Monday, 14 April 2008

Hospital reading

What works well as hospital reading? I've yet to find anything at all.

I've been spending a lot of time recently in hospitals, both during the day and in the evening - hours upon hours, in fact. And you would have thought, given that amount of empty time, that you might find something useful to do with it. I mean, it's not as if you see the medical staff for more than one minute in every ninety; and there are absolutely no other distractions, apart from a dreary nowhere-view across Leicester, and the odd visit to the toilet. There's not even any television, because you have to pay extra for that (something I never understood about television: shouldn't they be paying you to watch that stuff?).

So, as I say, you would have thought that you would do something useful, instead of staring into nowhereness, drumming fingers, dozing, pacing, yawning, pressing buttons you shouldn't just to see what happens, more pacing, humming the complete works of Mahler, etc. etc. etc. But no: however hard you try, it's just about impossible to read, or do anything constructive, in a hospital environment. You take a book along hopefully, but you never average more than one page per five hours.

I think there are various reasons for this. The first is that, in hospitals, the nothing that happens for hours is always filled with a vague sense that something might happen any moment. You can never predict whether it will be ten hours or ten micr0-seconds till the next visit by a nurse or doctor; and you can never quite predict whether that visit will be to send one home, or to do something much less pleasant. You can never predict when the tests will be ready, when this or that procedure will start or finish, so you are absolutely in Limbo. And Limbo is not a good place to concentrate on reading a book. How can you possibly concentrate when you know that sometime in the next microsecond or hour or day someone may or may not come and do something or tell you something that may or may not be important?

Indeed, another thing that ruins concentration in hospitals on anything but the most desultory of activities is the nature of hospital time. Hospitals are strange, parallel universes in which minutes crawl by, but hours race by. You sit there, waiting and yawning, and the minute hand on the clock seems to tick backwards. Then you look again, and four hours have suddenly ticked by in one tock. Where did they go? Who said they were allowed to leave? What did you do with them? What did the doctors do with them? Are they hiding under the bed?

And: why did you only manage to read four lines of your novel in that time?

I suppose one possible explanation is that, in hospitals, novels don't seem that important any more, and it's hard to concentrate on someone else's (fictional) life when your own, or the lives of loved ones, are so much more pressing.

Another possible explanation is that I shouldn't be thinking about reading anyway.

1 comment:

kathz said...

Obviously you could read novels set in hospitals or sanatoriums (Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, perhaps). Or you could succumb to very light reading and purchase Hello magazine.

Auden suggests in his Letter to Lord Byron you should choose holiday reading by opposites ("Who would read Trollope in cathedral towns?") and therefore chooses Byron's Don Juan as suitable reading for Iceland.

On this principle, I think you should choose something that has movement in it and that happens in exotic places filled with healthy people. (No, not Peter Fleming ... please.) But it should be something that is both gripping and episodic - light enough to put down and exciting enough to pick up again after an interruption.

I don't know enough about your tastes but these books have gripped me:

Pushkin's Eugene Onegin - nicely cynical, but it has to be a good verse translation, unless you read Russian. I read it in the Penguin translation. I fell in love with the Pushkin stanza.

Alexandre Dumas (pere) The Count of Monte Cristo, in the Robin Buss translation unless your French is as good as your English. I found it a real page-turner. An outsider's fanatsy of revenge, including episodes that used to be omitted.

Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy - a long-shot, but once the characters had gripped me, I was hooked. I wasn't always sure how good the translation was and the reading was sometimes awkward.

Margaret Elphinstone's Hy Brasil - because I read it on a holiday when I couldn't get into anything else.

I might also go back to things I liked as a child or have a look at some fairly recent teen fiction - I couldn't stop reading Philip Pullman's The Tin Princess because I wanted to know how it would work out - but I think I should probably have started with the first Sally Lockhart book.

None of these are much like hospital or the view over Leicester

I don't know if any of these suggestions will work for you - sometimes we all need time away from reading!