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.