A Look At Life: Reading

1st March 2013

So many books, so little time…

Eluned Thorne

I have a confession to make. I am addicted to reading.

I read almost without discrimination – adverts for hair-loss clinics on the Tube; marmite jars; every single display board about the local flora and fauna that I see at country parks; DVD cases (with a magnifying glass); maps; even books. Actually, especially books. I am to books what George Best is to alcohol, or Kurt Cobain to heroin. I love them; I crave them – and I just can’t help myself.

Let me exemplify. I will visit the library to return the three books I borrowed last time and vowing not to take out any more, because I have five already waiting to be read and if I pile any more on top, I will end up with the Book Tower of Pisa wobbling next to my bed. And then I’ll get there, be unaccountably drawn into some obscure tome about the psychology of tea-drinking in Mongolia, and find myself coming home with another four books to add to the heap. And this despite the fact that I forgot to take the last lot back in time and had to pay a fine. You’d think I’d learn – but I don’t.

I buy books, too. I am a sucker for an offer and over the years have spent a not inconsiderable amount of time pondering the mathematics of ThreeforTwo versus BuyOneGetOneHalfPrice. I seldom need, or want, the free or semi-free book thus acquired, but I will read it anyway. I read books my friends lend me; books my mother-in-law passes on (there’s a whole book-swapping community of fellow addicts out there to tap into, once your vice is revealed) and even books bought originally for our daughter. I now have a Kindle, which is useful for reading the kind of alcopop novel I would hesitate, snobbishly, to buy in a shop and be seen with. And sometimes, at Christmas, I will even read the hard stuff – the neat whisky that is the non-fiction hardback.

Periodically I feel sorry for my poor overloaded bookshelves, sort through all my books, select a small number that I didn’t enjoy much, and take them to the charity shop. I feel very virtuous; very clean. My shelves look tidy and are, I dare say, suitably grateful: so far, so good. Except that I have been known to regret everything, go back to the charity shop and actually buy back my own books. Great for the charity. Not so good for my buckling bookshelves, who curse me and probably shout out Shakespearean insults behind my back.

I have improved over the years. When I was younger, I would read anything. On an extended train trip across Europe in my 20s, with limited luggage capacity, I read (and re-read) the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable. By the end of the holiday, I could get from Albania to Vatican City both alphabetically and topologically. On another holiday in Greece, I found myself reading a book so literary and self-involved that I am surprised it didn’t disappear up its own endpaper. These days, I’m a little more discerning. If I don’t like a book, I don’t necessarily finish it. But then, nowadays, I have other reading opportunities on tap 24/7: the Internet.

Oh, the Internet. To the reading addict, access to the Internet is like having an ever-changing, always interesting cereal packet to read over breakfast, dinner, tea and every snack in between. (And at every other juncture, too: hands up who takes their smartphone into the loo?). All reading is there. I can browse Wikipedia for hours, leaping from article to article like a monkey leaping from tree to tree, dipping into Amazon (appropriately enough) for some light relief and then returning, hand-over-hand up a creeper, via a forum or two. It is a journey of reading; an effortless meander. And that’s not to mention those two great cocktails of the ordinary and the original: Facebook and Twitter. Time-wasters, maybe, but reading, nonetheless.

Have I any hope? In a world full of reading potential, I doubt it. And could I manage without it? I doubt that, too. Reading is still, despite the onward march of technology, an essential tool of life: contrary to my metaphor, it is closer to water than booze. And I’m an unashamed drinker.

Now: I’ve just seen a 1991 Thomas Cook European Timetable for sale on eBay. I wish I’d never got rid of that…

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