Try and Read This
Photograph by Olga
Arriving in the small village of Quinzano, just outside Verona, Italy, thirty-three years ago, aged twenty-six, leaving friends and family behind in the UK, unpublished and unemployed, always anxious to know how the next London publisher would respond to the work I was writing, I was constantly eager for news of one kind or another. International phone-calls were prohibitively expensive. There was no fax, only snail mail, as we called it then. Each morning the postino would, or might, drop something into the mailbox at the end of the garden. I listened for the sound of his scooter coming up the hairpins from the village. Sometimes when the box was empty I would hope I’d heard wrong, and that it hadn’t been the postino’s scooter, and go out and check again an hour later, just in case. And then again. For an hour or so I would find it hard to concentrate or work well. You are obsessed, I would tell myself, heading off to check the empty mailbox for a fourth time.
Imagine a mind like this exposed to the seductions of email and messaging and Skype and news websites constantly updating on the very instrument you use for work. In the past, having satisfied myself that the postman really had come and gone, the day then presented itself as an undisturbed ocean of potential—for writing (by hand), reading (on paper), and, to pay the bills, translating (on a manual typewriter). It was even possible in those days to see reading as a resource to fill time that hung heavy when rain or asphyxiating heat forced one to stay indoors.
Now, on the contrary, every moment of serious reading has to be fought for, planned for. Already by the late 1990s, translating on computer with frequent connections (back then through a dial-up modem) to check email, I realized that I was doing most of my reading on my two or three weekly train commutes to Milan, two hours there, two hours back. Later, with better laptop batteries and the advent of mobile Internet connections, that space too was threatened. The mind, or at least my mind, is overwhelmingly inclined toward communication or, if that is too grand a word, to the back and forth of contact with others.
We all know this. Some have greater resistance, some less. Only yesterday a smart young Ph.D. student told me his supreme goal was to keep himself from checking his email more than once an hour, though he doubted he would achieve such iron discipline in the near future. At present it was more like every five to ten minutes. So when we read there are more breaks, ever more frequent stops and restarts, more input from elsewhere, fewer refuges where the mind can settle. It is not simply that one is interrupted; it is that one is actually inclined to interruption. Hence more and more energy is required to stay in contact with a book, particularly something long and complex.
Of course long books are still being written. No end of them. We have Knausgaard after all.