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.