I used to read all the time. As I child, I was a fast and voracious reader. I would sit on my bed and devour every book I could get my hands on. Raised bilingually, I read a lot of German children’s books, like Michael Ende and Erich Kästner, alongside C.S. Lewis, Terry Pratchett and Tolkien. I loved reading, and it was usually the first thing I said when someone asked me ‘What do you do for fun?’ I took an English Literature AS Level (we read Wuthering Heights and Othello) until I abandoned it for other subjects in my A Level year.
Since university, though, my reading has taken a downturn. Don’t get me wrong, I still read. Pullman, Patrick Ness, Suzanne Collins (loved the Hunger Games), more Lewis, Guy Gavriel Kay, Isaac Asimov and more. I read a lot during the year I lived in London and had an hour-long commute twice a day – I got through seventy-four books that year. But notice the authors – lots of fantasy and science-fiction, not so much literature.
In fact, I’ve very rarely tackled any of the great classics. Sure, I’ve read Austen, Dickens, Brontë (Jane Eyre was a revelation in my teens), even some Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment) and Tolstoy (Anna Karenina). But I’ve always been nervous of the classics, as if I don’t have the necessary tools to read them.
Fact is, I read mostly for pleasure, late at night, to wind down. Not the time to be exerting my brain, normally, and I often feel like this type of reading wouldn’t let me do credit to great literature. The classics need attention and patience and time, and so often I feel like I have none of those.
Then, a couple of months ago, I found Susan Wise Bauer’s The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide To the Classical Education You Never Had in our library. This is a guide to how to read classic books – the method by which you read, annotate, summarise, and analyse. This is how great books can enrich your life, I felt, but it demanded commitment, and I shied away from it. I couldn’t possibly commit to reading all of the books on the WEM list (as it’s known) – could I?
I haven’t decided yet whether to pursue that course of action, and I do have to consider carefully the time I have. Yes, Project Renaissance is designed to help me take on some goals and tackle long-put-off projects – but not at the expense of sanity and having time to eat and sleep. Still, I can’t quite resist the temptation to at least consider how I could tackle some great literature.
In the meantime, I want to read more, full stop. I popped into our central library at the weekend, and picked up a great little book (sitting next to The Well-Educated Mind on the shelf of books-about-books) that I recommend to anyone wanting to be inspired to read more.
Stop What You’re Doing And Read This! is a collection of essays by famous authors and literary folk, including Zadie Smith, Mark Haddon and Jeanette Winterson. Each of the authors talks about what reading means to them. There is so much gold in here about the pleasures of reading, but I think my favourite one so far is Tim Parks philosophical essay on Mindful Reading.
The excitement of reading is the precarious one of being alive now, intensely mentally silently alive, and reacting from moment to moment, in the most liquid and intimate sphere of the mind, to someone else’s elusive construction of the precarious business of being alive now. (p.73)
How perfectly put! That’s what I want – to engage my mind, all of it, in the intense purpose of having a conversation in my mind with an author, perhaps long dead, and finding out what they thought about the world, and what I think about the world.
The logistics of making time for a reading project still elude me – suggestions welcome – but more reading generally? More books in my life? Yes, please!