It’s certainly true that studying English has a profound effect on your reading habits. You constantly feel the pressure to read lots of texts very quickly. As one of my lecturers said when referring to Bleak House, “You’re always reading with one eye on your watch”. Add into this the fact that time is often in short supply for Arts students because they’re incapable of refusing extra-curricular commitments, and you have the makings of a life devoted to SparkNotes.
Simply reading quickly wouldn’t be a problem, but the reading you do at university (and to a lesser extent during earlier education) feels very different to the casual action performed outside of academia. The longer you spend being trained to analyse (read: overanalyse) the minutiae of language and structure, the more ingrained a habit it becomes, and by the time you’re finishing your degree the compulsion has taken over to such an extent that you can’t get through a chapter without taking it apart.
It’s certainly not a clinical process – reading begins and ends with intuition – but it is more detached. When you’re stopping mid-paragraph to consider the effectiveness of a metaphor, you can’t get caught up in the ebb and flow – yes, the feeling – of a text. The very fact I’m using the word ‘text’ rather than ‘book’ or even ‘novel’ is a symptom of how the way I see ‘literature’ has changed (whatever that hazy term means – see?). In a lot of ways, constant overanalysis makes reading less fun.
Of course, now I’ve left university the natural reaction to enforced maturity is a spot of regression, and I decided my starting point would be reading. Time to reconnect with a younger Parkin who cared less about the postcolonial implications of the Oompa-Loompas and more about whether Charlie got the chocolate factory. I would start this quest at the eager reader’s natural home: the public library.
It was shut.
The books, having taken umbrage at changes to their pay and conditions as a result of funding cuts, appeared to have voted for rolling industrial action which meant they were only available for three days a week during standard office hours, and Friday wasn’t one of them. I presume they were spending their day off lying around in hammocks, drinking home-brewed tequila courtesy of that dodgy-looking Don Quixote. Anyway, I resolved that no industrial dispute was going to thwart my good intentions, and three days later I managed to coax a handful of tomes into my bag.
I started with One Hundred Years of Solitude, just to keep things light. And it’s got to be said, I loved every minute of it.
Tracing the history of the Buendía family and Macondo, the town they founded, through, well, probably a bit more than a hundred years, Solitude has it all: sex, violence, politics, intrigue, superstition and incest. What’s really incredible, though, is that its tone remains simple and matter-of-fact whether characters are making breakfast or talking to their dead relatives. It’s magic realism at its best: it encapsulates reality as experienced by individuals in a culture where the supernatural is part of life, and the effect is compelling. You find yourself re-reading paragraphs to confirm that yes, that did just happen, until the decayed and decrepit settlement eventually gives up the ghost. And when it does, for all the drama and chaos that surrounds its final fall, it feels completely natural: from its Edenic state of grace a century earlier Macondo has reached the end of its life, and as it lies degenerate and pitiful, to be literally swept from the face of the earth is exactly what it needs.
You could probably fill the Internet with all there is to be said about Solitude, and I guarantee there are geeks out there who have tried. As a novel to reintroduce me to reading for pleasure, though, it turned out to be strangely appropriate. In its climactic scene, as the world falls apart around him, the last remaining member of the family can finally read prophecies set down a hundred years ago telling the family’s story. By the end, he is reading his own life as he lives it.
It doesn’t do him many favours. It’s not a happy ending. But what this “speaking mirror” does provide is understanding, a way of making sense of the bizarre world he finds himself in. I’m kind of hoping it will do the same for me.