Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Reading Outside

By Stuart Sharp

Summer’s here, and the reading is… well, quite difficult, really.

Some of us might have fewer commitments in the summer, maybe a little more energy, possibly a little more time, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to spend that time reading. There are so many other temptations in summer that it’s easy to ignore the written word in favour of going to the beach, or travelling abroad, or (in my case) playing a succession of sports that take up hours at a stretch. Even our most basic images of reading are challenged by the changing seasons. Curling up with a good book in front of the fire is definitely easier in winter than in the heat of mid-summer.

Presumably, though, we’re not just going to give up on books for the next few months. Even the idea of having to cut back to make room for everything else isn’t ideal. What we need instead are ideas for fitting reading in with all the things we plan on doing in the summer. And that means reading outside.

The first thing is to start reading something you’ll actually get through. That might sound hugely patronising, but the distractions of summer probably mean a shorter attention span and less inclination to finish those books that go out of their way to be difficult. This is not the time to start reading James Joyce, or to decide that it’s finally the moment to give Satre’s Being and Nothingness a go. Instead, it’s time for something that flows beautifully, making for easy reading. Something, in fact, like Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, or Judi Hendrix’s The Baker’s Apprentice.

That’s not to say that the summer demands staying away from great literature. Far from it, but even among the classics, some will make for an easy read on a summer’s day, while others are just a recipe for drowsiness. The combination of Spencer’s Faerie Queen and a hot day is almost a guaranteed way of catching up on lost sleep. Shakespeare’s comedies and sonnets, on the other hand, seem almost to have been designed with a summer day (or possibly a midsummer night) in mind. Personally, I find that Christopher Marlowe’s plays work just as well in the summer, with the likes of Doctor Faustus and The Jew of Malta being easy to read and perfectly paced.

Poetry also seems like a natural choice here. After all, the classic image of the poetry reader is of them reading outside in a secluded, sunny spot, not huddled inside against the cold. The poems of some of the best known poets, like Yeats and Wordsworth, almost demand to be read outside, while even something a little newer, like Alison Brackenbury’s Breaking Ground, seems to work better outdoors than inside.

Of course, exactly what you choose will be influenced to some extent by where you’re going to read it. That brings us nicely to the second main point; make sure that what you’re reading is something you’re happy for other people to see.

It sounds like a frivolous point, doesn’t it? After all, reading is just supposed to be about you and the author’s words. Sadly, it doesn’t work out like that. On a summer’s day, when you’re reading outside, reading is about you, the author’s words and every annoying passer-by with an opinion on what you’re reading (which is, let’s face it, most of them).

Usually, something even vaguely literary works as a way of avoiding odd looks. Sometimes, though, it can become a hindrance, particularly once sport becomes involved.

A few of us will probably spend much of the summer vaguely involved in assorted sports, either as a player or spectator. It might seem that you’re not exactly getting your money’s worth if you have to take a book with you, but there are some occasions when it’s absolutely necessary.

For the not quite willing parent or partner dragged along to watch a loved one play a sport that isn’t exactly spectator friendly, a good book is essential. Even for players involved in longer tournaments, there will be dead periods where they aren’t doing anything. As someone who once made the mistake of forgetting to take a book to a fencing tournament, I can tell you that these periods can seem like a lifetime without something to read.

But what to take? Particularly as a participant, taking the wrong book with you opens you up to weeks of (reasonably well-intentioned) abuse. Unfortunately, with the average sporting team ‘the wrong book’ can include just about everything that’s perfect for summer.

This is where books vaguely connected to the sport in question come into their own. Not only do most sports have some highly entertaining books tucked away if you look, but your loved ones/team mates think you’re taking more of an interest as a result. For my favoured sports of cricket and fencing, Deep Cover by Ian Botham and Dennis Coath, and By the Sword by Richard Cohen are both good places to start. For other sports, the main thing is to stay away from the awful ghost written autobiographies that take up so much space in bookshops. Don’t let them take up space in kit bags as well.

Which brings us, finally, to the third major component of reading outside, the practicalities of it. Space is only one concern, and is quickly followed by a host of other questions. Is this valuable first edition going to get mud on it, or the contents of the picnic hamper? Will walking around with the hardback edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost under one arm result in one arm longer than the other by the end of the day? Can I fit all the Harry Potter books into my backpack, and will I topple over backwards if I do?

The key question here is that classic for book lovers: hardback or paperback? Outdoors, the extra durability of the hardback seems almost essential, right up to the point where you realise that you’ll have to carry the thing around with you. At that point, the humble pocket sized paper back looks like the better bet. It stays that way right up until the point where dirt, rain, or any of the other things nature seems to have designed with books in mind come into the equation.

One answer is to start investing in dust jackets for the summer. As a cheap alternative, a layer of clear sticky back plastic works perfectly well. So long as you manage to avoid the bubbles and air pockets that plagued my school textbooks, it doesn’t even do anything to spoil the looks of the thing. The result is paperbacks that are at least a little resistant to the things the outside world throws at them.

Of course, even that solution to the paperback versus hardback debate isn’t perfect, at least not outside. True, it gives you a nice, lightweight book that will survive, but it does rob you of one of the most useful tools for the summer; a nice heavy hardback with which to squash all the bugs that summer invariably brings out.

1 comment:

Andi said...

Great Advice, Stu, and I'm taking it this afternoon if the rain holds off. What simple wisdom.