We are practically Neanderthals. We don’t have a tele, we’ve never owned an iPad or tablet, and we only occasionally subscribe to a month here and there of Netflix, which we watch on the laptop.
But the last few months have seen a definite swerve from these Thoreauvean tendencies. It started when we rented a summer house in the Pyrenees with an ancient TV in it. At lunchtime, my son would flick around the good-old Spanish terrestrial TV stations, and usually end up watching an episode or two of Big Bang Theory. I’d be at the other end of the room trying to get some work done, but slowly but surely I gravitated to the sofa to watch Sheldon and friends, badly dubbed into Spanish, doing their Big Bang things.
A few episodes later I was hooked. As soon as we got home to Madrid, I resubscribed to Netflix, and began watching Big Bang Theory from Season 1, Episode 1 (in English!) A couple of months later I’d seen all 279 episodes. At 20 minutes each that’s 93 hours of TV. Ouch. Well, I don’t regret a minute of it. I laughed and laughed, it was totally therapeutic.
When I got to the end I felt a definite void, which after a brief search, I filled with Mad Men. Pure escapism into 60’s New York. It got me through the social vigours of a full-on Spanish Christmas. Of the 7 seasons, each with 13, 45-minute episodes, I watched 6 seasons, that’s 58.5 hours more TV in less than a month.
Around the time we took down the Christmas decorations, I decided enough TV, or in this case laptop, was enough. I wanted books back in my life.
I rounded up all my favourite books and stacked them on my bedside table. Like a sea wall, a great literary defensive fortification against my serious Netflix habit. I dipped into them here, and dipped into them there, desperate to lose myself again in the joys of a book that you just can’t put down, until, suddenly, a few days later I bought the book-answer to all my problems, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, by Alan Jacobs:
… and I couldn’t put it down.
The book, a delightful, encouraging, intelligent essay, love letter and compendium of reading wisdom, is dedicated to those who know ‘what reading can give – pleasure, wisdom, joy – even if that glimpse came long ago…’ It follows the premise, made obvious in the title, that it’s increasingly hard to read, and to maintain the long periods of dedicated attention a good book requires, in this crazy age of short and often idiotic messages bombarding us from everywhere.
Even the author, a lifelong reader and English Literature professor, was having a hard time sticking with his beloved books.
Now I’m not a totally lost cause. I read a lot of books last year, but since the series-binging stared around late August, I’ve hardly read a thing. Certainly I haven’t found myself joyfully rapt in an unputdownable novel (mainly because I haven’t picked any up!) And I was beginning to worry it would never happen again. Then just as I decided I wanted to do something about it, along came this great book telling me, it’s OK, it’s happening to me too, and don’t worry, says Alan Jacobs, here’s what we are going to do to get back into books:
First and foremost, Read at Whim – don’t read like you are taking vitamins, like you are doing something that’s really good for you, like eating Broccoli, forget the guilty feeling you should only read the classics, read whatever you like!
Don’t read to tick the great books off the latest great-books list. Don’t read to see how many books you can read in a year. Read what makes you happy! Read slowly. There’s no hurry! Who cares how many books you read in a year, this isn’t some competition! As long as you are happy, just read!
I have read quite a few of the classics, either because I wanted to or was obliged to, but remember some of the best reads of my life have been born from just such moments of Whim. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci code picked up years ago (guiltily – no one was looking and I was travelling alone!) at Madrid airport and devoured on an Easy Jet flight to London. A great new novel called The Nix bought about a year back on a Whim in our local bookstore. A whimsical decision last spring to buy and reread To Kill a Mockingbird – What a book! Obliged to read it at school, rapt and delighted to reread it now.
So here is the change I am making, change 2. Read. Read books! Lose myself in books! Read at Whim – whatever I like! Good books, bad books, great books, new books, old books, wise books, instructive books… and yes, some classic books. It’s all good. Read not to eat my literary vitamins (though I’ll probably get lots anyway), but for pure, pure pleasure, the way we read as kids.
To celebrate the end of Alan Jacob’s book, I popped down to the local bookshop with a headful of Whim and picked up a page-turner, Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie.
So bye for now. The sofa beckons… Thanks for reading!