In 2013 I went to Thailand on a job and I reckon more than half the weight of my pack going out was made up of paperbacks. I love a long novel and I read fast. I did an English degree and the pressure of getting the book at least mostly finished before going out and having fun – it really raises the word per minute rate particularly if you’re not enjoying the book but you’re still going to have to talk about it.
I bought a Kindle shortly after Thailand but I couldn’t get behind the lack of cover and pages. I still tend to keep a book by my bed. But not always. There are gaps now. I hate that.
I’m waiting for a bus right now and I haven’t got a story to take me home. Instead if I wasn’t writing this I’d dip in and out of other people’s stories on the internet, and find opinion pieces nudged my way by algorithms that I detest.
The tube has no mobile phone reception but you can access WiFi at stations. I’ve watched people with nothing to read just … scroll through the apps in their phone or refresh something that will never refresh. It’s even more vacuous than reading those cruddy adverts or picking up the daily fear and prurience sandwich offered up by The Metro.
Even 5 years ago everyone actually seated on the tube would have had a book in their hand. I’ve accidentally missed stations for exciting moments in books. I’ve cried and gasped. I’ve seen people react so strongly to what they’re reading that I’ve made a note of the title and bought the book myself. I found The Time Traveler’s Wife that way, and it made me weep on an escalator going up at Angel. How would I have found that book from the back of a Kindle? (Ignore the film btw. It’s a book about form and it doesn’t translate.)
Among the heavy books I carried to Thailand was one of the Steig Larsson Dragon Tattoo trilogy. I ended up chatting to someone on a ferry from Koh Samui because of it. Two weeks later she took me on the ultimate Bangkok exploration night. Mushrooms and hummus and flowers and water and lights and smells and walking. We wouldn’t have had a conversation opener without that book. We probably would’ve just sat next to each other telling someone miles away what we could see.
What are we collectively doing, as we stoop over these reflections of ourselves, reading and making content curated to a narrow computerised view of who we really are? We are gaining something, yes, in terms of convenience and connection to information and to people remote from us. But intimacy is suffering as one group of friends sits messaging other groups of friends. And books must be suffering. These amazing novelists – will their deep stories really be replaced by people like me hacking opinions into the ether?
I hope not. I’m going to start reading a new novel tonight when I get home. Let’s all try to do the same soon. Books are great. Much better than strangers telling you about their cat or their day or their politics or their genitals.
How was my day? Well. Since you’re here, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I did tonight if I hadn’t been an extremely confident reader. I was given an hour of constant sightreading, alone on stage delivering to a few hundred people, with one small glass of water and 0 preparation time. It was mostly doublespeak and acronym and industry jargon, and I had to drive through it and make it audible and fun. I smashed it. But I’m gonna read a book when I get home to reclaim fun-reading.
Coincidentally I’m writing this on foot as I go past Oscar’s house, one of the greatest wordsmiths. Here’s his plaque. As ever I took no photos so you get what you’re given. God rest his soul.