Read until the lights go out


It’s important to be not afraid. Or if you are afraid, then it’s important to live as though you aren’t.

Summer is here, and at the beginning of each summer I apply myself with some pleasure to the tricky question of what to read over the end of the year, when I always imagine, not always accurately, that there will be time in the long evenings and midday heat to wade chest-deep into some broad-waisted book I’ve spent my life hitherto not reading. Other people set themselves healthy outdoorsy tasks in summer: reactivating their gym membership; making their bodies beachable; doing, um … sit-ups? (Apologies: I’m so unphysical over summer, I was stuck for a plausible third example.)

Instead I get my summer exercise by giving my squinting muscles a workout and flexing my wrists through repeated page-turns and finger moistenings. The summer I read Moby-Dick I bored my friends with binnacles and tricks and whaling-spades and gams. When I read War and Peace a few Decembers back I instantly couldn’t wait for twenty years to go by so that I can read it again and measure how I’ve grown by what new things I recognize and understand.

But when I started thinking about my summer reading this week, I felt uneasy. Reading? The classics? When we stand on the serrated lip of the volcano? What middle-class privilege is this? Who am I? Nero?

It feels at times as though we’re teetering on the edge of some tremendous rift, some violent discontinuity between the past and the future. A new iron-eyed nationalism is rising in South Africa, fuelled by legitimate grievances about structural inequality and crushing poverty and exclusion. There’s a drought coming, and mining industries in a death spiral, and a rand waiting to crumple like a beer can at the bottom of the sea. Internationally there are plane crashes and migrant crises and a Middle East so entangled and intractable you need an organogram and a hard-drive’s worth of explanatory notes just to try work out which of those people you’re bombing are your enemies, and which are enemies that you’re currently pretending are your friends. Oh, and there’s climate change and the bees are dying and the comets seem to be getting closer.

In the face of all this, when the world is pressing and time is running low, how can I sit with a book and lose myself in words and worlds from long ago? Surely fear and unease must wrench me from the page and set me pacing the room and checking the internet to see if the cataclysm has moved any closer since last I paid attention?

But when the world presses hot, books best cool the temperature, so I was doubly delighted with Clive James’ new book, “Latest Readings”. At first I misread it as “Last Readings”. For twenty-five years Clive James has been my mentor from afar. He was a columnist and author and poet and screenwriter, an essayist and a raconteur and a rake and at one point may or may not have had an affair with Princess Diana. Some while ago he was diagnosed with emphysema and lymphocytic leukaemia. He described himself as being “in the departure lounge”, and a year ago published a beautiful poem called “Japanese Maple” in New Yorker magazine, in which he reflected on the unlikelihood of seeing the next English autumn, when time would once more turn to flame the maple tree his daughter planted in his backyard in Cambridge.

To his surprise and slight embarrassment and my great joy, English autumn has come and he’s still around, and has just published a slim volume – small enough to fit perfectly in the hand, just long enough to last a return commute between Cape Town and Johannesburg – in which he reports back on how he has spent the last year.

The short answer is he has spent it reading. With death rubbing its yellow back upon the windowpane, his response was to sit down to read new books, and reread old ones. He rediscovers early Hemingway and sighs sadly over old Hemingway, rejoices in Olivia Manning and is drawn again and again to Joseph Conrad, finding that the old sea-dog helps him better understand the past century that Conrad predicted.

But it’s not what he reads that soothes and inspires, it’s the bright, blazing example he offers. He is a man pressed up against the dark glass at the end of the contracting corridor, affirming the value, the importance, the worth of still reading and seeking to understand, even as the walls move in and the ceiling lowers.

“When you don’t know when the lights will go out,” he writes, “you may as well read until they do.”

My reading list grows longer by the day.

Times, 5 Nov 2015