Percy Shelley’s reading addiction

Books accompany me almost everywhere. Because you never know. On a walk or cycle I may decide to sit on a bench or rock or by a tree and pass an hour with the view, and while there in the fresh air might feel the urge to visit whatever portable parallel world I’ve packed. Or I might be in a slow queue and tired of looking around, so out comes a book and the wait dissolves.

Some books are especially engrossing and greedily demand every moment even tenuously available. Though reading over a work-break cup of tea or while on the loo is normal enough, reading while walking to the kettle or bathroom might not be. (This, at any rate, is just an occasional indulgence.) But I know I’m not as bad as Percy Bysshe Shelley – for one thing, I don’t forget to eat. Not habitually, anyway.

Shelley . . . was always reading; at his meals a book lay by his side, on the table, open. Tea and toast were often neglected, his author seldom; his mutton and potatoes might grow cold, his interest in a work never cooled. He invariably sallied forth, book in hand, reading to himself, if he was alone; if he had a companion reading aloud. He took a volume to bed with him, and read as long as his candle lasted; he then slept – impatiently, no doubt – until it was light, and he recommenced reading at the early dawn. . . . In consequence of this great watching, and of almost incessant reading, he would often fall asleep in the day-time – dropping off in a moment – like an infant. He often quietly transferred himself from his chair to the floor, and slept soundly on the carpet, and in the winter upon the rug, basking in the warmth like a cat; and like a cat his little round head was roasted before a blazing fire.

(Extract from Thomas Jefferson Hogg’s biography, quoted in the Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, edited by James Sutherland. I do like that use of “impatiently”.)

Fellow readers, how conventional or extreme are your reading habits?

Joseph Severn, Posthumous Portrait of Shelley Writing ‘Prometheus Unbound’, oil on canvas, 1845

18 Responses to Percy Shelley’s reading addiction

  1. John Cowan says:

    Pretty much like you, not as extreme as Shelley but rarely without a book of some sort.

  2. Steeny Lou says:

    My reading of paper pages has decreased incrementally with the birth of each of my seven children, but I still read a lot online. Rarely do I eat a meal without something for my eyes and mind to devour, a habit which started back in my fifth year of life with the reading of cereal boxes at the breakfast table – even the French side (I’m in British Columbia, Canada).

    Hey, I love this part of your blog entry: “…portable parallel world…” Neat way to describe a good book!

    • alexmccrae1546 says:

      @Steeny Lou.

      That sweet remembrance of your early habit of reading almost any printed copy that caught your fancy (or eye), specifically, cereal box copy— in French and English, no less, reminded me of my nascent stirrings of the avid bird watcher/ birder in me, when as a youngster I’d get so excited in my mum’s opening up of the next box of shredded wheat; so I could immediately discover a new linear North American bird illustration, rendered on the cardboard cereal separators, to later color in w/ my ever-at-the-ready colored pencils, or my rudimentary watercolors,

      The simple ‘illo’ would also have a brief, informative description of each particular bird, which I much appreciated. In my early teens I joined the local Richmond Hill Naturalists Society, and have been hooked on birding, and the marvelous world of birds, ever since.

      In fact, I’m heading up north of the Toronto area (my old stomping grounds) in a few days to spend Xmas w/ my mum and brother. The main reason I’m getting there so early, long before Christmas Day, is that I wouldn’t miss participating in mum’s town’s (Richmond Hill, Ont.) annual Xmas bird census, this coming Saturday, going from dawn till dusk.

      Growing up as a fellow Canuck, I kind of appreciated the fact that all the copy on our native-manufactured packaged commercial products was printed in both English and French. Having been in the U.S. for going on 34 years now, my French is still adequate, but very rusty. Yet I seem to remember a lot of vocabulary from years back. Like any second language… you either use it, or lose it, eh?

      • Steeny Lou says:

        Oh, yeah, eh!

        “Le meilleur bonjour!” said one side of the box.

        “The best to you each morning”, said the other side.

        I had the hardest time reconciling the sides word for word, and was relieved when I started formal French lessons in school.

        My sister and I have, on occasion now that we are adults (?!), phoned each other and gone through our respective cupboards, reading the French side of packaging and letting the other try to guess what it is.

        I’m still not very French, but it’s fun to try to be.

        Wouldn’t it be a treasure to find an old box of Shredded Wheat with the birds on it now? I’m thinking I should probably hang on to some of the packaging from a few favorite food items of my kids, or at least take photos for their future reminiscing.

        Do enjoy your upcoming stay here in your home and native land!

  3. Elizabeth d'Anjou says:

    When I talk to people who are now editors about their early lives, they very often report having long had a habit of reading anything and everything at hand—the backs of breakfast-cereal boxes are often mentioned as an early example (I therefore imagine that a vastly higher proportion of editors than of the general public knows what riboflavin is).

    Instinctive reading of signs, plaques, and posters in public places also seems to be a common editor trait (I never realized how integral doing this was to my life until I first visited a country where I could not read the language even slightly! I felt like I was surrounded by a conversation I couldn’t follow even when I was alone).

    Also, no matter how diverse their backgrounds in other ways, nearly all editors I’ve met share this: they were read to often when they were small children.

    Elizabeth d’Anjou

  4. Shaun Hervey says:

    I’m obsessive about keeping a book with me wherever I go. Maybe it’s a sign that I’m afraid to be alone with my thoughts, but I like to fill any free time I have with reading. This morning I took my daughter to the orthodontist and spent the time reading Dicken’s “Great Expectations.” Without the book, I would have been stuck reading one of the magazines they keep in the waiting area.

  5. There was a phase of a couple years where I had to commute to work each day, so I always had a book at hand to read on the train. I got in to the habit of reading even while I was taking the ten minute walk to the train-station. Walking along, holding an open book up, seemingly oblivious of the surrounding world…
    I heard later, in a roundabout way, that I was considered quite an odd bird in the village where I live because of that, and I suppose it must have been quite a sight to see me as I unconsciously stopped at a curb to let a car by without ever taking my eyes from the book held up in front of me.
    It just goes to show that men can multitask after all.

  6. Mark Gallagher says:

    Had he lived in our age, I suspect Shelley would have been the hottest star in an X-Games competition that featured reading while doing some ridiculously dangerous something else.

  7. marc leavitt says:

    I read the wrappers on toilet paper and the small print on soup cans (tins). No meal is enjoyed without the seasoning of a book. A book rode with me to work in Manhattan. I re-read street signs as I drive to the store.

    Once I endured a bookless week at an isolated farm, and learned to appreciate the sufferings of Job.

    A bibliomaniac since childhood, no intervention has ever weaned me from my vice (nor, may I add, ever will).

  8. languagehat says:

    I’m like you and John Cowan: the main difference between me and Shelley is that I don’t neglect to eat. And getting a Kindle has made an enormous difference in my life — no longer do I have to lug many pounds of books around with me to assuage my terror of not having reading material, since that lightweight electronic marvel has months’ worth (and goes for weeks without needing to be recharged).

  9. rwmg says:

    When I was a child the most severe punishment, reserved for the most heinous offences, was for my parents to confiscate all books for a week.

  10. I have a fear of being someplace without something to read–something that has happened a number of times, because I’m pretty forgetful. At a restaurant by myself, I’ve asked the waitstaff if I could keep the menu, so I would have something to read while waiting for food. I’ve read receipts I’ve stuck in my pocket, and dug through my wallet for random business cards to read.

    These days, I try to carry my Kindle around with me everywhere. Hundreds of books on the thing (most public domain). I really kick myself when I forget to stuff it in my pocket when leaving the house.

  11. Stan says:

    Thanks for your very interesting replies. It’s funny to see cereal box–reading mentioned a few times – and that it may even, as Elizabeth suggests, serve as an early indicator of editorial tendencies. Certainly I read these boxes’ text repeatedly over breakfast (and sometimes supper), though I was equally likely to read a comic, magazine, newspaper or book if any of these was within reach; they just happened not to be available as reliably as cereal boxes.

    The compulsion persists, though not to such a degree that I freak out if I’m without reading material for a little while. But a week? Rwmg, that is punishment indeed. Mr. Hellstrøm, now and then I read while walking, but I resist the habit because walking carries so many other pleasures that conflict with the preoccupation reading imposes. Shaun, a book in a waiting room is a real blessing: the magazines typically provided there are rarely worth even a cursory browse, in my experience. Unless, of course, one is without a book.

  12. wisewebwoman says:

    One of my life’s greatest accomplishments was reading while knitting. I ALWAYS have a book and notebook with me, even when I’m meeting friends or waiting for the movie, etc.

    Also I have a compulsive need to translate into ridiculous English any label, sign, warning, etc. if in French. Easy to do here in bilingual Canada. I amuse myself greatly.


    • Stan says:

      WWW: I usually do the same – a book can be just the thing when you find a few idle minutes. I like the sound of your impromptu translation, and can imagine occasional double translations into English and then into Irish English or Irish-Canadian English…

  13. Anon says:

    Like Shelley I will read everywhere, although these days it is as often blogs as books. One of my guiltiest secrets is that I have been known to read in the shower. This is not good for saving water or paperbacks (although most will recover, if it’s done carefully and with a towel handy to turn pages). A waterproof Kindle reduced my guilt about book damage, but not the environment, so it’s still rare.

    I also sometimes read while ironing (not very well), cleaning (ditto) and cooking (slow, but edible, if the right dish is chosen). If it can be done with one hand, or with a flat surface handy, I’ve probably done it while reading. This may add weight to rumours that there Shelley is a great great great uncle, or some such relation…

    • Stan says:

      Anon: The shower! I have mixed feelings about reading books in the bath because of the potential for splashing and general dampness (not to mention the dreadful, outlying possibility of book-submersion), but I have never taken a book into the shower, and unless I tool up with a waterproof Kindle I never will. The list of activities you’ve conducted while reading is outstanding. I like to read while cooking, if I’m not otherwise preoccupied and if it’s the sort of dish that doesn’t demand constant attention, but the other undertakings (cleaning, ironing) are probably beyond me.

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