How ‘Stuck in a Book’ and ‘The Readers’ saved me from reader’s block

Last June, after submitting my final essay for uni, the final essay of the final year, I sat at the library stupefied. I had dreamt of that day for the last four years. I enjoyed studying a lot (so much I’m in fact considering a postgraduate course), and going back to university was the best decision I ever made, but working full time and studying simultaneously was hard: my social life was at times non-existent, my reading habits were shaped completely by my module choices and I rarely read any books outside the curriculum. And so, I often dreamt of the day when I would finally submit my last paper and walk freely, first to meet my friends and then to embrace my TBR pile. But when it happened, when I clicked the ‘submit’ button and let this last essay go, I was so tired and confused I could not decide whether I was happy or sad. A big part of my life was ending and there weren’t any fireworks or fanfares, just the quiet, subdued library hustle-and-bustle of the students around me who were still working on their deadlines. There were still so many things I wanted to learn from my professors, so many books I wanted to discuss, so many questions I never had a chance to consider… I felt like a helium balloon cut off its string, drifting away in an unknown direction fast but the imminent deflating and fall looming closely.

Wanting to hold on to the life I had known for the last few years I went around the library picking up books I hadn’t had time to read while studying. Plath’s Collected Letters, Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned, The Penguin Book of American Short Stories, Ackroyd’s London… I filled my tote bag with them, its weight on my shoulder so familiar, so comforting. At home I put them on the floor close to my bed, my night-stand covered with non-library books I meant to read when I was free, and for the next few days I watched them getting dusty. From time to time I picked them up, flicked through some pages and put them down again. There was no point pretending any more; I had reader’s block.

It wasn’t completely unexpected; every summer between the end of one academic year and beginning of the next one I suffered from it. My ability to read usually came back towards the end of August when the number of books on my reading list was rapidly outgrowing the number of summer days left. Each year I managed to pull through my reader’s block and catch up in the end. But this time, not having another academic year to look forward to, I was worried it would go on for … ever. To be longing for so long for that extra time when you can finally read whatever you want, just to realise that you can’t read at all, is upsetting. As upsetting as getting ill on holidays.

Luckily, on one lethargic Sunday, when I was gathering motivation (rather unsuccessfully) to clean my room from all the papers scattered on the floor and chairs – the remnants of recent exams and deadlines – I got a blog prompt from Stuck in a Book, who I follow because I admire his reviewing style and literary knowledge (and also because he is a great fan of Tove Jansson and any Tove Jansson fan is my friend). In his post he mentioned The Readers, a podcast I never heard of, but which Simon, the Stuck in a Book blogger, made sound irresistible. So, I clicked on the link and listened to the celebratory hundredth episode of The Readers: Book Based Banter. And banter it was indeed, where all three hosts – Simon, Gav and Thomas – were answering fun bookish questions from their listeners. As I listened to their light chat about books, reading habits, and favourite genres, I began sorting out my papers, notes, photocopies, and hand-outs. It felt like saying goodbye to that part of my life, but listening to The Readers made me hopeful. There were reading communities out there and so much more to be discovered! And it was so good to listen to their chat without needing to participate, without feeling guilty for not knowing all the books they talked about. It felt like a visit from school friends when you are off sick when they fill you in on all the gossip you missed. I still couldn’t read for the next two weeks, so instead I listened to the old episodes of The Readers in reversed order from the hundredth episode down (don’t ask me why), and they made me laugh a lot, and they made me think about lots of different books, and I added more books to my TBR pile, and somehow, slowly, my reading block eased. Eventually I picked up a book (84 Charing Cross Road), and read it, but it was none of those I took from the library on the day of my last essay. No, those books got dustier and dustier until I received an email reminder that due to the end of my course my membership was expiring at the end of July and I must return outstanding items. With that email the umbilical cord was cut and I was on my own. It was scary and I didn’t feel ready, and I didn’t want to return those books which were my last connection with uni, with routine, with discipline, with community where I felt safe. But I survived it all and I read more now than ever, and I’m discovering a lot of new bookish blogs, vlogs, podcasts, and shows. I still dream of doing an MA, but I know now that even if I won’t, I will still be able to find people that love reading and talking about books.

So, thank you Simon Thomas and thank you The Readers for helping me get over what I thought would be the worst case of Reader’s Block. And thank you for easing my transition from the safe life of a literary student where the next read is clearly mapped out for you by the teacher, to the life of a person who has to pursue her passion for books alone.

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A few thoughts on The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

What I liked about The Strange Library in a snapshot:

  • It is a beautifully produced hardback full of unusual, quirky illustrations and graphic designs. The images, photographs and collages keep the reader entertained and alert.
  • It is written by one of my favourite authors.
  • It is a book for children … but is it?
  • It reminded me why I like Murakami’s work after my dissapointment with the Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage last year.
Harvill Secker, pub date: 02/12/2014

Harvill Secker, pub date: 02/12/2014

When I first read The Strange Library a few weeks ago I was a bit puzzled. It is a story about a boy who enters his usual library to find that it has turned into something quite unusual and sinister. I found it interesting but somewhat unfinished. The ending seemed abrupt and too much was left unexplained. I was inclined to agree with Simon from Savidge Reads (do visit his blog, he is a very prolific reader and reviewer with many great posts and recommendations) – that it was ‘a fun romp’ and a ‘brilliantly bonkers’ story, but not much more. I thought about this beautiful, small hardback as a mere stocking filler published in early December to attract Murakami’s fans and their friends and family. But despite that first impression, I could not stop thinking about it.

Very Gothic

Very Gothic

And then, I remembered what a friend who lived in Japan for a while told me once about Japanese stories for children: apparently, unlike our Western, Disneyfied stories, they tend to avoid clean cut moral resolutions. Reality is rarely divided into straightforward – black and white, good or bad – binaries; it is that messy and confusing middle ground that we most often encounter in life and Japanese stories for young readers don’t shy from exploring it (that is what my friend told me at least, note to myself ‘research this topic at some point’).

file copyHaving that in mind I re-read The Strange Library and discovered another layer of meaning. I’m pretty sure I could write an academic paper on it, but don’t worry, I won’t, at least not here. When reading The Strange Library for the second time I noticed in it many themes Murakami usually explores in his adult fiction:

  • familiar and friendly turning sinister
  • danger of being too humble and amiable – ‘I’m not very good at giving anyone a clear no,’ admits the protagonist and that’s when his troubles begin
  • sense of loss and alienation
  • blurring of the boundaries between good and evil
Murakami's books always make me hungry and The Strange Library is no exception ... Mmmm... Krispy Kreme anybody?

Murakami’s books always make me hungry and The Strange Library is no exception … Mmmm… Krispy Kreme anybody?

The story is short, fast paced, made entertaining through added illustrations, yet it manages to touch upon these difficult existential problems without becoming nostalgic or sentimental. In leaving some threads of the plot unfinished, unexplained Murakami shows his trust in the intellectual and emotional ability of the young reader to engage with a text that is puzzling, unlear in its meaning and message. He encourages the reader to think about the protagonist of this story, and his adventures, in a way unrestrained by any obvious plot development or a simple moral resolution – the contrivances we so often insist on in the stories for children. After all, in life, things don’t always work out; sometimes we can’t find answers to our questions; pain isn’t always deserved; good intentions can lead us astray etc. When I first read The Strange Library I automatically assumed that, as a story for children, it should unfold linearly, logically, and lead to a happy ending, giving a digestible explanation of every mysterious event and every difficult emotion the protagonist experiences. I was being silly, I was being a Muggle, I forgot that children can think for themselves and don’t need our hand-holding all the time.

Some of the images have quite 'encyclopedic' look

Some of the images have quite an ‘encyclopedic’ look

Despite its fast pace and unexpected twists of action The Strange Library is at times lyrical. Sometimes it reads almost like Haiku – wise but unobtrusive, leaving the answers to our questions hanging in the air, almost evident yet impossible to grasp fully. This poetic quality of The Strange Library makes up for the brevity of the story – its lyricism allows the reader to stop, breathe and think.

‘I lie here by myself in the dark at two o’clock in the morning and think about that cell in the library basement. About how it feels to be alone, and the depth of the darkness surrounding me. Darkness as pitch black as the night of the new moon.’

I can’t say much more without giving too much away, so I’ll stop here. In my room The Strange Library will be living next to The Little Prince and Tove Jansson’s The Moomin Books – on the shelf where I keep children’s books we never grow out of. I know I will be re-reading it from time to time when I feel lonely, or a bit lost, or need to be reminded that most often than not life is a bit strange.

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The Miniaturist and my trip to a very special toy shop…

Picador; Published: 03/07/2014; ISBN: 978144725089001

Picador; Published: 03/07/2014; ISBN: 978144725089001

I picked up Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist in December on one of those days when none of my books at home and on my Nook seemed to be enticing enough. When I feel like that I usually go to a book shop – on this particular occasion the Gower Street Waterstones – to browse and look for inspiration. There was (and still is) so much hype around The Miniaturist that I was naturally curious about it… and after flicking through it I decided to give it a go.

And it was a good read – intriguing and slow, in a good way. The kind of slow that makes you want to read more without making you feel that you are missing out when putting the book down and going about your daily tasks. The characters lingered in my mind but I knew they would be there waiting for me in the same place I left them. (I know it sounds silly but some books are so thrilling and packed with action that the minute you put them down you feel you are missing out, that the action is going to carry on without you.) Reading The Miniaturist gave me some rest from all that December rush and last minute shopping; it transported me in to the world of 1686 Amsterdam which at times felt a bit two-dimensional, theatrical … but the setting was different – I don’t think I have read a novel set in Amsterdam before – and I know too little on the topic to question the historical accuracy of the novel. So I just let the book carry me away. I didn’t fall in love with it enough to add it to my ‘re-read list’ but I enjoyed it a lot at the time of reading. Most importantly The Miniaturist inspired me to do two things: 1) to go back to The Sugar Barons by Matthew Parker, which I skimmed through for work a while ago but never read it fully, and learn more about the history of sugar trade which The Miniaturist explores to some extent 2) to visit a small, mysterious miniature toy shop in Gospel Oak I once walked past. I started with number two:

photo

It was about two years ago when walked past it and its window display caught my eye. It was so old and dusty I assumed the shop was abandoned. As I stared at the display with fascination – cob-web covered dolls houses and some old-school toys – an old lady opened the door and asked if I wanted to come in. I got a bit flustered. I didn’t have much money on me and I knew I would be the only customer in the shop and would feel obliged to buy something, so I politely declined. But I always regretted that I suppressed my curiosity in that moment and didn’t go in to look around. Especially, when after some research I found a few intriguing stories about this shop and Kristin Baybars who owns it.

photo (3)When I began reading Jessie Burton’s novel, which features a very magical dolls house indeed, I decided I must visit that shop in Gospel Oak. And I did on the 30th of December, my first day back in London after Christmas. It was cold, grey and very quiet, most of the Londoners were either hibernating or still away on their festive breaks. I doubted the toy shop would be open. But it was! And after knocking on the door (you must knock to be let in, the door isn’t open all the time) a lovely lady let me in. The owner wasn’t there, but her friend or helper was very accommodating and it was mesmerising to look at all those tiny little things stocked around. From mini cutlery to mini Coca-cola bottles and jars of pickles… It was a whole universe of tiny treasures. There was even a mini computer there – the dolls housing industry isn’t staying that much behind!

 

photo (1)I had a careful and indulgent look around and bought a bird’s cage to honour Nella’s, Burton’s protagonist’s, beloved parakeet; a sewing machine which reminded me of the one my grandma used to have, and a tiny jewellery box with a ring in it. The shop assistant showed it to me when I jokingly asked if she had any mini-jewels. She sure did and I had to have it! I left charmed by the shop and content with my treasures wrapped up in a small box. There was something immature, childish, in feeling so happy with my mini-purchases, but perhaps that’s why it was so exciting.

 

The Miniaturist inspired me to visit Kristin Baybars’ toy shop which is one of those places that make me feel how magical London can be. If you live in London you should definitely make a trip there, or watch the short movie ‘This Little Place’ which was filmed there and conveys its atmosphere very well.

photo (4)

I am now planning a visit to the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green which has old dolls houses among their exhibits…

 

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Joining The Re-Read Challenge 2015

Re-Read Challenge

Many reading challenges run by other bloggers sound very exciting. But I am new to blogging and weary of signing up to too many of them. It may be dangerous! While one of my resolutions for 2015 is to blog regularly about books, I still want to be able to make most of my reading choices spontaneously. Otherwise both reading and blogging might become tiresome and I really don’t want that. However, I am going to join The Re-Read Challenge hosted by Hannah @ So Obsessed With and Kelly @ Belle of the Literati.

I enjoy re-reading books a lot, but in the last four years I had very little time to do that. For the last four years, up until June 2014, I was studying English Literature (while working full time) and so my reading habits and choices were shaped mostly by the modules I studied. When I finished my course I had so many books on my ‘to be read after finishing degree’ pile that I didn’t dare to re-read anything. But being home for Christmas and flicking through the good old childhood friends of mine kept safely on the shelves in my parents’ flat made me realise how much I miss re-reading books which made a great impression on me once upon a time and stayed close to my heart.

So, I am joining in and I am excited to see where this challenge will take me. My aim is to re-read 12 books this year and my first two choices are: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë and Moominvalley in November by Tove Jansson.


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