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 People who live outside the social norm by being isolated or withdrawn in some way, or fiercely committed to something.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.