Don’t you just adore the first book that pulls you out of a reading slump? After an interminable period when nothing’s been quite right, I am falling over myself with gratitude for the existence of Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. It brought hope and illumination back into my life, a quickening of heart and mind, renewed engagement, all vital signs that had been subdued by those disappointing books that left me diminished in some way. And of course now I am worrying that nothing I read next will come anywhere near the standard it set… Whoever thought that reading was a dull, innocuous business, some sort of tepid alternative to real life? It turns out to be a powerful psychodrama, one that has more impact on our state of mind than any supposedly mild form of entertainment should.
This left me wondering what a reading slump is all about. It begins with the books, that’s for sure, but before long it takes on an independent life inside of the reader, activating some kind of hostage situation in which we lose access to our ability to take pleasure in reading. When I’m in a reading slump, I know that my mindset has become the problem, and it will take a hero book to set me free again.
This recent slump began with Ben Macintyre’s book about Ian Fleming and his fictional alter ego, James Bond. I’d fallen on the book with cries of delight and curiosity, as this is the sort of thing I’m interested in writing at the moment, a book about writers and the stories they create. There aren’t very many of them about, and I felt sure I’d learn a lot and be given a model for how to approach this sort of thing in a commercial manner. When I began reading it, I was sorely disappointed. Ben Macintyre is good on spies, but he’s not very good on books. The first chapter was a quick run through Fleming’s life (a throwaway of lots of good material, I felt). Then the second began the arduous task of identifying the ‘real’ people who had informed Fleming’s creation of Bond, M, Moneypenny, and so on. Nothing could be more exciting, the author informed us, than tracking down the originals of the characters. And then, after a whole bunch of brief portraits that took us back over some of the ground already covered in the first chapter, hedged about with qualifications and caveats, Macintyre admits that we can never know whether these people were the templates or not, and in any case, the characters in the books are fictional. This is the thing about books – they are not as easy to write about as it seems. You have to approach them from the right direction, or else you end up performing ungainly twenty point turns to extricate yourself from the pitfalls. I don’t often think about books that I could have done it better myself, but I allowed that subversive thought to trickle in on this occasion.
Then I read that awful John Dunning. Then I finished The Woman Upstairs, which was fine, not bad at all, but not great. And then there was The Mirador, which I confess I have not picked up again, lacking sufficient vitality to combat its soporific charms. And then there was Bill Bryson.
It reminded me of times when I was marking end of year examination papers, and the phenomenon of the 2.2 wave would submerge me. Cambridge classifies exam papers from First class (superb) to Third class (disaster) with second class results in between divided into upper and lower halves. First class papers are a delight, third class are examples of the tragicomic and take a special sort of effort to produce. Upper seconds are good, competent papers, well organised and sufficiently insightful. But lower seconds are simply depressing. When I found myself wanting to put my head on the desk and groan, I knew I was in the presence of a 2.2 paper. It’s something to do with the thought of all that energy and effort and time and promise squandered, on what is a well-meaning but hopeless piece of bull.
The books that put me into a reading slump are the 2.2 books. They are not the worst by any means, but they are the books that make me sad that so much money and effort has been spent on them. They make me question my own views and value judgements about literature (Bill Bryson is the most successful non-fiction author of all time; I mean, he’s good, but is he that good?). They undermine my beliefs about what stories can do for me, indeed, for any of us, and they make me doubt the possibility of originality. They are often based on a fundamental misconception that it irritates me to see broadcast as truth. They must press the right triggers, in other words, to send me into that dark place where I lose touch with the optimism and comfort that they usually provide.
Here’s the thing: reading is more than a bit of a hobby, more than a light diversion. The great goals of reading tend to be either comfort or enlightenment, and neither is negligible. They are tender, vulnerable parts of ourselves that we give over to books to be soothed; our belief in meaning and significance, identification with others, the sense of our intelligence at work, a feeling for beauty and insight, solidarity, shared dreams. The depth of the slump is proof, if proof were needed, of how much reading means, and what deep forces we tap into when we open a book. Don’t ever let anyone try and con you into thinking that reading is ‘a waste of time’! It’s a pleasure that is also profound, and those are rare indeed.