You Are What You Read

I’ve decided to make a rather late New Year’s Resolution – which is to read for pleasure again, and find the real joy in reading, rather than trying to educate or enlighten myself. There is, and always will be, tons of stuff I want to know and understand. Partly because I like sounding like I have some level of intelligence but also because I genuinely like learning stuff, being able to piece things together, and know how and why and wherefore.

However I am not sure if my brain can cope with it. I worry that Archimedes’s (I had to Google him) theory of displacement is taking place in my ‘intellect’ and when I put some new facts into my brain, other facts drip out through my ears, fall on the pavement and get trodden on. What’s important to know? I know that Katherine Parr was, like me, a rather sensuous lady (I mean she liked baths and nice clothes rather than being Dita von Teese, incidentally) but I couldn’t tell you her date of birth or when she married Henry VIII or any of that jazz.

But perhaps that doesn’t matter so much? I’ve always been a more people person than a figures person anyway. An old boyfriend gave me this cartoon as it reminded him of me:


The last couple of weeks have been a bit odd, as one would expect them to be. I’m either in denial of losing Grandpa or it really is possible to deal with it, because it feels like he hasn’t gone at all. I find the hardest thing is going into his old surgery, still part of the house, which smells of medicine and leather despite the fact he retired 25 years ago. I love the tatty old chair in which he saw his patients. That’s the coldest room in the house, and that’s where it hurts the most, so I am avoiding it. I’m not terribly big on avoiding things because I don’t consider it helpful, and as I’m rather like the cowardly lion I have to force myself to do things I don’t like – but perhaps it’s a bit soon to be prodding ones sore points, like needling a wobbly tooth.

Readingwise, I must confess to being dreadful, hence my Resolution. I tried Dreadnought again; I really did. But, gentle Reader, it is 10,687,592* pages – and I’d read about 1/5 of them and still hadn’t got to 1914. It was also full of military words and descriptions of ships and I’m afraid I started getting horribly confused; especially when people started having several different names. So I ditched it and tried Ways of Seeing by John Berger which is a collection of essays about how we see things, particularly Art. And I realised I didn’t know very much about that either, and more to the point I didn’t care. This is not to say the book is rubbish, far from it – but it wasn’t for me.

I also tried The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles which was supposed to be an American classic and it promised much: intrigue, incest, murder … but I didn’t like either of the characters and didn’t wish them well, so I had no desire to find out how they ended up. Then I picked up Miss Lonelyhearts and A Cool Million by Nathanael West, fables of 1930s America, but blimey. One of them is about an agony aunt/uncle who winds up dead and the other is about a young boy who goes out to seek his fortune and winds up dead. I ought to stop taking recommendations from The Week I think. I’m not linking to that one because I’ve totally spoilered it.

One Educashunel book I did manage to finish and ultimately enjoy was Blood and Roses by Helen Castor. It’s about the Paston family, and 70 years of letters between them – a true correspondence goldmine, as they were written during the Wars of the Roses. I found my mind wandering in places, but that is my fault, not Castor’s and certainly not that of the Pastons, who were a most interesting family. The story also helped me learn more about the Wars of the Roses which is something I’ve always found very complicated.

Finally I tried Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain by Judith Flanders. I was quite enjoying it, but my brain got stuck on some statistics and couldn’t get unstuck, and I suddenly thought – sod it. I’m not enjoying this. I want to read something I actually can’t wait to pick up, the kind of book you wake up an hour early on a Sunday to finish. So I put that to one side too and am now on Human Remains by Elizabeth Haynes, she who wrote the wonderful Into The Darkest Corner (and the disappointing Revenge of the Tide). Is it great literature? No. Is it going to teach me anything? No. Will I be able to quote facts from it and sound like I garnered more from my degree than just a student loan? No. But is it making me happy? Yes.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (fellow English students of Rolle College will remember him) said:

I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten;
even so, they have made me.

He has a point – what we read affects our minds as much as what we eat affects our bodies. It’s why I have never touched Fifty Shades of Grey and stopped reading The Daily Mail when I was 19 because I found it was turning me into someone I didn’t like. I don’t like reading crap, any more than I cannot bear to watch ‘rubbish TV’. It’s not because I’m special or anything; I want to read stuff with some intellect because I’m trying to feed mine! I’ve also tried to cut down on depressing and sinister books; Hitler’s Willing Executioners, anyone? But trying to continually improve oneself is a bit bloody exhausting, and one cannot continually try to educate oneself. Most people are kaleidoscopes: turn them and hold them up to the light, and you’ll see different aspects of them, so perhaps I have been not holding myself up to the light enough. My memory has really gone to pot, so perhaps this will help it recover.

P.S. I am joining a Shakespeare Society though. He’s kind of like Vitamin C for the brain. You can do without him for a bit, but you’d go a funny colour eventually.

* Slight exaggeration… but it’s A Lot.