Reading about reading because I’m not reading

When the thought of reading feels like work

Lockdown is slowly leeching my ability to do things I used to love. Reading is at the top of that list. Intellectually I know that reading is the best way to settle my mind, wind down before going to sleep and escape these eternal four walls. However, at the end of a day of home-schooling, work and pre-schooler wrangling the thought of reading sometimes feels like more work.

So I started reading about reading as a way back to books. My hero Maria Popova, she of Brain Pickings brilliance, published A Velocity of Being – Letters to a young reader with Claudia Zoe Bedrick. It’s a gorgeous tribute to the delights of reading. The entries are from 121 writers, poets, scientists, philosophers, musicians. They write a letter to young readers and accompanying each letter is a graphic from different artists.

The letters are as much (perhaps even more so) for adults as they are for children. They talk about the power of the page for escape and growth and adventure, for a chance to see ourselves and others. They recall early encounters with books and how books have shaped their ideas and lives.

Stoking the fire, Mary Oliver says in her letter; “Words on the page are not a puzzle but a door to many worlds. To write is to delight, to read is to plant the seed of endless excitement.”

When I was really too tired to even read a letter, I just flicked through and looked at the pictures. Each one is by a different artist, so the styles vary but there is a book on almost every page. I’ve realised, as someone who loves books, that even looking at images of books makes me happy.

I love looking at the picture of a girl hidden and lost in a book by my cousin, the very talented printmaker Miriam Cullen and one of my favourite things on Twitter is the anticipation of what new magic the brilliant artist Caroline Magerl has created and posted. Her pictures are brimming with books and a real balm for this book lover.

And after a few nights of reading A velocity of being, I started reading books again. It was impossible not to.

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Has anyone actually read the story of Peter Rabbit?

The enduring popularity of this children’s classic is a mystery to me.

Over a hundred years after Beatrix Potter wrote the story in 1902, Peter Rabbit is still bouncing around. Yes, he of the bibs, booties, baptism bowls and cutlery sets. He has a TV series and a movie, possibly two by now. According to peterrabbit.com, four Beatrix Potter books are sold every minute. For all the ubiquity though, I haven’t found many people who know the Peter plot.

You can probably find it on your bookshelf and definitely in the library but allow me… Peter’s Mum tells him and his sisters, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail, that they can play in the forest but definitely not Mr Macgregor’s garden. This is off-limits because Peter’s dad was caught there and baked into a pie. However, it’s full of carrots and radishes, so Peter leaves his sisters picking blackberries and heads off to the garden. He gorges himself on lettuce and radishes and has to eat some parsley to ease the ache of his gluttony.

Mr Macgregor sees him and there’s a bit of a chase. Peter loses his shoes and gets tangled in a net because of his buttons. He hides in a half-full watering can and the farmer gives up the chase. Peter jumps around a bit looking for a way out of the garden, sees a cat, then sees the gate and makes a dash for it out of there.

He heads home where his sisters, who did what their mother asked and gathered berries in the forest, get to eat bread, milk and blackberries for supper. Peter on the other hand doesn’t feel great and gets put to bed with a few teaspoons of chamomile. The End. Exactly. An odd little story. Maybe even a little low key for such a big hit. Reading it makes me realise how conditioned I am to the narrative of my time. My arc expectations are more rigid than I thought.

I am all for Beatrix Potter. A female author and illustrator in a time when that was as unusual as it was difficult. I’m just surprised at how such a plain little story became so popular and has turned into merchandise machine that it is today. I’m wondering if there’s a story underneath, like the DeBeers campaign for diamond rings. Is there a tale of a limited-edition christening set that put Peter on the shelves as competition for the Royal Doulton Bunnykins?

If you’ve read a few of the Beatrix Potter stories, then you’ll know that Peter Rabbit is only remarkable in the fact that it somehow became a hit. Have you read The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse?

Timmy Willie, a country mouse, accidentally falls into a hamper which is delivered to the city. When it arrives he gets out and freaks out. It’s noisy and busy and he gets chased by a cat. He runs into a hole in the wall where he meets Johnny Town-Mouse who is entertaining eight other gentleman mice.

The food doesn’t agree with Timmy Willie and neither does the lifestyle. He gets thin and sad and wants to go home and Johnny Town-Mouse says he could’ve gone home in the hamper last week. Timmy Willie hops in the next hamper and is happy to get back home. Nearly a year later Johnny Town-Mouse turns up for a visit. He doesn’t like it much and goes home the next day. The End.

Or perhaps you’re wondering what happens in The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin? Well, funny you should ask. The squirrels need to get across to the island where there are nuts to collect. Old Brown, the owl, lives on the island and the squirrels need his permission to be there. They arrive on the island and give him three dead mice.  At the same time Nutkin, a young squirrel, goes in front of Old Brown and does a dance and sings a cheeky song. Old Brown closes his eyes and goes to sleep while the squirrels start gathering nuts.

The next day they offer him a ‘fine fat vole’. This time Nutkin sings and dances and pokes Old Brown with a nettle. Old Brown picks up the vole and closes the door in Nutkin’s face. All the other squirrels go and gather nuts while Nutkin plays marbles on Old Brown’s porch. I know, totally provocative. This kid is jeopardising the winter stores of his species.

The next day they bring honey and Nutkin gets in old Brown’s face with another song. Old Brown eats all the honey and ignores Nutkin. Meanwhile the other squirrels go off collecting again and this time Nutkin mooches around on a rock playing skittles with pine cones.

On the final day, the squirrels bring an egg. This time Nutkin sings a song and then jumps onto Old Brown’s head! Ridiculous. If Old Brown isn’t going to do something about this him, then I will. Suddenly Nutkin is in Old Brown’s pocket. Old Brown picks him up by the tail but Nutkin ‘pulled so very hard that his tail broke in two’??!!!

He escapes and spends the rest of his days up a tree, stamping his feet and shouting ‘Cuck-cuck-cuck-curr-r-r-cuck-k-k!’.

So, there you go. You really can’t pick a hit.