Inspiring Older Readers
Time-travel back a month or two and the idea that I’d have had almost nothing better to do than read the gigantic backlog of books that I’ve built up over the years would have seemed like some kind of utopian dream. But now, in the horrible reality of coronavirus lockdown, it’s not quite looking like that.
In truth, I’m finding reading to be quite hard going. Shut in the house, working from home in fits and starts and only leaving the house for the daily exercise walk around the deserted streets, commons and hills of my home town, I’m finding it really difficult to focus - and it seems reading is one of the casualties. I don’t want to exaggerate, it’s not that I’ve stopped reading altogether but that the kind of reading I can do seems to be really limited.
In a desire to keep the populace diverted or entertained and to prevent children from literally ripping through walls to get to the outside world and their friends, the virtual world has gone into overdrive. There are more free ‘resources’ out there online than you can shake a stick at – if you are lucky enough to have a computer and internet connection, you can pretty much now get free access to the world’s libraries, movie stocks, authors reading their works, people acting out their favourite books and crafters doing clever things with mountains of books. All good and, for some a great way to spend their time.
But the trouble is that I’m not a screen or social media kind of person. I’ll watch some god awful stuff on t.v. occasionally but I’ve even got pretty fixed limits when it comes to this too. What I’ve discovered is that the reading time I most treasure is the sort that has been liberated from the grinding duties of the mundane, everyday tasks of living your life. When reading time is virtually unlimited, getting stuck into a book actually becomes a hard thing to settle to. It’s not helped when the backdrop to this unending reading panorama is framed by anxiety and daily reports of death and tragedy.
Those big, fat, life-changing books you promised yourself you’d read when you had time now look like insurmountable, impregnable fortresses that you’re simply not equipped to scale. Somehow, the thing I need least at the moment is to stand on the summit of one of those and look down at the history of human folly and spend time contemplating the human comedy. What I need is distraction. What I need is escape.
But perversely enough, even that has its problems. Knowing I want comfort and reading that will transport me from the horrors around me isn’t the same as being able to easily find it. Just because I want escapism doesn’t mean I could ever read Dan Brown, for example. I’m distracted and anxious, not an idiot.
Rereading old favourites is a potential route and that’s certainly one way I’m going at the moment. There’s also the pleasures of ‘sampling’ – reading just parts of books without feeling that you have to start at the beginning and go through to the end. Giving in to what you might otherwise think of as slightly guilty indulgences is another path to take. I, for example, will read pretty much anything that has books, bookshops and book collecting as a central theme or motif and I’m well aware that some of this stuff is not what you’d think of as scoring high on the literary merit-meter. So, normally, I’d only allow myself these as an infrequent indulgence but not now, the brakes are off..
But there’s always going to be one thing missing from any reading experience – the hunt. It’s the journey to the bookshop or the hours spent scrounging around in second hand and junk shops looking for the unconsidered bookish trifle to snap up that's really missing. I think I might have located the problem that sits at the heart of my ennui – I’ve got book buying withdrawal symptoms. Don’t fool yourself that ordering on line and browsing the catalogues fills the gap because it most certainly doesn’t. The sheer physicality of book hunting – the smell, the feel of the books, the serendipity of discovery can’t be replicated in any virtual world and, boy-o-boy, do I miss it!
When anyone talks about ‘getting back to normal’, all I can see is the book hunt resuming. It takes times like this to realise that the great Joni Mitchell was dead right:
“Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Til it’s gone.”