Throughout my adult life I have rarely read books – fiction or non-fiction – and since reading is standard fare amongst my friends, I have been very much an outsider. Then, suddenly last week, I found myself reading a book that I couldn’t put down. There were times when I continued reading for hours. Two hundred and sixty small-print pages read in just a few days, a rate never before even approached. So following years of resistance, the once recalcitrant, book-reading centre in my cortex yielded and liked what it found. A journey had begun.
In truth I have had a lifelong aversion to novels and there was a logical explanation – at least one that worked for me. In my many years as a medical teacher and researcher I had no time to read anything apart from medical literature; keeping up-to-date with medical advances had to be my priority. This need was pervasive, so at home or on holiday my reading continued to relate almost entirely to matters medical. All this was compounded by being the editor of a medical journal, a job that demanded that I spend time reading, writing and editing a myriad of medical articles. Novels were simply squeezed out.
And there was another aspect of my working life that reinforced my resistance to reading. As a doctor I was forever listening to patients and to their real-life experiences. Accordingly, over the years I was presented with diverse human stories that were as moving and as compelling as any novel – and all were for real. For those who argued that reading widens insights into the human condition, how could a novel offer more than my experience with patients?
Then retirement came and the world order changed. What luck. Apart from all the general pleasures of my new-found liberty, within days I had transferred my passion for medicine to a passion for French. And it was here that the seeds for my reading were sown.
I was determined to be fluent in French, and on retirement my standard was a very rusty O-level (1958). Those early days were humbling – while in England I would be able speak in my mother tongue with all the fluency and understanding that befits a sexuagenarian, in France I was limited to faltering French with the vocabulary and understanding of a three-year old. But gradually my linguistic age advanced; I particularly remember the pleasure I felt when, after about five years of re-learning, I re-reached sixteen. How did I know? That day I coped successfully with the Brevet, the exam French students take before moving on to their equivalent of our A-levels.
Reading has been an integral part of my French apprenticeship and by last year I was into books. While in the last twelve months I have read no books in English – fiction or non-fiction – in French I read novels and plays by Voltaire, Camus, Maupassant and others. All were fascinating, but at the same time it was hard work and in truth all I would do each week was to struggle to get to the page marker indicating the target for my next lesson. Reading was definitely hard work rather than a pleasure.
Then came Elle s’appelait Sarah by Tatiana de Rosnay [made into a notable film, starring Kristin Scott Thomas, English title: “Sarah’s Key” – Ed]. It was a slow start but then a drive to read, and read more, took off. Whatever else I might have been doing, I instead buried myself in the story, and the feeling was extraordinary. I was escaping into another world.
After years of moaning about novels and their readers, in a week or so I had joined their ranks. Suddenly I could see the pleasure to be gained from the words, from the genius of the author as he or she led one through their story, transported one to imaginary worlds. And unlike in the real world, ultimately fiction is only a story which makes the depictions that much easier to bear. And, of course, one can always put the book down.
But while this revelation gives me immense pleasure, it is also tinged with some anxiety. If I become an avid reader, might the practice throw my behaviour in some way? Could reading fiction hook me in the same way that video games hook some children? Might it affect my judgment? Would having images and illusions presented to me, pre-digested on the page make me lose my own capacity for imagination and empathy?
Time will tell, but now it is time to make a public apology to my beleaguered but tolerant book-reading wife, and to those novel-loving friends, particularly Neil, Peter and Al, all of whom I have taken to task. They were right, reading books is a pleasure. Now I am looking forward to reading my next novel – in French, of course!
[And any suggestions for Joe’s introduction to the great canon of English Literature would be welcome. Ed]