The Coronzon Press

Thoughts on reading Jean-Dominique Bauby

I have just read Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell & the Butterfly. Bauby was editor-in-chief of Elle in Paris when at the age of 42 he had a massive stroke and sank into a coma. When he regained consciousness three weeks later he was paralysed, couldn’t speak, and could only move his left eyelid. His book he dictated by signalling with his eyelid as letters were repeatedly read out to him. He died six months after he finished it.

Last night, after reading halfway through, purposefully reading slowly out of respect for the effort he made, I walked into the garden and looked at the night sky and listened to the breeze in the trees. Such a simple thing to be able to do, and I thought about not being able to do it any more. I thought about all the millions of words in newspapers and blockbuster novels, on the web in blogs, words spewed out on and on and on, most of them worthless.

What if words were too valuable to waste? What if we had to put in such an effort of will as Bauby had to just to get out a sentence? What might we say? What might we not bother to say? How might it change the world?

In future, I’m going to be less bothered about not being as prolific a writer of books as I’ve sometimes wished to be, and just be satisfied with however few I have managed to write when my time is up. I’m certainly not going to write anything I don’t believe in, just for money. Not that I had any plans to, but it’s finally done away with any trace of compromise I might have had lurking in me somewhere. And I’m going to try very hard not to read things that aren’t worth reading. I’ve always been pretty discerning in my reading, at least when it comes to books. Magazines I read once in a blue moon, typically in waiting rooms, newspapers I don’t even pick up to look at on the Tube any more. But on the web I’m ashamed of myself. I lack discernment, since to have any would probably mean to no longer look at it at all.

I find I will easily read things on the web I am not particularly interested in in much the same way as I used to slump down and watch crap on TV when I had one. I don’t know why this is. The web seems interactive and more engaging than TV, yet I will sit there and read for hours on end pages and pages of flabby paragraphs, badly written, talking about nothing of any importance. Arguments that haven’t been thought through, written there and then and chucked onto the web like so much trash down a chute. And yet I will read this day after day, even after deciding it is just a waste of my time. Why is that?

Maybe I’m looking for something worth reading, or maybe because it’s rubbish I don’t have to feel so involved in it, and that activity gives me something in the way TV did, just sitting there watching crap. It passes the time without having to engage the brain too much. It’s there in my living room, I don’t have to go very far for it, because surely I wouldn’t if I had to. When I’m walking down the street in the glorious physical reality of rain, with my umbrella up, splashing in puddles, the smell of cigarette smoke and roast chicken wafting out of doorways, the neon lights of dusk and the smell of damp dogs and hamburgers, do I feel the need to pop into a cybercafe to check up on what’s happening in some unreal world of websites? I think not. Even a URL on a billboard or a passerby mentioning a website is an unwelcome intrusion into real life, in that it reminds me of so much wasted time. But late at night, alone and bored, can’t be bothered to read a book, wondering whether there’s any email for me, I will go and read the chattering monkeys on their yackety-yak websites. And it is a deeply depressing experience. From every pore I am screaming ‘I don’t CARE about this rubbish!’, but still I trudge on, as if I have nothing better to do. If I had a TV, I might be watching American wrestling or the Open University or endlessly recycled news, and the web has become my substitute for that fine activity. Surely websites are best for people to waste their time reading at work, when someone else is picking up the tab.

The past two nights, however, I have read Bauby. A man who was forced to write the book he had in him with his left eyelid.

Bauby was a good writer. I don’t know whether he wrote much else of any consequence when he was editor-in-chief of Elle in Paris. Probably just stuff on fast cars and chic women. I worked on Elle myself at one time. Most who worked there thought they’d arrived. They’d made it to Elle, they were like the catwalk models of glossy magazine journalism. To me it was a temporary bore endured as a way of getting money, back when I thought it was necessary to have some. But who’s to say what people who work in shallow media are capable of when they have something else to make their subject matter? Bauby must have acquired the skills to write from his years as an editor before his cerebro-vascular accident, I don’t think being thrown into ‘locked-in syndrome’ automatically makes you capable of writing such a beautifully expressed book. Send the average blog writer to the moon he’d probably still write crap.

I have been thinking of getting a manual typewriter and also writing more by hand in a notebook, the way I used to write. At first I thought this was virtually impossible, so used to the computer have I become. So easy to churn words out at a keyboard, so easy to edit them, knock them into shape. Bauby had to do all that in his head before he began to dictate, and then wait for the girl to arrive to read the letters out to him. What an effort not to forget what you’d composed. If a sentence comes to me in the bath and I like it I’m dripping water all over the kitchen floor and leaving a trail of wet footprints on the carpet in the hall scrambling to get it down on paper before it’s slid away into the recesses of my mind.

Another thing that has put me off writing books by hand or on a manual typewriter is the thought that it’s all going to have to be keyed into a computer later if it’s going to be published, duplicating the work. It seemed such a hassle. It seemed writing a book by hand was a thing of the past. But then I read Bauby’s book. What he would have given to be able to move his hand. A book like that changes everything. It makes you value every little thing you have taken for granted. And it makes you not want to waste people’s time by what you write. How much of this would I write if had to write it the way Bauby did? Probably none of it. I would want to throw my grappling hooks into much taller cliffs. And I am one who is already aware of the need to have something to say, that words have better uses than congregating to mutter.

Maybe I should abandon the web and withdraw to a peaceful private isolation to consider my words more carefully, take my time over them, and publish later on paper, free of this incessant pressure from those who think I should write here more often for no better reason than that’s what people do on the web, in blogs. People have an insatiable desire to find well-written things on the web, throwing away time better spent reading good books, and they treasure those few sites they come across that have some quality to the writing, but they will nonetheless read even those too fast, skimming sentences, since the medium encourages it. No-one wants to savour words here, they want to move on to the next thing, and the next thing, demanding more and more that they will read quicker and quicker, until it is all just a blur, a gogglebox providing the illusion of active reading and contribution but all the while inducing just as much of a passive trance and short attention span as television.

JB, Oct 14 04