Tag Archives: culture

Varieties of reading: drawing in and pulling away


I’ve just finished reading Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Headwhich I’d happily say is one of the best books I’ve read in the last year.  I wonder when the subtitle changed from On becoming an individual in an age of distraction to How to flourish in an age of distraction? The latter, on the UK Penguin paperback edition, makes it sound like a self-help book. The former, which seems to be the American hardcover subtitle, is more accurate because it does greater justice to the philosophical content of the book. On the other hand, Crawford’s whole point is that the idea of individual, autonomous liberty is not necessarily liberating or ideal, whereas connection and engagement with the real world of people and things is. To flourish, you need to radically reconsider the notion of what it means to be individual and free in the first place.

My current reading list: not so much a list as a pile

My favourite part of the day. Coffee and something from this pile.

We kid ourselves if we think that we while we are humming along in neutral, our minds are in some freewheeling state where we think and act autonomously. For many of us, the world is full of things that are making claims on our  “attentional commons,” eroding our right to live in a world without ubiquitous advertising and clickbait. If you don’t believe it, maybe you haven’t heard marketing people talk about every available space, including the back of your bus ticket, as “real estate” where someone can peddle their wares at you, colonising every object you use and see with a corporate flag.

Still reading “Still writing”

What Crawford is getting at is difficult to imagine, unless you’ve had the opportunity to differentiate between different kinds of attention. I’m now riffing on the book, by introducing another, Dani Shapiro’s Still Writingwhich I would put near the top of the list of books which have most influenced me in the last year.  Although it’s not a self-help book, there is one page which made a huge difference to me. It’s where Shapiro distinguishes between two kinds of reading – the kind that draws you in, and the kind that pulls you away (incidentally, pulling away is more or less what the components of the word distraction mean).

I try (most of the time I fail, but still, I try) to begin my day reading. And by this I do not mean The New York Times online, or the Vanity Fair lying on the kitchen table or the e-mails that have accumulated overnight, and which I open at my own risk. The roulette of the in-box! An enticing invitation to a private online sale of gourmet Himalayan sea salt, a high school nemesis emerging from the ether—whatever it is, it’s the opposite of reading. It pulls you away, instead of directing you inward.

[…] When I start the morning with any one of the dozen books in rotation on my office floor, my day is made instantly better, brighter. I never regret having done it. Think about it: have you ever spent an hour reading a good book, and then had that sinking, queasy feeling of having wasted time?

 (Dani Shapiro, 2013. Still Writing, New York: Grove Press, pp. 34-35).

I also try, not always successfully, to do the same. That is, to walk downstairs, without touching a phone or a computer, and pick up a book, and read it. When I do that, I get the same feeling as when I first tried to give up smoking. A visceral twitch that could make you lurch towards the nearest cigarette shop to buy another packet.

But within minutes of picking up a book, just as Shapiro says, you get drawn in, and feel better for it. Her point is that good writing comes from good reading, and that any time you spend reading a well-written book is going to stimulate the writer that you want to be, and other forms of reading – that really need a different term to describe them, since they are so fundamentally different – have the effect of distracting you, pulling you in different directions, until you feel mentally exhausted and vacant.

So this post is by way of celebrating that today, at least, I didn’t do that, I finished The world beyond your head, and —as Shapiro promised—I feel all the better for it.

Hurray for Len Goodman’s “Dancing Feet”


dancing-feetI only ended up watching Len Goodman’s Dancing Feet because I’d been stood up, so instead of seeing Life of Pi in 3D in what would have been my first trip to a cinema in almost a decade, I sat self-pityingly at home, trying to decide between Steam Iron Sale Pick of the Day and Alice in Wonderland, the ballet.

In the end, I turned to iPlayer, and Len Goodman’s Dancing Feeta documentary about the golden age of British Ballroom dancing, and within minutes, was hooked. What I loved about this programme is that from the very start, Len Goodman told you without any sadness or regret that what he was talking about was already over, a thing of the past.  Peggy Spencer was talking matter-of-factly about the 1950s and 60s when she said that ballroom went ‘underground’, and became a thing for dancing schools rather than dance halls, whereas the heart of ballroom, years ago, she said, had been to go out and meet people.

Near the end, about 57 minutes in, Mary Lee, singer with the Roy Fox orchestra, smiles warmly and reminisces “it was lovely” in a tone of voice that tells you instantly how lovely it was, but again, with no hint of regret, just a fond and respectful memory. “It was lovely,” she repeats, “You were hearing good music, and with a wee bit of luck, you got a wee cuddle and a kiss on the way home. You know. It was nice.”  You have to hear the way she says ‘nice’, and see the expression on her face to understand that nice can, after all, be full of meaning.

The researchers pulled in musicologists, musicians, dance teachers, writers, singers and dancers, visited dance halls, and included intelligent discussions about changes in music and the social history of dancing over two centuries. It was more intellectual weight and good sense than I have seen thrown at ballet in a long time.  What absolutely no-one did in this programme, was to make any claim for ballroom-dancing as a thing, as some autonomous form that lived independently of wider society.  No-one talked about ‘dance’, it was all about dancing, and what that meant in real terms – the materiality of dance halls, dance bands, going out, meeting people and kissing them.

It was warm and but not sentimental, accessible without dumbing down. I’m not a fan of ballroom, or of Strictly Come Dancing, but I’m a huge fan of trying to make sense of culture. It’s just a shame that the BBC couldn’t have thrown similar resources at a programme that could explain why we still make ballets that portray an upper-class tea party in Victorian Oxford.  I can’t help feeling that the assumption is that we’re supposed to believe that ballet is timeless and autonomous, and hence needs no explanation. I for one would love Len Goodman to investigate.