There was an interesting piece on Radio 4’s Open Book yesterday on how a listener who had found it difficult to concentrate on reading since bereavement fifteen years ago could get back into the habit. There is an organisation based in Liverpool which aims to help people like this achieve this very goal and its director, Jane Davis, was on hand with a few recommendations.
Rather than encouraging the listener to delve into a novel, she suggested starting by reading short stories (such as those by Anton Chekhov) and poetry collections (such as the anthology, Poem for the Day, published by Chatto and Windus). Additionally, she suggested listening to a long novel (such as Nikolai Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina) in audio book format.
I appreciate the advice, as I have always struggled with reading. While friends of mine can rattle through several books a week, it takes me months to complete just one. It has always been the case. I clearly remember being sent to a private tutor as a child to fix even the alphabet in my mind, even after at least two years of primary school. I got off to a bad start and I have never really caught up, despite shelves packed with books at home. The stigma attached to illiteracy does not help.
A dear friend of mine is so well read that I am often fearful to confess my ignorance. He will ask me if I have read such and such great work and he frequently speaks with rhythmical fluency that draws on the masters of English literature. I am ashamed to confess that of all the novels I have started reading over the years, very few of them I have actually finished. I am ashamed to confess that my eyes have only scanned over a few pages of each of the books on my shelves.
I borrowed the complete works of Dickens from my father a few years ago in an attempt to enlighten myself, but I managed only a few pages before I returned it to my bookcase to gather dust again. I bought Huckleberry Finn a couple years ago, but only got half way though. I began A Picture of Dorian Gray, but gave up by chapter two. Even a PG Wodehouse eluded me.
There is a kind of book I can manage — the kind that true readers sneer at. I read Salmon Fishing in the Yemen from cover to cover in a couple of days, almost failing to put it down. Indeed, I enjoyed it so much that I picked it up again a year later. Likewise, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Books for simpletons, some might say. But I struggle when it comes to reading.
‘Read! Read in the Name of your Lord who created you!’
I am conscious of these words, for I have seen their effect on friends upon their embrace of this noble deen. I have friends who were once members of gangs, running riot in the streets, who upon adopting Islam as their path have become scholars in their respective fields. A friend once known for pilfering mopeds in his youth is now found buried in history books and impersonating little Dorrit. Another friend who could not even read English before he became Muslim went on to master Arabic. I have seen people who — though barely literate in their former life — have soared to great heights of learning.
I wish I could follow on in their footsteps. I am reading at the moment anNawawi’s Manual of Islam, some eleven and a half years after I was given it. I am making slow progress, but it is a more manageable tome than others. I wish I had discovered it earlier, but I had set it aside when I first received it, for a friend had questioned its authenticity, and it disappeared out of sight, until I rediscovered it the other week whilst searching for another slim work.
The advice on Open Book, then, was perhaps in some ways made for me. Perhaps those pamphlet-like books so mocked by the intellectuals of our community could be my way into a world still somewhat alien to me. And new-fangled audio books could be invaluable too.
But something else too: Liverpool’s Reader Organisation also runs weekly read-aloud groups, in which members of the community come together to read to one another. What a splendid idea. I once attended a gathering where the inner circle passed around a translation of Riyad us Saliheen: each individual read a passage and then passed the book on. It was quite wonderful, I thought at the time. I must sort out something like this of my own.