Friday, 31 October 2014

My Eyes Are Bigger Than My Bookshelves: October

I haven't read or bought a book all month.

My October was a book lover's desert. At the beginning of the month I read the first few pages of Howard Jacobson's J, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year, and it's been sitting all sleek and beautiful in its monochrome cover by my bed ever since, untouched. I've been dipping in and out of my well-thumbed copy of Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World, because I am co-teaching a mindfulness course for university students that is based on this. But other than those, my recreational pursuit of the written word has taken a serious blow.

The first culprit for my October book desert was a language learning app. I arrived back from Japan feeling quite thankful that in the ordinary way of things I can communicate without every second phrase being 'thank you' or 'sorry', but also feeling suitably chastened about my foreign language skills. A friend recommended Duolingo, a free app with multiple European languages from Danish to Portuguese, and I took the plunge into brushing up French. I set a goal of twenty minutes a day and the little Duolingo owl sent me encouraging reminders every morning. I liked the app, too. It was cute and stretching without being impossible and it had a lovely graph of how much I was doing every day. Everyone has an extra twenty minutes in their day just waiting to be filled with French household items, right? Wrong.

Learning Spanish on Duolingo
One of the things that participants in the Frantic World mindfulness course discover early on is how bizarrely difficult it is to actually demarcate a separate twenty minutes every day for mindfulness practice. At the outset we assume with tremendous faith in ourselves that of course we can manage an extra twenty minutes of this or twenty minutes of that. What we invariably wind up doing, however, is either being twenty minutes late for something, and getting stressed about that - our appointment with our supervisor, friend, or sleep - or simply cutting something else out completely. Jon Kabat-Zinn, doyen of mindfulness-based approaches, makes the point that actually when you begin a mindfulness course, you are going to have to make a choice about what you are not doing to do for eight weeks in order to do your mindfulness practice. If you had a spare half hour in your lives every day, he says, you wouldn't be here.

What does this have to do with reading? In October, Duolingo became the thing that I did last thing at night when I got home from the office or from dinner with friends. The problem was that the thing I used to do last thing at night was read. I was disinclined to miss my appointment with sleep, so I stopped reading. My French was coming on nicely, and I had even flirted briefly with the idea of throwing in ten minutes of daily Italian (my poor brain could not be persuaded to shift into yet another language at ten o' clock at night), but the stack of books next to my bed remained untouched.

Then it was three weeks later and I was feeling distinctly out of sorts. I had this vague fuzzy itchy sense of lack. I felt surprisingly mournful as I dispatched yet another copy of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch - my book of the year - as a gift to a friend in Cambridge. Moreover, Oxford term-time had kicked in and I was really struggling to find the energy in the evenings to translate French sentences about electric wires and newspapers and cleaning products. I started skipping my Duolingo sessions, but I was still going to sleep feeling slightly unsettled. Then it hit me: I hadn't read a book since the end of September.

So last weekend I looked at the literarily challenged landscape of my evenings and decided that enough was enough. With some forceful time reallocation, I'm now a hundred pages into re-reading The Secret History by Donna Tartt. In the same way that the literary world happily waits for a decade in-between the appearance of each novel by Donna Tartt, a hundred pages of the slightly creepy but fascinating Secret History has been almost worth my three weeks of imagination abstinence (just don't remind me how it ends - I last read it when I was thirteen). And now, having learned my lesson, I will pay much closer attention to what gets shelved whenever I try to do something extra - because something always gets shelved, and book abstinence is too high a price to pay.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

My Eyes Are Bigger Than My Bookshelves: September

A month ago, serenaded by the creaking of my bookshelves, I vowed to abstain from buying books for six months and just read a few of the (many) hundreds I already had. This should have been made simpler by the fact that I spent three weeks of September in Japan, where English-language books are in short supply, and book-weighted additions to one's personal belongings rapidly make themselves felt in the strain of lugging a suitcase around the Shinkansen. But - I was in Japan, and I had a Kindle, and I suddenly wanted to read lots of books about Japan and novels set in Japan and, best of all, there are free Kindle titles from the nineteenth century like Unbeaten Tracks in Japan by Isabella L. Bird and the folkloric Tales of Old Japan by Baron Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford. Frankly, who could resist such gems? 

The free Kindle titles made their way into my virtual library - but I made it through the month without buying a single physical book. I managed to read a few, instead:

A Traveller's History of Japan by Richard Tames

I'd wanted to visit Japan ever since I was a child, when my grandmother took me to see Japanese art in the London museums and the Japanese garden at Kew. I was given this book for Christmas a few years ago and when I booked my plane ticket, out it came to be dusted-down. It's a good length and density for a curious but casual traveller; Tames follows a rough chronology of Japanese history and explores it against the country's own origin myths. From the pottery of the prehistoric inhabitants of the Edo plain, to the protracted building of Kyoto, the politics of shoguns and samurai and daimyo (feudal rulers), and the spread of Chinese Buddhism across Japan, Tames offers brief but engaging snapshots of much of Japanese culture and society across time. The second half of the book is a more in-depth account of Japan's twentieth century: its frosty relations with China, Korea, and Russia, all nations jostling for land and superiority in East Asia; back-room stalemate after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima; the economic success story of the 1960s and '70s; later stagnation; and the creation of a pacifist country, only recently persuaded to re-engage in the international military sphere with the despatch of troops to major conflict zones. The book ends abruptly and chronologically, suffering from the lack of a conclusion to draw its themes together; an unfortunate shortcut to the ease of updating future editions.

The Temporary Bride: a memoir of love and food in Iran by Jennifer Klinec 

This sumptuously written memoir submerges its readers in a rosewater-drenched evocation of life - culinary, romantic, and political - for a Western woman in Iran. I reviewed it last month for the Irish Examiner. 

The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson

Those who enjoyed the spectacularly successful The Hundred-Year-Old Man who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared will find much that is delightful and familiar in Jonasson's follow-up novel. Our protagonist is a precocious South African girl called Nombeko, who is infinitely more gifted than any of the idiots hashing up her country, and who is trying to ensure the most effective political destiny for a black books atomic bomb. Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, a pair of Swedish twins find themselves at loggerheads over whether or not the King of Sweden should be deposed and replaced with a modern progressive socialist liberalist republic. Jonasson delights in constructing plots in which literally everything goes wrong. Good intentions go awry, the bad guys find the good guys, there's a liberal sprinkling of spontaneous death, and yet, ultimately, with the neat simplicity of a Zen garden*, it all works out fine. 

*Characterised by immaculately raked gravel patterns with not a smudge in sight. 

A Room With a View by E. M. Forster

Like most classics, this is a book that bears repeated reading at different ages. When I was much younger I appreciated the Italian adventure, the love story, the fusty relatives and the evocation of early twentieth-century genteel semi-urban English society. Now, Forster's psychological insight captivates me. His complex characters, painted with the lightest of touches - Lucy, Cecil, Mr Emerson, the 'dour' George - make the reader half-laugh, half-cry. I re-read this in a guesthouse in Kyoto across a handful of evenings, and felt quite at home. 

With October and the autumn well underway, I steel myself for a month of resisting the call of luminous book covers in cosy Blackwells on a foggy afternoon...