Here we are then at part 4 of my miniseries on stuff I used to be able to claim I did, but now I don’t really do.
And this one is on reading.
Books that is.
Because I used to read a lot of them and now I don’t.
Although, contrary to the suggestion in the title of this post, I never used to read a book a week. That was a little nod to one of my favourite sit-coms, ‘The Office’ (original UK version, although I am very much a fan of the US version too).
The comment about Dostoyevsky is a nod to the same episode, although it is true that I’ve never read any Dostoyevsky.
Judge me not though, for I can point to a great many worthy authors that I have read, thus proving my intellect. For I have read (and in some cases enjoyed) works by Dickens, Hardy, multiple Brontes, Stendhal, Flaubert, and numerous other authors that appear in the ‘Classics’ section of your local bookshop.
But don’t be too impressed, I’ve also read everything Dan Brown ever wrote, so I’m clearly not averse to an ‘easy read’ either.
In fact, my parents used to joke that I’d read anything I could get my hands on, even a cereal box if there was nothing else available. And in truth I have read some pretty good cereal boxes in my time. The Frosties box of summer 1987 stands out as a particularly good one, although the Coco Pops of autumn 1991 would run it close.
I jest of course, for while these days, as all sensible consumers should, I read the ingredients of cereal boxes to make sure that nothing contained therein is going to slowly kill me over time, I wouldn’t read a cereal box for entertainment purposes. Jars of Marmite on the other hand…
But I digress, for my parents made that observation about my reading habits (or one of them did and I’m not quite sure which of them to blame…) because as a child I did read a lot.
It might make me sound like quite a worthy child but I’m not sure that I was. It was the eighties and there wasn’t really much else to do.
I wasn’t really a sporty child (as I alluded to in this post), I was pretty bad at computer games (not that I had access to any until well into my teens) and it’s not just a clever play on words (or even a clever play on words at all) to say that I was bored by board games. I enjoyed TV of course, but this was back in the days of only four channels so even a visual media junkie like me couldn’t watch it all of the time. Also my parents wouldn’t let me.
So I found a lot of solace in books.
I’m not sure what the first book I ever read on my own was – I recall that a favourite of my very early years was something called ‘Sixpence for Sam’ but I’ve got a strong feeling this is something that my parents read to me, and then possibly with me. It might well have helped me learn to read but I don’t know that I ever read it on my own.
Other titles that stand out from my youngest days would be titles such as ‘Fast Frog’ and ‘Busy Busy World’. And I loved the Mr Men books.
As I moved through my formative years, I moved onto more challenging texts. I recall my primary school having some kind of a ‘book club’ thing where you could (presumably for a discount – although I’m not certain) buy books through the school. It was quite exciting because you’d get given the books during lesson time, which usually made the day a little less dreary (it’ll become apparent, if it hasn’t already, on this blog that I really hated school. It’s quite amazing that I ended up becoming a teacher). I remember the first one of those I ever got – it was called ‘Cam Jansen and the Mystery of the Circus Clown’. I just googled Cam Jansen, while writing this post, and it turns out there was a whole series of Cam Jansen books. But that’s the only one I ever read. It’s a shame I didn’t know there were more – I recall really enjoying that one.
I also read a lot of Enid Blyton. Mostly ‘Famous Five’, but some ‘Secret Seven’ (I never really got into the ‘Magic Faraway Tree’ though – I gave it go but it wasn’t for me). Alongside that I grew up reading Richmal Crompton’s ‘William’ stories, CS Lewis’ ‘Chronicles of Narnia’. I attempted Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’ but if I’m honest I never made it past the opening chapters until I was much older and I wanted to read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and a cursory knowledge of the preceding novel seemed like it might add value to the experience (which in fairness it did).
There were other stories that came and went. I recall ‘The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler’ being a favourite, ‘Emile and the Detectives’ another, but mostly it was all about Roald Dahl.
I loved the world of Dahl, and I read most of his books multiple times. Ironically, perhaps, not ‘James and The Giant Peach’, although I think I read it once, but I recall reading ‘Charlie and The Chocolate Factory’ followed by ‘Charlie and The Great Glass Elevator’ and then, as soon I’d finished the latter, I picked up the former and proceeded to read both of them again.
‘Danny the Champion of the World’ got the same treatment, as did ‘The BFG’ and ‘The Witches’. But my absolute favourite was ‘Matilda’, which I still think is probably one of the best books ever written for any one of any age. I haven’t yet seen the musical in London, but it’s really just a matter of time.
I wonder if, looking back at my prepubescent self, I had a little bit of a boyhood crush on the character of Matilda. It would certainly explain my marriage, many years later, to Mrs Proclaims, who was, in her own little way, an unappreciated genius as a child (although, I should emphasise, with a much nicer family and not just because my in-laws might be reading this…).
Along with all the book-reading I also enjoyed comics. Not comic books of the DC and Marvel variety, but the very British comics of The Beano and The Dandy. I preferred The Beano – it had ‘Dennis the Menace’, ‘Rodger the Dodger’, ‘Minnie the Minx’ and (probably my favourites) ‘The Bash Street Kids’. I was less impressed with The Dandy’s ‘Desperate Dan’ but The Dandy did bring the world ‘Bananaman’ and for that I will always be grateful.
As I grew up there was a phase, I’m certain, where I didn’t read as much. Books were forced on me by school and, even if some of them ended up being quite good, I was less inclined to read things I was told to read, but that may have impacted a little on my desire to read other things for pleasure.
Still I transitioned over to literature aimed at adults eventually (not to be confused with ‘adult literature’ of which I’ve read very little). I enjoyed ‘humour mixed with sci-fi and/or fantasy for a while. I really enjoyed the ‘Red Dwarf’ novels having been hooked on the TV show too. From there I discovered Terry Pratchett, and I’m pretty sure I’ve read most of the ‘Discworld’ novels, although he wrote so many I can’t be certain.
When I dropped out of school towards the end of my first attempt at my A-levels, and I had the best part of a year with not much to do, aside from a part-time job in a major high street store, I was almost reading a book a day at one point. I think in 1997 I read something like seventy books. I couldn’t tell you what they all were. I know a lot of them were the afore-mentioned Pratchett, the equally brilliant Douglas Adams and other, lesser examples, of the ‘funny sci-fi/fantasy’ genre, but there were more ‘mainstream’ titles in there too.
Nick Horby’s ‘High Fidelity’ remains one of my favourite novels from that time. I also read a lot of Irvine Welsh and Iain Banks back then. Banks’ ‘The Crow Road’ also stands out as one I’d like to revisit one day
Lying on my parent’s sofa for a year and reading book after book was a form of escapism that helped me to deal with a difficult time in my life.
Reading has oft been a sanctuary for me when the real world gets a bit much to handle. (Just reread that sentence and it looks a bit odd because I currently live in the town of Reading [pronounced redding] which, though perfectly nice, is really no kind of sanctuary at all)
However, during the latter part of my twenties and certainly moving into my thirties it has seemed like an activity I’ve had less and less time in my life for. There have been moments when I’ve rediscovered the joys of the written word, like the time, just after graduating, when Mrs Proclaims and I, having just begun our relationship, were separated by a four-hour train journey. She introduced me to ‘Adrian Mole’ and he kept me company on many of those epic journeys. Or later that same year, after watching Casino Royale in the cinema, when I was inspired to read the original novel, and consequently read every single one of Flemming’s ‘Bond’ books back-to-back.
But sitting here, writing this in mid-March 2017, I can honestly say it’s been a while since I last read a novel. I am still, technically, in the middle of a book I started reading in August, but in truth I don’t think I’ve even picked it up since Christmas. There’s nothing wrong with it. I think, in fact, it’s quite good. But, for whatever reason, I haven’t found the time lately to even pretend I’m going to read it.
I went through a phase of trying to read it before falling asleep, but the work/blog/life balance is currently such that no sooner do I read a paragraph than I’m snoring away, book on my face, like some kind of cumbersome shroud.
I know I’ll find some time, probably during the summer, when I have a much appreciated six weeks away from the obligation to go into work (although it remains a myth that the holidays are entirely ‘work free’ for education professionals, they are certainly a lot lighter than term time and the summer break is the least demanding of all the holidays), to read a few of the books on my shelves. I might even feel the need to purchase a few more. But come September, the next ten-and-a-half month reading hiatus will begin.
It is what it is. Time pressures are unavoidable. It’s all I can do to keep ‘slightly behind’ with the demands of my job some days (I’ve never been ‘on top’ of my work as such) and throw in, an admittedly very part time, Master course, maintaining this blog, and various other demands on my time (some pleasurable, some less so) and it’s not really surprising that I have so little time to read. Admittedly the undemanding nature of Netflix and other such media is a contributory factor. There are just so many boxsets I want to watch and watching them is so easy. Even a Dan Brown novel takes more effort than watching an episode of ‘The Walking Dead’ and if you haven’t watched the latest show, how are you supposed to talk to people?
I mean who talks about books?
I’m being facetious – quite a lot of people clearly do talk about books and indeed sometimes friends and family do deign to recommend a novel to me that I might enjoy from time-to-time.
And I’m still pretty happy to read anything by anyone. Except ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’. I don’t think that’s aimed at me. Also Mrs Proclaims read it and said it was one of the worst things she’d ever read (and being a genuine intellectual and academic she does read some absolute rubbish during her downtime). Admittedly she still finished it. But she hasn’t read any of the sequels yet which is proof enough that I wouldn’t enjoy it.
I’m certain I’ll get back to a time when I read regularly again. It seems barely conceivable to me that I won’t.
But for the time being it remains something that appears on my CV, that I don’t currently do.
Out of all the ‘stuff I used to do but don’t do any more’ it’s the one absent pastime that I miss the most.
A list of stuff I’ve read that you should know about:
|Favourite book of all time||Hard to pick one, but the book that most made me question my own credentials as a potential author was the epic and genre-defying ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’ by Susanna Clarke. There are others that leap ahead of it from time-to-time but it’s always the first one to come to mind when I try to think of my favourite.|
|Book that I almost gave up on that I’m really glad I didn’t||‘Captain Correlli’s Mandolin’. Totally brilliant but what’s going on with the first hundred pages?|
|Book I didn’t give up on that I absolutely wish I had||A book called ‘Atlantis’ by some bloke called David Gibbins. Actually made me appreciate the narrative ‘talent’ of Dan Brown. Seriously awful and actually got worse as it went on. A quick internet search reveals I’m far from the only person who thought this, although it hasn’t stopped Gibbins from churning out a whole series of novels with the same leading character (this was the first). Judging by the Amazon reviews, he might have improved a little over time, but I will never darken my bookshelf with another title of his. I implore you to never read anything this man has written, although maybe you should just to know how truly bad this was.|
|Most impressive book I’ve ever read (from an intellectual perspective)||The full unabridged version of ‘Clarissa’ by Samuel Richardson. Not to be confused with the 90s TV show ‘Clarissa Explains It All’, this is 1500 pages and nearly a million words of eighteen-century tragedy. I read it in a week. I did literally nothing else that week.|
|Least impressive book I’ve ever read (from an intellectual perspective)||Probably ‘Six Pence for Sam’ if I’m being honest, but ‘The Da Vinci Code’ comes a close second.|
|Favourite Children’s Book of all time||Sorry JK Rowling, maybe it’s because I discovered Harry Potter as an adult, but Roald Dahl will always be the king of kid-lit and therefore ‘Matilda’ is the greatest of all the children’s books.|