Different sorts of reading

In case anyone doesn’t know, Penguin are giving away the first chapter of a load of new books as ‘tasters’. The chapters are available as PDFs, so may be downloaded to a computer, Blackberry or iPhone. One could even print them out and read the old-fashioned way, were one so inclined.

Exactly as Penguin intended, I read the first chapter from the new Jane Green book, and then emailed it to Marcy. As I did so, I characterised the book as a ‘hangover read’, and this got me thinking about the various sorts of reading that I do. This classification has less to do with subject matter than the circumstances in which the reading is taking place. Most of the time it’s perfectly ordinary reading-as-default-activity, but there are some special circumstances:

To start with the aforementioned hangover read, which seems reasonably self-explanatory. In this situation I have a headache ranging from a slight throbbing behind my right eye to a full-blown kettledrum competition going on in my head. I am nauseous. I am sleepy. If we had TV, I would watch it, from a prone position. But we don’t, so I need a hangover read. This will be a light paperback (so that I can hold it lying down), of 200-300 pages duration. It will likely have a pastel cover, possibly with some embossed gold lettering going on. It will be so frothy and ephemeral that if I accidentally turn over two pages together, it won’t really matter. This confection will occupy a couple of hours in the early afternoon, just until I am well enough to progress from tea and biscuits to real food.

The guilt read. Oh god, oh god, I have read nothing but books with lilac covers for weeks, my brain is turning to mush and about to ooze out of my ears. Must consume some mental nutrition. Look at those volumes of Proust waiting for me! Look at The Lay of the Land! Turning my back resolutely on junk reading, I pluck a weightier tome from the shelves, very possibly a 19th century Penguin Classic that everyone else has read except me. With a slight air of martyrdom, I settle down to read it. Ten minutes later I am immersed, awed and swearing that never, ever again will I waste my time on inferior writers who have not yet Withstood the Test of Time.

Except in instances of comfort reading. It is Friday night, perhaps, and the week was a little trying for whatever reason. I have finally fled home with a strong desire to barricade the doors and not to talk to a single person until I have come back to terms with the human race. I very much want to lose myself completely in a world that is quite unlike the one that I inhabit on a daily basis. Children’s fiction comes in here, A Little Princess or Linnets and Valerians; Georgette Heyer is also infallibly cheering. There’s nothing like a starched cravat tied in a Waterfall and a pair of beautifully gleaming Hessians (champagne in the boot-blacking) to insulate me against Real Life.

The next fix read. Why did I start reading that series/trilogy/sequence of X novels when I know I’ll have to finish it? There are 17 more books to go. Well, I’ll just have to space them out a bit, intersperse them with other stuff. Oh, that one was really good, I wonder what happens next? Perhaps if I just have a quick look while I’m in the bookstore, then I’ll know what to look forward to after I finish reading ‘Serious Contemporary Fiction: A Novel’, which is what I’m actually going to buy. (Minutes pass.) Oh, bugger that novel, I’m going home with Richard Sharpe/Jack Aubrey. (Repeat until series is complete.)

The duty read. ‘We’re reading what for bookclub? I never wanted to read that, I hate that author and his entire family and the whole of that genre. I can’t believe I’ve got to read that. I’ll hate it, I know I will. It got terrible reviews and I once knew someone who read something similar by an author who is published by the same press and they didn’t like it. So that clinches it.’ In this situation, things can go either way. Either my presentiments will be true and I will indeed detest the chosen book (you, Arundhati Roy and your wretched ‘God of Small Things’); or my preconceptions will be blasted to atoms and I’ll be forced to confess that novels set during the American Civil War can in fact be quite tolerable. Well, it could happen. If I ever read any of them.

The emergency read. Imagine you are at Miami Airport. You were in Miami for one night, and in a moment of complete insanity, you only brought one book with you, which you finished the previous evening. Airports have bookstores, though, don’t they? Wrong, wrong, wrong. Miami Airport has a rack of curling, mass market paperbacks that are probably already equipped with sand. Most of them seem to be written by Clive Cussler. Walk away. To have no book is better than this. Walk back. Of course it isn’t, to have a book is better than no book. Scan the racks again. There! That one has a familiar title, wasn’t it made into a film? A pretty terrible film, actually, but the book is always better than the film. Alas, not when that book is ‘Patriot Games’ it isn’t…

Books book books

This weekend I finished two books that had been hanging on for a while. The first was In the Country of Pointed Firs, by Sarah Orne Jewett, which I’m reading as part of the What’s in a Name? Challenge. It’s a slight volume, and the only reason it took me so long was because it was by my bed, so I would read a page and then fall asleep. When I finally paid it due attention, I found it a treasure. In it, the narrator recounts episodes from a summer spent in a small fishing town on the coast of Maine, as she gets to know the people, their histories and their stories. It is beautifully written and almost conversational in tone so that it reads as though a friend were telling the story. I was so transported, I could almost smell the scent of herbs drifting in from the garden where the narrator stays, as long summer evenings gradually shift to dusk.

The second was The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer-Bradley, also one of my books in the same challenge. I had put this down plain and simply because I was not at all enjoying it. I picked it up again out of sheer stubborness and made it through (not without some skim reading), but I am baffled. It seems to me a half-baked mess of 1980s gynae-mysticism, combined with a not all that good reworking of Arthurian legend from the perspective of mostly one-dimensional characters. I am so irritated by it that I can’t even be bothered to pick at its myriad flaws. If Arthur is indeed sleeping on Avalon to return in Britain’s darkest hour, he must certainly be sleeping uneasily.

I’m also well into part 2 of the audio version of Moll Flanders. Since she has already been whore, bigamous and incestuous wife, deceiver, mistress, abandoner of children and is now an accomplished thief, I’m wondering where next? She’s about 60 and there are still a few hours to go. Clearly, she does not come to a bad end since she lives to repent (hmmm) and write her memoirs.

And now on with the editing…

2007 books roundup

I like this idea of reviewing the (pitifully few) books I read over the last year. Here are the stats:

total books read: 53. Well. Frankly, I am shocked and slightly appalled. That’s less than half the usual amount. Pesky studying. I shall try to do better this year.

total fiction read: 49. That seems about right. Which means…

total non-fiction read: 4. Which is probably 4 more than the average year.

books by American authors: 7. Yup, this was definitely the year of the mental flight back to England. Every single other book I read was by a UK writer. I’m not counting Cultural Amnesia here at all since I’m still dipping into it, and anyway Clive James has lived in England for so long that he’s practically English. And Neil Gaiman may happen to live in Minnesota, but he’s still one of us. What’s interesting (to me, oh look, my navel) about this is that I didn’t make a conscious decision to focus on UK books this year; but I know that I was seeking the familiar, looking for language and settings that I could wrap comfortingly round myself. I suspect this is partly to do with the fact that when I did have time to read I was knackered, and partly to do with the fact that I didn’t go home last year at all.

audiobooks listened to: 23. This was the year that I really discovered audiobooks, and the highlight was definitely Lolita read by Jeremy Irons. I could have sat and let Jeremy Irons’ voice coat me like honey for days at a time. What I also discovered is that I really, really struggle listening to audiobooks read by American narrators. I don’t know why this is, but every audiobook that I have given up on has had an American narrator. It is possibly related to the fact that, early in the year the two books that I didn’t enjoy were The Emperor’s Children and The Geographer’s Library, two particularly poor specimens of contemporary literature. In fact, it still makes me wince to think about them, and angry at myself for listening all the way through.

What a lazy reading year it was. Everything right in the comfort zone of 19th and 20th century stuff and rounded off with Jane Austen on audio and Georgette Heyer in print. Still, I am carefully making no reading plans for 2008, because as soon as I say I ‘must’ read something, it becomes the thing above all that I don’t want to read. My mind slides away from it. This is what’s going on with vol 2 of Proust at the moment. I’m waiting to catch myself unawares so that I can sneak up on the book and be well into it before I realise. I actually do want to read it; it’s just that, at the same time, I really don’t.