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