Tag Archives: reading

Reading nature

The idea of reading nature for signs is problematic in many ways. It can be a way of adding to the sense of separation of us, from nature, where nature is seen as one homogenous thing. ‘Nature’ as a word is a shorthand for many complex existences and interactions and we should be wary of reducing it to symbols and then reading it for insight into our personal lives. It’s not all about us.

However, there are ways in which we can meaningfully read the world around us. This takes a lot more work over the long term and is not as human-centric.

We can read the health of a place. Top level predators are a good indicator of the overall health of a system. Diversity is a good indicator as well. If a place lacks for diversity and there are no predators, help is required. We can also read the health of a place in terms of litter and obvious human damage. Again this should be read as a call for help.

We can read the seasons. There are natural shifts in how the seasons manifest from year to year, so just keeping up with that is an act of engagement. With climate change impacting on everything, it is a good idea to read those shifts for information about what’s working and what isn’t.

You can read for your own impact. Are there insects in your garden? If you don’t have a garden, what can you do to support insect populations? I managed to establish a pot garden, and it attracts and feeds bees, so I can watch it for a while and read it in this way, and think about how to develop it. You can read the birds who come to your garden for what they tell you about the wildlife you are supporting. If you have regular insect eaters, you are doing well for insects.

There are times when an understanding of wild things will mean you can read what’s coming. The way creatures get off a beach when there’s a tsunami on the way is a good case in point. Understanding how the living things around you respond to stuff you can’t detect can be a lifesaver in some contexts.

It is better to read nature for the things nature might be able to tell us about its many selves, than to read the wild world for what it can tell us about our own immediate concerns. And if you’re looking for contact with the numinous, for spiritual guidance, and for guides this is still the better place to start. The knowledge you build by reading this way will make you better able to see something out of the ordinary that may be more to do with spirit and less other living things getting on with their lives. Learning to read what’s around you for its own sake is a gesture of respect, which is a good opening move in a spiritual endeavour.

If there is one message that humans need to hear from nature right now, it is that we are not the only things that matter, it is not all about us, and we have to stop acting like it is.

Reading for pleasure

As someone who works with books, and reviews books, I can end up doing a lot of reading in a workish sort of way. I’m also in the habit of reading as research and sometimes as market research. It’s hard for me to read a book and not analyse it, not think about what makes it work and why, not contemplate the marketing side. This is unfortunate because in many ways I got into writing because I loved reading.

I don’t think it’s a book specific issue. If you are motivated to work with that which you love most, then that which you love most becomes work and your relationship with it changes. A person can easily lose their way when the things that initially motivated them are no longer in the mix.

I think it’s important to take stock regularly, to check in and see what’s happening in life, what’s working and what isn’t. For me this often means reminding myself to make the time to read things for the sheer pleasure of it and for no other purpose. Which is why this post is not a review of Gail Carriger’s Soulless. Which was funny, knowing and delightful to read and just the kind of brain candy I needed in the mix. It’s why I didn’t review Jeannete Winterson’s The Gap of Time or Dr Geof’s The Utterly Un-Relaxing Colouring Book of Cats with their Tanks. They were also fab.

If everything becomes public facing, if every new experience has to become a blog post or a social media update, that doesn’t work for me. Having there be things that are mine and mine alone is really important so that I do not lose myself in what I am doing, and do not lose my relationship with what I am doing.

Stroud Short Stories, revisited

Stroud Short Stories runs twice a year, picking ten stories to be read at an evening event. Participation is usually limited to Gloucestershire. In the winter of 2014, I was picked to read. In the spring of 2015 I edited an anthology of all previously selected stories. Last autumn I was invited to help with the judging, and I’ve been asked to do that again this spring.

Judging literature is a very subjective process. A small percentage of the submissions don’t work – they don’t make sense in some way, are too unoriginal, or express prejudices that aren’t acceptable. Those are the easy ones to weed out, although I have to admit it’s possible that amongst them are high art, super clever serious literature that I’m not smart enough to get. The flip side of this is that I know the audience who come to hear the stories, and they tend to be more like me, and are not cutting edge literary academics either.

The quest for the best ten is not an easy one. It helps that there’s the ‘reading out’ aspect, because this rules out a percentage of the stories. We judge without knowing the author, so I’m less likely to pick a story that depends on fantastic, theatrical delivery. Most authors are shy, wary of the microphone and many come to the events not having read much (or ever) in public before. The story has to work regardless of delivery. I’ve learned to be wary of vast stretches of dialogue, because not every author can produce two or more clear voices on a stage.

As a reader, first and foremost I want to be surprised. This is true of anything I get my nose into. I want not to know where it was going. I want to encounter thoughts that would never have crossed my mind. I am susceptible to beautiful language, but it has to be in service to the story, and I do not like things that sound clever and poetic but lack for meaning.

In the autumn we were picking to a theme, and having the Eerie Evening (see poster!) to work with, was a useful focus for selection. There’s no theme this spring, and I have no idea how that’s going to go. The competition is now open for submissions, and in the weeks ahead, I’ll be reading, and pondering perhaps something in the region of a hundred short stories, looking for the ten. I hope I can do the process justice.

It helps greatly that I’m not doing this alone. John Holland also judges, and he’s done far more of this than I have. While there’s a fair overlap in our tastes, we think in different ways, and in finding stories that we both think work, we’ve got a good shot (I think) at getting the best ten, at least on paper. How they’ll translate on the night is an unknown quantity. Some stories come alive in whole new ways when read aloud, others don’t have the punch you expected. Nothing is certain, and that’s part of the allure.

If you’re in Gloucestershire and want to give it a go (but don’t tell me!) the details are here – http://www.stroudshortstories.blogspot.co.uk/

New Year, New Books

I’ve had a week off, and in that time, I’ve been reading. I thought I’d set the tone for 2016 by kicking off with reviews of the books I’ve read over the last week.

The Old Magic of Christmas, Linda Raedisch. A book exploring myths, legends and folk practice from Germanic and Scandinavian countries, interspersed with ways to do some of the things described. Charming, accessible and very readable, it’s not an academic text but the author seems well read. While I’m no expert on Christmas traditions, where there were overlaps with things I know about, I saw nothing to take issue with. I very much enjoyed the author’s willingness to explore all the gruesome and creepy aspects of the season. If only regular Christmas had more trolls in it, I’d probably find the whole thing far more palatable!




The Sandman: Overture – Neil Gaiman. A prequel to the Sandman series, I imagine it would make little sense to a reader who hadn’t already read the other titles. It’s beautifully put together, the art really shows what can be done with a graphic novel when the artist, letterer and colourist have time to lavish care and attention on every page rather than what the usual factory approach delivers. In terms of story, it is odd, clever, sometimes funny, poignant, uncomfortable – in short all I have come to expect from Neil Gaiman. If you like what he does, you will like this one too.




The Voice that Thunders – Alan Garner. A collection of essays exploring the process of writing, the writing industry, landscape, history, family, the relationship between books and classrooms, mental health issues, language, dialect… all laced through with stories of people and places. A fascinating read and exactly what I needed at this point in time. If you’re fascinated with Alan Garner and his work, of if any of the above themes are obsessions of yours, then I heartily recommend it.


Too many writers?

As you’re reading this, please start off with a moment of well earned smugness, because you are reading, and reading is a much needed thing just now.

Here on the internet, everyone is writing (there is no escaping a certain amount of awkward irony in this post.) On twitter there are a lot of authors all shouting at once about their blogs and books. Who is reading them? My guess is that for the vast majority, the answer is, almost no-one. We all want to be heard, but no one who is busy shouting wants to listen.

I talked to an aspiring author the other day who said he didn’t want to read other authors for fear of being influenced. As though a book should be something you write in total isolation with no reference to anyone else. As though being influenced is a bad thing. How are we to learn, if not from each other? How are we to understand writing, if not by reading?

Some of it is about speed, about putting out words at ever greater tempo in the hopes that acceleration will somehow magically lead to something. Churning frantically in the hopes of hitting on a magic formula. The author as word machine, pumping them out at breakneck speed. All too often what follows is writing devoid of ideas, lacking depth, or interest. All those ‘ten ways to be an even better blogger’ posts that I don’t click through and read because they’re so tedious.

I’m going to be giving more of this blog to talking about reading. The book market is tough, and there are many fabulous and deserving books that get overlooked because no one even knows they are there. I’m going to put more energy into promoting other people’s books. If you aren’t a regular reviewer and find a book you really want to rave about, and don’t have a platform to use for that, this is an open invitation. I take guest blogs. Drop me a line.

I’m going to rebalance my life a bit, so that I spend more of my time being a reader, and less of it being a writer. Partly this is for my own enjoyment – I’m happy when I’m reading. Partly it’s to slow down. I want to stop and properly engage with things. Partly because there’s this frantic competition for attention going on out there, and I want a different relationship with it.

How books can save the world

  • Reading is a low carbon activity, especially if you read the same book more than once or share it.
  • While theatre, film and other creative forms can offer some of the same benefits, it’s the effect of being involved with the world of a book over days, maybe weeks of reading that has the power to really impact on us. The act of getting involved with a story over time means a book can become part of our lives in an ongoing way, and in the easy business of having a long term relationship with a book, we become more able to engage with that which is not us.
  • Fiction teaches us to see the world through other people’s eyes. We imagine ourselves as other people, and so learn to empathise, which in turn should help us be more co-operative in real life. It is co-operation, not competition that we need right now.
  • Sitting quietly with a book is soothing to body and mind. It slows us down, takes us out of the fast lane of consumption. The more people leave the fast lane, the more sustainable everything becomes.
  • Stories get us interested in ideas, encouraging us to think and question. They teach us not to take everyone’s words and motives at face value. These are skills we all need to deal with information from politicians and the media, who seem intent on pushing us towards ecocide, but good at telling us they aren’t doing that.
  • Fiction shows us people overcoming challenges, hardships, and if you read fantasy, significant forces of evil. We can find courage to face our own challenges from the inspiration of fiction, we can believe that one person may change everything, and so we are more able to become that person.
  • In most stories, selfish, greedy, power hungry people are the bad guys. This gives us a valuable perspective on the real world and the people in power.
  • Books have the capacity to be far more than entertainment, however the chance to escape into other lives and worlds offers us emotional respite which in turn makes it easier to deal with this world and not be ground down by it. Avoiding people being ground down by misery and despair is an essential aspect of fixing things.
  • Books offer us other ways of being and living, from the idealistic to the horrific. This helps us recognise that the world as it is, is not inevitable, just one option amongst many. We could choose differently.
  • Books expose us to beauty, love, heroic friendship, happy endings (at least sometimes) adventure, and they stimulate the imagination. The more of this we have inside of us, the more able we are to recognise it, seek it and make it happen. People who are full of banal thoughts, mean ideas and the like aren’t likely to imagine a better way of living.

Moon Books Family

Authoring can be a very lonely business. For me, it’s the part of the experience I have most trouble with. I prefer to work with people around – if I can get the right people who are companionable without being too demanding. Being married to an artist works well for me in this regard. I’m also very dependent on wider creative networks and contact with other creative people. It helps me keep my frustrations and victories in perspective, and means there are people around who know perfectly well how it goes. How hard it is to make any kind of living from your work being the major issue there. People who don’t do it tend to assume that writing, art etc are easy ways to make a lot of cash. Often they are hard ways to barely break even.

To be any kind of viable, a person has to get out there and actively sell their work. This is a nightmare for me. For one, by the time a book comes out, I’m working on something else, I’ve half forgotten or come to dislike the older one. I feel uncomfortable drawing attention to what I’ve done – I was raised to understand that being attention seeking was a major social failing, so leaping about going ‘I made this book and it’s great and you should all buy it’ does not come easily, if at all.

In a creative family, this is much less of an issue. I can happily tell you about artists I love, books I enjoyed, films I was blown away by, and so forth. That’s not just easy, that’s a joy. Over at Moon Books, it’s brought some really interesting things into my life. Moon Books publishes a lot of Pagan titles (mine included). Having got to know many of the authors, I can say many of them are just not the people to go blowing their own trumpets. A couple are more cheerfully out there, but as is often the case with authors, there are a lot of shy introverts for whom it is a world of pain to have to try and draw attention to their own work. So let me take a moment and point you that way. There’s lots of good stuff.

Over recent years, we’ve formed a collective habit of reading each other’s work. This is great in so many ways. It means less isolation. Engaging with other people’s ideas and world views stops a person from disappearing up their own bottom in a puff of self importance (always a risk for authors). The sharing of knowledge is good. Seeing what others are working on, and how they handle issues, is good. Spiritual experience is a tough thing to write about – so personal and ephemeral in nature – swapping notes about how to express it helps us build a viable common language.

Thanks to Moon Books, I’ve read a great deal that isn’t Druidry in the last few years. I’ve read perspectives that make no emotional sense to me. I’ve read about paths I wouldn’t follow and I’ve seen teaching approaches I wouldn’t use. I’ve also seen a lot that has influenced me and given me things to explore and play with. I am a fuller, richer, more open minded person as a consequence. I have learned that I do not need to agree with a person’s worldview to respect it and to be enriched by encountering it. I’ve become very relaxed about reading things that are not my path at all, and have found that a book can do a lot for me without being at all about what I do or who I am. It’s so easy to go into other people’s books seeking mirrors of ourselves, and I’ve certainly done that in the past. This way is more interesting.

Reading is a much more rewarding experience when you don’t need to like or agree in order to find value. There are, I have learned, no books that were written just to help me on my path. No books that are perfectly and wholly what I need. No book will tell me how to make my journey. That helps me appreciate that no book I write will be fully those things for anyone else, either.

Reading poetry

Reading is a skill that goes far beyond assembling symbols into sounds and letter clusters into words. Being able to infer and read between the lines, and also knowing when to take the words at face value. Placing historical context from language, assessing characters from speech – I think we learn how to be better humans by learning how to be better readers. But then, I’m an author so I’m probably biased.

In the last few months I’ve been trying to become a reader of poetry. That’s brought up a number of challenges. I’ve got plenty of great poetry – that bit was easy. How to approach a book of poetry? If I sit down and read page after page, as I might with fiction, or non-fiction, it doesn’t quite work. I need to pause more often, at the very least. There’s usually no continuity between poems, so there’s no momentum to move one to the next, none of the ‘page turning’ effect so popular in genre fiction. A lot of poems I end up reading two or three times – something I seldom do with sections of prose writing. Sometimes, having read them silently, I feel the need to read them out loud.

I find it isn’t possible to consume poetry in the same way that I would other writing. It requires me to slow down, to think, to sip rather than gulping. I have to think differently as well. There is no scope to lose myself in a plot or an alternative reality for any length of time. I don’t read much epic poetry, and I find shorter work draws me back to the moment and requires me to think a bit more about how what I’ve read relates to everything else.

We expect fiction to make narrative sense and provide us with recognisable characters who are doing things. Non-fiction is equally required to offer coherence and also clear meanings. Poetry is not obliged to do any of this. There may be meanings to discover, obfuscated by layers of symbolism, and metaphor. Sometimes those aren’t apparent. Sometimes it is the experience of the sounds and words that seems to matter most, the emotional impact of the moment, not an intellectual unravelling of clues. In this way, poetry is a lot more like life than other forms of writing. Life seldom announces its meanings or intended direction.

How to do it? How to set aside the right amount of time to read a poem or two well, and not fall into the trap of trying to read a poetry book like any other kind of book. How to make that part of life? How to engage with these words without trying to gobble them up? How to slow down enough. A life with poetry in it is clearly very different from a life without poetry, and learning to be a reader may be going to take me a while.

Objects of desire

A bookcase isn’t merely a storage unit. It’s an expression of self, belief and ideals, a daily reminder of who we think we are, and a little information for our visitors. Many people in the UK do not own books, so being one of the ones who does have a shelf or bookcase automatically sets you aside. People who read tend to favour the company of other people who read, and will scan your books to check you out.

It’s not just about the reading. I own a lot of books that I probably won’t read, or won’t read again. They have stories about where they came from; when, why, who bought them, or bequeathed them. I had, during the first thirty or so years of my life, accumulated a lot of books and I lived in a house that clearly marked me out as a book person. There was no room for bookcases on the boat, we had one book box, and the rest were in storage. Books ceased to be objects of display for a while.

Now we’re settled in a flat. It isn’t a big space, and I like that – easier to heat and clean, and innately greener as a consequence. I want to live lightly, to consume less. I’ve let go of a great many things, and now I’ve started thinking about my relationship with the books I own. Why am I keeping them all? Do I need them? Would they be better off in other hands, being read? The author gets nothing if I give books away, but at the same time I’ve been converted to fandom by book loans plenty of times.

Giving away books is a very odd process, and runs counter to feelings and impulses I’ve had my whole life, and that run in my family. Even though my people have been resoundingly working class for some time (there are some distant figures, but that’s a story for another day…) we’ve long been book people. I own a bookcase which, from the date chalked on its back, was clearly my great grandmother’s. She liked Tennyson. Did she own more books than would fit in that bookcase? I don’t know.

In the early days of books, they were not just methods of communication, but objects of power and desire. You had to be wealthy to own a book, and the book itself would be gorgeous. To display a book was to display learning and disposable income. While mass production brought cheap paper that yellows in a decade or so, and unremarkable covers, that urge to display seems wired into the book owning mindset. That’s the trouble with kindle – no one can casually scan it and appreciate your taste, wit, erudite-ness, style etc. Books you just read and do not use to adorn rooms are only serving some of the functions of books.

Most things I now find it easy to let go of when I’ve ceased to have any use for them. Most things can flow through my hands, no trouble at all. Learning to overcome all the cultural and emotional layers I’ve built up around book owning, is a process. I started with the books I didn’t much like: A tricky process of admitting there were books that I hadn’t much enjoyed and didn’t mean to read again, but still had not been able to part with. Why? I’m not sure I can answer. Learning to recognise books that I won’t re-read and that no one else in my family would read, and letting them go. Why keep them? And yet, sometimes when I can’t sleep, I recall their covers like the faces of lost friends and wonder if I made the right call.

Made of trees and filled with inspiration… perhaps it’s no wonder I default to treating them like sacred objects.

Reading like an anarchist

As a consequence of feedback on this blog, and on book reviews, a thought has occurred to me. Namely, how to read to best effect? When I touch on something that is close to someone’s experience, that seems to be helpful, but mostly I’ll be off the mark for most people – I’m bound to be. But I’d like to think I could still be useful. I’ve noticed that I derive benefit from books that other people find wide of the mark (profound thanks to Lorna who triggered this whole line of thought.) And I just read a book on Zen (thank you Jo!) that, while not entirely chiming with me, was profoundly useful.

Reading is not just a case of stuffing words into your head to see what sticks. We are largely taught to accept the authority of the author (clue is in the name and all that). There is a tendency to offer as fact that which is really opinion, and that muddies the waters too. It occurs to me that there are things I do when I’m reading that it might be useful to share.

Firstly, I watch for fact statements that are really opinions and mentally re-label them, and reject or accept according to my own tastes. It is a bit of a faff, but gets easier with practice. It makes it possible, for example, to read texts from people of other religions without getting bogged down or grumpy. After all, it’s just someone’s opinions, I can take it or leave it.

Secondly, I look for the underlying ideas. I’ve been reading a lot about prayer in different faiths – the surface stuff is of no use to me at all, what I’m looking for is what underpins, what the core concepts are, what the logic is. This means some picking out, a lot of pondering, but it does mean I get useful things out of books that really were not meant for me at all.

Thirdly I have no qualms arguing with a book. If I read something that totally jars with my beliefs, experiences or expectations, I’ll sit with that and try to figure out why. It may be that I was in error in some way, in which case I learn. It may be an opinions issue. It may be that I decide the thing I just read would be wrong for me, in which case it’s then down to me to try and figure out what would suit me better.

Here’s a case in point: I loved Fiona Tinker’s Pathworking through Poetry book. I wasn’t drawn to most of the poems she used and wouldn’t work with them, and disagreed with many of her interpretations, but that was fine because the core ideas were so useful, I could see how to take them and run with them, there was so much good material that our differences of opinion seemed like no problem at all.

Books are a bit like people: Opinionated, working to an agenda that is not your own, unreliable, sometimes wrong. Like people, you have to get in there, make a relationship, find out where the good bits are, take with a pinch of salt where appropriate, run off in totally the opposite direction when needs be, and so forth. Books are written by people and people are flawed and messy things, and most of us will see things differently to at least someone else.

The trick to getting the best out of reading, is not to submit to the authority of a book. Question it. Check its facts. Test its assertions. Throw it in the recycling bin if it lets you down too badly whilst quietly nicking the couple of bits you thought were useful. Take it as a model of what not to do (cough, Death of a Druid Prince, cough).

You have to get a fair way into History and Literature as academic subjects before anyone starts teaching you how to read critically or suggests you can argue with books. This is a shame. Especially when you consider the authority imbued in religious books, and those are stories made by people too, and all the same things need to apply with them, as well.