‘Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are’ was an original classic before it was replaced with the more succinct ‘you are what you eat’. I also heard of ‘tell me what you watch’ or ‘tell me what you listen to’ or even ‘tell me how you shag and I’ll tell you what Sex and The City character you are’. The ‘tell me what you insert verb, and I’ll tell what you are’ article re-surfaces in magazines and newspapers at regular intervals. Now it’s all about ‘tell me how you spend’, in the eighties it was ‘tell me how you exercise’; countless re-incarnations of a say that very much rings like a media proverb have infested printed matter for years and years. There is one at least in my mind that seems to always hold true; tell me what you read and I’ll tell you what you are. But does it, really?
I live in a small house with lots of books. I have books in the usual places, the bedside tables, the bookcases, the dining room table, and then I have books in the overspill places such as the boiler’s cupboard, the bedroom corners, the lounge’s floor, the kitchen’s tiny flip-down table. I have some piled up on the printer, some on the window sills, some in the filing cabinet and some abandoned in desperation when I have run out of neat columns. I was recently reading a thread on Ravelry, ‘Can you have too many knitting books?’. I have not added to the thread itself but I found myself thinking about the question many times over. You can’t have too many books, that’s a simple one to answer. The question can perhaps be, can you have too many useless books? Can a book be useless? Oh dear, when is a chair not a chair?
Years ago I scoffed at a friend reading a Mills and Boon. She said she didn’t find reading Mills and Boon an insult to her intelligence and that she liked to fill her spare time with unchallenging crap. This too, gave me reasons to think. I thought about websites that ask you for your hobbies; many people automatically type in ‘reading’. But is reading really a hobby? Isn’t a hobby something we do to fill our spare time? More importantly, what defines spare time? Is spare time the one we do not spend in a 9-5 job? What about a person that does not have a 9-5 job, does that mean a lot of spare time? 24 hours a day of spare time? I don’t have hobbies; that’s because a hobby is something that is relegated at the bottom of a never-ending list of tasks that invariably take priority. If I think of some horsey friends, I wouldn’t say that horses are their hobbies either. They are a way of life. How else to describe someone willing to drive 10 miles to her horse on a dark winter’s evening in order to school him? That’s not a hobby, that’s a second passion. Or a first one, depending on the rest of your life.
I don’t read in my spare time. Spare from what? Spared from the washing up? Spared from walking the dogs? In fact, is walking the dogs a job-like form of tyranny or a hobby? Hobbies do not exist. It’s like talking of work-life balance, something that comes up over and over in the corpo emails I re-route to the junk folder. Work-life balance; isn’t work supposed to be part of your life? I smirk when I think of the French; try and mention the work-life balance to any French person and you’ll be met with a supercilious, and oh so very appropriate, smile. There is no such thing as work-life balance outside of the Anglo-American world, there’s just life. And if there’s always time for books it’s because I make time.
If I were to squeeze them into my usual schedule, I’d never read a thing. I’d never write a thing. But reading, like writing, is a form of discipline. Recently, I was reading The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp. A propos scratching, which could be defined as a method that brings inspiration to the artist, Twyla says: ‘If you read for inspiration, read the top-drawer writers, and read their masterworks first. [...] Scratch among the best and you will automatically raise the quality of the ideas you uncover’. I am no literary snob; if I were, there would be no Trinny and Susannah on my bookshelf, no Helena Frith-Powell, no guides on how to walk in high heels. However, they sit side-by-side with Michel Foucault and Jacques Lacan, next to John Keats, to the Norton Anthologies, to TS Eliot, to Les Guides Blues and, yes, next to Gianni Versace’s books and next to Mario Testino’s, all part of a multi-faceted paper carnival that may, or may not, say something about me to those who have never met me. I wouldn’t dream to scratch for ideas among a good 80% of the depressing fiction offerings on Waterstone’s tables, mostly because they are of dubious quality.
As I ponder on Discipline and Punish, I wonder whether I may seem too serious, an adjective I would never pick to describe myself, or indeed my reading habits. As I flick through Two Lipsticks and A Lover, I wonder whether I may seem too shallow, the sort of girl that reads Cosmo (or Mills and Boon), rather than Prospect or TIME. I’m both and the reason that leads me to light-hearted non-fiction is to be found in Foucault’s work not in magazines; the reason that drives me to horror literature is sociological, not voyeuristic. It is not what I read that defines me. It's The Reading. I read therefore I am. Then my eyes wander to the top shelf of the library where the DVDs sit tight together, too many soldiers jostling for space. I think you can tell a lot by what people watch. But I’ll talk about that another time.