Sunday 25 November 2012


Interesting, but uncomfortable

I've developed an eye problem that makes reading difficult, and it's set me off wondering about the mechanics of handling books.  As I labour to make out words which look to me (and me alone) as if they have been produced on a printer running low on ink, I can’t help but admire the generations who slaved over early texts in dimly-lit libraries, devoured Dickens by candlelight, or even coped with early postwar paperbacks in the glow of a 40 watt bulb.
Reading is not just an ocular occupation, though.  It takes a lot of muscular co ordination in the hands, arms, back and neck. It requires a reasonable ability to balance. Am I the only person who has reached an advanced age without finding a really comfortable way of reading in bed?
One way of doing it
and another

Reading on a high-speed train is hard enough, but can you imagine succeeding in an unlit horse-drawn carriage, bumping across ruts in the road?  And What must it have been like for eighteenth and nineteenth century ladies, perched on hard settees with closely-printed books?

How did they do it?

 Perhaps I should risk a confession here.  I have never dared say this before - and for an author it may be a fatal revelation - but what the heck. Here it is:
Though I have always loved stories and research, and adore books and manuscripts as objects, even when my eyes were working properly, I never much liked reading as a physical occupation. For me, it has always been a rather uncomfortable means to an end.
When children tell me they don't like reading, I encourage then to persevere, and wax lyrical about how books will open doors for them (which is true) but secretly I sympathise.  I have never cracked how and where to sit. Does anyone else find some books just difficult to hold? No wonder the gentlemen's clubs of yesteryear commissioned all sorts of reading stands to attach to those wonderful winged armchairs. a friend of mine reads in the bath.  I'm too shy to ask to see how she does it.  my books just get wet.

It's not just the fatal mix of fat books and small hands. These days paper-saving narrow margins and tight gutters can make it a struggle to catch the beginnings and ends of lines. Bindings can be too tight, or too cheap and weak.  A couple of months ago I was sent a brand new book by an author I was to interview at a festival.  As soon as I opened it, all the pages fell onto the floor.  A few days later, I was looking at a 300 year-old text almost as tightly sewn and robust as the day it was bound.
St  Jerome doesn't seem to be having much fun
Alas, I may be reading less in future. It's simply not much fun any more. But I'm lucky to have my eye trouble now.  There have never been more electronic and mechanical aids to reading (and writing), not to mention the glory of audiobooks (and here I must recommend Dan Stevens' wonderful reading of My Dear I Wanted to Tell You, by History Girl Louisa Young ). Even if my sight doesn't improve, thanks to modern science it will be a while before I can't read at all, and that may never happen. In the meantime, does anyone out there know of studies of how people read in the past: of where and how they sat, how/whether they held or balanced their books, of reading machines, and so on?  Did anyone grumble about the sheer physical awkwardness of reading?  Or is it just me? I would love to know.
pictures from Wikimedia Commons


Pippa Goodhart said...

It's not just you! Books can be awkward, heavy, easy to damage, and the rest of it. They need to be good to be worth the effort of reading. Have you tried reading off ipads, kindles and the like? I find them nice to handle and easy to use ... although I still wouldn't risk one in the bath.

adele said...

Very sorry to read of your eye problems and hope they can be solved/cured, whether for reading or not. It seems to me that a Kindle is the way to go for you....enlarging fonts etc. But I have to confess that this problem has NEVER troubled me in the slightest. I feel okay reading in bed (propped on two fat pillows with the book sometimes resting on a cushion) on chairs, on sofas and even on trains. If the book is good enough, the physical side of it holds no terrors. I've often wondered though about the PAST. I would not have liked candlelight, bumpy carriages etc one bit.

Alison Leonard said...

Much sympathy,Eleanor. My eyes have got tired much more easily since having a retina repaired (miraculously, by laser, on the NHS, the day after it tore). I still love ordinary books, but when my eyes tire I go either to my Kindle (lovely to read, esp sideways-on with larger font - easily arranged) and, slower but most wonderful of all, audio-books. I've just finished JKR's A Casual Vacancy - 18 whole hours with the fabulous Tom Hollander - practically a one-man dramatisation. Try either, or both.

Ann Turnbull said...

I hope your eye problems improve, Eleanor. I really empathise with this, even though I don't have eye problems. Hardbacks open well but weigh a ton. Modern paperbacks are usually tightly bound and difficult to hold open with one hand. And why are books so BIG these days? 1970s paperbacks and old Penguins are half the size and weight, with thin paper that stays white. It's not just that people write at too great a length, although they often do. If reading on a bed or sofa I lie flat with pillows under my head and elbows. In a chair I put two cushions on my lap and open the book on top; this relieves the strain on both hands and neck. And it works until the cat comes along and insists I ditch the cushions and have her on my lap. She does not like being used as a book-rest and is particularly irritated by cups of tea and newspapers. (Actually I think the difficulties involved in reading newspapers deserves a whole new post.)

Laura said...

Hope things get better for you soon, maybe the NHS will provide an answer/compromise?

I've got to the point where I jussssst about need glasses to read and while I do love them (I call them my Tentacle Specs because of the patterns!) they do make it an absolute PAIN to read in bed. No more lying on my side with a book, or the Specs will get smooshed, now I prop myself up on one elbow and switch sides when I can't feel my fingers anymore.

I've discovered the sofa at work is pretty good for reading - it's a high-armed, slightly dilapidated old leather affair with a high back. I can tuck myself into a corner there and slouch down for a good while with a book. If only I didn't have to be at work for it!

As far as digital books go, I find some books I can read on my old Sony and some I can't. Perdido Street station I had to buy again in paper, even though it's a bit of a doorstop because it just wasn't working for me digitally. The Secret Garden though, no probs. Chalk me up as picky :)

Mary Hoffman said...

Very sorry to hear about your eye problems - I live in terror of the same. Like Adèle, I have not had any problems with the physicality of reading.

I have a V-shaped pillow for reading in bed which happens every night.

galant said...

Sorry to hear about your eye problems. I recently had new reading glasses but they didn't seem much of an improvement on my old paid so I've now been re-tested and the result is that I need stronger reading glasses, so looking forward to those to make reading a little bit easier (I hope!)
But can't get comfortable in a chair, or on the sofa, so tend to go to bed to read, and am propped up with as many pillows as I can muster (and the electric blanket on to make me nice and cosy!
Heavy books are a real problem, and some of mine are really very heavy indeed as they are art and antiques books. Also English paperbacks which won't open easily, so my arthritic hands get a lot of pain from trying to hold them open! Yes, having to hold a book is a means to an end!
(when I preview this I can't see all of my comments, so I hope I've not made too many errors - the comments disappear at the side of the box.)
Margaret P

Leslie Wilson said...

I do hope you find a solution to the eye problems, Eleanor - and I sympathise about the discomfort. When I was a kid I read stretched out on my tummy - generally with a red apple to hand - now I sit with the book usually supported by a cushion, and have to get up and do stretches at regular intervals, or my muscles seize up. I loathe the kind of books that snap shut as soon as you release your grip on them - or break apart. I do think that books need to be better made, and it's noticeable that older ones ARE so (my oldest book is from 1787 and is still holding together), but then, as you say, they used to have tiny script. How did people manage once presbyopia set in? Perhaps the answer is similar to the one you've found; there were no audiobooks, but if you could afford to, you paid someone to read aloud to you.