Tricks and techniques for summer reading

Apparently, if you were to read a chapter of War and Peace during each match played at Wimbledon, you would easily finish the book before the end of the tournament. I’ve been reminded of this helpful schedule recently, not only because Wimbledon has just finished, but because this summer I’ve decided I’m finally going to read Ulysses.

I’m not all that embarrassed to admit my ignorance of Joyce’s masterpiece. It’s one more item – albeit one of the most challenging – on a list of gaps in my reading. I ticked off Tolstoy’s magnum opus some years ago, without having to coordinate with Andy Murray’s timetable at all. Close-reading Spenser’s The Faerie Queene was a semester’s work for a very rewarding class during my Masters. But while Joyce might have been a standard text on the undergraduate syllabus for my peers in the English Literature department, I was at that time studying Fine Art, immersing myself in the writings of Ernst Gombrich, Edward Said and John Berger. So I feel I have a pretty good excuse for having missed some of the classics of Eng. Lit.

In some ways, I’m glad I waited. Speed-reading before a tutorial is not exactly conducive to reading for pleasure or deep understanding. I also somewhat question the ‘Roald Dahl’s Matilda’ narrative, in which it is held to be a virtue to devour the classics at a very young age. As a child I started various novels which – I now see – I lacked not only the intellectual maturity to appreciate, but even the stamina to finish. As a result I felt permanently guilty about starting books and then abandoning them – even though quitting really made more sense than stubbornly persevering. Since I’m in confessional mode, let me record here how much I regret ploughing through all 1,700 pages of The Lord of the Rings at the age of nine or ten, simply because my brother had seen me begin it and said “You’ll never manage to read that!” Needless to say, I didn’t much enjoy it, and can’t now remember much about the plot.

So: to my summer reading schedule. I’ve recently been introduced to Trello, the list-making project-management software, which is proving vastly superior to my previous method of writing-lists-on-post-it-notes-all-over-my-desk. In principle it’s just the same thing, but Trello allows for a more sophisticated system of lists which are much easier to keep track of. It’s also surprisingly motivating to virtually move an item from the ‘to do’ list on to the ‘done’ list, where a satisfying pile of small achievements mounts up (instead of being consigned to crumpled post-its in the waste paper basket).

On top of this, I’ve got Trello linked to PomoDoneApp, so that a little timer appears next to each task, which can then be tackled in 25-minute time slots in accordance with the ‘Pomodoro Technique’. Further motivation is provided by PomoDoneApp’s log, where I can see how many hours per day, week or month I’ve spent on each task. Ulysses is now an item on my ‘to read’ list, and I estimate that a 25-minute session equates to about thirteen pages. At that rate, 53 sessions will finish the book. At two sessions per day, that’s less than a month. Sounds doable!

There will be those who find this all terribly gimmicky – perhaps even an example of indulging in complicated self-imposed admin as a sophisticated form of procrastination… To those people, I say: I salute you, and your powers of concentration. Be thankful you have no problems switching off your phone and regularly getting down to some serious reading.

Of course, putting in the reading hours is not the same as understanding or enjoying what you read – as my LOTR ordeal demonstrated. So I’m also going to be supplementing my reading with some audio commentary. I plan to do this whenever I go out running, which should relieve the potential boredom of yet another lap round the Meadows. For an overview, I’ll start with the BBC In Our Time discussion. I’m a huge fan of this programme, and often raid its vast archive for an intelligent, layman’s-terms discussion of literary and philosophical topics. Then, I plan to start on Frank Delaney’s Re:Joyce podcast, about which I’ve heard great things. Sadly, Delaney died before he could cover the entire book, but at 368 episodes there’s still a fair bit of material that should help to guide my reading.

Now, I’ll just give myself a little boost by moving ‘write blog post 2’ to the ‘done’ list, and then I’ll start the timer for the first reading session.

One thought on “Tricks and techniques for summer reading

  1. Interesting window on the writing process – both creative & academic. I had never considered ‘prompts’ being suitable for academic writing, and am quite excited by the prospect. As for prompts for creative writing . . . there are many different kinds, and though I don’t always respond to them well myself, I’ve used a variety in both adults’ & children’s workshops. As you say, something open-ended is usually most fruitful: sometimes offering a situation or a picture as a starting point. For children I’ve often found that telling a story (being on guard at Hadrian’s Wall – being a member of a French Resistance group in WW II) can lead to something fantastic. A form of poetic role play, I suppose. Having said that, one or two of my more successful poems have emerged from prompts, too; much depends on the kind of prompt, and the approach of the person suggesting it.

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