Sunday 8 November 2009

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

145,240. That's roughly the number of words I read in any given week. And that total does not include publications whose articles I could not access online in order to work out a more accurate estimate. The New Statesman, The Voice, Prospect, The New Yorker, The Economist, these are but some of the weekly or monthly magazines and newspapers I sometimes pick up from my local WH Smith. I also excluded, on purpose, mind you, Libération and Der Spiegel because my forays onto their websites are fewer now. But if I was to add it all up, the actual number would be close to the 270,000 words mark.

270,000 words. I could write a novel with that many vocables. Actually, I always forget that I did start writing one almost eighteen years ago and my tally so far is forty-seven pages. Forty-eight, I managed to finish another scene just now. But, what do these 270,000 words show? They show loyalty to reading certainly and they display a natural craving for knowledge since the bulk of that weekly score is made up by the two newspapers I buy regularly whilst a third is supplied by the novel I am reading at the time of writing this column, "Tess of the D’Urbervilles".

But above all, what my hundred-thousand-plus-a-week-word-count shows is that some people have been starved of information for so long in their lives that we'll just read for the pleasure of reading. It is almost as if we are making up for lost time, or in my case as a Cuban ex-pat, catching up with that past life that happened without me but which is essential in my understanding of the present and the building of the future in my country of destination. It is an attempt to find my way in the current space and time through the power of words.

Shortly after I arrived in London in November '97, I began to commute to West Hampstead. It was then that I acquainted myself with many British newspapers and magazines. Lying scattered on passengers' seats, these various publications turned out to be the litmus test for my subsequent love affair with the world of columns, features, opinions and comments. All of a sudden the 7:57 overground train from King's Cross to Bedford became my private library.

Parallel to this I developed a thirst for visiting bookshops. Whenever possible I would stroll into one of those old and impressive outlets on Charing Cross Road and stay for hours therein. Nearer my previous workplace there was an equally brilliant store as well.

So, twelve years on, what do these 270,000 words mean? Depth, shallowness, earnestness, facetiousness, hope and despondency are but a few of the messages the combination of these words conveys in the passages where they appear. However there's an over-arching sentiment that to me conjures up the need to sit down on the couch with my mate or my favourite mug steaming with hot coffee or mocha to read a newspaper or a book. It is a feeling akin to flying across a vast savannah. Or the equivalent to the emotion that rises up after the rain has stopped and the air feels like the plucked strings of a violin. These 270,000 words bring with them a peaceful kind of happiness that is contradictorily mixed with a type of sadness. Sadness because once I finish reading an article in a magazine or a passage in a book, my short-lived relationship with the author is over. I can go through the same scene or feature again, I can re-read it several times, but I cannot reprise the feeling of anticipation that overwhelmed me before.

Moreover, these 270,000 words are not all top-quality, highbrow (whatever that means these days) writing. There's plently of dross in the mix. And yet, I love how they arrive, many times unannounced, to mingle and rest in front of my eyes. And what would happen if I was to put them in a blender? What would the result be? If we apply the Keith Johnstone's method as seen in his book 'Impro' and which served as the basis for our very own drama group when I was in university, this would the outcome:

Person A (talking to Person B): You're high in the hills of Andalucia, enjoying the views and a rabbit stew, when...
Person B (responding): When Sadler's Wells director Alastair Spalding commissioned four of his associate choreographers to create danceworks "in the spirit of Diaghilev" to celebrate the centenary of the Ballets Russes, the results were always likely to be diverse...
Person A (nodding vigorously): Just use Velcro.
Person B (looking down): Well, it was a little embarrassing. For 40 years this has become my so-called life, and it's a complicated set of issues – the exploitation and genocide of a species, the duplicity of governments, the destruction of an ocean, the poisoning of consumers...

Person A: ...a wife and children, school fees, bills...
Person B (smiling): Ah, control – yes, it's a seductive delusion. Even so, I can totally understand your reticence.
Person A (looking ahead): We will gain more than we will lose by establishing an identity; my tendency would be to risk being more offensive.

And so on. Absurd? Yes, but so is reading 270,000 words per week. I would love to trade my words in the stock market or change them into real money (£270,000? Yeah, dream on!) to be able to visit as many other countries as possible, learn about as many other cultures as it is humanly feasible. But in the meantime, I will keep them with me. They are mine and they make up what I call my life's narrative.

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'What Makes a Good Writer?', to be published on Tuesday 10th November at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. What a gorgeous piece. Wow, can those girls play!

    "...flying across a vast savannah" ...I like that.

    I have a set of those magnetic words. I need to dig them back out and put them on the fridge, now that it's clean!

  2. A very interesting piece. It has set me to thinking about many things - one of which is how I, too, have read voraciously to compensate for past deprivations. It has also occurred to me that a period of depression in my teenage years, was due to being prevented from exploring and using my talents and intellect as I might have done. The compensation is that they are that much more delicious when enjoyed now.

  3. Cuban,

    at first glance we panicked,
    where's the Sunday music vid?

    a long list of words and no sounds?

    we scrolled like a madman,
    and there it is at the bottom.

    phew! T.G.

    but, Classical?well,
    truth be told,we DO listen
    to classical under certain
    1) as the mood demands
    {of course}
    2) whenever we nap
    3) and . . . when we read

    though our Sunday morning preference
    runs to R&B {Motown!},
    the youtube vid was
    well received. :-)

    but, what to do? what to do?

    scroll to the top of the column,
    and read the words.
    Cuban is always interesting, no?

    so, this Sunday is double-treat. :-)

    Classical music as background to
    a column. works.


    we've been following
    the oppression bloggers
    are going through in Cuba,
    so we can imagine what it must
    mean to do without information
    for years and then to find
    a wealth of books
    (like steak for a hungry man).

    we grew up in poverty.
    the library was free entertainment.
    {and we DID steal a few books here and there,
    not proud, just saying}
    we CAN and DO say that books are
    largely responsible for keeping
    us alive, and free.

    even so, we are a very slow reader,
    this doesn't stop us from trying. :-)

    all in all, a fun post today, Cuban,
    thank you.


  4. I loved this. I used to read, read, read, especially when I was living in London, I read more than I thought possible, partly out of loneliness.

    I rarely read fiction anymore. This is something I will change as soon as there is more time. My life isn't about time for "me" at the moment. For example this morning I hoped for a couple hours of quiet and tea to read blogs but my son woke up and now he is making shooting sounds and crawling all around me. Endearing yes, but also the quiet would be nice.

    much love

  5. p.s. Tess is amazing. Enjoy! If you haven't read RETURN OF THE NATIVE, I highly recommend it. It is a favorite.

    much love

  6. Cuban here are some more words for you to read. They are that you are brilliant.

    You are so intelligent that your mind (computer) is craving information (data) and then you use your heart and your computer to sort out and make knowledge out of what you have read.

    When I see your age, you completly blow my mind because you are truly one of the most intelligent people I have had the pleasure to know.

    Love Renee oxoxo

  7. Hola, gracias, for the beautiful strings of the violin - they are a perfect accompaniment to a piece that was at times, personally difficult. Because for me, the voracious reading was all done before and now cannot be done in the same way. My eyes cannot devour as once they could... and I must be so very very selective of what I read before the axe of pain cuts across my vision. It is so important to hear of others being grateful for something I miss. If not me, then you.

  8. Thanks for your kind words. I should have also added blogs to my list as I do read a fair amount in any given week. Fortunately for me, the quality of my feelow cyber-writers is excellent and it always leaves me craving for more. And no, this is not faux-politeness, it is the truth. Sometimes I feel guilty about not visiting a regular follower or a fellow blogegr for lack of time.

    Also, I should have written that I am re-reading 'Tess...' and that's because the first time around it was during my uni years as a literature assignment. The worst kind of reading you can do is when it is part of your homework. I did not enjoy it then as much as I am enjoying it now.

    Many thanks.

    Greetings from London.

  9. i am labelling this post "The Joy of Text" haha...totally agree with you... I read at least one book a week for pleasure, plus I am always re-reading texts to like you i am constantly surrounded by words and wouldn't have it any other way. I have just finished reading Larson's The Girl who played with fire and am now halfway through Ma Jian's Beijing Coma - a fascinating account of the student protests which led to 89 Tianamen Sq. Thanks for the I am going to listen to the music!! Greetings from Mexico - newly returned from Nicaragua yesterday...

  10. Reading – a passage into the sacred space of the minds of others. Writing – an invitation to enter that sacred space. In our joint contract with each other, the writer and reader transcend the grinding banality life can too often assume. As a child, I was forbidden to read nonreligious books. Not surprisingly, ever since, I too have been on a mission, both as a writer and as a reader, to make up for lost time. I salute your hungry mind, Cuban, and am grateful that you share your insights with the world.

  11. Cuban, you are truly a kindred spirit. For me, reading is not a discipline, it's a vice. :-)
    I realize that I am really, really priviledged (sp?) to be a native speaker of English, which has sooo much written material, and to have always been able to live in a print-rich environment.
    I love your description of the air feeling like the plucked strings of a violin.

  12. I so miss my local WH Smith for picking up such papers. Ahhh. the local ones here are totally boring--more State news than anything else. But, what a lovely post. Wow, that's a lot of words! Crazy, eh?

  13. I see now how the dam of intellectual curiosity burst when you arrived in London. Your insatiable need is our blessing. Thank you!

  14. This was a lovely Sunday morning piece, I must say, although I'm guilty of reading it at 4:20 p.m. my time (I've had an incredibly busy morning). But about the reading, I'm entirely there with you. I can't imagine life without my books, magazines, and all the lovely blogs I'm now visiting since I started blogging. There's so much life to be learned from reading because we just can't live it all, can we? I especially love to read because it's such a great escape - it takes me places...

    As for that video clip, I do so worship those violins. And that female conductor - I don't believe I've ever seen a female conductor before. She rocks!!!

    Thank you for what you always share, Cuban. It's perfectly lovely!!!


  15. A lovely paean to reading. There's really nothing, absolutely nothing, that takes its place in my own life. The anticipation of it, the sight of it, the doing of it -- it's all wonderful. I love my aching eyes.

  16. I've just recently found some time to read more than I used to and I know exactly what you mean when you discuss connecting with an author. And when I find an author I like, I tend to stick to them. You definitely have a smorgasbord of reading material at your hands every week. Wow. Amazing. Thanks for sharing bits and pieces of your life's narrative with us.

  17. Poor an alternate universe Hardy might show some mercy for the poor girl...
    Your words...may they grow!!

  18. You're a great storyteller. I do hope you keep up with the novel.

  19. Here I am adding more words, and wondering too what is it about words about wanting to savor devour wander through them and will to write them.
    Reading your posts is always a pleasure.
    With wishes for a wonderful week,

    And I see I have to stretch my vocabulary more, these are the basics of basic w's whisked off.

    cheers from Japan,

  20. Great post. I also read everything I can get my hands on :)

    Thanks for your lovely comment on my Ocean Hopper blog about V-Day.

    While I'm here...would you be up for joining in on a project I started recently called Listen to a Londoner? I'm interviewing loads of people who live in London. It's just 10 questions about the city. If you're interested, details are on my blog:

    Would be great to get a Cuban expat's voice in!

  21. Reading, writing, you haven't mentioned thinking, but then you don't really need to because what is a good blog other than thoughts shared with others.

    I like you, Cuban.

  22. Many thanks for your kind comments. And yes, I'm up for it, Little London!

    Greetings from London.

  23. Beautiful music! So suitable for November somehow, with the dusk and those glowing evening skies.

    Reading is such an inner self thing for me - you've made me think a lot about my reading patterns over the years.

  24. Great music Cuban. Oh I love that you read so much, reminds me of my late uncle. I don't read as much as I would like to because of the kids but I do try to read a book a week.

  25. Excellent :)

    The questions are listed on my blog here:

    Answer any 10 then send that along with 2-3 sentences about you, your name, age and a photo to my email:


  26. Many thanks for your kind words.

    Greetings from London.



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