How I Read

"the wall between work and idleness had crumbled to such a degree for him that he scarcely noticed it was there…his best ideas always seemed to come to him when he was away from his desk. In that sense, then, everything fell into the category of work for him. Eating was work, watching basketball games was work, sitting with a friend in a bar at midnight was work. In spite of appearances, there was hardly a moment when he wasn't on the job."

As a couple, our primary consumerist vice seems to be buying, or at least acquiring, books. Even when neither of us has any money, which is often, scarcely a week goes by that we don't have an influx of books, a new intake. I don't know why or even how this is - I don't set out to add to our extensive collection, but between buying and borrowing and receiving gifts, our extensive collection is undeniably expanding. And we have a lot of books in the house that neither of us has read - or that neither of us has read very closely, anyway. I like this because it makes it feel like my home is a bookshop: there are discoveries, as well as re-discoveries, still to be made here.

Paul Auster's Leviathan, from which the quote at the top of this post comes, is one such discovery, made after two months of failed attempts to read a whole good book. I started with Women in Love. I began it in October, during our strange Indian summer. One Saturday afternoon, knowing this was probably the last Saturday afternoon of the year that would be so mild, so sweet-smelling and free, I walked down to the café at the end of our street and sat outside in the sun in my shorts and fedora and ordered a green tea and pretended I was in Morocco, or someplace else, at least, sipping something hot to combat the heat of the day. At the time Lawrence seemed perfect; but later, about halfway through the book, I realized I couldn't bear to read Hermione Roddice's voice described as "sing-song" one more time. If I read that one more time, I thought, I will crack up, I will break down. I'm not giving Lawrence up forever: just until I get a grip on myself, I thought.

So, remembering my thrill upon discovering Margaret Drabble earlier in the year, I picked up Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook. The problem here, I told myself after just a few pages, really, was the size of the book: it didn't slip easily into my handbag, it was hard to hold open with one hand. I couldn't go on; I would simply have to come back to it later, when I was feeling more physically able, when my strength had returned.

The perfect antidote to this problem was bound to be Paul Harding's Tinkers - a slim, modern book, just 191 pages long, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, a first novel by a man who holds a creative writing MFA. And it turned out to be not bad, not bad at all, but not right, not quite right. I'm not giving this one up forever either: just until it's what I need, which might be next week or might be next decade.

You never know with books, is the thing: sometimes it's just right to read something and sometimes it's not. It's a lazy way of reading, yes, and I know too that my inability to commit to one book is more a symptom of my currently unpredictable attention span than anything else. But the problem for me is that reading is a competitive sport, not an idle pastime; I feel the effects very keenly, and the desire to leap up off the chair and begin writing something of my own, or to go for a vigorous walk along the river while I contemplate what I've just read, is often so strong that I have to suppress it every two or three pages. In the pub, the living room, the park, you can see me glancing up every few minutes, like a startled meerkat, staring at the world and seeing it anew, over and over again. So the fundamental pleasure of reading is enhanced by reading something which is personally timely; the problem is identifying what is personally timely. Who would have guessed that I would happily consume all of Amsterdam in one sitting a few weeks ago? I certainly wouldn't; I picked it up simply because it was there, on the coffee table.

But the other night I went calmly over to a shelf in our lounge and pulled Leviathan from between The Complete Novels of Jane Austen and Toby Young's How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, where it had been inexplicably resting for several years. I don't know why I haven't read it sooner, or why now is exactly the right time to read it, but I am utterly transfixed by it, which is a good feeling, a refreshing feeling. And I'm reminded that reading is part of the job, yes - as much as eating or having a drink with a friend, both of which I also count as work - but, like those things, it is also not just a part of the job.