Saturday, 3 November 2012

Room to Grow

Years ago, in the half-forgotten time before iTunes, I read a lot of music reviews in magazines. In them, an album might be described as "a grower" – the kind of music that wasn't instantly catchy but nonetheless crept up on you over weeks and months to become a firm favourite. The growth metaphor was very apt, because there was a singular pleasure in nurturing the tiny shoots of interest (or bafflement) your first exposure created, feeding the album with your time until it blossomed into something fabulous. I can remember as a fifteen-year-old deciding that I simply had to follow my friends by getting into heavy metal, and then listening to an Iron Maiden album time and again until the music made sense to me. That one action had a huge effect on my life for the next five years or more, and I became a massive metalhead until the time I left university.

That all seems like ancient history now, because we live (as advertisers like to keep reminding us) in a fast-moving, take-no-prisoners kind of world. Music, books, movies, TV – all these things must pass along the content pipe, be briefly enjoyed and then forgotten. This feels to me like the process of food passing down the alimentary canal – buy, consume, excrete, repeat. To stretch the metaphor a little further, I think we're in danger of suffering a sort of mental malnutrition - by consuming so much and so often, we have less time to extract the nutrients from our media or even to really enjoy it.

Before I come over too sanctimoniously middle-aged, I should admit that I'm guilty of all the modern crimes of impatience and short attention span. I have given up on movies after fifteen minutes or books after ten pages, never to return. I haven't finished a video game in well over a year, despite the fact that I used to be able to follow them through to the bitter end. But - stubbornly persistent as all authors are - there are other works that I've struggled through and ultimately enjoyed. I think I watched the film version of The Shining four times before it finally made sense to me on an emotional level, and it wasn't until my second viewing of movies like Adaptation and Barton Fink that I really appreciated them. The first episode of The Wire bored me, quite frankly, and if I hadn't already bought the boxset, I might not have continued with that ultimately fabulous series. I've also just finished (and really enjoyed) Sally Gardner's Maggot Moon, despite the fact it was her novel The Red Necklace that I abandoned after ten pages.

With so much content available and more arriving all the time, it's easy to have a mental checklist, ruling out authors, directors or musicians just because we didn't like something they did once before. But creative people constantly grow and change, and it's also impossible to account for our own mental state when we encountered that work the first time. There is a kind of alchemy that happens between creator and consumer, an emotional transference through the cinema screen or printed page – sometimes we are receptive enough to let that happen, and other times too preoccupied with our own problems.

For all these reasons and more, we owe it to ourselves to take a step back every so often and analyse those things we didn't "get", perhaps asking ourselves if it's worth going back for another look. It could yet grow into something beautiful.



  1. Wow - what a brilliant post, Nick. I so agree that we are losing out in this world of disposable consumerism. As a child I persevered through books beyond my reading ability - simply because there was nothing else to do. Am I glad I did. The question is, can we slow down? How do we reassure people that slowing down will not result in them getting left behind?

  2. Excellent post, Nick and one very much worth reflection. I also recall that period of ancient history when I'd sit through things and watch then over and over, and persist with books far beyond my years. But now, as you say, it's so easy to drop things if they're not working after a few minutes or pages. Candy's questions are really well made - how do we slow down, how do we convince ourselves and others that we won't be left behind if we do. Oh for the slower, easier life.
    (Oh dear, are we starting to sound like our parents?!)

  3. Well, I'm very glad it wasn't just me. But I have to confess that I did give up on Kafka after ten pages - couldn't make head or tail of it!

  4. I remember absolutely loving To Kill A Mockingbird at school. My 15 year old daughter had to read it recently - it took her months because she found it so torturous. I picked up her copy and had to agree that the sentences did seem quite convoluted and there were vast patches of text where not a lot happened... My daughter is as capable as I was at her age - she just has different expectations perhaps?

  5. Thanks, Nick. I agree -and I do it all the time as I have little available time to read and I'll easily give up on things where once I'd stick with it. In some ways, I think that's quite liberating (we're not 'forced' to do it -see the Rights of the Reader poster illustrated by Quentin Blake) but it can mean you get lazy in persevering, too -which is what I do. But with so much stuff out there and not knowing now whose recommendations to go on (there used to be far fewer people/organisations/websites telling us what was good) how do we encourage ourselves and others to stick with certain things?

    I do really like your idea of stepping back and rethinking why something didn't work for me at one point that might work brilliantly at another time.