On Reading

Today I have read two books written by women, in fact I can’t remember the last time I read a book written by a man. I chose both these books for relatively straightforward reasons. One claimed to be a response to George Orwell’s essay Why I Write, and the other presented itself as a ‘manifesto for change’. I’ve read another woman’s response to Why I Write and found it to be honest, revealing and important, and anything that claims to wish to inspire change in a world I find to be so disheartening I’m interested in. I am actively choosing to not engage with male writers. This, it can be argued, is an act of sexism, but I have been raised in a world where the patriarchy tends to have the final say and small acts of rebellion count. I recently purchased and read the second book by a female author who’s work I don’t find to be particularly original or interesting, but supporting young, female art is important and it was still infinitely better than any crime fiction I could have chosen as an easy holiday read. 

I put a lot of thought into what I read, possibly sometimes to my detriment. I’m not interested in how a book can hook me in its first few pages; I have more patience than that, in fact I give any book up to page thirty-six before I choose to pass an informed judgement on whether I am or am not enjoying it. I choose what I read based on simple things; the title can sometimes intrigue me, if the cover image encapsulates an emotion in itself, the first paragraph of a blurb. It’s worth noting that more often than not an author’s non-fiction work is likely to make me more open minded to reading anything fictional they have produced. This sentiment was ignited with one of today’s reads; Things I Don’t Want to Know, the first instalment of Deborah Levy’s memoirs. My mother bought me Swimming Home for my birthday two years ago and its sat untouched, so untouched that when I rifled through boxes upon boxes of books (I am still unpacking my life after yet another move) to try and find it today, I couldn’t.  Reading only part of her memoirs made me desperately want to read the fiction that was a product of her real life. 

I return to the sentiment of life and its experiences being a valuable creative tool over and over again. I remember being a teenager and the most experimental and daring author I could find to read in recent memory being Hunter S Thompson. I wanted to know how the author could bring their whole self into their words and he was the only obvious example I could find, and he was male. And an alcoholic, and a drug addict, and violent, and arguably insane, and travelling across large expanses of America’s United States in the 1970s. None of these qualities were relatable to me, a teenage girl working her way through secondary school who’d rarely left Manchester never mind the UK. As I got older the concept of including the self within one’s creativity was incomprehensible to my educators, and I was repeatedly told that as I was not doing a creative writing course, writing in such a creative way was inappropriate. No one at school, no one at college, no one even during my time in university pointed me towards female authors full stop, never mind female authors writing in the capacity of the personal essay. The importance of the self within an author’s work was simply not considered, this is something I have discovered and nurtured on my own.

Ironically it started with my male best friend handing me a copy of Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehemthat he’d recently acquired on a work related visit to the States. The action was accompanied by the words, ‘you’re a woman who can’t help but include herself in her writing, you’ll like her.’ I remember at the time thinking that this sentiment indicated that my male friend had dismissed her work, hadn’t found the worth in it, as she was simply a woman writing about herself. I then remember thinking that due to this perceived attitude anything he’d read that I’d written he’d happily dismissed as just another woman writing about herself. I know this isn’t true. I know he included the word ‘woman’ in his description, as he knew his target audience; the ardent feminist he’d been friends with for half his life who placed great importance on her gender and where that stood her in the world. Annoyingly, he wasn’t wrong. I devoured Slouching Towards Bethlehemand when finished declared that Didion was a nuanced and intelligent Hunter S Thompson, whose work was far more revealing, honest and sensitive. I’d stand by this point, but I don’t want to describe her in relation to a man who’s only similarity is that he also used his writing to make a living. The reason I love Joan Didion is because she stands alone, her work is like nothing else I have ever encountered. 

Since my first introduction I have read many of Joan Didion’s works, fiction and non-fiction but as always I started with the factual. The factual opened me up to the story and the story is simply a reflection of the truth. Reading Joan Didion has made me more conscious. I am more conscious of myself, I am more conscious of what I want, I am more conscious of the world around me and I am far more conscious of what I choose to read. This has returned me to actively engaging with books. I studied literature for a long time and was, the majority of the time, told what to read and when. There weren’t many books by women throughout this period, and when there were they often covered multiple diversity bases. University gave the impression that to succeed as a female writer you must fit into some kind of minority group. We constantly focused on white male authors, but rarely white female and especially those writing in the contemporary period. The curriculum surrounding men indicated that you could be entirely dull and ordinary and still create a masterpiece; this was not conveyed for women. Women can be entirely dull and ordinary and remain that way. Leaving university has given me the time to search for those writers where I may be able to find a part of me, and therefore gain some sense of inspiration. 

Consecutively reading two books in an afternoon was intense and liberating. On the day where the biggest news headline was Boris Johnson being faux-elected as the next British Prime Minister I was able to escape into two semi-imaginary worlds where I only need focus on the start of the next paragraph and the turning of the next page. It also gave me a day that was entirely mine. Things have happened around me and I haven’t realised. I got bad news relating to work on my day off and I, for the first time in three months, didn’t care. I was busy understanding that life isn’t always perfect, and life isn’t always exceptional but that it’s always worth talking about. The documentation of the everyday is ultimately always a reflection of, a comment on, the society that individual inhabits at that forever unique time, the present moment. It is so easy to forget the present moment, to dwell on what happened five minutes ago or project so fervently into the future that it makes our eyes hurt, and we have to scrunch our face up to relieve the pain. But it is this attention to detail and the finite things that occur that means that I admire writers like Didion and Levy; they both hold the capacity to put the reader in their present moment. They focus on the senses, they allow their reader to understand them, they tell them where they’re writing from, what they see, hear and smell, and most importantly the emotions they allow themselves to feel. 

Women are often taught that the intensity with which we allow ourselves to feel our emotions is a weakness. It’s really not; it is an essential strength most people deny themselves. When you have the capability to understand that feelings are not facts and simply thoughts that flow through the body with as much right to be there as the blood that carries our oxygen, then the more strength we have understanding and expressing them. It’s also worth noting that no feeling lasts forever and that they are there to inform us of something. It is when we accept them for what they are and let ourselves experience them that we are able to act upon them with a sensible and logical attitude. Deny the feelings and refuse to accept them and the decision making process ultimately becomes a disaster. As opposed to being based in a source of truth, it is based on what is perceived to be the best course of action, something the individual may not agree with, which will ultimately cause further conflict. The experience of feeling then, and the emotional intensity that is inherent to these authors’ works becomes a part of the moment itself. It taps into that most human of experience, subjectivity. By including the self so fervently, and not denying the emotions that accompanied the experience, Didion and Levy make it more real and so much more human and therefore unique and interesting. This is why they are revered over simple fact collating travel guides or news articles that claim to provide the reader with an objective view. If I want an account of California I will reach for Didion, I want to hear what she hears, smell what she smells, feel the weight of a fluorescent blue sky in the same way that she did; sentiments that she carries so well through her words. If I want to understand the political backdrop of South Africa, I will reach for Levy who documents her own experience of how living their throughout her formative early years had an impact on her life with such honesty and tenderness. I want to understand her sadness, share her pain and feel her confusion, which I can do so easily through the construction of her sentences and the selection of her words. 

Reading expands our worlds when we cannot physically do so ourselves. The Romantic period saw literature being used to express transgression; ordinary people turned to books to have experience and live vicariously in a time when their worlds were so limited. Using art in this way has progressed into the modern world, and now it can be argued that people turn to what is intended to be more immersive techniques of doing this, in the form of gaming and virtual reality. Essentially though the power of the book will always prevail. The images I see from someone’s writing are my own. No one has constructed them for me and placed them in my vision, I have formed them myself through my interpretation of the author’s words and the sentiment they have created through them. Therefore it is entirely unique, and entirely immersive, and an escape into a world that only I have access to. Even if you read the same book as me, the world you choose to inhabit will be entirely different, no two people will ever see things the same. 

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