Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Reading habits in the modern age

Tuesday 1 April 2014

I'm a big fan of lists. I have a list to keep track of what I'm doing and what I'm supposed to achieve every day of the week, partly because of OCD and partly because I'm too hopeless to remember everything I have to do (sometimes I even list the individual steps of 'hanging out the washing' and 'bringing in the washing' just to feel the sense of accomplishment when I cross them off). So for a few years now I've kept a list of books to read, and more or less pondered through it chronologically. This, I take it, is not abnormal. Most readers seem to resort to lists to realise their reading aspirations. Got a recommendation? Put it on the list. A friend or lecturer writes a novel? Put it on the list. An interesting-looking book wins a prestigious award? Put it on the list. An extreme but admirable instance of this practice would be the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge, which illustrious word-man Patrick Lenton is currently undertaking over at Going Down Swinging.

Reading ... TO THE EXTREME.

Despite my appreciation of this simple form of time management and goal achievement, however, I've recently had to abandon my list in favour of a spreadsheet.

I know, right? What a sign of the times. What a statement for the digital age. What a symptom of actual obsessive-compulsive disorder. But yes, I'm afraid it is so. In the fast-paced, time-poor world of a tech-savvy Gen Y bibliophile, a list simply will not suffice. There is so much to read, and every year stacks a heap more onto the pile. In the words of the 'grim narrator' in Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, 'There are many things to think of. There is much story' (2008, page 263).

The Book Thief predates doge, I believe, so that turned out to be an unfortunate choice of phrase.

On top of the library's worth of literature to read, there's the smorgasbord of platforms on which to read it: the traditional printed book, audiobooks, ebooks, podcasts, even tweets or, if you piss off the right person, text messages. And what are you supposed to do when someone decides to make a movie of a book on your list? You want to read it before it comes out, so you have to skip ahead. And don't your friends who get published deserve your immediate attention? What about when a friend loans you a book and you want to get it back to them? Or worse, when someone buys you a book and expects you to have read it by the next time you see them? And how do I make sure I'm getting the right nutritional balance of genre and literary fiction, classics and contemporary, fiction and non-fiction? Throw a few literary journal subscriptions and university readings in there and your literary lifestyle is a nightmare. The linear chronological hierarchy of the humble list simply cannot keep up with the postmodern pastiche, the multifarious mayhem of intersections between platform and genre and kind and motivation that is modern reading.

Lacking some kind of futuristic Deleuze and Guattarian reading rhizome, however (I'm not that tech savvy), the best I can do is a spreadsheet which, in its current, incipient form, looks like this:

Blue is reading, green is read.

In case you can't see at that scale, it's currently divided into ten different columns: 'classics', 'contemporary', 'literary journals', 'non-fiction', 'recommendations', 'friends' (someone I know with a book), 'movie adaptations', 'audiobooks', 'masters' (books I'm reading for research), and 'favourites' (works whose authors I like so much I want to read their entire oeuvre). This kind of compartmentalisation captures all those types of books and the motivations for reading them I outlined above and systematises them, something I find way more satisfying than I should for some reason. So far (nascent though it is) it has proven a more democratic way to read, varying my literary diet in a very enjoyable way.

But as if all this wasn't enough, the spreadsheet comes with some attendant 'rules' I automatically seem to follow. I started this 'list 2.0' reading a recommendation from my nan, Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm, so that's where I started on the chart, moving laterally across the columns from there through my old lecturer Christine Howe's first novel Song in the Dark, the launch for which I attended a shamefully long time ago and which I have only just read now thanks to this new system, and onto Tim Winton's short story cycle The Turning, which I wanted to read before I saw the new film adaptation(s), before coming to John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman, a seminal metafictional text my supervisor advised I read for my masters. And around here is where it gets complicated, with audiobooks, classics and literary journals (favourites is a new column).

As part of my 'traipse through canon', I want to read a great swathe of classic literature right from the beginning (hence The Epic of Gilgamesh). But I don't just want to read it: I want to read it critically, take notes, write down quotes, and do parallel research so I can write about it. All this takes time and space and energy that I don't always have when I've just got a few minutes to do some reading (as the interminably slow crawl of my progress bar on Goodreads currently attests). Furthermore, when I set out to tick a canonical book off my list, I usually buy a nice hardcover addition to add it to my collection, and these can be unwieldy to carry around. So I've decided to have a hardcover classic on my bedside table at all times, reading it whenever I get the chance to read at home.

More portable literary journals, conversely, I take out with me when I know I've got to wait in a doctor's surgery or at the bus stop, or for when I'm on the train. I like to think of this as doing my part to increase the visibility both of reading as an activity and of the journals as viable leisure-reading publications for those who cannot abide the inanity of Zoo or Cleo or Woman's Day or The Daily Telegraph, not that anyone's going to look at me in public and think, 'Woah, that guy's cool, I'm also going to read.' It's silly, because I'm often on my phone just like everyone else, but when I'm on the train and see everyone looking down at their iPads and iPhones instead of reading books I (somewhat irrationally) feel like literature is losing the war, which accounts for this little bit of perceived literary exhibitionist pageantry.

And finally, audiobooks. I love them. If you take nothing else from this otherwise largely pointless and meandering post, take this: buy audiobooks (and no, this post is not sponsored by Audible.com, although, if you're reading this Audible execs, maybe it should be). They're a fantastic way to turn mindless tasks and unproductive spans of your day such as walking to the shop or driving to work or doing the dishes into time well-spent (although, of course, a certain amount of mind-wandering time is essential for reflection and spontaneous thought). Podcasts are good for this too, notably the New Yorker Fiction Podcast. They're also fast, to some extent because of this capacity to be listened to any time, anywhere. They don't require dedicated time to sit and read. They don't busy your hands and eyes, just your ears and mind. It's for this reason, looking at my chart (and, for that manner, my reading catalogue), that I appear to get through them about four times faster than physical books.

In some ways, this aspect of the audiobook is all that gets me through my job. I'm an editor who works on billion-dollar submissions for tender. That's when the state government is like, 'We want a hospital designed and built and run and cleaned and maintained for thirty years', and a bunch of companies are like, 'We'll do that for teh monies!' and then the state is like, 'Well, tell us how you're going to do all this stuff better than your competitors by responding to hundreds of pages of questions and specifications'. These companies hire the company I work for to read the thousands of pages they generate in response to these questions and critique, edit, proofread and, in some cases, rewrite them, making sure they answer the question and flow nicely and such. Which is hard because this stuff is mostly written by non-writerly engineers and financial people and architects and lawyers and other people who don't do words that well (okay, it's mostly the engineers who are trouble). Given that it's usually just me and my boss working on all this for about six weeks and getting paid quite well, we are under a lot of pressure, which means ten to fourteen to eighteen-hour days and all-nighters as the deadline approaches, which means very little personal time, which means those precious spare moments I do have are extremely valuable. During these weeks, all that keeps me sane is living another life in the gaps between periods of work through audiobooks. Waking up, eating breakfast, catching a taxi, walking to the office, taking my lunch break, brief trips to the bathroom, showering, ironing my clothes: these become the only moments I have to myself, and it's wondrous being able to fill them with literature instead of only the banal mechanics of eating and washing and moving between spaces.

My good friend and fellow aspiring author Gilly put me onto audiobooks a couple of years ago when she advised that they were a good way to get on top of all the readings we had to do for our Theory for Practising Writers classes. I'll never forget the experience of my first audiobook, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, and how much more emotive it was when read passionately aloud, or Jeremy Irons reading Vladimir Nabokov's masterpiece Lolita (and then having weird incongruous flashbacks when we visited Westminster Abbey and he narrated the audiotour).

'Jeremy's ... iron?'

Audiobooks can even facilitate the reading of bad books, so you can tune out for a while as the voice actor makes the effort for you. Perhaps if I'd read the works of Terry Goodkind and Robert Jordan in physical form instead of as audiobooks, I would finally understand those people who purport to 'throw books across the room' when I came across the more politically questionable and gender essentialist passages therein.

But the speed of audiobooks does make them a good way to get through a lot of your reading list  (or matrix, as the case may be) quickly. I started out using them for university readings as Gilly suggested, then commenced my 'traipse through canon' with them, downloading audiobook versions of the public domain classics for free through Librivox (although there is obviously a compromise in quality with these). But I actually found I was racing rather than traipsing through canon in such a way that I was forgetting what I'd read and, of course, I couldn't take down notes and quotes as easily.

This is the one drawback of audiobooks for me (apart from the fact that the audial equivalent of losing your page is much more frustrating!). You lose the ability to go at your own pace, unless you want to distort the sound laughably by using your device's 'slow down' or 'speed up' functions, and even then. With literary fiction, I love to take my time and luxuriate in the language, going back to read over certain passages a few times, relishing the look of the words on the page. That's why I've largely started listening only to pure entertainment-value books as audiobooks, mostly (very bad) fantasy like Feist, Jordan, Collins and Goodkind and some not-bad fantasy like Martin and Pullman.

So you can see how a matrix becomes necessary to track all of these literary endeavours. I'm reading hardcover classics in bed at night, laptop by my side to take notes; I'm reading literary journals on the train and in waiting rooms, flaunting the covers for all to see; I'm filling the banal gaps in my existence of shopping and putting the washing on (and hanging it out and bringing it in and folding it) with terribly written fantasy adventures, all the while proceeding through a rotation of award-winning contemporary fiction, non-fiction of interest, recommendations from friends, books for research, books by friends and books with impending film adaptations. I'm just not the type of person to spontaneously pick up the next thing that takes my interest. For whatever reason I have to feel like I'm reading it all, covering all bases, playing all angles. Let's just hope this level of obsession never escalates. If I ever start talking about book algorithms and reading dice-rolls, you have my permission to commit me.

Thanks for reading,

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Markus Zusak's 2008 novel The Book Thief, published by Picador.

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