I Need To Talk About This Reading Challenges Thoughts About Work

An Abundance of Listening

This blog is written during the March 2022 strikes in UK higher education. I am on strike and trying to balance spending time with my puppy Sula, resting, and spending some concentrated time with the books on my shelves.

In the first strikes of 2022, I began a project of self-flagellation. I decided to use the “Reading List” function on The Storygraph to document all the unread books I have in my home. The project was motivated by shame. I felt my spending (on books) was out of control although it was definitely within my means. The truth is that when I was isolating alone for months during the pandemics, I retreated into books: reading books, buying books, talking about books, and thinking about writing books.

I have beautiful shelves in my living room, which is a warm yellow like this background and, to me, the books shine like intricate wallpaper as well as little parcels of imagination. Every book is one I have read or want to read and yet, the “task” of reading has begun to feel overwhelming. And so I begin small challenges and tasks to break down the 200+ backlog into something more respectable.

And then, this morning, while reading a poetry collection by Kei Miller, I realised that all this shame and worry is not only self-created but also about internalised shame about materialism. Somehow, I cannot be at peace with myself while knowing that I never buy books for the sake of buying. I choose not to buy books all the time. I have slowly turned my feeling of being lost, out of control, and unable to carve out time to do things I love onto the collection of books in my home.

There is no time frame for reading these books. I still have space to expand and I have not put myself in any financial risk during my pandemic anxiety sprees. However, I realised when reading The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion that my conscious purchasing is not always matched with conscious reading. I rush. I feel the need to set silly goals even though I deliberately set my book target for 2022 very low. The basic “reading goal” is an ADHD crutch rather than an outward looking challenge and yet, I am increasingly aware that my anxiety revolves around being competitive with my potential to do more.

The rastaman thinks, draw me a map of what you see
then I will draw you a map of what you never see
and guess me whose map will be bigger than whose?
Guess me whose map will tell the larger truth?

The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion – Kei Miller

In his poems, Miller asks who maps are for and what mapping leaves out. He grapples with knowledge democracy and what is left out from our methods of recording what we think we know. In a later part of the poem quoted above, we learn that the cartographer does not recognise the rastaman as an expert. This made me think about how I read and why I amass books in the way I do. It transported me to the comfort and privilege of collecting books with diverse stories, histories, and styles. Audiobooks too.

I am a bookworm but more generally a curious and restless soul, who is always looking for brighter, more detailed insight into the world. I amass books because there is so much I don’t know, cannot imagine, and do not understand. I don’t want to possess the books. More often than not, I will give them to a reader I love or add them to book swaps. I buy a lot because I read a lot and I find it (for disability reasons) easier to have books that can be bashed and written on.

I read voraciously and broadly because I am interested in all parts of the book: the cover, the dedication, the font, the style of language, the paragraphing … as well as the material itself. We learn much from paying attention to the layers of our material items. I also love to listen to different narrations of the same stories. I particularly seek out authors reading their work. Not because they are always “the best”, but because you get a particular set of inflections. I return time and again to Maya Angelou reading her poems and I alternate reading Toni Morrison’s fiction with listening to her read it.

What I learned today is that I use my bookshelves as a barometer of what is going on with me, what’s going on in the world, and what I’d like to discover and enjoy. I know that I read every book I bring into my home whether that’s on the journey back from purchase or two years later when it’s just the right thing. That actually, through reading I listen to myself – my restlessness, my fears, my comforts – and that I find solace in the multiplicity and abundance of voices that I can turn my focus to when I turn my mind to reading.

I Need To Talk About This The Isolation Reads

The Isolation Reads: The Mirror & The Light

It’s a really strange time and we are all processing #SocialDistancing differently. Friends and colleagues will have noticed my increased presence on Twitter. I am mindlessly checking my email many, many times an hour and perpetuating my underlying anxieties. As a result, I have set myself some digital check out time every day. Sometimes I’m going to spend that time attacking my To Be Read pile. This is a (possibly short) chronicle of what I finish or abandon. Wherever I can, these reviews will be written immediately after finishing the book. These are not measured reflections. They are gut reactions.

Hilary Mantel. The Mirror & the Light. London: 4th Estate. 2020.

There are spoilers in this blog if you don’t have a rough grasp of the history of Thomas Cromwell, who was a Tudor politician that served Henry VIII. You have been advised.

Well, damn. I wrote a post about being a dyslexic reader and tackling long books, triggered by beginning The Mirror & The Light, which comes in at 875 pages. I think this ranks as one of my most taxing reads. It’s like spontaneously choosing to go on a really long run after a significant break. You want to do it and you know you are going to be happy afterwards even though you will hurt and your body is going to rebel. Your nose is going to run and your lungs are going to burn. If you read The Mirror & The Light in hardback form, your arm is going to hurt, your eyes are going to get tired, and if your neurodivergence is like mine, you are going to fight for every word, especially in the “dreams” and flashbacks, which I am giving you permission to skim.

What I love about these books is how vivid the characters are, even though you are given relatively little descriptive information about them. The Mirror & the Light has more laughs in it than the two before it but Mantel slowly builds a sense of foreboding throughout the book. We experience Cromwell get flustered and wrongfooted and doubt the signs even as more people tell him to mind the fall that is coming to him. Deliciously, Mantel slowly removes most of the characters that bring Cromwell comfort as we edge closer to the end of the book. Suddenly, Richard Cromwell (his son) is just a name and not a person. Suddenly, you’ve forgotten the name of Cromwell’s irascible cook. It’s delightful. Mantel also expands her style of dialogue when we come to the interrogations of Cromwell so it’s like being in a play or really great film. Think 12 Angry Men with ruffs. Sumptuous. My stomach still hurts from reading the final pages as we proceed to Cromwell’s execution. I could feel myself getting a tension headache as I read. What a feat this novel is.

With all three of Wolf Hall books, I find Mantel writes an appealing first chapter and then the novel moves forward really very slowly. It duly accelerates around the midway point until you feel like you are hurtling through the action to some dramatic punctuation at the end. If you make it to the middle, it pays off but I do think you have to want to finish these books. You have to care about “the Tudors”. (Note: I recently ran a session on Six: The Musical [concept musical/pop concert sing-off between the six wives of Henry VIII] and many people in the room were unfamiliar with Anne of Cleves. Assuming knowledge is assuming privilege. Don’t be that person.) I became very attached to Cromwell, Christophe, Rafe Sadler, Anne Boleyn (don’t @ me), Hans Holbein, and Cromwell’s painting of the Queen of Sheba, but I also feel like you experience a narrative sag when you read any of them.

If you have reading challenges and enjoy audiobooks, I would really recommend starting these volumes in recorded form. I borrowed my audiobooks from Sheffield Libraries and that’s the only way that made it through Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies (the first two books in this trilogy). All three are like aural histories of a the life and career of the politician. You live out Thomas Cromwell’s experiences with him and therefore they lend themselves to narration.

I need to lie down now but I am very grateful for this book. I wanted to give it three stars on Goodreads. But I won’t.

I Need To Talk About This

Big Book Fear: Being a Disabled Bookworm

You may or may not know that I am both dyslexic and dyspraxic. While these Specific Learning Difficulties may seem inconsequential to you if you are neurotypical, they are life altering for me. Unlike most dyslexic people, my general reading speed is very high (c.1100 words per minute) but I have actual sensorial experiences when I process text, and this can slow me down. I hear words like percussion so the process is like first acknowledging a *bang* and then processing what the sound is: “Oh that’s a drum!” This makes words, poetry, theatre, songs, and other delivered texts truly magical. I get obsessive about styles of writing that I enjoy and intuit a lot from authorial voices. So far, so good.

However, there are a number of downsides to this part of my brain. For example, when an author uses a lot of the same word or name (the Wolf Hall books/Tudor England loves a Thomas), it’s like a reading version of the hype section in a drum & bass track and I am left in limbo waiting for the beat to drop. It can lead to concentration loss and then that’s my reading session over.

While I have the capacity to read several books of any kind in a day when I need to, I get word fatigue more easily than other folx. It’s worst when moving through emails and most manageable in novels with a distinct and consistent narrator. But I am also caught out by having limited short term memory. If I get distracted or drawn into a peripheral idea, then I am lost. The drifting treasure hunt is a nightmare when I’m reading academic books because I frequently come across things I don’t know or references that I don’t recognise and suddenly I’m learning about what wallpaper was used Oscar Wilde’s bedroom and not whatever I was meant to be researching.

If I put a book down, I have a very short window to pick it up in again before I temporarily forget everything about it or have processed enough of an impression to not need to finish it. I re-read very rarely because books are like moments in time for me. They aren’t worlds I visit or frequent. They are a thought interruption and once that disturbance is profound enough, I store away the impression in a visual library in my head. Therefore, I can normally tell you what was happening in my life when I was reading a book, where I was when I read it, what the cover looked like, which bag I carried it in, and how I was feeling at the time. Functionally, there are sections in my mental library. For example, there’s a PTSD bookcase (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and a read-through of Kay Scarpetta crime series up to Scarpetta in 2008). There’s a “I read this in a tent when it rained at a folk festival” shelf (Lord of the Rings, The Godfather, To Kill A Mockingbird, Emma). There’s also a “I read this on the tube” section which takes me through all the moods, fads, and passions of my teenage years (shout out to Malorie Blackman, Alexandre Dumas and Meg Cabot for staying solid).

I have a fondness for my brain library but all of these things make chonky books (let’s say more 600 pages or epic hardbacks) feel hugely intimidating. Will I ever finish them if I start them? The audiobook is more than 24 hours so I need to set aside time or commit weeks and weeks to a single book when I could read it in a few hours. What if I get distracted? There’s so much world to hold onto. Also, how does this mesh with my preference to read 6-10 books at once? I have to micro-manage my life because I am unalterably forgetful (no short term memory), distractible, and easily overstimulated. My brain will just factory reset (blackout and then slowly re-establish all the things that were going on) as many times a day as my stress and sleep levels demand. Can I spare the headspace to read a book that might trigger any of the possible symptoms of brain overload?

I love book hype. I tend to find that my friends who are excited for a new read are effusive and generous in their love of the story, character, or world they anticipate. It can be really special to take part in and be around. But then I pick up the hardback and I begin to problematise the time, conditions, mood, and space I have for the challenge facing me. Because of how words work for me, I find it hard to exist in too many serial spaces at once so I had to finish watching the original Star Trek series (a strange story for another time) before I could really contemplate picking up Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. (This is the last novel in the Wolf Hall trilogy about Thomas Cromwell’s career under Henry VIII.)

I am almost ready to begin with my new 875-page obstacle course but I can feel the anxiety rising. If I don’t make it this weekend, when will I next pick it up? Will I care? Will I struggle with all the Thomases? Will I power through and be done in seven hours? The good news is that my copy smells great and I have bought a doughnut to have while I get stuck in. Wish me luck and solidarity to all the other people with different and unusual ways of negotiating their joy of reading.