Originally written for Gladstone's Library's blog during my residency there in October.
It’s a strange month to be on retreat from reality, these final days of our membership of the EU (or perhaps not), as the clock ticks down to Halloween and all the ghoulish things it harbours. Out in the world I know I wouldn’t be able to draw my eyes away from Twitter for more than a few minutes at a time, but a couple of days after I arrived at Gladstone’s I logged off all my social media accounts and haven’t been back on since.
It wasn’t something I planned to do, but there is a particular quality of stillness at Gladstone’s. The stillness of wood panelled reading rooms, of books that have acquired the patina of a century or more. The stillness of my bedroom beneath the eaves, of clean white sheets, the rain in the graveyard outside my window. I wanted to put up a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign in my brain, too.
Of course, you can’t avoid the news right now, even if you wanted to, and the Guardian’s live blog is never more than a tantalising click away. But I’m glad to be relieved of the need to compress my thoughts into 280 characters. 'To write well is to think clearly,' said David McCullough, 'that’s why it’s so hard'. Twitter is the opposite of clear thought. It treats attention like the casual cargo of a storm-tossed boat, buffeting it from Brexit to Trump to climate change to the Rugby World Cup to the Kardashians… who could ever give proper consideration to any of it?
So I’m grateful for the respite of Gladstone’s, and the respite, too, of the empty page, of fresh ink in my fountain pen and no word count. I’m here to work on a book, and it seems to me that a book is wonderful precisely because it is all the things a Tweet is not. Whether as a reader or a writer, you have to give your full attention to a book, to immerse yourself in the evolution of the ideas it presents. You sign up to go on a journey with it and follow its narrative arc. When you pick up a book, you put your phone down. That’s what makes books so important.
Increasingly, in my writing, I find I’m drawn away from the easy moral orthodoxies social media would have me adopt; instead, the qualities I seek in my writing are granularity; complexity and nuance. A book – whatever the subject matter - is always to some extent about how we tell stories. Every time a reader picks up a book, the writer has a chance to invent, anew, not only the narrative, but the narrative structure. To cultivate a new quality of attention; one that may be carried beyond the page and into the world.
Suzannah, the Poet in Residence, jokes over breakfast that Gladstone’s should distil its special library scent – the smell of dust and cracked paper – into a candle that people could buy and take away with them. 'They’d make a fortune,' she says.
I suspect that whatever it is that makes this place feel like such an escape from the noise of everyday life won’t be so easy to carry home with me. No doubt I’ll be drawn back on to social media again, find myself wasting precious writing time getting irate about Piers Morgan and looking at cat memes. But what I hope I won’t forget is the importance of finding moments of stillness: where, it’s possible, clear thought might begin.