Enjoying things

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This year flamingos are a thing. I am attempting to let myself like flamingos even though everyone else does too…

The year before last I had a major realisation regarding the fact that it is OK for me to want what I want.

I managed to forget that, and this year followed it up with a major realisation regarding the fact that it is OK for me to enjoy what I enjoy.

There’s a part of me that’s very embarrassed about admitting to liking anything. Liking things is bad enough, but admitting to liking them? Nobody wants to know. Everybody will laugh. And so on…

I don’t know when those buttons got installed. Perhaps it was at school, when I found that the things that I liked were so weird that nobody else had heard of them. Perhaps it was at home, because liking things tends to cost money. Either way, they seem to have been with me for a very long time.

And then I’m suspicious of anything that looks like a fad, anything that seems to be flogging something. If there are twenty copies of The Little Book of Whatever propped up on the counter at Waterstone’s, I’ll avoid Whatever everywhere else it pops up. Even if Whatever is something that, left to myself, I’d probably enjoy.

I worry about what other people will think. Is what I’m reading/listening to/watching too juvenile? Too highbrow? Too tacky? Too problematic? Am I just showing off? Is there some reason why I shouldn’t be enjoying it?

The answer is always ‘yes’, of course. Nothing and nobody is perfect. What I am beginning to learn is that this is irrelevant.

This year I’ve begun to break free of all that and just enjoy things. This year I’ve been following rabbit holes. I’ve let myself be interested in things. At the beginning of the year with my virus-infested brain unable to cope with anything more heavyweight than a fluffy anime, I watched Yuri!!! on Ice. That got me interested in figure skating (leading me to re-read White Boots, watch the actual events on Eurosport, and resolve to learn to skate when they finally get round to opening a rink near me) and Russia (leading me to Tolstoy and an exhibition at the British Library). I read Blackbird, an alternate universe fanfic where the characters are reimagined as spies, and that took me off to John Le Carré and Helen Dunmore.

Some of that’s proper intellectual stuff. Some of it, less so. I don’t really care. It’s all been fun. Last time I got into something (cycling, by accident – but that’s another story) I got a whole book out of it. But I’m still feeling faintly embarrassed about being interested in anything, and I really do want to get past that. I want to be enthusiastic! I want to enjoy things and not care what people think!

I don’t need anybody else’s permission to enjoy things – but I’d really like to have my own. An exercise that I’ve been doing on and off and that I want to carry into 2018 is naming, every day, one thing that I’m enjoying or am interested in, and one thing that I want. Today I’ve been watching the snow. At the moment the freezer is defrosting and I’m enjoying listening to the drips and occasionally prodding at lumps of ice to see if they’ll fall off yet. It’s not remotely productive; it isn’t even inherently interesting, but I’m taking pleasure in it. And identifying that and admitting it and being OK with it is a very good start.

No, it *is* about enjoying it

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A very grainy photo of some books I’ve enjoyed. You might not enjoy these. That’s fine!

On Thursday I took part in a workshop for union learning reps, exploring ways of promoting reading and writing for pleasure in the workplace. One of the initiatives that they work with is the Reading Ahead challenge – members are encouraged to choose six reads (which could be anything from a haiku to War and Peace) and write a brief review of each of them. The idea is to make reading less off-putting, to demonstrate that it’s for everybody.

One of the ULRs told a story about someone who had managed to put one of her recruits right off joining in the challenge.

‘And what are you reading at the moment?’ he’d asked. She’d told him, had said, a little apologetically, that maybe it wasn’t the most intellectual thing in the world, but she was enjoying it.

‘But it’s not about enjoying it, is it?’ he said. ‘It’s about challenging yourself, learning something new.’

That person was wrong. WRONG.

It is about enjoying it.

I’m going to write that bigger:

It *is* about enjoying it

And if the person who said that it isn’t was the person I think it was, I’m going to tell him so when I next see him.

This person is also wrong, or, at least, missing the point spectacularly. If we try to make people read because it is good for them, they will never enjoy reading. It’s like eating enough vegetables, or getting enough exercise: if you do it because you think you should, you’re constantly fighting with yourself and sooner or later you give up because you just hate yourself so much for making yourself do it.

The world is full of things that we read because we have to. Bills. Textbooks. Contracts. Procedures. They are not fun. Why should we extend that misery to the rest of our reading life?

The more people read for fun – read because they genuinely enjoy it, because they would rather be reading than doing something else – the easier they will find it when they come to reading what’s dull, or difficult, but essential.

Can we enjoy reading challenging material? Of course we can. Personally, I have just downloaded Le Tour du Monde en Quatre-Vingt Jours – yes, in French – which is going to be a challenge, and also something that I will enjoy. As one of my friends says, ’embrace the power of AND’. We can also keep reading things that we’re not currently enjoying in the hopes that we will enjoy them eventually.

But to deliberately seek out things to read that we don’t expect to enjoy… no. No, thank you.

In much the same way as one gets tired of doughnuts very quickly if one eats nothing but doughnuts, it’s unlikely that people will read nothing but [that book you’re thinking of] and [that other book you’re thinking of]. And really, if they did, would that be such a problem?

The more we read – the more we read for pure pleasure – the more we will find our horizons expanding and our tastes diversifying. If we just let people read what they want to read, and keep reading what they want to read, they’ll probably end up reading something that comes up to the exacting standards of the person who terrorised that poor potential Reading Ahead challenge participant.

But that’s not the point. Enjoyment comes first. Life is too short to drag ourselves through things we’re not enjoying just because somebody thinks they’re good for us.

It is about enjoying it. In fact, enjoying it is the most important thing.

You do not have to read my book

DSCF2408Occasionally a friend or family member will say to me, rather apologetically, that they haven’t bought my book. Or that they’ve bought it, but they haven’t got round to reading it yet. ‘It’s not my usual kind of thing, you see…’

I usually remark in reply that, had I started a business knitting and selling babies’ bonnets, for example, I would hardly expect my entire acquaintance to start sporting infantile headgear merely to show solidarity with me and my enterprise. Oh, if they happened to have a baby, or know a baby, and they bought one of my bonnets to present to this baby, I would be pleased and grateful, but I wouldn’t expect them to wear something so, um, unsuited to their personality or state of maturity.

Not everybody is going to like my book. Not everybody is going to be interested in Christian politics or student politics. Not everybody is interested in reading F/F (in fact, hardly anybody seems to be interested in reading F/F, and on the LGBT review blogs my purple passionflower cover looks very incongruous in amongst all those shirtless torsos on the explicit M/M works).

And that is absolutely fine. Not everybody has to like my book. Not everybody has to read my book. You don’t, if you don’t want to. ‘It was written by this person I know’ isn’t, in itself, a particularly good reason to read anything. (Although ‘It was written by this person I know, and I want to see if I recognise any mutual acquaintances’ might be; though you’ll be disappointed, in the case of my books.)

This goes for the next book, too. In fact, if what you liked about Speak Its Name was the Christian politics and the student politics, and you are not interested in cycling, chronic illness, or the parlous state of benefits in 21st century Britain, you are entirely at liberty to skip A Spoke in the Wheel. I hope you don’t need me to tell you that. You always were at liberty to skip any or all of my books, no matter how close or longstanding our relationship.

On the other hand, if you did like Speak Its Name, you might find that in A Spoke in the Wheel:

  • you like my prose style more generally
  • the overall theme of ‘finding out that you are, in fact, not such a terrible person as you feared you might be’ is also significant
  • the jump from a claustrophobically tight third person narrator to an unintentionally unreliable first person one isn’t actually all that huge
  • it’s still all about integrity

Too many books

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There are far more books in the world than anyone could possibly read in their lifetime. There are far more films than anyone could possibly watch, far more songs than anyone could possibly listen to.

I don’t know how old I was when I understood that. I feel that it might have been university, when all my horizons expanded in all directions at once, and I realised that:

  1. I didn’t know everything
  2. I was never going to know everything
  3. I didn’t have to know everything

Before that, the books I knew about were at home, or in the school library, or in the local library. And yes, that was a lot of books, but I always felt that if I really applied myself I could work my way through the whole lot in a logical fashion.

Maybe it was seeing the university library that did it. Who knows? I wish I had one neat moment of epiphany to trot out, but I don’t.

Anyway, once you’ve had that epiphany, what do you do with it?

There are a variety of approaches.

You can read/watch/listen to as many of the books/films/songs as you humanly can. Read every book that your hand touches. My godmother told me once that John Cage said that one should only ever listen to each piece of music once, because there simply isn’t time to do more.

But I know that if I only listen to a piece of music once, I can do little more than nod and smile. In order to really appreciate it, I need to listen to it over and over again, to get right into it. If possible, to perform it, even.

(Probably if I were a better musician, this would be a quicker process for me. A degree in English Literature and a decade plus of creative writing trial and error have enabled me to see how a text is put together without having to think much about it.)

So that suggests an opposite approach: consume very few pieces of art, but really get into them. Re-read, listen over and over, watch again and see what you didn’t pick up the first time, or the second time, or the third time.

The temptation then is to ensure that the art that one does examine is somehow worthy of all these hours that one’s putting into it – but, without putting the hours in, how does one know what’s worthy? One ends up deferring to others’ judgement. Let us watch the films that won the Oscars, or read the books that are on the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, or whatever it might be.

(Personally, I find that any attempt to tell me that I must read anything results in instant resentment and a resolution not to read the thing if humanly possible. As it happens, I’ve read a decent number of those books, but not because they’re on that list, and I feel no compunction to read all of them.)

There are two main dangers that I can see to concentrating on the good stuff.

Firstly, you might miss things. But that’s inevitable, however you go about this. That’s the whole point of this post. You will miss things.

Secondly, you might never read anything because you actually want to read it. You might end up trapped in a book you hate, never finishing it, and never starting anything else, either.

In fact, that’s the main drawback to both of those approaches, and I’ve tried them both. ‘Read everything, no matter what it is’ – and you’ll end up slogging through a whole load of ill-written drivel, pompous litfic, formulaic genre and spectacularly biased unclassifiable screeds, and hating all of it. ‘Concentrate on what is known to be good’ – and it’ll be like having to get  through plateful after plateful of worthy vegetables before you’re allowed pudding. Pudding might never come. You might never get round to reading anything fun.

And if reading isn’t fun, then why on earth are you doing it? (Well, actually… to be discussed in a subsequent post.) These days, you know, I mostly read what I feel like reading, and I stop if I’m not enjoying it. And that’s good enough for me.