For about a year after my husband died, maybe more, I could not read. My concentration wouldn’t hold. It is a common side effect of bereavement: that inability to focus – on work, on conversation, on words on a page – without your mind wandering off into the past or spooling off into an unknown future. I had hoped that reading would wrap me in a comforting blanket of emptiness, place the present into abeyance; but no matter how compelling the narrative, my attention could not be held, and so I didn’t try too hard. Instead, I let myself nibble on pictures in magazines, pick through airy, short articles and snack on morsels of poetry. If goldfish (which are said to have an attention span of nine seconds) were to read, I would imagine this would be their level of word fodder. Others have told me the very opposite happened to them after they experienced a loss: that they read voraciously as a way of switching off the churning inside their head; that it was a mercy to lose themselves in the imaginary voice of another, to let themselves be transported from an uncomfortable present by a fictional narrator, and to follow the trials and joys of a character conjured up in print. Now, after a couple of years, I am back reading. Not a lot, not a little, just at a steady pace, in about third gear – what you might call, ‘having a book on the go.’
I have a deep admiration for Alan Bennett, and I can’t read anything by him without hearing his gentle, lilting Yorkshire accent speak softly in my head – an abstract voice. S. bought me a copy of his memoir, ‘Keeping On Keeping On’, a couple of years ago. I renamed it: ‘Dipping In Dipping Out’, as that is the most I could manage with the doorstop tomb. And the compendium lends itself to dipping in and dipping out, as I (almost surreptitiously) pick through parts of his diary entries over the years. In it, Bennett writes, “A bookshelf is as particular to its owner as are his or her clothes; a personality is stamped on a library just as a shoe is shaped to the foot.” And this got me thinking about the books we read, and the books we keep, and the books we give, and the books we lend, and the books we would never lend. Few of us have what we would call ‘a library’ in the house, but nearly every home must have a few books standing to attention on a shelf. Me, I’m not one to hang onto my books, I’d rather keep them circulating: between friends, in and out of the library, recycled around charity shops and second hand bookshops. My shelves don’t heave with books that have only been thumbed by me – many of the books I have are marked and inscribed by previous, unknown owners. I’ve recently come across a poem about second hand books, expressing the idea that used books might carry with them the imprint of the reader before – like a torch passed on so that, although you read alone, you do so knowing that other eyes have been there – savouring, responding, feeling. It’s like when your scribble a message on a notepad with a heavy hand and then, when that page is torn out, it leaves an impression of the words on the page below. I’m glad I am back reading my second hand books, not as a means of escape, but just as an easy pleasure passed on from the nameless reader before me.
‘Second Hand Book’, by Antonio Deltoro
The marks of eyes that looked at these lines
are like eyes the mirror remembers:
something tells me they exist, invisible, secret.
Reading this book is sharing a mirror.
transmuting into archaeologist:
each reading has remained in its covers
and sometimes some timid spots of ink
appear along its margins.
Under the lamplight
I feel someone is reading with me:
something forces me to savour phrases
that in my thoughts seem tasteless;
something gives them physical, timely depth.
Under the abstract voice
with which I read in silence
lies the tip of an unknown emotion.”