Joe Hedinger is a bookseller for The Book Hive and co-founder of the not-for-profit literature magazine, Dog-Ear. Here, he ruminates on the way that books have followed him throughout his life – and how this haunting has increased during the lockdown period.
In 1994, Sven Birkerts published an extraordinary little book of essays all about reading, called The Gutenberg Elegies. My battered pocket paperback edition is a treasure-trove of ruminations on the written word and our consumption of it – but one particular gem of an article, called ’The Shadow Life of Reading’, stands out.
In it, Birkerts argues that our relationship with the verb ‘to read’ is a lot more complicated than it first appears – and that actually, we use the term relatively ‘freely’ to ‘denote diverse and nonspecific involvement with texts.’ Sounds complicated, but he mercifully explains this idea with a simple (and in my humble opinion, rather mind-blowing) example:
“What are you reading now?” does not usually mean, “What book are you staring at as I address you?” More often it means, “Are you reading your way through any particular book these days?” […] Most serious reading is an exertion that is interrupted and resumed […] in many vital ways it is carried on – continued – when the reader is away from the page. (Emphasis my own).
I find this idea instinctively, spectacularly true. When I am immersed in the process of reading a book, the characters, or the idea of the characters, seem to follow me about throughout the day – continuing their conversations as I boil my egg for breakfast, or performing some imagined adventure just off to the side of my vision as I lock up the shop at the end of the day. Birkerts goes on to describe this ‘shadow’ aspect of reading as a kind of ‘haunt from a distance’.
And this is the kind of reading I find myself doing more of during lockdown – the reading that takes place away from books. My physical reading habits – including how I choose my books, or how much time I spend with my nose between pages – have hardly altered; if at all. But in the same way that the current lack of car and air travel has reduced sound pollution and allowed birdsong to come to the fore of my attention, I find that the necessarily slower pace of my days in isolation has hushed the usual rush and buzz of thoughts, making more space for a book’s ‘haunt from a distance’. Put simply: during lockdown, I am thinking more about the books I am reading when I am not reading them. I am talking about them more than usual, too. Even
dreaming about them more.
This is the kind of reading I find myself doing more of during lockdown – the reading that takes place away from books
Why is this important? Because I am not simply ‘haunted from a distance’ by the characters and plot of a novel – but also by the general feel of the novel’s universe: its ideas, philosophies, and perspectives (Birkerts likens this to the reader, while away from the page, carrying the whole ‘life of the book’ within them).
An example: I am currently reading Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession. Warm, wise, unhurried, it is about two quiet friends navigating the modern world with board games, humour, and kindness. At the heart of the book, so far, seems to be the appreciation of the small things, the things often overlooked. Leonard’s mother teaches him to ‘look at life as a daisy chain of small events, each of which could be made manageable in its own way’. And now, when away from the book, I find myself subconsciously noticing, appreciating, and in turn elevating the humdrum details of my lockdown existence.
Another: when embarking on the task of writing this article, I was, inevitably, visited by all the usual demons – imposter’s syndrome, writer’s block, and their merry, meddlesome entourage. But then I was visited by the spirit of one of my favourite books, The Ballad of Syd and Morgan by Haydn Middleton. I was not ‘haunted’ by the characters, exactly, or any definite line of dialogue (the novel is an imagined conversation between a young Syd Barrett – of early Pink Floyd – and an elderly E M Forster). Instead, I found myself ‘haunted’ by the small book’s patient and encouraging philosophy, by the characters’ acceptance of their struggle with creativity – and, ultimately, their belief that not much else matters. Comforted, I remembered to pause – I recalled the importance of ‘lowering the bucket’, as Forster would say, into the subconscious. A couple of days later, the first inkling to talk about Birkerts’ essay came tentatively into my mind.
I have found that this ‘haunting’ of books can actually shape whole periods of my life, faintly influencing my relationships with other people and the world around me. During my late teens and early twenties, my attitude towards that elusive concept ‘love’ – and all its mysterious counterparts – was particularly guided by a potent mix of Virginia Woolf’s contemplative critique and the poet John Donne’s passionate, often bawdy conceits (on reflection, both a healthy and hazardous cocktail that probably served me as good as any). Nowadays, on a different vein, I am frequently ‘haunted’ by Jim Dodge’s road-trip novels (Not Fade Away, Stone Junction) – not by the vivid, varied characters themselves (hitch-hiking, and its tendency to deliver random interactions, form a big part of Dodge’s prose), but by the books’ delight in difference, diversity, eccentricity and magical-thinking – what another, less delightful attitude would derogatively deem ‘otherness’.
I have found that this ‘haunting’ of books can actually shape whole periods of my life, faintly influencing my relationships with other people and the world around me.
The point is that the ‘haunt from a distance’ phenomenon can, in fact, act a bit like a mind-altering substance – changing or shifting ‘my moods, my perceptions, and ultimately my interactions with others’ as Birkerts puts it. He himself felt, after reading Walker Percy (a famously philosophical writer), that everything happening to him was ‘a possible clue in some encompassing existential mystery’.
The ability of a good book to subtly ‘tint’ our reality when we’re away from its pages – even, perhaps, to ‘possess us so thoroughly that for a time we see everything as if through a special lens’ – seems, to me at least, to be particularly important in a time of lockdown. The way the ‘haunting from a distance’ meshes our real-world experiences and memories with the events
and ideas of fictional lives provides vital forms of connection.
The most obvious, perhaps, is a connection to the perceptions of others (human or otherwise) – something that, arguably, we need to seek out and protect more than ever when we are locked away from those serendipitous interactions that come from being out and about in the world, those interactions that positively challenge, and enrich, our narrow view of life.
But the phenomenon can offer another, subtler form of connection, equally important at this time of crisis: a connection to our sense of our own developing self. The ‘haunting’, the meshing, gently encourages a natural, largely unconscious process of internal dialogue; of learning, growing, ‘self-making’. I would argue that this is a far healthier approach to books during a period of isolation than falling prey to social-media-fuelled pressures to see reading as a chance for feverish lockdown ‘self-improvement’.
So here is my advice on reading during lockdown: ignore anyone telling you what you should read, how you should read, where you should read, or when you should read. Instead, just read as you normally would, but take advantage of the general slowing down to simply notice and take pleasure in that other kind of reading – the one we do away from books.
Joe Hedinger is a bookseller, creative consultant and co-founder of the not-for-profit bookmark-magazine, Dog-Ear. He was nominated for Individual Bookseller of the Year at the British Book Awards 2019 for his work at The Book Hive. The unique, indie bookshop is a cultural hot spot for Norwich readers and thinkers of all ages and has been nominated for Independent Bookshop of the Year at the British Book Awards 2020. Joe has also worked creatively with the National Centre for Writing on the development of the Desmond Elliott Prize for debut authors – the flagship in a series of awards aimed at supporting early-career writers.
This article was commissioned as part of City of Literature 2020 – a series of conversations, reflections and connections across one week in May. Presented by the National Centre for Writing and Norfolk & Norwich Festival.