ESSAY: The true confessions of an English fiction-eater

Since an encounter with `The Hobbit' at the age of six, Francis Spufford has been a compulsive reader. Unlike other addictions, this is an elegant, even admirable condition. Or so he likes to think
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The Independent Culture
I realised recently that, in bookshops, I do a placatory dumb- show as I move among the shelves. I've got a little repertoire designed to make my reactions to the books I'm cruising among likeable, likeable to an imaginary audience. Here I go, then: I'm in the basement of Forbidden Planet's big London shop on New Oxford Street jinking left and right past posters of Princess Leia, Dr Who videos, Bart Simpson T-shirts, leather- fetish magazines mixed up in a rack with the Fortean Times, past science fiction's outworks of non-verbal and semi-verbal stuff, towards its actual fiction, A-Z by author. My business is there, and when it comes to books I'm a really skilled browser, believe me, finely attuned to the obscure signals sent out by the spines of paperbacks, able to detect at speed the four or five titles in a bay that pull at me in different ways.

What's this? Imported American military SF; black gloss cover with display type tending toward gothic spikiness; picture of space-opera interstellar dreadnought encrusted with guns on the front. Keyword mercenary in the blurb on the back, so it'll be nasty; phrasing of the come-on lines also suggests post-Robert-Heinlein right-wing libertarian blow-up-Oklahoma- City mad gun-toting bullshit, not an uncommon ideological flavouring in this subgenre, so it'll be programmatically nasty. I don't want to read this book, I certainly don't want to buy it, but I do want to take a single sip of its particular poison.

Open a page at random. Oh my Lord, gushing human intestines. Very disgusting - yet also kind of arresting. But now I want to put the book back, and as I slide it back into its neon nest I also want to push it away from me, from my tastes and the kind of person I am. I want to demonstrate that between a person like me and a book like that only an amused disdain is possible. So I do this thing. I pantomime furrowing my brow in pain; I draw back my lips from my teeth like an affronted chimp; I push air against my upper palate to make a hissy, glottal-stopped disgust-noise. "Eekh!" I say, as if eyes were fixed on me from all quarters - as if the alacrity I now want to cancel might have been seen, like a spark arcing between eye and page, by other browsers, or the punks serving behind the counters who are often scholars of comic-book history, or the polite Asian heavies doing security on the door.

Actually, of course, I take it for granted that it hasn't. One of the first things you learn as you begin to read is the amazing exterior invisibility of all the rush of event and image which narrative pours through you. I'm 32 years old as I do my little performance in Forbidden Planet, which means I've been reading for 26 years. Twenty-six years since the furze of black marks between the covers of The Hobbit grew lucid, and released a dragon. Twenty-six years, therefore, since the primary discovery that the dragon remained internal to me. Inside my head, Smaug hurtled, lava-gold, scaly green. And nothing showed. Wars, jokes, torrents of faces would fill me from other books, as I read on, and none of that would show either. But I have not ceased to be amazed at the invisibility I depend on. Other people can't see what so permeates me, I accept that, but why can't they? It fills me. The imbalance between what's felt and what shows means I carry the sensory load of fiction like a secret.

Perhaps like all secrets it leaks in the end, but while I'm still freshly distended with my cargo of images, while I'm a fishtank with a new shoal in me, with one aspect of myself I enjoy the power of being different behind my unbetraying face. If I hung about stoned in front of a police station, solemn on the outside and spiralling chemically within, or wore a lace thong to the office beneath my business suit, I wouldn't be getting a different buzz. I flirt with discovery. My rigmarole in Forbidden Planet is exhibitionism as well as defence, asks to be noticed while it tries to camouflage. Look at me! (Don't look at me!) I'm cramming myself over here, I'm gobbling worlds!

I need fiction. I'm an addict. This is not a figure of speech. I don't quite read a novel a day, but I certainly read some of a novel every day, and usually some of several. There is always a heap of opened paperbacks face down near the bed, always something current on the kitchen table to reach for over coffee when I wake up. Colonies of prose have formed in the dimness of the upstairs landing, so that I don't go without text even in the left-over spaces of the house where I spend least time. When I'm tired and therefore indecisive, it can take half an hour to choose the book I am going to have with me while I brush my teeth. It always matters which book I pick up.

I can be happy with an essay or a history if it interlaces like a narrative, if its author uses fact or impression to make a story-like sense; but fiction is king, fiction is the true stuff, compared to which non-fiction is a shadow, sometimes appealing for its shadiness and halfway status. Only the endless multiplicity of fiction is a problem, in a life in which reading time is still limited no matter how many commitments of work or friendship I am willing to ditch in favour of the pages.

It isn't that I have the ambition to read everything. No, the difficulty is that when you're conscious of the mass of fictional possibilities, to choose between them becomes a lengthier and lengthier task. A gradual, melancholy paralysis sets in. The more you see a bookshop the way I tend to, as a chemist's dispensing an almost universal range of mood-altering substances, each slightly different from the next, the more essentially interchangeable books seem. The promise of reading recedes. But I don't let go of it even when its satisfactions seem to be dissolving. I don't give it up. It is entwined too deeply with my history; it has been forming the way I see for too long.

And I have a cultural sanction for my addiction. Books get cited over and over as the virtuous term of a contrast whose wicked other half is PlayStation, or MTV, or the Web. The villain varies, but it's always some cathode-ray entertainment that jitters on the retina, where printed words are supposed to rest calmly. It doesn't matter that my eyes track across the breakfast table for the wafer of text on the cornflake packet just as avidly as any channel-hopper squeezing the remote, both of us eager for the mere brush of our chosen medium going by. The difference of the forms is enough. The medium I'm wrapped in scores me a cultural point. I don't watch daytime soap operas, I'm bookish: I have the dignity of high culture, although in fact I find the frictionless surfaces of genre fiction easier food for my compulsion, and have to urge myself on through a George Eliot novel - no matter how much I'm enjoying it - by calculating the pages that are still to go.

I have dignity, although in public places, after the phase of placatory selfconsciousness is past, I sink into oblivion as I read, and come to rest in random postures. Once in a public library my attention was caught while I bent down to the lowest shelf of biographies. Time passed - a quarter of an hour, half an hour? My head was tilted way over on one side, and all the saliva in my mouth flowed into the cheek on the down side. Then someone visible only as a pair of legs coughed Excuse me. Sorry, I said thickly. As I moved back to the vertical to get out of her route to the lives of Sherman, Shostakovich and Schubert, the spittoon overflowed, and I dribbled extensively on the carpet tile at her feet.

Francis Spufford is working on `A Reading Silence', a book about compulsive reading, to be published by Faber and Faber next year.

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