Reading to escape

There were two routes I used to walk to my primary school, both of them down main roads that spanned the top half of the town. One took me down Townhead Road and offered the chance to nip in to a corner shop for some illicit sweeties, the other took me off Bonhill Road and into the lane that ran behind some off the houses, passing a piece of long (and still) neglected waste ground before arriving at the gates. It wasn’t a long walk, 10 mins if you were in a rush and hurried, not that I ever did.

Depending on the time of year I’d change my route on the way home, but most days I simply retraced my steps. Head out the gate, turn left and back past the area of waste ground and its mass of weeds and bushes. It was an odd location to have your first encounter with a naked woman.

My walks home were always slower than my walks to school. It wasn’t that I particularly enjoyed school, I was definitely more concerned with getting there on time than rushing to get into class, but I was just never in that much of a rush to get home. My Mum likes to tell the story of my Aunt Irene, who lived on the route home, phoning my Mum to tell her not to worry that I wasn’t home yet as I’d stopped and was sitting on her wall and had been for a while. Daydreaming no doubt.

Just as I had been the day Aunt Irene phoned my Mum, the day I encountered the naked woman was another one where, no doubt, I was plodding my way home, thinking about everything and nothing, lost in another daydream as I turned left out of the gates and started past the area of waste ground. And there she was, completely naked, sitting up and facing me, her legs spread wide open. To this day I can remember thinking it was an odd way to be sitting, closely followed by thoughts about the state of her pubic region even though I wouldn’t know to call it that for some years to come. I was in Primary Six, aged 10.

That school year was memorable for other reasons mostly because my teacher frequently indulged my burgeoning reading habits. I grew up around books and have fond memories of wandering the rows and rows of books in the local library as a child. It didn’t take me long to graduate from the basement which housed the children’s books, to the grown up main floor with its towering rows of books, shelf after shelf of wonders waiting to be discovered. At home there were several bookshelves crammed full and my parents were happy for me to read whatever I picked up and pretty soon I was reading books like 2001: A Space Odyssey – my first foray into sci-fi, before Star Wars flipped that script – and I found a book of short stories by an author called Richard Bachmann that utterly gripped my imagination like no-one else had before (bonus points if you know who that pseudonym belongs to).

I always used to have a book on the go and in the past have joined in various reading challenges, the type where you aim to read x number of books in a year. However a couple of years of those quickly removed the joy of reading, the time-sapping wonder of being lost in a good book, as it became a purely time-based activity; better read faster or I won’t meet the challenge! As I much prefer to be able to read at my own pace, I’ve stopped doing those.

More recently I’d been attending a Book Club, a fraught activity that only occasionally added to the overall experience of reading the book itself. Not that the books were bad, per se, most of them were wonderful choices but I soon realised that whilst it can be academically interesting to discuss a book with others, ultimately it sucks all the enjoyment out of it for me. I don’t read to think, I read to escape.

I am no longer attending Book Club.

With no Book Club, and no reading challenge to spur me into action, I’ve been in a bit of a reading drought recently, retreating to some old David Sedaris columns (collated into books) which are my book equivalent of binge-watching Friends episodes, and waiting for my reading mojo to return. I have an unfinished Atwood on my Kindle, and I started The Slap but it’s not exactly holding my attention. So I’m currently casting about to find something without much success. Recommendations are welcomed.

One day in primary school, as I’d finished my class work for the morning, my primary six teacher Mrs. Trotter picked out a book for me. Growing up I’d been through all the Famous Five and Secret Seven books, and the book she suggested was of a similar ilk – these days it’d be called a ‘young adult novel’ – and it featured a young boy who spent a lot of his time daydreaming, wandering around, and who was much more interested in the animals he came across than the people he had to interact with. I have NO IDEA why she picked it for me, none, nope, not a clue. The book was called The Boy from Sula and it was probably the first book I can recall that really pulled me in to an imagined world, a book that grabbed my imagination and whisked me away to the beautiful Scottish island world in which it was based.

That’s the kind of book I still enjoy, it doesn’t really matter the subject type or setting, it can be a thriller, a romance, a sci-fi, a social critique, if it’s written well enough to draw me in and let me lose myself for a few hours then it is, by my own loose definition, a GOOD BOOK.

The Book Club I had been attending was, at best, semi-regular and to be honest a lot of the joy was more about the people and whatever brunch was on offer, than the book itself. It started off as a Yelp event but when the Glasgow community was given the Game of Thrones treatment, one attendee decided to keep organising it even though it’s not for me any more, I have been lucky enough to be prompted read some wonderful books because of it; The Other Mrs. Walker, The Sudden Appearance of Hope, All the Light We Cannot See, Station Eleven, to name but a few.

However, and perhaps more importantly, the one thing Book Club taught was when to stop reading.

It doesn’t happen often, thankfully, but as the entire premise of a Book Club is that someone else is choosing the books, I guess it’s understandable that I’ve not been able to finish a couple of them, that I’ve had to stop reading them because I just wasn’t enjoying them.

This may seem obvious but is a complete odds with how I was brought up, a book is not something you do not finish!

As a child, books were granted an almost hallowed status, backed by the hushed tones of the library and the deep frowns that would appear on my parents faces when a book was seen to be mistreated. Respect was a word frequently associated with books, and with all the weight and heft of reverence they were offered, the act of not finishing a book was an insult to every book ever written, or so it seemed. Add in my reliance on books as a way to escape the trials and tribulations of primary school, and it’s fair to say they occupied a fairly elevated place in my world.

Because of that I used to soldier on with books I wasn’t enjoying, determined to finish lest I was to insult the author with my heinous behaviour, or maybe I just felt I was letting down my parents and teachers, the very people who bestowed on me a curious mind and a desire to learn, not to mention their continued encouragement which gave me my love of reading in the first place.

But no, I’m a grown man, able to make decisions for myself. If I want to eat Coco Pops for breakfast I will, and if I don’t want to continue reading a book then I won’t.

Recently this happened with a Book Club choice, the Booker Prize winning The Sellout, no less. No matter how I tried, I just couldn’t get past the pages of rambling descriptions that didn’t seem to be going anywhere. I would read a little, put the book down and pick it up the next night, re-read a few pages, and put it back down. I repeated this for about a week, finally slogging my way through the first 100 pages or so and came to the conclusion that I just wasn’t enjoying this book at all. It’s a meandering show-off of a book that read like it was written by someone who was enjoying the writing process a little too much and left me feeling, well, not a whole lot of anything.

This was not the relaxing enjoyment that I associate with books and I started to resent having to spend the time doing something I don’t want to do. So, I stopped reading it. A surprisingly hard decision to make. But given I had a few decades of behaviours to fight against, the looming Book Club date, the fact that this was a Booker Prize winner (and I’ve enjoyed all the ones I’ve read before) and it isn’t really surprising that I didn’t find it easy to quit a book. I might go back to it some day, it’s still on my unread shelf, and hopefully it was just the wrong time to try and read it but I decided that no, I wasn’t going to finish it. Book Club be damned!

When I moved, and cleared out two entire bookshelves worth of books to charity shops, I found it pretty easy to part ways with all the books I’d read. Those books were in the past after all and I know if I really take a notion to re-read a book then I can always get a copy somewhere. This is despite the fact that I rarely re-read books, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve re-read ANY book, and two of those re-reads were a certain book suggested to me by Mrs. Trotter.

Books are an escape.

My primary school years were dotted with small incidents of bullying and not fitting in and I quickly found that the way to steer clear and avoid those incidents, even in a classroom setting, was to bury myself in a book. Don’t disturb Gordon he’s reading, Mrs. Trotter would say, and I’d be left alone to roam the Isle of Sula.

I had good childhood, I know I wasn’t unhappy and for the most part my memories of the playground are good ones, but I know I was much happier if left to my own devices, left to dawdle home in a daydream, along the lane that skirted the area of waste ground where I had the encounter with the naked woman, spread-eagled as she was across the pages of a magazine. I can remember toe-ing at the pages of the magazine, flicking past image after image of awkwardly posed women, all in various states of undress. Page after page and I couldn’t help wondering, where were all the words?

My interest waned and with a final kick to send the magazine further into the depths of waste land bushes I headed home, pausing to watch a squirrel run along the top of a wall before disappearing into the high branches of a tree. I wondered what his story was, where he was going, and what adventures he might have on the way.