Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

How I Learned to Read Again

I can’t remember learning to talk but I do remember learning to read.

As the youngest of four, I had an urgent need to be able to read even before I started school. All around me, my family’s heads were buried in Mills and Boon, Agatha Christie, Enid Blyton, Mickey Spillane, Charles Dickens or the racing pages of the Irish Press. When they did communicate with one another it seemed to be about what they had just read. If I wanted to stay afloat in this family it was necessary to become a decoder of the printed word.

But if I set out on this path with the intention of connecting with my family, or at least gaining their occasional attention, I soon relegated them to a lowly position in the league table of my desires. For I had found something new to love – the world of the books and everything connected with it. I think what first enchanted me was the very shape of a book. The rectangular cuboid, with its straight edges, was reassuringly regular and also reminiscent of a box. Boxes, in turn, had already established themselves in my mind as the most promising of containers. There were boxes of chocolates which appeared only sporadically and were offered around in strict rotation and studied with the hushed deference normally reserved for a sleeping newborn. There was the Jack-in-the-Box, with which I played endlessly and which always retained enough of the sinister to keep me interested. And there was The Tinderbox, a delightfully violent tale that had often been read aloud to me, probably with gory embellishments, by my nearest sibling, who was six years older than me.

This particular individual was later indirectly responsible for causing a certain kink in my education, and thereby, my personality. Always an enterprising youngster, he used to run errands for a (slightly shabby) genteel Protestant lady who lived in a decaying Georgian house on the periphery of the town. At some point, she learned that our Catholic working class family was somewhat bookish and, perhaps from a desire to educate us or, equally likely, from an impulse to declutter, she bestowed upon us a heap of dusty volumes, diverse in both quality and content. There was a number of very forgettable Victorian and Edwardian novels (whose names I have duly forgotten), a scattering of Dickens –
Our Mutual Friend, The Uncommercial Traveller, a pocket sized A Christmas Carol, Nicholas Nickleby, The Egoist by George Meredith, Robinson Crusoe, Lorna Doone, The Decameron, a copy of Pears Encyclopaedia of 1921 (single volume) and a full eight volume set of the Harmsworth Encyclopaedia which must have been published also in the 1920s.

As a child of, perhaps, eight at the time (1969), my critical faculties were not yet sharp but my appetite for reading was very strong. Despite my mother’s doubts about the dustiness of the books and the possibility of picking up some exotic disease from them, I resolved at once to read them all and set about my task with great enthusiasm.

The Egoist defeated me. Dickens delighted me. Robinson Crusoe and Lorna Doone held my attention. The Decameron, I absorbed and filed away to fuel later adolescent fantasy. The encyclopaedias I read in parallel with the fiction – starting at ‘A’ and working my way through, completist as I was at that age. The entries were short, so boredom was never an issue. In the space of ten minutes I would learn that Fulham was a thriving town serviced by motorbuses and underground, that fulminate of mercury is a highly sensitive explosive compound used to detonate other explosives and that the Fula people of Africa play a musical instrument called a hoddu. I had the, not uncommon, boyhood fantasy that if I could absorb all the knowledge in this encyclopaedia then I could become an inventor of the order of Edison, whose photograph adorned the flyleaf of Volume One.

I never did invent anything but all this reading meant that I was unconsciously reinventing myself. And this is where the kink comes in. Even though I was a 1970s working class Irish boy, I was imbibing the values of an Edwardian English gentleman. Thus when my companions would applaud our school full-back for violently decking an opponent behind the referee’s back, I would start musing about sportsmanship. Or, during the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’, when many of those around me seemed hypnotised by vulgar anti-British ballads bawled out by men with impossible sideburns, I might be humming Handel’s
Royal Fireworks or Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance. (Another generous neighbour had offloaded to us the Reader’s Digest Classical Music Long-Playing Record Collection, now that we had risen to purchasing a mono record player encased in a cheap but neat wooden box – the next magical container in my life.) When I consider the extent of my non-conformity, it must be said that the (inevitable) bullying was relatively mild, though not exactly gentle. It was, however, effective insofar as I learned very quickly to do a passable imitation of an Irish teenager while keeping my inner Englishman within the privacy of my own skull. This split might go some way towards explaining the neurotic symptoms that began to manifest themselves as I got older: anxiety, panic, obsession and depression. Only some small way – I will not bore you here with the other vicissitudes of my life – but let’s not throw away part of the jigsaw when we find it.

So, I had reached a point in my life between the ages of eight and, say, fifteen, where I went through the motions of being a normal boy (going to school, playing soccer in the yard, camping with the boy scouts) but I really came alive in the act of reading. I would go into our sitting room, (in our family we always, somewhat enigmatically, referred to it as ‘the room’ – “Where’s Tom?” “He’s inside ‘n da room”), put on a record and read. The outside world would recede, my mask would melt away and I would come into being. I began to concentrate on fiction and the ecstasy I felt at times, amongst the pages, between the lines, was almost sexual. The intimacy I felt with certain authors (Greene, Dickens, Chandler) and characters (Yossarian, Heathcliff, Meaulnes) was unboundaried, more a merging than a meeting; I would come out of the room (“Tom, your tea is on the table!”) as if from a lover’s bed: content, yet eager to return to my private delights. (I should admit here to being a two-timer – I was having a parallel love affair with the cinema, but we’ll keep that hush-hush for now). The gap between my private, internal life and the facade that I maintained (along with other unhelpful factors) was beginning to make me feel not just unhappy but symptomatically neurotic. And then my reading took a drastic turn; I began to read for a reason.

I could blame teachers who thought they were enlightened, or a brother who began studying psychology or, indeed, Vatican ll. However it happened, I came in contact with popular psychology and immediately developed the hope that it would help me ‘sort myself out’. As befitted my age, I was not discriminating in what I absorbed: The Art of Loving (Fromm), Why am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am? (Powell), Games People Play (Berne). These books and many more like them, filled me with hope; hope that I could become like others, well, certain others anyway – the boys who seemed confident in social and sexual situations. I also began to develop the fantasy that I could feel happy all the time and, of course, the conviction that if I was not happy at any given moment that this must be due to the fact that I was not implementing the strategies with enough energy or skill. Cue: guilt and the resolve to work even harder at the books.

I went on to study Social Science and read a lot more psychology, sociology and philosophy. But, I read much of this with the same personal agenda. By now, I was reading desperately, seeking answers, seeking meaning in life. The reading was a means to an end whereas before it had been an end in itself. I continued to read novels but not so much to enjoy them as to analyse them, to squeeze meaning out of them. As the years passed by I found myself reading less and less fiction and more psychology and psychoanalysis.

For a few years, I thought I had found a home in Jungian psychotherapy. Looking back, I can see that it was Jung’s scholarship rather than his therapy that attracted me.  When I was a boy I had the fantasy of being allowed to live alone in an infinite library (where someone would leave my meals at the door).  To some extent, Jung was able to realise this fantasy by marrying the wealthy Emma Rauschenbach. When he decided to become an expert in mythology or alchemy, he had the means and the time to do so. Ironically, my real reason for wanting to be a Jungian – I want read a lot; in fact, I want to read everything – remained unconscious.  I had no idea then of my own desire.

The fact was: somewhere along the way I had stopped actually reading and now I was just desperately searching. I was still buying lots of books and spending time with them. But I was merely absorbing the material with no thought for the quality of the writing. I was a hungry man with no sense of taste. When I look back at some of the junk I consumed – well, let’s just say, my bookshelves are there to embarrass me as I still find it difficult to throw out a book. Paradoxically, in my search for a cure to my ills, I had deprived myself of one of the true joys in my life.

But, my logical reader might object, you began reading all those years ago for a reason?  True.  But I was soon diverted from that reason and continued for the enjoyment.  So, my reader rejoins, does that mean that it is just the act of reading that is enjoyable, regardless of content?  Not quite.  (I am for some reason here reminded of the movie ‘Kingpin’ where one character can’t defecate unless he is reading something, even if it is the back of a shampoo bottle – his anal jouissance has become almost totally fused with the act of reading – but even he needs new material each time.)  For me, it is the experience of reading something that has been written by an author who enjoys the act of writing.

Of course I cannot read the mind of each author and categorically state whether the writing was enjoyable or not.  I can however, in any particular case, back up my sense of things by analysing the text.  For instance, writers who become seduced by the words, who get lured into digressions because of the overtones and undertones of the language, are obviously enjoying themselves more than those who, to paraphrase Sam Goldwyn, deliver their message by telegram.  And yet neither is concision the enemy.  The finely honed sentences and tightly reined prose that come from multiple rewrites are more likely to emanate from a loving craftsman than from some brute who just wants to make his point and get paid.

And when I say ‘enjoyable’ I am using the word in a sense wider than ‘pleasurable’.   I have already mentioned jouissance, a word the Lacanians use to describe something of the overlap, the blurred lines that exist between pleasure and pain (think of being tickled, too much).  What is it that drives someone to record his pain in writing even as he sits in the midst of his misery?  In such circumstances the writing is somehow ‘satisfying’ that drive.  So while the writing does not (always) relieve the pain, it is, at some level, satisfying – the writer enjoys some satisfaction, though he simultaneously cries out at the cruelty of the universe. 

For me then the writing must emanate from the drive of the writer.  It must erupt passionately, humourously, irrationally – stylishly.  It must not feel manufactured for a particular audience; as if the writer had started working from the outside in.  It might make sense or, indeed, it may go beyond making sense.  

And the reading must arise out of the drive of the reader.  It must seek nothing but the pleasure of the word.  Other gifts may be delivered and received but that fleeting pleasure, that connection between the two drives is what will bring something momentarily into being.  That’s enough.

Tom Ryan blogs at Loose Sallies