Reading a way to reconciliation

I’ve had more time to read recently. The lockdown means no commuting to work and that has gifted me a few hours and a lot of calories that used to be expended on getting to stations and bus stops and riding on crowded train and buses etc.

There are of course aspects of commuting that I miss, which involve my almost life-long relationship (we might even call it a love affair) with the city, its architecture, its people, its river, its intensity and vibrancy, its eclecticism and complexity, its history, fears and celebrations.

But one way or another those hours and that energy save in non-commuting have been put to good use in some good reading. Generally speaking my reading follows a kind of wayward serendipitous path loosely connected to my ‘research’, which is the academic and professional name for what I call my life and my art, which are really one and the same thing.

When I was young I suffered a lot from conflicts between what was my personal and my professional life, between my life and my art and I found a lot of answers in my life and to my life by simply working on those areas of conflict, erasing them as much as possible.

So, now, if I am reading a book, or taking a walk, I can honestly say that I am both resting and working, both doing my job (‘Artist, Writer, Lecturer, Musician’) and taking time out. Even when I am l grinding through a pile of students’ essays to be assessed, I can periodically assure myself that all of this is what I love and live for and is my life.

If I sound proud to have achieved that, it’s OK. I also know that it could fall apart at any time, through a loss of a job, income, ill-health etc. But I sincerely wish upon every human being that they can be allowed the immense pleasure and satisfaction of coming to feel that their work (that answers the question of their economy) is also what they love and doesn’t make them feel conflicted, oppressed or resentful.

As I say, I feel that whatever I am reading now enhances my life/work (or ‘lifework’ perhaps). One of the great pleasures of reading is not any particular book and its contents but that moment when you know exactly which book you want to read next, and know that this decision is also something of a surprise, leading you along, and further along, unexpected, strangely winding paths that you know are you, are yours, and are only yours.

I won’t list what I’ve been reading here, though that could be a good idea for a future post, but just note that a close friend sent me the gift of a book recently. It is one of those classics that we feel me ought to have read but somehow never got around to reading. When it arrived, I set it aside, confident – because of lockdown (see above) – that despite its chunky appearance and 800 pages, I would be able to tackle it soon, though I didn’t want it to immediately divert the reading roads I was on at the time.

But soon, I found that I couldn’t resist it, even though it represented a kind of diversion from whatever it was I had been following. Again, there is no real split or conflict in my life and reading any more, between what is work and what is leisure, and so I decided to foreground this gift and just enjoy.

It’s proved to be an incredibly entertaining experience. Over 600 pages have already slipped by effortlessly over the past few weeks (which is fast for me). None of those pages were skimmed either, and none of them were dull or functional. All were brimming with colour light, life, wit, history, plot, intrigue, personalities, relationships and of course descriptions of another world and another time.

There is no harm at all in guiltlessly reading for pleasure, and that is what I do every time I read more of this book, which I will now compare with the work of some other classic authors.

Whenever I have read the works of Zola I have been amazed by the ways in which he drew me into the world of 19th century Paris, but I sometimes felt that he ‘got lost in the details’ or went a little too far with his sumptuous and scientific but ultimately also self-conscious descriptions, so as to create imbalances in the overall narrative.

When I read the classic work of Proust I was smitten over and over again by his sensual approach to analysing the subtle nuances of experience, often using the words “as if” to begin beautiful tumbling passages of subjective analysis and inspired analogy to unfold, in subtle language, the most intimate of human experiences. Nevertheless, there were times when I struggled to contain and connect all of the special ‘timelessness’ in Proust’s wonderful experiment.

The classic book that I am reading and writing about today, sent as a gift by a close friend, seems, by comparison with the authors mentioned above, relatively faultless (though a very different work of course that perhaps should not be compared at all). It uses a kind of effortless economy so that the reader is able to distinguish and relate to a rich cast of characters despite the fact that they were introduced to us only with a few quick flicks of the nib. Every page and every scene (of which there are multitudes) seems to have equal weight, or rather lack of weight as the narrative gallops along, always buoyed, even in its darker moments, by what can only be the author’s love of, and for their task.

This teaches me again the lesson that in life we should strive if we can to live what we love and live by means of what we love, and then justify our corresponding sense of happiness and fulfilment by sharing the outcome with others if we possibly can.

And the book? Oh yes! I forgot to mention. It is called Anna Karenina and written by the Russian author Leo Tolstoy.



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