The Unread

So last week I reached the week of The Artist’s Way which sets the task of reading deprivation.

The point of reading deprivation is to arrive, sooner or later, at the painful realisation that you use reading to avoid your own creativity. Devouring the words of others is always easier than facing down the blank page or stage. The Artist’s Way leads to this via a knight’s move. What it suggests you might wind up doing in place of reading is exhausting all available chores, and then, quite inadvertently, having fun. Playing Frisbee or old vinyl, painting your kitchen units dandelion yellow.  It’s this serious play element, the unstructured pursuit of something you love doing for the love of doing it, which feeds the fire that then inspires the filling of the blank page or stage.

That’s the idea, anyway. I broke my reading deprivation in three easy stages. On the first day, I decided that it was okay to dip into Food For Free and Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain, on the grounds that these books were means to ends other than reading. On the second day, I wound up exhausted from a long walk through the Grunewald, slid unresisting back onto Twitter, and before I knew it had comfort-fed myself a bunch of articles about fracking. On the fourth day, a very long S-Bahn ride did for the remainder of my tattered intent, and left another slim dent in the Selected Rumi.

Where you find me, mind, three whole days without any other kind of book on the go ranks as an achievement. My life is one built upon books, and from several senses of getting lost in them. As a child and adolescent I loved reading; as an adult I wound up cowering under the shadow of a brooding pile of must-read books that I hadn’t read yet – and could never get to the bottom of. Becoming an academic, which means having to read for a living, and to submit your understanding of what you have read to various kinds of potentially unforgiving professional scrutiny, only amplified my guilt at never having read enough, and my fear of being found out. That childhood thrill of reading for pure joy, in pursuit of my own lights, got snarled up in reading (or, dreading the consequences of not having read) for work, out of duty and to keep up appearances. Over time this dulled my feel for telling faked and obligatory enthusiasms – what I thought I ought to be reading – from what truly excited and inspired me.

My favourite reason for leaving academia is that I got so utterly sick of the burden of the unread that I had a minor epiphany in my office one day and just started pulling the books off the shelves: to sell and give away, to indulge in potlatches with (‘No, you have it’), to offload into the unloved book box that lived in the corner of the basement photocopier room. (A ceremonial burning of the leftovers is yet to be arranged 😉 ). I credit this epiphany as the turning point, from which I was able to slide gracefully out of my former profession without embittered backward glances at what might have been. Then I promptly did something that I suspect is common among people making big optimistic life changes: locking back into the ingrained pattern, disguised beneath shiny new content. It’s the one about giving up alcohol for cocaine, ignoring all the while your baseline routine of addiction.

The unread snuck back in the guise of poetry. Moving to Berlin, new vistas of reading, listening, creative writing and organised life purpose seemed set to unfurl. I was lucky to encounter gifted poets whose tough, well-founded criticism pushed me far enough up the learning curve to get a poem published. And after six months I had another must-read list longer than both arms, was slipping back towards my scholarly control haven of mastering the critical debates rather than grapple with the stubborn mysteries of reading and writing actual poems, and felt thoroughly miserable and trapped.

(For the record, I still write poems, whenever the right-flavoured inspiration floats through the window, read in controlled doses poets that interest me, and mostly avoid the temptation to read anything whatsoever about poetry.)

Ran Prieur and Dave Pollard both write, from experience, about the inertia that hits, unexpected, after you quit a job or role. You have eagerly anticipated all the wonderful, meaningful things you are going to do with your freed-up time, and actually what you wind up doing is nothing. This condition, which crept up on me once I’d abandoned the premature effort to reboot myself as A Poet, is among the places between stories. A winter of the self, which in its own time – not on your notional schedule – allows the old to die back far enough for truly new possibilities to start twitching. This might mean depression and grief, it might be about recharging batteries that you burned out without realising. It also holds you still and out of your own control until you start paying attention to your ingrained patterns. And then, further attention.

Encountering the Dark Mountain Project, as I’ve written here before, excited and inspired me in ways unprecedented in my life to that moment. It propelled me into readings of deep ecology and human civilization’s frailties, peak oil and its implications, complexity and systems theory and how to juggle with more than one story. Subjects which had in fact been quietly beckoning for some time; which felt urgent and alive with connections to the blood-and-sap world, connections that my earnest must-read lists had long since severed. Feeling was returning: with the help of these words (plus a few capacious novels), I gradually rediscovered that thrill of reading for sheer pleasure, in shameless, breath-held immersion; the room growing dim because you are too deep in to switch a light on.

I also passed a good few months immersed in an unsustainable double life, in which my day-to-day existence in Berlin became a flimsy dream and civilized delusion, while my imagination headed daily, a few minutes after waking and seemingly of its own volition, into post-collapse apocalypse terrain. Which is severely ironic, given the clarity of Dark Mountain’s observations on how blindly pinioned we are by a collective belief that one of only two possible futures will play out just like that. Perhaps the classic apocalypse fantasies are just an initial, archetypal stage of uncivilization: when it’s all too new and weird and unthinkable and so the monsters rush in. The point then being not to get stuck there, but to unpeel deeper.

Mentally scavenging for scraps and fending off armed predators, I was also spending long hours on-line, living vicariously by reading words from a spectrum of lives far better prepared for collapse that I was. Still guilty, in other words; still avoiding myself and where I was as effectively as I had ever done with the older goad of what I ought to be (reading) in order to keep up in scholarship. The deepest loss I’ve sustained from reading is a lack of faith in my ability to be without reading something; always this fundamental uncertainty as to what would exist of me without some or other page of someone else’s words slipped for anchorage between a self deeply unsure of itself, and a quicksilver world ever sliding out of manageable reach.

This is never a place where you arrive and get comfortable for good, but finally I got to the realisation that the only beginning of a sustainable life was just to let myself be where I found myself. Appreciating the life I have now, precisely because it won’t last forever. Getting out into small acts of immersive attention that don’t need a page of someone else’s writing to tell me what they are. Observing what I love doing and what I do anyway, while I’m not looking, with enough kindness to keep paying attention to what I might next do with all of this, unflinching in light of what the world is becoming.

Returning from a journey to England last month, looking at the seven unread books that sit waiting, and finding no desire either to hurry on to the next one or to stockpile more. Reading will always be with me, not least because my writing would starve without it; but I’m learning to read again. To read enough – and to know that enough is possible. To read for pleasure and love. To read what resonates, what beckons and sings to my star (or my shadow). To read what whispers as an intuition ‘read me’. To read what’s of use beyond a page, what can be embodied in the blood-and-sap world.  Learning that it matters just as much not to read, to know when to stop reading, that I can pull away that last page of words and still remain anchored.

That I can follow a book which sets me the task of reading deprivation without panicking or flinching, and even be willing to try it for a second week, since I failed the first one.

And to break it all over again, in easy stages 🙂


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