|I’m not sure if it’s the hot weather, moral turpitude, or advancing years, but I’ve been struggling to read much recently. Reassuringly though, I have just read an on-line article from the Times and Sunday Times, and find I am not alone. Help is at hand so, if you are struggling too, here are some of the tips sent in by readers:|
|1 Read something short. The speedy sense of achievement will fill you with motivation to read more.
2 Reread a favourite childhood book to reconnect with the excitement of reading as a kid.
3 Try an audiobook.
4 Read a short-story collection. Easy to pick up and put down again.
5 Don’t feel guilty about abandoning books. Keep picking up new things until you find something that engages you.
6 Reread a “comfort” book. Something you’ve read before and know you love.
I am going to try out a few of these tips next week when I take a short break. (Maybe it will rain and I will have to stay in and make my own entertainment as there is no Internet on site).
I am also struggling to write much at the moment. The story-line is coming along nicely in my head, but is refusing to find its way onto paper or screen. So I’m taking an empty note-pad and plenty of pens with me and hope that, along with finding the mojo to read a bit more, I will actually put one of the said pens to paper.
Links to my books (in case you are looking for something pretty short to read!)
Readers reckon they know what the verb to read means. Quite simply, it’s what you are doing now! But the verb can be used to imply a range of other meanings too. Here are a few:
“All I know is what I read in the papers,” doesn’t literally mean that he/she only gets information from newspapers. What the phrase is intended to convey is that the speaker is ordinary, unpretentious, not an expert. The phrase was popularised by the American comedian, Will Rogers, in the 1920s.
Sticking with newspapers, there’s the vendor’s cry “Read all about it.” It wasn’t long before the phrase extended beyond newspaper sellers – hence the BBC programme reviewing new paperback books with the same title.
“Read any good books lately?” An innocuous seeming question from the early twentieth century that then became a catch-phrase to be used when a speaker wanted to divert attention from something. (A young man might perhaps divert his friend’s mother with this question, to stop her spotting his friend kissing a young lady – presumably one he hadn’t been properly introduced to).
“Read between the lines.” Literally, this probably referred to a cryptographic method of conveying meaning in a text via every other line. Nowadays, it refers to an author who conveys more meaning than is in the actual words, perhaps conveying something sensational (or rude) by implication. How many secret Romeos have answered the door whilst buttoning their shirt / trousers – leaving us to ‘read between the lines’ what had gone on just before? (Well maybe not so many these days, where almost anything goes, but it was common practice in books / films a generation or so ago).
“Read my lips.” A phrase popularised by George Bush senior, but used well before that to denote the sincerity of the words being uttered through the lips. It is also an age-old technique used by deaf people or people working in noisy environments.
“Read the riot act.” The original riot act was passed by the British Parliament and read out to the rebellious masses in 1714, ordering them to disperse. Now it is an activity regularly implemented by parents to show disapproval of a child’s errant behaviour.
And finally – “Read, mark, and inwardly digest.” Unlikely though it may seem, this is an actual phrase from the Book of Common Prayer (the Collect for the second Sunday in Advent) and means exactly what it says).
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If you are reading this blog it is probably because you have a passing interest in writers, writing, and grammar. You will, no doubt, know all about the correct use of apostrophes, apply them correctly most of the time – even the best of us slip up now and then – and snigger when you see them misused by greengrocers and such-like. Possibly you feel you are maintaining long-established standards, handed down to us by the Venerable Bede, Chaucer, and others of similar vintage.
Wrong! There was no apostrophe in the English language until the sixteenth century, when printing was established and their use was adopted from the French to indicate an elision or abbreviation (such as wouldn’t). It wasn’t used to signal possession – the writer’s pen – until the end of that century . The convention for showing the single and plural possession differently (the dog’s bowl, or the dogs’ bowl) only started in the nineteenth century with the advent of mechanised printing. How those pen-pushers of yore must have fumed to find their established, apostrophe-free, grammar undermined by the new-fangled printing industry.
The apostrophe is irrelevant in spoken English. Context will tell you if the speaker means the bowl belongs to one or more dogs, and you don’t pause in the middle of it’s, as in ‘it’s another sunny day’ because the listener understands perfectly well that you have elided it and is. The listener will also understand from context the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ in ‘You’re joking of course if you think I want your opinion.’
It could be argued that, if apostrophes are irrelevant to meaning and are unrecognisable in speech, we shouldn’t need them at all. By this logic they should be dying out as being too tiresome to write or read. Instead their use seems to be growing and you see them sprouting up in all sorts of unlikely situations.
I don’t intend stopping using them myself, but will try to confine my use of them to the correct places. Correct that is, for the early twenty-first century.
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In his book, The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett the playwright, author, and humourist (to list just a few nouns attributed to him – many would also add ‘National Treasure’) imagines the Queen suddenly developing such an interest in reading it threatens to undermine her public duties and neglect her hitherto impeccable sartorial elegance.
The novel is short and very funny, capturing exactly the Queen as we think we know her (apart from the reading) and her mind bogglingly stuffy courtiers. These try, using a mix of management speak, which she hates, and snootiness – which she also detests, to bring her back to her pre-reading senses. Without success, as it happens – by the end she has decided to try her hand at writing.
It all starts when the Queen, chasing after her disobedient corgis, finds herself in a mobile library and feels obliged to borrow a book. She reads it, without much enjoyment, from cover to cover, and returns it the next week, telling the driver – librarian, “Once I start a book I finish it. That was the way one was brought up. Books, bread and butter, mashed potato – one finishes what’s on one’s plate.” She borrows another out of politeness, and soon becomes an addict; when her annoying private secretary comments on her ‘passing the time’ reading she quickly rebukes him.
“Books are not about passing the time. They’re about other lives. Other worlds.”
“I read, I think,” she says later, “because one has a duty to find out what people are like.”
For her, the appeal of books lies in their indifference. She starts to keep a log of her thoughts about reading, noting at various times that: books did not care who was reading them … All readers were equal … Literature is a commonwealth, letters a republic … Reading was anonymous, shared, and common. Hidden in the covers of a book she could roam unrecognised.
She often met authors as part of her public duties but was invariably disappointed, deciding that she preferred to get to know them from their writing. Especially, she notes, as many behaved as if they had done one a favour writing a book, rather than one had done them a favour reading it.
At first she felt a duty to approach each book without prejudice – for her there was no such thing as an improving book. She did find some authors, like Henry James, difficult to read initially, though as she became more adept, her appreciation of their work increased. After all, she observed, novels are not necessarily written as the crow flies. Reading, she later decided, was like a muscle that one could develop. Once difficult books could later be read with ease, and complex ideas understood – one didn’t put one’s life into books; one found it there.
One day, sitting next to a professor of creative writing, she nonplussed him with her enthusiasm for reading. “Books are wonderful, aren’t they?” she asked him, adding, “At the risk of sounding like a piece of steak, they tenderise one.”
In the real world, of course, we have no idea what the Queen reads for pleasure, and what she thinks of books and authors. But we get a pretty good idea of what Alan Bennet thinks from the words he puts into her mouth. As well as being funny, the novel is, as Edward Marriot from the Observer said, “A deadly serious manifesto for the potential of reading to change lives.”
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Anne Tyler is an American writer who has written twenty-two novels, won the Pulitzer prize, been shortlisted for the Booker prize, and had one of her books turned into an Oscar winning film. Her latest book, Clock Dance, has just been published and is likely to sell well. Very well – she has a huge following of both male and female readers and has sold more than ten million books since she started writing over fifty years ago.
Unlike most novelists, who are encouraged / expected by their publisher to seize every opportunity to promote their books she has, for the past forty years, refused to go on book tours or appear on chat shows. Her books sell largely on her reputation, and positive critical reviews. She will, however, allow the occasional newspaper interview and recently talked about her writing technique to Louise France.
The author has a small office in her home where she stores her ideas for novels on index cards and jots down the initial outline for each novel on one page. She writes the first draft in longhand, with a black gel pen, onto blank sheets of A4 paper. Numerous revisions are then made to the handwritten draft before she feels pleased enough with her work to type it into her computer.
But that is only the start! She then re-writes it in longhand and, after that, reads it out loud into a recorder so she can pick up what still doesn’t sound right, make further changes and, finally, pull together a manuscript she is satisfied is ready to go to her publisher.
Anne Tyler is already well into her twenty-third novel. Recently she has given up writing all day. She writes in the morning and allows herself to read other people’s work in the afternoon. She reads fiction and doesn’t like memoirs, finding them too intrusive into real people’s lives. Perhaps a fitting stance for someone who is so unassuming about her own fame and talent, and who recently described novel writing as “A very odd way of making a living. Just telling lies.”
Odd it maybe, but it’s worked for her! Though, if her technique is anything to go by, it is certainly not an easy option. Writing a prize-winning novel is hard work.
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Can you read to make yourself a better person? Laura Freeman thinks so. In fact she’s written a whole book about it – The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite. I haven’t read her book – yet, but I’ve read several reviews and it sounds like it’s a book for me. I’ve also recently read an article by her in The Times. Like her I find the concept of mindfulness to relax makes my teeth grind and I end up wanting to punch someone. Especially when the idea behind it feels to me like a process for emptying your mind rather than filling it – mind-less-ness, as it were, rather than mindful. (Don’t write in, I know other people swear by it, and it’s only my opinion).
Laura’s cure, like mine, for sleepless nights, unwelcome thoughts, generalised agitation? Read a book! Ie. fill your mind with something bigger and better than your own quotidian concerns. In her support she quotes the Irish author and founder of the ecology movement, John Stewart Collis, who in his memoir The Worm Forgives the Plough says:
He who seeks happiness can find it in two ways. He can find it in sports or working the land. He can also find it when the mind is absorbed and the body forgotten. This happens when reading a great book: on such occasions we as good as leave our bodies and go on a journey without them. Few if any pleasures excel this. [This is the way to quell] the restless body and the wandering lunatic mind.
Reading can be addictive. But it is a ‘good’ addiction, unlike many medicines, and the side effects (new knowledge, a good laugh, a cathartic cry …) are almost always beneficial. Also, what with libraries offering books for free, charity shops selling books for pennies, and the bookshelves of friends and family just begging you to peruse them, it’s a lot cheaper hobby / cure than yoga or meditation classes. Even, dare I say it, if you splash out and buy a brand new book you still get good value for money, as you will gain for yourself hours of detachment / distraction from the daily grind, and a book can remain with you in a tangible form to read again or share with others.
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