Shed kilos and get bitchin’ abs with existential prose
It has become somewhat fashionable of late to out oneself as a bit of a reader. A self-confessed bookworm. A well-read head, as it were.
The trend, of course, was started by this site’s resident well red-head, complete with that strangely-situated hyphen of hers, and it is indeed her shining example that has compelled me to write this piece. In her first column for this website, and in more or less each of her columns since, Ms Sales has – I’m sure you will have noticed – been detailing her personal history as a reader: her obsessive love of word puzzles; her discovery of camaraderie and community at a writer’s festival; and the origin of her love reading, Enid Blyton’s The Enchanted Wood, as well as the many tributaries that have fed into that love ever since.
For my money, though, her best piece remains the one she wrote, somewhat earlier on, about being interrupted when very obviously engaged with a book. “The final step,” she wrote in that piece, “is to explode.”
A well-read redhead with tendencies towards violence when it comes to the written word? What’s not to aspire to?
It is my own tendency towards the obsessive and fanatical that I wanted to touch upon briefly here, in the hope of generating some understanding for me and others like me.
I have always been a somewhat avid – indeed, rabid – reader. I was the sort of child who would stay up late or wake up early in order to get through the next hundred pages of Black Beauty or Tomorrow, When the War Began or The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾. The older I got, the more varied my tastes became, and I was becoming increasingly fanatical, too. But I was also becoming, simultaneously and unfortunately, somewhat busier.
By 2004, my first year of university, it had become obvious to me that there weren’t enough hours in the day to do everything that I wanted to do, let alone everything I needed to. (I was a film student at the time and was watching two or more movies a day in addition to everything else.) What with lectures and study and, on occasion, sleep, there seemed to be no time for books anymore. The only spare hour I could spare each day was spared on a stationary bike at the gym.
I cannot precisely pinpoint the moment I decided to start mixing my exercise and my reading. Certainly, the two had never seemed to me to be particularly good bedfellows before. Indeed, it was precisely because I liked reading books that the more athletic of the bullies at my high school considered me fair game. But there seemed to be nothing else for it. To my surprise, before too long the new regime was bearing fruit. Not only was I keeping myself relatively fit, I was also getting more reading done than I had ever gotten done before. I can claim, I think, to be one of the only people in the world to have read Bertrand Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy while interval training and watching aerobics classes. While I may be one of countless many who have tried and failed to read Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, I may be one of only a handful of people to have ruined Sartre’s Being and Nothingness by sweating on it.
Life, it is fair to say, was good. But then, as quickly as it began, it was over. Before I knew it, I had graduated, and no longer had a free gym membership. What’s more, I was a working man now – a market researcher for a bank – and no longer had that precious hour that had been there for me in my university days. It was obvious that incidental exercise would have to suffice for the former regime. I would need to walk everywhere, taking it to the streets. Reading, however, would be a problem. I couldn’t take that to the streets. Could I?
By this time, you must understand, exercise and reading had become fairly closely linked in my mind.
Like a rat that learns to push the button that feeds it, as opposed to the one that gives it an electric shock, I had learned to associate words on a page with a heart rate of over one-hundred-and-fifty. I could try to read in bed at night but would immediately get an urge to go running. Similarly, I would walk briskly to work and feel my brain starved for stimulation. And so it was that I became an extreme pedestrian reader. One of those kooks you see crossing the road with his nose in a book, navigating the footpath and weaving through the bodies without ever really seeming to look up. One of those jokers who – on occasion, it is true – you have to honk your horn at because he’s stepped out into traffic while immersed in some novel or biography or play.
Doubtless I look ridiculous to the vast majority of onlookers – I have seen others doing what I do on occasion and it never fails to fill with abject self-loathing – but to the extent that it scratches my now-permanent itch, I have to resign myself to fact that this is who I am: the fellow trying to read Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia with both hands – this is a book, let us not forget, that is actually rather heavy – while making some dim-witted attempt to press the button at the pedestrian crossing with my foot.
Leigh Sales, I am fairly certain, would have better sense than to try to join me. Few people would, however fanatical. Nevertheless, a housemate of mine, suitably impressed with the feat, once tried linking incidental exercise and reading for himself.
“Perhaps we can start a movement,” he said.
“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” I replied.
Clearly, I hadn’t expected him to last very long. Frankly, I’m surprised to have lasted myself. But I was still surprised when he gave up the lark after only one day on the streets.
“What went wrong?” I asked him over breakfast the next morning before we both went to work.
“It’s a stupid hobby,” he bluntly replied before shuffling out the door, bookless. “It doesn’t work and I can’t believe you ever talked me into it.”
It later occurred to me, as I powered along a footpath with the weighty tome I was reading at the time, that my housemate’s place of work was somewhat farther away than mine, and that he didn’t actually walk there at all. Instead, he rode a bike.
“Trouble balancing the book on the handlebars?” I asked him, stifling a laugh, that night.
“I ran into a parked car,” he replied.
And I thought I was fanatical.
Read all about it
Up to the minute Twitter chatter
The latest and greatest
Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…
I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…
In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…