Once more around the block

Dame Jane Francis is a remarkable-sounding woman, Director of the British Antarctic Survey and Professor of Palaeoclimatology, she was on the radio the other day to discuss the topical subject of self isolation. In her work, she explained, she can spend weeks on research expeditions in the Arctic and Antarctic, in tents, sometimes with only one other person for company. It provides a chance to slow down, she said, gain perspective – and to catch up on those fat books that you haven’t been able to get into.

WolfHall_MantelAh. We all have one or a few of those, don’t we? A book, dauntingly fat or not, that we’ve been able to make little progress with. Often a novel that everyone else is raving about as it garners glowing reviews, or else a classic work of great distinction. Everyone’s talking about Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, sequel to Man Booker-prize Bringing up the Bodies, in its turn the follow up to Booker-prize winning Wolf Hall… The Wolf Hall, that has sat, fatly, on my shelf for—well, it must be years. No. Can’t get into it.

It didn’t hit me until my thirties. I think it came with children, the distraction of them, the need to be alert for them, less sleep. Less time of course. I have remained ‘a reader’, you might say, but a more skittish one, more likely to pick up books and put them back down again, more in need of light, popular reads to intersperse with the ‘heavyweights’. More prone to reader’s block.

I haven’t really had wholesale reader’s block, the inability to become absorbed in any extended text, but there have been times when I’ve experienced the serial inability to find a book to settle into. I mean okay, give up on the occasional book, by all means—life is short. But there is also a reward in persistence, surely. It is commonly accepted that good literature is meant to be challenging as well as compelling—in the sense that it is more than a passive diversion.

So many books, so little time-always

Distraction aside, I think it’s also the sheer volume (pun intended) of choice that makes it hard to settle on one book. In 1450, shortly before William Caxton introduced the printing press to England, one of the richest men and biggest landowners in the country, Sir John Falstof, was said to own a personal ‘library’ of nineteen books. These precious manuscripts would have been written, and painstakingly illustrated, by hand. UNESCO keep data on books published by country, and it estimates that 2.2 million new titles are published worldwide each year – though those data are somewhat out of date, being largely from 2013.

And it’s so hard to choose. We’ve become more reliant on book reviewing. Reviews used to be something we read in the Sunday papers, penned by venerable literary types. Now we have Amazon reviews, Goodreads, Barnes & Noble, literary blogs… All to help us in the agony of decision.

Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s recommended trick was to open a book at page 69 and read that, rather than relying on the opening page. If you liked what you read, then try the whole book. Whether that works for you or not, it’s interesting that it is something e-Books have taken away. We can download or take a peek at the early pages of online reads, but not browse through the whole thing. It’s not just reading eBooks that has removed this ability to peruse but simply buying online, too.

Come to think of it, anecdotally, I think I am more likely to abandon books on my eReader than those printed on paper. Maybe that is my antidote? Give up the reader for a while and be ‘paper exclusive’.

In fact, I am glancing now at page 69 of Wolf Hall… Cardinal Wolsey spars with Thomas Boleyn. I like the line ‘Boleyn turns in a sweep of dark silks…’ Mantel’s descriptive powers are wonderful. Maybe I will…

And maybe soon, many of us will be in self isolation, with more time on our hands than we had wanted, after all.  Stay safe.

Greta Schölderle Møller on Unsplash
Maithilee ShettyMaithilee Shetty on Unsplash


15 thoughts on “Once more around the block

  1. Interesting discussion. I’ve never had ‘reader’s block’ but I see your point. I read more than I used to because I am not terribly social and TV overall has gotten more boring.

    What really distracted me in your post was ‘paleoclimatology’. I could read a thousand posts and never come across that glorious word. I dug into paleoclimatology to research my books. Without other artifacts, ancient climate preserved in rocks is the only way to find out what the world was like 1.8 mya and then 850,000 ya. I concentrated on Africa and the Levant. Francis focuses on Antarctica but still I’ll go find her. She sounds like my sort of gal.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jane Francis is an amazing person and a great communicator on her subject.


  2. Page 69? Well, well… I haven’t finished McLuhan. Still on my to read pile. I will go back to page 69…
    Reader’s block? Never. Like Somerset Maugham, if I had nothing to read I would read the train schedule. 🙂
    (They probably don’t have it in print anymore, right?)
    Stay safe

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Me too – before ereaders and living overseas, I read anything I could get my hands on. One memorable trip across Europe, mainly eastern Europe, I ended up reading John Fowles’s The Magus several times. Don’t think I could face looking at it again.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. LOL. I will write it down. On the no-no list… How are you coping?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Fine, but only day 3! Is your current nation of residence France?


  3. I never tried the random page, or page 69 method, but I’m the kind of reader who’s put off by reviews and blurbs. I mean, I check ratings, I recognize books being raved about… but I need to go into a book not expecting anything. There are exceptions, of course, the most likely being a book I never heard about and didn’t intend to read, but the blurb or the review caught my attention. Titles play a huge roll for me, by the way.
    I thought when things locked down I’d have more time for myself, but alas, that’s not the case – with the kids home, the routine askew, the sun is usually setting by the time I crawl in front of my laptop. Stay safe!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s interesting, I probably like to think I am indifferent to titles, but it almost certainly isn’t true. We’re told to keep titles obvious to be commercial, signal the genre – but I find mysterious titles more intriguing.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Me too. The more questions the title raises, the more I’m curious to check it out.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Reader’s block is an interesting thought – your research and fact woven thoughts are always charming to read

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reader, and my we all be immune from readers’ block!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I guess we have been given the time now courtesy self-isolation. Just that I wish I had bought a few books earlier that I wanted to read. The existing ones are already done and dusted. 🙂


    1. I am afraid we do – be careful what you wish for! Is there any value in using an Ereader to download books? I know some people dislike them.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. An interesting blog, I love the idea of the library of 19 books.
    I do not even possess any of Hillary Mantel’s books, let alone have read them. I did love watching Wolf Hall, Mark Rylance’s subtle acting was brilliant. I am also enjoying listening to Anton Lesser ( he does seem to read a lot on R4! ) read The Mirror and the Light.
    As for The Antarctic, it is fascinating to wonder how we would get on there.


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