We define ourselves in many ways: our job, our personal roles – father, friend, partner – and by the things that we do for ourselves (minds out of the gutter please), those things that take us outside of ourselves and make us feel alive.
Over the last year of writing this blog I’ve been so bold as to define myself as a writer (https://lovelaughtertruthblog.com/2016/04/03/me-my-blog-i/); it’s a matter of opinion of course but it’s a definition I’m comfortable with applying to myself. I’ve also defined myself to a large extent by my experiences of mental illness, it being such a significant, transformative part of my life over the last decade, and being something I feel passionately about promoting awareness of to help others that may be suffering.
But there is a danger that we become too attached to our definitions, that we overly identify with certain definitions at the expense of some of the others.
Friedrich Nietzsche said (always a great start to a sentence that…):
“He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster.
And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.”
He was right you know. For me, writing about my struggles has been cathartic and has helped me to better understand myself; if I’m honest though, lately it’s started to pull me back towards a dark place that I really don’t want to be in. Like most things in life, there are benefits and drawbacks and the key is to make sure the scales are tipped towards the former, and to recognise when the balance begins to shift.
It’s been shifting, and it’s time for me to shift my focus onto those things in life that take me outside of my head and make me feel alive, that define me in ways that reflect the best of me, and that direct me towards the better self of my future.
Which brings me to… reading.
I’m a bookworm. Always have been. It’s said that you are never alone with a good book for company and I never go anywhere without one. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve felt loneliness over recent years but through reading I have always felt connected to something bigger, to worlds and lives beyond my own experience and comprehension.
Around 10 years ago I was moaning to my best friend that I saw so many books that I wanted to read that I just wouldn’t get the time to and he suggested I learn to speed read. I thought it meant ‘skimming’ and that would take the enjoyment out of it but he explained that it’s a technique that teaches you to read and comprehend everything, only quickly.
So I did, and it was one of the best things I ever did. The principle, in a nutshell, is that rather than reading by saying each word to yourself in your head, you train yourself through a series of drills to look at whole sections of words because your brain recognises them and will register them without having to say them. In essence, it’s similar to how we view a picture as a whole, rather than looking at each little bit of it and telling ourselves what is in each part.
Since learning to speed read I can buy a book over 1,000 pages long knowing that I can have it finished in a month and not have to weigh up the sacrifice of not being able to read anything else for six months (I’d like to think I’m modest – with a lot to be modest about! – but forgive me for boasting that I’ve read War & Peace (twice); it’s use as a shorthand to describe something long and laborious is a blasphemy). Rather than reading comprehension and the experience of reading suffering I’ve found it actually improves, as what you read 200 pages ago is fresher in the memory due to the increased speed of reading.
In the last 10 years I expect I’ve read somewhere in the region of 500-700 books, with a detour via Kindle before returning to print. I’m no traditionalist and loved the convenience of a Kindle, but you can’t beat browsing in a bookshop and a page turner is that much more satisfying when you are, well, turning the pages.
I’ve read about many, many subjects – religion, psychology, sport, music, politics, society and culture, philosophy, history – and I will never tire of learning new things and reading fresh voices. When I began writing little over a year ago I was surprised at how easily words tended to come to me, in sentences and paragraphs that I would never have imagined myself consciously conceiving of. With poetry in particular, words often spring forth almost independently of my conscious mind.I can only attribute it to all of the wonderful books that I have read, the vivid descriptions and precisely crafted words that I have soaked in over so many years. And to end this post I’d like to share a handful of the books that have made the biggest impacts upon me, books that I fell in love with and didn’t want to end.
If you’ve stuck with me this far, you know the type I’m talking about and you’ll have your own; here’s mine:
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis DeBernieres
This was recommended by a good friend and I had no desire to read it, believing that it would be a sappy love story based on the trailers and terrible reviews for the film. I gave it a go and was hooked after a couple of pages. DeBernieres is a wonderful writer and this novel has everything: love; death; war; humour; humanity. Just steer well clear of the film; it’s shite (well, the half hour I bothered watching before giving up was anyway).
The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay – Michael Chabon
The Pulitzer Prize winning story of two Jewish cousins before, during and after the Second World War. An epic story centred around the power of comics and the theme of escape, the characters are beautifully drawn and stayed with me for a long time after finishing.
Bonfire Of The Vanities – Tom Wolfe
A big novel about race, power, ambition, greed and politics; populated by vividly drawn characters and written in a way that will keep you gripped from beginning to end.
South Of The Border, West Of The Sun – Haruki Murakami
Murakami is a singular voice with themes that repeat throughout his Japan-based novels: isolation; cats, jazz; ears, and the surreal and the strange. It’s easy to lose yourself in Murakami’s world and this, a short novel, tells the story of trying to recapture a lost love and being haunted by ‘what ifs’.
Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
Awarded ‘The Booker of Bookers’ this multiple-prize winning book was one I had to read and it was touch and go whether I would make it beyond the first few pages. A tale of India gaining its independence it covers culture, religion and politics amongst other areas. Rushdie writes in a magical realist way that can easily lose you; persevere however and you will be well-rewarded as when it ‘clicks’ you will be lost in a magical world that takes you on a journey like no other.
I’d love to hear about the books that left their mark on you.
Magnificent (She Says) – Elbow