Reading Difficult Books

by | Jul 13, 2023

Reading Difficult Books, Nurture Group

A part of the week that I really look forward to is the weekend afternoon I spend cleaning my place. It isn’t because I have a cleaning fetish (ok, maybe a little) but it is because this is the time I get my best reading done, especially what I would consider difficult books. By difficult books I mean the ones that are hard to get into and/or the topic is dull but educational.

I think it was a couple of years ago, a friend shared with me a long Youtube video on the Bronze Age. I wasn’t particularly interested in the topic but my friend thought I should see it. I thought I could just listen to the video as background noise while I did the important job of cleaning, and I would hear enough bits and pieces to be able to follow up with my friend. However, I was astonished to see that cleaning faded into the background while the history of Anatolia, the Hittites, etc. took centre stage. The two hours or so spent cleaning was the most focused I had been the whole week. I was so engaged that I was inspired to read more about the topic afterwards. When it was time for the next weekend clean, I thought I’d try again to see if what had happened the previous weekend was just a fluke. Again I picked a topic of little interest, another Youtube clip on the history of Russia, that the algorithm had recommended I see and that had been in my “watch later” list for ages. That particular day Russian history sounded way more engrossing than when I studied it at university. I was convinced I had made a new and exciting discovery! I could combine cleaning with learning! How delightful! And from then I’ve saved serious but useful subject matter that I ordinarily wouldn’t want to tackle for my weekend cleaning.

New Application

Until recently, I had reserved my weekend cleaning reading for non-fiction but I decided it was time to try works of fiction. For as long as I can remember I had heard that I ought to read Fyodor Dostoevsky, hailed as one of the greatest novelists ever. I only got as far as purchasing the complete collection of his novels.. To be honest the synopses of his novels always seemed positively grim to me, and I couldn’t bring myself to read them. At the same time, I felt as if I had some sort of gap in my reading. I thought it was time to plug this hole. I was hopeful (and a bit sceptical) that cleaning might work its magic. I started with Crime And Punishment for the simple fact that it was the title that I’ve heard the most about. Before I knew it I was accompanying Rodion Raskolnikov, the main character, through the streets of Saint Petersburg as he struggles with extreme poverty causing him to drop out of university, develop extreme nervous tension, delirium and even succumb to murder. The bleakness of the story was melted away by the narrator’s warm and mesmerising voice. I was half way through the book by the time I was done with cleaning that day, and fully committed to finishing it. I marvel at how engrossed I was the entire 3 hours I spent listening to the novel. I didn’t miss any parts that I had to stop and rewind, nor did I stop to look up something on the web like I would have done if I had been reading at other times.  I asked myself again, what is it about cleaning that is so good for my concentration? I asked the internet. The best answer it could come up with was about the results of cleaning–clean and clutter free spaces are good for concentration. But I was more interested in what happens while you are cleaning. I recall having read somewhere that doing repetitive tasks such as washing dishes and baking can have a calming impact. So I figured it must be the repetitiveness of scrubbing, dusting, and wiping. But how is it different from other repetitive tasks such as driving, walking and lifting weights? It occurred to me that with cleaning there are no other distractions of people and cars to watch out for when you are walking or driving. Unlike weight lifting, with cleaning you don’t have to wait for weeks to see the results of your efforts, you are immediately rewarded with a spotless room which makes me want to keep going.

Reading Difficult Books. Nurture Group Blog

I did finish Crime and Punishment soon after because cleaning had done a great job of opening up my brain to receive Dostoevsky’s words. So much so that I wanted more.  I thought I’d try The Brothers Karamazov because I remembered that I have heard Lex Fridman say multiple times that it was his favourite novel. This is a much bigger novel, 37 hours of audio compared with just 6 hours for Crime and Punishment. I used my old trick again of starting during my weekend clean. I had no idea that The Brothers Karamazov was Dostoevsky’s last novel  and that Crime and Punishment his first until I had finished reading the former. In his last novel he explored much deeper the concepts of religion, love, free will and mortality that he started in Crime and Punishment. This time round, he did it  through the lives of three brothers, their father and his presumed illegitimate fourth son. When I finished the novel, I felt like I had been on a spiritual retreat for weeks where I had meditated on what it is to be human. For days after, I walked around in some sort of trance, wondering how to re-introduce myself back into the world around me. Usually I start another book as soon as I finish one but I couldn’t for days after. How was I going to top The Brothers Karamazov?

Facing Fear

The weekend arrived, and I scanned my Kindle/Audible library for a new book to read. I thought I’d attempt a book I had purposely avoided—1984 by George Orwell—even though I’m a huge fan of his writing. Why? I knew too well the power of Orwell’s words and I was afraid of what I would discover on the topic of a dystopian society. He has a knack for creating scenes so vivid that even decades after you’ve read them you can still feel them. I first read his novel Burmese Days over two decades ago. As a child of an old British colony (Nigeria), I was struck by how accurately and painstakingly he captured the social and political dynamics between the colonisers and the colonised. I had never forgotten this book. When I re-read it last year, I found that its impact on me was even more profound. It highlighted that though the old colonies were now free, the power dynamics Orwell depicted back in 1934 are still very much at play.

It was time to face my fears! I put on my earplugs, pressed play on 1984, then put on my rubber gloves and off I went scrubbing my way through Big Brother’s London. If reading The Brothers Karamazov was like going to church, 1984 was like going to psychotherapy where you are forced to face up to reality. And there it was, I saw that I was Winston Smith (the main character) and Julia living under mass surveillance, a totalitarian and repressive regimen. You could say that I’m exaggerating. But I’m conscious that I can’t leave my place, the apartment complex where I live, and walk half a mile without being captured several times on cameras. And there is the tracking device a.k.a. the mobile phone I carry in my pocket. You could argue that having a mobile phone is a choice, yes it is. However, I didn’t choose to have tech companies collect data on my usage and sell them off even after I’ve paid for the apps. Then there is what Orwell refers to as Newspeak, popularly known as propaganda, that we are being fed by the media and government. The recent Covid-19 lockdown saw our movement restricted on a massive scale and for a long period of time. Winston Smith drinks gin to numb the pain of living in such a society. I feel like I use on-demand entertainment from the likes of Netflix to dull mine. Whenever I find myself picking out a show to watch that will not make me think, I remember the saying: “pan y circo”. It dates back from Roman times, to express how the masses were kept docile by the emperors with food and entertainment. As Orwell himself wrote:  “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle,”. Sometimes, I don’t want to struggle.

As I read the novel 1984, I was astonished by the foresight Orwell had back in the late 1940s to have written such a book. How could he have seen what the future, now our present, would hold back then? Anyway, a few weeks have passed since I finished the novel, and not a day has passed without me at some point thinking of and/or feeling like Winston Smith. Damn Orwell! 

Reading difficult books, Nurture Group Blog
Real-life Mermaids

Of course there are programs on Netflix that will inspire inquiry and wonder such as the documentary MerPeople. When a friend first told me about a documentary that was about people who aspire to be and they call themselves MerPeople, I thought they sounded loopy. After I watched the documentary, I saw how much hope, effort and training these people put into realising the dream of being able to swim like mermaids, I realised they weren’t crazy, just passionate people.  I was intrigued and impressed by this whole new world I never knew existed. I was surprised to discover that there is an industry behind it worth half a billion dollars. 

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