“What do you do?”  “I’m a reader.”

I am many things, and I have been many more. I’m a son, brother, husband, grandfather, friend, writer, blogger, chair of various bodies, manager, leader, walker, dreamer, cook, doctor, television performer, poet, teacher, and speaker; and I have been a student, feeder of locusts, farmworker, traveler, editor, boyfriend, chief executive, painter, musician, and listener. Some of those things I’ve done well and some poorly. But one thing that I love, have been longer than I have been anything apart from son and brother, and think I am good at is being a reader. Could the one thing that best defines me be that I am a reader?

It’s one of the commonest questions you are ever asked: “What do you do?” People are usually asking about your employment. As I learnt when I wrote on unemployment and health, our employment is important to us, too important, I suggest, in giving meaning to our lives. My wife, when she looked after our children, would find people turned away bored when she said she was a “housewife and mother.” Now she’s an artist people are much more responsive: “What do you paint?” they ask. But if I were to answer the question by saying “I’m a reader” people would be mystified. It would be like saying “I’m a sleeper or an eater.”

Everybody, they would think, is a reader. Everybody reads. You can’t define yourself as a reader. But I’m much more a reader than I am a doctor, although I have a degree in medicine, was once registered with the General Medical Council, and treated patients. That was a long time ago, and I never felt a doctor as I feel a reader. Similarly, I was an editor for 25 years, but I’m not now—and being an editor didn’t capture me. I’m a writer of sorts, and writing is important to me—but I’m a far better reader than I am writer.

I learnt to read when I was five, but I think of my career as a reader, becoming a reader, when I went to the Rotherhithe Public Library and selected books for myself. I was perhaps nine or ten. I have a memory of a book about the Incas. I can’t think why I was interested in the Incas, but reading taught me about the Incas, most probably in an imperfect way. In those early days I would have five books beside my bed. One book would be fiction, and I would start with that. Then there would be four non-fiction books on a wide range of topics.

Since then I have read an unbroken chain of books, most of which I can’t remember. There are few days on which I haven’t read, and for the past 12 years I have managed to start most days with 90 minutes to two hours’ reading. I have probably managed to average an hour a day since I was 10, which amounts to about 22 000 hours. I’m disappointed that it doesn’t amount to the 100 000 hours it supposedly takes to be good at something. (I then calculate that a 30-year-old concert pianist who started playing the piano at 5 would have to practice 11 hours a day every day to reach 100 000 hours, which seems impossible. Yet, as I write, I’m listening to a pianist under 30 play the Goldberg Variations very beautifully. Perhaps the 100 000 hours is just too round and inflated a number.)

From early on I became discerning (my wife would say snobbish) about what I read. I’ve steered clear of newspapers and, I must confess, medical and scientific journals (even though I spent 25 years editing one) and have concentrated on books. I strongly support Martin Amis’s assertion that “the truth is in the fiction,” and so a novel always comes first in my reading. A friend advised me to read no novels published in the past 30 years but let time sort out the best novels. I haven’t followed his advice to the letter, but I’ve probably read more novels that are older than 30 years, many of them 19th century novels, than more recent ones; and I’m often disappointed by newer novels but rarely disappointed by the older ones. This morning I finished reading Trollope’s Phineas Redux for the second time (in tears) and later today I will start reading Joyce’s Ulysses for the second time.

I launch into Ulysses with trepidation, but I’m confident that I will appreciate it more this time. I have, I believe, become a better reader. Because I read “good” books I never speed read, and I read many paragraphs twice. Poems I always read twice, and there are many I’ve read a hundred times. Increasingly (and it’s easy with a Kindle) I highlight passages that appeal. I then gather them together when I finish a book and post them on my website with a blog on the book. It increases my enjoyment of the book to digest and capture in a blog what I have learnt from a book—and I feel it’s respectful of the book to pay this homage.

“One learns nothing from reading, only rereading,” some Oxbridge don is supposed to have said. As an old man, I spend ever more time rereading, and in almost every case I find the rereading more enjoyable, more meaningful than the first read. I’m not sure whether that is because of age and experience or because I’ve become a better reader—but I think that it’s probably a combination of the two. It’s fiction and poetry that I reread, I rarely if ever reread non-fiction. I’ve come increasingly to believe that when we read a book, particularly fiction, we read ourselves. That may simply be because we’ve had more experiences than we can rediscover in the novels.

When we asked one of my son’s teachers what distinguishes boys who do very well from those who get by at school, he said that it was reading books that led to better performance. Parents these days prefer their children to read book rather than play video games or watch Youtube, but it wasn’t always so. In the 19th century reading much apart from the Bible was thought dangerous, especially for women. Ironically, those characters in Trollope’s novels who read novels, particularly French ones, are usually ineffective, dissolute, or both.

My wife thinks that I’ve been driven mad by reading too many books. When she said that I immediately quoted Don Quixote, illustrating her point. It is true that the books I’m reading and have read become part of my life. One consequence is that I often refer to them in my conversations because what we are discussing reminds me of a book. This must, I fear, sound pretentious.

But being a reader defines me better than most of my other roles, and the next time somebody asks me “What do you do?” I’ll answer “I’m a reader.” I’m keen to know how they will react.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s