Saturday, September 07, 2013

Knitting - interlude: on reading and knitting.


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 obsessed dedicated knitter I read about, away from home over a holiday weekend with nothing new to knit, unravelled the thing she had just finished and made it again just in order to have something in hand.  I wouldn't go that far.

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?

Just wondering...

Back to posting knitting projects tomorrow, or perhaps the next day.

9 comments:

Zhoen said...

I suspect the habit of silent reading to oneself for most of human history, was rare. Books were meant to be read aloud to each other, stories told. So, listening to recorded books must, surely, count.

The older I get, the less I enjoy taking up a book. Too much chance it will annoy or tire me, and I put it by. I prefer to write my own story, listen to a story read to us as we lie in bed, or read chapters of other's lives written in spaces like yours here.

Dale said...

Listening is different, certainly. Better in some ways and worse in others. Better, because it forces you to go slowly, word by word, at someone else's pace, which can reveal much about the text that silent reading simply skims over. Worse, in that it's harder to stop, ponder, and read again. Many of my favorite silent-reading books I later read aloud to my kids, and I always found reading them aloud revealed things I had always skated over or missed entirely.

It's an interesting question, what reading is for. I remember being stupefied at Harold Bloom saying he read literature for consolation. I believed him about it, but it astonished me. Me, I read fiction in order to travel and go on adventures and meet queer people: poetry is somewhat different, more difficult enterprise, but I think often really it's the same. I want to know what people far away and long ago (or barricaded off from me some other way) think, how they feel.

Roderick Robinson said...

Wow! Just out of interest I copied this post to an enpty page in Word 2010 for the word count. 2073 words! Don't you think we could better discuss this via a conference call? No it wouldn't. Word should match word.

There's a lot "to go at" here (My mother's voice rising ineluctably) but I'll start more or less at the end: what is reading for? I asked VR and she said she read because she enjoyed it. Yes, but...? A few minutes later she admitted it allowed her to enter a world where day-to-day concerns (especially those concerned with getting older) were pushed to one side. In particular she liked stories, always had. She too came from a non-reading background but that didn't preclude the telling of stories. And what about books where the story was hard to discern? She thought for a little while; then said she had one regret; that she had never finished Finnegans Wake. She got about two-thirds through and something happened. I think it was in the USA. Was the story discernible? Yes it was, though mistily.

And all of a sudden a worm began to nibble. Despite my re-re-readings of Ulysses and my John the Baptist work on its behalf I've always admitted defeat with FW. Despite, too, that it is decoded in Burgess's ReJoyce. Was this the time? Which brings me to a sub-set of: What is reading for? How and why do we embark on certain books?

I like you am reading less these days. For reasons already explained. Yet I do read. Shortly I shall read Stoner by John Williams and for a very unusual reason. VR has talked about it (glancingly) in my presence. Hasn't recommended it - she never does that. But she's been checking up on Google and elsewhere to see whether others agree that it is a remarkable novel. Never a masterpiece. Not one of her words.

Roderick Robinson said...

Ah, the perils of being prolix.

Where does the impulse come from? From reviews obviously but I mostly lack the energy or the time to read them through to the end. The judgments are less important than the disclosure of an idea, a wisp of thought. Something that fits into a hole in the never-to-be-completed internal jigsaw that represents my (mostly unperceived) preferences. OK, so far so normal. But I can be influenced by pictures on dust jackets - isn't that infantile? Responding to something that is overtly designed to influence me. Something mechanical might draw me in, a French landscape so long as it is done without sentimentality, a hint at one of those themes which has fascinated me since birth: possessive mothers, for instance. How horrified my mother was when I mentioned that. It's OK, Mum, not you.

Titles too, especially those with noirish flavour. But I'm drifting away from What Is Reading For? And it's a good question. Of the reasons you list I subscribe immediately to the least praiseworthy - to be able to say " I have read..." The wherewithal for boasting. But I lead a limited social life these days: who would I boast to? Not VR, she would shut her ears. To myself? Perhaps. Out on the blogosphere? Would I dare? There are those out here who would recognise and condemn boasting - albeit in a kindly (and therefore much more painful) way.

Oh look, I haven't written anything about your dad and his oh-so-revelatory reading list (Trevelyan, Bryant, Cookson) so immutably fixed in time, you and your desires to read literature for ever, your mum fighting fatigue and poor eyesight. Damnit I should at least offer some proof that I've read the rest of the post. It's all so luscious. Including the interweaving of the knitting conceit. But I need to be up betimes; to transport VR and myself to an exhbition of the Ewyas Harold Art Group (of which she is a member) where she and I will act as curators. In it hangs a painting she did for me (riders in the TdF) and which will have a red spot (Sold) in the corner. I will try and persuade her to take that spot off. I was delighted to receive the painting, she recognised that delight, if sold (and there has been interest) there would be confirmation of its quality which would delight us both.

Hells bells. I've hardly written a word.

Lyse said...

Merci Lucy pour ce partage d'un pan de ta vie.
Tu as quand même de la chance d'avoir partagé un peu de lecture avec ta maman? ce que je n'aurai pu faire avec la mienne . Un temps j'ai essayé aussi de lire en tricotant, mais tout est ralenti. C'est plus facile de tricoter devant la télé.
Tu as eu des bonnes lecture et d'écrivains pas toujours faciles à lire.
En voyant ta prose, n'as tu jamais pensé à écrire pour publier ( livre )
Bon Dimanche

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Lucy, I love reading your writing about reading, or knitting, or anything else. If your passion for books shaped the way you express yourself in words, then bravo to every book your nose was into: fourré dedans.
That's what reading is for: to awaken us to the world as seen by other eyes than our own while at the same time, shaping, nurturing and challenging our own vision.

Lucy said...

Thanks all.

z - yes, I think it must count. I've also found lately that I really enjoy listening to books I've already read a long time ago. I too am less inclined to waste time with books I don't care for, but at the same time still feel the need to stick with difficult things. Wisdom to know the difference, I suppose.

Dale - Yes, in terms of going-back over the text, CDs are worse than tape, where you could always wind back; with CDs you have to go back over the whole track which I rarely want to do! Podcasts are better. Consolation, hmm. I sometimes hanker for the idea 'nice' cosy, sugary books, like comfort food, wonder why I don't pick up a nice Rosamund Pilcher or something! but I know I'd feel unsatisfied and as if I'd really wasted precious reading time. Good books are seldom all that cheering. But there is something consoling in losing oneself in another world, like that, surely? Or CS Lewis's thing 'we read to know we are not alone'. Or something really familiar, like Middlemarch, where you feel like you're revisiting old friends. I don't know, it's a fine line between being challenged and making yourself miserable. I knew a man, intelligent, cultivated and educated, who said he seldom read much at all. His reasons in essence (he was French but trying to explain in English, which complicated it) were that he had had a hard and sad childhood during the Occupation,and a difficult early life after that, but had been saved by community and the goodness of people, and by hard work and action. Reading, he said, did not reassure him of these realities, but made one look inward in a way he found unhappy and unhelpful. He preferred to do things with his hands, travel, and be active in his community. I respected that.

Robbie - thanks for all that, which was very chewy! And I've great respect and admiration for VR's reading and am interested in her thoughts on it. Boasting to oneself. I don't think we should altogether run down the accomplishment aspect of reading. I for one don't like to feel beaten by a book because of its difficulty, and do believe that things don't always have to be, indeed can't always, be pleasant and easy to add to one's store of experience, hard-won things can often be of greater worth etc. I'm not going to be reading The Golden Bowl again any time soon mind!

Lyse - merci, t'es gentille comme toujours! Quand je réflechis, c'était en fait mon père qui me lisait quand je me couchais quand j'étais petite, maman un peu plutard, mais elle était toujours occupée. Quand je suis devenue adulte et elle était âgée, nous partagions de temps en temps les livres, les romans et les mémoires, surtout. Mais c'était une femme de culture, quoique manquée à cause d'une jeunesse plutôt dure, et elle avait toujours un grand répetoire de poèmes qu'elle avait appris par coeur quand elle était jeune!

Natalie - your last sentence answers my question very satisfactorily, thank you!

Isabelle said...

Reading is for relaxation and pleasure and taking one's mind of one's worries while lying in the bath.

Nice waistcoat - the bit you showed us anyway.

Rouchswalwe said...

One chapter left for me to savour in "The Wind in the Willows." My summer has been bookless, so I am ever so happy to hunker down now as the summer closes. What's reading for? It's bedrock, in my case. Having moved from place to place throughout my youth, a book is a solid place. It's like the Tardis ~ bigger in the inside when I feel closed in, inside an aeroplane or stuck in the backseat of a car. Thank you for this post, sweet Lucy! Merci!