How I read

I’m working on a new book, and one of the great pleasures of this is that it means lots of reading: the active reading of texts that get my mental juices going. There are endless articles out explaining “how I write”, but not so many on the equally vital act of reading. Here, then, are a few thoughts on the reading that goes into my writing, more-or-less as originally scrawled into my “current book” notepad during the course of a long train journey.

Wishing to dive off sideways into technology is an itchy feeling that can escalate into anxiety. Unlike writing on paper or reading non-interactive text, most onscreen reading does not calm me by slowing and drawing in my focus. It scratches the itch rather than soothes it. Its pace is not my own, which is strange, as I alone remain in control. Don’t I?

I wonder. To what degree do I own all my reading and writing choices onscreen? When writing steadily onto paper with a pen, as I was when I originally wrote this, the words flow with the stately sense that they begin to exist just half a sentence ahead of the nib. They sound out in my head as they arrive, these words, and there is something synaesthetic and sensuous about the pleasure I take in them.

My onscreen writing seems to be much more about re-reading, and the architecture of paragraphs and arguments, rather than the moment-by-moment creation of sentences. I have to try very hard to fill the pauses between ideas with further thinking rather than digital fiddling in other windows.

Perhaps this is why I still enjoy sketching first drafts on physical notepads, or in the margins of books – physical books – that excite me into disfiguring them with pen strokes and marginalia. Flicking back through these books, the moments at which my ideas snapped into focus and began to multiply are marked by strings of bad handwriting diving across page turns, filling up white space and battling the main text itself for attention.

Will I always work like this? I have come to think of it as a luxurious yet necessary process for turning my response to a topic into something that has proper rigour. Once I’ve finished reading one of those special books that set my pen racing in the margins, I type up these notes, together with the choicest quotes I underlined. I expand freely in type on any thoughts I am driven to take further. Then I print the whole lot out, file it, and re-read it with my pen in my hand, annotating further as inspired.

It’s a way of taking ownership of the ideas that I sense may be important to me, or worth interrogating. I’m shocked, often, at what I’m left with: where the pen and the sentences have brought me, and how crude or obvious or long ago the beginnings of my ideas now seem.

Sometimes, at the end of it all, there are only one or two important sentences left from my reading of a book and from my re-reading of my own responses to it. Here, for example, are a couple of lines from Jaron Lanier’s wonderful You Are Not a Gadget which, in my typed folder of notes, have four vertical lines scrawled emphatically next to them:

If you want to know what’s really going on in a society or ideology, follow the money. If money is flowing to advertising instead of musicians, journalists, and artists, then a society is more concerned with manipulation than truth or beauty.

Somehow, the meaning to me of almost the whole book is now triggered by reading just these few dozen words.