Life had been very busy recently and reading has been in distinct contrast. This first book, 'Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking' by Susan Cain was discovered on Brain Pickings (a most wonderful spot for interesting ideas about all sorts of things). So anyway, you know how the world is divided into two kind of people (depending on who you talk to the categories are different of course); those who divide the world into two kinds of people ... and those who don't. One of the most significant divides in terms of personality however is the extrovert/introvert divide. The world is set up for, and places a high value on, the traits of the extrovert. Modern society, with it's cult of personality has exacerbated this to quite an extraordinary degree; we give most attention to the people who make the most noise. Bits of the book concentrated too much for my interest on the impact of this preference for extroverts in the workplace, describing how research has shown that in fact the whole 'open-plan office' and 'team brainstorming sessions' are not necessarily the most effective way to get people to work well. For every Richard Branson there is a Steve Wozniac who has had an even bigger impact on the progress of modern life. People forced to work in groups spend too much energy either trying to impress others or afraid of not impressing them that could be better spent on actual working. I liked the idea of 'No Talk Thursdays', giving people a space when they weren't obliged to focus on communicating with others. And then there was the idea of 'Rubber Band Therapy'; "We are like rubber bands at rest. We are elastic and can be stretched, but only so far." People can adapt their natural selves to fit in with the expectations of an extrovert world but taken too far they will just snap. I remember overhearing a colleague at work commenting that he 'didn't trust' someone who didn't go to the pub. The assumption being that if you don't like sitting with a gang of people in a noisy atmosphere, getting drunk and talking about football there must be something wrong with you. I came to the conclusion after reading the book that I am not really an introvert. I guess most people are somewhere in the middle; I can enjoy my own company perfectly well without feeling lonely but sometimes I like to be around others, in the midst of warm friendly conversation. An interesting read for anyone seeking to understand their partner's reluctance to leave the house.
I followed this up with 'On Trying to Keep Still' by Jenny Diski, an unashamed introvert, a travel writer who much prefers to stay at home.
I am not sure whether she intends her account of her trials and tribulations to be amusing but I found myself laughing out loud on several occasions. She goes to an isolated farm house to write, trying to make herself as unobtrusive as possible, only to discover that the farmer had been concerned by her lack of 'going out for a walk' and had been on the verge of knocking on the cottage door to check she was ok. She continually finds herself compromising her own introvert preferences in order to fit in with the behaviour that is expected of her by the people around her. I loved all her slightly wry observations and her unselfconscious assessments of what she encounters on her travels. Although she goes to all sorts of strange places the things she observes somehow have a universal truth about them.
On seeing a bungee jumper in New Zealand:
"Vertigo comes at you, like short-sightedness, with middle age. I think it must be to remind you that there are certain things that older people don't have to do any more, like experience all the fun of the fair. At any rate, I have to send someone to get books from the stacks of the London Library because I can't stand on the metal grating with plunging views which they call floors." (p.32)
Sorry, this is a long one, it was irresistible, again from the chapter in New Zealand, the book was worth reading just for this encounter with religious craziness in the middle of nowhere:
"Just inside the café doorway I stopped in my tracks. The interior was as bleak as any bus station café is supposed to be, no surprise there - but the far wall, opposite where I stood, was a bit special. it was covered from floor to ceiling in a huge hand-painted mural so naive in execution that it made Grandma Moses look like Durer. It depicted the Four (considerably-larger-than-life) Horsemen of the Apocalypse, head on, galloping out of the wall (if only the painter had been able to master perspective) towards the tables of travel-weary customers sipping their English Breakfast tea and chewing on dismal blueberry muffins, waiting for their connections. The horsemen wore their credentials in bold black capital letters on white headbands, making them look rather like hippies (not I think, the painter's intention): CONQUEST, WAR, FAMINE and DEATH. They wore, at any rate their bodies consisted of, white robes, and they bared their uncannily white teeth to prove they were up to no good. The horsemen were, of course, seated on horses, though you could only be sure they were equine if you knew who they were. Without their labels round their foreheads they might have been four people in nightwear sitting on large dogs, or deer, or any biggish and brownish animal with ears and four legs by no means in the right place." (p.37-8)
She approaches the woman as she leaves and asks about the mural and it's accompanying leaflets, I liked her final reflection here:
"She shook her head. 'It's nothing to do with me. It's the boss. He's eighty-five years old. Says he's passing on what he's learned about life.' Her tone is neutral. She didn't care one way or the other. Maybe when I'm eighty-five, I'll buy a bus station and know by then what it is I want to pass on." (p.41)
Not only is she an introvert but she craves, as per the title, 'keeping still'. The chapter entitled 'On taking walks' begins and continues in her inimitable style:
"There are two distinct aspects of not going for walks. One, which happens when I'm alone, is the simple joy of continuing not to move, in spite of internalised voices telling me to do something. The other, which can only occur when I'm in company, is the profound pleasure of being left behind. The exhortation of others works wonders of indolence in me. Fresh air, nature in its season or the adrenaline rush of the inner city, when pressed on me, though I don't doubt their charms and excitements, make me shrink in my chair, wishing the room smaller, the windows shaded, the chair deeper, the door locked." (p.105)
Some people (when I was a child I thought like this) assume the world revolves around them, and then it just goes and proves it does. While at the farm in Somerset:
"It's the highest point on the common land. A vast spread of bracken where you can stand and look out all over Somerset, stitched together with fields and hedges. So I stood for a moment and took it in and then thought what a pity it was that there weren't benches set out around the countryside for those of us who had no wish to tramp about. I glanced behind me and to my right and there was a bench perfectly placed for looking out over the entire scene, hills, valleys, fields, and horizon. I was quite pleased with myself for summoning it up." (p.194)
Because she spend the entire book struggling for solitude and stillness there is quite a lot of reflecting on the nature of existence, meaning of life and why anything. I wrote down lots of examples but they are mostly too long and need the context of the rest of the page. What is most refreshing is her utter lack of pretentiousness and total honesty, she examines her own life and choices and finds them lacking, in anything:
"I hankered, when I was at home and subject to interruption and the (not excessively demanding) presence of others, for long periods of solitude 'in which to think', uninterrupted time when, at last reliably alone, I could 'be myself'. My agony is not what I find in the stillness of being alone, but what I do not find." (p.213)
"So my unsatisfactory thoughts about my unsatisfactory self had trickled on in the blissful Somerset silence. Time passing, the days rolling over into new days, the length of time left to me before I had to return shrinking so speedily that sometimes whole afternoons were given over to panic over the coming end of my sojourn and the nothing done. And I wondered about writing a book about what being alone is really like. About insubstantiality and emptiness. ... But doing, and the kind of doing that is writing, is an inability to come to terms with emptiness. In fact, an attempt to escape from it: to turn emptiness into substance - narrative, marks on a page. A fundamental lie. A failure at the core
So I return home and decided (again) that things and I were the way we were, and that things and I would go on being so, but I could at least stop fidgeting and keep still ... I had a shed build at the bottom of the Poet's garden ...I can fail to think here as well as anywhere far away, exotic or isolated, in the world. No need now to go any place at all." (p216-8)
Ending with the wonderful irony of being a travel writer (especially one who would rather stay home). From the Epilogue:
"Mostly what she experienced on her actual journeys, aside from dreary airports and wan hotel rooms, was her anxiety to be experiencing something. Like everyone else she took photographs and wrote diaries: snatching at the here and now of where she was and hoarding images of it up for the future when she was no longer there and was no longer then. As a result she was always focussed in advance of herself. Never quite where she was supposed to be going when she got there. A very wearying way to exist. Travel was more a fear of the future and overcoming death than a paying attention to the present." (p.298-9)
It seems in the digital age where people seem to experience life from behind their phones and their cameras she has summed up a modern malaise. For someone who claims to prefer to avoid everything and everyone she is an astute and dispassionate observer of the human condition. Thoughtful and highly recommended.