Thursday, 14 March 2019

Radical New Ways of Reading?




I grew up with my mother and two brothers and sister in a tiny two bed-roomed house with none of the modern facilities or the smart furniture associated with book-people. Despite this there was one long home-made shelf beside the fireplace filled with books which were somewhat battered and scruffy. Since then I seem to have lived all my life around books.

In those early days I changed my mother’s library books (novels) twice a week. I changed my own library books (novels and history books) five times a week. New books flew in and out of the house like so many bright plumed birds.

My recent uncharacteristic nostalgia has been induced by the fact that in the last fortnight I have been thinking hard about the changing ways of reading in the modern world. These days there is a new term floating around - digital reading.  In my childhood and youth, reading meant books with bright covers either in my home or more commonly in the libraries or in school; or sometimes on the laden shelves in the houses of more affluent friends. 

But these days the younger generations  read in many ways - in paper books, on their laptops, on their tablet, on their Kindle, on their phones and sometimes in the longer stretches of time, now using the mechanism of Audible.

I myself have discovered the advantages of Audible in the last year or so and have spent spending hours listening - to novels in particular- far into the night.  Sometimes I even have a notebook to hand,  my ears wide open to capture some gems in the night.  I have also accessed through Audible reference works in the fields of psychology philosophy, history and creativity,

Recently I was in conversation with a dear friend – a fellow book obsessive – when we turned to a discussion comparing books we have read. Then with regard to one particular novel we radically differed. This is relatively unusual. I wondered if this was to do with the radically different ways in which we read books these days.

In my longish adult life - like my friend - I have probably read thousands of books – fact and fiction, poetry and prose, history and psychology, politics and creativity.

To people of my generation reading is as natural as breathing – you don’t think about it you just do it! In the last few years I’ve acquired the habit of marking the books I read - underlining and annotating in the margins. I have found this useful in making me focus on the important elements of the prose and - in the case of fiction – the arc of the narrative.I know that in some people’s eyes this amounts to destroying the said  book.

But there is another way of seeing this. Oddly enough, this hand -writing on books habit is coming to be seen as quite a phenomenon. They even have a name for it:  marginalia. In 50 years if were very famous my ‘destroyed’ books would have become become quite collectable. 

I think my journey into marginalia began in my instinct to sidestep my habit of reading fast, even skimming, to get down to the essence of a book in terms of terms of substantive content, style, literary significance and  - in the case of fiction - the essential narrative arc. I had begun to feel that my inner sense of the books I was reading was becoming shallower and shallower. I began to feel I was missing a good deal.

Now in recent days by slowing down - allowing the pages and the books to sink into my subconscious - my intention has been to nip in the bud the habit of skimming, of seeing it all as some kind of race, of adding books I had read to some long list of achievement. Girl Guide badges come to mind.

And now - especially in the case of the novel and all fiction - the arrival of the Audible experience in my life has made a creative change in my reading. It is impossible to skip or skim your way through an eight-hour Audible tape.  I have to listen, to hear every word and add each word, each phrase, to the well of language and meaning that has been building up in my mind since those years in the little two bed-roomed house reading books like Little Women, and Treasure Island. 

I have now discovered  that this well of meaning comes not just through the words but also through the tone and timbre of the narrator’s voice, and her or his command of located accents as well as implying a subtly layered grasp of character and place. Along with this I now recognise the fundamental significance of the reader or narrator.  It seems to me that the quality of the reading or narration combines with the creativity of the writer to make a story whole. The quality of the reading becomes part of the creativity of the writer in making their fictional world live.

And I now realise the degree to which a good novel of any kind can be marred by a poor or even a neutral reading. Occasionally the narrator  may also be the writer. This can be very positive in the case of certain writers. But some writers – unlike John le Carre, Neil Gaiman, Khaled Hosseini, and Frank McCourt and Philip Pullman - do not turn out to be the best readers of their own prose.

Writing creatively and narrating authentically are not necessarily in the same skill set. Performing from text is more central to the skill-set of actors.The actress Anne Dover – who has read some of my own novels on Audio – is a wonderful example of the art. Although I may read extracts from my novels  to a variety of audiences there is no way I could narrate the whole novel so that it could be properly sensed and appreciated.

In an online interview, bestselling writer Peter May has put down the widespread popularity of his novels in Audio down to the brilliant reading of Peter Forbes. This actor copes brilliantly with the daunting range of Scottish mainland and island accents alongside Scottish-accented French and the range of French language usage. As well as this, Forbes’ measured delivery of the spooky sense of place and the cycle of  seasons  (intrinsic to Peter May’s writing) brings the novels to life. Peter Forbes certainly contributes to the layers of cultural meaning in May’s writing.

One might certainly argue that these depths are equally accessible through the use of one’s own imagination when one reads the paper book at a proper reading pace. (I would be adding my own marginalia of course…)  But even my imagination cannot conjure up the lilt of a Scottish French-Canadian accent or the Gaelic infused Scottish-English accent.

This works for me on Audible but  am at something of a loss to know how the depth of this culturaL absorption process is possible when one is reading on a fugitive screen on one’s phone, tablet or laptop: this is the new digital reading.

Of course it is very useful these days. Like many of us  I read useful books on Kindle and book sources on the Internet, and my phone and tablet are massively functional in tracking information, hunting out references and obscure allusions. Great tools.

However I don’t think the multi-layered cultural absorption I have described above can happen when one is skimming through these fictions - either on paper, screen or Kindle - to get through to the ‘whodunit’ point and take that book off on one’s TBR list.

Still my highly literate younger friends have asserted to me that I am very much mistaken in this theory. The lovely D. in particular tells me that the following generations have grown up with these varied ways of reading and are perfectly capable of adapting adapt them to reach a full appreciation of any piece of fiction.’

Of course my views could all be age-defined prejudice. I don’t think so. But I would say that wouldn’t I?  

In the meantime, come bedtime I’ll be listening to John Le Carre reading his spy novel. And on the table beside me will be the big fat book by Charlotte Gordon telling the lives of Mary Shelley and her mother Mary Wollstonecraft. 

Beside the big fat book will be my well-sharpened pencil which will enable me to insert myself with marginalia on the pristine page.  

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