At a party 18 months ago, I found myself in a group of people discussing their smartphone addictions. I'm addicted, too, I told them. I'm addicted to reading. A confused silence fell, and they looked at me as if I'd crawled out from under some 19th-century, pince-nez-and-reticule log.
"Oh," said one of them after a moment, trying to be kind. "That's so sweet."
It's not sweet, I told them. It's ruining my life. The other night, I was halfway through a book at 11pm when my partner came to bed. In a cunning imitation of a normal person, I put down my book (Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel, if you must know), he turned out the light, and we went to sleep.
Except I didn't. I lay there rigid until I heard his breathing deepen, then snuck out of bed, felt around for my book, and tiptoed into the living room. I turned on the light, lay on the couch, and read till I finished the goddamn thing at 3am. The smartphone group looked startled. "An actual book?" one of them said. "That's all you were doing?"
Yes. And it was a book I'd read before. Actually, I'd read it three or four times before. I do that at least once a week, I explained. And that's not all. If I fall asleep reading (which is rare), and therefore don't finish the book, I'll read all the way to work: as I'm walking to the bus stop, on the bus, walking to the office, in the coffee line, going up in the lift. Sometimes I'll even go to the office loo to read – for hours. Only the last page releases me from the compulsion. Until, a few days later, it starts again.
At this point, the group seemed anxious. I could see what they were thinking. Isn't reading simply a Good Thing: like firemen, or kale? How can books – proper, paper-paged books – be bad? I could see, in fact, that they didn't really believe me. It couldn't be that books were bad, it must be that I was either crazy (I could see their point), or engaged in some weird, fake-humble ego trip: "Look at me, overwhelmed by my own brainy-bun-and-spectacles excellence!" If only that were true.
Before we go any further, let me say this: I'm not a reading snob. I'm just as likely to be reading a paranormal vampire romance by Kresley Cole as a historical epic by double-Booker-winner Mantel – indeed, rather more. If I were to count on the fingers of one hand my favourite books – all novels, I must confess – less than half would be classics. Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice I grant you; and perhaps L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables. But the naval novels (Master and Commander et al) of Patrick O'Brian? The pony books of Josephine Pullein-Thompson? The entire oeuvre of Jilly Cooper? I will read anything once my selection criteria has been met. Basically, this means that if I'm still conscious of the physical act of reading – still aware of the actual words on the page – after a few pages, I know it's not for me.
I remember the first book I read on my own: The Further Doings of Milly-Molly-Mandy, by Joyce Lankester Brisley. Stolen from Karratha Junior Primary School some 30-plus years ago, I still have it. The Further Doings of Milly-Molly-Mandy has a brown and red cover, with a large green sticker of a kangaroo in red trousers and the words "Education Department Western Australia, Charles Hadley Travelling Library for Boys and Girls of the Small Schools" on its back cover. I don't know who Charles Hadley was, but I owe him for both the greatest pleasure of my life and the biggest problem in my mental world.
I recall the visceral thrill of discovering this book's small English heroine in her striped frock, because it's the same rapture I feel every time I open a novel: a combination of wild anticipation, overwhelming relief and – most of all – luxurious immersion. When I'm reading, the problems of life recede completely. I no longer worry about tax returns or dirty dishes or the existential anguish of existence. Thanks to innate talent or – more likely – dogged repetition, I read very fast; I can read a novel in a few hours. And the process serves me, as far as I can tell, in exactly the same way alcohol or drugs might: it wipes out reality.
Perhaps paradoxically, then, reading has also set the trajectory of my real life. I became a writer because I loved to read; I taught myself to write by reading. I first recognised myself in books; I learnt about the sort of person I wanted to be. Books taught me how to be a friend, and a mother, and a grown-up (sort of). As 17th-century French author François de La Rochefoucauld put it, I even fell in love according to the patterns I'd learnt in literature. Once you've read about Gilbert Blythe and Anne Shirley, or Darcy and Elizabeth – let alone Rupert and Taggie – how could you settle for anything less?
If you're a reader, of course, you will know that something's coming here. This cannot be the end of the story. And the twist is this: just over a year ago, I realised that reading had swallowed my life. Unlike the kinds of addictions the smartphone group were discussing – tweeting, posting – you can't read and talk, or read and exercise, or read and watch TV, or read and do your job (however badly). The bottom line is, you can't read and live. Or at least, I couldn't.
Added to which, I was no longer even enjoying it. Reading was my fix, but when I was actually doing it, I just wanted it to be over. And yet not doing it was not an option: it was my panacea, my opiate, my only solution to stress. I felt, literally, like I'd die if I stopped. I did all the addict things: I bargained with myself ("Just do this, and then you can read"); I deceived myself ("You're not really going to read this, you're just … opening it to the first page"); I overestimated my resistance ("You're only going to read a chapter"). I have never, in my entire life, read only one chapter. I would find myself getting physically jittery if I was kept from reading for too long. I'd be making a sandwich or heating leftovers ("I'll just read while I eat my lunch") and find my hands literally shaking with desperation to get at the book.
I longed for books, I thought about them, dreamt about them.
You didn't need to be a reader of that bible of psychiatry, DSM-5, to know something compulsive was going on. The reward centre of the brain responds to the stimulus (the drugs, the pokies, the first page of The Nutmeg of Consolation) with a big hit of dopamine, and your whole system becomes focussed on maintaining the sensation, increasing it, recapturing it. Meanwhile, the rest of your life falls apart.
Eventually, I realised I couldn't go on. Most people thought I was completely overreacting. "Just stop for a while," they said – or, even more insanely, "Just read occasionally."
As a sympathetic friend put it: "Do you really need to give up altogether?"
It was my partner who answered, having never said anything about my reading before.
"Yes, she does," he said.
"It's ruining my life," I explained.
"Yes, it is," he said – and we were right.
And so I did. I gave up reading – except for work – on December 31, 2016. It was the worst New Year's Resolution I've ever made, and the only one I've ever kept. We were in New Zealand at the time, staying in a farmhouse near Queenstown complete with cows and cottage gardens and a lovely old library. I didn't dare even enter that book-lined room until we'd been there three days, and then I only went in to find a spare mattress. Immediately, a book leapt out at me: Hannah Kent's Burial Rites, which I'd been wanting to read for ages. I stood there, frozen.
Two things stopped me. One, the knowledge of the sick unease, the jittery preoccupation that would consume me once I started, until I finished. Two, frankly, pride. If my partner saw me reading less than a week after my big resolution, I'd never live it down.
And so I didn't read Hannah Kent. I crocheted an entire bedspread in small hexagons instead, which I then laboriously stitched together. Each hexagon took about an hour, and there were several hundred in the blanket, which gives you some idea of the mania, desperation and sheer man hours I suddenly had to fill.
I began watching telly, which I hadn't done for years because I was always reading. I developed grand plans to watch the entire HBO back catalogue, from Six Feet Under on. But I watched only the first season of The Sopranos before falling back, exhausted. As all recovering addicts learn, there's an opportunity cost to everything. That Entourage, Deadwood, Breaking Bad ship had sailed, and I'd missed it. I did, however, discover podcasts and blogs, and long, noodling google searches.
And I longed for books. I thought about them, dreamt about them. For six months I could feel the yearning like a solid lump under my sternum. Then, gradually, just as you get over a love affair you think you will grieve forever, I moved on.
And then, last December, I was under deadline pressure and away from home, and desperate to relax for an hour. I sat for a while, thinking. It had been 11 months, after all. I talked to my partner: he seemed reassuringly unconcerned. And so I did it. I opened a book – Winston Graham's Ross Poldark (which, mysteriously, I'd packed under my laptop). I read a chapter – then put it down and went to sleep.
The whole thing felt weird and remote and wrong, like inhabiting a stranger's consciousness: a stranger who could say, "Hmm, that's enough for now." But in the months since, that's changed: I can feel the old loss-of-self, immersive joy creeping back. Which is wonderful, and terrible, and frustrating, because it means there's no neat ending to this story – yet another way in which life is inferior to books.
The truth is, I don't know if I'll ever be able to read like a normal person. But I'll tell you one thing. I'm never going anywhere near Instagram.