This post will meander a good deal but keep calm and carry on.
I’m on a Tolkien re-read, the first one for many years for various reasons. Here’s the context: when I retired in 2008 and moved back home to Devon with Andrew, the first major job he commissioned was the building-in of bookcases all over the house – I even allowed him to have some in his office.
Since Andrew’s death I frequently find myself silently thanking him for many things: searching out a lovely retirement home where I still feel safe, and close to him; agreeing to make our retirement near my childhood home, though he had lived in London all his life. But I thank him daily for the bookshelves. I need my books more than ever now, though I have so much support and care from my family and my friends. Books, like cats, are always there for you.
My first reading plan was established as soon as I’d got the books on the shelves. (Andrew said, ‘It won’t take long to unload the boxes, will it dear?’ I said, ‘No, but it will take a while to get the books in order.’ Unlike me, he was neither a great reader, nor indeed a librarian. But he buckled to and helped set up my esoteric scheme.)
Apart from cookery and local interest in the kitchen, Tolkien and stuff in my study, and Andrew’s books and files in his office, the biggest range of shelving is in the living room, where my general fiction is at last in A/Z order and my general non-fiction in my own odd order that makes sense to me. (We’ll leave that alone, I think.)
I decided that I would read/re-read the fiction from A – Z, allowing myself to omit anything I had read too recently or couldn’t face reading again for reasons of gloom, over-familiarity etc. (I hasten to add that we were doing lots of other nice things too – I’ve never read 24 hours a day.) Hence I re-read Austen, left out the Brontes much though I admire them (gloom) and read the whole of Dickens through once more with the exception of A Child’s History of England’ and ‘The Life of Our Lord,’ which both seem to me very sanctimonious. I also read at last the fiction part of my bequest from a dear friend, which I’d not had time to read through while I was still working.
In between each volume of fiction, I read a non-fiction; often from Senate House Library in London, which offers London graduates a delivery service (for a fee.) Or perhaps a newly purchased volum of Tolkien criticism. Bliss.
At the time of Andrew’s sudden death in 2013, I had reached Tony Hillerman. I have a lot of his novels, and dropped the alternating scheme to read through all of them. Good and familiar fiction was a sort of salvation, or at least an occupation to set against the numbness. Reading has been a bulwark ever since, even more perhaps than at other times of my life.
(Are you still there? We have nearly reached Tolkien)
A couple of months ago I reached Z. Now I have swung into stage two, reading through that esoterically arranged general non-fiction, and now alternating it with Tolkien. Beginning with The Hobbit, I have re-read LOTR and The Silmarillion, and am now on Unfinished Tales. (Told you we’d get there.)
As always on re-reading those first two, I am struck by how there’s always something you notice that you haven’t noticed before. I can’t recall for certain how many times I’ve read those two, but it has to be in the high twenties.
But I’m here to recommend slow reading. I’m retired, I live alone, I have the leisure to read these unputdownables at whatever pace I choose. I even read two non-fics in between the three volumes of LOTR. I paused at the end of chapters and deliberately put off the joy or anguish of what I knew to be coming, in order to experience it more deeply. I even did that at some of the section breaks, the double-spacing, to slow down the speed.
It’s been like experiencing a whole new author, new world, and new books. I lived with and in Middle-earth more completely than I ever have before. I’m always recommending people to take these texts more slowly and selectively, for example when people ask advice on reading the Silmarillion because they find it so different from LOTR. Yet this is the first time I’ve actually done that.
I’ve written all this to celebrate the joys of slow reading and slow reflection, hoping it might lead some of you to try it, and to feel that difference of approach refreshing you understanding and pleasure. It’s certainly reminding me of how much Tolkien has meant in my life. I do seriously wonder who I might have turned out to be if I had never met ‘The Lord of The Rings.’
The only caveat is that it wreaks havoc with keeping your annual commitment on Goodreads on track!