Monday, 23 April 2018

The Rules of Reading by Steve Gladwin

You know how it is, you pick up a book and sometimes you’re hardly aware of why - It’s either the one on the top of the pile, or the one you’ve always promised yourself you’ll get round to - something someone else recommended, so you think maybe you should, or just the thing you fancy at that time.

But how many times are we actually aware of how and why we’re reading? The same applies to the book we’re in the middle of. More likely than not we simply pick it up and either find the place thoughtfully guarded for us by the handy bookmark, (some of which regularly go walk about, only to turn up months later down the back of the settee where we'd DEFINITELY looked), or in my case read five or six seemingly familiar pages before I realise I’ve already been there and I can never get that five minutes of my life back!

It’s certainly unlikely that we ever go through the following thought process. Oh, here’s that book I was reading last night that I’m so enjoying. I wonder what it is about it that is so engaging me about this particular author’s style or those well-drawn characters.
More often it’s more a case of let’s get those pages read before I start to nod off.

Another thing I’ve become equally fascinated by in those many bored moments when I can’t get back to sleep due to being obsessed by some stupid bit of trivia, is how fast I read certain parts of a book. Has anyone ever done a comparison of the reading speed of the first fifty pages – that whole getting into a book phase - and the last hundred when we’re screaming all the way downhill towards the startling identity of our villain, or both shattering and unlikely plot twist.

So I’ve decided to ask myself such questions. Feel free to step off and go to sleep any time along the journey, but I hope that at least you will spare a few thoughts to your own reading habits next time you too have those 'can’t get back to sleep' moments.

So here’s what I want to ask myself and therefore you, my eager studio audience.

How much do I think about what I'm reading?
Do I read different sections at different speeds?
What if anything is my regular reading pattern?
When and why do I read certain genres?

I read a lot. To my knowledge I never stop. The only time I remember when I stopped reading for any length of time was years ago when I went to druid camps armed with about four books and never read a page of either! Before and since it’s been almost constant and when you think about it that’s almost scary, because it feels – probably quite rightly - that I just couldn’t live happily without that constant stream of reading, story and inquiry. I remember a few weeks ago I found myself reading only factual books for a few days. Eventually I had to pick up a novel because if any length of time passes without some sort of plot I feel bereft.

I read for many reasons; to engage my brain, to test my brain, to fill my brain - and of course for enjoyment. Certain books I read for fact and knowledge or because they’re describing places and experiences that now I may never know or have, in the same way I watch Planet Earth 2 “ because it’s unlikely that I’ll ever see a three toed sloth in the wild, (unless it’s a quick shock in the bathroom mirror!)

How much do I think about what I'm reading?

I do think about what I’m reading of course, but usually more while I’m actually reading than when I pick up the book, which is more or less automatic. There is usually some debate over whether I read the novel or the historical/ nature/ travel etc book, as I usually have one of both on the go. That is a fairly hard and fast and therefore manageable rule, but just looking around my corner of the settee I find I have the following.

One paperback copy of The Terracotta Dog by Andrea Camilleri.
One paperback copy of The King Arthur Trilogy by Rosemary Sutcliffe.
One hardback copy of The Mabinogi – Poems by Matthew Francis.
The February edition of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society Journal.
One paper back copy of Time’s Oriel – poems by Kevin Crossley Holland.
One paperback copy of Meadowland by John Lewis-Stempel.

At least two of those could actually come under the headings of both work or research, (not that that doesn’t also make them a pleasure!)

 In the meantime any thoughts I might have about any of these is generally only of the ‘which one this time variety.’ I mean you don’t exactly question what you’re already reading, do you, unless it’s because the book is failing my usually strict hundred page rule, where if it hasn’t got your interest by then, it’s out. I do have weak points however, I once plowed through a turgid four hundred page biography of Bruce Springsteen by an academic who had never met either Boss or Band.

If I do think about a book when I’m reading it, it’s usually because ‘the author has put something shocking or unexpected in the plot’, (I read a lot of crime!), or because the writing is either so beautiful, (John Lewis-Stempel), witty and hilarious, (Andrea Camilleri), or thrilling and heart-breaking (Rosemary Sutcliffe). It might be a beautifully caught moment, (Kevin Crossley-Holland/Matthew Francis), or news about yet another CD I probably shouldn’t buy, (Vaughan Williams).

Very rarely do I enjoy a reading experience so immersive that I consciously enjoy every moment of it and slow my reading to accommodate it. This brings us to the next heading.

Do I read different sections at different speeds?

The books that don’t pass my 100 page test just don’t have enough of plot or interest to keep me grabbed. The vast majority of the rest usually manage to grow that feeling over the first fifty or seventy pages if it isn’t there from the start. Yes it can still be a grind, but I do feel like I’m getting somewhere, so I trust my author to provide that breakthrough moment. I suspect it would be interesting if you were to time me at that point, because this can often be like the athlete’s run-up, a sort of limbering or lumbering like a creaking old bear, until you gain the momentum to leave terra firma behind and first float then fly gracefully through the air.

Usually at this early stage I’m still accumulating character detail and motivation or crime scene detail and assimilating it all in my eternal plot computer.

Compare that with the final 120 pages, (which is incidentally the most pages I’ll allow myself to complete a book before snuggle down) and in contrast I must be breaking all records, turning pages feverishly, pulse racing, hand poised over my mouth pre startling revelation. And in between the two there’s that whole middle section, a good half of your average crime novel. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to know at what pace we read each bit and whether that wavers subject to genre, energy levels etc.

What, if anything, is my regular reading pattern?

My own reading pattern is I suppose pretty normal for someone who is self-employed but has always managed to successful separate work and leisure time. I read when I get up, for an hour or so before tea and in the two or so hours before I go to bed. I’m at my most alert in the first, so anything more involved or theoretical, or with small print, (I need new glasses!) is best done then. The pattern is often different at weekends and when I take holidays at Easter and Christmas it’s often the opportunity to read three or four books, something which I take unbounded pleasure in. And I have to say that there is still little to beat the sheer pleasure of living in a book which you just cruise through.

When and why do I read certain genres?

As for genre, well, as regular readers of these blogs may recognise, most of my favourites just happen to be in the above list. I came late to poetry and tend to attack it in short bursts now, reading each poem twice and maybe more if I find it all a bit confusing. I read very little fantasy and not enough children’s books. I read an inordinate amount of crime and detective stories like the rest of my family and we often pass them on to each other.

But I suppose most of us have genre moods too, or maybe it’s as simple as I can’t face another one of that type, I need something different now. Maybe we blitz a whole series of books like we do some series on HBO. I remember reading the quote from Stephen King on Elmore Leonard, which was something along the lines of he went straight out and bought everything ‘Dutch’ had ever written. Well sure, good for Stephen King, who has readies enough and that kind of eccentricity in plenty. I don’t know about you, but I prefer to build a collection of a favourite author gradually, enjoying and savouring it all, having it a course at a time, rather than in a great splurge of a Chinese banquet. In the same way as when we were little we had to actually ‘save up’ for something and in the process grew increasingly excited as our target – rather like one of those ones with Blue Peter milk bottle tops – grew ever closer. It’s nice to have such choice by your bedside or in your bookcase in the ways I’ve suggested, but what’s the use of having everything there on tap?

I haven’t read too many children’s books of late, but I’ve recently and rather late, discovered Rosemary Sutcliff, and having read some of her wonderful take on King Arthur I now want to read everything I missed. But I also want there to be some struggle element in my quest to a complete a collection of her books, some two or three that are almost impossible to obtain and then one day – hey presto!

I like having gaps in my collections, like the fact that there are still a couple of Inspector Montalbano’s I have yet to buy, or still four to go of Phil Rickman’s wonderful Merrily Watkins series, or that I’ve lost track of some of David Almond’s recent books and hope to one day investigate.

And I suppose that’s the thing about books , that the more you set yourself rules, the keener you may end up being to break them, that the more certain you become that doing something one way is right, the more you are reminded of the rogue few who don’t fit the bill or your restrictions. After all the reason we read is often to escape, so why cage the books we read by categorising or setting rules for them.

And yes, I’m talking to myself here!

Steve Gladwin - 'Grove of Seven' and 'The Year in Mind'
Writer, Performer and Teacher

Author of 'The Seven' and 'The Raven's Call'


Susan Price said...

Oh, Rosemary Sutcliffe, yes! She and Henry Treece were the two big stars of my childhood.
Sutcliffe's 'A Sword At Sunset' an adult novel on the 'historical' Arthur; and 'Rider on a White Horse,' a historical novel about General Sir Thomas Fairfax, who fought for Parliament in the Civil War (and saved the stained glass and library at York cathedral.)

Treece -- Viking Dawn, The Road to Miklagard and Viking Sunset.

Steve Gladwin said...

Thanks Sue. As ever a recommendation leads to one for another - don't you just love it! Henry Treece was another who passed me by. As I'm doing something Arthurian at the moment I'm fifty pages into The Once and Future King. Another instance of 'what took you so long.' Cheers.

Ann Turnbull said...

My son gave me The Mabinogi by Matthew Francis for Christmas. I love it - have read it twice already.