A strange occurrence from a fortnight ago. I finished reading Denise Mina’s Gods and Beasts early Saturday evening, then fired up the laptop and started throwing words at the screen (which eventually became the review you can find here). At about 11, Mrs WAYRF and I went to bed; on the way up, I grabbed Stav Sherez’s Eleven Days from a pile on top of the landing bookcase. I have a second pile of books by the bed, but that’s another story.
Anyway, I took Eleven Days to bed with me. I looked at the cover, read the blurb on the back, the author biography, the reviews, the dedication – all of the things I usually skip and come back to later. When I did finally turn to page 1 proper, I had an uneasy feeling; this was confirmed when I skimmed the first half-dozen lines, but without any commitment. Despite previously looking forward to it, my brain was clearly trying to avoid starting the book. It felt wrong. It felt too soon.
As it turned out, I didn’t start Eleven Days until the following Friday, almost a week after I finished Gods and Beasts – partly because of the nightmare that is my day-job, the kids waking us at 2am to vomit all over the floor, and a dozen other reasons. Normally, all things being equal, I’m rarely between books for that long. If I’m not plunging into something new within a few days, I get twitchy. I feel like I did when I stopped smoking several years ago – fidgety, and at a loss for what to do with my hands.
This means that I almost never go anywhere without a book (which is so much easier in the age of the e-reader – I now have a whole library of several hundred books at my disposal, which if not quite Cloud Nine is firmly located on Clouds Seven and/or Eight). But – and this is an important distinction – that is not to say I am always reading. In this age of infinite choice, and instantaneous digital delivery, there are also occasions when jumping quickly from one book into the next feel a bit – relentless. I’m as committed a reader as you’ll find, and yet even I sometimes need a break from it. I read for pleasure, not to tick books off some imaginary scorecard. The only thing worse than being told what to read would be when to read it – then it really would feel like work.
Immersing yourself in the world that an author conjures up is one of reading’s great joys and, if they’re doing it right, you want to stay in the world they create. When you finish a book, moving too quickly onto a new one can feel somewhat uncomfortable, perhaps even a little disrespectful. This is exactly what happened when I picked up Eleven Days – I had unfinished business with Gods and Beasts, which only really started to dissipate after I finished writing my review the following evening.
Having that gap between books is a vital opportunity to reflect upon them. Some of my most interesting reads are those where I’m not immediately sure what I thought about them. You engage with them, and feel them viscerally, but you’re not sure why. In those cases, as with bread dough, you need to leave a book alone for a while to see if it rises. For me, the length of the gap after finishing a book (and before beginning a new one) is often a good guide to how much I enjoyed it – or, perhaps more accurately, how much it affected me. If I’m still thinking about it a week later, even when I’m in the middle of something else, chances are I’ll still remember it a year, maybe 10 years, afterwards.
But sometimes the yeast is already dead, or the water’s not warm enough, and you just have to accept that nothing’s happening. Where it’s a book I’ve not finished, or which I’ve struggled my way through, moving quickly onto something new can be a positive relief. If that is the case, chances are I’ve been lining something else up for a while, and I can’t open the covers fast enough. Mentally I’ve already started on the next book, so that the gap between them is pretty much non-existent.
All of which shows just how contradictory I can be. For whilst in many cases I’m as unswerving and loyal as a rock, there are others where I can be as ruthless and as cold-blooded as they come. As far as my reading is concerned, at any rate.