Thursday, 5 April 2018

The Mechanics of Reading

Why do I read when most novels eventually escape me? The remembrance of being read but not what was actually read and a vague sense of plot. Even of characters, their names forgotten when at the time I was immersed, knew exactly who was who or could identify with them.
Perhaps this occurs because I read too much...? It's only in a very few cases it says more about the novel, because I will persevere until the bitter end if none too keen. Life's too short, you might say, but then I'm of the view that once started something has to be finished. I'd rather read and feel increasingly annoyed than admit defeat, and to give up, the contemplation of it or the temptation to throw the book down and say 'Enough!' comes with a large dose of Catholic-like guilt accompanied by doubt: What Am I Missing? Maybe it gets better... especially if the work of fiction being held before my eyes has won a prize like the Man Booker, been read aloud on BBC Radio Four or praised by a Book Club. What does that say I wonder? About me or the rated reviews?
Perhaps I hope to learn how to write, how others write and more about what I do and don't like as a reader. Yes, it's all that but also escapism, which in a few occasions doesn't work because something or other doesn't ring true or a detail or two jars. The characters or the setting don't work for me nor on my imagination. My attention gets sucked back to the here and now; my concentration wanders to matters which would normally wait until the end of a paragraph or chapter. My whole reading bitty, focused in more parts than others.
Quite a few authors too try to write historically when they may not have either lived through that time or that experience, in that particular country. It can't always be pulled off with an aplomb like Hillary Mantel. Then the prose reeks of an explored idea, rather than as an all-consuming subject which has been lived and breathed and researched, and re-researched. Personally I don't mind the exploratory nature but I do if it's sold (not by the writer) as a form of truth, as in this is how it really was, this is what he was like. Or when modernity seems to have infiltrated the plot or characterization.
Readers aren't all that clever (and I include myself in that sweeping generalisation). Some may confuse entertainment with factual truth, so in that sense writers who choose to make history (and reading) accessible have a responsibility either to make it clear it's just an idea or to do a damn fine job.
The generations approaching reading will have different expectations and different educations: certain events will stretch back even further for them, and I worry that they won't be so discerning as to know what is fiction, what is propaganda, what is a downright lie. Maybe I do them a disservice...but as past events recede only relatively recent events will resonate because anything else is out of their realm of experience or that of relatives or the aged population, which must surely affect anybody's ability to empathise.
Truth becomes fabrication; fabrication becomes truth. There are as many truths as there are individuals, but a collective (and fabricated) truth has the greater potential to cause either division or unity. Do we really want society to have those kind of pockets? Or for us, as a people, to distrust everything and everybody? Or conversely, to have belief in everything we're told, to not question or act out of allegiance or fear?
Question everything. Accept nothing as truth, your truth or anyone's else truth, because truth too changes and ages with time. And truths can be made to fit circumstances. A perspective freely given sometimes no longer applies or applies differently as more details become known or emotions, running high, simmer down. Allow for that and don't be too quick to follow yours or anybody else's thoughts.
Reading then, like the body, is a functional tool. And just like using tools, it takes practise as well as regular upkeep to recognise the individual tweaks your mind needs in its reading matter.

Picture credit: Gas, circa 1940, Edward Hopper