it is true that the issue goes back to the industrial revolution, but perhaps it is more about globalisation and neoliberalism I don’t know. Whatever it is, what is true is that in Britain the standard of living is better than it has ever been, that resources are more available to us than ever yet inequality is massive, the rate of mental illness, of anxiety and stress are higher than ever and people self-medicate with coffee and alcohol and drugs (legal or not), or switch off by watching hours of television, or let it out by firing all barrels at some stranger on Twitter or a forum or the comments section of an online newspaper. At some point in our recent history the word ‘consumer’ began to be interpreted positively, it was a mark of distinction to consume, to use and throw away and not care for the waste. Things have become simultaneously worthless and the sole source of our worth. I tried to have a conversation with someone recently that was about progressiveness and the only thing they could understand was money. Those that have money have ‘progressed’ and those with less money will only ‘progress’ by getting it. Meanwhile our schools are factories churning out a workforce instead of helping people find out what they’re good at and what they love, and children learn that their value depends on the size of their future wage packet and the extent to which they increase GDP. How easily we have forgotten the value of other things: kindness, community, co-operation, good health, a diverse environment, friendship, decency, tolerance, respect, equanimity, wisdom. I was watching a news report about the pressure to abandon parks and green spaces thanks to the council budget cuts and it thoroughly depressed me. People benefit so much from green spaces, but unless you can force people to pay for entry the land is repurposed for other things being too ‘expensive’ to maintain.

I think I am in the course of withdrawing from being a consumer. I am wondering if in our purchase-led society that’s about as subversive as you can be. When I began the reduction in my reading volume I wanted not to read less, in fact I don’t believe I am reading less, but what I wanted was to retain more, to be more attentive, to value what I was reading beyond its superficial ability to distract or entertain me. I also wanted to break my habit of compulsive book buying, the insatiable itch for the next thing. This has been surprisingly easy to achieve, it is now almost the middle of February and I haven’t bought a book since December. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a massive change. I’ve also thinned out my library and will thin it out some more after some further reflection. What I didn’t expect was how this habit would so easily leach into other things, how I would start looking at my possessions with a critical eye and begin to ask myself when I use things and why I keep them. Consequently I haven’t bought any new clothing either, and I am thinking about the food I buy more carefully. My stationery purchases have plummeted. I no longer skim through articles, picking out what I assume are the salient points and moving on to the next one. I select the articles I want to read and I read them, often more than once. Is it right that all this content is free? I’m not sure, and I wonder whether if I truly value it I ought to pay something for it because this derth of free content also comes with constant advertising and click bait and an undercurrent of hysterical commentary. But whether I decide to pay for content or not, I am starting to deeply read it because someone has taken the time to write it and they deserve, then, at least that level of attentiveness from me.

I am finding more focus. I am more willing to do deep reading, deep work. I am not rushing as I once did. What I want is the connection that Boyle speaks of. I’ve come to realise that cyber space is not the way to achieve it. I have made some good friends, some good connections, in the cyber world and I have no intention of letting those go. But when I log on to Twitter what I find is an overwhelming swell of voices, it is like that scene in Star Wars: A New Hope when Alderan is destroyed by the Death Star and Obi Wan crumples under the pressure of thousands of voices crying out simultaneously. Sometimes that’s exactly how I feel. I want to listen, but I can do nothing for them and my momentary attention is worth nothing if all I ever really do is read and move on, worryingly distractedly what is becoming of the world.

It surprised me how much Boyle’s article moved me, but perhaps it shouldn’t have. I think I have been dissatisfied with my lack of connection, of focus, for a long time. I can’t really imagine myself one day sipping blackberry wine I’ve made myself, whilst reading a book by a fire burning with logs I’ve chopped myself; I doubt I’ll ever be drawing water from the stream. There are challenges in what he writes – what he defines as ‘modern’ technology is arbitrary and he still makes use of the internet even if it’s only by someone else posting his article. I don’t think he’s aiming for some philosophically pure existence, but one which is more balanced and which allows him a better connection with his daily surroundings. I can’t quite do that, I don’t think, but I can live with greater meaning and I’m beginning to understand what that means for me. It isn’t stuff that matters, but connections. It isn’t what I take, but what I give. In learning to give an article or a book my full attention I have been reminded that it is not just the written word that need this from me, that everything I touch should receive it or perhaps I shouldn’t be touching it at all.

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The Frozen Ship: The History & Tales of Polar Exploration by Sarah Moss

“It was, of course, always a fantasy that the polar regions are qualitatively different from the rest of the world, as anyone who has lived and worked within the Arctic Circle can confirm. It is space like any other, inhabited by human beings like any other and being destroyed by human beings like everywhere else on Earth.”

Last year I harboured a desperate desire to read more by Sarah Moss, having been initially ambivalent to, then overwhelmingly moved by, her novel Bodies of Light. But my enthusiasms are rarely long-lived or rather easily overwhelmed by other, stronger enthusiasms and my plan to read more Moss was set aside in favour of first Siri Hustvedt (which I do not regret) and now my commitment to read less which has made me more selective about what I want to spend my limited reading time. As it happens, my current enthusiasm involves reading the books on polar exploration I’ve gathered (it’s not a massive collection, but significant enough to warrant attention) and as it also happens that one of those books is Sarah Moss’s The Frozen Ship, her first book and one written long before her highly successful move into fiction. All this creates a happy confluence of circumstance which allows me to fulfil both desires simultaneously. Bless the mysterious workings of happenstance!

The Frozen Ship is not your average book about polar exploration. Whilst the subject is superficially about those explorers who set out to reach one or other of the poles, many of which inevitably failed, Moss’s focus is on the writing about or by the explorers. This is the ‘frozen ship’ of the title, a perfectly preserved capsule which provides insight into the experiences of those thus preserved, and through the book she explores the depth of available literature and why there is such an appetite for polar narratives as well as how the mythmaking around the subject propelled many to an untimely and unpleasant death. As Moss explains:

“Enormous numbers of readers like the Arctic and Antarctic to be places adorned by dead bodies in dress uniform and no shoes (eaten when the sealskin, or alternatively the colleagues, ran out). These great white spaces at the top and bottom of the world are where people went to die for us, both for our edification as readers and for our greater glory as Britons or Americans or, less commonly, Norwegian or Swedes. At its height this Anglo-American cultural investment in the poles as spaces of absence, of death and disappearance, was so great that survival was seen as positively inappropriate. Amundsen had no business reaching the South pole and living on stolidly to tell the tale when Scott died so beautifully in failing, and Nansens’ comfort on the Fram and competence on the ice were almost offensive. Shackleton might have saved his crew with his extraordinary bravery and seamanship, but he was no gentleman.”

 

It’s an interesting observation, one which strangely parallels with the current obsession with lurid crime fiction and perhaps is explained in a similar fashion. Whilst many guzzle down books and TV shows in which murder – often involving the naked, abused corpses of women being meticulously picked over to uncover the intimate horror of their brutal death – figures in all its bloody glory yet few people would, in reality, like to be faced with an actual corpse or attempt to track down the killer or, mores the point, become the corpse themselves. There’s a sense that there’s something noble about being the detective, many of which are emotionally damaged and isolated or flawed in some fundamental way, in the same way that the polar explorer was seen as noble, setting aside family and the safety of an oft privileged life to risk it all for country and honour in a largely futile push to reach a vague spot, unmarked and uninteresting, somewhere at the extreme top or bottom of the world. Which is essentially bonkers when you think about it, which is exactly what Moss does here. She examines the writings of those who embarked on these insane enterprises, or rather the writings of those who organised the enterprises as the support acts – the salaried sailors, the help – often had no voice in the enterprise at all, a point which Moss is at pains to point out.

Moss explores both the chronology of polar exploration, beginning with the writings in the Norse Sagas, through to those of Scott and Franklin as well as Richard Byrd at the southerly pole; as well as the types of people and expeditions including women who either volunteered to head to the Arctic or fled there or accompanied their husbands. There are marked differences in the attitudes of those that explored the poles, ranging from the dry, pedestrian voyages of Parry to the doomed ‘have-a-go-heroics’ of Scott. The contrast between the two is marked, and it’s clear on whom Moss believes the praise should be heaped, as this quote demonstrates:

 “Parry’s prose reflects his aloofness from the traditional cultures of polar exploration. His determination that all should be seen to be well, and under control, on all occasions, precluded any heroic rhetoric about striving to overcome great obstacles or succeeding against all odds or persisting bravely in the face of danger. Great obstacles ought to have been foreseen and avoided; it would not be sensible to attempt something that was more likely to fail than not, and no responsible captain led his men into danger. It is an attitude that should be immensely sympathetic after volume after volume of nineteenth-century upper-class gentlemen merrily setting off across the ice in tweed with a small hamper from Fortnum and Mason and a suicidal readiness to die in the national interest, but the lack of excitement that made Parry a cautious and responsible leader also makes him dull to read.”

Yet in the mythmaking, the hero-worship driven form of literature, it is the doomed Scott who is memorable, who is the ‘fallen-hero’, the one about whom movies are made, who forms the stuff of boys’ heroic volumes. Moss pauses to question why that is, considering how flawed Scott’s mission was and how poor his approach to planning. Was the war the key influence in why we remember Scott much more viscerally than Parry?

 

“War marked the “end of an era” in a way that nothing else could, and made a space for yearning. There was so much grief for so many men that perhaps Scott, dying far from the bloody brutality of war and dying in innocence of the wholesale slaughter of an entire European generation, became an emblem of all that was lost. If he died partly because he insisted on regarding polar exploration as a mythic quest rather than a matter of warm shoes and good engineering, perhaps he is mourned because of rather than despite his romanticism. Others of his generation also thought themselves as capable of things that mattered, and their ambitions and personal achievements counted for nothing in front of the bayonets and guns in the trenches. Scott’s death is not an obliteration, and so he can stand for those who had no chance of an idiosyncratic end.”

 

It’s a view with great merit, and interesting in these strange times when so many seem drawn by flawed but decisive action as opposed to the plodding, tedious planning and quibbling concern for human life which might deliver a slower but more successful result. Scott’s mission, whilst revered by many, is subject to a quite acid scorn on the part of Moss which makes it a fun but sobering read, and it’s hard to avoid the glaring parallels with our current political situation when Moss describes Scott’s flawed approach to the claiming of the Antarctic pole in such familiar, but troubling terms:

 

“Scott was already perceived as a difficult leader even by those who were closest to him, and the conduct of the first season confirmed that view. He was secretive and insecure, inclined to change plans and then panic and change them again, and given to including and excluding people from particular duties on expeditions on the basis of how they seemed to feel about him. This time was supposed to be spent preparing for and rehearsing the journey to the Pole, but Scott’s uncertainty meant that no one knew quite what to expect or how they were meant to prepare for it. He was extremely anxious about Amundsen and clearly did regard the two expeditions as racing to the Pole, whatever he said publicly about the vulgarity of such ideas and his own pure commitment to science and exploration for its own sake. The men attempted to build igloos, thinking they might be a useful backup or alternative to tents, and enjoyed some arguing over the best way of doing so. If Scott had done some research before leaving, he would already have known.”

 

Thus an autocratic leader heads out on an expedition for which he was not properly prepared without regard for the sanctity of his own life or of others, in which he believed he ‘deserved’ to succeed not on account of his thorough and detailed preparation but because he was ‘honourable’ and made an effort and the endeavour was a difficult one. Coupled with a time in which there is space for ‘yearning’ it creates a powerful and dangerous combination. It’s hard not to recognise the worrying parallel and one might hope that our world is not led to its end in a similarly tragic manner. More worrying still that men were prepared to follow him despite these misgivings, and that he may, as Moss, suggests, have been encouraging Oates, famed for his ‘heroic’ suicide, to end his life even earlier in the attempt to return in order not to slow Scott down which, if true, presents the heroic Scott in an even less favourable, but perhaps truer, light.

 

The Frozen Ship is an excellent read, summarising and examining many of the famous polar expeditions in a very humanistic and considered light. Moss makes it clear that there are so many voices unheard in these narratives – the navvies, the paid help, the Inuit to whom the compulsion to stamp a name on the Pole and the many lives expended in the course of it must have seemed incomprehensible – that we must read them with a critical eye and a pinch of salt. That many explorers expected never to make it home, but similarly expected that their remains and papers would be found must make us wary of being coerced into reading what they want us to read and missing the reality – the lost lives, the dubious motivations, the lack of preparedness and profligacy with the lives of others which typified these expeditions. The book makes for an interesting counterpoint of my recent readings, reminding me that even looking into the silence and darkness of the Arctic it is not possible to avoid the actions of our fellow human beings, and however ‘pure’ an environment seems to be it is in our hands to spoil it and spoil it we do. So perhaps it is better to make a dignified life where we are, with all its incumbent difficulties, in the manner of Parry: slow, plodding, a bit dry and disinteresting but with respect and care for the lives of others centred firmly at its heart. It’s not the stuff of heroic narratives, but perhaps it should be.

 

The Frozen Ship: The Histories and Tales of Polar Exploration is published by Blue Bridge Books.

 

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Reading more slowly: the first month

It’s been a strange month, strange in a good way though it’s been emotionally challenging too. I’ve limited myself to four books this month (well, four and a bit) and all of them have been books I’ve read before. I hadn’t planned to exclusively re-read in January, but once I got started it was hard to stop and there’s something quite wonderful about returning to books which have meant something to me in the past only to find that they still do. Perhaps it is a way of reaffirming the continuity of my identity (which in itself is a fiction) or perhaps it is just a timely reminder of what matters to me, but whatever the reason January has proven to be a rewarding month of reading.

The first week was hard, but not hard in a way I expected. After reading Jenny Diski’s On Trying to Keep Still I realised that I was being drawn towards books of a particular theme, or type, a certain emotional resonance and at the time I was thinking about silence, aloneness, slowness, meditative books that expose connections which can only be found in contemplation whether that contemplation is silent and reflective or encouraged by communion with nature – walking, hiking, kayaking those kinds of things. I knew, then, that I needed to re-read Sarah Maitland’s A Book of Silence. It is a book which had a profound effect on me when I read it two years ago, and something of it had been lost but I knew it would be easily regained. It was only after reading Maitland’s work that I realised what it is I was being drawn to: ‘outwithness’, for want of a better term. People who live outside the social norm by being isolated or withdrawn in some way, or fiercely committed to something. People who are outside not as a denial or rejection, not outcast, but by conscious positive choice. People who don’t hate people or society, but choose a different one.

During that first week of reading I suffered from temptations, my mind still clinging to my old, impulsive and acquisitive ways. I spent two days convincing myself that however much I desired it I did not need to buy Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel because when would I actually get around to reading it? I convinced myself not to pop over to the lovely Oxfam shop in Manchester to find out if they had a copy of Into the Wild or a still had a book I’d remembered seeing there and being tempted to buy which was about hermits and loners which, after a little research, I rediscovered was Isabel Colgate’s A Pelican in the Wilderness. I visited the library to take back some books and, despite all my efforts to the contrary, managed to leave without borrowing any more. Each of these encounters was difficult. Each time I felt almost physically compelled to act, to buy, to acquire; the impulse was so strong and it would have been so easy to give in. Yet each time I managed to remind myself of that shelf of books in my living room which can hold exactly as many books as I can read this year and which is already full. When would I read those books I acquired? August, perhaps? Maybe August 2020, based on prior form. This recognition, that a month is perhaps four or five weeks and my months ahead are so easily filled, has been an unexpected source of strength. I do not need more than I have, I have plenty to keep me going.

Reading Maitland’s book turned out to be exactly the experience I needed. It is, for me, a book of extraordinary power. I do not desire to emulate Maitland’s example; I do not see myself wandering off to a lonely, isolated place and living alone. I am a mother. I am a wife. Neither of these things are immutable (I know enough terrible mothers and disinterested wives to know how true this is, and the spectre of death hangs around us all) but they are both an essential part of who I am. I enjoy being by myself, I do not think I would be afraid to be so, but I enjoy the company of my husband and children. I would not be willing to give that up. I also think that silence is something I need. It got me thinking about silent spaces, about the lack of them in my life. I was surprised to realise that there are no places I can be to be alone and silent. I think this is a distinct lack in my life, and I realise it is this lack that sends me out into the wilderness, searching for those moments of grace that come from being in a place which demands nothing of me. This has led me to research how I can generate some silent spaces in my life, moments of peace and calm and I think that succeeding in this aim would enrich my life in unexpected ways. It is something I continue to investigate. It occurred to me that there are no secular quiet spaces – churches, buddhist meditation rooms, Quaker meetings: these are places of silence. I wonder why people think that silence and religion are interlinked, or why those without religion do not require silence. Perhaps even silence must be bought, somehow, though no one is really selling.

Time is another unexpected gift that has come from reading less. Before I embarked on this challenge it would be normal for me to reach for a book in the evening, bury myself in a story. Thus the nights would pass. Over the past month it has been rare for me to read in the evenings; most of my reading is done on my commute, but on those days I don’t commute I’m more likely to read in the evening. The trade-off is that I’ve been home all day. Instead of reading in the evenings I have time. Unexpected time. It is time I can spend connecting with my family. It is time to think. It is time when my mind can relax and wander. It is time that I can devote to writing. I was surprised to find that in my very first week I had already started thinking about writing, writing poetry or working on a novel. In my quiet moments I thought about it, allowing ideas to pass through my mind, not writing anything down. In this way my characters form, I can imagine a scene this way and that, change it, forming it with pictures and words in my mind. I had thought that work had made writing impossible. In fact it is the constant filling of my time with reading, or other things, which has made it impossible. I only had to open up that small chink of time to allow it back in.

In the second week I continued with the ‘outwithness’ theme. I decided to read Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, another book I’ve read before and another book which had a profound effect on me. Housekeeping is a short book, a tad over 200 pages long, and easily finished in a couple of days reading. I read it once, then I read it again. It is strange to start back over without a break, but this is a work that bears repeated readings for its sparse beauty, its luxurient use of language and imagery, its sadness. During this week I found myself thinking about saudade about mono no aware exquisite sadness, an awareness of the impermanence of things. Both of these sensations feel prevalent both in the book and in my life. Thinking about transience has been helpful in staving off those buying desires; that I am here for a short time, that I will miss more than I will gain, that whatever I gain will be lost with me. These are thoughts, I think, that books have helped me hide from, but now, facing them, I feel stronger, more determined to make what I do here meaningful for me.

By the end of the second week this practice of abstinance had begun to leak into other parts of my life. I wandered the shops picking things up and putting them down, wanting and not wanting. I almost bought the box set of Twin Peaks until I questioned myself about when I would actually watch it. I put it back, without feeling a loss. I thought about buying coffee and then didn’t. My life did not end. I ate the lunch I made and if I felt hungry later I felt hungry. It is a sensation too often feared, but my hunger isn’t forced upon me and a meal is never really that far away. Emptiness is becoming something of value. I’ve found a place where I can sit in silence and I went there and sat for 30 minutes and afterwards I feel restored. This was the week when we agreed as a family not to book a holiday, as we would normally do, and instead see what the year brought. I love visiting other places, but I don’t need to and often the desire to book a holiday is to fulfil a desire for something else: closeness, proximity to my loved ones without distraction or the usual trappings of life getting in the way. It is a compensation for all the other sacrifices. Perhaps it is better not to make those sacrifices now, to encourage that closeness to develop in the here and now, rather than hoping two weeks away can somehow make up for a year of taking each other for granted. I watched a documentary about minimalism and it resonated. I am not a minimalist, not about to become one. I don’t need a new label. But I did identify with many of their aims: connectedness, meaning, deliberate rather than impulsive choice.

My third choice was Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. It was a brave choice, being only 108 pages long and I figured I’d read it more than once to allow it to properly seep in. My intention was to make the re-reading itself a challenge. It didn’t quite work that way. For some reason I cannot fathom, I had real trouble letting this short but lovely book in. I was easily distracted. Consequently whilst I read the book more than once, little of its content stuck. Perhaps it was just the wrong time (Brexit speech, Trump inauguration, sick child, work pressures) and I think I made a few mistakes which compounded the problem, but that’s okay, the whole thing is a learning experience. For a start I worked from home too much. Working from home is fine, I get a lot of work done. But I don’t stick to a good routine and I don’t have any down time / quiet time in which to encourage a more focused approach. I realised that setting myself aside some time which is quiet and in which there are no other expectations of me is a must if I’m to develop a more contemplative and immersive reading experience. On the plus side I did not at any point think about purchasing a book. Have I actually cracked it?

By the fourth week I began to believe that I have. I read Christiane Ritter’s A Woman in the Polar Night with a sense of wonder and calm. At no point did I feel that I was denying or withholding myself from something more or better. Something more, something better, was always in front of me. A Woman in the Polar Night is a transcendent book, gorgeously written despite the bleakness in the environment it depicts and a reminder that the important things we carry with us all of the time. I managed to incorporate some quiet time into my week, spending an hour at the library at lunchtime and making good use of my commuting time, including a long commute to London which afforded me the pleasure of a misty dawn as well as a good couple of hours reading time. I still made mistakes, or rather there are things about my approach to reading which I still need to iron out. Despite my attempts to read more slowly and deliberately, there remains a sense of rush about it. When I’m reading a short book, I think about reading it twice and for A Woman in the Polar Night I read it about one and a half times and realised that I was rushing in order to finish it. That’s not really what I wanted to do: swop one kind of rushing for another. So I’ve resolved not to. Instead what I want to do is give a book space to breathe, to percolate. I think I achieved that best in the first and second week, and then later in the month fell back into some old habits. But I’m aware of them, and that’s the first step to rehabilitation. So I think I’m on the right track.

This month has felt like a gift of reading. I feel like I have begun to return to myself the truth of what reading is for me. What it’s revealed is that I need to give each book enough room to really sink into my mind, to be absorbed and reflected upon. For some books this will take more than a week, for others perhaps less, but I’m resolved to give each book a clear week and if it doesn’t need that time so be it. I can allow myself more time to reflect upon it. I’ve realised that I need silence and calm and reflective time, that my mind works best if I don’t overwhelm it. Perhaps this is true for us all. I’ve realised, and this has come as something of a surprise, that I don’t need to own books. I don’t need their physical presence, though I enjoy it and I’m not quite ready to ditch my entire book collection though I have thinned it out considerable. And I have managed to pass an entire month without buying a single book. I’ve been tempted, sure, but I have strategies to deal with that temptation and I’m finding that those strategies work for many things – not buying clothes, not buying chocolate, not buying those extra few little bits on the weekly shop – and my bank balance is feeling better for it. A strange side-effect of this whole thing is that I’m starting to really get to grips with what really matters to me, once I’ve swept aside all the background noise of the stuff I was doing that I was only doing for the appearance or the impulse of it. I’m not sure it’s just about the books, I think the books have been a really good way of distracting me from confronting the essential meaninglessness of a lot of the things I do, of hiding a core of dissatisfaction that I’ve been swamping with words. And it’s good to sweep it aside. It was time. I’m not ready to settle on a plan yet, but I’m working on it. And that alone has made this restrictive reading approach worth it, and worth continuing. Not great, perhaps, for the publishing industry. But good for me. And I don’t feel a need to bring it to an end; this is not an experiment. It feels like a permanent change, one I’m both happy and willing to continue on for as long as I can keep it up.

 

 

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