Somewhere in my mid-teens, something went wrong. Ironically, the forces promoting my ever-increasing literacy rendered me unable to read. That sounds quite dramatic, so let me explain what I mean. As a result of my education I became better able to understand and appreciate literature, but stopped reading for pleasure. By the time I started studying for my GCSEs, I found the host of subjects clamorously vying for my attention to be quite a challenge. There was always something that needed doing, and I was either too slow, conscientious or pedantic a worker (you decide) to take time out to enjoy a good novel. I was fortunate to study English Literature at A-Level, and so was able to improve my understanding whilst drinking up the works of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Fitzgerald and others.
But whilst my memories of studying these works are particularly fond, the forces behind my engagement with literature were those of compulsion rather than those of free exploration. This compulsive calculus didn’t really improve with university, and studying history meant that I didn’t come across much literature in the course of my studies. Now that I’ve graduated, however, I’ve had the chance to turn this situation around and to triumphantly return to reading for pleasure. The works I’m reading are benefiting greatly from my enhanced understanding, and the comparative drought of the past few years makes them all the more invigorating and exciting.
For the last few months I’ve been commuting into London, and this presents me with a fantastic opportunity. About forty minutes of each journey is spent on the underground, meaning that each day contains at least an hour and twenty minutes of reading time. Given that I can’t work on the train, any compulsive calculus has to relax. Even a mind as restless and puritanical as mine concedes that I might as well do something fun. And a good book really is just the ticket for a train journey into work in the morning.
I love music, but it’s not nearly as powerful a tool for the commuter’s survival kit as a good book. Music is all too easily destroyed by the environment – the jarring noises, the various faintly disturbing sights of the commute demanding attention . A good book, on the other hand, lets your imagination whisk you away from the tube carriage. An engaging narrative gives a real sense of cohesion – and anticipation – to travelling time, making this reading time something I eagerly look forward to. The imagination and suspense of good literature is something that I don’t get so consistently with music (as my consumption is mostly repeat listening). Similarly, I haven’t found non-fiction or poetry to be as ‘useful’ as literature on my commute. Non-fiction is too couched in qualifications and complexity, and probably feels a little too functional and mundanely useful – hardly the escape I’m seeking. And poetry does not have such a clear and persistent narrative thread. Beautifully-written novels, with chapters that can be tackled in half-hour sessions, seem the way forward for a commuter such as myself.
Suddenly my journeys to and from work aren’t something to be endured as a means to a necessary end, but have become (almost perversely) something to look forward to in themselves. Work is an excuse to read another few chapters of the latest novel. Writing this article on a Sunday evening, I look forward to tomorrow, knowing that my working day will be framed by something enjoyable and unexpected. That is a great comfort as the clock approaches ten o’clock and the final hours melt away.
A book is a great defence against some pretty uncomfortable commutes – I wasn’t being entirely flippant when I described it as a survival tool. Last week I found myself in an outrageously packed Met. line train heading west in rush hour, feeling pretty light-headed and fatigued. Ordinarily, getting home would have been a matter of endurance and discomfort, but my book transformed it into a genuine pleasure. Within a few seconds of my eyes beginning to trace the pattern of ink on the pages, these concerns were put aside and my attention fixed on the far more exciting and important adventure at hand. I was gripped by the conclusion of Ian M. Banks‘ brilliant ‘The Player of Games’ (science fiction with insights on sexuality, gender, capitalism, socialism and conflict, amongst others).
The spark’s spread beyond my commute. I’m starting to make other times to read – on Thursday and Friday lunchtimes in a café; snatches of reading during my days off, and longer stretches before I give in to sleep. Commuting transformed my engagement with the novel, and in return the novel transformed my engagement with commuting, and a lot more besides.