Extracting the most

Recently I acquired a lengthy book, over 1,000 pages. As I surveyed this chunky tome, which I have every intention of reading from cover to cover, realised it was a considerable time since I had embarked on a good long read. It will probably take all winter and well into the spring, for I don't read in the way I used to. Nowadays I tend to nibble and can be satisfied after a few pages instead of tearing off great hunks by the hour.

Reading habits start young and mine have taken years to change to this more temperate approach.As a child I read rapaciously: anything and everything I could find. My parents were concerned I read too much. When I started a book I felt compelled to finish it as soon as possible, went about in a daze, living in a divided world where fiction and the everyday strode side by side. Other readers will know the feelings of desolation and deprivation when the book is finished -- as if part of one's life has been lost. Yet while reading the book one forges towards the end at every available moment and often at moments which should not be available. This kind of greedy reading continued. After I married I well remember taking myself into the spare bedroom so I could read late into the night without disturbing my husband, then groping my way to work next morning.

A few years ago, feeling rather overwhelmed by the position I had got myself into -- for once a book is started I feel obligated to complete it -- I complained to an older friend about the pile of half-read books. She assured me the habit wouldn't last. It has. There always seem to be at least two books around and on the rare occasions it is reduced to one I feel deprived of a kind of companionship. I think it's the variety I enjoy. When part of an evening is set aside for reading I prefer now to take a chapter of one book and then a chapter of another, and that is usually sufficient. Maybe I will sample a morsel of poetry to round off the evening. It might sound impossibly organised and restrictive, but there's a great deal to be said for being in control, even of one's reading habits.

What I have been describing is undoubtedly a hefty about of escapism bordering on addiction. I'm glad to be in control of it, but somewhat amazed at the influence of the printed word. How did the release come? Gradually I think , when discernment aided by awareness and a more committed life forced closer attention to what I was reading. Discernment becomes a torch to the needy reader. I'm sure once the reader in one has appeared it can't be smothered but it can be disciplined, and this is where the torch is invaluable.

That discriminating light shining on the dark vastness of unread literature can be nurtured and honed to a sharp tool, unique to the individual, ready to suit a particular need. The emphasis is placed emphatically on quality and sincerity. When these are sought for and found they are so pleasing that the book needs to be taken slowly, enjoyed, re-read and thought about. There have to be pauses, and so the rapid indiscriminate reader becomes slower and inevitably more selective. Themes and connections are noted as the art of reading is practised. How satisfying to realise one no longer relies entirely on the erudite book reviewer or weighty reference book to find the deeper significance of a particular work: a certain amount of leisurely reflection brings its own illumination.

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