No Complaints • By Caroline Crampton.

the process of reading as unconscious as breathing

I have really struggled with reading in the last six months. This week, I finally tidied up the windowsill next to the bed and was confronted with the true depth of this problem. There were over twenty books strewn across it in various stages of unreadness. It's not a "to be read" pile so much as a "I can't read it" pile.

Some of the volumes in that stack are titles that I'd made it three quarters of the way into before bailing out, others where I had only flicked through the first few pages one night before falling asleep. Putting them all away again felt a little like admitting defeat. I'm probably not going to finish any of those books any time soon.

It's not them, it's me. I'm finding it hard to concentrate on one thing for very long (c.f. the absolute state of the world these days) but I don't think that's the problem here. I've been a procrastinator for most of my life; I'm used to having to trick myself into doing things I don't really want to do for sustained periods. This doesn't feel like that.

I think what makes me put a book down and lose all desire to ever pick it up again is a feeling that I should be doing something more worthwhile with my time. Something that will make things better. I cannot articulate what that other activity is, nor have I, in six months of listlessly turning pages, chanced across it. I just know that reading that book, in that moment, is not it.

And that really upsets me, because I've always been able to read anything whenever I felt like it. The concept of not being able to "get into" a book was, until recently, completely alien to me. I would just pick something up and set off, no looking back, the process of reading as unconscious as breathing.

I'm absolutely not alone in this problem — all of the extremely bookish people that I follow on Instagram seem to be suffering with it too. Ruined reading, the weird dreams, extreme screen fatigue: these are the low level side effects of the coronavirus that we will probably be dealing with for years. Like all the other small-big changes that this year has brought, I have begun to reshape myself around my inability to read a whole book whenever I want to.

It happened once before, when I was in an isolation ward in a hospital for six weeks between my first and second years of university. It was a planned stay, not an emergency, so I had days to think about how I would amuse myself in my tiny and extremely well ventilated room high up above south London. I packed all the books I had ever found comforting to read — Jane Austen, the Chalet School, The Swiss Family Robinson — and explained to my parents what extra volumes they should bring to top up my bedside library when they visited.

Of course, I didn't read a word. Of anything. I don't remember how I filled all those hours now. My time is wholly unaccounted for, and I didn't even have a smartphone yet. I have a vague memory of watching the Christopher Eccleston Doctor Who series over and over again, but I might have invented that memory later. I talked to the hospital staff a lot, I think, and I looked out of the window at the sky.

I do remember the combination of listlessness and restlessness that washed over me as I lay there staring, and I recognise it in myself now. It's the sensation of being unable to settle with any one idea for too long, because there's one big idea that cannot be allowed to come into focus. Slowly, I recovered, and so did my ability to read. Life began to move quickly again and that part of my brain opened up.

I think it's starting to happen now, that process of unfurling all of the thoughts I've been keeping too tightly coiled. The first book to break through was The Secret Countess by Eva Ibbotson, which I took to bed planning to read for 15 minutes before an early night and was still awake trying to finish six hours later. This impeccably told story of Anna Grazinsky, a young and aristocratic Russian emigré trying to make her way as a maid in post WWI England, just seemed to flow into me like drinking a cool glass of water on a summer's day. When I got to the end, I cried, and not just because good triumphs over evil.

Ibbotson, I decided, was the answer. She wrote children's fiction, but also stories like this one for "young adults" at a time when that wasn't really yet a publishing category, so wasn't — in my opinion — sufficiently acclaimed for those books before she died in 2010. There's been something of a reappraisal of late, though, and Pan Macmillan are reissuing some of her novels, which makes them much easier to get hold of.

And oh, how glorious they are. In her introduction to The Morning Gift, Sarra Manning describes Ibbotson's work as "the missing link between I Capture the Castle and Jilly Cooper's early romances" and I think that's a pretty good way of placing her. There are elements of Austen in her dry dialogue, of Wodehouse in her perfectly convoluted plots, of Nancy Mitford in her cheerful, practical heroines, of Barbara Pym in her close interweaving of deep sorrow and utter joy. The writing is smooth, funny and just the right amount of acerbic. She's a master of the craft.

Ibbotson was born in Vienna and came to Britain in 1933 when her Jewish family realised early on what the rise of Nazism was going to mean. Writing these novels decades later, she gives the problems of displacement and ostracism that she had experienced to her characters as generously as she gives them beautiful wavy hair and a talent for housekeeping. One of my favourite lines of hers I've found so far is this:

"Proom told him the story, while Leo made Central European noises of sympathy."

Proom is an English butler with a madcap plan to save the day, and Leo is a benevolent Jewish financier who is going to help him. They are unlikely allies and, after this, destined to be lifelong friends. Their whole dynamic is, for me, flawlessly encapsulated in those thirteen words.

The balance between grim reality and beautiful fantasy in Ibbotson's fiction is perfect. The horrors of the coming war are ever present: I wept at the minor subplot in The Morning Gift about the exiled Austrian string quartet who are now practising in a north London cupboard as a trio because their violinist died trying to escape Vienna by jumping from a fourth floor window when the stormtroopers entered his building. It's a barely there aside, but it is devastating, and there are moments like this on every other page.

Nobody in these stories is miraculously cured of their ailments, nor does everyone you love survive. But good people lead good lives in hard times, and I think that's why I can finish these books now when I can't get through many others. By the time I come to the end of an Eva Ibbotson, I'm aching inside from all the feelings, and it's hard to tell if that's because I'm happy or sad. But I have made it to the end, and that's a start.


Twelve things I'm reading, watching and listening to:


This is and always will be a free newsletter, but if you want to contribute to my work another way, consider signing up for a subscription to The Listener, the daily podcast recommendation newsletter that I write. It's very good.

There are a few other places on the internet where you can find me: I write weekly podcast industry reports for Hot Pod, I make a fortnightly podcast called Shedunnit and I’m sometimes on Twitter and Instagram.

Until next time,

Caroline

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