On reading stamina

I have just finished reading “4321” by Paul Auster. This was a very long book, the best part of 900 pages.

I have read a few long books in my time, notably “Anna Karenina” and “War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoi. In the case of the latter book, I found that I needed what amounted to a reading equivalent of stamina.

I looked up a dictionary definition of “stamina” and found the following:

“the ability to sustain prolonged physical or mental effort.”

I think that this explains the connection between being a long distance runner and reading a long book. Both are tests of endurance and both will test your ability to stick with something that, at times, does not seem to have an end!

I know a bit about long distance running having completed two consecutive London Marathons and a Great North Run. These events require training in order to get the body to a point where it can cope with the physical pressures of keeping your legs pounding the streets for mile after mile. They also require the ability to not give up. This is totally a mental process that is very much a factor when reading a long book.

When I first started to jog I learnt to stretch before I did any running in order to get my muscles ready for prolonged activity. I built up the distance that I ran on a weekly basis because nobody can just run 26 miles without thorough preparation.

How I built up the mental ability to keep going, despite the fact that you feel like you are about to drop from sheer exhaustion is something that I cannot easily explain. That sort of ability to keep on going despite obstacles is a skill that has now been seen in education as a vital ability that can lead you to succeed in education and indeed in life (with professions for example or even in a marriage!).

I have read a book by Angela Duckworth called “Grit

The following video explains the main points well:

“Grit” is about the ability to carry on despite obstacles. It is about endurance and physical/mental strength. It is about overcoming setbacks and fighting the inner demons that say “give up” “have a rest” “is it worth it?”.

But it is something else and that is about a certain obstinacy of character that wants to get something done and is prepared to go through problems in order to get to the finish line.

The above photo shows me (the one with his arms up 2nd from left) finishing the 1993 London Marathon in a respectable time of 4 hours 26 minutes and 38 seconds. What it does not show was the utter exhaustion that I felt about three miles before it was taken. I remember stopping and thinking “shall I have a rest?” then “shall I give up?” “is it worth it?”.

I was motivated by the fact that there was a lot of charity money riding on my ability to finish. In the end though, I, along with thousands of fellow joggers on the day, used our innate obstinacy to persevere and keep very tired legs going and use the last bits of energy that we possessed to cross that line.

Reading a long book does not entail physical exhaustion but it does entail the strength of mind to persevere, even when the going gets tough. Paul Auster tested me with some rather strange digressions. He had a book that was about a person named Ferguson who lives different lives. At times it took time to realise which Ferguson he was referring to. He linked in threads that formed a constant like members of Ferguson’s family but these changed according to circumstances.

I have found that, after I reach a certain point in a long book I get a steely determination to see it through. I remember in the case of “War and Peace” that I found digressions by Tolstoi into historical discussions about Napoleon very wearying but I wanted to reach the end for no other reason than I would have the ability to say to myself that I had the staying power to get there.

The same is true of “4321”, I persevered during some rather difficult (to understand) passages but got to the end and was so pleased that I did. This post was never intended as a full review of Auster’s book. I am sure that there are others who can provide greater insight and criticism than me. I wanted to discuss the process of having and using “grit” and how important it can be in not just reading a book or getting to the end of a gruelling marathon but in life generally.

My reward for perseverance was that Auster’s ending of his long book is well worth waiting for. He pulls the threads together masterfully, something I would never have discovered if I had decided to stop reading and not continue at page 323!

If you wish to find out what the ending was you will have to read the book yourself. It is long, it is challenging (I learnt a lot about the films of Laurel and Hardy and French poets that I had never heard of!) but if you persevere you will hopefully feel like me that it has been worth it.

About malbell

I am a retired Teaching and Learning Consultant. Previously I was a Primary school headteacher and deputy headteacher. I enjoy reading, doing MOOCs and learning new things.
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