'You shouldn't read that book,' he cautioned, a tone of urgency in his voice. 'It's got some terrible reviews...'
Earlier, in the bookshop, I'd been excited to find the book on display a few days ahead of its advertised publication date. I had loved the author's previous novel and was looking forward to reading this; the bookseller had shared my excitement.
'Oh yes, he's a great writer, isn't he? Skippy Dies was fantastic.' (I agree that it was one of my very favourite books of a few years ago.) 'And this one has had some marvellous reviews...'
Oh the agony of conflict. It must be three weeks now, and - excited as I was to read it right away - I still haven't. I just seem to be paralysed about picking up a book I've been told I simply must read, and that I simply mustn't read. Every time I've been between books, sometimes even between chapters, I've picked it up, but some sort of brain freeze seems to descend every time.
The same brain freeze has seemed to set in every time I've tried to write, these last few months. That little flashing cursor on a blank document has haunted me, mingling the desire to write with the fear of what people might say... if anything at all! Somehow I've never been so aware of the silent cacophony of endless commentary, from the pages of newspapers or magazines to the threads of social media. Perhaps being on holiday has simply given me time to look. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare has the Sea Captain explain to Viola that: 'What great ones do the less will prattle of.' It seems to me that the prattle isn't limited to the activities of the 'great ones'. Sure, everyone is talking about the secret wedding of Jennifer Aniston and Justin Theroux, or whether Jeremy Corbyn will be the next Labour Party Leader, or that David Cameron's been wearing FitFlop shoes on holiday. But the prattlers seem to descend at top speed on us all. A couple of weeks ago, bleary-eyed with summer flu, I unthinkingly 'shared' a Facebook post about an unusual calendar arrangement this August, which might bring luck. Had I been more awake, yes, I'd probably (a) not have shared something so inane and (b) have noticed that it contained an error. In a move which led to untold online flagellation, however, I committed the Cardinal Sin of the C21st: I Was Wrong On The Internet. Oh the shame. Within seconds, comments were added, some of them by people I didn't even know, saying things like 'This is WRONG!' or 'Ha ha, what an idiot!' I deleted my faux-pas and am learning to live with the shame...
But it's more serious than that. In a recent series of curated press cuttings passed on for my further edification, I've learned, among other things, that smartphones are ruining the world, that celebrity actors ruin plays, that London, as a city of villages, is rapidly being destroyed by the homogeneity of multi-national chains (quite probably true, this one, but the tone of the article irritated me) - and that only the academically mediocre go into teaching, therefore there are very, very few good teachers, therefore examination results go down because the young people of today are glued to those life-destroying smartphones and the teachers are a bit inept, while increasingly liberal systems have robbed them of the discipline they need. Oh: did I mention, I'm a teacher....?
What everyone does, everyone else doth prattle of. And that's fine: we should all maintain the right to prattle freely. But the prattling cacophony which has deafened me this summer has left me lost for words. I've read a lot: I've read what I've felt like reading, ignoring or often not even reading the reviews. I read Go Set A Watchman (I suspect this was obligatory for everyone who teaches English) despite the cautions and the frowns. I've read light-hearted trash; I've read serious literature. I've read books which kept me awake at night and books which made me fall asleep; serious newspapers, trashy magazines, blogs, tweets, serious textbooks about education...
Reviewing my reading, you could accuse me of being undiscriminating. I should be sticking to the Man Booker Longlist, perhaps: to 'literature'. Nonsense. I read compulsively. I read because if I didn't read, I would go mad. I read regardless, sometimes in defiance of, the reviews. And somehow, I simply have to write as well. I'll never write anything worth reviewing. Perhaps it's the ultimate irony, feeling silenced by the tide of commenting, to add my own prattle to the din. But somehow I have to: somehow it's like the Northern Irish summer which came for one day, just yesterday, when simply everyone went to the beach and I'd have felt left out if I hadn't gone there too, just for an hour. Perhaps I simply need to have a word.
'Now,' as Elizabeth Bennet might have challenged Mr Darcy, had she been a blogger, 'review me if you dare.'