What are you reading?

Hello, he said. What are you reading?

Elisabeth showed him her empty hands.

Does it look like I’m reading anything? she said.

Always be reading something, he said. Even when we’re not physically reading. How else will we read the world? Think of it as a constant.
— Ali Smith, Autumn

Books are produced by books more than by writers; they’re a result of all the books that went before them.
— Ali Smith, Artful

What are you reading? The question Daniel poses, the elucidation he supplies, to the youthful Elisabeth in Ali Smith’s latest novel brought a smile to my face. The smile of the serial book reader, film viewer, sports fan and flâneur, that wandering observer of people and environment.

As I have aged, as my interests have broadened and diversified, my own reading habits have evolved. Gone are the days when I would dedicate myself to one book at a time. Now I have several on the go simultaneously. A constant game of hopscotch, jumping back and forth, left and right, from one text to another. This apparently random pattern punctuated by the occasional serendipitous delight; one book of poetry, for example, offering an insight that enriches my understanding of the thesis of a non-fiction tome.

Daniel’s question made me wonder about the reading habits of other people. So I Tweeted: What are you reading? One book? Several simultaneously? None? Interested for a possible blog post. A few generous people spared their time to respond. Some in writing, some with photographs. A shared moment of bibliophilia, new discoveries and recommendations. The online conversations that ensued were numerous, which made a pleasant change from the broadcast-and-run fare that pervades many digital timelines.

One striking thing about the responses was the commentary regarding book piles waiting to be read. There was an intimation that some people queued books in the same way that others might organise the songs they are about to listen to on Spotify. It reminded me of Umberto Eco’s notion of an anti-library, of the reader surrounding themselves with a large number of unread books, constantly anticipating new knowledge, new pleasures.

[Photo: What am I reading? Ali Smith. Often and in volume.]

What soon became evident was that I am not alone in my reading habits. The majority of respondents also appeared to be juggling multiple volumes at once, some mixing paper and digital, others veering more towards the physical book. The breadth of subjects covered was breathtaking.

Fiction was a mainstay: Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, Pedro Páramo, Snow, A Breath of Life, The Circle, Roadside Picnic, Autumn, The Hours, Dhalgren and The Break, among others.

I was gratified to find that poetry appeared more frequently than I had anticipated, in several cases introducing me to new books to track down over the coming months. Collections by Rumi, Ted Hughes, Sharon Olds, Jo Shapcott, Andrew Greig, W. S. Merwin, Lynette Roberts and Kate Tempest were mentioned.

Non-fiction books were numerous, some selected simply out of curiosity, others relevant to workplace interests or academic research, others still as a source of culinary inspiration. This included Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit, The Craftsman and Together by Richard Sennett, several biographies (Bruce Springsteeen, David Bowie, F. W. Taylor), and assorted books on science, technology, neo-generalism and business.

Many people professed that they tackled some books at speed, racing from cover to cover, whereas others they lingered over for months, dipping in, reflecting, putting to one side again. Essay, poetry and short story collections appear to lend themselves particularly well to the latter tendency. What is clear, though, is that many of us read both fast and slow, our consumption of a book determined not only by context and preference, but also by genre and how the book is written.

A detective novel, for example, regardless of its length, draws the reader in and accelerates them towards the final page and resolution of the mystery. Sennett’s homo faber books, on the other hand, are opaque and challenging, requiring protracted engagement with his ideas. They are not quick reads. Some books nourish over an expanse of time, others offer the quick fix of a fast-food snack. Both have a purpose, meet a need.

What united us all, in this momentary reflection on reading habits, was a love of the written word. An appreciation of its capacity to entertain, enlighten and enthuse us in the pursuit of yet more books to read. As Daniel suggests, books provide a lens through which we make meaning of the world that surrounds us. We are always reading, with or without a book in our hands.

I found books and places before I found friends and mentors, and they gave me a lot, if not quite what a human being would.
— Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

Giving and sharing books became a system for putting ideas out into the world.
— Michael Pye, The Edge of the World

All bookshops are compasses: when you study them they offer you interpretations of the contemporary world that are more finely tuned than those provided by other icons or spaces.
— Jorge Carrión, Bookshops

I am grateful to the following people for their Twitter responses: Mark Gould, Mike Cosgrove, Maggie MacDonald, Patricia Sutherland, Jono Byrne, Sarah Storm, Meg Peppin, Tom Graves, Tony Jackson, Simon Heath, Sharon Richardson, Mark Storm, Simon Terry, Helen Tracey and Erik Meyers.

4 thoughts on “What are you reading?

  1. Thanks Richard. A lovely reflection of your research and learnings. Here’s one thought for you to add into your themes. As you have discussed the appeal of the Detective reflects a desire for resolution of ambiguity in a complex world. The narrative momentum, the reflection of the detective, the surprises and the twists are all satisfying to us in this way. What I would love to see you explore is the morality and philosophy of the detective as the “one good purposeful person” even when riding boundaries of social acceptance, pushing into the noir world and even playing the antihero. As much as we need the resolution of ambiguity, we need the satisfaction of detectives to whom we can look up in times of ambiguity.

    • Thanks for the challenge, Simon. We have played a drawn-out tennis match with the detective theme over the last few years. Very happy to continue with it. The resurgence of noir, its exploration of the shadows, is unsurprising in the current sociopolitical climate in the West. The one thing I am likely to counter, though, is the notion that ambiguity can be resolved. Rather, as we argue in The Neo-Generalist, it is necessary to develop comfort with ambiguity and not knowing. The detective’s journey seems to embody this well.

      • We would only have to reference Chinatown or the Big Sleep to agree that ambiguities need not be resolved. That doesn’t mean we don’t long for a narrative resolution. You can go a long way on ambiguity though. I once tried an exercise in minimalism asking ‘What’s the least you need for a detective story?’. The answer has to be a clue. All a clue is is a direction in the heart of ambiguity. Soon after I discovered a story by Joseph Skvorecky in his Lieutenant Boruvka series where the narrative, ambiguity & investigation extends in seemingly unrelated ways all from a detective growing curious about a wrong number.

  2. Pingback: What are you reading? | English Corporate Train...

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