The house is never quieter or more filled with life than when we are all reading.
I’ve been reading High Wind to Jamaica by Richard Hughes. It’s a children’s classic – but so far it had passed me by. Perhaps, when I was the right age, the ‘classic’ tag put me off, or the dull binding on the shelves of the school library.
Hearing it discussed recently on ‘ A Good Read’ piqued my interest and I decided to give it a try. I’m glad I did. We see the world chiefly through the children’s eyes, interpreted by a sympathetic narrator. This odd perspective transforms Jamaica and, later, the pirate ship, into random places governed by strange riles and events that are only half understood or explained. It isn’t an amoral universe, but judgments are skewed limited by the children’s understanding.
They are kidnapped – but accept their new life as readily as they accepted the prospect of being sent overseas by their parents to go to school in England. The one event makes as much sense – to the child – as the other.
The adult world intrudes on theirs quite randomly and with little comment. One of them falls to their death, another – the eldest girl – disappears into realm of the pirates and though we see her fear, we have no insight (in the book at least) into what might be happening to her. The world it draws for us isn’t kind or safe or nice and you have the sense – as any slightly feral child must have – precariousness where falling into pleasure or utter disaster are equally likely and equally outside of your control or understanding.
I think this gives a sense of the author’s view of the children he describes:
The inside of Laura was different indeed: something vast, complicated, and nebulous that can hardly be put into language. To take a metaphor from tadpoles, though legs were growing her gills had not yet dropped off. Being nearly four years old, she was certainly a child: and children are human (if one allows the term ‘human’ a wide sense): but she had not altogether ceased to be a baby: and babies of course are not human – they are animals, and have a very ancient and ramified culture, as cats have, and fishes, and even snakes: the same in kind as these, but much more complicated and vivid, since babies are, after all, one of the most developed species of the lower vertebrates. In short, babies have minds which work in terms and categories of their own which cannot be translated into the terms and categories of the human mind. It is true they look human – but not so human, to be quite fair, as many monkeys. Subconsciously, too, every one recognises they are animals – why else do people always laugh when a baby does some action resembling the human, as they would at a praying mantis? If the baby was only a less-developed man, there would be nothing funny in it, surely. Possibly a case might be made out that children are not human either: but I should not accept it. Agreed that their minds are not just more ignorant and stupider than ours, but differ in kind of thinking (are mad, in fact): but one can, by an effort of will and imagination, think like a child, at least in a partial degree – and even if one’s success is infinitesimal it invalidates the case: while one can no more think like a baby, in the smallest respect, than one can think like a bee.
Hughes, Richard. A High Wind In Jamaica (Vintage Classics) (p. 98). Random House. Kindle Edition.
Tuesday Lobsang Rampa, in The Third Eye, describes how a Tibetan Lama would make themselves invisible. The trick, he said, was to concentrate so completely that you ceased to be present. The subtle energies that surround us – that give us away even when we are hidden – would be drawn inward. People would simply not see or sense you. You would become – effectively – invisible.
Tuesday has long been exposed as a fraud, along with his esoteric wisdom, but I was 13 years old when I read him, already fascinated by the east, and quite uncritical. And besides, I proved to myself that the invisibility trick really worked.
It happened one afternoon in the school holidays. It wasn’t planned. I was lying stretched out on the sofa in the living room while my mother vacuumed around me and, somehow, didn’t notice me at all. Apparently I’d become invisible – so much so that when, a little later, I went out into the kitchen, she jumped – convinced she’d been alone in the house.
The thing is I had been reading while mum vacuumed, as unaware of her as she was of me.
I suspect Coleridge was an invisible reader too. He wrote that, in his boyhood, his:
Whole being was, with eyes closed to every object of present sense, to crumple myself up in a sunny corner and read, read, read, – fancying myself into Robinson Crusoe’s island, finding it mountain of plum-cake and eating a room for myself and then eating it into the shapes of tables and chairs.’
I was thinking about this because of an article I read by Winnie T Frick, called I have forgotten how to read
In it she contrasts reading today – online and onscreen, across social media and endless news sites, with old fashioned reading. She writes:
Books were once my refuge. To be in bed with a Highsmith novel was a salve. To read was to disappear, become enrobed in something beyond my own jittery ego. To read was to shutter myself and, in so doing, discover a larger experience. I do think old, book-oriented styles of reading opened the world to me – by closing it. And new, screen-oriented styles of reading seem to have the opposite effect: They close the world to me, by opening it.
In a very real way, to lose old styles of reading is to lose a part of ourselves.
For most of modern life, printed matter was, as the media critic Neil Postman put it, “the model, the metaphor, and the measure of all discourse.” The resonance of printed books – their lineal structure, the demands they make on our attention – touches every corner of the world we’ve inherited. But online life makes me into a different kind of reader – a cynical one. I scrounge, now, for the useful fact; I zero in on the shareable link. My attention – and thus my experience – fractures. Online reading is about clicks, and comments, and points. When I take that mindset and try to apply it to a beaten-up paperback, my mind bucks.
This struck home. I too find it harder to read in the old fashioned way, sustaining that steady attention, the self forgetfulness that you need. I’d almost forgotten what it felt like.
The good news is that I have given up Facebook and Twitter for Lent. The better thought is that I may not go back. Pass me my book.