Never mind ‘writing a novel’, for the first two weeks of the lockdown I could barely read a page.
Since the coronavirus outbreak began, concentrating on anything outside the rolling horror of the news, the anxious babble of social media and messages from loved ones has felt like some sort of dereliction of duty.
When I sat down to read, it felt like looking at a language I’d forgotten, the words glaring back at me in mutual incomprehension. I could barely focus for a minute before my eyes flickered back to my phone like it was a burbling baby monitor. This is not the time to 'escape’ into a story, I admonished myself, you’re living through one too important to miss.
Often, when you’re forced into something like survival mode, the first thing you forget is how to be kind to yourself. Doing something that brings you joy or relief warps into an act of selfishness or neglect. Reading brings an hour or two of content solitude to my daily life; losing it made everything feel worse. Fiction has always been how I wring the excess energy from my mind. Without it, my anxiety levels spiked.
I cast around for a way back in. I tried swapping new books for comforting old ones. Reading to the radio rather than in silence. Poking around in poetry and clobbering myself with serious non-fiction. My brain rejected it all, the words wriggling free of my grasp like jittery birds, until one evening I got so frustrated trying to tame them that I found myself reading out loud.
Mark was a man at once too big for his chair and too small for the room. When he listened to others read, his face sank into his beard and his right hand twirled the ring on his left over and over. But when it came to his turn to take the book, he looked at us each in turn, swallowed and sat up.
The Reader is a charity that uses group reading as a form of therapy for people facing a range of mental health difficulties. They go to libraries, psychiatric wards and prisons. They work with veterans and dementia sufferers and people struggling with depression. When I reported on them for an article I was writing around ten years ago, I sat in on some of their sessions and witnessed first-hand what they called their ‘tiny miracles’.
When Mark started to read in his steady baritone, it wasn’t just the fact his back went from hunched to straight, or the calm trance that settled over the room as it listened. It was what happened next. The scene he read was from Great Expectations, when Estella embarrasses Pip and he goes out and kicks a wall in frustration. Afterwards, Mark and everyone else were suddenly animated with their own stories, about a time they’d felt undermined or belittled, about a time they felt like kicking a wall.
Reading out loud is something we tend to leave behind in school, like algebra or cross country. We return to it only when we have children of our own to entertain. But as thespians love to remind us, humans passed on stories verbally long before we developed alphabets or the printing press. Aesop and Homer forged the Greek myths in their memories. Beowulf was passed over campfires by homesick soldiers. Medieval ballads bounced around the walls of taverns. The tradition of listening is still alive and well in the form of podcasts and audiobooks, but the act of speaking the stories ourselves is something we have handed over almost entirely to professionals.
But strange things happens when you read out loud. The sounds you’re making drown out your other thoughts. The challenge of pronouncing the words without slipping up focuses your mind. And the language, its rhythm and weight, takes on a new kind of beauty as you absorb it with another sense. Not for nothing, when we stumble over a line in a book that truly knocks us out, do we tend to go back over it slowly and feel our lips move. We smother the impulse to conjure words into life by speaking them all of the time.
But when you give in, a dopey, private kind of happiness comes over you – a bit like singing in the shower. Push past the silliness and it becomes consoling and cheering and wonderfully absorbing, the meditation of reading with the attention gap closed.
Sometimes, when my partner and I go to bed and one of us is still feeling wound up from the events of the day, we read to one another. We’ve done this occasionally for years. It could be just what’s to hand: random bits of a novel, or a crisp, endless essay in the London Review of Books. Other times, when the need is greater, we request something specific: short stories by Katherine Mansfield or Tessa Hadley for her; the very earliest Hemingways, where his youthful stand in Nick Adams wanders the Michigan countryside, for me.
Whatever it is, we read as best we can, stumbling sleepily over the longer sentences, getting bashfully ‘am-dram’ with the dialogue, until the sound of the other’s breathing indicates we are permitted to stop. Just recently, when it’s been my turn, I’ve found myself carrying on into the night, grateful for the refuge it creates from thoughts of tomorrow.
I don’t know if reading out loud will work for everyone. But if you’re struggling to concentrate, it may be worth a try – even if it's only to yourself. It’s helped me get back to books again. Like much else in life, I’m realising that can’t always be taken for granted.