Like reading. Josephine Tovey has written of her struggle to keep up the good reading habits of her earlier days because the modern world provides so many distractions.
I left Nelson Mandela in a lime quarry on Robben Island, the same way I abandoned Clarissa Dalloway on her way to the florist, and Ishmael, only shortly after he set sail. That was how far I managed to get into Mandela’s The Long Walk to Freedom, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, before the books joined the mushrooming pile by my bedside, or the increasingly fraudulent display that is my bookshelf.
I was enjoying each one. But I couldn’t seem to finish them.
Nelson, Clarissa and Ishmael were all abandoned for twitter, facebook and netflix. Jo felt as though the internet had trained her out of long form reading, that the endless one minute pleasure spasms of reading one Buzzfeed listicle after another had made her as incapable of sinking into the challenge of literature as most 20/20 batsmen would be of playing for a draw over two days on a sticky wicket at Headingly.
As a guy who regularly whacks himself in the face with an iPad when dozing off in bed, I sort of understand. And yet I wonder if Josephine is doing it wrong. She's right about being trained into gorging ourselves on handfuls of M&M-like snippets of text and audio and social media updates and blogs and grumpy cat and link bait lists and whatever and ever amen. You do have to stay in the habit of reading stories longer than 300 words. That's what I'm contracted to write for Fairfax at Blunty. 300 words a blog. I frequently go longer than that, of course, because I'm a windbag. But all of our data, all of everybody's data, points inexorably towards the fact that, yes, Homo modernus has a very short attention span.
Why then would you take a difficult piece of literature into your soft warm bed at the end of a long and difficult day? You're almost certainly setting yourself up to fail. There are two issues here. One, being tired, stressed, overworked and generally too warn out to stay awake for more than a few minutes. Literature is not going to help with that. And secondly, literature.
None of the books Josephine cited struck me as being much fun to read. You might enjoy them the same way that you might enjoy the challenge of bench pressing your own body weight, but that's more of an existential satisfaction than a pleasurable one.
I still read in bed, but after suffering from the same distractions and a few I discovered all on my own, such as news aggregators like Flipboard and Zite, I now have a policy of reading either one short to medium length article from something middle to high brow like The New Yorker, or a couple of chapters from one of my unrivaled collection of books that improve with altitude.
The thinky stuff I read because I enjoy it, but not too much of it, and usually not late at night. To return to the weightlifting metaphor, it helps to give your brain a bit of a workout every now and then. But mostly at the end of the day I just want to relax and if I'm reading that means I'll be reading something like Steve Stirling's latest alternate history novel of the Change. (The Given Sacrifice, since you ask, and yes it is awesome). Thrillers, action adventure stories, fantasy, SF, all of the genres that don't get no respect at literary festivals, they all produce the sorts of books that are likely to find you cursing the author at four in the morning because you just have to keep turning the pages.
Nobody has to keep turning the pages of literary fiction unless you have a term paper due the next morning.
The other issue, of course, is simply a lack of time. The reason so many of us read in bed is that we don't have the time to do it during the day. There is that brief and shining moment in your 20s when, particularly if you are a layabout student, you do have endless days and months to lie around consuming book after book. But those days are over for me, and I suspect they are over for Josephine Tovey as well.
I've 'read' many more books this year than I have in recent years, however, simply by subscribing to Audible.com. Even though I work from home, I find these days that I'm a commuter more often than not, or a taxi driver perhaps, ferrying kids from one commitment to another. I spend a surprising amount of time behind the wheel, enough to let me stream hours of music, listen to hours of podcasts, and still get through one or two long audiobooks a month. I never listen to audiobooks in bed because that would be a bit perverse. I can't explain why. Just shut up you.
But in the car, walking the dog, hanging out at endless, endless, endless school sporting functions, they are a godsend. And they don't even need to be thrillers. Right now, just to prove that I can, I'm making my way through Hillary Mantel's huge, thinky, dense and difficult Wolf Hall. It's brilliant, visionary, almost hallucinatory in its evocation of Thomas Cromwell's point of view and I read it, or rather listen to it, with a grinding envy for all the talent this woman has to spare.
But it's weightlifting. Really difficult weightlifting. I feel better for having done it. It's good for me. But I enjoy it in the same way that I enjoy a really hard workout. It's only fun when it stops hurting. And I would never, ever attempt it in bed.