Monday, 17 March 2014

Read what you Love

So as everyone who has ever interacted with me for longer than 10 minutes can probably gather- I read. A lot.

I have always been a complete bookworm, and in fact seem to recall winning an award with that exact title at the age of 8, around about the same time I ran out of books to read at school, literally.

My relationship with reading has gone through peaks- clearly my time at primary school being an example, and troughs- like following the birth of my first child, when to be honest I'd probably be exaggerating if I said I could count on one hand the number of books I finished in his first year.

Finished being the operative word there. I probably actually started, at least twice as many, but for the first time in years, hell, the first time in a lifetime, I found that I could not read. Sure I could recognise the patterns of letters that made up words and still understood the basic concept of grammar, but when you stuck it all together on a page, I found it just didn't add up. I would start reading a book and get stuck, sometimes on the first page. I'd end up reading the same sentence over and over, still no clearer as to what message it was trying to convey to me seventh time round as I had been the first.

It was a very strange phenomenon and a very frustrating time.

Attempting to read The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, a book I'd started in my 35th week of pregnancy and then gone back to when my son was about three months old, was, as it turns out, a really bad idea. I'm always hesitant to criticise when it comes to books. I would never say a book is shit, unless, you know, it's really shit, but even then- who am I to say? It may not be my cup of tea, but far be it from me to deny it has technical merit or satisfies a void in literature previously unfulfilled.

So, The Historian, for those who haven't read it, is fairly lengthly (for someone who hasn't picked up a book in months and is struggling to concentrate anyway) and dry and full of historical references to Eastern Europe. It wasn't my cup of tea, but I was so thirsty after a four month book drought that I drank (read) it anyway, persevering word by word long after my enthusiasm  had diminished. I thought the problem was with me, and that it could be fixed by just finishing one book, and that it should be this book, the book I'd committed to prior to giving birth.

I did eventually finish (although I was pregnant with my second child by that point- no joke!).  No sooner had I finished however, than I wished I hadn't bothered. The problem may have been me, but forcing myself to read books that didn't spark my interest was not going to be the solution.  In fact I'd go so far as to say that is one surefire way to bury your love of reading in the ground.

What I really needed to do, to reignite my passion for books was to go back to basics.  Like with any skill left to languish I'd become rusty.

At that time, four months in to my parenting journey, I had only just begun to regain any semblance of "free time". This usually consisted of the hours between 7pm and 10.30pm, when I could almost guarantee that Toby would sleep soundly in his co-sleeper crib upstairs, leaving me free to do whatever I liked. You know, just so long as it didn't involve leaving the house, or making any noise, imbibing more than a couple of units of alcohol or entering the bedroom where he slept.  So, like I was saying- I was freeeeee! Sort of.

If you'd asked me what I intended to do with that time when he was a few days old and attached to one of my nipples for twenty hours a day I would have said SLEEP! And, to be perfectly frank, that still should have been my number one choice. But far more than sleep, what I had come to miss was just time. Time to myself. Time with Chris. Time to cherish, time to fritter, having conversations not punctuated by wails or a need to expose my breasts, watching films with gun fire and swear words and nudity without fearing a visit from the nspcc. Eating hot food, using both my hands, and... of course, reading.  I felt not quite whole without a book on the go, but then having The Historian on the go for several months didn't actually help either. My time felt so precious, I was loathe to spend it on anything that didn't seem 100% fulfilling. That didn't necessarily mean it had to meet other people's criteria for "Meaningful Ways to Spend your Time" but it had to feel good and struggling through yet another chapter of a book I wasn't in love with, didn't.

When I finally finished that book I made my first new reading rule: To give up. I'd never ever given up on a book before, so it took some getting used to, but when I tried it, boy was it liberating! To begin reading something and then two or three chapters in decide it wasn't for me, and move on to something else was a revelation. You might think this new found ruthlessness would have gone to my head and I'd be abandoning books left right and centre but truthfully, I used it quite rarely. Like a "Get out of Jail Free" card, I just cashed it in when I really needed to and it worked.

Another thing that really worked was picking up books that I perhaps wouldn't have usually. Trying something new. A lot of the time it made me realise why I wouldn't usually go for that genre, or that author, but other times I was pleasantly surprised and my literary universe widened as a result.

If there's one thing I hate (there isn't- there are loads of things I hate), then it's snobbishness. About anything actually, but especially when it comes to books.

I hate it when people insist they'd never read this or that, or that they simply can't believe that someone has not read y or z.

I read anything and everything. I read newspapers, magazines, takeaway menus, the back of cereal boxes, children's picture books, blogs, poetry, erotica, crime fiction, memoirs, books that everyone is talking about, books that no one else seems to have heard of, library books, bargain basket books, prize-winning books, kindle books and yes, books made of actual real paper too, if you can believe it. I am the opposite of a literary snob, I am in fact, a literary slut. I am wide open to suggestions and will try anything once.

Imposing any kind of restriction on myself as I was re-learning how to love reading, would have been a catastrophe. My time for reading was scant and my attention span even more so. My moods fluctuated wildly day to day, so I might have been "in the mood" to read something one day and be more inclined to have my toenails pulled off with pliers the next. Deciding to only read books on certain lists or by a certain calibre of writer would have simply meant I didn't read at all. And without meaning to sound melodramatic, I think starting to read for pleasure again was pivotal in me moving forward and finding my place in the world as a new mother.

Particularly after the birth of our second child Rudy, when I really struggled to adapt to life as a Mum of two boys under two, and in fact, undoubtedly had PND although I was never officially diagnosed. Two and a half months after his birth, when I was at what was probably one of my lowest points, Chris bought me a Kindle. And although the effects were not instantaneous by any means, it did make reading suddenly a possibility whilst breast feeding (of which I was doing plenty). Previously, needing two free hands to hold a book/turn pages had meant it was impossible, not to mention the rustling of pages distracting/waking the baby (the last thing you want in the middle of a juicy chapter) and of course the perpetual risk of paper cuts to both your hands and the baby's scalp.

No, now I was free to read whatever I liked whenever I liked and although there were some teething issues, within a week I had gone from skeptical to complete convert.  It's no exaggeration to say that having a Kindle (although any e-reader would have done the job I'm sure) transformed my reading habits at that time. Or rather, allowed me to return to my old reading habits- of always having a book on the go, of finishing one book and being hungry for the next, of thinking about books, and talking about books with other people.

There has been a lot of sharing of this quote as of late, along with some debate about the message behind it. I propose the word "DO" ought to be replaced by "READ" and then it would be perfect.

When I hear people say they "don't read" I find it bizarre, and wonder what other life skills they have that are also going to waste. When I hear people say they "don't enjoy reading" I feel sad for them, because I've been there, but I know it can be remedied, if only people would just Read what they love and love what they read then that would be half the battle.

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