Friday, September 25, 2015

Slowing Down to Read Massive Books

I got a lot of interesting fuel for blog posts from My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead. Here's another example from her research which was an eye-opener to me as well as her. When Mead visited Coventry, the town where George Eliot lived a good portion of her life, she went into a local bookstore to try to buy a copy of Middlemarch. To Mead's surprise and annoyance, there were only abridged or condensed versions available (unlike my brick-sized Penguin edition below). Nowhere in the entire town could she find a copy of the classic in its entirety. Rebecca Mead sadly chalked it up as a sign of the ridiculously fast paced twenty-first century lifestyles we're living.

How interesting that publishing houses seem to assume that abridged classics will be more in demand than the originals. They are catering to a public comprised of skimmers, who want to claim that they've read Middlemarch but are unwilling to put in the hard work. They'd prefer to get it done as quickly as possible. We've adapted to living life on the run, flitting from one task to the next. We assume that a long list of items ticked off a 'To Do' list is a sign of day well spent. I've bought into that myth myself, and recently started to question the philosophy behind it. Maybe a day well spent is when we get only a couple of things done, but give them the depth of time and attention they deserve.

We're living in an age when we're counseled to keep things quick and short, so we can zoom on the million other jobs waiting to be done. Tweets need to be 140 characters or fewer. We're told to keep blog posts and book reviews brief, because 'people are busy', as if that's a really positive thing! What if it's really deplorable?

I stumbled upon an article by Hugh McGuire entitled, 'How reading can make you feel less busy.' He describes how he constantly felt tired, distracted and irritable, and sensed that his stress had an electronic feel to it. The crunch came when he realised he'd read only four books in 2014, even though he loved reading. But he figured out that with every four sentences he read, he was either battling urges to check emails and social media or falling asleep.

Training himself to start reading real books again was part of McGuire's stress management plan. He cites scientific studies which indicate that flitting from topic to topic as we tend to do, helps exhaust us. The human brain is not really designed to multi-task. I can't help thinking how the lives we live are poles apart from those of even our recent ancestors. I visited a small ghost town on the tip of South Australia's Yorke Peninsula with my husband and kids. It was inhabited until the 1960s and in a lot of that time, residents had to wait months for visits from the postman. Maybe having the whole world's information at our fingertips is a step too far in the opposite direction.

In the Victorian era, there weren't so many labour-saving devices, but people possibly thought with more depth and intensity. With our twenty-first century technology and mod-cons, you might assume we'd have more time freed up to be deep and intense if we want to be. Instead, many folk are scattered and unfocused with sick, slack attention spans.

Reading is a terrific slow down activity. For the last few years, I've been setting myself reading challenges. I've done the Goodreads Reading Challenge, and I'm currently on the home run of my 2015 Reading Challenge. They've been great, but do help me put pressure on myself to meet the criteria, and tick off a book from each category each week. I'm thinking that maybe next year, I'll take some time to tackle a book that forces me to slow down even more.

We seem to be all about breadth in our activities, at the expense of depth. Maybe reading the occasional massive book may help us cultivate depth again. We expect our modern stories to zoom straight the point and rivet us from the first page. People advise writers to cut out verbosity and waffle. Even though that's good advice to a point, it may be a sacrifice when beautiful descriptive passages which invite us to linger and ponder get the flick. If you're thinking the same way I am, why not consider a challenge like Middlemarch, or Nicholas Nickelby, or Anna Karenina? A few weeks ago, I discovered William Thackeray's Pendennis on the shelves of my second hand shop for just a dollar or two, and decided I might tackle it as one of next year's reads. Don't hold me accountable though, because 'might' isn't the same as 'will.' It has 1060 pages of minuscule writing.


  1. Well said!

    I'm finding the same "pressure" as you with the 2015 Reading Challenge. Next year, I think I'm going to focus on trying to reduce the size of my to-read pile.

    I have dozens of unread books I've bought (often for only a couple of dollars, but still!), and hundreds more I've downloaded free. Surely I can find something worth reading in that pile!

    1. Hi Iola, it's been great in many ways, but I'll be glad to see the end of it. I think we'll deserve a reward when we finish.