30 March, 2011

"Fiction Reveals Truth that Reality Obscures": Can't Read, Won't Read

I have discovered, over the past few years, in my post-graduate frenzy, that I cannot read.

I mean, I can read – I have a degree in English Literature and a subscription to Cosmo (guess which I’m most proud of), both of which would be a small struggle without the reading badge on my Brownie’s sash. What I am referring to is my loss of ability to let a book consume me, my thoughts and my emotions, to the point I entirely forget about the real world, what time it is or what I have on tomorrow.

This is a girl who grew up reading her Mum’s Marian Keyes’ and taking books onto the beach or into the garden escape teenage trials and tribulations. It is a sad realisation that the last time I read a book cover to cover was on holiday in the summer. Two summers ago.

When my friend agreed the other day that she also can no longer relax enough to read, I concluded that my own experience is in fact a fairly universal tragedy of our generation. A poignant calamity for the people who have grown up reading with Big Bird, listening to Jackanory and anxiously awaiting the next Topsy & Tim.

So what has become of us when we can no longer sit down with Harry Potter, Dumbledore, the invisible cloak and a couple *HUNDREDS* of Hobnobs, without wanting to focus our attention elsewhere?

Social Media (again)

Facebook, Twitter, 4-Square, BlogSpot, LinkedIn…with so many social networking sites to update, monitor, check in on and report back to, is it any wonder our precious little spare time is now spent checking for messages, notifications, posts, comments, likes and tags, rather than flicking through to find out if Darcy ever gets a bloody grip?

Not only do these social sites increasingly consume our time, but they provide effortless and instant entertainment with minimal thinking required. They’re free, accessible at any time/from anywhere, they don’t require their own storage facility and you wont find squashed spiders between the pages (unless you’re on some dodgy insect forum), so why wouldn’t we reallocate our time to these virtual monsters, instead of going cross eyed from trying to understand what the hell George Orwell’s on about?

However, this is not good. For although social networking sites fill our time perfectly adequately, definitely tell their own story (and not even fiction, in these gems you have your very own online docu-soap) and provide hours of entertainment (why read about Mr Darcy when you can stalk his modern-day counterpart on Twitter *Ashton Kutcher @APLUSK* 24 hours a day?) they are still a social past-time. They can’t replace the indispensable solitude of reading – which, for me, is wherein the remedial aspect of it lies. 
Reading - the best state yet to keep absolute loneliness at bay.  ~William Styron
My Mum (the wisest woman in the whole wide world luckily for me) says social networking sites are like being at a “constant party” (although she obviously wants to attend as she has for few years now “had a wall”.) On the flip side, reading is like knowing when it’s time to just settle down, get down from the table, retrieve your bra from the chandelier, climb out of the cage and go the HELL home from the party (which apparently is in Charlie Sheen’s basement). Which we all need to do sometimes.

Mark Zuckerberg recently claimed that “people no longer expect privacy, it is no longer a social norm”, highlighting this all-sharing, anti-solitary nature of today’s society, encouraged by the likes of Facebook. The problem for my little social networking generation is we’ve all been at the party far too long and we no longer know any different. We’re mad for the next hit and we won’t let any new John Grisham stop us from getting it. Book shelf? Isn’t that where people keep their dust?

Smart Tech

Subsequent to the social networking sites distracting us from our poor neglected paperbacks, are the blackberry’s, iphones, laptops and ipads that allow us constant and instant access to our virtual entertainment centre ALL DAY LONG. On the occasions that I do try and focus on something other than life’s never-ending social gathering, I find it impossible not to pick up my Blackberry (with which I have a love hate relationship) every few minutes and look for that little red indicator, telling me I have an email, a Facebook notification, a text or a Tweet. And it taunts me, daring me to resist the temptation of finding out who, what, when, where, instead of proceeding to the next chapter. And increasingly that taunting red indicator wins.

I used to be able to regulate when I check my Facebook, but Smart Phones and the like give us social technology on tap, like a drug. And like a pesky child who we have inadvertently adopted they demand our attention and dare us to ignore them. When was the last time you went to the cinema and didn’t check your phone half way through or find yourself sat next to the person who keeps looking at theirs every 5 minutes, responding to their notifications right in the middle of Colin Firth’s coronation?  There is no room for books in a world where 28% of young adults check their Facebook from their SmartPhone the minute they wake up.  

I think Steve Jobs was in part trying to reconcile the discrepancy between old-school and modern day entertainment values with the rather desperate launch of the ipad, as you’re supposed to be able to read a book ON said pad, therefore eliminating the guilt-ridden decision to switch on your latest godly Apple device rather than finish a chapter. But really, come on, what is ACTUALLY the point? That’s like saying “No need to buy a real chocolate bar, because we can teleport unto you tiny chocolate particles through the screen, which you can then capture individually and enjoy with quite a lot of difficulty. And we will charge you $499 for the privilege.” How do you like that, Apple?

If ever we do switch off our “smart” devices in a manic act of defiance, the chances are we will run screaming back to the little imp within hours. “I’m sorry Blackberry Curve 3850, I didn’t mean it! Nothing compares to your ability to multiple-notify me! Life with you is a whole App World!” and we sigh with relief when we tap in and find the universe is still at our fingertips and no we haven’t been banished from the world’s everlasting social event.
The last time I read a book cover to cover I was by a lake in the south of France, where I had no signal for a week. And I absolutely loved it.

Choice and indecision

Today’s consumer culture means that we are overwhelmed by choice and decision throughout our whole decision-making lives. What sweets do I choose with my pocket money? What dress do I buy for my birthday party? Which car will pick up the most girls? Which toothpaste will give me a Cheryl Cole smile? What channel can I watch without relentlessly mouthing the words because I have seen it fifty times before (hint NOT e4)? We are presented with choice, opportunity and pressure to decide in everything that we do, everywhere we go, all day long.

This is a modern day concept fairly new to a society overwhelmed by consumerism. “When I was your age, we just had our favourite jeans and a few tops from Tammy Girl” my Mum tells me, whereas me and my friends pretty much have a new outfit for every occasion – a material example of our choice-ridden social existence.

In a world so sunken by variety, is it any wonder books get such a little look-in? As a friend asked me the other day “If its bedtime, you’re knackered, and you have the choice between watching Friends on your laptop or tackling Ivanhoe – you know what you’re not going to do.”   

Restless Minds

When I was at uni I rarely made it through a whole book. Given my course was English Lit, it may be concerning that I graduated. I could read poems no problem, even short stories and plays. But an entire book? Oh My Lady Jesus no. I had time enough, I probably could have whizzed through the entire reading list for all the universities in the Northern hemisphere with a bit of focus. But to read a WHOLE BOOK would require actual concentration.

The reason for my inability to concentrate I have since been able to put down to the fact that I was restless, discontent and unable to focus my mind on anything real, so caught up was I in superficial distractions, chasing after unsuitable suitors and co-ordinating (or as the pictures tell me, NOT co-ordinating) outfits, instead of chilling the hell out with Shakespeare. My course friend, however, was pretty content, confident, secure, able to switch off from university life, and consequently could plough through narrative at the speed of light. 

In order to read, I think, most people will probably find they need to be to some extent relaxed and have some peace of mind. You see people tapping furiously away on laptops looking like they might explode. You see people swearing into their mobiles whilst stiffly checking their watch. But how often do you see someone furiously reading a paper-back on the train, huffing and puffing with each leaf-turn, blaspheming at the pages?

The restlessness of the modern world rarely sees us in a fit state to just chill out, rest on our laurels (whatever that means) and kick back with the Montague’s and the Cap’s. We have too many dramas of our own to even begin to devote any time to the absurdities of Oscar Wilde and co. In order to sit, read and let our minds wander into the pages, we basically need to be a little bit chilled out already, and a little bit stress-free – something that is becoming as rare as a straight man who hasn’t fallen in love with Glee.


It no longer seems to be the case that we cannot leave our work at work (surprising when we carry our emails to bed in our Blackberry’s), and leave the day behind us with Richard and Judy’s latest bestseller. There are too many distractions, too many other options and a novel of other real-life concerns.  In a busy, scheduled, up-tight society obsessed with their Twitter following, how are we ever going to have the peace of mind to get through Middlemarch?

09 March, 2011

Moving cornerstones: Home is where I Hang my Miss Selfridge Babydoll Dress. And my Running Shoes. And my Photographs...

"We keep moving forward, opening new doors and doing new things, because we're curious and curoisty keeps leading us down new paths" - Walt Disney

Last weekend I moved house. And not for the first time. In the 6 years I have lived in Sheffield I have had five experience-drama-fun-and-tears-filled addresses. No stranger am I to packing in a semi-orderly fashion, begging for boxes from the nearest Spar, throwing unidentifiable items into bin liners and loading up a car (usually my sisters) with speed, efficiency and a stomach full of excited expectation for pastures untainted.

For I am a bit boho. Or just a plain damn hippy as my friends would probably say. I love to keep moving and with each year that I learn from my lessons and mature from my mistakes, I find my environment needs to change to reflect the progress I am making in my life. And with each move I’ve made, I’ve taken huge steps upwards.  I love moving on to fresh places, places that bring things better fitted to my ever-changing needs – the excitement and the challenge of it feeds my restless spirit.

 That said, moving house inevitably has its downside. Each time you move postcodes, how ever near or far, you displace the whole centre point of you life. You leave a place of memories and familiarity, where your photographs have been lovingly put in place, your shoes have found a home at the foot of your bed and gradually over time you have built yourself an absolute personal haven, one that both reflects and encompasses the very essence of you. You tread your way around that haven for months, years and, for some, decades, so that your personality and your home almost blend into one.  So when you leave that sanctuary and step into the unknown – new faces, new memories to be made, new pavements to be trodden and an entirely different branch of Co-op to navigate – it is no small step for anyone.

For me though, one so accustomed to changing settings, I have discovered things about myself in the process of a million moves and as I grow more adapted to moving house and to the feeling of being away from my previous home, I learn how better to adjust myself to my new surroundings, I discover the marks I need etch in order to map my territory. But it hasn’t always been that way...

“I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore”
I vividly remember my very first home away from home, my small student room in the university flats. That first day I wanted to cry, that first night I wanted to run home, that first week I couldn’t sleep in this strange room that was not mine (I’m not referring to Freshers’ mischief) and that first month I reluctantly and gradually learnt the ropes of house-sharing with people from all walks of life (and with differing levels of personal hygiene – eurgh). It took me months to feel comfortable and “at home” in that place, and to be honest I’m not sure I ever did settle there, there wasn’t long enough before I was off again.

With each house-move that has followed that slightly traumatic first one, I have adapted a little quicker, a little easier, a little lighter on my heart and a little less stressful in my mind. This is partly because as you get older you simply get used to these things that at first seem daunting (like the first time you walk to school by yourself; that big scary feeling isn’t going to still be there when you’re still walking to school 6 years later), but it’s also down to understanding more about yourself, and to some extent being able to carry your ready made “home” with you everywhere you go, making any place “home” straight from the tin, by simply bringing to it the essence of yourself. 

The reason I was so disorientated moving into my first university flat is partly because I was just plain home-sick (being the mummy’s girl that I am...and a daddy’s girl too for that matter), but it was also massively because I didn’t know how I was supposed to live out my world without all the cornerstones of my life that I had become dependent on.  I didn’t know what clothes suited me (no really, I did NOT!) or what music I actually enjoyed, what I wanted from my future and from my friends, what my values were or how I should deal with and react to the rest of the world. I had to go and put my own big stamp on things and I did not have a clue where to start. I had no centre point to my life, as I was yet to start building it. There was no “home” inside me, apart from the one I had left behind at my family home in St Albans. Poor little me!

Fast forward 6 years, 5 moves, several hundred housemates and a very worn out suitcase, and I know enough about the Hannah-ness of me to know what I am, who I am, the kind of person I want to be (until I become Mrs Mark Ruffalo anyway, but that’s all in good time) and what is important to me. So now I can up shoes and go anywhere, and those things will remain, my character will remain and wherever I go my home will follow me.

Home is where the…hummus is?
During my most recent move, 4 short days ago, I realised that the things I need to have sorted instantly and quickly in any new place, in order for it to feel like home, are the following:

1. My (beautiful) collection of dresses hanging in my (almost-walk-in) wardrobe
2. My laptop set up complete with Twitter, Facebook, itunes and Skype (whoever knew I liked music and speaking to my friends.  Maverick)
3. A running route mapped out and completed at least once (by me)
4. My priceless photographs of my beautiful family and friends
5. Hummus in my fridge

Apparently, as long as I have these five things in place when i set up in my new houses, I am 99% of the way “home”.  Although these listed items might sound shallow (or in one instance just plain greedy), what they actually each do is reflect the different sides of my personality, what I value in my life and the things I rely on to stay grounded. Yes, chickpeas keep me grounded, deal with it.

If someone asked me what I would take to a desert island, I wouldn’t say these things. I would say diet coke on tap or my mum or Russell Howard.
"But if someone ever asks me what “home“ means to me, I will have no hesitation in saying 'the latest Topshop Tea dress and a vat of mashed up chickpeas'.
Because apparently that is the truth of it. For now anyway. This list will alter as I get older – I will be unable to still run and therefore will be too fat for my pretty dresses, I will be sick of hummus and fed up of Facebook/my friends (absolutely no signs of the latter happening) and my pretty pink laptop will just die with my youth…

So I have discovered along my changeable road, within the 4 walls of my many rooms, that for me the idea of “home” - although literally defined by the room, house or flat in which you live and the people you live with - is actually an internal concept, something that manifests itself in tangible objects, unique to and representative of the lovely you who you are. 

Wherever you go, whoever you live with, whether you live in a palace or in a skanky little flat above a Chinese...What are the five things that make your house your most valuable home?