Sunday, 24 April 2011

Freedom, Not Escapism

Long ago and far away, in another blogging life, I used to contribute a discussion piece to the Sunday Salon on a fairly regular basis and very often what I wrote about would be sparked by the topic the author, Jeanette Winterson had raised in her column in the previous day's Times.  

I'm sure I'm not the only one who regrets the passing of the Times Saturday Book Supplement.  It was full of interesting reviews and debates and, coupled with The Guardian's Review Section, it ensured that you could catch up, over each weekend, with whatever had been going on in the book world during the previous seven days.  But it was Winterson's pieces I always looked forward to the most.  As an author she is someone whose works I have never particularly enjoyed, but as a thinker about the literary world and about what it means to be a reader I thought she was second to none.  So, it was with real pleasure that I picked up the collection of articles from Books and Company that I bought in Oxford a couple of weeks ago and found that the first of the pieces is one by Winterson, A roof of one's own.

In this essay Winterson talks about the way in which she 'made' books for herself as a child to replace those she could not buy.  Her technique was not exactly orthodox, but then neither was her childhood.  Whereas you or I would probably have bought ourselves a notebook and scribbled away in the privacy of our bedroom, the strictures laid down by Winterson's mother meant that was not an option open to her.  Instead she would memorise passages from the books she was allowed to borrow from the library and then copy the lines down on roofing slates from the old Accrington Stanley football ground.  Lacking any chalk with which to scribe, she used instead the stones that lay about the derelict buildings.

Of course the eighteenth and nineteenth century classics she was allowed to borrow were long and the slates not really adequate for the purpose and so inevitably major parts of the works would get paraphrased in Winterson's own words.  But, what she was aiming for was not a boiled down Reader's Digest style abridgement.

It was not the story I wanted, I wanted those moments of intensity that change a narrative into a poem.  I wanted to feel its heartbeat against my own.

Those couple of sentences brought me up short.  Especially that clause it was not the story I wanted, because when I think about my own reading, of late it has only been the story I've wanted.  My disquiet was only enhanced when I moved on to the next paragraph where Winterson talks about freeing herself from within the books as she copied them out.

Freedom, not escapism.  Time with a book is not time away from the real world.  A book is its own world, unique, entire.  A place we choose to visit, and although we cannot stay there, something of the book stays with us, perhaps vividly, perhaps out of conscious memory altogether, until years later we find it again, forgotten in a pocket, like a shell from a beach.

Freedom, the chance to enlarge mind and spirit beyond the confines of everyday.

Yes, exactly!  That is exactly what books used to do for me and yet of late, if I am honest, I know that  I have been reading in a very different way; I have, for the most part, been reading simply to escape.  

Now, I don't think there is anything wrong with a bit of escapism.  Goodness knows, during the winter we've just been through there were days when a book that took you away from the feet deep drifts of snow covering the surrounding district was the only way you could get 'out' of the house.  But, when I think back and try and remember the last time I read a book that gave me a feeling of having freed something of myself, of having expanded my mind and spirit, of having asked me to really engage with it, I'm hard pressed to recall anything.

Part of me would like to argue that there must have been a reason for this, that my mind must have needed a time of lying fallow and I think there is possibly some truth in that.  But I also think that it is very possible to simply become lazy in our reading habits and ask for nothing that demands more than a cursory, glancing attention.  A time of essential fallow can morph only too easily into a period where we simply allow the weeds to grow.  

So, with Winterson at my side, I am going to go weeding.  That doesn't mean that I am going to give up completely on my plot driven crime fiction but I am going to make sure that it isn't any more than fifty percent of what I read and I am only going to read the best, rather than whatever happens to come my way.  If it becomes clear that I have something in my hands that has little more than plot to recommend it then back to the library it goes.

And, if anyone at the Times should be reading this (well, you can always hope!) I want my Saturday Book Supplement back please.  More especially I want Jeanette Winterson's column back.  I've clearly suffered without a regular kick in the behind to keep me up to the mark.


  1. Oh, I just wrote and long comment and Google said as I went to post it "Sorry we are unable to complete your request" and when I hit the back button it was gone. There's no way at this time of night I'm going to type it out again at this time of night (for me) so I'll just say that I enjoyed this post!

  2. You can see I'm tired from that repetition!

  3. WG, what a shame. I love your comments. Go and get some sleep woman!

  4. I would probably buy the Saturday Times again if it had a reasonable books section.

    I think readers probably go through phases of reading for freedom or escapism - I know that when I am very busy at work, I want the escapism, and other times I'm happy with the freedom.

    Thanks for a very thoughtful and thought-provoking post.

  5. You and me both, Tea. I suspect they lost a number of readers when they dropped the supplement. I do agree about their being time when escapism is what you want, and indeed, need. I'm just a bit bothered that I am escaping through laziness rather than need at the moment and I need a good prod to stir me out of my lethargy.

  6. Annie, I just finished reading "By Nightfall" by Michael Cunningham, and although I didn't especially like it for the first maybe 50 pages or so, I ended up loving it. I am now rereading "Death in Venice," which I know inspired it. Remember that he also did "The Hours," which was inspired by "Mrs. Dalloway." I think this is the kind of book you may be looking for, it was not escapism, but rather it enlarged my thinking and made me feel it was a "world" that I had discovered. I had also just seen a production of "The Merchant of Venice" in Los Angeles and found connections between it and "By Nightfall." Cunningham's book has led me on this artistic journey, finding his themes in other places. Hope you get a chance to read it.

  7. Sunday, I love Michael Cunningham and I think it's a measure of how lazy I've become that I haven't yet read this. I'm off to see if my library has it right now. Thanks for jogging my mind on this.

  8. Hello Annie,

    Loved this post, especially the Winterson quote, although I haven't read any of her books.

    She does have her autobiography coming out later in the year, if you are interested. Sounds like it will be pretty hard hitting and emotional stuff!

    I have to confess that I read for escapism more than anything else and will read almost anything that comes my way.

    I obviously read much more slowly than many others, or read much more thoroughly, I am not sure which. I am constantly amazed at the speed with which people update their blogs with reviews and tally up the amount of books they have read.

    I don't want to feel as if I am taking part in some unadvertised race, but sub-consciously feel pressured to keep up with everyone else, although in reality, blogging every day isn't realistically an option.

    I have been trying to 'do my own thing' and only blog when I have something interesting or worthwhile to say.

    I always try to pick up my free copy of 'Book Time', from my local bookshop, each month. This gives a pretty comprehensive view of the latest book releases and literary events, for both adults and children and I love Jane Wenham-Jones's regular column.


  9. It's sad when weekend book pages are dropped, isn't it? Thank goodness the New York Times hasn't ditched their Sunday review. The Los Angeles Time closed their weekend book pages several years ago but I was delighted to learn last week tha they are ramping them up again but this time it will be entirely online. As for reading, it is easy to get lazy especially when life gets busy and stressful and then you blink and time has flown by and you realize you've been doing nothing but snacking and start craving a substantial meal. Looking forward to your hearing about your bookish meals!

  10. Yvonne, you've picked up on a point that I want to think more about myself, which is to do not so much with what you read as how you read it. I think there is a link in as much as some books allow you to read them in different ways and others either demand, or only have the potential to be read in one particular way. I'm going to have to give this rather more thought, but I'm sure there's something to be said about this.

    Stefanie, I suppose we should think ourselves lucky that we still have the Guardian's Saturday Review, but I miss the opportunity to balance opinions about a book. I have two 'meals' lined up for this week, both book group reads. Unfortunately one has turned out to be nutritiously very good, but completely unpalatable, which hasn't helped by resolution one little bit.

  11. Thank you for this thoughtful post. It's made me think about my reading. Since I started blogging I know I think about my reading more than I used to because I know that I will want to post about it. I haven't changed what I read though. All of my reading is for pleasure & some of it is comfort reading when I've had a bad day or I just want something familiar but I still like to be challenged occasionally, often through my 19th century book group. They choose unfamiliar books or authors I don't think I like (Conrad, recently) & I'm often surprised by how much I get from these more unusual choices.

  12. Lyn, I think it's when you read one of those books that make you think that you realise that you've not been getting a balanced diet. However, there are times when we all need a bit of comfort reading, preferably accompanied by a bit of comfort eating!

  13. I worry sometimes about not thinking about my reading deeply enough and rushing off to the next book too quickly. I don't want to develop that bad habit! It's not that I want to stay away from comfort reading though -- I'm in the middle of a Sue Grafton novel right now and am enjoying the feeling of pure absorption, but I want to follow it with something a little more challenging. I'm curious to see what books you will take on!

  14. Dorothy, I think what worries me as much as they type of book that I've been reading is the quality of the thinking I've been doing about the books. I actually read quite a lot that is more than simple escapism simply by virtue of the book groups to which I belong. I'm in the middle of Iris Murdoch's 'The bell' at the moment. I have to reflect on this some more and see if I can pin what is really bothering me, because something definitely is.