I’m a fairly fast reader. I used to comfortably manage three or four books a week, but then I had a kid, and now I read one or two a month – ten pages here, a chapter there – in the few exhausted minutes before I fall asleep. Before Dora was born, I would have probably devoured Islands by Peter Conrad in a day or so. As it is, it’s taken me the best part of six months to finish. To be fair, that’s been mixed in with a host of other books, including the first vast volumes of China Mieville’s Bas-lag trilogy, which I devoured a hundred pages at a time, regardless of how tired I was.
I needed swathes of swaggering, pageturning steampunk as a counter to Conrad. Here’s the thing: Peter Conrad is clearly a writer of huge ability. His sentences are as perfectly formed and intricate as crystal. He writes with enormous grace and intelligence, drawing on a frankly astonishing range of culture, high and low, to construct his arguments. His book explores islands as psychological landscapes, a topic that fascinates me. It’s a weighty, worthy, fascinating work. But it also had a curious affect on me: Conrad’s writing sent me to sleep.
Now, I don’t mean to say that it’s boring, because it really isn’t. But somehow, Peter Conrad’s writing has a truly soporific affect on me. The flow of words is hypnotic, soothing – a lullaby of thought. I typically found my eyes closing after mere pages, or sometimes only paragraphs. It’s taken me months to finish the book, and towards the end, I realised that enough time had passed for me to forget big chunks of what had gone before.
I’m discussing this mostly because I haven’t experienced it before, and I’m slightly baffled by it as a phenomenon. If a book is boring, I stop reading it. But I was truly intrigued by the ideas Conrad was exploring, and never thought Islands was dull. I wanted to read it faster, but night after night, it sent me to sleep. Eventually, I found myself reading it because I wanted to sleep, rather than reading it despite sleep. I reached for it like a comfort blanket or a Valium. Now that it’s gone, I actually feel a little bereft.