Reading Jonathan Franzen makes me want to write. The way the words fall out of him, the way he condenses so precisely seemingly massively wide concepts into a sentence or two, seem to chime with something within me and I always find that, when I read him in bed, I have to get back up and write immediately. Which is most disturbing, both literally and figuratively. Whether his influence provokes anything of any quality from within me is debatable and I will leave to you to decide, but the urge must be assuaged and the itch must be scratched, so you get what you’re given, I’m afraid.
Talking of which, I got bitten today. Out in the middle of the ocean, hundreds of miles from anywhere – if Warren’s noon announcement informs me one more time that the nearest piece of land is straight down, I may have to hurt someone – I got bitten. Obviously, the security precautions against stowaways discriminate against only those of a certain minimum size and my friend fitted neatly under that radar. For the more fact-conscious among my readers, the bite is on the side of my face, at almost exactly eye height, on the left temple where my sunglasses tan line runs, where my hair begins. Currently. My hair line sometimes seems to be receding faster than a Fifa president’s credibility, so ‘currently’ is a necessary addition there. And that’s with the kelp supplements. If I stopped taking them, I think I’d be bald in a fortnight.
But I digress. This is supposed to be about writing. Reading Jonathan Franzen seems to stir in me the need to get stuff out that I didn’t know was trapped inside. Oh dear, I make it sound like wind! It does feel a little like that, though. I get an ache, somewhere in the region of my solar plexus, that could be mistaken for indigestion if I had eaten anything of any consequence at dinner three hours ago, which I haven’t because I haven’t felt hungry or seen my appetite in well over five weeks now. It interferes with my breathing, just like indigestion, now I come to think about it. In fact, it’s probably just a Haribo cola bottle that went down sideways. Ignore this paragraph.
Is there any point in writing anymore? Does anyone read these days? Do people read books? Newspapers? Blogs? (I exclude my own here, because OBVIOUSLY a good half dozen people read this – when the subscription email trumpeting a new missive nags them to, anyway). Every day on board, an abbreviated newspaper is printed, courtesy of that paragon of unbiased and factually impeccable journalism that is the Daily Mail. I don’t even bother to read it any more. I have 24 hour BBC World News to watch and, if that lets me down or fails to provide the level of detail or intrigue I require, I can switch to Sky News or, say it quietly and behind a hand if you’ve got one free, E! News. Ahem. Crashing on…
When was the last time I read a book? (OTHER than the Jonathan Franzen essays, smarty-pants)
When I was working in London last year (remember that four month temp job in Holborn?), I had an hour each way on the train to kill. Going in, of course, provided a constantly changing, if slightly blurry, landscape to watch, gaze, glaze over and doze off at, not to mention a whole host of people at their desks in the midst of their working days who seemed to have a burning desire to make me ring them up and yell at them about something between tunnels. Going home, however, the outside world offered only darkness, and the occasional flurry of dimly-lit bypassed stations for entertainment, and I was forced to turn inwards. There always remains that old stalwart, the Nap, to fall back on, particularly after Friday drinkies, but going North is trickier, because it is possible to miss the station. Going South, you’d hit the buffers – all rails lead to Kings Cross – so you can nod off with impunity. North is more precarious, so it’s best to stay awake. So that leaves books, doesn’t it? Sadly, no. For I was in the thrall of that most dangerous of Modern Menaces: a New Phone. And once you’ve mucked about arranging icons and editing functionalities, such as ringtone volume and screen backlight timers, new phones have App Stores and App Stores have Games. I became particularly addicted to an app version of a game I used to play at the end of exams. You know the one: where you take a word or set of words, often the title of the exam, and see how many smaller words you can get out of it. I almost always finish exams early, so I became rather adept at this game, and even started with alphabetical columns for each letter, so that I could better sort and see the lists of words I found. Now? ‘There’s an App for that’. Heaven.
So, although, in my defence, I spent the vast proportion of my time on word puzzles, rather than free tetris rip-offs, nevertheless, the opportunity to read was missed. It’s not that I’m short of material, either. Granted, the Books To Read pile did get a little swallowed in the move, and they are now scattered among the shelves, hiding between the Already Read but Keep in Case I Read Again books, rather than all in one orderly location, but only a small amount of judicious fishing would suffice to recreate the Tower of Shame that is the Unread Books Pile. And yet the Tower remains un(re)built, six months on, as does some of the flatpack furniture, and I haven’t read a book in getting on for a year or more.
So why didn’t I read? Why don’t I read all the time? I’m unemployed, for pity’s sake, it’s not like I’ve got anything else to do! Television. Let’s not muck about, you knew the answer as soon as I asked the question. Whether it’s nostalgic episodes of anodine American whodunits (Murder, She Wrote, Diagnosis Murder, Perry Mason) or documentaries about the Pyramids or the Titanic, religion, history, archaeology or the state of the economy, or even just the News, there’s almost always something on that appeals to me. I don’t watch game shows or soaps, only certain quizzes (QI, Have I Got News For You, Argumental), nothing with nature or animals and certainly no movies or sport, and yet there seems to be, nonetheless, an astonishing array of distraction just a button push away. Even here on the ship, we get two 24 hour news channels (and E!), along with the BBC selections I have mentioned previously (one comedy and one drama), the drama one of which, rather deliciously, is currently repeatedly showing the first Matt Smith Dr Who episode 😀 (“Basically… run.”) , and there is a documentaries channel to boot (current offering: the invention and development of the dry dock shipyard, which is a lot more interesting than I make it sound!). Frankly, it’s a wonder I ever leave the cabin at all. Not to mention the three film channels. Which reminds me, I need to do a film list, don’t I?
So if I, someone who wants to be a writer, claims to be a writer, and does actually, sometimes, write, am not reading, who do I think is going to read me?! I’m currently being nagged to write a book, but let’s see how we go with the blog, first! Within the blogosphere, the accepted way to publicise your blog is to go to other people’s blogs, read them, and then leave a message inviting them ‘back to yours’, so to speak. A method that is both highly inefficient and time-consuming and, at sea, prohibitively expensive at 20p per minute (£12 an hour, give or take). I spend enough reading my emails and Facebook and uploading my blog, without devoting time and energy to pandering to someone else’s ego as well. And yet, I expect you to all read this devotedly. Why? I don’t! Well, obviously I read it once or twice before I upload it, and I reload the page to make sure it looks right after I add the photos, but I don’t visit it or any other blogs, even when I have free wifi in a port (which is rarer than you might imagine).
The trouble is that life gets in the way. I have to be somewhere or doing something or I bump into someone I need to talk to and the time just slips away from me. Maybe when I’m back in the UK (three weeks tomorrow, if you’re interested), I’ll be able to devote more time and energy to reading. I’ve certainly purchased enough books during this cruise! In fact, now that I’ve finished the Jonathan Franzen essays, and until I receive the copy of his other book from Ros, who I assume will be bringing it with her next time she comes over, rather than posting it to me, and who is kindly lending it to me because when I get home I will be skinter than a skint thing from Skintville, and unable to buy anything again ever (no, really, if you need money from me for something, ask now), maybe I will have time to read some of the other books that have been hanging over me for so long. But if I’m reading, I’m not writing, and if I’m going to be a writer, then I imagine actually writing would be a useful, nay, positively important, part of the process.
So this is the dilemma I face. Even sitting here now, at quarter past midnight, in a cabin too hot to sleep in, and with this urge to write spilling out in these pages of what will probably amount to utter gibberish (sorry!), should I be reading or writing? Them’s your options. Place your votes now.