Hazel McHaffie

mobile phones

The joy – and therapy – of reading

Sitting on the bus … walking along the street … in coffee shops … at the meal table … in hospital … during conversations … watching TV … wherever, eyes seem to be glued … no, not to a rivetting book, to a small screen. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, websites, Snapchat, Messenger, whatever, seem to demand constant checking. It’s become a national obsession; a veritable addiction.

We’ve all heard about the risks to mental as well as physical health, but it’s also been officially acknowledged that online lives are interfering with reading for pleasure. Even amongst serious writers! How sad. Because reading is known to broaden the mind, add to knowledge, improve mental health, increase empathy, aid relaxation and sleep. There’s nothing quite like immersing yourself in a well-written story.

Which all led me to think about solutions to this kind of addiction … and thence to the discovery of various ventures started up to give people the right conditions to remedy this malady. I was familiar with retreats and opportunities for writers, but not those for readers. Try Googling the words reading retreat, and you’ll see there are a number, but a couple of illustrations will suffice today.

One is called Reading Retreat, a bespoke service that arranges short breaks for busy people who’d like to escape from all the distractions of modern living and read in peace. It was the brainchild of a literary consultant from Cambridgeshire, Cressida Downing by name, who recognised that ‘social media damages your attention span, 100 per cent‘ with its constant clamour for attention and pressure not to miss anything. With deluxe catering laid on (mmmh-mhmmmmm!) and assorted creature comforts (oh joy!), this service is described as a literary pampering delight. (Sounds good to me.)

Another venture offers the solemnity, grandeur and peace of the great monasteries of old. (Ahaaaaa.) It’s The Life House, a three bedroom property in a quiet Welsh valley, which comes complete with a library of books on self-knowledge, relationships and emotional intelligence. (Yesss!) A weekend visit there is the equivalent of visiting a religious sanctum to regain personal peace and ponder the meaning of life, but without the bleak cell or meagre rations. (Bring it on.)

Well, I haven’t personally sampled any of these facilities, but my recent lengthy recuperation after surgery has given me the same kind of benefits … without the expense, or the need to travel, or any worries about fitting in with other people! Safely ensconced on a sofa, embedded in cushions, feet elevated at the required angle, a personal chef at my beck and call, I’ve been consuming books at a hitherto unheard of rate. Thinking. Reflecting. Making notes. And loving it. Hour upon uninterrupted hour, fully immersed in books of my own choosing – a veritable library awaiting me in an adjoining room.

And peace. No more-pressing demands on my time. So, no need to retrace my steps to check up on forgotten names or plot lines. No skimming. No dipping in and out. Just settling down to read right through from beginning to end, and losing myself in the whole experience. Brilliant therapy. And I’ve learned so much for my own writing in the process.

What’s not to like?

 

 

I must confess I’m one of those annoying people who gets fidgety doing only one thing at a time, so since childhood I’ve always knitted and read simultaneously. Squirrelled away in a room on my own these past weeks there’s been no one to be irritated by the clicking needles, or hurt by my complete absorption in a fictional world. So I also have a stack of garments finished for various good causes.

Sheer indulgence. And firsthand evidence of the value of reading. I wouldn’t wish cancer on anyone but there’s been a definite silver lining to my experience so far.

 

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Internet addiction

It’s hard to imagine how we’d function nowadays without access to the internet, isn’t it? I wouldn’t even right now be blogging on my website. But recently a number of big names in the writerly world have admitted to taking quite draconian measures to limit exposure to the net. Seems to be the in-thing in fact!

Zadie Smith, for example, in her latest novel, goes so far as to acknowledge a debt to two computer applications that block access to the internet. They helped to ‘create time.’ Hello?

And Jonathan Franzen says: ‘It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.’ Ouch!  This is the chap who’s alleged to have worn a blindfold and earplugs to minimize distraction while he wrote parts of The Corrections. Conjures up brilliant caricatures for any decent cartoonist, huh?

And many other authors – Jojo Moyes, Dave Eggers, Danuta Keane, Stella Duffy to name but a few – all admit to using computer programmes to fight distraction.

OK, I concede that

a) writers need space and peace to concentrate, to think and to hone their prose. Me too.

b) writing can be a pretty lonely experience that drains the personal batteries at times

c) nowadays authors are expected to make contact across the ether with their readers

d) some people find that words flow better using longhand or typewriters.

Fair enough; nothing wrong with that. But what’s going on with Franzen and Smith et all?

Don’t these successful, talented people have any will power? Enough at least to resist the temptation to flick across to the net during writing stints? Aren’t their characters and plots sufficiently enthralling to hold their own interest and concentration? Can’t they just ignore the ping of incoming emails, and twitters, and blogs, and network-messages and whatever, until leisure time? Come on!

OK, OK, OK, I admit it. I’m a bit of a Luddite in these matters. But then, I was born long before digital technology became commonplace. My first experience of computers was with mainframes – machines the size of rooms, that required elaborate instructions to change so much as a comma, and vans to take the disks between departments at the university. We developed a healthy respect for their majesty, might and mysteries.

Moreover I grew up in an isolated rural cottage. We made our own fun and entertainment; we were content with our own company; we treasured our privacy. Something of that whole ethos has remained with me and is reflected in my cautious attitude to more recent intrusions inventions like mobile phones and Facebook. I told you I was a Luddite.

Smith and Franzen (sounds like a slightly Dickensian firm of lawyers, doesn’t it?) are, of course, of a generation that has never known a world without personal computers and easy electronic communication. Digital know-how is hard-wired into their brains. What’s more, they’re household names; they’ll have huge fan-bases. Maybe therein lies the difference. Perhaps everyone wants a piece of them.

But in my case, the net, though a truly useful mine of information, is definitely and emphatically not an addiction. I maintain that, as with dictionaries and encyclopaedias, it is not in control, I am.

So why did I fly across to my emails when I heard that ping just now?

 

 

 

 

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