A few weeks ago my eldest child returned home from school rather indignant. After throwing down their backpack with a loud sigh they recounted that, in their form-room that day, they had been asked to spend 20 minutes doing something mindful.
They’d immediately lit up, reaching inside their bag for the novel they were enveloped within the magic of. The teacher had not taken kindly to this and told them that to read was not to be mindful, and that they should do some colouring-in instead. I laughed as they told me how this had led to the entirely un-mindful, aggressive, colouring-in of a photocopied rose, all the time thinking about little more than how cross they were.
Escapism or Embodiment?
I mention this as it was what first got me thinking about books and reading relative to what it is I teach which, in the simplest terms, are practises for landing in the present moment.
I could, to some degree, see the teacher’s point… to read can be an escapism and is a form of arousal in a huge number of ways and forms. Reading can be a mechanism for escaping presence through embracing fantasy, other worlds and imaginary characters. But is it always an escape mechanism?
No. Is the answer to that. My answer, my opinion. I believe that, in the world as it is manifesting for most of us right now, to choose to slow down enough to read a book is a marker for, and route to build, an ability to be present. It is not about abandoning ourselves. Not usually. And even if it is, it can be both: a gentle escape, harmless to ourselves and the other, that can open us up to a mindful practise.
Of course I specifically talk, here, about reading an actual book.
We read continually, unconsciously… WhatsApp messages, flashing headings, notifications, the pithy captions underneath social media posts and the comments that they bring… that kind of thing. Endlessly. Quickly. Without stopping to to notice that we are reading at all. But we can read in a different way. And this is something I feel passionate about encouraging.
I set myself a target to read 100 books this year and I have no idea if I will make it. I’m not quite on track to, yet. But three months in, I am taking on a much more important quest for myself: to make my reading more mindful. And I would love for you to join me.
I am starting a Book Club. Late April. You can find out more about that here:
Wrapped Up In Books: The Story of My Life
Since early childhood, books have surrounded, stacked themselves up in, been central to, my life. Led by my nose in a book, I have been pulled forward on new paths. They have allowed me to feel the things I would otherwise not allow. They have expanded my mind when I felt stuck in old patterns of thought. They have given me hope. They have kept me company on sleepless nights. They are a reliable source of comfort.
Book Are Kinda My Thing…
My memory has always told me that I never had to learn to read.
This, of course, cannot be the truth, but it is my truth.
I have an extremely vivid memory of being 6, in Blue class with Mrs Donnelly, and being called up with two friends to read to her. Puddle Lane books, anyone remember them? I adored.
Me and my two plait-adorning-pals skipped eagerly across the parquet floor to our teacher, who asked us to take it in turns to read sections of a rather enchanting tale called The Magic Dust.
As my friends sounded out words and screwed up their little freckled faces in concentration, I very clearly remember just not getting it. Why couldn’t they read it out properly? Fluently?
To me, and I did not think of their struggles with judgement, only utter confusion, it was as if I was watching people with fully functioning hands and arms being completely unable to clap.
Not only did I already find reading to be an innate skill but I truly loved to read, I loved it in a way that made my insides fizz. I was born knowing it was what I was meant to do with my time. Was it not the same for everyone? I found that odd as a kid. Perhaps a part of me still does.
By the time I was 8 or 9, as soon as school ended, I would run, gleefully, to Penn Library, with my friends Karis and Dipti, who loved books just as much as me.
We were huge fans of The Babysitters Club, and of Point Horror books. To find a book we had not yet read would be so cool and exciting and every time the librarian scanned a barcode with a beep it was like being offered an extremely precious gift.
Seducing The English Teachers
At secondary school I was resolutely determined to seduce (not sexually) every single English teacher with my love of their subject and my way with words. It worked!
By the time I was studying for my GCSEs, the teachers were so kind to me, bringing me in books they thought I might like to borrow. I liked this on more than one level. Books, beyond feeding my mind, began also to give me a taste of feeling truly valued and seen. I am aware of this as an attachment I have to books. It’s still there. I use them as an aphrodisiac in my, often clumsy, attempts to connect with other humans. This perseveres as a coping strategy, though, only because the love of books is so real.
When I was 15 or so one teacher, Mr Layton, brought Douglas Coupland into my life. Mr Layton shoved a copy of Generation X into my chest one day as he passed me on the stairs from the Geography department down to the school office.
‘I think you’ll like that…’ he said. I did. I loved. Douglas Coupland remains my favourite writer to this day.
The moment of my passing on the stairs with my teacher that day is like chance-found gold in my mind, each and very time that the memory is evoked. It was a moment of karma played out. He had to give me that book. That day. That he thought of me as he downed his morning coffee to soothe his aching head (he appeared to be resolute in his determination to turn up hungover and tired) meant the world to me on a day, in a time, I felt gloomy and uninspired. I read the book that night. Returning it to him only a day or two later with a letter of thanks and my mind alight with new ideas. I would, from that point on, practically camp out at the bookshop waiting for Douglas Coupland’s next novel.
At University I studied English and creative writing, and then, on graduating, got myself a job in publishing. The rest is herstory. I never once lost my passion for books. I married a writer. Of course. And we both, most days, buy and read books. My partner’s job means they get book post every day, too. As you may expect, my home is full of written words. Every room.
You Don’t Even HAVE To Read Them!
Books have been my source of solace, of companionship, of laughter through all of my life so far. They are the way I most love to learn.
If I visit someone’s house, it is their books that I am most pulled to. A house without books lacks oxygen, to me.
And hey… if you never get around to reading them (my to be read pile is truly a mountain range…) all is not lost, as Nick Hornsby says:
“All the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal…With each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not.” – Nick Hornby
5 Books I Have Enjoyed This Year So Far…
If you want to practise mindful reading with others, including me, the registration to be told more about the Book Club is here.
In the meantime, I am often asked for book recommendations so here you will find five of my favourites of 2022 so far.
Binge: 60 stories to make your brain feel different
Douglas Coupland always speaks to my soul, and these short stories really do make your brain flip and flop. Some are sweet, some are sad, all are mind expanding in some way.
Creation: A fully illustrated, panoramic world history of art from ancient civilisation to the present day
I’ll admit I have not read every word of this book but my eyes love it a whole lot. I find the writing gentle and it is a good book to grab if you want to build strength in your wrists (it’s SO heavy)…
Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty
This book takes on a challenging topic in an extremely accessible, but nonetheless provocative, way. It took me a little while to land into reading, but once she mentioned Courtney Love relative to the image of the mother… I was all in.
Medieval Bodies: Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages
Bloody fascinating. Check out the preview about the medieval cadaver. You will know right away if it’s a book for you. For me? It is a hard yes.
Cultish The Languish of Fanaticism
It’s a ‘young’ book in that, aged almost 40, I felt about 20 years too old to take as much as one could from this book in its tone and style, and the cultural references are largely American. But I loved reading it nonetheless. And I enjoyed that it opened up my thinking on the male ‘voice of God’ and how affecting that is to me, as a woman, and the influence it has had on my life. It also made me pause to consider how I talk as a teacher. How I use language to promote my class. How I use language to tell people how to move their bodies and breathe.