I read for 14 hours straight yesterday, or pretty much. That's a lot of hours, even by an avid reader's standards. I so rarely get the time to give myself over completely to a book. It's the first time since I was sick in January that I've read for more than an hour or two in one go, and it was good. Now I feel all loose and relaxed and balanced as though I've done vigorous physical exercise, when the exact opposite is true. Many of you already know that I wasn't alone on this reading marathon, yesterday (and a bit of today) being the bi-annual Dewey's Readathon where participants all over the world spend 24 hours communally reading and live-blogging about it.
This post is rather belated, as the etiquette and norm of the Readerthon is to blog during the event. But I decided to join in at the last minute and, to be honest, I didn't feel like writing so much as reading at the start. So instead of doing what I should have done and sitting down and writing a quick post that I could update like many of the bloggers I follow, I did a big fat nothing at the start. Once I was reading I didn't want to loose the momentum and so followed along mainly on Twitter and on other blogs. I'm a bit sad about that now, hence this post to catch up with the reading I did.
Leading up to the Readathon lots of bloggers were posting and tweeting photos of their book stacks and snacks. (Snacks are clearly a big thing for readathon-ers, I'll have to be better prepared for that part in future!) When I got up on Saturday morning and decided, what the hell, I'll throw everything else to the wind - it was such a blustery and grey day here - I gathered together a neat collection of my own.
Some of these were books I'd already started, like Lord Jim, A Storm of Swords and Africa: Biography of a Continent (I've been reading the latter for over a year), and others were highly anticipated, like Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell and How Fiction Works by James Wood. Then I picked up a couple of wildcards from the TBR, Arabella by Georgette Heyer (for some light relief) and The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu (for something unusual). A nice mix of fiction, non-fiction and short stories.
Then I set myself up with a reading corner, which ironically involved getting as close to the TV as possible.
The window - for the light - and the fire on low - for toasting my chilly-spring toes - seemed like an important combination and the TV stand was handy for my cup of tea, fruity snacks and little pile of books. I sat down at 10am, a couple of hours before the official UK start time of 1pm because I knew I couldn't stay up through the night as I had a driving lesson this morning. Starting early was my compromise. I stayed there most of the day and evening and then into the night, with some interludes for food, until midnight when I curled up in bed for the last two hours. I finally fell asleep at 2am, although I picked my book up again for an hour after my lesson to finish with all the other participants at 1pm today. 14 hours in one go, plus another hour. Not bad for my first try.
Because I'm a novice at this Readathon business I didn't keep any stats, like pages per hour or minutes spent reading vs making food or following the social media conversation. This was partly a conscious choice because, you know me, I would only be page counting and clock watching and judging my progress rather than focusing on the matter in hand. I started off really well, finishing Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim by mid-afternoon. I must have read about 200 pages, which might not sound much for nearly 5 hours reading but Conrad takes some parsing and I was flicking back and forth to the notes often. If not for the readathon it would probably have taken me another week to finish it off. I will write more about the book when I've properly processed but - spoiler - I loved it. I read Heart of Darkness at university and hadn't spared Conrad a thought since; he doesn't seem to be a writer much in vogue with anybody. It was Esther who piqued my interest by raving about her current read, Chance, which is linked to Lord Jim and to Heart of Darkness by Conrad's narrator-cum-protagonist Marlow. The book uses the darkness and corruption of late nineteenth century colonialism for narrative momentum and focuses on the moral evaluation of a single individual. It's not exactly pacey, but it is thrilling and exhilirating in Conrad's very own verbose, complex, psychological way.
I was almost afraid of finishing my first book because that usually signals a reading break for me while I choose something new. This break can last a couple of hours or a day or longer, depending on the impact of the book I've finished. Something intense and thought-provoking like Lord Jim would usually need a hiatus of at least a day. So to come down I read a few articles in the Times Literary Supplement - did you know that children and dogs are banned from Antartica? - and then a couple of chapters from Africa about the Portuguese exploration of the west coast. These were as fascinating as always; I didn't realise that the Portuguese landed in South Africa as early as 1488. Enjoying the non-fictional vibe I picked up James Woods' How Fiction Works. I've been reading quite a few of these kinds of books recently, or at least bits of them, with a faint sense of disappointment. I'm waiting to be hit by all new ways thinking about and doing this reading thing that I love so much. Of all of them I found Wood the most interesting, both on his own stylistic merits and also for the close textual readings he uses to make his points. The first section is about narrative voice, segueing into a Flaubert love-in. I've never read Flaubert but the way Wood interrogated his use of free indirect style was so incredibly illuminating that it didn't matter. I ended up taking several pages of notes. It was just the invigoration I needed to send me onto my next tangle with fiction: five chapters of A Storm of Swords and two stories from Vampires in the Lemon Grove.
I've been sitting on Karen Russell's new book of short stories for a while, waiting for the right moment to embark. I set about the first two stories after my dinner, with the early evening light fading behind me, and was immediately engrossed. The title story is a masterclass in voice and I was well placed to read it after spending time with James Wood. The narrator is an old vampire, living in an Italian lemon grove with his 'wife' Magreb, and sucking lemons in lieu of blood. Russell's speciality is this species of fantastic premise, the kind that makes you sit up and smile so that you're amused and predisposed to read on. And then she takes you down the rabbit hole of her idea until you feel utterly bewildered and almost always non-plussed. The second story - 'Reeling for the Empire' - was not quite so much to my taste, being a neatly executed but largely traditional piece of horror about women being transformed into silk worms.
I could have kept reading Vampires... but decided against rushing on. Instead I made myself a vast pot of coffee and flipped open Arabella by Georgette Heyer at about 9.30pm. This was my light relief read for when I started to flag, and safe to say it was light and it was quite a relief and I read it from start to finish (with sleep and driving lesson in between). It was pretty obvious from page one that this was perfect readathon fodder, the kind of book that runs on like a gently amusing dream. Time and the pages flew by. It's like Patrick O'Brien crossed with Marian Keyes, if such a fascinating union can be imagined; the Regency romance equivalent of Dorothy L. Sayers. Well-researched and witty, bubbly and bright. The story was utterly predictable; the characters were utterly predictable; the bon mots were utterly predictable; and I swear that some lines were lifted wholesale from Austen. But that was exactly what I was expecting, and the execution was better than I was expecting, so a win all round. When I tweeted what I was reading a flurry of my work followers tweeted back in excitement: Heyer is apparently the escapism of choice for archivists and librarians.
Now that the readathon is over I find myself feeling a bit lost. I just want to keep reading, but in that specially intense way that I do when all I'm planning on doing for the hours to come is read more, so my mind is totally on the book and not on the washing I need to hang out, or the pork loin to be stuffed for dinner, or the work email to be sent before Monday. This is what the readathon offers, and I loved it. I also really enjoyed the community of it - the organisers have set up a whole infrastructure of support and social media and mini-challenges to keep people talking. Some readers were also giving money to charity based on how much they'd read: an idea I love. I will definitely be taking part in the next readathon in October, and hope to drag Esther (and Nic?) into it with me. I might also set aside a weekend in between for my own personal readathon, just to recapture the enjoyment of it.