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A Study Of Reading Habits

Philip Larkin

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Added by: anonymous
The speaker indirectly recounts the kind of books he has read during three different phases of his life, and how they relate to his imaginative existence.

Time and Voice: The poem is written in the first person. It has a friendly, conversational feel, and a humorous tone – less formal than ‘The Whitsun Weddings’. It can be read simply as an autobiographical description of Larkin’s early experience of books. You might, however, choose to see the speaker as a persona (an adopted voice, which is near to Larkin’s own, but not identical).

Structure: There are 3 stanzas of six lines each (sestets), with three uneven stresses per line. The rhyme scheme is ABCBAC. Each stanza marks a different period in the speaker’s life up to the present.

Language and Imagery: Notice the colloquial language, which Larkin employs (‘getting my nose in a book’) right from the start of this poem. This casts a comic light on the poem’s serious-sounding title. The first 3 lines of the sestet show us the physical reality of the speaker as a child, which is that he is weak-sighted, and ‘ruining his eyes’ by reading. The second 3 lines tell us about the fantasy life he is living through books. He is a hero, perhaps a gangster or cowboy, who can ‘keep cool’ while throwing punches at villains who are bigger than him. The slang expressions ‘the old right hook’ and ‘dirty dogs’, tell us about the adventure fiction he is reading – with exotic, macho vocabulary.

In stanza 2, the speaker’s tastes have moved on to vampire novels. He wants to be an anti-hero. The teenager’s fantasies now involve women – whom he ‘clubs with sex’. The comic simile, ‘I broke them up like meringues’ suggests the fundamental harmlessness of his imaginings. The women are just like a sweet dish that you would demolish with a spoon. ‘Ripping times’ is a play on words: ‘ripping’ is old-fashioned slang for ‘good fun’, but here it has the double meaning of ‘slashing’. This is typical of Larkin’s familiar humour.

Stanza 3 brings us into the present. The speaker now sees himself as the shopkeeper in a romantic novel, who is cowardly and unsuccessful rather than heroic. Fantasy life is no longer effective in shutting out reality – so he discards books. The contraction ‘[I] don't read much now’ and the direct retort to the reader ‘Get stewed: / 'Books are a load of crap’ are deliberately shocking. Coming from a writer, it is ironic and funny to hear books dismissed. It is part of the self-deprecating role that Larkin plays that he appears to deny the value of his own work. He is also forming a bond with the general reader who finds poetry difficult – his choice of non-literary language to express an anti-literary feeling are typical of Larkin’s desire to write accessibly.
Added by: ..........
Larkin remembers his reading habits as a schoolboy. In the first stanza he is leading, through books, the fantasy life of a tough-guy hero, throwing punches at villains. In the second stanza, as he grows older, he is imagining himself as a vampire, acting out erotic violence. In the third stanza, an older Larkin claims that he doesn’t read much any more because he identifies himself with ‘the dude who lets the girl down’ in love stories. ‘Books are a load of crap’, he suggests - a humorous and ironical retort from a writer.

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