There was a time in my twenties and thirties when I read (or speed-read) about 30-40 books a month, as part of my job as a book reviewer and columnist. In some weeks, the number of books I read ran higher than 10, though 15 was the maximum I could safely attempt. People almost always express surprise at these numbers, but they’re not that astonishing.
Aside from editors, agents and publishers, lawyers, academics, businessmen and even scientists who stay in touch with technical journals would read roughly similar quantities of reports, cases, papers etcetera every week. And one of the joys of the book reviewing life is that you don’t have to waste time attending meetings, which gives you more time to read. I learned also how to slow down and savour the few books that were genuinely rewarding.
The real risk of that kind of reading isn’t in the quantity of what you’re reading, but the quality. The danger of the newspaper reviewer’s life is that you read too much in the present, and too much of what you read is, inevitably, mediocre. For years, I ignored those minor hazards because the job was irresistible — I have never lost that first sense of wonder, at the idea that someone might actually pay you to read books for a living. But then I started secretly writing stories, and the tyranny of reading chiefly books written not even in this century or this decade but this year began to chafe.
I still love writing about books, but I have never gone back to that kind of frenetic reading schedule again. As the years go by, your reading time becomes increasingly precious. There are only so many books you will finish in a lifetime. Most people are necessarily haphazard readers, their reading life shaped by professional necessity. The media pays attention chiefly to what is written in this moment, of this age, and yet the strongest connection we have between us and the centuries past is the books written by humans who lived long before our own times.
When I read Ceridwen Dovey’s Can Reading Make You Happier, I understood immediately, and intimately, why she set so much store in bibliotherapy, or the “restorative power of reading fiction”, preferably assisted by a trained Book Doctor.
In 2009, I quit my job as a publisher and spent several months sorting out my life. It was a rich year: I finally began writing instead of just thinking about books I wanted to write, and it was also the year when I sought out specialists and therapists to try and change the fallout from the past in my personal life. Like many people in the literary world, I had never really read self-help books, beyond the ones that we gleefully parodied.
Since I was taking time off to do relatively unusual things, I drew up a list of 100 self-help bestsellers and classics, approaching them with an open mind. It was a curious experiment, and it had unexpected results. I did not enjoy reading self-help as much as I had hoped to — the language of the genre is distinct, and has its own conventions, just as much as crime noir or speculative fiction. Many acknowledged self-help classics relied on the patient repetition of points already made, which grated on my fiction-and-poetry-tuned nerves.
But the rewards were subtle, and took time to manifest. Years of reading fiction had heightened my sense of wonder, and lent me an unshakeable sense of companionship (even kinship), sometimes with authors long dead or places now unreachable. The self-help shelf let me discover interests and enthusiasms that I would previously not have turned towards, or been too diffident to acknowledge.
I read books on yoga from Patanjali’s Sutras onwards, works on meditation and at a much more basic level, Buddhism, starting with Thích Nhất Hạnh, Pema Chodron and some core texts, the whole vast library of modern popular neuroscience classics from Vilyanur Ramachandran and Oliver Sacks to Daniel Kahnemann and company, drifted through Marcus Aurelius and the Bhakti saints, liking the texture of their disparate voices.
I had already begun, tentatively, to read about animal intelligence and the rights of non-human species: this seems to be slowly broadening into a wider interest in nature writing, accompanied by the painful realisation of my own illiteracy in naming trees, leaves, species, the things of this earth.
My Kindle, which keeps a more honest record of a reader’s real tastes than their own memories might, records a growing fascination with books on creativity, on the art of writing, on food and gluttony in general, and on the history of science. I cannot explain exactly how reading self-help classics made it easier for me to claim my own interests, however shallow and basic these can be. Perhaps it was simply the focus on books that were written with the understanding that everyone wants to improve their lives, to understand their world a little better.
This week, in the wake of Dovey’s piece, many of my friends were discussing bibliotherapy and the seductive possibilities of a career as a bibliotherapist. It sounds like such a great job: you meet someone for an hour, ask questions about their reading habits and give them a reading list that they would not have had the time or resources to come up with on their own.
Trained bibliotherapists go a lot deeper, often holding multiple sessions with clients over a period of years. They understand that when those who grew up with books talk about what they read and what they loved reading, they are sharing so much about their lives, relationships, memories, families, perhaps even their truest, deepest selves. What they do is the exact opposite of being asked at a party which of the latest bestsellers you would recommend. There is no intimacy in that kind of recommendation. The closer a friend is, the more time and thought it takes to unearth books that you know they will not just love, but that they needed and will cherish.
I spent an hour or so indulging pleasant fantasies of being a bibliotherapist — that’s what you do anyway as a reviewer, write about books in the hopes that they will find the readers they deserve — before reality descended. Because what I’d really love to do for friends (or strangers) would be to create perfect, collaborative lifetime reading plans, as crucial and as carefully planned as people plan their homes, and as often restored and redecorated. And this, sadly, is a non-starter; most people can just about make the room in their lives and budgets for a Book Doctor, but where is the demand for Book Architects?
Instead, I went back to my small library and my computer, and drew up another Nilroy Reading Plan for the next decade. It was as self-indulgent, and as satisfying, as throwing out your old wardrobe and shopping for a brand-new set of clothes, and I recommend it to everybody.
Pushkin Press and The Wildings:
Very happy to share this, among the small drifts of good news this week: the cats of Nizamuddin will soon be in London, and in Canada/ the US, thanks to my agent David Godwin’s magic. Pushkin Press, one of my favourite indies, will be publishing The Wildings and The Hundred Names of Darkness in the UK in 2016, and Penguin Random House Canada will be doing the honours in North America.