Saturday, January 23, 2010


Hi. I’m 33 years old. I was born in the States, grew up and lived in New Zealand for 22 years, and currently live in Edinburgh. When I was six years old I decided I wanted to become a writer. This is something I’m still working at – it might be more accurate to say “struggling with”.

As a kid I read constantly. I was one of those kids who ran ahead of his parents into public library each week and checked out as many books as I could carry. Fantasy or adventure stories, books about ghosts, monsters or UFOs, folktales and ancient mythology. As I grew up, horror became my main fascination... that and 20th century counter-culture writers like William S Burroughs, J G Ballard, etc.

At university, my reading started dwindling. For one thing, I’d entered a world of distractions: there were girls, parties, drinking, movies. For another, my studies (for a BA majoring in psychology) required a lot of reading which wasn’t very entertaining. Most of it wasn’t even stimulating. Even when reading (or half-reading) the novels I was supposed to fight through for my English component was a tiresome, stressful and time-critical business.

I got burned out in terms of reading. I’m not the only one, either – so many other Arts students I know were in the same boat that I now consider it something of an epidemic.

I trudged through my BA, went back for the Honours year, and after a year in an office building went back for a Masters degree. I can’t say that any of this helped me in the workforce, but that’s another matter. From around 2000 to 2005, I’d be lucky to finish four or five books in a year. I still bought books, in fact I bought hundreds of them in preparation for some far-off day when my powers of concentration returned, but I never made it past page 50 or 60 before setting them aside and doing something else. The half-read book has become a fact of my adult life.

Towards the end of 2006, I somehow managed to read John Fowles’ novel The Magus. It took me a little over a month, and afterwards I was struck by a couple of things. Firstly, I’d enjoyed it. I’d enjoyed it because the book’s language and depth of thought had forced me to use parts of my brain that had lain derelict since my Masters year, or even earlier. Secondly, its story and characters had given me a glimpse into the existence of literary traditions I’d been dismissing or ignoring for years – it referenced poets, classical literature and mythology, history and so forth. I admired the book, despite its flaws, and had a depressing realisation: I wished that I’d written it, or something like it, but I was totally incapable of doing so. The language, skill and knowledge put to play were totally beyond me.

I’m a reasonably intelligent person, and had daydreamed through enough lectures and crammed for enough exams that some information must have reached me through osmosis when I was younger, but by December 2006 my mind was a rusty mechanism which performed simple functions and habitually sought the quickest route between A and B.

I decided to do something about this, so my New Year’s resolution for 2007 was to read 50 books in a year. The thinking behind this: that whatever books I read were bound to get me thinking again; that reading new authors would broaden my mind; reading non-fiction would teach me actual, tangible things about the world around me; reading classics would help me see how ideas in the modern world had developed; overall I would become a better person, a better thinker, and most importantly a better writer. There were all sorts of conditions for the 2007 challenge, such as no two books could be by the same author, at least a certain proportion had to be non-fiction, or by New Zealand authors, or over 100 years old, etc.

I’m happy to say I succeeded, with a final total of 53. I admit that 2-3 of them were children’s books, and one was quite a slim volume of poetry, but still.

Since 2007 my reading has been healthier than before, but nothing amazing. Over 2008 and 2009 I’ve read approximately 20 books a year, some of them demanding, others not. I’ve been a little disturbed to see a return of my old habit of getting halfway through something, then dropping it for something new. And here’s something which also disturbs me – the mathematics of it. If I continue to read 20 books a year, and live out an average span of life, that leaves me (20 times 40) 800 more books before I die. OK, that may seem like a high number, but really, when you consider that half of what I read is pulp, that’s 400 good books. Still a high number, but next I consider what portion of these are likely to be great books, books which I not only enjoy but which change me somehow, add to the collective experience of my life, remain in my memory for years afterwards, etc., and we’re realistically looking at something like 80 to 100 books. Is that a good number? A handful of classics, a dozen more great works of horror, a small collection of 20th century literature, some key non-fiction books, maybe a few philosophical texts. Bear in mind also that this calculation optimistically postulates that I’ll live to my mid 70s, that the world won’t collapse under war, environmental or economic crisis, pandemics, etc... that books, and the society which produces them, will even exist in 30 years time.

(just throwing in a little bit of grim speculation there, sorry)

I’d rather the number was higher. So I’m embarking on a plan to read more, and read better. I don’t have a lot of free time for reading, but then when I think about how I do spend my free time, it breaks down into categories such as:

- Watching television
- Surfing the internet with no fixed purpose
- Playing computer games
- Trying to talk myself out of ordering takeaways for dinner

I’ve settled on a reduced target for 2010 – 40 books, but with an escalating emphasis on quality. I have a theory that reading is like exercise, you have to build yourself up through levels of fitness. In terms of running, which I also do, I’d like to run a marathon someday but there’s no way it’s going to happen this year, or even next year. Similarly, with reading, I’d like to read Ulysses and actually understand it, or plow through all the volumes of Remembrance of Things Past, but let’s not kid ourselves, it won’t happen until dozens of intermediary stages have been reached. So for this year, I simply want to have a good time reading, while challenging myself.

This is not an exercise in snobbery. I’m doing this to improve myself, and there are certain types of literature I’d like to try reading (and I do want to read Ulysses some day), but I haven’t decided in advance that any of this stuff is necessarily good, or will make me better than others for having read it. If you follow this blog, you will (hopefully) not be subjected to a “miaow-miaow” attitude of self-congratulation.

I’m writing this mostly to collect my thoughts about what I’m reading. When I read something I like, it’ll be an opportunity to get enthusiastic and recommend it. When I read something I don’t like, I’ll try to argue my points against it. I don’t have any experience reviewing things, so this is unlikely to be high-quality analysis, but this is the internet so I doubt anyone’s expectations are that high anyway.

But most importantly if I post about something you’ve read or are interested in, you can comment on it! We could even get miniature discussions going - you could even recommend more things for me to read! I’m starved for this in Edinburgh, I don’t know many other people out here who read – that’s probably the main reason I’m starting this blog, to get enthusiastic about reading and share that with anyone else who’s checking in.

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