The Art of Reading: How To Keep Your Resolution to Read More

We are now one week into January; the decorations are gone, a few mince pies maliciously linger in the kitchen, and all your New Year’s resolutions have already been smashed to cinders.

This making and subsequent breaking of New Year’s resolutions is hardly surprising when you take into the sadomasochistic tendency evident in many of these resolves (‘Lose weight’, ‘See more of my family’, ‘Be a better person’), or in their blatant vagueness.

Take for example the simple and oft repeated declaration: ‘I will read more’. Such an utterance immediately invites the response from any common reader, ‘Oh, what were you thinking of reading?’. At this point the naïve individual may immediately break down, and admit that they cannot think of a single book they want to read; or, even worse, they will name some worthy classic or other which they will then by obliged to read so that they may respond to the kindly enquiries of friends about how they are getting on.

Reading is not a task to be entered upon lightly. It requires patience, social isolation and carries the potential risk of the most potent form of addiction. Nevertheless, it is a worthy endeavour, and to those looking to tread the well-worn path, I offer the following five rules.

Rule the First: Learn how to pretend you are better read than you are

For many readers, the idea that you have never touched a Tolstoy, retreated in to a corner with a Christie or idled an hour away with an Austen will instantly confer on you the distinction of ignoramus, and possibly leave you too dispirited by the sheer quantity of material to begin anywhere.

As a rule, you will find those who feign most indignation on hearing such a thing have probably never read them either, but know enough to know that they ought. In such a case, you may be away with actually lying, and offering a general plot point to back up your statement, particularly if it is a risible one. Any mention of Leopold Bloom’s trip to Sandymount Strand should shut up the conversation about Ulysses immediately (thank God!).

For those annoying individuals who do seem to have read everything, try telling them that a book is at home at your bookshelf but you have not got around to it yet. This will make your bookshelf sound incredibly impressive.

Rule the Second: No Metal bookmarks, ever!

Like any hobby, reading comes with its own paraphernalia which haunt the new ‘accessories’ section of the bookshop. Such items range from Kindles to book jackets through to clip on electronic dictionaries and lights, and nearly all are entirely pointless.

With so many items now available to clip onto your paperback, it is becoming increasing difficult to turn the page or even hold the book, which is probably why they have also started to book stands. When it comes to reading, the only accessory you need is a paper bookmark – but NEVER metal; these only rip the page and fall out of the book, effectively rendering them worse than useless.

That said, a tasteful Penguin Classics mug or canvas bag is an entirely acceptable way of showing off how well read you are becoming.

Rule the Third: Read on dry land

While reading on the daily commute or simply a chapter before bed is a good way to start your new resolution, you will get the most pleasure out of your new hobby by setting out time in your day to read in a more leisurely way.

Allow me in words to lay before the ideal reading scene. It is winter. Preferably there is a frost on the ground. The day’s work is done, and you have the leisure to ideal away an evening. You choose to settle down in a cosy armchair directly facing an open fire. You open a book, sipping on a cup of tea as you start a new chapter. Eventually a cat will settle on your knee (or the animal of your choice). All is well.

What you must never do is try to read in the bath. There are now many contraptions designed for books in this most relaxing of settings – which often also offer wine holders and candle stands to boot. These, alas, never surmount the simplest difficulty this scenario presents: knocking the book into the bath.

Rule the Fourth: No music unless absolutely necessary

Nothing with lyrics! You will end up with a entirely inappropriate association between a song and story. For instance, I now have the misfortune to associate Bram Stoker’s Dracula with Journey’s Any Way You Want It, although you could search for some Freudian association there.

However, during your resolution you will undoubtedly find yourself tested by a particularly dull section of writing. In such a case, there is an argument for forcing yourself through with a particularly jazzy tune for company to speed up the pace of reading and engage those parts of the brain which require some stimulation. There are very few writers who can be eternally dull forever.

Rule the fifth: On a serious note, do read what you like

This sounds easy enough to achieve, and yet in practice people often make the mistake of reading what they are told is good.

Distrust all critics and those who mean you well, and ask yourself the following questions when about to start a book:

  • Am I in the mood for this?
  • Do I want to devote possibly an extended period to this?
  • Is there something I would prefer to read instead?

If the answers to these questions are Yes, Yes and then No, then you should start reading immediately. If you stick to your resolution then one day you will may feel an urge to read Dombey and Sons, or even to pick up Turgenev (I am still waiting for it). Until then, go for P.G. Wodehouse or a nice murder instead.

Image: Anne/ Flickr


World Book Day Recommendations


It’s World Book Day, and I couldn’t bear the idea of letting it go by unremarked. In doing so I am taking up a position quite contrary to the schools I went to, who did not do anything to mark the occasion. True, every so often you would be handed out a bookmark, but this would inevitably (for me at least) be lost before the day was out and hardly constitutes a celebration of the great and the good of literature.

Schools now seem to make a hullabaloo of having children dress up and taking part in quizzes, the value of which in promoting reading I suspect is debatable. More importantly, they give them vouchers for money off books (only £1 admittedly), and this seems to me to be one the best thing they can do.

Now, I am not such a curmudgeon as to completely deride these celebrations. However, I can’t help but think that all these festivities may engender is a continued celebration of the same children’s books – Harry Potters, Roald Dahl and David Walliams; Good these may be, but not for all. For years I was put off reading by continually being advised to read certain books that were deemed appropriate for me (usually Jacqueline Wilson, who I will never like), but failed to capture my interest. What I think (and hope it does do) World Book Day is expose children to a greater variety of literature than they ever have before, even to books that are seen as ‘being for grown-ups’, and I mean that in the most innocent way.

I’ve seen so many well-intentioned, but predictable, lists of ‘the best books’ that I’ve had to change what I was going to write.  I’ve decided to write about the books I wish I had known about, and been recommended to read earlier in life. The flavour of all of these seems to be ‘coming of age’, and perhaps that is not surprising. I think literature is at its best when it is both an escape and a reflection of the messiness of life.

I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith

‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.’ One of the most famous opening lines in fiction, but I was miserably unaware of this until I picked the book up in my late teens. The said writer is Cassandra Mortmain, a seventeen-year old aspiring author, who lives in increasing un-genteel poverty in a ramshackle castle with her eccentric and penniless family. As a means to hone her writing skills, Cassandra duly notes down in sharp and hilarious detail the eccentricities of her family and home. By the time she pens her last entry, six months and three diaries later, she has both captured the castle and the agonies of first love in gut-wrenching detail.
A Testament of Youth – Vera Brittain

I had heard of Vera Brittian, but it took me awhile to get around to her seminal work because I’d been confusing her with Vera Lynn. Fortunately, this misunderstanding with remedied by the time I actually bought the book, which may otherwise have come as rather a shock. A Testament of Youth recounts the experiences of Vera Brittian (tireless pacifism campaigner, not the forces’ sweetheart) during the First World War. The narrative begins with her working to gain entry to the University of Oxford, and her unfurling romance with Roland Leighton. The war comes, and brings nothing but tragedy for both these endeavours, leading her to become a VAD nurse.

A Room of One’s Own – Virginia Woolf

Formed within the courts and quads of Oxbridge and all the rooms in between, A Room of One’s Own is often described as a mere essay, or something that emerged from a series of lectures at Newnham and Girton. A Room of One’s Own – with its empathetic assertion that ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’ – is much more than this: it is an empathetic cry for the vindication of women and writing. This essay captures Woolf at the height of her skills as a writer. Her clear evocation of her observations and arguments has the rare effect of making the extortion of placing pen to paper liberating. While Smith and Brittain may guide you through your youthful agonies, Virginia Woolf provides you with something more precious: the right to your own individual and equal voice.

Image: Stewart Butterfield/Flickr (all creative commons)

Originally published 3rd March, 2016