I’ve been thinking a lot about reading recently, after a reading fest on holiday over Christmas in which I chewed my way through four novels and finished off a fifth. You could say I’m a voracious reader, but I’m not. I used to be.
A phenomenon of recent years for me has been the loss of my reading ‘mojo’ – in times of stress I’ve found I lose my ability to concentrate on anything longer than a magazine article, or even a tweet. Novels are completely out of the question. The first time it happened to me I was really scared. All my life I’ve chain-read books – probably from the moment I discovered Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers I’ve had a book on the go, and my heaving bookshelves are testament to it. My heaving bookshelves are also a testament to how much reading I did through the nineties and noughties – there is a definite tail-off in the tenties and I blame the recurring loss of my Reading Mojo.
When, after that first episode, my RM returned I whooped for joy. Oh thank goodness. It was on holiday and I’d taken a few novels with me, just in case. Discovering Japanese author Haruki Murakami was the greatest joy – you could never experience the surreal world he creates with words in a movie or a TV show, which is what I’d turned to in a book-less world. I’d also taken Fifty Shades of Grey, which I have to say, with its terrible, laughable writing and implausible plotting, made me race through a novel in record time. So much so I wished I’d taken books two and three on holiday with me to feed the reawakening beast of my RM. At that time, E L James’s trilogy wasn’t a global phenomenon so I sat reading it in the hotel and on the beach in Turkey, the only one unashamedly brandishing the grey cover in public.
Straight after that holiday, the RM disappeared again but I realised what was causing it. The twin troubles of work/life stress and the distraction of social media. I knew that as soon as I prepared to read a novel in bed, I’d be checking my phone instead. I switched to reading an online newspaper which gave me the short bursts of reading material I could handle. I started to enjoy the writing of great journalists, especially female ones, and got into intelligent TV series like Breaking Bad, House of Cards or The Bridge. I could consume no end of ‘content’ but the desire for it stopped short of novels or narrative non fiction because they took too long to consume. I wanted my content fast and immediate.
Having once been an advocate of e-reading – I set up a digital list in my former job and believed that the whole world would go ‘e’ in a matter of years – reading e-books just didn’t do it for my mojo. Something was lost from the experience of reading Richard Burton’s diaries that I knew would come from having the book in my hands, continually turning to the cover image, the plate-section images or the back-cover copy, to supplement the world I was entering. I read about half before leaving it alone. It’s still unfinished.
I know lots of people who only read on Kindles and they tend to be the really voracious ones, who always have to be reading something. For me, it’s not just the act of taking in words from a page or a screen, it’s an immersive thing where exactly the right book has to be chosen, the physical setting around me has to be perfect and I have to be extremely comfortable. I can’t just sit on the sofa at home reading anything – I get bored and it’s not the most comfortable thing for me (my neck hurts). Rarely does a book capture me so much that I would sit on the sofa reading. Even now, writing this, I’ve left my current book, The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig, on my bedside table, preferring to sit with my laptop on the sofa while I contemplate what I’ve just done – lain in my warm bed with coffee for a couple of hours reading. Quietly. No distractions.
It’s such a rare thing that the RM keeps going after a holiday that I almost want to run around shouting for joy. I have to be careful about what I read next so I don’t scare it away again. Zweig is a master of storytelling and it is this that propels me on, as well as the joy of discovering his post-World War One Austrian world. I’ve always found foreign locations a really big reading-mojo turn-on.
I rarely read a novel that is based in the UK – I mainly gravitate towards exotic locations and ‘other’ experiences and UK-based ones are too familiar. I credit Gabriel Garcia Marquez with this gravitation, as he was the start of my lifelong love of Latin American writing and magical realism. His death is the only author’s I’ve ever actually cried over. I credit him with changing the way my brain works in my late teens, with Love in the Time of Cholera. Since then, I’ve chewed through them all: Allende, Esquivel, Llosa, the more recent Junot Diaz, and Irish author Niall Williams who writes in the same tradition. My current passion for the surreal realism of Murakami fits with this trend of loving stories of ordinary life in exotic locations that are tinged with magic and the unexpected. I want my life to reflect all of those things.
And then there’s my passion for travel writing. I love joining an author – my favourite is Paul Theroux (Louis’ dad) – as he sets out on a journey into the unknown. I travel in my mind with them, every step of the way, and I’m overcome with post-holiday blues when the books end. Because men are more easily able to travel alone, most of the writers I read are single and male and I long for their unfettered freedom. I think that’s why I find them really enticing, and why I loved Cheryl Strayed’s Wild so much. She entered that realm and as a woman, she is a rare thing.
Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts is probably my favourite cross-breed of writing – a true story ‘enhanced’ by the author with unexpected and extraordinary events. I don’t care that he’s embellished the story of his time in India – it’s still one of the best books I’ve ever read, and at one thousand pages long, I was surprised when I still didn’t want it to end.
With the recent return of my reading mojo, I was reminded how lucky I am to be able to access the world of writing when I learned that former model Alicia Douvall has only just learned the alphabet. In her mid-thirties. She appeared on Celebrity Big Brother (I watch crap TV when I’m not reading) and admitted that letters and shapes were new to her world. I can’t imagine a scenario where I wasn’t able to become immersed in the world that an author has created and I realised that it is a privilege. Whether it’s a journey, a magically enhanced world or a brilliant bit of social history, all of these things change the way my brain works and make me see the world in subtly different ways. Reading someone like Zweig, you realise you’re accessing the brain of someone who lives 100 years ago in post-Archduke Ferdinand Austria. How else could you do that? No amount of movies or TV is going to give you that unique insight into another human.
So for now, the Reading Mojo is back and I am grateful. Long live the Reading Mojo.