After finishing university with its routine of “required” reading I moved to London to work at a music magazine. To my sheer delight I was surrounded by, inundated with, magazines. All the monthlies I couldn’t afford arrived on subscription: Vanity Fair, Esquire, GQ, Vogue, Details, plus Rolling Stone and a weekly dose of high-gloss, low-IQ celebrity fare from OK! and Hello. Plus unlimited access to Q, Mojo, Mixmag, and Arena which were produced in the offices around me.
With that journalistic goldmine to hand, I got out of the habit of reading actual books. The only two that made the trip from Philly to London were my dog-eared Franny & Zooey and a signed copy of Trainspotting, sentimental relics of my teenage years. Occasionally I borrowed a beach-read from my flatmate, but for the most part I read in 50 to 1500 word chunks of magazine-speak. A couple years later my company launched the future publishing phenomena that was Closer and Grazia, to join Heat in the ranks of the half-million-plus selling women’s weeklies. They were as were as brightly-wrapped as the contents of the office Cadbury Roses tin, and twice as addictive.
Books were passé. They were demanding and required concentration. Why bother when I could get instant fix on every page of Closer? At some point I said, half-joking, that I’d forgotten how to read: “Gossip magazines are turning me illiterate.” It wasn’t far off the truth. My attention span and love of words – honed over 17 years of serious reading – had fallen apart. My exposure to new ideas and information, and my ability to absorb and analyse, was being chipped away by a diet of mental junk food that bloated my mind with vapid nonsense. Realising that I had fallen into the mental equivalent of Supersize Me, I made a conscious decision to read more books.
It was like swapping chips for carrot sticks. Sure, it was good for me, but I had to work at reading books. There was a rhythm and a discipline to engaging with a long piece of text that I had lost. The shiny weeklies winked and pleaded: read me instead. I started rationing: Vanity Fair and Vogue once a month; Grazia or Closer as a Friday treat. Gradually, the diet of full paragraphs and polysyllabic words got easier to digest.
My main excuse for junk reading was the plea of many fast-food fiends: “I don’t have the time/money/energy to get something nutritious.” Turns out that, as with food, cheap and good-for-you is easy to come by if you know what you want and plan ahead. Thanks to Kindle, I have an accessible, wide-ranging selection of books perpetually to hand. But an e-reader is no more necessary to good literary fare than one of those prepared-meals delivery services is to a good diet. The best and most intriguing source of books is charity or second-hand shops. Unlike Amazon, which overwhelms with options and makes you wait for delivery, they offer an instant fix. Browsing the shelves you can snap up everything from the latest best-sellers to arcane anthropological tomes. Second-hand shops gifted me Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House, Henry James’s The Aspern Papers and Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington. They’ve introduced me to Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Mead, Anton Chekhov, Alice Walker, and Kurt Vonnegut. My handbag currently contains Hard Travelin’, Kenneth Allsop’s brilliant history of the migrant American workforce, purchased for £1.40 in a Marie Curie shop.
Accustomed, once again, to a feast of words and ideas, I happily turn my nose up at Metro and the gimcrack lure of Closer and its cousins. I still subscribe to Vogue, and occasionally spend an hour perusing magazines at Waterstone’s, but my compulsion to keep up with the Brangelina marriage saga, or to find out who has cellulite/forgot her mascara/fired her nanny is gone. Quitting junk food does a body good – and the same is doubly true of the mind.