I've just spent a long and delightful weekend in the country. In among a family wedding, and ferrying people to trains and finishing my tax return and catching up with my sisters, I found all I wanted to read was a very ancient copy of Dorothy L. Sayers' Clouds of Witness. Sayers is my favourite of the great Golden Age detective story writers, but it's not one of her best, I've read it half a dozen times before, and to be honest, it barely tickled the surface of my mind, let alone my emotions. I suspect I was reading more as you play music on an MP3 player, to block out a tedious journey and the endless buzz of things-to-do-people-to-worry-about. It's reading as anaesthetic or at least Valium and, thinking about it, I do it quite a lot.
The book I'm about to start - Iain Pears's An Instance of the Fingerpost - is historical and detective and meaty-looking, and - as far as a quick dip can tell - really well written. Just my cup of tea, in fact, and yet I'm feeling curiously reluctant to start. I don't think there's anything about the book itself to daunt me. It's more that I think (suspect? fear?) it will absorb me completely. Do I actually want to resent interruptions, stay up too late, work things out, be sad and happy and frightened? Do I actually want to do that much feeling? Life's pretty darned complicated at the moment, and quite apart from all the thinking and feeling I do when I'm writing, I've done enough on my own behalf in the last few years to keep a soap scriptwriter happy for decades. And yet, somehow, I feel guilty for my reluctance. It's like a refusal to work hard at school, to go to 'good' films, to cook fresh organic food for my children every day. Is there an emotional equivalent of the Protestant work ethic?
It's set me wondering about this facility for reading which writers and keen readers have, from the first moment we realise that books are the door to a hundred other worlds more exciting and interesting than our own. But I do include the 'facile' aspect of 'facility' in the word. Is it too easy for us to skim-read, to tickle the surface of our mind without really engaging? To use words and characters and stories as a tranquilliser? Or does it not matter if I use books as anaesthetic, as white noise to shut out other people's fret, and my own? Is it aesthetically or morally dubious to use Sayers and Heyer and Chandler for that purpose? And if it is, do I care?