In his wonderful book The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, David Ulin writes that reading is “an act of resistance in a landscape of distraction, a matter of engagement in a society that seems to want nothing more than for us to disengage. It connects us at the deepest levels”.
I remember reading Ulin, very clearly. Recently I took two years away from my writing and coaching career to pursue teaching English and Drama in secondary schools. At present, I’m freelance again, writing my first play and coaching writers, but I know my experience in education will shape all that I go on to do in future.
I read Ulin’s book at the end of my PGCE year, where distracted reading was the name of the game. How was it possible, I often wondered, to read books of my choice when I was so inundated with academic essays and course-related reading, so bogged down in lesson-planning and coping with the day-to-day reality of the classroom?
Ulin’s words struck a powerful chord with me, and his book is one that I like to return to when I need a reminder to leave social media alone and to return to the more sacred space of the printed page. And of course, for any writer, a connection to the written word is key. We learn to write partly through reading; the books we read help to form our voices as writers.
So, at this time of year, as I think about my writing in the year ahead, I like to also take stock of the reading year that has just passed. How did I do? Was I focused? Distracted? Engaged?
It’s easy, of course, when we look back at our reading year to compare ourselves to others as if reading were some kind of competitive pursuit. I know I’m guilty of this. Oh no, I didn’t read The Goldfinch! I judge myself and always too harshly. Until July 2014, I was teaching English full time in a secondary school, my NQT year. Is it any wonder that I didn’t read ‘enough’? That I feel ‘behind’? As if I’ve somehow failed, for not living up to Ulin’s ideal.
Yet doesn’t this kind of attitude undermine the purpose of reading? Ulin writes that reading is “a slicing through of all the noise and the ephemera, a cutting to the chase. There is something thrilling about it, this unburdening, the idea of getting at a truth so profound that, for a moment anyway, we become transcendent in the fullest sense“. We read for so many reasons: to engage with another mind; to learn; to delve into another world; to become a better writer; to develop our sensibility and our viewpoint on the world…
So here we are with a fresh New Year ahead of us. For me, it is certainly a time to reflect on what I have read, but also to look forward and make plans for what I want to read and how I want to read; also to consider how my reading will support me as a writer.
I began by considering a few simple questions. What was my experience of reading like last year? Did it have a pattern? When did I read in the most focused way? How did I choose the books I read? If I left a book unfinished, why was that?
If you conduct your own reading review, you could start with questions like these and journal your responses. If you were disappointed, why? Was there a particular book that thrilled you? What did you learn about yourself as a reader?
Looking back, I see that focused reading is most possible when our lives are not over full. After a lifetime of freelancing, I found it incredibly difficult to adapt to a more-than-full-time job that left little personal space for me as a creative individual. Much as I loved working with the girls, it wasn’t possible for me to devote enough focused energy to reading when my mind was seldom quiet. In the first half of the year, I skittered about with books: re-read a few Shakespeare plays that I was teaching; the latest YA novels to keep up with the interests of the girls; a few novels written by friends and clients. It wasn’t until the summer, holidaying in Florence, when I dived into Paul Strathern’s book on ‘The Medici’, that I read entirely for myself. Inevitably, stories began to spring to mind, stories which I’m holding onto for now, but which I know will be waiting for me, when I am ready for them to unfold. Once I had space to read freely, my imagination began to expand.
In the final third of the year, my reading turned to drama and I read plays and books on the craft of playwriting, as I studied playwriting at The Rose Theatre, Kingston, an excellent course under Stephen Brown, which I highly recommend, just beginning again today (but it may not be too late!)
Yet in the process of my reading review, I realised much about my reading patterns this year. It was easy for me to undermine my experience in the classroom. But hold on! I wasn’t just teaching those girls; I was learning from them. I learned what they loved to read, what they related to. I witnessed first-hand how some could dive into quiet reading time in an instant, whilst others, for so many reasons, were so distracted, so wired, that it was almost impossible for them to read at all. It wasn’t easy, but I tried, so hard, to engage all of them, to encourage them to love reading the way that I do. At the beginning of my teaching year, I made pretty bunting to inspire the girls and when I look at it, I see books that I taught last year and therefore re-read. Ah – those books weren’t on my official ‘list’. Yet how can I forget teaching ‘Animal Farm’ and the drama the girls created in the summer on the playing field, based on that book? I’ll never forget that, nor will I forget how I saw ‘An Inspector Calls’ differently when I had to teach it to girls who had so little inherent interest in Priestley and his perception of society.
Before I conducted my review, I saw my reading as ‘unfocused’, as ‘not enough’. I wondered why I hadn’t found time to get to the latest contemporary fiction, when in fact I was instead discovering contemporary drama. I counted ‘reading’ as the moments I spent alone, reading books that I had chosen to read, forgetting the books and short stories that I read in the classroom with the girls. Yet how much more of a pleasure was it to read ‘Turned’ by Charlotte Perkins-Gilman with a group of top set Year 9s who examined the story in depth and with great intelligence, than it would have been to read that story alone? What fun we had reading Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Whole Town is Sleeping’ aloud – oh the tension of it! Reading William Trevor’s short stories in the summer was absorbing, I learned much from his style, from his quiet precision, but those readings of classic stories in the classroom remain deeply embedded in my memory. As I think back to my year, I am almost tempted to return to the classroom…
Except that I have books to write and I need quiet time – and what I realised most of all last year is that I am a writer, first and foremost. I ended the year reading fiction again, returning to Ishiguro and becoming absorbed in his first novel ‘A Pale View of Hills’, thinking about the nature of the unreliable narrator and the surprises that authors can spring on readers, about elegance of prose style, about what is unsaid…
So – a year lies ahead of me. I will write a second post about planning one’s reading for the year (can one plan? should reading not, rather, just unfold?), what I hope my reading year will look like, and in the process I will no doubt continue to explore what reading means to me.
I end the year not counting the number of books I have read (not enough, never enough!) but rather being grateful for the intense experiences that books have offered me in the year that has passed.
If you would like to conduct your own reading review, here are those questions again:
- What was your experience of reading like last year?
- Did it have a pattern?
- When did you read in a focused way?
- How did you choose the books you read?
- If you left a book unfinished, why was that?
- Were you disappointed?
- Were you thrilled?
- What did you learn about yourself as a reader?
I would love to hear about your reading year – do let me know in the comments what kind of a year you had – and which books you read in 2014 that you would recommend to others?
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