R is for reading

Professor John Mullan reflects on life lived through and in books.

Magazine: Portico Issue 1 2014/2015; Client: UCL

Despite the occasional complaints of my family, I don’t get rid of books that I have read. They are my potted life history. My shelves are a record of where I have been. I have two such records. There is the one in my UCL office, where the books are all pretty much respectable and are divided up into subjects (Literature, History, Philosophy) and organised by period. Then there is the record at home, which includes all the PD James and Ruth Rendell whodunnits that I will never read again, but cannot consign to the Oxfam shop.

I well remember learning to read. I started primary school at five, entirely illiterate. After a term spent getting measles, German measles and chicken pox, I became anxious that I was falling behind and made my mother borrow Janet and John books from the local library. I can see the purplish red of the library cover and hear myself reading “Spot can jump. See Spot jump”. I remember noticing (the sign of a budding pedant) how fastidious the text was in its use of commas: “Look, John, look.” Maybe in the later volumes there were even semi-colons.

No skipping, no evasion of weariness

My mother wanted me to learn as quickly as possible so that I could be left to my own literary devices while she got on with more important tasks. A few decades later, parents have learned to think differently: we have a duty not only to get our children to read, but to read to them. So reading aloud, which before the 20th century used to be as natural as reading silently to yourself, has made a comeback. George Henry Lewes, George Eliot’s partner, described how he and Eliot were rereading Jane Austen aloud to each other, and thus finding out how brilliant it really was. Reading aloud, he said, meant “no skipping, no evasion of weariness” and was the ultimate test of a novel.

I remember when my wife and I (pre-children) read aloud to each other. It feels almost twee to admit it. But what we read in this way is fixed in the memory; Lewes had a point. There were the inordinately long, apparently wandering but in fact carefully constructed, sentences of Scott Moncrieff’s translation of Proust (in the course of a year, we got about a fifth of the way through). There were the jaunty ottava rima stanzas of Byron’s Don Juan one winter when each of us in turn was ill in bed. (It reminded me of how, in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, the self-serious Captain Benwick reads poetry to Louisa Musgrove while she lies recuperating from a head injury – and they end up married, of course.)

When you look at your bookshelf you sometimes get a snatch of your past as well as a memory of what is inside the covers. I can see the volumes of Iris Murdoch that characterised my late teens, when I thought novels should have big themes and big ideas. (I read The Sea, the Sea again a couple of years ago and could hardly take it seriously.) Or, from a little earlier in my teens, there are those Edna O’Brien and Margaret Drabble novels that I read because I thought they would tell me what girls were like. The former, in their Penguin paperback editions, were amongst those books that I bought because of their cover illustrations, artfully shadowed photographs of curves of womanly flesh.

Clever plots and derring-do

Reading was often more intense than living. It seems to me now that reading fiction was something I felt compelled to do because, from the age of 10, I lived in the Wiltshire countryside. There was simply nothing else to do. Lord of the Rings had evidently been invented for boys who lived an utterly uneventful existence. Even when I graduated to less obviously escapist reading, it seemed to me that many of the novels I read were far more colourful, far more real, than life. I also thought they were the way I would get from childhood to adulthood.

Nowadays there is a large and highly profitable section of “teen fiction” (occasionally more misleadingly labelled “young adult”) in most bookshops. In the 1970s you went straight from Narnia to grown-up stuff. For me, aged 12 or 13, there was an introductory phase of thrillers: my favourite was Alistair MacLean, whose work I devoured, for his clever plots as much as the derring-do. Recently I re-read Bear Island (after growing up in the Highlands, then serving on Arctic convoys, MacLean was good on cold places). It was, in its way, rather good.

But being really grown up began with Jean-Paul Sartre. Pretentiously enough, his trilogy of novels, The Roads to Freedom, was my first venture into proper adult fiction. Thrillingly, my copy of the first volume, The Age of Reason, was confiscated by my housemaster at my Benedictine monastery school. He had not read it, of course, but was alarmed by the mere blurb on the cover: “Paris in 1939: a society of pimps, prostitutes and artists. Mathieu’s mistress tells him that she is pregnant...”, that sort of thing. To my surprise, my mother, when informed, told Father Dennis to return the book to me. The author had won the Nobel Prize, after all. Clearly, reading was the thing.

Jonathan Swift said, “When I am reading a book, whether wise or silly, it is as if it were talking to me.” It is like that for me too: every book has its voice, even if the voice is monotonous or flat, even if (this is the most common) it echoes the worn phrasing of something I have read too often before. So when I relish a book it is more because of its voice – its style, its sentences – than because of its content. And for this reason I have always had a shameful resistance to works that have to be read in translation, despite the blessed influence of that Jean-Paul Sartre trilogy. I love Anna Karenina, but feel that I am reading it through some obscuring medium, hearing the translator doing his or her best, rather than hearing Tolstoy or his characters.

Because different writers sound different in my head, there is always a kind of thrill in starting a book, sampling its style. I find this despite the fact that reading is my job rather then my pastime. For even though I find reading intensely and reliably pleasurable, I hardly ever read for pleasure. My reading time is precious because it is how I make a living. So I am always, in a way, reading for pay: I am reading something I will teach, or write about, or review, or give a talk about. Almost never do I read idly or on a whim. If there is a new book I want to read I try to persuade someone to let me write an article about it. And if there is a classic I want to read I make it a set text on a course that I am about to teach: there, I’ve confessed it.