Good resolutions seem to have gone out of fashion – and end-of-year reflections seem to have been surrendered, vicariously, to journalists who remind us, instead, of the world’s key events and do a round up, for example, of “best books of the year”.
Whatever happened to the “mindfulness” about which we were being exhorted not so long ago – let alone simple “attentiveness”?
Tim Parks - to whom I referred in the last post – asked recently what might be the most practical way he could lead his students to a greater attentiveness…......to help protect themselves from all those underlying messages that can shift one’s attitude without one’s being aware of it? I began to think about the way I read myself, about the activity of reading, what you put into it rather than what was simply on the page.
Try this experiment, I eventually told them: from now on always read with a pen in your hands, not beside you on the table, but actually in your hand, ready, armed. And always make three or four comments on every page, at least one critical, even aggressive. Put a question mark by everything you find suspect. Underline anything you really appreciate. Feel free to write “splendid,” but also, “I don’t believe a word of it.” And even “bullshit.”
……it was remarkable how many students improved their performance with this simple stratagem. There is something predatory, cruel even, about a pen suspended over a text. Like a hawk over a field, it is on the lookout for something vulnerable. Then it is a pleasure to swoop and skewer the victim with the nib’s sharp point.
The mere fact of holding the hand poised for action changes our attitude to the text. We are no longer passive consumers of a monologue but active participants in a dialogue. Students would report that their reading slowed down when they had a pen in their hand, but at the same time the text became more dense, more interesting, if only because a certain pleasure could now be taken in their own response to the writing when they didn’t feel it was up to scratch, or worthy only of being scratched.
Shades of the "slow books" concept I have been trying to arouse interest in.....