I HAVE BEEN THINKING ABOUT MY READING HABITS RECENTLY
I’M READING AS MUCH AS EVER—PROBABLY A GREAT DEAL MORE—BUT FEWER BOOKS
TIME TO REDRESS THAT INBALANCE
I DON’T JUST LIKE BOOKS. I LIKE BABIES TOO.
MY GRAND NIECE, ANAYA
I owe so much to books (and, therefore, to their authors) that it is a debt that I can never repay. All I can do is pay it forward—by writing myself—and by helping other writers where I can.
I was introduced to stories by my grandmother—who excelled at reading out loud. However, I wasn’t a particularly early reader. My stays on my grandmother’s farm were not really long enough for her to settle into the habit of teaching me—and anyway I think she liked to read out-loud. And I loved to be read to. Back in those days, I had my grandmother to myself. They were very special times in my life—and I remained my grandmother s favorite. She was my emotional rock—and particularly good in a crisis. After she died in 1976, I knew my world would never be the same—and it hasn’t been. I got over that sense of desolation that marked her passing some time ago—but I still grieve. Anyone who who lost someone very special will know that the feeling comes and goes in waves. I don’t grieve every day—that would be too hard—but she is constantly in my thoughts. She would be very pleased that I became a writer.
It’s a great thing to have been loved by such a person. She was genuinely good. She helped her family, the local community, and the new Irish nation with equal generosity.
As for my mother, she was a performer—not a teacher. If she wasn’t the center of attention she would devise some way to secure it. When she tried to teach me something—which was rare—she would invariably become violent—which made the whole experience fraught (and painful). She had been brought up an only child—and knew impressively little about male children—but had picked up the notion that boys should be beaten at the slightest provocation—real or imagined. She put that belief into practice with vigor. I fought back—it was my first introduction to asymmetric warfare (the weak against the strong)—and my punishment was boarding-school. It was a long and terribly punishment—but eventually I learned to both cope and thrive.
I have been trying to think of a few things she consciously taught me—as opposed to my learning through exposure—and I can recall only two. She taught me to change diapers at a very early age because she needed help looking after my younger siblings (I was to end up with 11) and she taught me to ride a bike. The lest said about the latter traumatic experience the better. As for diapers, the downside was that they were not disposable in those days. On the other hand, I love babies to this day—and don’t object to changing diapers at all. Where babies are concerned, you accept the whole package—and it is always worth it.
As a consequence, when I was sent to boarding-school at the age of five I couldn’t read—which made learning somewhat difficult. It took a whole term before anyone figured out the problem. It hadn’t occurred to anyone because all the other boys—being three years older than me—could read. I had been sent to boarding-school way too young. I was the youngest and smallest boy in the school—a fact that was to cause me endless problems. Above all, I was physically incapable of defending myself adequately so was bullied for years. Over time, I was to grow and learn to fight with considerable lethality—but meanwhile there were years to endure.
Life would have been intolerable except that during my second term, a rather mousy teacher called Miss Johnson figured out that I could neither read not write—so taught me both. It didn’t take long. By my sixth birthday, I could not only read, but had discovered the school library—and adventure stories. Thereafter, I had as little to do with real life as possible. I read voraciously—and everywhere. I was virtually never without a book in my hand.
I didn’t just read. I thought about what I read. As a consequence, I developed a very different mental model of the world than that of my peers. When you know more (or what you know is different and has context), you have a greater sense of what is possible—and your perspective changes. It doesn’t just change a little—or it didn’t in my case—it changes dramatically.
Being better informed—and thinking more does not equate to an easier life. It’s inherently unsettling. It alienates you from your fellows in many ways—and can be deeply troubling in that although you know perfectly well there are solutions to many of the issues that face us—and opportunities we are missing—you also know that you are exceedingly unlikely to persuade others of that fact.
It has taken me some time to come to terms with that reality. Now, I continue the fight—but with limited expectations. I’m easy with that. I have fought the good fight in the past, have paid my dues, and have had enough success to make me feel the efforts were justified. I have also had enough failures to give me a taste (probably no more than that) of the practical.
I don’t lump books in with reading in general. Whereas a newspaper article can be hammered out in a few hours or less—sometimes only minutes—any book of caliber (note the qualification) takes months or years to complete—and is a distillation of much greater effort and experience over decades in most cases.
The length of a book also has a profound effect on its content. Hundreds of pages allow space for the theme to be developed and for many more of the subtleties of the human condition to feature.
A good book is a profound intellectual creation and represents an extraordinary level of commitment in time, talent, knowledge, experience, and intensity—and constitutes human endeavor at its finest. Here, I’m not trying to say that writing is a superior artistic form, or a more advanced intellectual achievement, but merely to affirm that writing such a book ranks along with the foremost human accomplishments. Writing a good book is a staggering achievement and requires a complex blend of talents including stamina and fortitude. It can take years and often does. It rarely pays in purely monetary terms.
Here let me be clear that I am also quite fascinated by other human endeavors—whatever they may be—but that books grabbed me first. Also, let me be clear—I seem to lack the necessary talent where such skills as music are concerned. I wish it were otherwise.
Books are also phenomenal teachers. Although I have been fortunate to have had some great teachers in my life—a minority, sad to say, of all the teachers I have suffered under, I can safely say that most of what I have learned has either come from books or books have fleshed out what I have been told. Generally speaking, people in general are neither particularly good verbal communicators nor teachers. In contrast, a good book not only explains with great clarity, but you can refer back to it as often as is necessary. Books are accessible, patient—and independent. You don’t need to connect them to anything except your brain.
For most of my life, I have been reading two to three books a week, but in 2010 cut back as a byproduct of trying to change the way I work completely—and, when I felt I had learned enough, publish my own books (or have them published independent of traditional publishing).
That exercise, which has been partially successful and is still underway, has been particularly time-consuming. Reading time has been a victim.
I don’t pretend that voracious reading doesn’t have its downside—there is really no substitute for reality (reading about being under fire is not the same as the actual experience) but I have lived a pretty full, rich, active life as well—and have no doubt but that was enhanced by the reading I did beforehand. A strange thing about life is that the more you know, the more people will tell you. Knowledge breeds knowledge.
I have now decided that my current lack of book reading is unacceptable. Although the internet is an extraordinary resource, and you can find out almost anything if you are prepared to look hard enough, I don’t find it nearly as wise, fulfilling, immersive, and release-giving as a good book—and doubt I ever will. Also, reading a book engenders an unparalleled freedom of the spirit—a greater freedom than most of us experience in real life..
I feel as joyous about writing books as I do about reading them—perhaps even more so. But it’s not a contest. The two are as one.
VOR words 1,484.