Since this will probably be the last post for a while, permit me a little off-topic indulgence. This probably has way more personal history than you wanted.

I’ve been trying to work out what has been stressing me these last, ooh, 25 years and how to adjust my life accordingly. I don’t want stress, if possible. There have been obvious triggers: for years, staring at financial markets and trying to will them in the right direction, against a backdrop of telephones continuously ringing; the arrival of three children, neatly timed so that no sooner had one dropped the nappies than another arrived; doing an MBA while working; one Monday morning becoming a Special Adviser to a Coalition government that I had never imagined, and for the politician I most admired.  All of these could keep a good psychotherapist busy.

But a constant thread that laces through all these eras is a pressing need to have read what I thought needed reading. I cannot actually recall a time when a nagging sense of not having read enough didn’t weigh on me.  Back in the 1990s the pleasure of visiting a bookshop was always interwoven with a gnawing sense of guilt and negligence on my part, at all the unread pages around me.  This was compounded by the typical style of a normal book review, which in praising or condemning its subject would usually make reference to half a dozen other authors or works.  The Sunday Times Review section became a risk, adding piles to the mental “to read” list.

I sometimes wonder if my first attempted career (books) was a straight consequence of this neurosis.  I worked unpaid at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature (convinced I had to read that year’s Booker list, I failed); and then trotted off to an anonymous corner of the Home Counties to edit encyclopaedias for a year (this was not a dream come true). And read.  Through the simple device of having not enough money for much else, and existing in a pre-Internet fog of Ceefax-level information, I read like never before.  I bought Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon, and chewed through a lot of it.  Just from memory I recall reading …

… Middlemarch, The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner, Madame Bovary, Dubliners, Ulysses, Portrait of the Artist, Byron’s Don Juan, Mansfield Park, Bleak House, Dante Inferno, all of Don Quixote, several of the Rabbit novels, Anna Karenina, half the Canterbury Tales, the first three books of Proust, a fair amount of Montaigne, Vanity Fair, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Shakespeare’s History Plays, Crime and Punishment, the Brothers Karazamov …

and these are just the ones I have a distinct sense impression of reading. There was far more. So often, when I try to remember when I read a book, it was in that year.

Yet, it is a pretty thin list.  Far too little real history, which came much later. Not much American literature, North or South, nothing from Germany, the usual 19th Century bias. And then life got busy, and the Internet got invented, and wandering into a Borders-side cafe with a bag of new books no longer seemed the greatest luxury but an avoidance of more urgent things.

But the neurosis didn’t dissipate, it merely shifted.  Study threw in a whole basket of economics, politics business and history tomes. The Web played a multiple role: flagging more “must reads” (all those guilty purchases of Piketty!); adding high velocity, high quality commentary and endless news sites to the list; and drawing attention to geniuses like Tyler Cowen whose “What I’ve been Reading” posts read like an unsubtle dig at the mortals around us not able to chomp through 20,000 pages of social or economic analysis a month.  The Economics and Politics categories of my Feedly add about 100 per day, and only a minority are garbage.  Now I tend to have 2-3 books on the go at once, usually a novel, biography, history sort of combo, each one fleetingly visited and barely attended to before the eyelids droop, and the Internet fills up the list overnight.

Enough.  Something is clearly broken – the info-surge rather than filling the likes of me with enlightenment instead spreads an even more crushing sense of ignorance.  Men are natural “completists”, but reading is a task that can never be completed.  Our forebears seem to have understood something we cannot any more – the idea of a still, unmovable canon. Read Patrick Lee Fermour’s A Time of Gifts and you witness a supposedly indifferent student supposedly able to amuse himself by reciting great chunks of Horace and Shakespeare from memory as he trudged across central Europe. How? How did all these fantastic Shakespearean phrases get into the language? People from before knew how to limit their reading, and then focus. It doesn’t seem possible any more.

So, stuttering to an end, I am simply curious: does anyone know of a reliable way out of this trap? Is there a good lasting delineation between Must Read and the rest? I have only a few crude methods of self-medication:

  • – Distrust anyone describing anything as “Must Read”, particularly on Twitter
  • – If a new novel really is a classic, it will be more apparent in a couple of years.  Wait.
  • – Delegate: for topics that you are really comfortable with, the brilliant reviews will cover a lot of ground.  The ten or so Piketty reviews have saved me weeks, and added real analysis

But perhaps the best self-medication is to take more pleasure in being ignorant.  After all, it leads to a better conversation.

  • On that topic, I am going to be off for a while to be with more terrifyingly well read people.   The Financial Times has hired me for some months on a Fellowship.  Sorry this is abrupt.

 

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12 thoughts on “All that reading …

  1. For managing stuff that comes at me via the internet, I rely heavily on Pocket (http://www.getpocket.com). There are browser plugins and it integrates nicely with Android phones (and will probably do so on iPhones with iOS 8 when that arrives), and this basically means that my routine, on encountering something that I might want to read, is to scan the first few lines and decide whether or not to ‘Add to Pocket’. If the piece in question is either a) really short or b) really, really good, then I might read it immediately. Otherwise, it goes on the list, and the list is so impossibly long that any illusion of completism is destroyed. I simply assume that if ‘future me’ deems it worth the time to read it, he will, and if he doesn’t then ‘present me’ shouldn’t be wasting the time either.

    This helpfully ensures that I have a list of fairly good, fairly digestible things to read during odd moments on trains or in waiting rooms, without distracting me during times when I need to focus. Having become gradually more comfortable with letting go of the completism, I now find that I don’t worry nearly so much about unread books, sometimes coming back to them 6 months after buying them, whenever the time feels right.

  2. This is a favorite topic of mine, anxiety about reading. Obviously I don’t have answers, but I have thought about this a lot. And I will try to be brief with my thoughts, as there is other reading to do!

    Stay away from most contemporary fiction. I agree with you about these ‘must reads’. I avoid almost all book manias and remind myself that succumbing to them is almost always painful. I will certainly never read Dan Brown, but even “White Teeth” and “Infinite Jest” aren’t things I am in a rush to read. Anything by Don DeLillo, anything by Salmon Rushdie, “A Suitable Boy”, and similar highly pushed contemporary books were almost always disappointing to me. I have learned my lessons.

    Develop serious suspicion of the motives of sources of book recommendations. This is a more generalized version of the previous paragraph. Understanding the motives for recommendations has been critical for me in avoiding lots of stuff. For example, book reviewers need to prove they have read lots of books and so in a review of one book, they mention 6 others. These are not recommendations, these are displays of their union cards.

    Realize that as the no one can read it all, one of the most important things is for someone to read everything good. Or perhaps more elegantly: if everyone is reading it, the marginal value of your reading it is likely to be pretty low. And similarly, if no one is reading it, there might be real value to cracking it. E.E. Evans-Pritchard’s “Theories of Primitive Religion” is my favorite reads in the past few years, a book not just about peoples’ beliefs but also about thinking about others’ beliefs. Phoolan Devi’s autobiography was much more revealing about India than the highly touted fiction the publishing world has sold us in the past 20 years.

    Read things that those you interact with frequently are not reading, and don’t read more than necessary of what those who you interact with frequently are reading. This is a more pointed version of the previous paragraph, but one of the best rewards from reading I find is being able to share the best glimpses from things others will never read. So I read more mathematics and science books than most of my friends and less about politics and late 20th century ‘history’ (if you can really call it that) than they do.

    Cultivate a cannon or two, just to know what depth feels like. It is impossible to be thoroughly versed in everything, but knowing one part of antiquity very well and as well as one topic across time, in my case financial crises , gives me a glimpse into what real depth feels like. I think having real depth in one area reduces my need to go very deep in others. I know that the additional book on the topic might help illuminate, but it almost certainly won’t do so easily.

    And finally, and perhaps most importantly, realize a big part of the value of reading happens away from the actual act. When I have tried to just read constantly it has been painful and unrewarding. But when I have mixed reading with periods of contemplation, I have found both richer synthesises of things and a reduced compulsion (<-my most carefully chosen word so far) to read more. My solution is to make time for walking where I digest my readings. Something similar worked for the peripatetics and it is the source of a great Latin phrase, solvitur ambulando: it is solved by walking. Perhaps this is the real lesson you are presenting from “A Time of Gifts”? I don’t know for sure, as I haven’t read it!

  3. This is a favorite topic of mine, anxiety about reading. Obviously I don’t have answers, but I have thought about this a lot. And I will try to be brief with my thoughts, as there is other reading to do!

    Stay away from most contemporary fiction. I agree with you about these ‘must reads’. I avoid almost all book manias and remind myself that succumbing to them is almost always painful. I will certainly never read Dan Brown, but even “White Teeth” and “Infinite Jest” aren’t things I am in a rush to read. Anything by Don DeLillo, anything by Salmon Rushdie, “A Suitable Boy”, and similar highly pushed contemporary books were almost always disappointing to me. I have learned my lessons.

    Develop serious suspicion of the motives of sources of book recommendations. This is a more generalized version of the previous paragraph. Understanding the motives for recommendations has been critical for me in avoiding lots of stuff. For example, book reviewers need to prove they have read lots of books and so in a review of one book, they mention 6 others. These are not recommendations, these are displays of their union cards.

    Realize that as the no one can read it all, one of the most important things is for someone to read everything good. Or perhaps more elegantly: if everyone is reading it, the marginal value of your reading it is likely to be pretty low. And similarly, if no one is reading it, there might be real value to cracking it. E.E. Evans-Pritchard’s “Theories of Primitive Religion” is my favorite reads in the past few years, a book not just about peoples’ beliefs but also about thinking about others’ beliefs. Phoolan Devi’s autobiography was much more revealing about India than the highly touted fiction the publishing world has sold us in the past 20 years.

    Read things that those you interact with frequently are not reading, and don’t read more than necessary of what those who you interact with frequently are reading. This is a more pointed version of the previous paragraph, but one of the best rewards from reading I find is being able to share the best glimpses from things others will never read. So I read more mathematics and science books than most of my friends and less about politics and late 20th century ‘history’ (if you can really call it that) than they do.

    Cultivate a cannon or two, just to know what depth feels like. It impossible to be thoroughly versed in everything, but knowing one part of antiquity very well and as well as one topic across time, in my case financial crisises , gives me a glimpse into what real depth feels like. I think having real depth in one area reduces my need to go very deep in others. I know that the additional book on the topic might help illuminate, but it almost certainly won’t do so easily.

    And finally, and perhaps most importantly, realize a big part of the value of reading happens away from the actual act. When I have tried to just read constantly it has been painful and unrewarding. But when I have mixed reading with periods of contemplation, I have found both richer synthesises of things and a reduced compulsion (<-my most carefully chosen word so far) to read more. My solution is to make time for walking where I digest my readings. Something similar worked for the peripatetics and it is the source of a great Latin phrase, solvitur ambulando: it is solved by walking. Perhaps this is the real lesson you are presenting from “A Time of Gifts”? I don’t know for sure, as I haven’t read it!

    1. Hi Dikaios

      I have just published this one – sorry it was so late, I am clearly not administering very well. Tell me if you want me to publish the other one as well – I am not sure I could see your email address in there, but may be a bit slow.

      G

  4. Great post. Completely understand. I was like this myself. Techniques, beyond a certain point, don’t help. Mindset needs to encompass the issue

    Two things helped me:
    1. I came to understand – in the sense of inwardly digest – that the journey IS the reward. So, as long as you are going in the right direction, enjoy it. You are a fool if you don’t. We are all pilgrims on the path, and there is no ‘top’

    2. I came to understand – in the sense of experienced it – that learning is a compound function. The same input effort five years from now, will yield a greater return than today’s effort. You can join more dots. So keep walking. It is a marathon not a sprint. There is truth to the observation “if only the young knew; if only the old could”

    One dumb little technique was vital for me – but this is Learning 101. I take notes and keep the notes. Everyone’s memory is terrible. A half-remembered point of clarity is as useful as a half-remembered joke

    Enjoy the journey

  5. Giles,this is even better than the previous but one which I thought was your best ever ! We both read it in bed over a cup of tea and were just wiped out by the clarity, searing honesty and elegance of your writing. So proud of you ! The usual suspects in our reading circle of friends will be treated to it. We’ll be thinking of you as you start the next chapter of your life. I hope that you enjoy it immensely and that you find congenial colleagues. Remember that you might find amongst new contacts a few who are perhaps very competitive and jealous as a result……The over protective mother still hovers at a distance. We are just absurdly proud of you for this but even more for the wonderful son,husband and parent you have grown into. So much love to you and yours Mum Xxxx Sent from my iPad

    >

  6. Congrats on the FT role.

    I’ve found two things work really well for me. First, audio books and podcasts on my commute. Without spending any time ‘reading’ I end up digesting the best part of 10 hours of audio a week, which is equal to a book plus a few thoughtful podcasts. I’ve also been careful to select podcasts which usually result in me feeling better informed about books rather than having to go and read more books.

    Second, writing a review after each book I read – often for my blog/Amazon though not always – which forces me to think what I’ve learnt from the book and provides a record I can go back to. The ones I don’t blog get written down and stuck into the cover of the book

  7. Thank you everyone for the kind words – and really useful insights too. My first day at the FT confirmed for me that at first I will not have much time for any of this blog or extra reading – but this may pass. Let’s see

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