Just wondering, about reading. Yes, I can read and knit, but it isn't all that easy really. Since I took on so many knitting projects, my reading has diminished drastically, and I suppose I'm also pondering the matter of constructive activity. My mother grew up with the constant rebuke from her mother of 'Get your nose out of that book and do something useful!'. I think it was similar for my father too, and in my his case this message seemed to be almost cosmically reinforced by an incident in his early teens when he was sitting at the edge of a field with his nose stuck in a book, oblivious of all else around him, while his brothers and some other boys were, as I understand it, playing a game which involved throwing a bar of metal around. Life was harsh in Hemel Hempstead in the old days. The bar flew in his direction and before he could disengage his nose from the book in time to avoid it, the two objects, bar and nose, collided, with the effect of fracturing the latter.
They were determined, however, that this anti-reading attitude would not be conveyed to us, and we were encouraged and praised for our love of books, yet still there was a little shadow, of envy perhaps, but also an understandable impatience with sloping off with a book when there were tables to be cleared, washing up to be done, rooms to be tidied and so on, things which my elder siblings were required to do before pleasing themselves but which, by the time we last two came along my parents had grown too old, tired and indulgent to enforce. And there's the thing; reading was, in the end, a pleasure, a self-indulgence, not a discipline or a study, not homework or really all that purposeful, not, in other words, constructive. And not very social either; my bachelor uncle Jack, an intelligent, cultured, musical, funny, somewhat petulant and pompous man, whose presence greatly enriched our family life and childhoods, once grew tired of us, his sister's family, fell out mildly (the only possible way one could) with my father about his dog (Uncle Jack's), and estranged himself from us for a time. One of his gripes was that my brother and I were 'too bookish', not interested in conversation or his company.
But by the time they had us, in late middle age, I'm afraid my parents valued peace and quiet, fewer social demands and requirements to fetch and carry us, and were rather happy for us to be able to amuse ourselves quietly with a book - or paper and paints or whatever, there wasn't much telly then. But I don't remember seeing my mum with a book when I was a child, she was always too busy, she said, and the internalised disapproval, the feeling that sitting reading was really rather idle and effete, was still present. My dad read a little more, but not much when we were growing up, again, there were more important things to be attended too. Later, in his old age, he was forever with his nose in a book, but less and less the history that had been his earlier love, Trevelyan, Churchill, Arthur Bryant, and more of middle-brow historical romances, Georgette Heyer and Catherine Cookson novels from the library. Often he'd read the same one several times and barely be aware of it. Left on their own once we'd all flown, his withdrawal into this passive reading state exasperated my mother. When she spoke to him about it he agreed that it was fairly pointless, he confessed that it was ' a bit like the kids with their pop music', a background noise he seemed to need.' My mother managed to regain some reading practice, and we shared a few books and writers that we were able to talk about, but tired eyes and ill-health and old-age depression got in the way somewhat for her.
For a short time in my late teens, it seemed to me that I might really be able to make a life from reading, I could study literature forever, that would be what I would do. I had a very unclear knowledge both of the way the world worked and of my own abilities and character. I was not cut out to be an academic, and was inclined finally to own one of the aforesaid Uncle Jack's conclusions: that you should never try to make your hobby and your pleasure your living, it will kill all your joy in and love for it. He had given up a job he was fed up with as a cinema projectionist and set up as a professional photographer, a pastime he loved. He was insecure and miserable in his work for ever after, and his wedding photos were fairly dreadful. Many people I've voiced this too, who have successfully made their passions their jobs, refute it as advice, but for him and for me, I think it held good.
My mother was kind and encouraging when I was dreaming of a literary life, but opined that I'd probably end up doing something with my hands. I was a bit miffed at the time, but she was right really. In fact I've not done anything properly or in a sustained way as a career, but used hands and language according to what came along, in both paid and unpaid capacities, middlingly, if not brilliantly, well. I've been lucky.
Many of these reflections on matters mental and manual, and my vacillating between the differing activities which give rise to them, are perhaps to do with my response to losing my sister, whose life was so much in the work of her hands, and then immediately afterwards finding, then later losing Heather, for whom words and ideas and the work of the mind was so important. Both of them were vivid and full of energy and purpose and beauty and the sense of beauty, both exemplars to me in some wise. Heather was continually challenging me on my reading, giving me difficult things to read, chiding me about not reading more in French, assuming my knowledge about things way over my head. It could be tiring, and I sometimes thought she could cut me, and some of the less heavy and intellectual things I was fond of, some slack, but it did present reading as something positive, active, something gained, un bien; a pleasure for sure but not just a pastime, something to amuse when you had nothing more important to do, something of account, and a discipline.
I decided at the beginning of this year to record my reading, if not to review and comment on it at least to make a note of it and hence, perhaps, to do it a bit more purposefully, more constructively, to give something of an account of it. I've kept up the record, but since the spring, there's not been too much to add to it. I'm missing reading, but not enough, because when idle on my couch I lie my mind, left to its own devices, is spinning off into coloured threads, making imaginary garments and objects, thinking how and of what and for whom. Not least for whom, how to make just the right thing, choose just the right texture, colour and style for such and such a person; almost as if there's no tomorrow and I want as many people as possible to have things I've made (I know that sounds a potentially morbid; I don't really have any baleful sense of doom and foreboding or anything...). I don't quite know what it's all about, or how long it will last, but I'm happy to go along with it for the foreseeable. I hope I'm producing something useful, that will give pleasure and be used or worn, but it's certainly not necessary; one can buy new things, or just make do and mend, at a fraction of the price, not many people expect gifts of me anyway, but it's the making, and the envisioning and planning to make, that matters, process as much as product. One very
I also think perhaps that working out and working on patterns and sequences, making the linear wool into a plane, and thence by increasing and decreasing, curving pulling, into a three dimensional form, creating spaces and nodes, charting colour changes etc, all essentially by means of bucket mathematics, is probably good exercise for my brain which hasn't been accustomed to that kind of use.
Get your nose out of that book, do something useful. Make something, to eat or to wear. My mum wasn't a knitter, though she knew how and showed me the basics, but we, my mum, my sisters and I, all sewed. Yes, yes it was all very sexist, etc, we sewed, my brothers made model aeroplanes, my dad did things involving lorries. Sewing was shared, sociable, I was quite literally at my mother's knee, the one that wasn't operating the vertical lever which powered the Singer electric sewing machine (a strange mechanism I've never seen on any machine since), my sisters came and went, plundered the draws and chests and boxes of fabric and haberdashery, showed me how to do things. They were very good at it, and both made a living doing it at different times. I was competent, and clothed myself in my youth cheaply and originally, with satisfaction if not with the utmost elegance. And while the act of making things precluded reading, it was almost always accompanied by listening; Radio 4, always, speech radio, news, discussion, plays, serialisations and dramatisations of books (and The Archers, of course). So working with the hands became conducive to absorbing things with the head, and still is. As I say, I can read and knit, but listening is better, and as well as radio and music cds, there are audio books.
Which is the other question that has been exercising me, and the only thing I really intended to write about here, before I got started. What in fact is reading? Does having listened to a book mean you've read it? When there was only tape and vinyl to record on, and it was necessary to abridge texts, one could clearly say no, any more than reading a Reader's Digest condensed book could be said to be reading that book, but now with cds, and MP3s too, full, unabridged texts are available for many things. The thirty-five discs of Proust I've been listening to are still heavily abridged, and I wouldn't claim to have read Proust on the strength of listening to them, merely to have familiarised myself with a broad outline, and in that instance perhaps abridging is especially to eviscerate the text, since it's not really so much what he said, as how, and at what length, he said it. But there are other things I've listened to in full of recent times, not while knitting but when painting walls, ironing, cooking etc, which I rather doubt I'd have made the effort to work my way through on the page these days, The Divine Comedy, for example, and Paradise Lost, and if I had, I'm not sure I'd have absorbed as much as by listening. Many writers in the past, from Homer to Chaucer to Dickens, wrote (or composed in Homer's case I guess) with an intention that their words would be heard rather than read. Nevertheless, I still feel that unless one actively engages, in silence, directly with the text on the page, one can't really be said to be reading it. Listening implies too passive a state.
Which then makes me wonder what is reading for? Is it for accomplishment, to acquire experience and have something to show for it, un bien, to be able to say 'I have read...', in the same way as one can hold up a piece of fabric and say 'I have made...'? Or is it to experience the act of reading for itself, process as much as product?
Back to posting knitting projects tomorrow, or perhaps the next day.