Becoming a better reader

For someone who likes reading, I don’t think I’m very good at it. I read too fast – gobbling up reams of words, sometimes without even understanding them. I can only read for about an hour before getting distracted. I sometimes lose track of the story because I’m too busy analysing it in my head as I read it. I talk out loud to the author (“Come on, Hilary, that’s a bit sexist”) and I have been known to throw books across the room or scribble in the margins when they disappoint me.
More frustratingly, I often can’t visualise a story while I’m reading it. I understand most people can do this, but I can’t.
To me, it’s all about the music the words make.
I recently read Lucky Jim and cackled throughout, because God, even the way that book’s written is funny. It’s like a brilliantly told joke: you don’t just laugh at the content, but you laugh because the phrasing, the word choice, even the parentheses, are damn hilarious. It works as a piece of music as much as a piece of comedy. I don’t really visualise the book, I just… hear it.
Sometimes I read a story where I can tell the writer has carefully transcribed a scene which they can see very clearly: but I can only imagine a small bit of the scene at a time (rain on the window, wet fields, the branches of a tree). I can’t hold the whole scene in my head. At this point I feel like apologising to the author: “Sorry! The problem is not with your vision! I just can’t SEE things!”
So, I am trying to attune my senses. Trying to become a better reader.
That doesn’t mean teaching myself to visualise, but it does mean becoming more sensitive to the music of the words: knowing when a phrase is perfect, when a sentence’s cadence is satisfying. Asking myself, why is this sentence funny? What is it about this phrasing that makes this sentence work, while that sentence falls flat on its face? How can you tell one writer’s tone apart from another’s?
It’s difficult, learning to listen. But I know it’s possible, because at the age of eleven I taught myself to play piano.
Before then, music was a language I didn’t understand. I knew sometimes it made me shiver with joy, but didn’t know any more than that. I could hear music without really listening to it – like an English person who goes abroad and doesn’t speak the language.
Once I became more sensitive to music, it began to sound different. Colours and textures emerged from familiar songs: flights of silvery top notes, the bird-like call of a flute. Now I could tell apart the layers of harmony in a piece; I could appreciate the detailed work in a performance, its energy, its power.
But really I am still learning how to listen to music, just as I am learning to become a better reader. Everything is a learning process.
I’ve been reading both series of Virginia Woolf’s The Common Reader, a book which always makes me want to read more deeply and widely. Woolf wrote that it is hard to be a good reader, that “reading is a longer and more complicated process than seeing.”
To Woolf, the ‘common reader’ was someone who is “guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole – a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing”. The common reader is not a scholar nor a critic, but someone who reads for pleasure. This “hasty, inaccurate and superficial” reader is a kind of magpie, snatching up odds and ends for their own purpose.
I really don’t know if Woolf thought of herself as a common reader, but she certainly was not one. I think there have been few more imaginative, visionary, informed and responsive readers in the history of the world than Virginia Woolf. Take this, from her essay On Not Knowing Greek:

“Pick up any play by Sophocles… and at once the mind begins to fashion itself surroundings. It makes some background, even of the most provisional sort, for Sophocles; it imagines some village, in a remote part of the country, near the sea. Even nowadays such villages are to be found in the wilder parts of England… [but] If we try to think of Sophocles here, we must annihilate the smoke and the damp and the wet thick mists. We must sharpen the lines of the hills. We must imagine a beauty of stone and earth…”

I could write for pages about Woolf and her clarity of vision in response to books. I am forever envious of such imaginative visual power. But I will close with the thought that there are all kinds of readers; we can never know exactly what happens in someone else’s head when they read. Maybe there is no ideal reader. Maybe reading is as personal as thinking.
How do you read?
How do you think?

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Getting out of the woods: the joy of linear storytelling

I discovered Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit when I was seventeen. After I rescued it from the back shelves of the college library, I swiftly realised it was a magic book.
It’s haunted me since, this anarchic little novel. It radically restructured my mind, it opened doors to new vistas. I was absorbed from the first line.
This is despite the fact that I’m really a terrible reader, and back then I was even worse. I read Oranges at lightning speed, occasionally checking how much reading time I had left till my next class. I was like oiky Mr Toad, speeding through a beautiful forest in an obnoxiously noisy car.
The sections which diverted from the main narrative (including the fairytales and the Book of Deuteronomy) were sadly lost on me, as I was too eager to get back to the main story to appreciate them. Why have we strayed over here, into the woods? I don’t want to hear about Winette Stonejar or knights. Where am I? Take me back to the plot.
Everyone creates their own, private version of the books they read. After I inhaled Oranges, it worked away quietly at the back of my mind, changing my thoughts on structure, autobiography, and what a novel could do.
After reading Woolf, Calvino, Winterson, Joyce, and a handful of other authors, I drew the conclusion that books with a straightforward, linear plot were a bit… inferior. Straightforward plots were just unimaginative. (Winterson calls them “written-down television” – as though television plots are incapable of being smart, imaginative or non-linear.) It was around the time that Twilight was popular, so it felt like the smart thing to criticise linear storytelling. I was the educated rebel finding a source of discontent. Books, I told anyone who’d listen, were about more than story. They were also about language, images, ideas.
At seventeen, I drew the conclusion that straightforward plots were “unimaginative” because I hadn’t yet sat down to write and realised that even writing a straightforward plot is as difficult as fitting an entire watermelon in your mouth.
PG Wodehouse said that he wrote about 400 pages of plot notes for each novel and would generally fall into despair halfway through – and his output mostly consists of relatively slim comic novels. Although Wodehouse used similar plot structures and motifs over and over during his career, each plot taken by itself is meticulously put together and executed. That does require imagination, and it’s a craft which should not be overlooked.
I’m glad I can admit now that I like a story. I like a linear plot. It eases my mind to admit it, somehow. Five years later, it’s the story of Oranges – that central relationship between the mother and daughter, the daughter’s quest for love and freedom – that I remember most vividly. In the interim, my mind has stripped away the abstractions.
And I still adore Oranges, of course. There are many books with non-linear or experimental structure that I like and admire very much. I am learning how to read more deeply, to appreciate text more fully. But story is a large part of my reasoning for selecting new books to read. I like to be emotionally engaged, and to me that isn’t possible without a coherent story, preferably told in a linear way.
That doesn’t mean non-linearity is intrinsically incoherent, of course; sometimes it’s the best way to tell a story. I enjoy writers like Ali Smith, who combines a poetic lyrical intensity and subversion of structure with excellent storytelling. Books like How to Be Both prove it is possible to subvert conventional narrative structure and still tell a great story.
On the other hand, I do not enjoy writers like Winterson taking a prescriptive approach to what I should and shouldn’t enjoy as a reader. There is nothing wrong with linearity in itself: the earliest myths and legends are linear tales, after all. Nor does it make you somehow less smart to enjoy a linear story. Stories aren’t for that. Stories open your mind, forge empathy and take you to new worlds. If you become smarter from reading them that’s a by-product, not the end result.
I began to feel less guilty about all this when I read an article by Matthew Haig, which I referenced here in an earlier post. Haig wrote about how books helped to lift him out of his depression: “words help give us the building blocks to build another mind, very often with a better view. My mess of a mind needed shape, and external narratives I found in… books offered hope and became reasons to stay alive.”
Well, exactly.
The great thing about a story is that if you’re a poor kid reading a book in an inner-city library, you’re catapulted out of your world and into another. Stories move you, and not just emotionally. When your world seems mired and rutted, linear storytelling reminds you that movement and change is possible. You follow the line through the labyrinth, and out the other side.
You get all the joy of following Harry Potter away from Privet Drive to the house on the rock, to Diagon Alley, and to Hogwarts. You leave the Shire with a gaggle of hobbits and follow them all the way to Mordor. You can visit Neverwhere, over and over. I can vividly remember being seven years old, lying on a flowered bedspread in a small bedroom in Southampton, and following Lucy through a wardrobe into an unfamiliar snowy world.
These are not just the pleasures of childhood, either. We are allowed to experience the joy of narrative and story for as long as we live. No intellectual snobbery should crush this private splendour: the reader, the page, the story.

Notes

Essay on postmodernism and storytelling: ‘What’s wrong with heroes? – Some thoughts on superhero narratives’
Read Jeanette Winterson’s thoughts on Oranges are Not The Only Fruit here

After Me Comes The Ableism: how to write really badly about mentally ill women

I had high hopes for Sarah Perry’s After Me Comes The Flood. Unluckily my hopes have been dashed, after finding yet another weird portrayal of a mentally ill woman in its pages. I’ve read a string of books in the past year where the same awful stereotypes crop up. At this stage, let’s just say that if some scientist were to invent a radar for Problematic Portrayals, I’d buy the hell out of it.
After Me Comes The Flood looked promising. It’s the story of a man called John Cole who leaves London one day; his car breaks down, he pulls over near a house in the woods. Unexpectedly, the community of misfits in the house hear John’s name, and greet him as an old friend. The premise had everything I like in stories – liminal space, mistaken identity, a timeless rural setting, mystery.
Turns out (spoilers, here) that the Mysterious Band of Misfits are all ex-residents of a private mental hospital. That I wouldn’t have minded, as a premise, but… Alex and Claire. Oh, Alex and Claire. These two characters made me grit my teeth, sigh, and seriously consider throwing the book across the 171 bus.
Alex and Claire are described in the blurb as “siblings full of child-like wonder and delusion”. That alone should have set alarm bells ringing. These mentally ill, mentally disabled adult characters are romanticised in a positively Victorian way. They are constantly described as, and compared to, innocent infants.
Alex, experiencing psychotic delusions, is made out to be a suffering martyr too good for this world; he was expelled from the mental hospital because he secretly stopped taking his pills, which “muted each of his senses”. He also encouraged other patients to stop, which hurt them. (But really, Medication is Bad for people like Alex, because it Makes You Less Sensitive and Romantic. Do you see?)
Meanwhile, Claire is oddly sexualised and at the same time made out to have the intelligence and mannerisms of a child, despite being an adult woman. Claire’s condition is not stated, but she is heavily coded as mentally ill and autistic. Claire, I will stress, is written in a very sexualised way which emphasises her physical beauty but reminds the reader constantly that she is an innocent, a child. The disturbing implications of this I don’t need to spell out; draw your own conclusions.
This reaches a climax when Claire, late in the book, sneaks into our hero John’s room at night (“he smelt sweet alcohol on her breath… something a child would drink in furtive nips when parents were away”). Claire then attempts to flirt, mimicking her friend Eve “in a parody as unconvincing as a schoolgirl in her mother’s shoes”; finally she takes her dressing-gown off and stands “facing him, naked and afraid”. (“He’d have liked to say ‘What are you doing?’ but knew she wouldn’t have been able to answer”.)
Ick. A painful scene ensues; the upshot is that John, being a Good Guy, doesn’t take advantage of her. Instead, she ends up sleeping in his bed. They curl up together in quite a chummy way, and he tells her the story of Wulf and Eadwacer (a moment which is actually well done; if Sarah Perry wrote a book bringing Anglo-Saxon poetry to life, I’d read it). End of scene.
What, as mentally ill disabled women, can we take from this? That we’re not real adults; that we don’t have a real sexuality, we are merely copying other women’s attempts to flirt; that it is up to men to be kind and not take advantage of our frail child-like selves? Well, that’s my takeaway. How comforting! – to find yet another book in which the sexuality of people like you isn’t real, and their agency is ignored! Hurrah!
A friend read over this piece for me and commented that Claire is implied to be good and pure because she is incapable of real sexuality; she’s ‘parodying’ the techniques of Eve, who John is in love with. (Note the name; he finds Eve tempting, d’you get it?)
So what does that say about women who are sexual? That only ‘normal’ women are sexual, that women’s sexuality is somehow corrupt, that a mentally ill disabled adult is technically an infant? There are so many implications to this scene that it’s hard to cover the dreadfulness of it in a short essay.
The other woman in the book who’s presented as mentally ill – Hester – is a manipulative harridan. She’s self-conscious of her “ugliness” and afraid of getting old. She turns out to have been taking advantage of poor, innocent Alex by encouraging his delusions, because she doesn’t want to be alone. So, there’s that. It doesn’t leave much for a mentally ill, disabled reader who doesn’t really want to read about either of these characters.
It’s not the first time this scenario has cropped up, either. In Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall, which I also disliked, the hero meets a girl in a mental institution who is strikingly similar to Claire:

“She invited me into her room and closed the curtains. I said it would help to draw her in natural light, but then she unbuttoned her blouse and took off her bra and we sat in silence for a while… I drew her half naked in the half-light of her room. And I drew her scars.”

My initial reaction is plain old bafflement; I know many mentally ill and disabled women, and I’ve never heard of anything like this happening. Ever. If straight men think that vulnerable women are likely to strip their clothes off as soon as they’re alone in a room with them, they’re probably flattering themselves. Whatever sexist hell-dimension these two books are set in, it’s not this one.
Mentally ill and disabled women are at a far higher risk of getting raped and sexually assaulted, especially in institutions and by police and other ‘professionals’. Scenarios like this play into society’s sexualisation and infantilisation of mentally ill, disabled women: the idea that we never understand what we’re getting into, that we don’t understand risks or stranger danger. Many of us are well aware of that, thanks.
And those women who, for whatever reason, aren’t aware of risk? Well, of course they don’t deserve to be raped! And nor do they deserve to be portrayed in this horrible, patronising way which objectifies their bodies and simultaneously implies that they are sexless, pure, innocent children in the bodies of adults. This is what it looks like when ableism and misogyny converge.
Returning to the real world, almost all the mentally ill, disabled women of my acquaintance have stories about ableist ignorance, medical neglect, and abusive relationships. I also know a developmentally disabled woman who is highly vulnerable, and her carers have had to fight hard to make sure she is safeguarded. These women’s trauma and the danger they face is absolutely valid and real, and it’s really quite insulting to romanticise it like this.
Stories are not reality, no, much of literature is escapist in some way. But literature doesn’t exist in an apolitical vacuum; you can’t handwave this portrayal away by saying it’s all a dream. People’s hatred of mentally ill, disabled women is not a dream.
What we’re really looking at is a male fantasy (which is even worse when you remember it’s a female author perpetuating it in After Me Comes the Flood). The fantasy goes like this: a beautiful, vulnerable woman throws herself at you and strips naked. But you’re a good guy, so you understand that she doesn’t know what she’s doing. You don’t take advantage of her; you sit with her and try to Ease Her Pain.
This is queasy-making for so many reasons; it’s not realistic, it’s not fair, it’s creepy, it filters women’s pain through the male gaze. It ignores the sexuality and agency of the woman; the scene becomes about the heroic man’s feelings. It’s also insulting to mentally ill, disabled women who’ve been targeted precisely because of their vulnerable body and mental state.
I really don’t understand what Sarah Perry was trying to do in that scene. Perhaps she was trying to establish (again) that Claire is Innocent and Pure, despite trying to mimic sexuality like a Big Bad Real Woman; or that John is a Good Man for taking care of her. I don’t know, and honestly I don’t really want to know. What I do know is that I keep coming across these awful portrayals of disabled women, and I want it to stop. We deserve so much more than this apolitical, insular, ignorant rubbish.

Piles of paper and island mentality: an austerity story

I finished my final university exams last week, which gives me time to write this blog again. I also started a new course of medication recently, and wanted to share a story about it.
I went to the doctor’s, the day after the election. That day as I walked through Brockley I had the distinct, uncomfortable sense of being on an island.
Physically, of course, I’m always on an island. And in the UK, the siege-like island mentality is pervasive. But the gap between rich and poor people, middle-class and working class, and the other prejudices at work in our society – well, it’s impossible to ignore that gap any more. It’s hard to imagine a developed country where rich and poor are more isolated from each other.
My flatmate and I stayed up all night on May 7th, watching as the Tories swept the board and the map of England gradually turned blue.
I saw Birmingham, where I grew up: a small oasis of scarlet in the midst of a solid expanse of blue. I remembered the chasm between the area where I grew up, with its run-down terraces and ’60s tower blocks, and the smug mansions in the suburbs.
Then there was London, my beloved adopted city, showing up as a small splash of red (‘communist island’ I heard it called) in the middle of the solidly Tory Home Counties.
To me it had been solidly proved that nobody – in the surrounding counties of either of my cities – particularly cared about the suicides of people who had been told they were fit to work or had their benefits cut, the rapidly growing number of food banks, the rent crisis, the closed-down libraries, the overloaded health services – or, indeed, any of the problems affecting people who live in poor areas and don’t have much money.
We are in a social crisis, which the Tory government has fuelled and encouraged. But it seems plenty of people are doing well enough to afford not to notice.
How much can you shrink the island mentality?
You can keep shrinking it, down and down, till it’s just you in your living room.
Earlier that day I’d written “Once upon a time there was a smug couple, spiteful and narrow-minded, envious of their neighbours and afraid of the outside world, and their house was an island; they were isolated by their fear of the world and their greed.
I left the doctor’s with a small story, one that could be added to the great web of austerity stories people have been sharing.
So: this time I get a kind sensible female doctor.
She says I seem to be coping well; well, you learn how to cope with chronic lifelong anxiety, somehow. Medicine helps, and so do books. Then I explain that I’ve had a problem with the referral.
I say, “I’ve been trying to push the referral through all year. I have phoned the IAPT service and emailed them -” and also asked the doctor about it repeatedly; his response was to ask me to phone the IAPT service myself. I’d phoned them again, several times, and got no response. The doctor looks concerned and says she will ring them. “They’re very disorganised, I’m afraid. They need a lot of nudging.”
Because she is not in a hurry, I press her on this point. It turns out exactly as I suspected.
She says, “Unfortunately most of our referrals don’t go through.” Oh, why not? “Well, they’re very short of time and they have long waiting lists. Almost all the referrals have to go to people who are severely psychotic or suicidal.” Otherwise, the referral goes on a pile of pieces of paper in an office already avalanched with dead trees.
And what of all those people? People who are struggling, but not struggling enough. People who are suicidal, but not suicidal enough. People who are ill, but not ill enough. Medical abuse of extremely sick people is an awful thing, and so is systematic neglect.
It’s not enough.
Yes, it varies by area – some services have more funding than others. Nor should it be blamed on staff, who don’t control the system they work in. But NHS mental health services have been cumulatively overstretched for years, and the system is formulated so that mental health is shuffled down on the list of priorities. It has to be that way, said someone I brought it up with; if you come into A&E with a bleeding hand they’ll put you in front of someone with no injuries. But at least in A&E, everyone gets treated in the end.
Austerity is destructive. It was designed by politicians with no compassion for the mentally ill or disabled. (The story is still fresh in my mind of the disabled ex-soldier who was found dead in his flat, near a pile of CVs.) 1 in 3 people in Britain will suffer from a mental illness at some point, so why should help be so limited?
The doctor writes a prescription. We talk about possible solutions. She says if I have the means I should look for solutions outside the NHS. I say, “It’s not looking good at the moment, is it?”
No, she says gravely, it’s not looking good at all.