Slow reading

There’s a lot of news and social media about coronavirus and people’s reactions and fears and scaremongering. This can seep into you without you really noticing and affect your thinking and your mood.

One of the ways I’m coping with this is through slow, intentional reading. When I get into bed, I read one chapter of a carefully chosen book. Just one chapter. However much I want to read more, I stick to just one.

The book I am reading slowly at the moment is Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. It is a book that really benefits from slow reading and a deeper attention. It is written poetically and thoughtfully and needs space and time to reach into you and wrap its ideas around your heart. Yes you could speed read it, but that would be to miss a key point, as well as many nuanced ideas and you wouldn’t embody the teachings in the same way.

Reading this way feels more meditative, more mindful and is a way of slowing down at the end of the day. It is a tonic to heal from the short, snappy headlines, and the streaming flow of tweets.

“If you want the deep experience of a book, if you want to internalise it, to mix an author’s ideas with your own and make it a more personal experience, you have to read it slowly”
– John Miedema, quoted in The Guardian

I also will not look at my phone or tablet whilst I read the chapter. I read these as books, not ebooks and because holding books for too long hurts my hands, that also helps to limit me.

Some books lend themselves more naturally to slow reading than others and for me, these books include:

These are the books that spring to mind, but when I think of others I will add them in the comments below. I would also love to hear from you – what are you reading at the moment? Are you reading anything that feels therapeutic or healing?

Tarka the otter

Tarka the otter, Henry Williamson, 1927

“He was called Tarka, which eas the name given to otters many years ago by men dwelling in hut circles on the moor.  It means little water wanderer, or, wandering as water.”

This is one of the books I’ve been reading this month and I love it.  I read it as a child but rereading it has been a beautiful experience.  I have a physical paperback copy which means I have to read it slowly, no more than a chapter at a time, because of my hand pain. And this is extending the deliciousness of the language and the writing.
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Williamson did not write Tarka as a children’s book but it became popular with children and hence it is marketed that way today. I know some people are put off and don’t read children’s books, or only do it with adult covers but this really is a book for all of us.

It is a portrayal of nature which is both beautiful and brutal.  Williamson makes an excellent use of language and it contains a number of regional specific words which enhance the imagery.

“Iggiwick, the vuz-peg – his coat was like furze and his face like a pig’s”

We have words like ragrowster, aerymouse (a bat), dimity (twilight), yinny-yikker (noisily aggressive) and yikkering.  These tug at my heart in a way that alternatives might not.

We hear the animals calling in wonderfully onomatopoeia:

Hu-ee-ic…. Skirr-rr… cur-lee-eek… aa-aa…

This is not an anthropomorphic tale, it is an otter’s eye view of the landscape and the characters within it.  And yet, we feel we know the animals that weave in and out of Tarka’s life.  Part of this is the marvellous names that the creatures are given.  There is Old Nog, the white owl, and Halcyon the kingfisher.  There is Deadlock, the otter hound and the old dog otter Marland Jimmy.  There are degrees of anthropomorphism but it is not heavy handed and the animals don’t speak.  Because of this, it is imbued with a strong sense of reality and is a great example of writing from the senses.

Williamson wrote a nature journal from his childhood so it is perhaps no surprise that Tarka is so real.  He also sought out hunting experts for advice and to ensure accuracy and rewrote the manuscript 17 times.

“Twilight over meadow and water, the eve-star shining above the hill, and old nog the heron crying kra-a-ark! as his slow dark wings carried him down to the estuary.”

As well as conveying a strong connection with nature, Tarka also reveals to the reader Williamson’s close relationship with the landscape.  He moved to Devon in 1921 and his intimacy with this place comes through in his writing.  For context, otters were hunted as vermin at this time and their population wouldn’t decline until the 1950s.  This means that the text is not one about the danger to the otter population and is not intended to influence this practice.  But he did have a strong influence, inspiring writers such as Rachel Carson, Ted Hughes, Roger Deakin and Kenneth Allsop.

This book is a treasure and if you haven’t read it, or haven’t read it for a long time, please do!

Reading with hand pain

It’s come up a few times over the last few months so I thought I’d share what I have learnt about reading with hand pain.

This is just my experience so if anyone can add any other ideas that’d be great!

  • Get a kindle – it took me a long time to accept the idea of not being able to hold a book in my hands and enjoy the physicality of it but once I got my kindle my reading life vastly improved!  Mine is an old one, it was second hand and I got it to see if I’d get on with it.  Amazon do sell refurbished kindles and obviously there are other e-readers available!  Look at the weight of them and if possible, hold one before you buy it.  Mine is a very no frills version.  It literally just does books but it means that it’s a lot lighter than some options.  Also think about how you turn the pages – is it a button or a touch sensitive screen, different things will work better for different people but it’s definitely something to factor in.
  • If you’re going with Amazon then look into whispersync. If an audio version is available, you can buy it cheaper when you have the ebook.  This means you can flick between reading and listening. I struggled to get into audiobooks but found this combined approach really helped.  You can flick through the ebook to find your place if you fall asleep which makes a huge difference to me!
  • Audiobooks themselves are another option.
  • Check if your local library offers ebooks and audiobooks.  These can be downloaded from sites such as overdrive and are great if you can’t get to the library.  Note, last time I checked this doesn’t work on kindles but is great on tablets and probably on smart phones.  There are other electronic lending libraries for disabled people eg Listening Books and Calibre.
  • Not really a reading tip but Kindle and Audible both do deals of the day and there are numerous websites where you can download classics for free.
  • If you want to read a physical book (and some books are still not available as ebooks), then a few things you might want to consider are:
    • break the spine – I know some people find this really difficult but it does mean the book stays open more easily
    • prop the book open – I use my phone to hold the pages open, you can get gadgets which do this but my phone seems to work ok for me!
    • try and stick with paperbacks – they are lighter and you can break the spine
    • thinner books are easier to hold as are smaller books
    • don’t hold the book up, lay it on a table, tray or your knee.  I always used to read laying down on my side holding the book but I’ve not been able to do that for years.  If you do want to lay on your side and read, maybe find a way to prop the book up using a pillow or a teddy or a book stand!  Be careful about your posture when you’re reading, especially if you have pain elsewhere eg I can’t put my book on my lap because it then triggers shoulder and neck pain.
    • flick between reading something physical and something electronic.  I always have numerous books on the go and that means I can choose what is best for my hands, or what is possible, when I’m wanting to read
    • think about what time of day you’re trying to read – for me, nighttime is harder so if I’m reading a physical book, it has to be during the day
    • adopt slow reading – I can only read a couple of pages of physical books at a time which, as an avid and fairly fast reader, I used to find really frustrating.  I’ve since made my peace with this (which is one reason I always have an ebook on the go as well) and I savour the books I’m reading instead of devouring them.  I also only read fiction on my kindle as otherwise I overdo it because I’m caught up in the story.
    • as hard as it might be, limit how long you read a physical book for.  Set a timer if you need to.  If you’re not familiar with pacing, look into it.  It’s essentially the idea that you do a little bit of something, take a little break, then go back to it rather than pushing through, overdoing it and ending up in agony.  That small break makes a lot of difference.

World Enough and Time

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““The human mind is fed and nourished by every sight and smell and sound that we encounter, from the movement of the clouds to the shrill of the birds outside our morning window.” To enjoy that nourishment, we need to “refuse and choose,” resisting the siren call of technology whenever possible and allowing ourselves time to slow down and pay attention.”

Christian McEwan

World Enough and Time by Christian McEwan is book I have been reading, appropriately slowly, for the last couple of years.  In 2013 I went on a fantastic week long adventure to a little island off Scotland where Christian and Jan helped us to slow down, guided us to write and supported the creation of art.

“A 2008 survey in the Journal of Socio-Economics claimed that the psychologogical benefits of a friendship were equivalent to a pay-rise of eighty-five thousand pounds”

Christian McEwan, World Enough and Time

The book ‘examines the spiritual and literary underpinnings of slowness and offers inspiration, encouragement, and practical advice for anyone wishing to create time and space for the imagination to flourish’.  Full of beautiful writing and inspiring suggestions, I’ve really enjoyed taking my time reading it (yes, pain means I have to read books v v slow but I think this one in particular has benefited from that).

The book looks at ‘Hurry Sickness’, the healing power of real conversation, the value of walking, looking, learning to pause and storytelling etc.  I don’t really do book reviews so this isn’t really going to be that, more some musings inspired by the book.

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I’ve touched on slowing down before on this blog and over on unlockingimages and whilst much of my slowing down has been forced on me by my health, there is still a lot of value in it.  I remember a sunny day, pottering around with my lovely friend who also has EDS.  We were talking about how we have to walk more slowly than we used to (I was a fast walker back in the day!) but how it means she notices flowers and sees things she’d miss otherwise.  It’s a moment that I come back to again and again.  How much more wonderful life would be if we literally stopped to smell the roses instead of rushing and pushing and stressing from place to place in an unnecessary hurry.

We live in a society which doesn’t place much value on doing things for the sake of them, rather we are all supposed to be being productive, all of the time.  Again, pain has meant this isn’t possible and has meant I can step back and question that approach.  Finding joy in little things and beauty in small moments makes for a happier life.  We can’t all have the latest <insert gadget> but we can almost all look out a window and see plants, birds, insects, stars, clouds etc (NB if you’re bed bound and can’t look out a window, could you move your bed?).

“In ancient China, when someone studied calligraphy, he did not simply copy the original.  Instead, he spread out the scroll against the wall, and stared at it for a long time.  Only when he had, as it were, incorporated it completely, did he finally pick up his brush and begin to work”

Christian McEwan, World Enough and Time

How many people reading that, are thinking what a waste of time, just get the job done?  But the beauty in the approach and the deeper connection to the work, makes it much more meaningful.  And I feel that it would teach the student so much more.

Pay attention, look closely and even the most mundane seeming thing will be transformed.  And that is your power, to take the ordinary and see it as extraordinary.  That is what artists and writers and musicians do.  And it’s something that is completely accessible to you, whatever your circumstances.  You can start now and develop a deeper awareness of your surroundings and in doing so, you can find poetry all around you.

And even better, this time you spend mulling and dreaming and pondering, is time that your mind will use to ruminate over problems and build insights and connections that are completely unrelated.  And all of it is free!

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The book is full of wonderful insights and magical quotes and I hope I have been able to do justice with my own ponderings.  Christian herself is a very thoughful, inspiring woman and it was an honor to have her guidance for a week.


By the way, if you’re interested in spending a week slowing down on Tanera Mor with Jan and another artist, you can book onto the wonderful sounding See Sound, See Shore.  If health allowed, I’d be booking on!