Tag Archives: Reading

Book by book, I’m reverting to type

Actual books.

Actual books.

Burn the Kindle.

Trash it, recycle it, get rid of it. In recent months, slowly and silently and after long afternoons spend in Portland bookstores (often, but not exclusively, the labyrinthine Powell’s) this is the conclusion I’ve arrived at.

My Kindle, gifted to me by my wife some years back, is likely outmoded at this point. But it’s crammed full of books – titles I bought and read during in a golden year or two when I believed that e-readers – with their convenience, their ability to store notes, the searchability of text they offered – were the future.

They were not. As time passed I increasingly found myself reverted to type (so to speak), buying and reading physical books (very often used copies, which I’d pick up after hours trawling the shelves). Not only that, but I’ve also found myself buying second copies (hardback, paperback with a different cover or a nicer typeset) of books that I already own.

My plan, vague at present but soon to be locked down (I promise myself) is that the shelves in our home will eventually boast a perfectly-curated browsing experience; visitors will come and marvel at the smooth thematic transitions, the pristine Collected Yeats, the Michael Chabon with the Marvel-esque cover. And this is no books-as-interior-design-feature plan: I’ll only shelve what I’ve read.

My wife, sensibly, points out that this grand scheme may require, at most, a structural refit of our home and, at least, a serious purge of the piles of my existing titles. So be it – but what will remain will be distilled, pristine, our own Library of Babel.

Which reminds me, I need to upgrade my battered Borges…

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Sounding out the best music to work to

John Coltrane. Pic: Hugo van Gelderen

John Coltrane. Pic: Hugo van Gelderen

Blame the iPod. The ubiquity of that little device in the mid-2000s changed the working lives of many of my generation.

That, and the noisy open-plan offices we worked in. Steve Jobs’ little white box provided a perfect way to drown out background noise, focus on the task at hand, increase focus and productivity.

Didn’t it?

Perhaps it did, for some. As a working journalist in those years, listening to music wasn’t an option. The time you spent after phoning and meeting contacts was used to write, usually against a deadline. Fidgeting for the new Coldplay song five minutes before your copy was due was not advisable.

Outside the office it was different matter. At home I’d write and read to a constant soundtrack, and still do. Over the years I found some recordings worked better than others when it came to cognitive function.

For months I read at night to Aphex Twin’s “Selected Ambient Works Volume II”. But when I tried to do the same with John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” it was a no-go. I’d barely last five minutes. Beethoven’s sonatas? No problem. Bob Dylan? Not a chance.

After years of hit-and-miss listening I recently investigated what works and what doesn’t.

With the help of a couple of articles, from Inc and Time, I’ve narrowed it down – for myself at least.

Here’s the secret:

  • Listen to music without lyrics (no Dylan, more Beethoven)
  • Don’t listen to new music
  • Don’t listen if you’re trying to learn something new (the line between this and reading for pleasure is blurred, I find)
  • If you’re learning something new, listen before you start
  • If the task at hand is repetitive, listen to music (even if you’re a surgeon)
  • If there’s a lot of background noise, music you’re familiar with will calm your brain, improving focus

A case in point: as I write this I am listening to Caribou’s album Swim. It’s a recording I know pretty well, with songs whose lyrics are simple, few and repetitive. Hearing the music raises my levels of feel-good neurotransmitters (dopamine and serotonin), which relaxes me and helps me focus. My thought process is smooth and my output is consistent.

As a test I’ve now switched it out for one of my favorite non-cognitive tracks, music I use during workouts but not elsewhere – Slayer’s Raining Blood. My foot’s tapping but my concentration’s shot.

My perfect music while working is somewhere between these two poles – Brian Eno’s Discreet Music or Dustin O’Halloran’s Lumiere are two albums that spring to mind.

Of course there’s a simpler way to improve your working focus, your reading and your writing: work in complete silence and listen to nothing. Modern life renders the first impossible and, frankly, where’s the fun in the second?

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I love that book – what’s it about?

What was that last book about?

‘What was that Camus novel about?’

Four months ago I read Haruki Murakami’s short novel South Of The Border, West Of The Sun.

Today I can barely remember a thing about the book. The characters (I’m sure there were male and female ones, maybe one of each), the plot (a quest of some sort, maybe involving travel across borders?), the ending (not happy, I’m fairly sure of that) – it’s all a blank page.

Now the book sits on a shelf, needling me from across the room. The problem is that it’s stacked alongside a Dave Eggers’ short story collection and a Jay McInerney wine book – and I can remember very little about those either.

What’s going on? Do I pick forgettable reads? Is my empathy through the floor? Or my concentration shredded? Am I reading on autopilot?

Part of this is age-related, of course. At 38 I’m likely experiencing the onset of age-related memory impairment. But I read Ask The Dust after Murakami’s novel and I recall every rooming house, bar and street corner.

About a boy. And a girl.

About a boy. And a girl.

Sitting on my shelf next to Murakami and Co is Patti Smith’s memoir M Train. In this account of her mid-life years, Smith is often preoccupied with the irritants of ageing. At one point the poet-singer (a Murakami devotee herself, incidentally), re-reading Albert Camus over her black coffee writes of “an intermittent, lifelong enigma”.

“I finished many books in such a manner…closing the covers ecstatically yet having no memory of the content…I look at the covers of such books and their contents remain a mystery that I cannot bring myself to solve. Certain books I loved and lived within yet cannot remember”.

That’s the thing. If I forget writing that was forgettable to begin with, that might be understandable. But some of the great long and short works that I’ve loved – Goodbye, My Brother; Great Expectations; The End of the Affair – are lost to me, in details if not in spirit.

The downside of this is that I often have a vague notion that a book is great but can’t really recall why. The upside? I’ve an excuse to read it again.

But not South Of The Border, West Of The Sun. It turns out it’s about a boy and a girl. The boy travels on a navel-gazing quest into his own past and winds up at sorrowful, empty ending. Sometimes your memory – or the lack of one – is enough.

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Listening between the lines – books and music

Reading at Big Sur, 2011 Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Reading at Big Sur, 2011
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Music expresses that which cannot be put into words

So said Victor Hugo, whose 1,400-page tomes suggest he might have had an easier career as a songwriter than a novelist.

But are the two forms mutually exclusive? Or, to look at it from the perspective of the sofa, what’s the best music to read to?

None? Something unobtrusive? A solo piano recording or an ambient soundscape? Or something louder or noisier, a barrier to block the outside world?

The thought occurred to me as I read an article this week which – very specifically – paired books with albums (The Pet Shop Boys and Stephen King’s It being one of odder suggestions).

Over the years I’ve seesawed on the issue. While certain reading environments demand music (a packed-to-capacity long-haul flight, for example), others benefit from silence. Blasting Aphex Twin while reading in a pacific yurt in Big Sur a few years back, for instance, would have been a no-no.

Certain books still bring to mind certain albums of course. When I worked newsroom night shifts in the early 2000s I’d return home at 4 or 5am to pick up Don DeLillo’s weighty Underworld; Sigur Ros’ Ágætis byrjun was the soundtrack of the few weeks it took me to dig through it.

Likewise, Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II provided the soundtrack to Michael Smith’s account of Tom Crean’s famed trans-Antartic journey.

The scientific jury’s out on whether either of these albums helped or hindered my comprehension of nuclear dread or icy heroism. It appears that lower-information load music aids cognitive tasks, while recordings with more going on – particularly those with lyrics – hinder them.

This may explain why I find Brian Eno a better reading companion than, for example, Sonny Rollins. That said, I can read anytime to Bach’s Cello Suites – which are hardly low-information compositions.

In recent years, perhaps due to daily digital overload, I’ve cut music accompaniment altogether. Now I read to the sound of the refrigerator, kids playing outside or low-flying aircraft.

That said, the research above has found that listening to music before you read can increase cognitive processing.

Mind you, this also risks a tumble down a streaming site wormhole, as you waste hours compiling exhaustive lists of John Lewis ad soundtracks or 1964-66 Bob Dylan covers (email me for that playlist).

Perhaps music and reading don’t mix after all. If Victor Hugo had Spotify would he have churned out Les Misérables?

Don DeLillo/Sigur Ros Pics: Thousand Robots/Jose Goulao

Don DeLillo/Sigur Ros
Pics: Thousand Robots/Jose Goulao

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McCartney’s in my brain and won’t come out

Jet_Let_Me_Roll_It_CoverIt’s 4.30am on a Saturday morning and I spring awake to the sound of guitars, keyboard and horns, followed by a Paul McCartney cry.

“Jet! Jet!”

My wife lies sleeping beside me. In the distance a dog barks. All else is silent.

It’s all in my head. An early morning earworm. But it wasn’t just that one morning; as I write this, five days later, I still can’t get ‘Jet’ out of my head.

Paul McCartney, as he was singing a song in a London studio 41 years ago, is lodged in my auditory cortex. Every time my brain hits idle mode (more often than I’d like to admit) he re-appears, ‘daaa-daaa-dada, Jet!’

What was a four minute listen on my morning commute one day last week has morphed into a hugely frustrating brain itch.

I’ve written about earworms previously. In most cases they disappear after 24 hours, having been pushed out by something else. But McCartney’s song about his dog (or his pony, or David Bowie – take your pick) is stuck there.

My usual trick to dislodge it, of playing another earworm or anything very catchy, hasn’t worked – though I’m still afraid to push the Big Red Button and listen to ‘Guantanamero‘. I’m not one for anagrams, but research suggests that solving one could work. Or, it emerged this week, chewing gum – not a favourite habit of mine either.

Which brings me to my final hope – the theory that reading a book helps. This is interesting. In recent days – the ones which have coincided with my McCartney itch – I’ve skipped reading. Could this be the cause?

FullSizeRender (3)Music psychologist Dr Ira Hyman has suggested the ‘good book’ solution, stating: “The key is to find something that will give the right level of challenge. If you are cognitively engaged, it limits the ability of intrusive songs to enter your head.”

Hyman suggests that an alternative is to learn to sing the song in its entirety, as earworms have been linked to incomplete fragments of melody that the brain tries to resolve. But there’s no way I’m doing anything as reckless as that with a hook-heavy Paul McCartney song.

So it’s back to a book. Maybe I’ll start with the one on the left. Then again…

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The right notes – music to read by

FullSizeRender (1)Back in the early 2000s I worked a night shift job. Each morning I’d return to the house I shared with three others at 4 or 5am, and read for a hour in bed before turning in.

I’d always believed that reading, like sleeping or writing, was best done in silence. But there’s silence and then there’s 4am silence. The coastal suburb I lived in was pin-drop quiet.

And so I picked up a new habit – I’d play music as I read. The only condition was that the music had to be quiet – not solely in terms of volume but also by way of sound.

I spent most of those early mornings listening to Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works, Volume II. The slow surges, whale-call noises, absence of percussion – all served to fill the lingering silence of an early summer morning in Clontarf.

The music also helped me, it seemed, focus on what I was reading. The subject matter might have differed (two of the books I read at that time were Crime And Punishment and a popular biography of Irish Arctic explorer Tom Crean) but the effect of music was the same. Like the ambient hum of one’s body heard in a sound-proofed room the music lingered, just out of feeling but present, while I read.

Brian Eno. Detail from 'Music For Films' sleeve

Brian Eno

The use of music as an aid to reading is a well-covered topic. This week I was brought back to my pre-dawn reading sessions when I encountered a post by Sam Jordison on the Guardian’s Books blog. Much of the article concerned how we can battle ‘aural sludge’ – distracting and loud daily noises -when reading.

I find it difficult, if not impossible, to deep read amidst loud noise – even custom-made soundtracks are unlikely to help me.

But the article led to me to ask: what other music worked like Selected Ambient Works, Volume II did, as a reading aid?

In the 12 years since those night shift days I’ve encountered only a few: a Naxos collection of Chopin’s piano works, Brian Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks and, perhaps, Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way.

The ‘x’ factor in each of these recordings is hard to pin down. Perhaps the tidal feel of the music in each set of recordings is the key; or perhaps the absence or mere suggestion of a beat which, when present, is no faster than my resting heart rate.

Whatever their key is they all work to break ground, coming through silence to open my ear and eye and mind to absorb the words.

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This happens to the best and to the worst

FullSizeRender (6)You sit and stare into space.

You change tack – by sitting and staring at a blank screen.

You’ll do it tomorrow, and tomorrow – you said yesterday, and the day before.

You take a morning trip to the city centre, walk around, drink coffee, get rained on, hope that something will strike.

You return home.

You reckon you could squeeze out something on Bob Dylan and Frank Sinatra, or your sign-up to Spotify, or running in December. Or that plate of sprats you ate in London, unlike any other you’d had.

You don’t – the blank screen’s in the way.

You make lunch and eat it. You pack a bag for a trip to see your father. You dig out a Sonny Rollins CD you bought a month ago but haven’t listened to. You google details about the CD.

You text your wife, telling her you’re set to start. You check Facebook, again.

You want to finish a book of short stories but you’ve promised yourself that you’ll do this first.

You assure yourself that this happens to the best and to the worst of them.

In desperation you copy a trait from a novel you’re just finished, writing in the second person narrative.

You start.

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When the pen’s mightier than the keyboard

MH370 search note handed to Malaysian transport minister, Mar 22, 2014.

MH370 search note handed to Malaysian transport minister, Mar 22, 2014.
Pic: Twitter

SOMETIMES paper is the only way to do it.

It was interesting that a possible breakthrough in the search for the Malaysia Airlines jet last week – an operation which has been run with the highest of hi-tech equipment – was communicated in the oldest fashion possible.

Hastily scribbled with a biro on a torn scrap of paper and pushed into the recipient’s fist.

As communications go it couldn’t get any more lo-tech.

It was almost quaint – yet tragic in light of subsequent developments.

Who writes anything down any more? Apart from perhaps a quick shopping list, a scrawled signature or a Christmas card?

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The press conference note put me in mind of some shopping I was undertaking.

With a visit to Japan scheduled later this year I’m assembling, with help from my father-in-law, a shortlist of Japanese novels to read.

My initial plan, for reasons of space and cost, was to download the e-book versions to my Kindle.

But these are works I want to close read and dwell over. And this reading is a tactile, physical experience as much as a mental one.

And why would I want to deprive myself of it? Even if it means cramming more books onto the groaning shelves?

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Those infernal devices...

Those infernal devices…

I’m sure I’m not alone feeling this need to read on paper, despite the onward march of e-books, Kindles, Nooks and more.

Surrounded by screens all day, on my desk, across my living room or in my pocket, reading on paper is a non-electronic breather.

This attitude may also account for my analogue habit of keeping notebooks, crammed with random shopping lists, ideas, quotes and scribbles.

Wasn’t my iPhone supposed to put an end to all this?

It hasn’t. And neither has my Kindle, or iPad, or laptop.

Paper still has its place and, like the anonymous author of the Malaysia note, there are times when it’s the first thing I reach for.

But not this time, of course…

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Time to raise the unread

Feels like one...

Feels like one…

I WILL read 756 books before I die.

That’s presuming that I’ll be reading right up to the fatal moment, at the same rate as I read now, that I don’t re-read anything and that I make 78 – the life expectancy of the Irish male.

It also presumes that I avoid the Russians, or Ulysses, or anything not in English. And that I don’t develop pernicious habits, like gardening or golf.

756 books. It sounds like a lot. But it’s not, of course. Every time I enter a bookstore I spot another dozen books I stick on the mental must-read list.

Add those to the many already on my ‘I’II have to get round to that one’ list, or titles recommended, or ones found browsing online, or classics.

Suddenly 756 doesn’t sound like too many. John Updike’s novels and short stories account for 39 books alone.

You’d therefore be inclined to think that I’ve refined book purchasing to a precise art, buying only what I really, really want to read.

Of course not. Our home is littered with purchases which seemed like a good idea at the time. Some of them are buried away, sources of shame, dead wood (in every respect).

Others have been placed on top of piles, as my better nature tries to remind my actual nature that they deserve a shot. Will they ever get it? Unlikely.

And this is before we get to the boxes in storage elsewhere, containing selections so dubious, or turgid, that they were never read. And never will be.

Dostoevsky’s The Idiot? Not a hope. Not even if I found myself transported to 1860s St Petersburg with nothing else to read.

Cogito Eco sum: I proscrastinate therefore I am.

Cogito Eco sum: I procrastinate therefore I am.

Eco’s The Island Of The Day Before? I made it to page 151 a few years ago. Pathetically, I can’t bring myself to remove the bookmark. On the plus side the cover looks good.

Steinbeck’s East Of Eden? I’ve even visited its setting – the Salinas Valley – in the years since I bought this one, but I’ve haven’t started into it.

Turns out I’m not alone when it comes to such procrastination.

Half of the books on the shelves in every homes are unread, according to a survey released to mark World Book Day last week.

These titles were no doubt bought with the best of intentions – like my own were.

It’s one thing lamenting the situation but what should I do about it?

As my wife – reading this –  is now about to ask: will I ever get rid of these unread books?

And here’s where the second part of the survey comes into play: two thirds of people hoard books because they’re emotionally attached to them, it seems.

Which explains my battered Penguin copy of The Odyssey, a title I’ve hopefully hauled from bookcase to bookcase since I bought it more than 20 years ago.

Like the others above its spine remains uncracked.

Not to worry. I have 756 chances to raise the unread, beginning today.

Page one of The Idiot sounds like a good place to start.

The Great Unread - a selection.

The Great Unread – a small selection.

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