from A Shropshire Lad, A.E.Housman
II. Loveliest of Trees
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my three score years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
Last week I read this poem with a group of men and women who were all well past their three score years and ten. They felt rather smug and were delighted when one of them suggested they were all existing in injury time. That night as I got into bed and opened the long novel I have been struggling with for some time, I was struck by the thought that if I stuck to the Shropshire Lad’s strict rule (with no injury time), ten years was going to be very little room to read everything on my must read list as well as some of the new stuff to be published between now and the final whistle. If time is running out, should I just abandon this book and move onto the next or should I persevere? It is a good book by a respected author but I just can’t seem to make a real connection.
And then by coincidence, a couple of days later, I read this from Nick Hornby in The Observer Magazine:
Every time people force themselves to carry on with a book they are not enjoying, they reinforce the idea that reading is a duty.
Now I don’t believe in duty reading but nor do I think that all reading should be easy reading or reading within your comfort zone. Often you have to struggle to reap the best reward. George Eliot’s Romola, for example, is almost impenetrable for the first 100 pages but then it takes off. If I had given up and thrown it aside at page 98, I would have been the poorer for having missed out on something hugely worth reading.
As far as I am concerned, I think the habit of a lifetime (I have started so I’ll finish) is going to be too hard to shake off and anyway, I am not sure I want to have a pile of half read books lying around, mostly because of the nagging suspicion that if I had just pressed on, I might have come to my Eureka moment on the very next page.
Perhaps there is just not enough context in Nick Hornby’s argument, for how can there be a general rule to abandon every book we are not enjoying. I am not arguing back that we should press on stoically with something of no value. Surely, each book has to be considered and decided upon individually.
Meanwhile, back in bed, I have read 261 pages and there are 257 to go and the clock is ticking…