Not long ago my son said something that hit me like a sniper’s bullet: ‘You’ve got loads of books in this house but you never read them.’
I felt ashamed. While never a gluttonous reader, I always enjoyed books and usually had two or three on the go. In a typical year I’d get through 40 to 60 – held back by my snobbish insistence on reading in several languages. I’d studied literature and for many years aspired to be a writer. So how had it reached the point where my child saw me as a non-reader?
In the first six months after my wife died I worked intermittently and had time to read when the boys were in bed. Books kept me company. I breezed through some light literature on our first holiday as a family of three – I remember particularly enjoying Jonas Jonasson’s The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared. But once the autumn set in, school resumed and I took on more work, anxiety and exhaustion sapped words of their meaning. They became disconnected. I would read a paragraph and have no idea how it started, but plough on dutifully to the end. I had struggled with books before because I disliked the writer’s style or the subject matter bored me, but fumbling the mechanics of reading was new and disquieting.
As I got to know other widows, I learned that my experience was far from unusual. The emotional turbulence of grief ravages your mental equilibrium. Familiar comforts and pleasures become collateral damage, also known as ‘secondary losses’. Other common casualties are exercise, friendships, sleep and sex. The ‘brain fog’ that clouds your ability to concentrate or remember things is a common side effect of having your world blown apart. Reading involves concentration, a sense of rhythm, being able to find and pick up the narrative thread when you open a book. You need a sense of progress to read a book from start to finish. The ending of a novel, however surprising, is the structured conclusion of a piece of manufactured text. Bereavement teaches you that progress is an illusion: things stop abruptly, unexpectedly, for no reason and at any time. It shatters your faith in endings.
The irony is that while I was struggling to read any books, I managed to write one. It was a memoir of losing Magteld to cancer, a monument to her short life and a way of preserving the memories before they wilted. Getting it published was the realisation of a lifelong ambition, but I felt like a fraud. Even when my book was well received at launch events and earned me a couple of modest speaking engagements, I was frankly too embarrassed to push it under people’s noses. It was like being a chef who’d lost his sense of smell or a fighter pilot with vertigo.
I started to wonder if my love of books had perished with my wife. I hadn’t entirely stopped reading, but it was a good month when I managed to start and finish a book before the next flip of the calendar. A couple have been on my bedside table, half-finished, for five years or more. Reading was a medicine to deal with insomnia, mostly in the form of magazine articles or short, self-contained chapters of non-fiction.
Then, last summer, I went camping with my son – the one who had chastised me for being a non-reader. Through force of habit I packed a novel, with no expectation of picking it up. In the evenings I sat by the water – we were staying in a hut erected on a raft – with a drink and my book. It wasn’t an outstanding novel, but the story tugged at me. Before I knew it, I was knocking back 20 to 30 pages with my bottle of beer. When the holiday ended I kept going: more slowly now, and sometimes with breaks of up to a week, but I was determined to reach the end. I read at bedtime, reviving another abandoned routine, and slept better for it. Little by little, like crocuses emerging in spring, I felt my reading mojo returning.
I still haven’t fully recovered. It took me three months to read that novel. But it was progress. I think of my wife in her final months, trying to walk again with a zimmer frame after radiotherapy for the tumours in her spine. I remember the euphoria on her face when she made it to the other side of the room. Those shuffling steps were a greater triumph at that moment than climbing a mountain or running a marathon. For me the first step was to lose the sense of shame and rediscover the pure joy of reading. The next was to re-establish it as a habit. Insomnia almost never troubles me now, and I can dare to dream of writing again. For better or worse, I have regained my faith in endings.