I spent this weekend reading. I read for hours in bed, in the bath, by the fire, on trains, at the kitchen counter, in bed again, on the stairs with a cup of coffee, in the bath again, bed, bed, lovely bed. I did other things too – well, I mothered – the house went to hell and we ran out of milk pretty early on (they’ve started smuggling essential food supplies with them from their dad’s house though, thankfully). But reading-with-everything – that’s just the way I live, and as far as I can tell it’s the way many of you live too. This weekend, in particular, when the news horrified and saddened me, it seemed so precious a gift – that I could live in fiction, too.
I don’t take it for granted. One recent winter, catastrophically, I lost reading: over a period of a couple of weeks, it fell away from me or me from it. After forty years of best friendship with novels, I seemed to simply forget why and how to read them. I kept trying: I picked books up. I turned pages, sightlessly. I dwelled in paragraphs, endlessly. But instead of embarking on the metaphorical voyages that had comforted me since childhood, it was as though I spent nights waiting at bus stops; stalled for hours on cold station platforms.
My loss of stories became my terrible secret. After a few weeks of waiting it out, I started to panic. Reading is my livelihood. How could it have become a stranger to me, of all people? Where were its comforts now? Forced to think hard about it, I recognised the anxiety at its source: it was the same fear that had sometimes kept me awake late at night as a young girl, sitting at the top of the stairs listening to my parents talk below. It was the same anxiety that was keeping me awake all the long winter’s night, again. I was concerned that if I took my eyes away from my real life, I might miss something important. I simply couldn’t afford to be absent. I had to be watchful. Reading fiction had become like sleeping – fraught with risk, unsafe.
It wasn’t true, of course: things were changing whether I read novels or not; whether I slept or not. But it felt true; it felt as though reading might rob me of everything because I might not notice what I was losing until it was too late.
I had grown accustomed to not-seeing, not-noticing by then; to trying to get by without crucial information, and sometimes failing. Due to a genetic condition, I have tiny patches of pigment on my retina. A photograph of the back of one of my eyes reveals a thousand black flecks: in some zones, they gather together, so that it is as if large flocks of tiny birds sweep round the curve of my eye, silhouetted against the sun. Where they crowd together, it is black, and I cannot see.
But my vision is not marred by spots or gaps: I don’t perceive that my picture of the world has missing pieces. My brain simply compensates. Where it is given no information by my eyes, it does what we humans do so well – it makes something up instead. What I see is probably approximately 85% what is actually there. And the other 15%? Fiction.
These fictions are neither beautiful nor ugly; they borrow characteristics from the reality around them and from the realities my brain has perceived before. Unfortunately, my brain sometimes supplies the grey fuzz of empty city pavement, where a fully sighted person would see another body, moving quickly across their path, or a lamp-post, unmoving, in their path. (They are so hard and cold, lamp-posts, not like bodies at all.)
And as we all know it is a struggle to perceive the scale, depth or width of missing things, so my perception of my own position within the space around me is faulty. I have been known to cycle against, as opposed to past, bollards. When I drove round street corners – when I drove! what a thought! – I travelled over corners, not around them at all.
Not long before I stopped reading, I crashed my bike rather spectacularly into a holly hedge that was closer than I had perceived and went over the handlebars. These fictions on which I had relied: they were obviously wildly untrustworthy.
In order to compensate for my lack of complete sight, I knew I needed to learn to look more carefully and widely, in order to gather more factual information. Rotate my head, like an owl. Turn away from what was not there, to what was present, and log it.
One day in a museum I encountered the works of Ad Reinhardt: mammoth black canvases, that at first sight seem a great yawn of nothingness. And yet, the longer you stare at Abstract Painting no 23, the more you see. After a minute or two of concentration, it is possible to perceive that the canvas is not one black square at all, but nine squares painted in three different blacks, one of which is red-black, one green-black and one blue-black. Reinhardt’s blackness is not empty but heaving with colour; just as the insomniac’s black night is full too, of discernible light, if you’re patient.
In the absence of reading, in order to fill the imaginative space it had left, I started to look and to observe in the way that Reinhardt’s paintings required me to. Which means that I started to write, and to take photographs. Both demanded attention to the smallest detail of the place where I stood, and to myself, and to my stance in that place. And both activities rewarded my patient attention because that is what “creativity” means after all – making and therefore finding more and more and more.
The time for grey fuzz was gone: I wanted to see the lamp-posts, and everything else besides. I watched the spring sky at pinkish dawn. I took care to look up at the high facades of the buildings on busy London streets. Lying in the grass after a run, I observed the tiny insect kingdoms. When I walked on the beach, I collected stones for their specific qualities: today, one that fits perfectly in the palm of my hand; tomorrow a slanted chunk of the world.
My photographs were of ordinary things too: this porridge, this bowl, this wet lawn, this candle. Next morning: this porridge, this other bowl, this wet lawn, this candle. Patiently looking, carefully watching the same utilitarian objects that surrounded me every day, my belongings seemed not to become exhausted but to be re-filled daily with richer meaning, always more, and it was welcome.
Through my immersion in the beautiful world, and through my everyday totems and their significance to me, I built bridges of words back to fiction. Focusing on the real world renewed my hunger for its mirrors and extensions, its daydream versions. And through writing, I was slowly rehabilitated back to reading.
By summer I was able to manage short books and so it was that I turned to the fictional world of Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett, in which pleasingly the narrator’s appreciation of porridge was illuminated in precise detail within the first few pages (“Some sort of black jam in the middle of porridge is very nice, very striking in fact.”) I had known I ought to read Pond from the Guardian review of it, which promised: “what Bennett aims at is nothing short of a re-enchantment of the world”.
A re-enchantment of the world, that was what I was experiencing, that was what I had yearned for as spring gave way to summer. In the absence of fiction, my reality was moving into hyper-focused, luminous colour. No real world could be as desirable and desirous as the lush fictional world of Pond, though, and so I needed to read on.
“Everyone knows deep down that life is as much about the things that do not happen as the things that do and that’s not something that ought to be glossed over or denied…” the narrator of Pond instructed me. Yes, I thought, as I lay reading – reading! – in the early summer sun. She’s right. I want to be open to the things that might happen, and to the things that did not. I want to see green-red-blue light in every black space. I want to discover whatever beauty my flocks of black birds might guide me towards, whether it is real or imagined. And so I read on, joyful that I could turn back to fiction; not minding too much either, that I might accidentally collide with some warm body, as a result.
The illustration is taken from a New Yorker cover (c) 2009 Eric Drooker and Condé Nast