Getting Shut of Me

‘My name is Chris and I am a publishaholic.’ That’s how I imagined starting this small piece on reading lives. However, at the risk of boring everyone including myself, I’m going to start with some biography. When I was at Leeds Polytechnic in the 1980s, I learned to read. By this, I don’t mean literacy. My mother taught me to read and to listen as a child. She recorded Kipling’s Just So Stories on to Memorex cassettes, so that I could play them, and read them, in bed. That’s a whole different matter.

For me, learning to read is when you turn to books for that extraordinary sense of chaotic self-expansion or self-abandonment, I was almost going to write self-discovery, but literature, more than any other art, is about discovering others. It’s just not about you. If you want to be returned to yourself, look some place else. I guess I came late to reading. I’d experienced my fair share of Mr. Meddle’s Muddles & co. but the real stuff kicked in when I entered the world of Camus, Satre, Malcolm Lowry, Hemingway, Larkin, Hughes, Genet, Osborne (you can tell by this list that I don’t alphabetise my bookshelves). These are great teen writers. These are superb YA. There are also too many men, but that’s where I started.

Everyone has a different route in, but the road to self-curating your reading is one that is always rather similar: idiosyncratic, labyrinthine, at the risk of raising the spectre of French theory, it is rhizomatic (look that one up, if you need to). It involves an element of risk and wantonness. It lacks historical and linear progression and whistles through centuries haphazardly. Each book drives in a climbing peg. Each book throws a rope across a crevasse. You swing out from passion to passion and, looking back, can often rapidly outgrow a minor obsession, replacing it with a love affair for something more turbulent and unsettling.

To steal a title of Auden’s, we are in yet another age of anxiety, indeed, anxiety is the great political force of our times: destabilizing, neutering, factionalising. It is kept afloat by mythologies of control and power, of indoctrination and assimilation and, perhaps, of abundance. How can we make sense of the sheer diversity of conflict and the abasement of so many peoples? Working together is just so hard, it’s undemocratic; it’s impossible. What we need to be great is to be separate. To withdraw is to be free. Simple solutions really can solve all our problems, especially if someone can be blamed. All this in an age where we stare down from space at the borderless earth in wonder and then, in horror; it’s so small and fragile. The world of books is the bloodstream of humanity, where news travels slowly, but sensibility and knowledge spreads, connecting us to history and the future, connecting us to each other.

Literature is the opponent of most of our regressive impulses, that’s not to say it hasn’t had its moments being deployed as a weapon – but it is as infinite as space, an uncontrollable, limitless domain we can travel within going, literally, anywhere. What keeps it all afloat is the crazy engagement of the readers and, to bring things down to earth, their pocket money.

Perhaps there’s something else. If you want to become fully human, then literature is your short cut. The brightest sun and the darkest star, its all in there. Reading allows you more lives than one and helps you value more lives than yours. Choose what you honestly believe to be the best for yourself, and let the discovery of the best be your life’s pursuit. You might, of course, enjoy some of the worst, too. Expect disappointments and delays. Expect to be offended and unsettled. Reading lives ebb and flow, they have intensity and they have periods of windless calm. Yet even in the calm, a simple poem can fit in the very edges of your life, and tending that flower can lead to a field of blooms. One thing for sure, literature is always leisure shaped, and every one of us is an explorer. One thing, as you move on out, shout back to us what you find.

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