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.
“We who make stories know that we tell lies for a living. But they are good lies that say true things, and we owe it to our readers to build them as best we can. Because somewhere out there is someone who needs that story. Someone who will grow up with a different landscape, who without that story will be a different person. And who with that story may have hope, or wisdom, or kindness, or comfort. And that is why we write.”
― Neil Gaiman,
I came across this article in The Guardian. It is a (longish) excerpt from the Reading Agency annual lecture on the future of reading and libraries given by Neil Gaiman.
I have been reading very much as usual, but I haven’t been writing about it. Don’t ask me why, it’s just one of those things that happens every now and then. I stop writing for a while. Anyway, I’m reading rather a special book at the moment, Untold Stories by Alan Bennett. I started this year by re-reading The Uncommon Reader (also by Alan Bennett) and I enjoyed it every bit as much I did the first time I had read it.
So I went looking for the rest of his books. I had put The History Boys on my TBR list, but I hadn’t bought it yet. So I did. I bought the physical book and it is still on its way. In the mean time I watched the movie with my husband and we both loved it. It is such a wonderful story and told so well. I wish I could have seen the play, but at least I got to see the movie.
This is one of those instances when I’m glad I saw the movie before I read the book because it is a play, not a novel and considering the number of characters and their somewhat complex motivations, it is good to have faces and personalities in my head already. It’ll make the reading go easier. I already love the characters and I know them, so I don’t have to build them up in my head from the text.
Now I usually prefer coming to a book knowing nothing more than its premise and I like to build the characters up in my head without having actors over-shadow them. And I’d rather not have a director’s point of view imposed on the book, but this is an exceptional instance, because the characters are all cast so well and they bring an interpretation to their roles and to the situations which enriches the movie. And it helps that the entire cast of the film is the cast of the original play.
According to Alan Bennett, the director, Nicholas Hytner was involved in the play when it was still being edited, so it owes its final form to both of them. And it shows in the movie. The director owns it just as much as the writer. But now I want to read the book because this play is about words, language, literature and history as much as it is about the story and the characters in it. And wonderful as the movie is, the acting as well as the visuals tend to overshadow the words. And now I want the words on the page as written.
The History Boys is one of those rare things, a book of ideas interwoven into what is rather a beautiful story. It is funny and poignant and thoughtful and so much more than I can possibly express here. I realise that I haven’t said anything much about the story, but that is only because I want to write a proper review once I’ve read the play. In the meantime, I will go back to Untold Stories which is a memoir and enjoy more of Mr Bennett’s peerless prose.
I was not around to do a year end post and it is perhaps too late to do that now, but I do have to try. 2014 is the first year in which I have kept a systematic record of my reading. I have reviewed or written about every single book that I read in the past year (except the three that I read in December, which I will review very soon) on this blog.
I tried to track my reading on Goodreads as well, but that didn’t really work for me and I stopped updating my Goodreads account after a few months. I don’t know why I didn’t take to Goodreads, but whatever the reason, blogging about my reading was a lot more fun.
I read 35 books last year, not a particularly big number, but then it is not about the numbers, now is it? Seven of these books were re-reads and 23 out of the 35 were non-fiction. I enjoyed them all, except one (The Apple Orchard by Susan Wiggs which I thought was a bit painful.)
My favourite book of the lot? Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It is a brilliant book and it will stay with me for the rest of my life. The other books that meant a lot to me were The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt, Cooked by Michael Pollan and Provence 1970 by Luke Barr.
I discovered two writers last year, David Sedaris and Laura Bradbury (and by this, I mean writers that I liked enough to want to go look for all their books.) Sedaris is by no means a new writer, but he was new to me. I discovered Laura Bradbury through an Amazon book recommendation. She’s written two memoirs, (My Grape Escape and My Grape Village) both set in Burgundy, France.
The recommendation came up because I’d bought Encore Provence by Peter Mayle earlier in the year. I looked up the two books and I found that they didn’t have many reviews, but all the reviews said the books were wonderful. So I picked them up and now I’m waiting for her next book…I don’t want to say anything more here because I plan to write a proper review of both the books.
It was great fun to do this blog last year and I love that I now have such a detailed record of my reading…and now that my life has stopped being crazy, I hope I can get back to blogging regularly. On a somewhat unrelated note, the last three months have been tough on me for all sorts of reasons and there were so many times when being able to disappear into a book for a while made everything a whole lot easier to deal with. Thank God for books!
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
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?
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.
Wishlist Wednesday is a meme hosted by Pen to Paper, where bloggers get the chance to show which books they’ve added to their wishlist this week. My book for this week is:
This has been described as a deliciously funny novella which celebrates the pleasure of reading. It features the queen of England, Queen Elizabeth the second, who is the uncommon reader in the title. It begins one afternoon when the Queen is out walking with her dogs and she stumbles upon a mobile library.
She gets talking to the librarian about his books and she feels obliged to borrow one. The Queen has has never really been a reader. She has read a lot, but so much of it was required of her that she has never experienced reading for pleasure. This book is about her discovery of that experience.
I heard about this book on A Good Read on BBC Radio 4. The description of the book was enough to make me want to read it, but the conversation that followed was so interesting that by the end of it, I was absolutely panting to get my hands on this book.
I love books about books and reading. These tend to be non fiction, but here is a novel about reading and it features the Queen and her slow discovery of the pleasures of literature. That is such a wonderful premise.
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.”
Back when I was a child, I used to read books with no real awareness of who the author might be. As I grew into a teen I began to wonder who was writing these books that I enjoyed so much. What sort of people were they? What was it that made them want to write books? What had been the starting point of this particular book and so on.
I was very curious, but there was no real way to answer to these questions. Authors in those days were not the celebrities that they are now. The author biographies that came with the books were no more than a paragraph long and author interviews were nowhere near as common as they are now.
All I knew about Agatha Christie, for example, was that she had written 76 books of detective fiction, her most famous characters are Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, she was married to an archeologist and she was made a Dame in 1971.
There was no way to find out anything more. So the books pretty much had to stand on their own, which is, of course, a good thing. I don’t think the author’s personality or their life experience should have a bearing on a book.
But what bothered me was that there was no way of connecting or engaging with an author and learning about their inspiration or their writing process…unless you could make it to a book signing somewhere, which wasn’t even a possibility for a lot of us.
Things are, of course, very different now. Most popular writers are celebrities and a simple internet search will tell you a good deal about any writer. Most writers have their own websites, they are on facebook and twitter and connecting with an author is easy enough.
I hear a lot of author interviews and author talks on the radio these days and I find that hearing an author talk about a book enhances my experience of reading it. An author will not make me like a book that I would dislike otherwise, but hearing an author speak about a book that I love, makes my experience of the book even better than it would have been otherwise.
And sometimes, hearing an author speak is enough to make me curious about their books at least. I heard Niall Williams on the BBC the other day. I had heard of him before, but I had only a vague impression of the kind of books he wrote and I had never really bothered to find out more.
What I heard was an interview about his latest book, History of the Rain. He talked about his book with so much charm and such engaging honesty (there is a personal story that inspired the book) that it made me want to go get the book right away…
This isn’t the first time that I have felt like this. There have also been instances where the author has turned out to be more charming than the book. Nonetheless, I think connecting with the author adds to the entire experience of reading.
As I mentioned in an earlier post (Revisiting the Classics) I have been reading King Solomon’s Mines by H Rider Haggard. I’m only a few chapters into it, but I’m enjoying it thoroughly. And I can’t help thinking that I want to read more of these books.
A few years ago, I bought a whole bunch of classics, thinking that these are books I want to read again and get to know properly. They have sat on my bookshelves since then, untouched, sharing space with the Children’s Classics versions of themselves.
I wanted to read them, I still do, but I simply haven’t picked them up. There are just too many other books to read. I hear about something new every day and I am always adding to my collection of books…
It has become obvious that I will not read any of the classics that I want to read, unless I make a conscious decision to do so. And when I say classics, I’m not talking only about the books that I read as a child.
There are others that I have long been curious about, books that I have heard a lot about, but never read, like The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf, The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving and many, many others.
These are all books that I want to read, but I just don’t seem to think about them when I’m trying to decide what to read next and I can’t help feeling as though I’m missing out…
A fellow blogger recently told me about The Classics Club,
This is a online community intended to inspire people to read and blog about classic books. You can join the community any time you want. All you have to do is commit to reading at least 50 classics over the next five years. Which books you choose is entirely up to you. The idea is to make a list of 50 books (or more if it suits your fancy) and read them alongside whatever else you normally read.
Now I have never been one to force myself to read a book. I read books because I enjoy them, not because I want to learn something or because I want to prove something. I am not fond of reading challenges and lists of “must read” books. They make reading feel too much like work.
But this is a list I want to make and read my way through. There is a long list of books on the classics club website that you can choose from, but there is no need to select titles only from that list. You can add and subtract as you wish so long as you keep to the fundamental goal of reading classic literature.
Fifty books over a five year period is just ten classics a year in addition to everything else I want to read. That is perfectly doable. And it is nice to be part of a community that values good writing. It is, after all, the quality of writing and the universality of a story, an idea or a character that makes a book a classic.
I have been working on my list since yesterday and I will put it up here as soon as I’m done. If any of you want to join in, please let me know.
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.
I love physical books and a lot of the books I buy are second-hand, so each of them is unique. I’m fond of book covers and I like the sight of my bookshelves. Each of my books carries the memory of the time and the place where I first encountered it, the time that I first read it, what I was thinking and doing at the time…it’s like a piece of my life and it has a unique personality.
E-books on the other hand…they are extremely convenient. I love that I can buy a bunch of new e-books and not wonder where in the house I am going to keep them. I love all the options my e-book reader gives me to change the background and the font, the ease with which I can copy and preserve my favourite passages and so on.
But the problem is that none of my e-books have any personality. They are all locked into a single device and much as I love my smart-phone, I cannot look at it and feel connected to all 750 books on it.
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…
I’ve never cared much about reviews. I pick up a book if it looks interesting. I read the synopsis, I read the first couple of pages and if the style of writing appeals to me, that’s all I need to know.
I got a goodreads account recently and I was idly looking through the reviews of a couple of books that I’ve wanted to read and a I came away feeling thoroughly confused.
How is it possible that a book is brilliant, passable and painful all at the same time? How can one reader’s opinion differ so dramatically from another?
I looked around some more and I found that there are books that I adore that quite a few people have thought were awful. Someone said about Pride and Prejudice that, “This book is quite possibly the most insipid novel I have ever read in my life. Why this book is so highly treasured by society is beyond me. It is 345 pages of nothing.”
Pride and Prejudice is most definitely not an insipid novel. But perhaps it wasn’t the right book for this person. Not every book is going to appeal to everyone. There are all these award winning novels, for example, that a lot of people think are brilliant…I keep hearing about them, but I don’t pick them up because I am not particularly fond of fiction. If I were to push myself to read these books for whatever reason, I probably wouldn’t like them (I’ve tried this a few times, so I know.)
So getting back to the question about the reviews, I look at these one star, I absolutely hated the book, kind of reviews and I cannot understand why that person bothered to finish the book in the first place.
Fifty pages in and I know for sure whether I like a book or not. If I don’t like it, I stop reading. There are so many, many books out there, waiting to be read. Why plod through a book that you don’t like and then waste more time writing a scathing review?
So yeah. I don’t pay attention to reviews…
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.