I’ve become increasingly concerned by my inability to sit and read for any length of time. While there was a time, not that long ago, when I could sit for hours reading, the onset of middle age and my worrying addiction to Twitter has eroded that brain power and I now struggle to sit for very long without looking for something else to keep my attention. As Nicholas Carr famously wrote in 2008:
‘Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.’ ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’
I’m not getting stupid. I’m just changing. And I don’t like it.
I recall my days living in Greece with not much to do but read. I would set my alarm for six in the morning and leave it by the kettle. In the morning I would switch the alarm off and the kettle on, returning to bed with a coffee and a book and read fifty pages. Without stopping. Every day. Then I’d go back to sleep. I ploughed through books. Now I can barely reach ten pages.
Since reading Thomas Newkirk’s ‘The Art of Slow Reading’ and Alan Jacobs’ ‘The Pleasure of Reading in an Age of Distraction’, I’ve thought very carefully about that change in the way my brain operates. Is it merely that I’m getting old or just too exhausted from work to spend as much time reading as I used to? I’ve decided that this summer I’ll test that out: I’ll try to rediscover that joy in sitting quietly, reading for pleasure, for long periods of time.
I suppose ‘War and Peace’ might not be the best choice for the project. It’s fifteen hundred pages long, after all. So why this book? I suppose because this particular one has been a bit of a reading cliche in terms of literature of cerebral heft, perhaps the comedy symbol of intellectual achievement. I’m on the verge of a fairly significant birthday and I haven’t read it and know little about it apart from the fact that Tolstoy originally called it ‘War. What is it Good For?’ (Seinfeld fans will get the joke.)
However, as one hoping to return to being a serious reader, there is no better place to start than the Russian Masters. I can’t believe I once spent time reading and discussing Dostoevsky as I did in my twenties; or ravenously devouring Chekov’s stories. What happens to us? What happened to me?
So, on the first day of my summer holidays, I opened up my second hand copy of ‘War and Peace’ and began to read. Five pages here and there, not even making it to ten, I managed fifty pages yesterday. There appears to be a lot of parties and Twitter apparently has less characters, but it is beautifully written, of course. Today, I managed to read ten pages at a time and hope to get to page one hundred. The serious side to this might be to test myself as a reader once more. I read a lot of teen fiction for school and much of my free time is taken up with educational books. Serious literature often seems like part of my past now.
I’d like to be able to say, by my return to school, that I can sit down and read for an hour again without distractions. Perhaps ‘War and Peace’ will take me there. Perhaps it will lead me in an exciting new direction. But perhaps not.
It might not help that I’m also reading ‘Ulysses’, one page every day. It’s been on my shelf for years and is beginning to annoy me. Wish me luck.