My introduction to masturbation occurred when I was around nine years old. A senior boy shared the secret. At home that afternoon, for the first time I rubbed my little prick and…nothing. All I created was friction, sweat and boredom. It was as though my penis wasn’t ready for what was being asked of it. A few hours later, however, I tried again, and on this occasion something did happen. The tinder started to smoulder; and then it caught fire. A small flame. I blew on it gently, scared in case it went out. The smoke intensified, rising swiftly. It entered my lungs and my breathing became laboured. Meanwhile, the fire grew bigger, warmer. I stoked it aggressively, and the warmth spread throughout my body. Then, just as quickly as it had ignited, the fire died, and I was left in pain.

The following day, everything had changed. I saw the world differently. It had became fractured, yet fuller. Suddenly there were women. I felt as though I had given birth to them, had created them myself, in my bedroom, under the covers. I had created them, then cast them far and wide; and now I sought to gather them up, to reclaim them so as to use them in private. How many women have I jerked off to in the intervening years? Thousands? Someone I see on a train, in a shop, on the street. Celebrities, nobodies. I gather these women up, and store them away, for later, when they are always obliging, and always so expert at getting me off. Nobody can do me the way that they can do me, when I act as their intermediary.

What is perhaps most attractive about masturbation is that it is an escape into another world, an imaginary, and better, world, over which you have control. The women I fondle and fuck, who gratefully grip and suck, are a conjurer’s trick; they are in fact amalgamations, they are monstrously sown together from the body parts of various women. I am their father, and, in this way, they are one of the purest expressions of my self, as well as a means of avoiding myself and my circumstances. Wanking is, therefore, an indulgent and imaginative endeavour with a factual foundation, like writing, only more satisfying, of course, and less likely to be thrust upon an unsuspecting, and largely disinterested, public.

Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers was, it is said, written in prison on the brown paper that was issued to inmates in order to make bags. It is often described as [homo]erotica, but it differs from other books of that sort in that it was most likely not composed in order to make its readers hot, although it could function in this way, but rather as an aid to getting Genet off while he languished in his cell. Indeed, the narrator/author states that he has ‘raised egoistic masturbation to the dignity of a cult’ and lauds the ‘pleasure of the solitary, gesture of solitude that makes you sufficient unto yourself, possessing intimately others who serve your pleasure without their suspecting it.’ These ‘others’ are, in the main, pictures of hoodlums and murderers that he has taken from newspapers and pinned to the walls of his cell:

“But at night! Fear of the guard who may suddenly flick on the light and stick his head through the grating compels me to take sordid precautions lest the rustling of the sheets draw attention to my pleasure; but though my gesture may be less noble, by becoming secret it heightens my pleasure. I dawdle. Beneath the sheet, my right hand stops to caress the absent face, and then the whole body, of the outlaw I have chosen for that evening’s delight.”

It is no surprise, therefore, that Jean-Paul Sartre, who was a champion of the work, called it ‘the epic of masturbation.’ Yet this gives the impression that Our Lady of the Flowers is simply a record of Genet’s adventures in pleasuring himself, that it is a kind of wanking diary, but the reality is something more complex and wonderful. The moments when the author is present in the text, with cock in hand, are infrequent; in fact, sex itself, explicitly explored, makes up only a small proportion of the book. Masturbation may have been the motivating factor, and much of the content may have served this purpose for the incarcerated Frenchman, but the most fascinating, beautiful, thing about Our Lady of the Flowers is how in fantasising about the criminals on his wall, in loving them, Genet’s love ‘endows them with life.’

Throughout Our Lady of the Flowers the pictures, and his own experiences and memories, even aspects of himself, are transposed into his characters and situations. He says of the transvestite Divine that ‘it will take an entire book before I will draw from her petrifaction and little by little impart to her my suffering.’ The real Divine he met, he writes, in Fresnes prison. She spoke to him of Darling Daintyfoot, another important character in the novel, but Genet ‘never quite knew his face.’ The author sees this as a ‘tempting opportunity to make him merge in my mind with the face and build of Roger,’ only very little of this man remains in his memory. Therefore, the Darling that ‘exists’ within the pages of Our Lady of the Flowers is a composite of many men, including ‘the face of another youngster’ he saw emerging from a brothel.

So, for me, the book is more about the creative writing process than it is blowing your load, or is at least about the relationship between these two things. If you have ever attempted to create a character you will know that they are, in exactly the way that Genet describes, partly born from your rib, but also from a variety of other people you may have known or observed [and, as noted in my introduction, this is how masturbatory fantasies work too]. Moreover, as you breathe life into them, as you populate, you – as the creator – begin to understand your power, but simultaneously, ultimately, your powerlessness, over them. For example, as the author you can decide to give ‘a breathing-spell, even a bit of happiness’ to your creations, as Genet is tempted to do vis-a-vis Divine and Darling. Yet he also acknowledges that once brought to life these people in a sense exist independently [“if it were up to me only, I would make of her the kind of fatal hero I like”], that, once you have given them qualities, they must act in accordance with these qualities.


[Un Chant D’Amour, dir. Jean Genet, 1950]

I have thus far only mentioned in passing the author’s preoccupation with murderers. For Genet, these people are ‘enchanting’, they are ‘a wonderful blossoming of dark and lovely flowers.’ Indeed, it is, he states, ‘in honour of their crimes’ that he is writing his book. One could understand this fascination in relation to sex, of course. In my review of Octave Mirbeau’s The Torture Garden I explored the connection between sex and violence, so I do not want to repeat myself here; but, on a more basic level, we are all aware of the allure, the sexual potency, of the hard man, the dangerous man, the bit of rough, even if we do not subscribe to it ourselves. However, I believe that there is a deeper significance to Genet’s interest, which is that violent criminals exist on the fringes of society, they have, intentionally, placed themselves outside of bourgeois or conventional society. Murderers are people of ‘wild imagination’, who have ‘the great poetic faculty of denying our universe and its values so that they may act upon it with sovereign ease.’ In this way, they are similar to his transvestites and homosexuals, and to himself.

This attitude, this interest in and admiration for the unconventional, perhaps also explains why Christianity is such a consistent presence in the text. Indeed, on the first page Genet writes about his dislike of angels, which, he says, fill him with horror. Most frequently, the author uses Christian language or imagery to describe something that would be considered irreligious. For example, when Divine makes hard the cocks of two policemen, they are said to knock against the doors of their trousers, urging them to open ‘like the clergy at the closed church door on Palm Sunday.’ There is also, of course, the double meaning of the name Divine [who, moreover, dies at the beginning of the book and is then, in a sense, resurrected], and another transvestite prostitute is called First Communion. By repeatedly merging the divine and the debauched, Genet is deliberately dirtying Christianity – which preaches conventionality – by association.

While all of what I have written about previously is of interest, and goes a long way to making Our Lady of the Flowers the masterpiece that it is, the biggest selling point, the most extravagantly plumed feather in the book’s cap, is the quality of the prose. I ought to say that it is beautiful, amongst the most beautiful I have ever encountered, and leave it at that; but I will attempt some kind of discussion, anyway. Genet wrote in a kind of freestyle, or at least that it how it appears in translation, in an elegantly inelegant fashion. His sentences meander across the page, like a handsome, yet drunk, young couple. His imagery is at times ludicrous or fantastical – ‘a pulled tooth, lying in a glass of champagne in the middle of a Greek landscape’ – and at others precise or impressively restrained – ‘the revolver/disappeared beneath the bed like an axe at the bottom of a pond.’ In all instances, at all times, however, it satisfied me, it got me hard.


You: What is Invisible Cities?

[P]: A short Borgesian novel by Italo Calvino in which the traveller Marco Polo describes a series of [mostly fantastical] cities for the Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan.

You: What’s it all about?

[P]: I just told you.

You: No, you gave me a synopsis. What’s it really about? What was this Calvino guy trying to say?

[P]: Ah, shit.

You: You don’t know?

[P]: I’m not sure. It’s hard to explain. Marcel Proust once wrote, “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

You: Is that relevant?

[P]: Yes, of course.

You: How so?

[P]: Ah, shit.

You: How many times have you read the book?

[P]: Twice

You: And you still can’t say anything meaningful about it?

[P]: Well, one man’s meaningful is another man’s rambling incoherent bullshit. I’m wary of rambling.

You: It has never worried you before.

[P]: That’s a good point.

You: So proceed.

[P]: Well, the reader is told in one of the linking narrative sections that the two men don’t speak the same language, that they actually communicate via signs and objects. One imagines that as a consequence of speaking different languages, and the subsequent miscommunication between them, that both have a different conception/understanding of the cities being ‘described.’ The cities of Kublai Khan’s mind, then, could be the invisible [non-existent] cities of the title, as he, unlike Polo, has never seen them but only ‘heard’ of them from someone else.

Yet while this idea of an elaborate Chinese whispers appeals to me, I am not certain that there is enough evidence to support a claim that it was Calvino’s intention to explore it. Indeed, that something, like a city, can exist in two different forms in the imaginations of two different men, that it can change in appearance as it passes from the mind of one person to the mind of another, throws up interesting questions about the nature and reliability of knowledge, and also, if one ignores for a moment the claim that the two men are communicating via signs etc, touches on the merits and otherwise of oral storytelling. Yet, it is Polo’s descriptions that are fantastical, we are not privy to Kublai’s interpretations. To give weight to the idea that this is really a book about communication, about building images in one’s mind, there would need to be some sense that Polo’s descriptions are at odds with his listener’s understanding of what he is told, and there isn’t.

You: So you’ve told me what you don’t think the book is about?

[P]: Yes.

You: Are you always like this?

[P]: No, but…

You: If someone asks you for directions to the supermarket do you tell them how to get to the library?

[P]: No, but Invisible Cities suggests many interpretations.

You: Does it? On the reverse of the novel itself there is a quote by Paul Bailey who claims that it is a paean to Venice, that the descriptions of seemingly distinct places are actually descriptions of that one city.

[P]: I’m aware of that. But doesn’t that indicate that knowledge of Venice would be necessary in order to understand or fully appreciate Calvino’s work?.

You: I guess so.

[P]: I just don’t quite buy that, as it seems extraordinarily cheeky of a writer to expect his readership to hop on a plane to Italy in order to be able to make sense of his book.

You: You’re not much of a traveller, then?

[P]: I…well…the thing is, whenever I go anywhere I find that the place was more romantic, more beautiful, more special in my mind, in anticipation, than it is in reality. I am always disappointed whenever I go anywhere.

You: Life must be a real bitch for you.

[P]: Yes, but I think that might be what Calvino was getting at. My favourite interpretation of Invisible Cities would be that Kublai Khan knows that Polo is not telling the truth when he recounts his tales of marvellous places, but prefers these wonderful imaginative cities to the actual cities over which he rules, that like Don Quixote this magical world is more appealing to him than the real thing.

You: So there you are, you do know what the book is about.

[P]: No. Because I am not totally convinced of this interpretation either. Indeed, the thought that struck me with the most vehemence whilst reading it was that this is a novel about understanding the essence of cities, rather than their purely physical appearance. I wrote something about myself…

You: Ah, shit.

[P]: Is that objectionable to you?

You: [Sighing deeply] No, no. Go on then, what did you write…[almost indistinctly} about yourself?

[P]: I wrote…

To understand my home city I have to understand another, to see it I have to see another, for it is that other city that gives this one, my home, existence; it is that other city that brought me here, that made here possible. That other city is London. When I try to see London, I see:

A photobooth in Paddington station, that might not exist anymore, that might never have existed in Paddington station, for maybe it was in Marylebone station. Or Kings Cross. But for me it is there in Paddington station, forever.

A girl in a red coat, fairytale-like, emerging out of the crowd on Camden High Street; opposite, across the road, is a megastore, the name of which is obscured; behind me is Camden tube station.

The girl: Jemmia, two weeks before she tried to kill herself for the first time. Or three weeks. Or maybe even four. And who is to say her coat was red? And yet I see it with the same kind of certainty and assurance as if the image of her in it is tattooed on my arm.

My London is an imaginary London, it exists only within me. I trace it not with my feet or my hands or my eyes, but ghost-like through my memories. And yet this dream of London has a pull and an influence on me stronger than the four walls that will keep me tonight or the street I’ll tread tomorrow.

It is times like this that you start to realise that your whole life is a dream, an unmanageable and complex web of dreams and imaginings.

You: Y’know, that’s not half as bad as I feared.

[P]: Thanks, I guess.

You: But still you’re mostly just stalling for time.

[P]: Maybe. Thing is, we could do this forever and I will still probably be unable to adequately describe, sum up, or understand Invisible Cities. In fact, it occurs to me now all I have done is to essentially outline a series of Invisible Novels. At the very least, I hope one of them inspires you to read to Calvino’s.

You: I’ll get back to you on that.


When I was twenty-one I left home, I left the north, and moved in with a Scottish woman, a friend of the mother of my then-girlfriend. I’d got a job in Leamington Spa and needed a place to stay. The morning after moving in I woke up and still in my underwear went to the bathroom to brush my teeth etc. As I made to leave, however, the door handle came off in my hand. I was stuck. The house was empty. I was in there two hours, contemplating jumping, until I managed to convince [with difficulty] a passing child to fetch his mother. While I was at University, during my first week in fact, I drank a pint of tequila and nearly died. I woke up midday the following day, covered in bruises and laying on a vomit covered bed in a room I did not recognise.

Once, after breaking up with a girlfriend I agreed to travel to London to see her. She turned up but had a funny turn on the tube and ran off. I tried to follow her but I couldn’t keep up. I never saw her again. I called a friend of mine and we agreed to go for a drink. I got so drunk, however, that I passed out on the train home, which happened to be the last train that day, missing my stop and ending up in the arsehole of nowhere. Pissed and lost, I had to hitchhike home. Another time, I managed to convince a girl that I was in a very famous band, my act being so convincing that when I next bumped into her, weeks later, she told me she had actually bought tickets to see the band expecting me to be on stage. I wasn’t, of course. These short anecdotes are merely the tip of the iceberg, the tip of the tip.

Life is messier than fiction. If I wanted to write a story would I consider any of the things that have actually happened to me? No, I would dismiss them as unbelievable, stupid, too full of silly coincidences and unrealistic choices or unsound psychology. Life is messier than fiction, unless, of course, you’re talking about Operation Shylock by Philip Roth. This is a novel that purports to be a true story, actually does feature genuine, verifiable, events, and yet all of it feels categorically, almost gallingly, unreal. Take the basic plot, which is that Philip Roth, the writer, finds out that there is another Philip Roth, an impostor, in Jerusalem espousing controversial views on his [the real Roth’s] behalf.

Roth travels to Jerusalem and becomes embroiled in a madcap game of cat and mouse and espionage, which involves crippled agents, a million dollar cheque, arab freedom fighters, a dying man with a prosthetic penis, and so on. Like, huh? Then there is the trial of John Demjanjuk, which features prominently in the text. John Demjanjuk was arrested on suspicion of being Ivan the Terrible, a brutal Nazi guard responsible for almost mind-boggling cruelty at the Treblinka concentration camp. He is, believe it or not, being defended by a Jew, whose own mother was a holocaust survivor! This lawyer, by the way, was actually attacked by a holocaust survivor [not his own mother], who threw acid in his face. Sounds like bullshit, don’t it? Who is going to buy this crap? An acid-throwing holocaust survivor? Yet it’s all true. Go look it up.

I guess the most pertinent question is how does Roth manage to manipulate this material, how does he mould it into a coherent novel? The answer is that he doesn’t. Operation Shylock is something of a clusterfuck [much like this review so far], but it’s a pretty fucking engrossing one. Part of Roth’s focus is the tension between truth and fiction, the tenuous grasp that we have on reality, on who we are and what is happening to us, and around us. For example, who is the real Ivan the Terrible? This is a genuine question, because there were, and still are, doubts, differences of opinion. Some say Demjanjuk, some say that the evidence against him was falsified, that Ivan the Terrible was another man, Ivan Marchenko. Yet the novel asks another question, one given even greater prominence, which is who is the real Philip Roth? Indeed, one cannot take anyone or anything in the book on face value. What’s real is unbelievable, what is fiction is, well, unbelievable also.


[Demjanjuk’s Nazi ID card, which some claim is a forgery]

On Roth and his double: one could argue that Pipik, which is what Roth calls his impostor, does not exist. At the beginning of the novel Roth describes a mental breakdown that he suffered as a result of taking a drug called Halcion. This drug leaves him feeling suicidal and categorically not himself. It is not difficult, then, to see Piipik as a consequence of this breakdown, of this feeling of not being oneself. Indeed, at one point Roth looks in the mirror and does not recognise himself. Is this Pipik staring back at him? Is Pipik the crazy Roth, the broken down Roth? The irrational Roth? The whole novel is suffused with doubles: the Arab that he knew thirty years previously as a mild, moderate man turns up in Jerusalem as an extremist, the cripple Smilesburger is encountered initially as a holocaust survivor only to turn out to be an agent, Demjanjuk is both an old man from Ohio and, possibly, a sadistic war criminal etc. Perhaps the biggest indication that Pipik is not real is when towards the end of the novel Roth admits to mentally composing, to imagining, a letter from Pipik’s girlfriend describing his death. An imaginary death for an imaginary character, perhaps.

“…they’ll say, ‘He never recovered from that breakdown and this was the result. It had to be the breakdown–not even he was that dreadful a novelist.”

Throughout Operation Shylock there is a very weird tension between high seriousness and farce, which is something that I have only previously encountered in the work of the renowned modernist Witold Gombrowicz. Roth deals, in detail, with some very important issues, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Diasporism, Palestinian displacement, Jewish culpability, the Holocaust and whether it is  used as a propaganda tool, terrorism, extremism, anti-semitism, etc. Simultaneously, there runs throughout the novel the double-double agent caper I have previously mentioned, which is obviously ridiculous. In this way, Operation Shylock is like two books in one. Yet there must be a reason for this duality. What was Roth trying to achieve? I think on one hand he wanted to treat these issues with the gravity they deserve, while also making the point that a lot of the beliefs and behaviour and arguments around them are insane. So, we have the crazy Arab friend who wants to enlist Roth [a Jew] to fight for his cause, we have the imposter Roth who wants the Jews to leave Israel and return to Europe en masse, etc. Indeed, all wars, all conflicts, all ideologies contain some element of insanity, otherwise people would not be willing to die for them.

Maybe all of this sounds like trash to you. I dunno. I enjoyed it. I think there is a lot of Roth’s best writing in the book, although it is very centred on Jewish issues and Jewish history [which some may find alienating]. The biggest issue for me was the Roth-as-character stuff. I have always maintained that authors absolutely should not, under any circumstances, appear in their own work. Had Roth not been Roth, so to speak, but, say, Nathan Zuckerman, who is himself a thinly disguised Roth [this is getting so meta it’s hard to keep it all straight], I would not have questioned the book. So, why do I dislike authors-as-characters? I find it egotistical, unnecessarily self-obsessive; yes, Zuckerman might be Roth, or a kind of Roth, but Roth as Roth? This is just taking it too far. There are points in the novel when characters speak to Roth about his work, praising it and praising him as the author. Even when someone in the book criticises Roth they do so with back-handed compliments, for example, they will say something like oh, you, the important writer, who everyone knows, with all those fans, who wrote those wonderful books, why are you such a dick! Like, jeez. Was Roth getting off on all that?

At times I contemplated giving up, but then there were other times when I thought that Roth was being ironic, that it was a joke. Maybe he made it so that everyone he meets in the book is convinced of his importance and status because in reality that kind of thing never happened to him. I don’t know. Is this aspect of the novel a satire on authors and their fans or authors and the people who want to use them? Again, I don’t know. I do, however, believe that some of the stuff in the book, some of the jokes, can only be enjoyed or appreciated by Roth himself, and that isn’t good writing.  Having said that, I did not give up on the book, despite these misgivings, so it must have a certain kind of power. Operation Shylock is a strange, hysterical, almost nightmarish novel, which may not be Roth’s best but is certainly one of his most entertaining and thought-provoking.


I’ve long felt that our grasp on reality is tenuous at best, that reality is, in fact, a tricksy sprite that it is difficult to get a handle on. Not only is it subjective, and open to interpretation [i.e. while I may believe that I am Napoleon, that don’t make it so for everyone else, even though it does make it so for me], it is also something that can abruptly change [I may not think I am Napoleon for 24 years and then suddenly decide that I am]. Our perception of ourselves and the world around us is dependent upon many factors, including the functioning of your brain, and your senses, all of which can deceive you. Everyone has, at some point, had experiences where their reality has been challenged, even if it is a small-scale thing like thinking you have heard something that no one else seems to have heard.

[You hear that?

No. What?

Come on, that banging? You must’ve heard it?

I didn’t hear any banging, you’re imagining it.

Like fuck I am, you’re deaf!]

On a personal note [just for a change, and all], I’m reminded of an ex-girlfriend who I was convinced was cheating on me, although I had no hard evidence. One night, when she was staying over, I woke to find that she was not next to me; without getting up I looked around, only to see her in the corner of the room huddled over her phone. I didn’t mention it straight away. but a week or so later, during an argument [as you do], I brought it up and she denied that the incident had ever taken place, that she had never got out of bed and taken her phone to the corner of the room. I maintained that I saw it with my own eyes, but she was so adamant that I had imagined it that I started to doubt myself. Had I dreamt it? Was I half asleep? Was I, like those who spy ghostly figures during the night, seeing things in the darkness? Even now, long after we broke up, I can’t be sure. The thing is, our reality is not only dependent upon our senses and brain etc, but is at least partly dependent, also, upon other people. If someone tells you that something that you think is the case, isn’t, or vice versa, and is convincing enough, then your reality itself can be changed.

In de la Barca’s Life is a Dream, a three act play written in verse and first published in 1635, the main thrust of the action centres around a young man who has been imprisoned by his father, the king of Poland, after a premonition that were he to succeed him he would bring violence and ruin to the kingdom. The king, however, perhaps being tickled by guilt, devises a plan whereby he will release his son, who does not know that he is a prince, and install him on the throne and observe his behaviour in order to see whether the prophesy was true. If, and here’s the fun bit, it turns out that the prince is prone to violence he will be returned to his cell and told that his release and brief reign was a dream. Will he be a good king? If not, will he buy all that it’s only a dream stuff? Would you buy it? You’d want to say not, but I’m not so sure any of us could make that claim with any certainty.

Aside from issues regarding the nature of reality de la Barca raises other interesting questions, such as is it better to live in ignorance, or to know the truth? The prince is to be told that his brief reign was a dream because the king believes that it is preferable to being imprisoned as a disgraced prince, but is he right? During my reading I kept returning to a situation I have witnessed more than once, where someone has terminal cancer and yet isn’t told. For me, the truth is important, is always preferable, even if it hurts. Life is a Dream is also an exploration of that age-old debate around nature vs nurture. The king is under the impression that it is fated that his son will be a tyrant, and so locks him up as a preventative measure; being a tyrant is, then, something that he sees as being part of one’s nature; de la Barca deals with all this very cleverly, because the prince has been in jail for most of his life, and so could say with some justification that even if he is released and behaves tyrannically what would one expect of someone who has been treated as a criminal? The king has, he would say, created the beast, created the criminal, by treating him as such, by raising him in a way that is likely to result in extreme resentment and anti-social behaviour. If you were watching a performance of the play, at the time it was written, you’d also likely pick up on the theme of whether one has a duty to one’s king or a duty to one’s loved ones, but that, as a modern reader, didn’t interest me.

Well, isn’t this pleasant? I haven’t written anything negative at all yet, and I won’t, really, because the play is very good, although it isn’t perfect or amazing. The most significant criticism one could make is that it’s too short; it is only three acts, three short acts, and there are plot points that de la Barca seems to race through but which, to be effective, needed more space given to them. For example, Rossaura, who is looking to avenge her honour, is pretty pointless as a character. Her whole storyline could have been cut and it wouldn’t have adversely affected the play, in fact it actually works as a distraction because de la Barca seems to assume you’re aware of certain things without making them clear, such as that initially she was trying to pass for a man.

It is difficult to make an informed judgement about the playwright’s language because this is, of course, a play in translation from Spanish, and in terms of the two editions I checked out the quality varied wildly. In the edition that I read, and which I am reviewing, it was impressive enough, though, and there are a [small] number of memorable and quotable lines. It is worth noting that I did not read the edition pictured above, which is a verse translation of Life is a Dream, but a more recent rendering into prose [as translated by Michael Kidd]; I chose that edition because I wanted to focus more on the writing and less on the structure of the verse [which isn’t, apparently, particularly startling or impressive, and certainly wasn’t in the verse edition I looked at]; Kidd explains in his introduction that he made the choice for prose partly for this reason, because the language loses a great deal of its beauty when one attempts to impose a rhyming structure on it. In any case, Life is a Dream, in either prose or verse, will only take you roughly three hours to read and it is well worth 180 minutes of your [waking] life.