Jim Belshaw is on holidays. While he is away, Jim’s column is featuring some of his previous writing. This is an edited version of a post that first appeared on Personal Reflections in August 2009.
There was a time in recent years when reading, other than that which had to be done, dropped away. Reading for pleasure diminished to a small field; fantasy, a few pot boilers, re-reading old favourites. The last was really dominant. I knew the books, they were old friends, and I could escape drifting within the covers without thinking too much.
Today reading has once again become a passion, although the focus this time is mainly non-fiction. Writing, more accurately the desire to write, has been the driver. I am always looking for new ideas, as well as material to support or deepen my understanding of particular topics.
When I began what I now call my train reading, reading on the train to and from work, I did read a lot linked to the history of New England. However, I also deliberately chose older books from my shelves that I had not read before, books that had come to me from family collections.
My choices could only have been described as somewhat eclectic, deliberately chosen so as to be outside my immediate interests. A funny thing happened. I started choosing other books that might compliment in some way those that I had already read; a book chosen almost at random became the start of a chain.
Outside New England history, my train reading is not meant to be highly structured. I find it interesting that, despite my best efforts, it has started to connect and re-connect. It has, in fact, become a little world of its own: books widely separated in time, space and subject matter link in unexpected ways.
This world is sometimes far more interesting than the world around me. I become absorbed, lost. On the train I sometimes look up to find people watching me. No, I am not talking to myself, although I have to watch this given my habit when alone of saying things out loud just to taste the sounds. Rather, the sight of someone obviously absorbed and sometimes scribbling always attracts attention.
Strange this obsession with thought.
To this point most of my writing and thought has been object focused, deadline driven: prepare this briefing by, complete this advice by, make so many calls by.
I still keep time sheets, although I break time into ten minute blocks rather than the decimal based six minutes so loved by lawyers and accountants. To my mind, six minutes is just too short to have real meaning. However, now my time sheets actually record my growing obsession with reading and writing, as do my to do lists. Other things struggle to get in!
The real joy of my train reading is the freedom to go in any direction I want, to follow through threads that I would otherwise ignore. I actually have to discipline myself to do this. There are rules.
I will not read work related matter on the train unless I have a pressing deadline. I ration my New England history reading and also things like reading the Financial Review. Mind you, sometimes I actually have to allocate time to my straight professional reading because I realise that it is getting lost.
My train reading is a liberal education, a chance to explore. The act of selecting a book that I have not read and might not otherwise do so forces me into new ways. This is reading with purpose but without objective. This is luxury reading.
I am, fortunately, a very fast reader. Over the last few years my reading skills had actually dropped. I was still fast, but was in clear decline. Now my reading speeds are back to something approaching their old levels. This adds to my enjoyment.
I charge through a book, then stop, go back, find a linked point. Then onwards. Sometimes I stop and just muse.
You cannot read the way I do on-line. With exceptions, the computer is just too slow. The key exception is graphic rich text where the computer's bigger screen makes it easier to see things.
Recently I have been sorting books, discovering new ones that I have not read. I wonder, what next to select?