What I choose to read…

I’ve been away from this blog several months now. There was a time when I would review every book I read and post something new every day. I stopped because it felt like I’d run out of things to say and I wanted a little break which turned into a long one.

Anyway, I’m back because once again I have things I want to share and over the past week in particular, I found myself composing blog posts in my head. There’s been one thing on my mind a lot lately, and that is a significant change in my reading habits.

I say on the ‘about me’ page of this blog that

“I read a lot of books, mostly nonfiction…memoirs, biography, history, science, nature, travel and books about food. I don’t usually read fiction, but I will make an exception every now and then.”

That was very true when I wrote it three years ago. And it had been true for nearly twenty years at that point. But over the last three years I have found myself reading fiction more often than not.

It wasn’t a conscious decision to read more novels. It was something that just happened. I started this blog and then I was reading other book blogs and listening to book podcasts and picking up recommendations…

Reading and listening to other readers gush about certain books made me want to read them. And a lot of the books that I was hearing about were novels. The more I heard about these books and these writers, the more I realised how circumscribed my reading life has been.

I’ve always been quite open when it comes to non-fiction. I don’t stick to authors I know. I’m willing to pick up any book that sounds interesting and really, it is the subject that matters more than the author. As long as the writing is good and the subject is intriguing, I’ll read pretty much any writer.

But my fiction reading has been rather limited. In the sense that mystery novels meant Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen, thrillers began with Alistair MacLean and then there was Arthur Hailey and Jeffery Archer. Science fiction was Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov.

Fantasy meant Tolkien and Pratchett until I finally picked up the Harry Potter books. Throw in Wodehouse and Jane Austen and I’m done. That has been the sum of my fiction reading in the past. And I never considered how limiting it was because I didn’t read a lot of fiction anyway.

So there I was hearing about all these books and so many authors that I’d never heard of, who apparently wrote some very good books and I realised that I was missing out. My ‘I don’t read a lot of fiction’ stance started to sound a bit stupid. I mean why ever not? Why do I not read fiction? I had no good reason to offer other than…habit, perhaps.

So I started picking up a few of these books. The first book that I picked up because I heard about it on the radio was The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. Then I read The Martian by Andy Weir. Then there was A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving and Stardust by Neil Gaiman. All four utterly brilliant books that made me pick up others along the way and caused a fundamental shift in the books I choose to read.

I can no longer say that I read a lot of books, mostly nonfiction. I read a lot of books, period.

24 in 48 readathon 

23-24th July is the 24 in 48 readathon weekend. The idea being that we get in 24 hours of reading over one weekend. I read about this on litsy and I was instantly on board. I love the idea. Not just because it lets me read all weekend, but because signing up for the readathon means that I have to carve out chunks of time for reading…so I get three to four hours of continuous reading at a time instead of the bits and pieces kind of reading that is my normal.

There is nothing better than settling down with a book and reading it in one or maybe two sittings. I used to do that often enough as a kid and a teen (staying up until three or four in the morning to finish my book was completely normal.) But it isn’t something I get to do now. The last book I read in one sitting was Alan Bennet’s The Uncommon Reader. But that is a novella and it only has around eighty pages, so it doesn’t really count.

The last decent sized book I read in one sitting was Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About my Neck. That was eight years ago. I still remember that afternoon. I was at my parent’s house. My kids were still toddlers back then. We’d just had lunch and my kids were busy with my dad and I had nothing pressing to do, so I picked up this book, streched on the couch and started reading. I read and read with no awareness of anything but my book and four hours later, I literally woke from the book to find my kids napping and my mum making tea. It was a wonderful afternoon, a rare indulgence, particularly at a time when I was stressed out and desperately tired from trying to keep up with two very young kids.

Anyway, I am hoping to indulge properly this weekend. I don’t think I can manage 24 hours of reading in two days. Right now, I’m aiming for twelve. Anything more than that is a bonus. The best part about this weekend, though, is that I have managed to get my kids involved in the readathon. They are both confirmed readers who ask for books as birthday gifts. But reading for hours on end is rare for them because they have so many distractions and neither of them has ever read a book in one sitting. I’m hoping they’ll find out what that’s like this weekend.

As for what I will be reading, I have two books going at the moment (being in India, my readathon started eight and a half hours ago,) Now Read On by Bernard Levin and My Grape Year by Laura Bradbury. I have plenty to say about both of these authors, particularly Levin, so I’ll save that for when I post reviews of these books. Now Read On is a collection of essays, drawn from newspaper columns that Levin used to write for The Times (London) and The Guardian back in the eighties and nineties. This particular collection was published in 1990. My Grape Year is a memoir. I’m thoroughly enjoying my reading, so I will go back to my books. I will post an update on my readathon tonight.

Happy reading.

The weekend is over. My readathon is done and it went very well. My daughter and I got in 16 hours of reading and my son managed 15. It was intense and truly wonderful to push everything aside and just read for a whole weekend. It was a great experience for the kids and we’re all looking forward to the next readathon which happens in January.

The e-book conundrum

There was a time when I thought I wouldn’t be able to make the shift from physical books to e-books. I was sure I would miss the heft and the feel of a physical book in my hands. I thought I wouldn’t like reading on a screen, even a small, hand-held one.

Turns out I was wrong. I love e-books. I have 800 of them on a single device and I love the fact that I can hoard them in this way without having to worry about shelf space and feeling bad about having piles of books lying around the house.

I don’t think there is such a thing as too many bookshelves, but I have only so much space in my house. And now that my kids are reading, all available space has to be given over to their books.

I know they will make the transition to e-books one day, but not for several years yet, I hope. At eleven and eight, they are at an age where they should experience books in their physical form. It is fortunate that they agree with me on this.

Considering the space constraint, it is a good thing that my husband and I have both switched over to e-books. But I will admit that I miss reading physical books. And there are so many e-books that I have acquired recently that I would love to see on my shelves.

It’s not just about reading for me. I like being surrounded by books. I like to look at them and I love the way they take over a room and give it a personality that it would otherwise not have.

But set against this is the fact that I wouldn’t have been able to afford even half of them if I’d had to pay the paperback or hardcover price. E-books are a lot cheaper. So there are all sorts of reasons to go electronic, but there is such a thing as going too far.

A friend of mine told me recently that he’s given away all of his physical books, because he has no room for them and that all his books are now electronic. He lives in an apartment that is less than 500 sft in size, so I understand the space constraint, but I simply cannot stomach the idea of a living space without a single book shelf.

Perhaps I am romanticizing the whole book shelf thing, but I like the sight of row upon row of books. I find it soothing. An e-book reader simply does not have the same emotional impact. This image at the head of my blog

image

wouldn’t have quite the power that it does if it was the picture of a nook or a kindle paper white, now would it?

200 and counting…

Yesterday I published my 200th post on this blog. I know that is not a particularly big number, but it is a milestone. I’ve been writing here for eight months now and I am surprised by the extent to which I enjoy it. Writing is one of the few things in my life that absorbs me so completely that the world and it’s noise disappear for a bit.

I think that when you have read enough books, you find yourself wanting to write, to express yourself in the words that you have come to love.

For some people that desire takes the form of a book and for other, perhaps less ambitious people like me, it takes the form of a blog. I’m not suggesting that every blogger is a reader, but I am saying that every serious reader has at one time or the other felt the urge to write.

A book blog isn’t much by way of writing, but it is a start. By it’s very nature it involves a lot of book reviews. A review may seem like a writing exercise at best, but it does teach you to think clearly and to try and understand exactly what you liked or didn’t like about a particular book and why.

And then you have to put all of that in words. You have to talk about the book while being careful not to give too much away. And yet you have to say enough to let the reader get the feel of the book…It is a fairly exacting task and it takes time and effort to get it right.

I like writing book reviews. I enjoy taking a book apart in my head and trying to decide how best to convey what it felt like to read it.  This is particularly enjoyable when I find a book that I love. Every time I finish a book like that I have the urge to grab everyone I know and say, “You have to read this! It’s wonderful.”

This blog is perhaps an excuse to do that.  I don’t know if any of you have noticed it, but nearly all of my reviews on this blog are positive. That is not because I like all the books that I read, but because I don’t read books that I don’t like.

If a book hasn’t grabbed me by page fifty, I abandon it. Sometimes, I get stuck in the middle of a book and I put it aside. I may pick it up again or I may not. The point is, I don’t force myself to finish a book that I am not enjoying and I do not review books that I don’t finish. So, in a sense, all my book reviews are book recommendations as well.

I often mention the books that I am reading in my journal, but I have never kept such a complete record of my books as I have here on my blog. While I’m not particularly concerned about the number of books I read in a particular year and things like that, it is nice to be able to look back and see the variety of books that have engaged me this past couple of months.

We book bloggers are a weird bunch. While other people are recording their lives, we record our books, almost as if the most important things that happen to us, happen inside our heads while we have them firmly buried inside a book…I don’t know if these are the most important things, but they are certainly the most interesting.

Why would you read the same book again?

I often hear people saying that they don’t re-read books, either because they don’t see the point or because they don’t want to waste time on a book that they’ve read already when there are so many other books to read.

Like any serious reader, I too wonder how I am ever going to find the time to read all the books I want to read. I know that I could read so much more if I didn’t keep going back to the books I love. But then I like going back to them.

I fall in love with a book every once in a while and it feels like such a tragedy when the book ends. I can’t bear the idea of putting it aside and never looking at it again. I have to read it and relive it a few times before I feel like I have experienced it properly.

I have been re-reading books ever since I was a kid. Whether it was Little Women , Anne of Green Gables, King Solomon’s Mines or Around the World in Eighty Days…Each of these books was a world that I enjoyed tramping about in and I was always game for a return trip.

The list of books on my ‘to be re-read’ list has morphed and changed over the years but the list itself is a constant. At the moment, it includes books like Arthur C Clarke’s Space Odyssey series and several of his other books, Aldous Huxley’s Island, Jane Austen’s Persuasion, David Grayson’s Adventures in Contentment and so on…

And then there are writers like James Herriot, P G Wodehouse and Terry Pratchett, Agatha Christie and Helene Hanff, all of whose books I will happily read again and again.

I go into a familiar book knowing exactly what happens and that is the very thing that makes it so much fun the second time around. I enjoy the book more because I don’t have to worry about what happens next. I can focus on the characters and the dialogue and enjoy the words and the world that they help create.

Perhaps I should admit here that people and characters matter more to me than plot and action. Maybe that is why I like memoirs so much. And my favourite kind of novel is one that has characters with depth and substance, characters that I can truly care about.

While I loved a lot of the books that I read as a child, the first character that I fell in love with is Elizabeth Bennett with Mr Darcy being a close second. I must have been around fifteen years old when my great-grandmother gave me her copy of Pride and Prejudice and told me that it was her favourite book.

It didn’t take me long to understand why. I have read it many times since and yet each time I am caught by the characters and their world and I read feverishly until I stop myself and try to go slow in an effort to make the book last a little bit longer.

The next book that I fell that crazy in love with was 84 Charing Cross Road.. The author, Helene Hanff used to re-read books all the time. She says in The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, another beloved book, that,

“While other people are reading fifty books, I’m reading one book fifty times. I only stop when at the bottom of page 20, say, I realize I can recite pages 21 and 22 from memory. Then I put the book away for a few years.”

I’ve had to put 84 Charing Cross Road away for that very reason. But I enjoyed living in that book. It was my first encounter with someone outside my family who was as crazy about books as we were.

Reading a book is more than just entertainment or a way to pass the time. It is an experience and some books are so good that I have to go into them again and again just to live in that world for a bit.

But it is true that all books are not as good the second time, even the well-loved ones. Some books hold a magic for us because of a particular time or place in our lives when we read them, a magic that cannot be recreated a second time.

I think this is particularly true of the books we read as children. I discovered this recently, when I tried to read King Solomon’s Mines. I have such fond memories of this book and I was sure I would enjoy reading it again…I didn’t. I couldn’t even finish the book. And it made me feel awful, like I’d gone and messed up a wonderful memory.

And then there are books that suffer from over-exposure like The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series. I love these books and I have read them both a couple of times.

But I’ve seen the movies so many times, thanks to my kids who were obsessed with both of these series and would watch nothing else for months on end that it is going to be several years before I can go back to them and find them fresh again. But I know I will go back to them someday and that I will enjoy them thoroughly.

If I love a book, I will read it again. I have to read it again. Not doing so is like throwing away a treasure after holding it just once. Or to quote Anne Fadiman who put together a whole book called Re-readings,

“…the reader who plucks a book from her shelf only once is as deprived as the listener who, after attending a single performance of a Beethoven symphony, never hears it again.”

Monday Musing: Reading outside your comfort zone…

This is not something I do, really,  because books for me are comfort and I hate tinkering with that. But there is a case to be made for reading outside your comfort zone. It is entirely possible to pick up a book that you wouldn’t normally read and end up loving it. How else do we discover new writers and new perspectives on life, stories and characters. So maybe this is an exercise that we should all indulge in every once in a while.

My comfort zone can be summed up as biography-memoir-history-science-travel with an occasional dose of fantasy, science fiction and the classics. It is a fairly broad area of reading, as you can see, but it is mostly non-fiction. I should read a bit of fiction every now and then, particularly contemporary fiction.

Ever since I started this blog, I have been reading other book blogs, listening to podcasts about books and reading and generally trying to be more aware of all the new books that are being written instead of following my time honoured policy of staying in the past.

And I have found that there is a lot of interesting fiction being written these days. There seem to be several new novels that don’t stick to the old rules and the old genres. So many of them have the sort of characters or plots that I have never come across before and I am intrigued. I have been looking these books up and adding them to my TBR pile. I may not like them, in which case I will abandon them without a qualm, but I do want to try reading a few of them.

The only one of these that I have read so far this year, is The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. It is a romantic story and it reads almost like a rom-com and it is as such, way out of my comfort zone. I only picked it up because the character of the protagonist is so very interesting and I’m glad I did, I enjoyed the book. I didn’t love it, but I liked it enough to enjoy reading it.

So maybe I should try reading a few more contemporary novels.

Musing Mondays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

What is more important, character or plot?

The question posed on Booking Through Thursday this week is: 

Which is more important when you read — the actual story or the characters? I’ve read books with great plots, but two-dimensional characters, and I’ve read multi-layered characters stuck in clunky stories, and I’m sure you have, too. So which would you rather focus on, if you couldn’t have both?

If I read a novel, I want to read about interesting characters, not just good or bad, but characters who could very easily be real people, with depth and complexity. No matter how good the plot is, it can never compensate for the lack of well developed characters.

An intricate plot is a wonderful asset for a novel, but for me, reading has always been about the characters. If I don’t connect with the characters, if they don’t seem believable to me, I won’t get very far with the book. Besides, the very worst thing is a story in which the characters are doing wildly improbable things or making decisions that are way out of character just to keep the plot going.

The ideal situation of course is to have a story in which plot drives character and character drives plot…But I’m the sort of person who would happily read a plotless wonder just because I like the characters so much.

 

How many books do you read in a year?

I have no idea. I have never made a list or counted the books I read. I could easily do that but I doubt that it would really be reflective of my reading because I would only count the books that I finish.

And I spend quite a bit of my reading time dipping into books and reading them in bits and pieces and not really bothering about finishing them. I finish all the fiction I read. I finish all biographies and memoirs.

But there are books on science or travel or maybe a collection of essays or letters that I tend to only read a chapter or two at a time. I finish them all eventually, but sometimes it takes years.

Then there’s all the time I spend re-reading my favourite books. It wouldn’t do to count them over and over, now would it?

I always want to read more than I do, but I’m not all that concerned about the number of books I read. I want to remember which books I read and what I thought of them, that is the why of this blog after all, but I don’t think the number matters.

What prompted all this reflection is this community I came across on LiveJournal called 50 book challenge, the idea being that you set out to read at least fifty books a year. That doesn’t sound like a lot of books and it isn’t, really. But I guess the kind of books you read would determine how quickly you get to that figure.

Do I read at least fifty books a year? I have no idea. It would be interesting to find out, but I don’t think I would set myself fifty or any other figure as a goal. I don’t do well with reading goals. I am very much a mood reader and I like to take my time and savour the books I read and setting a goal would just get in the way of that…

How do you decide what to read next?

This is the question of the week on Making up for Monday, a week long meme hosted by An Avid Reader; A Wannabe Writer.

image

How do I decide? It depends on my mood. I always have a long list of books I want to read and I keep adding to it. So I look through my TBR list and pick something that I’m in the mood for.

I usually have a minimum of three books going at a time because there is no telling which of them I will want to pick up at any given time.

I am also not particularly driven to finish books. I read most books at one go, but there are others that I like to dip into and read a little of and then I go on to something else.

I guess it helps that a lot of the books I read are non-fiction and can be read in bits and pieces…

I am not comfortable reading time sensitive books. The very fact that there is a deadline by which I need to finish the book is likely to rob me of my enjoyment of it. That is why I don’t do so well with library books. I often end up returning them unread or half read.

How to get over a book hangover…

Read something dramatically different from your previous book. That was my husband’s suggestion. Since Team of Rivals was intense, thought provoking and very emotionally engaging, he thought it might be a good idea to read something lighthearted. So I picked up two books:

image

and

image

You cannot get more lighthearted and funny than either of these guys. I am four chapters into P G Wodehouse : A life in letters and seventy-five pages into Still Foolin ‘Em..

The best thing about both these books is that though they are funny, they’re by no means frivolous…I’m really enjoying them. And I am so glad to be reading again…

Musing Mondays: I never write in my books…

musingmondays51

Musing Mondays is a weekly meme hosted by Should be reading.  here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

I don’t write in my books and I don’t like it when people do.  I know that is the way some people like to read. They like to underline things and make notes and comments in the margins…The fact that they write in their books does not mean that they don’t care about them.

In fact there are several people famous for their love of books who’ve been known to do it. Helene Hanff and  Anne Fadiman, two of my favourite writers of books about books have happily confessed to writing  in their books. Hanff even used to write in her library books…

To each his own and all that, but I hate it when I find books that have been written in, underlined and highlighted. I like to leave a book exactly as I found it. Any thoughts I might have about the book will go into my journal and any passages that I want to remember, I will copy but never will I take a pencil to my books.

What about you?

 

Re reading books

If I like a book, I will read it again. If I love it, I will probably read it many times over.

A good book is like comfort food or a conversation with an old friend. It is more than just reading. It is an experience of sorts, a journey that was so good the first time around that I want to experience it again.

And each time I do, I’m likely to see or to think something that I didn’t see or think before. This means, of course, that I don’t read as many books as I otherwise might. But I don’t particularly care about that.

Most of the time, the book that I’m reading depends on the mood that I’m in. And sometimes, I’m in the mood to read something familiar.

A couple of weeks ago, it was Anne Fadiman’s ‘Ex Libris’. It is one of my favourite books about books. I have already read it a few times and it never fails to make me happy. Here’s an excerpt from the preface:

“…what I consider the heart of reading: not whether we wish to purchase a new book but how we maintain our connections with our old books, the ones we have lived with for years, the ones whose textures and colours and smells have become as familiar to us as our children’s skin.”

the thing I miss most about being a teenager

One of the things I miss most about being a teenager is staying up at night to read books. I would stay up until two or three in the morning, just me, my reading lamp and my book and I would read for hours on end. I loved the quiet of the night and the freedom to ignore the world and disappear into a book.

There were many nights like that, but there is one that really stands out in my mind. I must have been about sixteen or seventeen. I was in high school and I had an exam the next day. I had stayed up to study, but math was boring and I was not in the mood for it. So I put it aside and picked up a book.

It was The Gold Bat, one of P.G Wodehouse’s school stories. I only intended to read one chapter, “just to get a feel of the book,” I told myself. But it was so engaging and so very funny that before I knew it, I was deep in the book with no hope of turning back. It was around eleven in the night when I picked it up and two in the morning when I finished. I didn’t get anywhere with the math, but I went to bed feeling ridiculously happy.

There is nothing stopping me from doing it now other than the fact that my thirty plus year old body cannot cope with the lack of sleep the way my teen age self could. So I don’t really do it. But now that I think about it, it is not the night-time reading that I miss…it is being carefree enough to be able to read for hours whenever I wanted.

 

How many books do you read at a time?

image

Making up for Monday is a weekly meme hosted by An Avid Reader; A Wannabe Writer.

The question this week is: “How many books do you read at a time?”

I am incapable of sticking to one book at a time. I usually have two, three, sometimes as many as five books going on at a time. I’m not sure why I do this…maybe it is because I am interested in so many different things that is hard to stick to reading about just one.

Besides, reading is a very mood inspired activity for me, so reading two or three different books at a time gives me a book for each mood and each time of day. I have no difficulty keeping the books straight because I read non-fiction most of the time.

It does sometimes happen that a book gets abandoned because I got too interested in the other stuff that I was reading, but if I liked it at all, I will get back to it and finish it.

And then again there are times, like now, when I come across a book that is so good that I cannot imagine reading anything else until I finish it. That book at the moment is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.

Do audio books count as reading?

This was the question asked on an episode ofBooks on the nightstand that I was listening to yesterday (episode #263 aired January 15th 2014). The hosts of the show (Michael Kindness and Ann Kingman) were of the opinion that it does.

According to them, listening to an audio book counts as reading because while you may not be physically reading the book, you hear and absorb it exactly as the author wrote it. You hear every single word exactly as it was written and you have an opportunity to visualize the places and the characters in the book the same way you do when you read it yourself.

The voice of the narrator may add or detract something from the experience, but otherwise it is the same as reading the book. I tend to agree. But I’ve never quite taken to audio books, perhaps because I am so used to reading them myself that I haven’t really tried any other way of doing it.

My kids listen to audio books all the time and they seem to enjoy it. So I thought I’d give it a shot. After all, I listen to the radio while cooking and working around the house. Why not listen to a book instead?

So I got my first audio book. It is ‘Cooked’ by Michael Pollan. It is a book that I’ve wanted for a while and when I found that it had been read by the author himself, I knew I had to have it.

I’ve been listening to it off and on for the past month and It is…a very different way of experiencing a book. The reading is excellent and because it is Pollan himself, his words carry the same conviction that they would on the page, if not a little more.

I’m enjoying it thoroughly. But I cannot help feeling that I would absorb more of the book if I was reading it myself. Maybe that is habit talking or maybe it is because I only listen to the book while I’m doing something else, so it never gets the kind of attention that it would if it was a regular book…