Why I read

What’s beyond? Moon Valley, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, 2020. 

This lockdown is proving tedious.

I’m not used to winter and what with having the kitchen light on to see my boiled egg in the morning and then the sun setting halfway through the afternoon, I’m despairing from the lack of sunshine. I’m like a bird in a cage having an angry rant at its reflection in its plastic mirror. If I’m not careful, I’ll fracture my beak.

Luckily though, dear Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press and I’m one of the fortunate people in this world with an ample supply of books.

Reading is my coping strategy for most problems

Everyone has coping strategies, otherwise we wouldn’t survive, and reading is quite an acceptable one as far as things go. It doesn’t poison your lungs, damage your liver or play havoc with your cholesterol. If anything being well-read is applauded. As a reader, you learn, you build awareness of the world and tend not to upset people in the process.

Still, being that it is a coping strategy, it’s worth thinking about. People have been known to comment upon my nomadic lifestyle as ‘running away’, but escaping into a book, even if you haven’t moved, is just another form of escape. Escape is sometimes necessary. Sometimes you have to pull yourself away from a situation and hide as a form of self-protection. If I’m angry and upset, I sometimes don’t trust myself to be the kind and loving person I would like myself to be. I crawl into my chrysalis and, a novel later, re-emerge as a much nicer human being. Yet you can’t live in a chrysalis and the emergence after an initial escape is essential if the ‘coping’ isn’t going to leave a trail of additional damage.

Reading might, by itself be a good, wholesome activity, so I believe is eating chocolate. No need to point out that there is a limit of how much chocolate I should consume. Sooner or later, if I eat too much, I’ll be sick. Or over a prolonged period I might notice an increase in my waistline. Hence, I don’t gorge on chocolate, I choose a chocolate or two, take care of my choices, limit my intake and focus on quality over quantity. Reading doesn’t make you fat, you might argue. However, an hour reading is a choice to separate yourself from society. You live the lives of other people, fictional or real, or perhaps get advice from world experts who you otherwise wouldn’t be able to learn from, but still, it’s a solitary activity and going to a book for your answers means you aren’t going to the friends and family around you, the real people in your life who might be able to help you in a very real way. They at least have ears to listen with.

Emotional struggles aren’t the only reason I read

My struggle to consolidate the complex emotions that the gods have given me isn’t my only motivation to turn to a book. When I was twenty years old I learnt that there had been this thing called the British Empire. It happened within a few days during an eventful summer: a Ugandan chap, an Egyptian fellow and a guy from Hong Kong provided me with new information which illuminated the depths of my ignorance.

Sometimes you realize that you aren’t equipped to deal with what life throws at you. Some people move in a straight line, fulfilling their plans and hitting their goals, driven by ‘what next’. You follow the map, textbooks, management books, leadership, knowledge, wisdom. If, however, you lurch around in a nomadic fashion, crashing into different cultures as you go, you might find that the question ‘what next’ is never answered because you never get beyond the initial ‘why’.

Or to put it another way, one minute I think I’ve got my life organized, the next, soldiers line the streets and to understand why I dive into books. My lack of understanding of my environment hangs awkwardly in my line of sight. I dent my forehead anew on its shiny surface each time I step off a plane.

My learning style suits books. Typically, I’m not an auditory learner, I am terrible at remembering song lyrics for example, but I’m a quick reader and can assimilate the words on the page of a book into concepts to bury into my brain with ease. I might not recall dates or names, but conflict, tension and story I do.

There is a lot I would like to learn.

I cannot explain why I write, but I do know reading is necessary for it

Orwell in his essay ‘Why I Write’ fails at the same question. He’s eloquent in describing what he writes, and he describes the motivations that drive writers to their choices: the ego, aesthetics, historical documentation or political statement. Yet he fails to clarify why the medium has to be the written word. Why journalism and novels rather than paint and brushes? He acknowledges that storytelling exists as something innate inside him… the words revolving around the lonely child’s head twisted and turned until they sprawled out on the page. But why?

Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

George Orwell, Why I Write

I can say that writing, regardless of publication or money, matters to me more than almost anything else; I can’t say why. Furthermore, I have that awkward desire that I not only write, but that I write well. I don’t expect perfection from myself, but I do expect something crafted with care and thought through.

And it should be obvious to anyone who has ever contemplated improving their writing that to write well it’s necessary to read well.

Of course, my obsession has a downside

It would be fair to say that there are more socially beneficial ways for me to spend my life, there are definitely more economically productive endeavours. Especially when one considers that the majority of my writing revolves around me. Indeed, if we head back to Orwell’s suggestions of what motivates writers to write what they write, I’m steered by my ego’s emotional frustrations with our world.

You could claim that I could be doing something less solitary and more involved with other people if I wasn’t so insistent on writing, but all I can think is that if I didn’t write I wouldn’t know how to process anything and all that evil which builds up inside would erupt. Some people talk about the heart as the place of feeling; I’m convinced that for me it’s the fingertips. My hand curls around the pen or my fingers slam down on the plastic keys. Here are my emotions.

For me, life becomes real when I write it. What I don’t write is erased by the winds of oblivion. I forget a lot, my mind betrays me. I can’t recall places, names, dates, or faces, but I never forget a good story or a significant dream. Writing is a silent introspection, a journey to the dark caverns of memory and the soul. Fiction, like memory, moves from revelation to revelation.

Isabel Allende, Why I Write

But during this challenging winter, I’m grateful to have so many books to hand

Sometimes I need to escape, sometimes my family needs me to escape so that I’m bearable company, and sometimes I need a sense that I’m learning something, that things are progressing, and that I will come out of this experience with something to show for it.

Hopefully, reading will also help me learn to write better, that ethereal dream.

In which Lina Meruane asks why I read

Explain that to me! Cows? I sighed buying time to think. Cows or oxen or donkeys or idiot peasants or whatever you call those damned animals that almost killed us! They didn’t have lights and they were going very, very slowly through an impossible fog. And wait, joder, I can’t believe it, there ahead of us is a truck right across the road, trying to make a U-turn! Are all Chileans crazy?

Lina Merunae, Seeing Red (Where blind Lina and her non-Chilean boyfriend are driving in the dark heading towards Santiago.)

Sometimes I struggle to articulate what I like or dislike about a book or writing style. I love the act of reading itself, the following of the words on the page, one leading gently to the next in a never-ending stream. Sometimes simply reading is the enjoyment – and consideration of the writer, the style or the story comes secondary to the soothing pleasure of seeing a word and holding its meaning, falling into the next and being swept along.

Reading is safe and reassuring. It’s controlled. When reading, I dictate the velocity of the words flowing into my mind and can vary it just as I choose. I can pause mid-sentence and ponder over a single word, or I can skip whole paragraphs if they get too gruesome or tedious. If I stop liking what I am reading, I close the book.

Inevitably, being addicted to both writing and reading, I end up writing about books

Have you ever noticed how many books are about readers and writers? The less literary inclined are probably underrepresented in literature – but is that a surprise?

Yet, as much as I love to write and love to read, I lack a critical tendency when faced with the final page of a book. On closing the cover, I want to give it (whatever the book is) five-golden-stars.

By the time I’ve reached my computer and started to write, I’m more likely to settle at four, not because my heart doesn’t want to give five, but because you can’t give everything five. Six months later, scanning through the list of books I’ve been reading, I may drop the same book down to three stars, figuring that if I have forgotten it so easily, it can’t have been that memorable. The five-star intoxication tends to belong solely to the reading experience. The critical part of my brain demands a certain writerly wonder to give a book five-stars.

If it’s fiction I need to be mesmerized by the poetic skill or the cleverness of the sentences. Should it be non-fiction, I want to be taught something useful (quotable, inaccurate statistics don’t count). But to give the reading experience five-stars, I simply need to be enthralled.

The opposite happened recently with Seeing Red by Lina Meruane

Unsurprisingly the protagonist of the book is a writer. The author in fact started the novel by writing out scenes from her real life and the Protagonist shares her name. I enjoyed the beginning but hated the second half, or perhaps just the last quarter.

I felt betrayed by the protagonist, revolted by the ending and like I’d been caught out being naïve. Yet, it had been a compelling read, so despite its blatant unlikability, I couldn’t totally dismiss it. But the reading experience was at points painful. It made me uncomfortable, so much so that I occasionally skimmed past a paragraph about her eyes… the Spanish title translates most directly as ‘blood in the eye’.

However, I had to admit that I did like the writing

I just wished that the same writer had written a different story (or maybe she had and if so, why couldn’t that have been the translated one). Because I had been hooked. I was pleased to have read it and I loved the way the translator threw in Spanish phrases rather than converting everything to English. (It’s the third book I’ve read by the same translator, Megan McDowell, the other two books both being originally written by the Chilean author Alejandro Zambra.) Yet why didn’t I like it?

Time passed, and the book, which stared down at me from the shelf, began to grow on me. My eyes would flick up to its spine and I would feel guilty for hating it. Perhaps, I thought, I hadn’t been just. Maybe the book was truly an excellent book and the problem was me.

As a child, I had a problem with The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

Not the Victor Hugo version but a tiny hardback children’s Disney version. The book terrified me. Having since grown up, I now have no idea why this one book scared me so much, but I was so perturbed by it that I hid it beneath the floorboards of my parents’ loft.

Obviously, being an adult and full of good sense, I know that books are just books and that they do not sit on shelves watching you. The disquiet within me was not due to the book, it was triggered by the book. The truth was that the book hadn’t been what I’d expected it to be.

The more I read literature by Latin American women, the more I wonder if there isn’t something remarkable that they’re doing with their writing. It feels fearless. Seeing Red is most totally fearless. There was no please-like-me timidity in the book, much like there isn’t in my current read, cheerfully entitled Delirium, and as there wasn’t in Like Water For Chocolate – all notably different styles of story. And Isabelle Allende’s The House of The Spirits isn’t tame either.

As for the Clarice Lispector book I read recently, that book fought against language itself, bending it to its will. No pretence at imitating some stodgy style, nope, dear Clarice had me jaw-dropped before I’d got to the end of the introduction.

Seeing Red haunted me…

…whispering in my ear in a dangerous voice, taunting me with the possibility that what was wrong with the book wasn’t at all a reflection of the book, it was a reflection of me. I started doubting myself and my judgement. I started looking for information on Meruane. Who was the woman behind the book?

I’d set off with an intention to read more Latin American women, but did I really accept what that entailed? Perhaps, I began to realize, reading Latin American women might not be like reading British women with a bit of exotic food and a few different cultural references. It might actually be quite uncomfortable.

Annoyingly, I like to think myself beyond these stereotypes and presumptions, but Meruane elegantly pointed out that I wasn’t. Chile, as always, finds a way to shake out a little more of my ego.

Did I just want to be a literary tourist?

Which is how I found myself leafing through the book again. It’s not that Seeing Red leaps headlong at the scary topics like the dictatorship and the horrors of history that I so often associate with Chilean authors, or that I’m avoiding such topics – Zambra, Skármeta, Bolaño and Lemebel – the men I’ve read who’ve written about that period and its consequences didn’t upset me in the same way (a question here to ponder in its own right). Then again, the women in their stories were often being observed rather than lived through. Lemebel’s beautifully written ‘Queen’ in My Tender Matador was perhaps the real exception and unique.

Seeing Red starts at a party in New York and begins by feeling quite harmless

Which is why I almost didn’t buy the book. I wasn’t looking for another book that talked about the lucky elite going off to study in the United States, I wanted a book that was written about Chile. But finding books written by Chilean women and which have been translated into English is hard work. When my Spanish reading is smoother going, I’ll read in Spanish, but, for now, if I’m going to devour these books it will have to be done in English.

Meruane took on middle-class, educated women (like me) and then threw in the darkness

Seeing Red did not meet with my expectations, but is that not the point of trying to read something different? Has anything so far in my Chilean experience met with my expectations? Are my poor assumptions not continually being bulldozed down? I’d like to think of myself as being quite open-minded, but it’s the walls which keeps giving me a headache.

I became addicted to reading because it was safe and reassuring, a sanctuary to which I could escape. Now that escape clashes with my curiosity. I want to understand a reality that’s not so safe and reassuring. I go looking for a story about Chile, or about Latin America, to get a glimpse into what might be different about those ‘other’ people over there and in the process, I find myself learning who I am.

Lina Meruane has a new book coming out next year, one that is again translated by Megan McDowell… I feel this battle between me and her is incomplete, and so I’m compelled to read it, even if I hate it. Just as I’m compelled to return to Chile, even if that’s hard.

I did, finally, give Seeing Red all those gold stars, feeling that anyone who can so gently tease my ego apart deserves them.

Entirely self-indulgent writing about books

I mention Cleopatra… so you’ve got a picture of a pyramid. It’s only a few thousand years older… Saqqara, Egypt, January 2016

There are many types of book. Some are written well, others are not. Some are compelling, others you put down, lose and eventually uncover again to repeat the whole procedure until at some eventual end you pass the book onto someone else, hopefully someone with a stronger desire to learn about the topic and fewer qualms about the author’s voice. Some books have sat on my bookshelf for years unread.

The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George, which looks like it might be seven or eight hundred pages has been waiting to be finished for many years. It’s neither badly written nor lacking a compelling element. Indeed, I once spent a good three hours in the bath reading it without any awareness of the hour. You might ask why years later it remains unfinished? I didn’t want dear Cleo to die.

When I glance up at my bookshelves, organized by whether the books have been read or not, one thing stands out. I’m much more likely to finish a shorter book. And I don’t just mean by page length but also page height. Which suggests to me that I need to limit my buying to paperbacks only a little taller than my hand span.

In addition to the books that line my shelves are those that I read electronically. Maybe Anna Karenina or The Brothers Karamazov would have presented more of a challenge in paperback. My ebook reader is 174g. When I read Anna Karenina, I naively had no idea of the book’s true volume and worried greatly that the story might, at any moment, end. These worries began in Germany after only a few hundred pages and continued through Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, until in Finland I accepted that Tolstoy wasn’t going to let me down.

And because I adore the annotation function when reading electronically, I’ve been led to misdemeanours with real books. Not only do I fold over the corner of the page as a bookmark (how sinful), but I also engage in marginalia. When I don’t understand a word, I’m bound to scribble the definition on the page.

If the writer wants to write ‘effulgent’ I feel compelled to add ‘! Shiny’. I have a lexical notebook for actually transcribing these words and improving my vocabulary, but most of the time it’s somewhere else and I’m just annoyed at having had to pull out my phone or a dictionary to find the meaning. My notebooks are full of words and definitions I’ll never learn. This electronic reading has the benefit of having a built-in dictionary, except I find that I seemingly read books with words that can’t be found within its normal dictionary.

If it were not for books, I’m not sure how I would manage to remain sane. Books are where I turn when life presents itself to me in a fashion I simply cannot comprehend. When I’m overwhelmed, I hide in a book. When I need help, I turn to a book. When I’m sad, I seek comfort from books. And when I’m angry I hide in books knowing that with my head in a book I am more likely to keep my mouth shut.

And that, in itself, is one good reason to read.

Books and the Yorkshire dialect

A bit of Yorkshire.
May 2020

One of my favourite books as a child was The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett so I’m not sure why it is that I had never read The Secret Garden. My sister who never used to read much, until her beloved Blacksmith came into the scene, has read it. The father thinks it’s a most excellent book. It turns out we even have it on the bookshelf here.

So why hadn’t I read it?

I knew the vague outline of the story, because when we were children my sister and I had the film which stars Maggie Smith as Mrs Medlock and we must have watched it over and over again, delighting in the magic. However, I hadn’t appreciated the full wonder of the book itself.

The Secret Garden is a beautiful depiction of the Yorkshire accent, with the protagonist Mary slowly taking on more and more of the Yorkshire dialect as the story progresses, simultaneously becoming a nicer, kinder person as she adopts a playful ‘tha’ for you and the single aspirated alveolar stop of ‘t’ for ‘to’.

Away from the sound of home, I’ve gained deeper appreciation for the accents of the North

I expend so much effort trying to clean up my speech that sometimes I forget the wonder of its original form, with its double contractions and missed consonants. There’s no shortage of un-official English in my family. Apparently, my southern grandfather used to say skellingtons and my mother still does slip into such a form from time to time and so there’s no wonder it’s my natural inclination to say skellington too (dear students: the word you want is skeleton).

But Yorkshire, with it’s ancient twists of words, is also a place of wisdom

If anyone is currently bored by the lack of freedom to socialise, the ‘born ‘n’ bred in Yorkshire’ character of Martha in The Secret Garden has some advice:

Martha looked perplexed.

“Can tha’ knit?” she asked.

“No,” answered Mary.

“Can tha’ sew?”

“No.”

“Can tha’ read?”

“Yes.”

“Then why doesn’t tha’ read somethin’, or learn a bit o’ spellin’? Tha’st old enough to be learnin’ thy book a good bit now.”

“I haven’t any books,” said Mary.

Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

It makes my heart sing to read such a conversation written on the page

The book includes this beautiful explanation on the word ‘wuthering’ which was famously used in the title of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights written and set here in Yorkshire where I currently live. I don’t personally recommend the book. I thought, when I picked it up, that it would be a romance. I was wrong, it was a horrible portrayal of domestic abuse.

Mary did not know what ‘wutherin’’ meant until she listened, and then she understood. It must mean that hollow shuddering sort of roar which rushed round and round the house as if the giant no one could see were buffeting it and beating at the walls and the windows to try to break in. But one knew he could not get in, and somehow it made one feel very safe and warm inside a room with a red coal fire.

Frances Hodgson Burnett The Secret Garden

Continuing the reading update, I’ve also finally finished Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, which I enjoyed but in my ranking of 17th century Russian literature it falls below Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

When someone makes a remark on how certain politicians seem to believe that they are above the rules, I’m reminded of some of the long, meandering convoluted essays of thought portrayed in the book.

Yet I wondered if they book should be re-written using the structure of Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch (Rayuela) which has an appendix of unnecessary philosophising conveniently disguised as an alternative reading option. Or at least I think it does… I’ve only read the short version.

Trying to curb my book buying habit a little, I continued with foreign literature, reading Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, for which I had high expectations. I remember James Wood waxing lyrical about Flaubert’s impact on modern fiction in his book, How Fiction Works, but I found that since I didn’t like any of the characters it was difficult to find much appreciation for the style. My favourite moment was when Flaubert described the animals all gathered up for the agricultural show:

The beasts were there, their noses towards the cord, and making a confused line with their unequal rumps. Drowsy pigs were burrowing in the earth with their snouts, calves were bleating, lambs baaing; the cows, on knees folded in, were stretching their bellies on the grass, slowly chewing the cud, and blinking their heavy eyelids at the gnats that buzzed around them.

Gustav Falubert, Madame Bovary

At least I felt like I could relate to those marvellous beasts.

Directing your attention towards what really matters (without resorting to a battle cry or tears)

I have a bit of an affinity for building log piles. Throwing logs around forces you to focus on what you’re doing. Otherwise, you bash your fingers.

If your ugliness was remarkable, and you lived in Milan at the end of the fifteenth century, you might have found yourself invited over for drinks with the handsome Leonardo da Vinci. He was keen to meet ugly people.

Leonardo was a gifted story-teller and could induce a plethora of emotions in you though his tales. He’d make sure you were well entertained. His stories would make you crease up with laughter. Laughter so violent your face would contort into extreme expressions.

And then, he would disappear. He’d scamper straight back to his studio, where in painstaking detail he would recreate your fantastical features into drawings designed to entertain his patron and make the Milanese court howl with laughter.

His magic came from his intense ability to focus his attention on your face. As he was telling his stories he would be observing your movements until he knew your expressions better than you’d know the expressions of your own lover.

Such intense attention isn’t something many of us are very good at. Which is a pity really, because intense attention is at the crux of a good life.

In this article I am going to skip speedily through three ideas that changed how I structure my time so that I would be more attentive (and therefore lead a better life):

  1. The relationship between happiness and attention
  2. The ‘attention residue effect’ (or why distractions are doubly bad)
  3. The aim for greatness

Let’s start.

Of the many books I have read, Flow by Mihalyi Cskiszentmihalyi might have had the biggest impact

In his book Cskiszentmihalyi talks about that elusive sensation where we are so immersed in a task that it feels almost like a different reality. We are doing something that’s difficult enough to challenge us, but at the same time is just within our abilities.

For me, painting, when it’s going well gives me some of this feeling… or writing a story, where the characters seem to be leading the way and I am compelled to follow along. Or a conversation with an old friend who knows the right questions to ask and so time disappears.

It’s in this state of activity that people report being the happiest.

This was a bit of a ah-ha moment for me, because I figured that if I could work out how to get to this ‘flow’ state, I could make myself happy more consistently.

As you might have guessed though, attention is a prerequisite for flow.

This point was hammered home again when I was reading Cal Newport’s book Deep Work

He quotes a science writer called Winifred Gallagher who after discovering she had cancer decided to put more effort into choosing what it was she was paying attention to.

Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counseling, similarly suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.

Winifred Gallagher, author of Rapt (Quoted by Cal Newport in Deep Work)

For me this translates to setting time aside, free from distraction, to do the things I love.

So I know now that I have to fight to create a distraction free zone within my life

I have complete sympathy for the teenager at school who explained that she waits until her parents and sister have all gone to bed before getting out her books and beginning her homework and exam revision. This is obviously not an ideal situation, but it drums home how if a fourteen-year-old can make it happen, we can too.

There are small steps you can take

For me, having a meditation practice has been a great instructor. It has shown me the difference between trying to control yourself with willpower, and surrendering and accepting. Battle cries, even internal ones, are exhausting.

I also keep my phone at a distance, play dull background music and try to keep a clear desk. Little things, but each contributes to keeping me on track.

This however isn’t enough

I thought I was doing well, but in reality I was still struggling. No surprise really as the brain is terrible at separating one task from another.

When you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow – a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task.

Cal Newport, Deep Work

It sounds obvious when you read it like that

Before sitting down to write this article I was listening to a podcast, and now, although a bit of time has passed, a small part of my mind is still drawn back to the ideas of the podcast. Part of me is thinking ‘how do I share this information I’ve learnt with my sister’ whilst another part of me is trying to write this article. My attention is subtly divided.

Cal Newport goes on to explain that this residue is worse if Task A was a light task that was not definitively ended… all that instant messaging is bogging down our brains. I can easily be thinking about a number of different conversations at once, but the truth is, I can’t do this and also write this article well.

I try to soften this attention residue effect with a cup of tea before I start working on a new project

Does that sound counter intuitive? Before I thought the best idea what to jump straight into the next task and not waste time. Take my tea to my desk. But now I’m beginning to think that maybe there is a benefit to ‘putting the toys away’ and having a moment of calm before starting something new.

Meditation and moments of calm might make you a little uncomfortable

And some people get a bit embarrassed by the pseudo-science and the self-help label of some of what I read, but what I’m searching for are techniques I can apply which make me better at what I do. Once I have the idea from the book, it’s time to test it.

After all, the end goal of this is that I want to do some solid work
I want my life to be meaningful. I might believe we’re just a speck of dust in an incomprehensibly large universe, but ambition resides amongst these particles of mine.

I imagine you have ambition too.

Not being mediocre, but being great is the main purpose for profound attention

The biggest theme of the Deep Work book is that if you want to be great at something, you need to spend time deliberately practicing in a focused manner at a deep level.

Which led me to my next book.

The church at Sella. Got to practice my painting!


My current read is Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci

I picked up this book not because of the artistic merit, but because Cal Newport wrote about how Walter Isaacson could fall into a deep, writerly trance and focus with incredible detail on the work he was doing at any moment. This was a skill that he picked up from his journalism career. It’s not an easy skill to muster.

Of course I was curious. I want to be able to focus intently on writing, even when my life is chaotic because I’m in the midst of travelling. However this ability requires a lot of practice. You can’t just sit down and write at this depth as a matter of willpower. You’ll just exhaust yourself trying. Instead you have to train your attention like a muscle.

I admit, I’m motivated to read the book by envy

I marvel at that crisp elegant writing style. But it’s not enough to stare at the phrasing longing for the skill. My job is to keep on creating distraction free moments for myself. I have to deliberately practice the skills that I want to acquire. With time, and deep attention, I will, inevitably, get better.

But of course, reading the book I am also envious of Leonardo himself. Let’s take the odd piece of work of his known as the Vitruvian man, the famous image of a man stood in a circle and a square, arms outstretched. And briefly look at how Leonardo’s obsessive attention managed to create the version of the Vitruvian man we recognise today.

The first thing I was amazed to learn was that Leonardo wasn’t the first man to try creating this image

It was not a novel idea. There was plenty of competition. He had multiple friends (or colleagues) working in Milan at the time, who also took an interest in the old writings of the Ancient Roman called Vitruvius and set about drawing out the proportional image Vitruvius described.

Each of them drew a man, stood with his feet touching the base of a square, head touching the top. From there though things weren’t quite the same. Some artists took the measurements of the ‘perfect man’ straight from Vitruvius’ writing. Leonardo gave the challenge more attention. He got out a tape measure and corrected the measurements, producing an image of a man with incredibly accurate proportions.

Leonardo was great because he paid such greater attention to the detail of his work

He’s great despite barely finishing anything at all. He’s great because with that power of attention he developed a incredible skill. The skill was recognised for its greatness.

And so history has picked a winner, and the version of the Vitruvian man we know today belonged to Leonardo.

And don’t we all want to be winners?

Which brings us to the end.

To quickly recap what we’ve covered here:

  1. If you want a rewarding life, you need to have skillful management of your attention.
  2. Skillful management of attention includes being aware of what we do before we sit down to work because of the ‘attention residue’ effect.
  3. Greatness typically requires committing our focus to the activity we want to be great at, probably almost obsessively so.

One last thought. Remember those ugly people? Well one of Leonardo’s ‘grotesques’, those super ugly pictures, went on to inspire the image of the vile-looking Queen of Hearts in the original illustrations of Alice in Wonderland. I find it quite formidable to think that the incredible expression of her face (I hated her image as a child) came from a real woman, living in Milan in the 1400s, and her momentary emotion has been shared now to entertain so many children.

If you enjoyed any of these ideas, you might enjoy one of the following books:

  • Walter Isaacson’s beautifully written Leonardo da Vinci
  • Cal Newport’s easy to read Deep Work
  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s a bit heavier, but totally worth it book simply called Flow

Or perhaps Mihalyi Csiksentmihalyi’s TED talk

The way books make me feel (and other tangents)

Photo of a wild flower in the Spanish countryside, because something delicate is needed before a darker blog post.

On reflection, I feel that my reading had been a tad different this year.

My thinking has changed, mostly due to a combination of therapy and time. I have less anxiety that needs soothing. Lots of sadness still, but less anxiety. I used to think of books as the solution to anything I felt uncomfortable (read anxious) about. You can read non-fiction that tells you what to do and think, or fiction that gives you a place to escape. Or non-fiction that gives you a place to escape and fiction that gives you clues on how to live. Nowadays I’m much more aware that books don’t solve problems and I use them as a prop. They might be great for learning too, but mainly they’re a distraction or an illusion of a solution. Some weeks back I raced through five in seven days, six if you include me rereading of my own novel. This last week my reading has been sparse.

Books fill my mind with words, leaving less space for negative thoughts. I like books filled with eloquent phrases that push language to its boundaries. I find the woven texture of a scene, the colours, smells, shadows and rhythms get closer to my actual emotions than a statement declaring an emotion. Good books give me something to relate to. Maybe my excessive use of metaphors during therapy is a consequence of how much I read.

“How do you feel today?”

“Like a cat locked in a basket on its way to the vets.”

What would I do without books? Would I watch more television?

When I’m struggling, when I’m exhausted, I sometimes revert to hiding in an episode of something captivating. An episode swiftly becomes a series. And then, without warning, I become bored. Books I can take at my own pace, I can entwine myself in them, I can pull back if one gets overwhelming. I can pretend to myself that all the reading I do is good for me, and good for my writing. I can be reading six, seven, eight books simultaneously, and that’s okay. Television on the other hand still feels passively indulgent.

That said, I don’t have the jolliest reading list so far for this year. Thankfully it’s a lot less ‘how to sort your life out’.

I’ve read Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, which struck me as a very sad story. In case you were under the illusion that it’s a great romance, it’s not. It’s a book about domestic abuse and destructive obsession. Love is absent.

It’s a book I’ve been meaning to read for some time. I have, after all, walked (and run) the same moors as the Brontë sisters. Yet, for whatever reason, I’ve put Wuthering Heights off until now. The writing, I admit, is rather pretty in places – less archaic than I imagined. It’s not one of those tedious books where you can’t follow a sentence from beginning to end. The reading itself is easy. Except when the manservant Joseph speaks in a thick Yorkshire accent (translations in the footnotes). There is a glossary of Yorkshire terms at the front of the book, of which I knew only one: lug. Yet, as picturesque as the writing was (and as wonderful as the setting is), I couldn’t like any of the characters. They’re miserable sods.

On my trek through literature these last few months, I also read Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. I read it not knowing the ending, although it seems the ending is common knowledge. I also had no idea how long the book was because I read it on my e-book reader (nearly 900 pages). If I had known, I wouldn’t have leaped in with such enthusiasm, but when it finally reached the end, I was disappointed that it wasn’t longer. To me, with my limited grasp of the ways of literature, it seemed to prove that you can write a good book without obeying the so-called rules. I am so enamoured with it that I have this idea that I will even re-read it at some point… or maybe even War and Peace.

Then there was Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. My intrigue of Hemingway developed from watching the film Midnight in Paris. Recognising the name, I’d picked up his account of his time in Paris, A Moveable Feast, from a bookshelf belonging to the library of my Sicilian travel hosts back in 2016. The autobiographical account was fascinating, and heart-breaking. He writes of his marriage falling apart with a reflective sense of regret and responsibility. It left me with little idea of what to expect from his novels, but a strong desire to read them. I went on to read the neighbouring Hemingway’s On Writing, which is more a quote collection than a book but intriguing none-the-less. He’s disciplined but not pushy when it comes to making himself work. When he’s not working, he’s not working. He’s not even thinking about working. My diary for that week recalls that ‘this is the kind of attitude that I want to develop towards my novel’.

For Whom the Bell Tolls had my attention from beginning to end. I loved the way Hemingway moved through each of the characters stories. As a reader you start out with a bunch of odd people who are thrown together by the Spanish Civil War. As the story progresses and you’re led through each of their individual histories you develop sympathy for them, one by one. The women were interesting characters, which brings me to a bit of a tangent. I guess it’s inevitable that when a character portraying trauma takes stage, especially one who’s been raped, I pay closer attention.

This isn’t to say that I read with a critic’s eye. I become so well immersed in any good story that I’m reading that I fail to analyse. Yet, the moment in which rape appears in a novel, I’m forced to confront it. The narrative jolts me back into my own past. I am stopped. Sometimes I feel a sense of disgust for the writer. For example, when I read Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle recently, I found such a scene jarring and the character unbelievable. The references to rape in the beginning of the book felt so disconnected from the actual event when it was told. I couldn’t put it all together. What’s more, the language changed. Like the author* felt that ‘rape’ was too ugly a word and that he needed to soften the experience and make it more magical as it got closer to describing the act itself. Yes, I get that the book is magic realism, but the weirdness of it made me feel worse not better. I wasn’t relating to the characters. I was getting angry at the author.

I cringe at the need to portray sexual abuse for dramatic effect. Yes, Murakami manages to incorporate elements of dissociation and such like, but he seems to forget that within the victim is a young woman. Her trauma is told as if it is known and understood, whereas my experience of trauma is that there is always more unknown than known, and little can feel understood.

I guess to me it’s always going to be personal.

Sometimes something in what I’ve read resonates and lodges in my mind for good reasons. In For Whom The Bell Tolls, there is a young woman called María who suffers atrociously when her town is taken. Hemingway, consciously or unconsciously I don’t know, does something different with María’s story. Whilst each of the characters seem to take turns in telling their stories, or the stories of each other, María’s story is repeatedly glossed over. She brings it up time and time again, causing a discomfort to others. She gets asked to speak of it no more. The characters go to great lengths to protect her (to feel like they’re doing the right thing), whilst failing to listen to her (and so avoid acknowledging their own insurmountable grief, or hers).

Hemingway sticks with her. She’s small, weak, feeble and obedient to those around her, making her seem like anything but a strong, independent woman. And yet, when I read her she is the strongest of all the characters. Pablo drinks, Robert works, Pilar bosses everyone around. María keeps on bringing up her story, her fears, her hopes. In the dire situation that unfolds, she has the ability to believe in a nicer life, to plan for a future and a different way of living.

María takes control of her own story.  She’s not naïve. She’s pragmatic, carrying a razor blade with which to end her own life if she is captured again. I can understand an exaggerated need for control. She refers to her sense of being broken and vocalises her fears of now being an inadequate lover. As someone who feels the need to issue a warning statement before allowing herself to be kissed, I understand this too. She continues throughout the novel to speak her own truth, forcing those around her to open their eyes and start to see her as more than a serving girl, more than a victim, a fellow combatant.  

Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, although a book that fascinated me (I love his writing), was spoilt by the references to rape because he never made Creta, the victim, feel human. To me this felt like an insult.

Rape is useful to a novelist. It’s dramatic. It’s a moment of conflict that forces characters to change. Rape and sexual abuse is also, unfortunately, much more common that we’d like to think, and it would be bad to not to acknowledge these crimes through literature. But, in my opinion, if you want to write it well, you must also write the social silencing that comes with it and show the humanity of the victims. Murakami made me uncomfortable in the way reading sensationalised newspaper articles used to. I’ve stopped opening newspapers. Hemingway made me feel heard in the way that talking to a good friend does.

*Or translator…