It was a doctor who once said, ‘The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.’ That was, of course, Dr Seuss in his mesmerising children’s book, I Can Read with My Eyes Shut!
As we grow older, it gets easier to appreciate the wisdom of the good doctor’s words. The irony is that many of us are so busy letting life drag us in other directions – work or the school gates or that private part of our mind where only Instagram can take us – that we rarely find enough time to actually crack open a page.
‘The conditions in which we read today are not those of fifty or even thirty years ago,’ wrote the British novelist Tim Parks in an essay for the New York Review of Books. ‘Now, every moment of serious reading has to be fought for, planned for.’ He wrote that in 2014; last week, I finally found time to read it.
For others, reading just before sleep is ideal (the Sleep Council says '39% of people who are in the habit of reading before they go to sleep, sleep very well', which is nice, even if it won't help you get through Ulysses any time soon). Anna Quindlen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and author of A Short Guide to a Happy Life puts it rather beautifully: ‘We read in bed because reading is halfway between life and dreaming, our own consciousness in someone else’s mind.’
When it comes to that other big rivals for your attention – the TV – Groucho Marks had some novel advice. ‘I find television very educating,’ he said. ‘Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.’ Granted, when he said that, he didn’t know about Netflix.
For me, sometimes, the sheer volume of recommendations I receive on a weekly basis can weigh down my enthusiasm for reading like a lead-bound War and Peace. You must read this, friends, colleagues, newspapers and websites say, thrusting a book into your hands with a beatific gleam in their eyes – it’s easy to get lost in such a book-storm of advice.
Haruki Murakami suggests avoiding the bestseller list altogether. ‘If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking,’ he wrote in his 1987 novel Norwegian Wood (fortunately for Murakami, few people at the time took this advice, and it became a stratospheric bestseller).
We all wish we read more. And there are many ways to reinvest in our reading. But perhaps the best advice I ever came across was from a six-year-old girl. OK – it technically came from Harper Lee via Scout, her young protagonist in To Kill A Mockingbird – but still. ‘Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read,’ she says. ‘One does not love breathing.’
Maybe, then, the best medicine for reading sickness is to take a break from it altogether, recharge, and realise how ugly life looks with a gaping, book-shaped hole in it. I can't think of any better incentive to read than that.