When I was a child I hid under the covers after lights out with a pen torch, determined to finish one more chapter. I took books with me into the loo because I couldn’t bear to be away from the characters for a few minutes. I read in jumps and starts on car journeys when motion sickness took hold, and after dark when intermittent street lighting illuminated the page. I snuck away at family gatherings to read, coming across distracted in conversations because what I really wanted to be doing, was to disappear into another world. It was bliss.
Sometimes, I forget that all-encompassing feeling of falling head and heart into another world. It rarely happens to me now, perhaps because suspension of reality is that much harder as an adult, and even more so as a writer when you can detect the scaffolding under stories. When it happens, I free fall joyously and savour the experience all the more, mourning those bittersweet last pages.
Nowadays, our toddler frowns with disapproval when he sees me reading an adult book. Reading is a solitary activity, and he’d prefer me to play cars, or hide and seek. He’s at the age where a story will occupy him for a few minutes, but then his sense of adventure drives him up on to his feet to explore, climb, leap, destroy. At six my daughter has started reading independently: old classics by Roald Dahl, and new stories by David Walliams.
I wonder whether it will last, this interest of hers. I hope it does; I will nurture it. Most of the reading friends and family do nowadays is on their phones: status updates, forwards, aggregated news on social media feeds. Traditional content has become less necessary, less able to keep up with the pace of our lives. The constant scrolling of our phones, never lingering for more than a few minutes in one place, reminds me of the creeping irritation when I channel surf on the telly without finding a home.
I was reading a blog post recently, a good one, and balked when I noticed an estimate, flagged at the top, indicating it would take me two minutes to read. Has it really come to that? That we have to barter for time before the words have even begun? Can ideas really take root in our minds if we spend two minutes on them and then bounce to the next shiny new thing? If skimming has become the new reading, and projecting the new listening, then we are losing something essential to our humanness.
To percolate, mull, linger, ruminate, ponder, deliberate. I love these words. They suggest taking our time, using our full concentration, absorbing. They suggest understanding. We’re not meant to superficially glide through life. We are supposed to choose our focus points, to anchor and connect deeply, to engage. What is life if we don’t see all the colours, if we rush through with our noses in the air? Who wants a chaste kiss when you can love deeply?
I don’t want soundbites. I want words that don’t apologise for dancing across the page. I want immersion. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is my two-fingered salute to rushed reading. Try it, go on. It’ll make you feel better.