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Year of Reading Dangerously

September 20, 2009

Reading in Morocco

Well, all right, maybe not ‘dangerously’. But it was the title that sprang to mind.

Since last December, I’ve been making an effort to read more widely. This was occasioned by a visit to my nearest-to-local chain bookstore which, in all fairness, boasts a pretty good fiction section (this week, of course, all titles may have been sent back to distributors to make way for the billion copies of The Lost Symbol they’ll have got in) but in browsing which I found myself picking up a Saul Bellow novel and John Cheever’s in-need-of-reissue Collected Short Stories. This despite not ever have been entirely confident that I actually like Bellow (another topic for another post) and also despite having already read the Cheever, some ten years ago.

I read what might fairly be described as “a lot of books”, but I was disheartened to think I was reading the same authors over and over. One reason for finding this disheartening — rather than, say, indicative of a pleasing consistency of character — was that it reminded me of that horrid calculation Jonathan Franzen (books read: five out of six) makes in one of his nonfiction pieces: “If I read x books per year on average and can expect to live y more years, I will likely read z more books in total.” I shan’t reveal how many books on average I might get through before dying, on the basis that it makes me think uneasily of karma, but nonetheless a strange thought. Extrapolating: how many books won’t I read before I die? How many classics? How many wonderful books will I have ignored in favour of reading familiar and reliable authors, or even worse of going through the entire Saul Bellow catalogue (books read: seven of fifteen) in an attempt to say definitely whether I even like him?

Statistics/nerdiness corner: With this in mind, I went through my listing of the books I’ve read over the last three years to discover how often I took a punt on a ‘new-to-me author’. These lists, incidentally: I started noting them down a few years ago, partly out of a perhaps twisted form of pride, and partly as something to refer to when senility sets in.  Turns out that (sorry about this) per year I average 40% books by ‘new authors’. This is probably pretty good, I suppose, given that it will always be tempting to read into each ‘new’ author’s back catalogue (e.g. spending two years getting up to speed on Alice Munro after Daniel tipped me off about Runaway) — but not, I lambasted myself (and not just for being sad enough to do the calculations), good enough.

And so, at length, to the point. This year I’ve gone out my way to try classics, new authors, unattractively-packed books (James Lovelock’s The Revenge of Gaia, I mean you), and follow random recommendations. This has led to an average of (and I really am very sorry about this) roughly 80% ‘new-to-me authors’. Relative success!

Of course, to get the negative out the way, this has meant encountering some clunkers. I do intend to repost my review of Rebecca Miller’s The Private Lives of Pippa Lee on this site, though even revisiting my stinking review of it on Facebook may fill me with a stroke-inducing fury similar to that I experienced on reading the damn book itself: this year’s worst reading experience by any measure you care to mention (no plot, no apparent writing skill, no believable scenarios, no interesting characters). And I was left sadly cold by first-time encounters with books by Sebastian Barry (The Secret Scripture, a mystery which inspires a presumably unintended sense of intrigue as one wonders whether the head-striking obviousness of the twist means it’s a double-bluff: but no); Patricia Duncker (The Deadly Space In Between: the title should’ve warned me); Anita Desai (Fasting, Feasting); Neal Stephenson (Cryptonomicon: a book preoccupied with masturbation and clearly aimed at a gender and age-group similarly obsessed); A.N. Wilson (A Bit off the Map); and Peter Cameron, whose The City of Your Final Destination sadly squanders a great title and its unusual — unique, in my reading experience, though I’d like to know of other examples — setting of Uruguay.

Happily, I’ve had far more encounters with authors whose books have been revelations. Andrei Bely’s mesmeric, surreal Petersburg (a mere six years after two different people recommended it to me; sorry, Douglas and Jan, and you were right); Kelly Link’s sinister and marvellous ‘magical’ stories in Magic for Beginners, which resemble Angela Carter’s inverted fairytales, but are entirely original; David Peace (Tokyo Year Zero); Turgenev (Fathers and Sons); Rohinton Mistry, whose A Fine Balance is the most affecting and wondrous fable, told in an almost affectless and modest prose, but which I found incredibly moving and memorable; Michelle de Kretser’s wholly enjoyable, if flawed, The Lost Dog; three US classics: Ralph Ellison’s excoriating Invisible Man, Richard Wright’s two-thirds brilliant Native Son (the last third is disappointingly didactic and preachy) and Robert Penn Warren’s masterful, astounding All the King’s Men, which I couldn’t bear to finish reading; Laura Fish (Strange Music); Henry Miller (the hugely enjoyable Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch); Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird — yes, I am probably the only person not to have read this in school, but it proves to have been worth it to have deferred the wonderful experience of it till now), and, most recently, Richard Price: I loved his Lush Life, a crime novel that isn’t in any way a whodunnit, more a what’re-they-going-to-do-now?, as well a brilliant evocation of seamy New York life, and a study in character that every aspiring writer should read. And, in the non-fiction corner, there’s Brian Greene’s head-altering The Fabric of the Cosmos — the latest and best in a line of ‘popular physics’ books I’ve read and the one which most strikingly and memorably gets its brain-meltingly complex subject matter across to the lay reader (thanks to Becca for an inspired gift); Philip Hoare’s all-consumingly brilliant study of whales in life and in art, Leviathan; and Declan Kiberd’s ‘Ulysses’ and Us, for its persuasive and (I’m going to say it) uplifting premise that Joyce’s classic should not be dismissed and demonised as a book only for academics and the pretentious, but embraced as a brilliant survey and summary of, as well as guide to, the wonders of everday life.

So there we go: 80% new stuff this year, and for 2010, the task of continuing to seek out new authors and new books — while also reading deeper into those whose works I’ve encountered and cherished through 2009. No danger. I’ll keep you up to speed on the statistics.

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