We, the readers, are busy.
We are not reading in bubble baths. We are not reading on swings, in meadows, in personal leather-tiled libraries. We’re snatching minutes before the lights go out, we’re rifling through a few pages in a queue at the post office, we’re deciding to take the bus because it offers the opportunity to polish off a chapter. I commonly walk down High Holborn with nose in book. It makes me feel like Brigitta in the Sound of Music and it’s the only way I finish anything.
In my London circle, having no time is a badge of honour. “Oh, I never watch TV. How DO you find the time?” is a pet hate passive aggressive statement. Of COURSE you don’t have time. No, you’re FAR too busy running marathons and learning Mandarin while I lie prone in front of Game of Thrones.
In this context, who can afford to mull over a novel at length, leisurely re-reading each paragraph? Surely there’s pride in racing through as many as you can get your hands on. But this paragraph in the heart of Susan Hill’s Howard’s End is on the Landing (an account of her year spent only re-reading books already in her house) stopped me in my tracks.
“Fast reading of a great novel will get us the plot. It will get us names, a shadowy idea of characters, a sketch of settings. It will not get us subtleties, small differentiations, depth of emotion and observation, multi-layered human experience, the appreciation of simile and metaphor, any sense of context, any comparison with other novels, other writers. Fast reading will not get us cadence and complexities of style and language. It will not get us anything that enters not just the conscious mind but the unconscious. It will not allow the book to burrow down into our memory and become part of ourselves, the accumulation of knowledge and wisdom and vicarious experience which helps to form us as complete human beings. It will not develop our awareness or add to the sum of our knowledge and intelligence. Read parts of a newspaper quickly or an encyclopaedia entry, or a fast-food thriller, but do not insult yourself or a book which has been created with its author’s painstakingly acquired skill and effort, by seeing how fast you can dispose of it.”
You have to agree with her. Don’t these wonderful works deserve our respect? Reading is not about acquisition and quantity. It was timely; I’m reading George Eliot at the moment and every page deserves a pause to reflect on the technical skill and immense emotional insight in the writing.
But this is all a bit idealistic. Hill has published multiple novels. She has judged numerous literary awards. The woman, in fact, has a CBE for services to literature. We, the readers, are not quite there yet. I still salivate over the classics section in Waterstones. Hill’s book alone – a friendly and interesting, if not extraordinary, chat through her favourite works – introduced several new musts onto my TBR list. Contemplative reading can wait until some far off retirement, where we can mull over every word in Middlemarch and discuss the vagaries of each aside in Hamlet in whatever futuristic nerd online forums then exist. But right now, how WOULD you find the time?