March 14, 2012 by Rhi
You may or may not be aware, but we are currently in the period of Lent. That oddly Christian chunk of the calendar which starts with a pancake hangover on Ash Wednesday, nuzzles us through Mothering Sunday and crashes to a halt with a chocolate overload on Easter Sunday. (NB: This is not a completely accurate description of everyone’s experience of Lent. YMMV, as always).
Now, as it’s a Christian festival, and I am one of them there Christians, there are certain traditions which many of us try to keep to. One is the idea of giving up something for Lent – the most usual ones are things like chocolate and alcohol, although I’ve noticed a few people on my Twitter timeline going quiet for the duration, and one or two announced on Facebook that they wouldn’t be responding on there until after they’d rolled their Easter Eggs. Even amongst my atheist friends, there’s a tradition of giving something up – when I first met my husband, he had sworn off meat for Lent, and his brothers have variously given up things like tea and bread – things which they find it hard to live without. Obviously, for them there is no hint of religious devotion through sacrifice. Their thinking was more about testing their resolve, and possibly limiting things which they felt they had come to rely on a little too much in their daily lives.
I don’t tend to give things up for Lent. Growing up in the Church of Scotland, we were always encouraged during this period to do something positive for the duration – take something up to improve ourselves, rather than cut something out. I’ve always found this to be more helpful for me, I like the idea of using the time to broaden my horizons, improve myself, or help other people. One year we organised a recycling scheme in the local church hall, and I’ve previously taken up knitting for the Linus Project and to donate clothing to neonatal units for babies.
This year, however, I’ve kept it personal. I’ve taken up reading again. It seems odd to say I’ve “taken up reading”, because I don’t think I’ve ever really stopped. More accurately, I’m trying to force myself to set aside the time each day to devote to reading. When I was younger, I was a voracious reader. The standing joke in my house was that if you left me alone long enough, I’d start to read the dictionary. When I ran out of stories to read, I wrote my own. When I started secondary school, I exhausted the junior section of the library within a year, and was given special dispensation to attack the “grown up” books instead. This appetite for literature made me think it was a “good idea” to study it at degree level, if only in my first year. Oh dear.
Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy learning about literature and theory at a higher level. But the side effect of all that learning was that reading became a chore. Something I had to get done and get over with. I’m a pretty speedy reader (the day The Remorseful Day was published, I read it cover to cover in seven hours, slept for three, and then read it cover to cover again), but trying to get through two novels a week, plus whichever literary theory we were studying, meant that the sight of a book began to tire me out. I have to be in the mood to read a book, and my mood for books changes all the time. Being forced to read Heart of Darkness wasn’t my idea of a good time. I began to resent the books for having to be read, and once I’d finished my English Lit modules, it took a very good book or a very long train journey to get me to pick one up and read it from front to back.
And of course, one key difference between my childhood and now is the advent of the internet. When I was small, we had four channels and books to amuse us. Now, I’ve got an unending stream of online content, via several different pieces of tech hardware, to entertain me. Information overload has altered my brain – I began to find it hard to sit down and concentrate solely on a book. Even going to bed at night, I had the delights of digital radio stations to lull me to sleep with audiobooks and drama serials, rather than typed words on a page.
This situation depressed me. I hadn’t lost my appetite for books, but I had umpteen books on my shelf of which I’d read the first chapter, and then never returned to. Reading is a discipline, albeit an enjoyable one. I’d mastered it easily as a child, I’d lost myself in the wonderland that books created. I’d been to Malory Towers, and travelled with the Famous Five on every adventure. And somewhere deep in my sub-conscious, the precocious 10-year-old me was feeling very resentful that her grownup version had apparently let slide that habit which she had been so proud and passionate about – the art of losing yourself in a book.
So far, I’ve exceeded the aim which I’d set myself – I’m trying to get through at least one book each week (so the fact I read three in the first week didn’t buy me a week off the next fortnight). A good friend put me onto the website Good Reads, which also happens to have a handy little WordPress plugin which you can see to the right there. It lets me list the books I’ve read, the books I’d like to read, and the ones which I’m currently reading. The updates facility lets you post to your profile with comments as you read the book, giving friends on the site the page you’re on, and what you think of the book so far. Not only that, but for out of copyright books, you can read them right there on the site (or on an Ipod app), which means I’m not limited to the books I have in the house, and I don’t have to go and spend money when I fancy a trip back to read the classics. It has, however, seen the reappearance of my glasses as reading a book on an Ipod challenges even the best eyesight, and the Kindle fairy is unlikely to visit this house any time soon.
The first book which fell was The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, which didn’t actually count as one of my Lent books, but which inspired the idea of reading as Mr Bint wagered that I couldn’t finish it before he had to take it back to the library the next day. I proved him wrong, enjoyed the feeling of being lost in a book for the first time in years, and decided to keep going. I picked The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy as my first “official” book, which was hard going. But I felt a sense of achievement in not losing patience with the writing, I persevered through the awkward first few chapters stage, and was rewarded by getting to enjoy what was a very good read. Next was Lighthousekeeping by Jeanette Winterson, and then The Mayor of Casterbridge, which I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t read before, but which I thoroughly enjoyed. I’ve started exploring the Brontes now – specifically Anne as I’d read she was arguably more talented than her sisters, with a more interesting writing style. Agnes Grey has captivated me so far, and I’m certain to go to on to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall next.
It’s not all high-brow literature, though. I’ve been tempted back to finish the last book in the Georgia Nicholson series by Louise Rennison. And I’m trying to improve my understanding of Christianity with Ian Ker’s Newman on Being a Christian, which is fascinating, and brings my aims of improving my reading back to the traditions of the Christian faith.
So what about you? Have you given anything up for Lent, or would you prefer to do as I have and find something which will improve your life without a sacrifice? And do you have any recommendations for books to read? I’m currently getting through them at a rate of three a week – I need a longer list I think! You can follow my reading adventures at Good Reads.
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