Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Back to basics

“What a vast fertility of pleasure books hold for me! I went in and found the table laden with books. I looked in and sniffed them all. I could not resist carrying this one off and broaching it. I think I could happily live here and read forever.” Virginia Woolf, August 24th, 1933

There have been times in my life when I couldn’t read. I’m in one now. Too much anxiety and work and required reading and not enough time or concentration. It’s not a good feeling. It’s like I imagine it would be to have to navigate the world with only one eye or ear – making everything seem slightly off-kilter. It saps my energy just as the lack of sleep or losing my appetite would do. My soul cannot consume what it needs to survive. 
When I say I can’t read, it doesn’t mean I don’t try. I pick up books and start reading a chapter only to find my mind slipping off the page. I start fretting about what work I need to get done tomorrow or what medicine to give my sick cat. My imagination refuses to latch onto the story and let itself be pulled under. 
The last time I went through a patch like this, my friend Page, who is at least as voracious a reader as I am, gave me some good advice. She said, “Go back to basics, to most comforting books you know.” For her, that is anything by Dickens or Jane Austen. It seemed like good advice, but I wasn’t sure what my equivalent would be, a book worn smooth with familiarity like a childhood teddy bear or blankey. And then I remembered how in my early 20s I had devoured the Diaries of Virginia Woolf as I crossed London every morning on the top deck of the No. 6 bus. Mired in the problems inherent in my first grown-up job, I was encouraged by the struggles that the great novelist herself had gone through – with depression and lack of confidence – even as she devoted herself to the steady, disciplined writing of her ground-breaking novels.  
So I plunged back into the diaries and found myself similarly inspired and soothed 30 years after I first read them. Problem solved. As Page had predicted, my reading drought was over and I went back to consuming books of all kinds at my usual breakneck pace. Not one to mess with success, this time around I’m thinking of turning to Woolf’s Collected Letters, which sit in a neat row of pastel spines on my shelf waiting for my middle-aged self to take them down again. What books would you turn to in a drought?


  1. I wonder how many of us would view Virginia Woolf's diaries as a comfort blanket? I have never been so stressed I can't read but comfort blankety books would be childhood ones - Little Women rather than Noddy. A good complex detective novel is good for winding down.

  2. Ooh, Little Women - good pick, Jane. Or The Secret Garden maybe. I still cry at the ending of both of those - and of The Railway Children of course!

  3. A Wrinkle in Time! Loved that book.