Richard Smith: How to start the day

Richard SmithIt is a bold and foolish person who advises others how to live, but I can’t resist a little advice. I’m not going to tell you how to be smarter, sexier, stronger, or richer (as I have no idea) but rather how to start the day.

My advice is simple: 90 minutes reading good books. I prescribe 45 minutes of fiction, 30 minutes of non-fiction, and 15 minutes of poetry. The fiction must be deep, deal with issues that matter (death, love, relationships), and have excellent style. Remember that, as Martin Amies says, “the truth is in the ficton.” You might follow the advice of a young doctor friend and avoid books written in the past 30 years. His argument is that there are far too many books to read and time is the best way of sorting the good from the bad. The non-fiction should also ideally be well written—because excellent style will get your brain started in the right way—and should take you to new places, perhaps in history, another person’s life, or to the far end of the universe. The poetry—and remember that most poetry is bad, so be careful—will give you a rhythm for the day.

Other ways to start the day are prayer, meditation, and yoga, and I always enjoy being in Muslim countries where a day of learning starts with sung verses from the Koran. Reading, I believe, achieves the same end as these alternative methods, particularly as you are still and silent. You are, I suppose, filling your brain rather than emptying it, which sounds bourgeois and consumerist. But you are—if reading correctly—filling you brain with excellent mental nutrition.

Ideally the 90 minutes of reading is topped off with 30 minutes of running, preferably beside the sea—but I must confess that I usually skip this; and the sea is rarely possible living in South London.

We are all familiar with “he must have got out of the wrong side of bed this morning,” and the way we start the day is crucial for the whole day. The reading sets us up beautifully to cope with the inanities, rush, trivia, silly demands, and ugliness that will inevitably occur during even the best of days.

You must make your own choices on what to read (although I am willing to prescribe), but let me illustrate my general advice with my start this morning. I began with 30 pages of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, specifically one of the  furious and barely intelligible arguments between Semprini and Naptha and then a detailed account of the death of one of the characters. I learn that when dying “Even the most manly men succumb to credulous, oblivious self-deception; the process is as natural as melancholy when the process of deterioration approaches its fatal end.” A momento mori is highly refreshing in the early morning. (Ideally you wouldn’t read in translation but in the original language, but I’m too stupid.)

Then to 16th century Venice, an excellent place to start the day, to read of Titian painting Sacred and Profane Love, one of the greatest pictures of the Italian renaissance. What might the picture mean? Nobody knows or will ever know, which is wonderful, but Sheila Hale believes it to be the painterly equivalent of a poem written for a wedding, an important Venetian custom.

And so to poetry. Stevie Smith’s Away Melancholy.

The ant is busy
He carrieth his meat,
All things hurry
To be eaten or eat.
Away, melancholy.

Man, too, hurries
Eats, couples, buries,
He is an animal also
With a hey ho melancholy,
Away with it, let it go.

You might go further and like my friend, Ant (a man not the insect above), learn some verses by heart. Ant learns poems every morning as he shaves.

For the couple, especially the single parent, who must get children out of bed, dress and feed them, send them to school, and then run for the crowded tube, my advice will be unrealistic hogwash. And I haven’t started each day in such a privileged way throughout my life, but think on this: might you do better to miss News at 10, go to bed at 9.30, wake at 5.30 (that’s eight hours) and read for at least 30 minutes?

Richard Smith was the editor of the BMJ until 2004 and is director of the United Health Group’s chronic disease initiative.