Weekend Reading: Making an Effort

Woman Reading (Elinga)I can’t post about books I’ve finished this week because I haven’t finished any. I’ve been trying to read–keeping in mind my realization that my life as a whole is better if I do, and also if I then write about what I’ve read. One obstacle has been my eyesight, unfortunately! Happy as I still am with the multifocal contact lenses that make almost every other aspect of my life perfectly visible, apparently my eyes have been changing just enough that now, if I’m wearing them, I find it really hard to focus on books. I can read just fine without the lenses in, but I don’t like to take them in and out, so I’ve been fitting some reading in during the mornings before I put them in to start the rest of my day, and in the evenings when I will still need them a bit later for TV, I am experimenting with some cheap reading glasses–which do seem to help with that near focus, but make me pretty swimmy if I dare to look around and not just stare at the page. I need to see my eye doctor and reassess my options, but I don’t want to have an eye exam (which brings you inescapably up close and personal for quite a long time, if it’s thorough) until … well, until.

bowenSo, one challenge is aging, and there’s not much to be done about that (and it’s only going to get worse, I know!) The other, though, has been the books I’ve been trying to focus on. Both are ones I have wanted to read for a long time, but neither has proved the right book for this moment, although one of them I am still working on. The first one I started this week was Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, which has been on my reading wish list for years. It looks great! I am sure it is great! But a couple of chapters into it, I just couldn’t bear it: it was making me feel both bored and claustrophobic. I suspect some of that is a deliberate effect, as it seems to be about a stifling world that tries to stifle people’s feelings. Bowen’s sentences didn’t help. I love Olivia Manning’s description of Bowen’s prose as being like someone drinking milk with their legs crossed behind their head: often, it just seems to be making something that’s actually fairly simple much more complicated than it needs to be! I can and have enjoyed exactly that about Bowen–but not now. Maybe The Death of the Heart will be a good book to read in the summer, on the deck with the languorous pleasure of sunshine to soothe my nerves and no constant fretting about discussion posts ungraded and PowerPoint slides to laboriously create. Back on the shelf it goes, until then.

le-carre-perfectThe other is John Le Carré’s A Perfect Spy, which I am still working on. I loved the Smiley books so much, and was so engaged by The Little Drummer Girl–how could I not want to read the book Le Carré himself considered his masterpiece?  I acquired it in a flush of enthusiasm after reading the others, started it–and did not like it at all. Then I started it again, months later–and still could not get a grip on it. I took it off my shelves when I put Bowen back, because it seemed like the opposite kind of book and so I thought it might work where The Death of the Heart hadn’t. My hope is that if I can just get further in this time, I will figure it out, by which I don’t mean the plot (which I expect will be as twisty as always) but the voice and the style and the mood. It feels really different from the other Le Carrés I’ve read: it is more fragmented, more arch and nasty, and less (so far) morally serious. I know a lot of people argue that life is too short to keep reading books you aren’t enjoying, and this is a case in which I have obviously agreed so far, quitting it for other books that I liked better. I am not an absolutist about finishing every book you start–but I have, often enough, found that persistence can pay off, and I believe, too, that good books sometimes teach us how to read them, and it’s a lesson that can take more than a few chapters. I want to stick with it this time, just to give it a real chance. (Any admirers out there who would like to encourage me in this effort? Please chime in!)

DALHOUSIE-UNIVERSITYSo that’s where I am this week! I have been thinking a lot about posting more in my once-usual “this week in my classes” series but I can’t seem to get past the twin obstacles of my classes no longer being distinguishable “events” and of all the work for them already being done by computer, which makes reflecting on them by writing about them on the computer a lot less appealing, for some reason. I have a rambling post partially drafted about the other topic that has been much on my mind: realizing that by the time we are back on campus, I will be among the most senior members of my department, not by age but by longevity. In fact, by July 1 2022, I will have only one colleague still around who has been in the department longer than I have. What does–what should–this mean to how I go about my work, or how I think about it? I don’t really know, and I thought that writing about it might help. Maybe it will! We’ll see. In the meantime, things go on exactly the same as they have for months and months. Vaccines are coming, but very slowly–as is spring. Reason for optimism on both counts, but what’s still required above all is patience, and after a year of this, I sometimes feel I have to dig pretty deep for that.

10 thoughts on “Weekend Reading: Making an Effort

  1. Jeanne March 13, 2021 / 2:14 pm

    As a person who has never worn glasses, I had a lot of trouble with that “swimmy” effect when I started wearing cheap reading glasses a couple of years ago. I soon learned to push the glasses up on my head or peer over them when I wasn’t looking at a page, and I still use the cheap ones. I have a pair anyplace I read and a pair still in my traveling bag.


    • Rohan Maitzen March 13, 2021 / 4:18 pm

      Good tips! I have multifocal glasses that (if I wore them instead of my lenses) I could just take off to read, but they have just never worked well for middle distances like my computer so it’s kind of 6 of one, half a dozen of the other in terms of picking what to wear.


  2. mementominnie March 13, 2021 / 4:31 pm

    Oh dear..become interested in Modernist women authors and have been stacking up books by Elizabeth Bowen.And loved Perfect Spy so much that I have three copies.I’m sure our tastes will converge at some point and will look forward to your blogs.


    • Rohan Maitzen March 13, 2021 / 6:47 pm

      That’s exactly what I need to hear about A Perfect Spy! I am going to read some more of it right now.


  3. Lilyami March 14, 2021 / 4:13 am

    Perhaps you are already doing this, but reading it as semi-autobiographical may help — both because it is semi-autobiographical, and because that thought may inform, even explain, those aspects you do not like. It is one of my favourite Le Carrés, and I have read nearly all of them. The BBC TV version (1987) was very moving, with a great performance by Ray McAnally as the appalling father.


    • Rohan Maitzen March 14, 2021 / 9:27 am

      It is definitely encouraging to hear from people who love this book! My edition has a preface that explains that autobiographical context, so I did know that about; it hasn’t really made that much difference to my page-by-page experience. As I keep going, though, I am finding that the parts of the novel that felt really dispersed at first are weaving together better, which is making it a better experience (I’m about 1/3 of the way in now). I’m intrigued about the TV version!


  4. Lisa Hill March 14, 2021 / 9:37 pm

    One tip: you actually need different glasses for reading on a computer. Don’t get me started having so many pairs for different purposes, but it’s true.
    The reason is that when you read a book you are looking down at something near you; when you are at a desk you are looking straight ahead or slightly upwards at the screen. Normally when you are looking straight ahead you are looking at things that are far away, not close up like a computer. You are using eye muscles for far away for close-up and that’s why you need different glasses.
    But, reading between the lines, you are not just discombobulated about your eyesight, though the fear of having a compromised ability to read is a real thing for those of us who love to read.
    My advice is to choose something you have read before and loved, like the short stories in Scenes of Clerical Life, by George Eliot. Read it for the sheer pleasure of doing so, without any pressure to do something with it. So-called comfort reading doesn’t have to be banal and cosy as so often it seems to be in the media, but reading something you know and love is a great comfort when life seems so very unpredictable.
    One of my friends deep in lockdown posted a while ago that he would trade his whole library for an hour’s conversation with a friend, and alarmed by that expression of his desperation, I started having zoom conversations with him. It has been such a pleasure for both of us, we are now chatting once a week about what we’re reading and life in general and I am now astonished that it took a pandemic for us to start doing this because it’s something to look forward to every week. It’s totally different to zoom meetings and classes and the obligations that go with that, we just schedule the same time each week across our respective time zones, and it’s like talking on the phone only better because we feel more connected because we can see each other (and of course it’s much more affordable).
    My experience of lockdown (which was long and *very* strict here in Melbourne) was that even though I have a nice husband, it was like being on holidays with him in non-English-speaking countries. I wasn’t lonely but I yearned to have conversations with other people, talking about other things, and I began to schedule contact with my friends at regular times. We did things like planning to watch the same streaming film and discussing it afterwards the way we would if we’d been to the pictures together. From being someone who *never* yakked on the phone, I was having conversations lasting over an hour.
    So if I’m not being presumptuous, I’d suggest that you plan for some kind of contact with friends or colleagues who share your concerns so that you can vent, but who will also take your mind off them. It’s important to plan it, because ringing at an awkward time compromises not just that call but successive ones as well.
    It is long and hard and all of us have covid-fatigue but it will not last forever. Stay well, Lisa


    • Rohan Maitzen March 15, 2021 / 7:58 am

      I really appreciate your supportive comment, Lisa. That’s definitely true about the computer. My multi-focal glasses (as opposed to contacts!) work fine for longer distances but I can’t seem to find the way to angle my head so that I hit the sweet spot for getting the middle distance right (and the neck aches that result from trying are a whole further pleasure).

      I know that those factors are part of the problem, but I have been able to read some unfamiliar books with great pleasure so I think A Perfect Spy is definitely at least partly to blame. I’m going to push on a bit longer with it in case it finally clicks, but if it just doesn’t, I do like the idea of just choosing something I love and enjoying it. Maybe not GE, which at this point in the term feels a bit too work-like (I know, but it’s true!) — maybe Dorothy Dunnett or Dorothy Sayers.

      Like you, I have been working to build in more good conversations – by phone, which is much more congenial to me than zoom. It has been lovely getting back in more frequent touch with old friends!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Lisa Hill March 15, 2021 / 9:50 pm

        I read my first-ever Dorothy Dunnett last year and was delighted to find how good she is. I’ve got a friend who reads and re-reads them all the time, so I’ve got a vague project to read my way through the series one book each year, which should take me through to old age given how prolific she was!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. kerryclare March 16, 2021 / 1:22 pm

    ” it just seems to be making something that’s actually fairly simple much more complicated than it needs to be” I had this experience when I read her first novel THE HOTEL recently. I have enjoyed other books by her, and this was was very vivid in places and very funny, BUT the main theme of the novel seemed to be people failing to articulate the inarticulatable, and I just got so bored…


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