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Writers On Reading: Stephen King

Stephen King

Imagine you’re in a train station or a doctor’s waiting room.

If you prefer, imagine you’re standing in a queue to get your passport renewed, pay your parking fine or buy theatre tickets.

Are you:

  • frantically texting on your phone;
  • glancing at your watch every few seconds;
  • staring into space;
  • glaring at the back of the person in front of you, somehow thinking this will make the queue move quicker or
  • reading a book/magazine/newspaper?

If you picked the last of these options, you are in a minority I suspect.

Take a look around you the next time you’re in one of what Stephen King would call “dead spots in life”. How many of the people around you are reading? Very few I suspect.

For reasons I won’t bore you with right now, I’ve spent many hours in hospital waiting rooms in the past few years. They always run late so I make sure I have a book or an e-reader with me.

I’m often the only one. I’ll see the occasional person with a magazine or a newspaper. But the majority are just sitting, either looking at the blank wall in front of them or reading dog-eared notices about the myriad of problems the body can throw at you.

How can they do this? I find the prospect of being stuck in a place for even 15 minutes without anything to read as highly stressful. No-one wants to be in these places but if you can lose yourself in a book for a while, it makes the wait slightly more manageable. But there these people sit, sometimes for more than an hour, with absolutely nothing to occupy their minds.

I’ve not reached the level of Andy Miller who, during his Year of Reading Dangerously, would find an excuse to go to the post office just so that he could read.

But I do tend to have a book with me almost every time I step out of the house. They help keep me sane.

How about you? Do you always carry a book with you or are you happy sitting in a Zen like state while waiting?

Writers on reading: Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov quoteIn 1980 Vladimir Nabokov wrote an essay called Good Readers and Good Writers which included this comment about reading and re-reading which seems contradictory the first time you see it. On closer inspection though I think what he’s reflecting is that the first time we read a particular text we don’t appreciate many of its subtleties. We’re so busy engaged in the physical process of reading, moving the eye across, down, over to absorb information, we don’t notice all the connections between different parts of the book or the nuances of meaning. Nor, until we get to the end do we also recognise the significance of particular episodes.  Only when we read it again can we see how the parts combine into the whole.  Nabokov claims that it’s only on a third or fourth reading, that we start behaving toward a book as we would toward a painting, holding it all in the mind at once.

Thats certainly been my experience when I’ve had to read texts for study purposes. I read it once just to get the idea of the story line, the main characters and how the narrative flows. But it’s not until a few re-reads that I appreciate its finer points and retain more of the information gleaned from the pages. It’s a rewarding approach. If I hadn’t started to re-read Jane Austen about 15 years ago I think I would forever have been perplexed by comments on how ‘witty’ she could be. It took maturity of years for me to ‘get’ the style.

But re-reading one text multiple times can be very time consuming so not surprising that as I look through the stacks and stacks of books in my home, I notice have few of them  I’ve read more than once. They’re usually ones that fall into the general category of  “a classic”. Very seldom are they contemporary works.

I finish a book, decide it was wonderful and I would really like to read it again. One day. Sometime in the undefined future. That day never comes because guess what. there is another new title out or another new author to explore. and so the loved book of last year just collects cobwebs, feels forlorn.

Which means in Nabokov’s mind I’m not really a reader. The ideal for him is depth, having total understanding and knowledge of a particular text. He quotes Flaubert’s comment:“What a scholar one might be if one knew well only some half a dozen books.”

It would be wonderful to think I could become a master reader just through a comprehensive knowledge of six books. But it doesn’t seem realistic. How many books could we name that would be worth the kind of attention Flaubert and Nabokov advocate?  Just six books from all the millions that exist – they would have to be truly remarkable. For sure I can think of six that I feel are pretty special but if I could read only those for the rest of my life, would my attitude to them change? There’s a risk I’d be reading them so many times that my love of them would wane.

So as tempting as it would be from a financial point of view not to have to buy anything new, I suspect I’d feel I was missing out. What if some new author produced a work that trumped one of my existing choices – how would I know about that if I just stuck to my half a dozen texts. Sorry to disappoint you Mr Nabokov but I’m not going to narrow my horizons this much. If that means I can’t be a real reader I’m just going to have to live with that….


Writers on reading: Frank Kafka

frank kafkaI think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.

Source: Translated from a letter to the art historian Oskar Pollak January 27, 1904.

What Kafka is advocating I think is a reading experience in which the words provoke a reaction in you the reader. Texts which slip effortlessly in and out of  your consciousness have little value in his estimation, the true test of a good book is one which forces you to engage with it; to take hold of your emotions and move them in some way. That’s a tall order but if you find a book that does it, the experience can be breathtaking.

Have I read anything that wounded or stabbed me? Very few in fact but maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

From my teenage days Albert Camus’ L’Estranger comes to mind as a book that affected me not just as I read it but for a long time afterwards even though I wasn’t absolutely sure I understood it fully.  My thirties were my fallow years when though I enjoyed many books, I can barely remember them. It wasn’t until my forties when I decided to start a formal course in literature again that I began reading more deeply and found some novels which were remarkable. Of them, Emile Zola’s L’Assommoir with its bleak portrayal of life in an impoverished French community,  could definitely be considered as giving me a ‘blow to the head’. And then, more recently my adventures in reading authors from far flung corners of the world led me to a discovery of a book equally painful to read – Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.


Writers on reading: Stephen King

Tuning Up For Wales Reading Month

Wales literature

The Wales Readathon – also known as Dewithon 2020 – kicks off tomorrow. This is an initiative hosted by Paula at BookJotter to celebrate the literature of Wales. Through March you can expect to see the international book blogging community join forces to read and review novels, essays, poems by Welsh authors.

As a Welsh native I can’t possibly let the opportunity slip to showcase the literature from the land of my birth. We may be small in acreage and population (roughly 3.2million people and about as many sheep) but our Principality can boast a host of talented writers.

I’ve been featuring many of these authors on this blog over the past few years. You can find a quick guide to Welsh literature here . There’s also a list of 88 novels that represent a variety of genres and issues. Most of those authors I suspect you’ve not heard of but I hope Dewithon will go some way to remedying that.

Now my dilemma, as always, is what to read myself. I have an abundance of options on my “owned but unread” bookshelves. There were eighteen at the last count, a mixture of contemporary novels and “classics” like Cwmcardy by Lewis Jones which I’m unlikely to get around to because it’s rather long. My copy, which also includes the follow up We Live, comes in at 800 plus pages. Just look at the picture below to see why I’m nervous about this one. There is no way of knowing when the one book ends and the other begins so reading just the first part isn’t an option.

Here’s what I’ve come up with as a shortlist of the contemporary novels.

Contemporary Welsh Authors

West by Carys Davies is a cert. I read her short story collection The Redemption of Galen Pike a few years ago and was blown away by it which is amazing considering I am not a fan of short stories at all. West is her first novel. It gives us a glimpse of early frontier life in what became the United States of America.

Judith Barrow is a Welsh author that I’ve not yet read. A Hundred Tiny Threads is the first of her four (soon to be five) novels. I thought it would be a good companion read to The White Camelia by Juliet Greenwood (another Welsh author) which I’ve just finished. Both books are set in the early twentieth century when women are women are eager for experiences beyond marriage and children.

And I do need to read In Two Minds by Alis Hawkins which is the second in her historical crime series set in mid nineteenth century rural Wales. The first None So Blind was fantastic so I have high hopes for this one. Book number three comes out in May so I need to put my skates on.

Classics of Welsh Literature

My stack of “classics” has grown rapidly because of the initiative by the National Library of Wales to republish some of the books that went out of print. Hence why I ended up with Cwmcardy and also Border Country by Raymond Williams.

Border Country is set in rural South Wales, close to the border with England; an area Williams knew personally,   It’s a novel big on ideas about social conditions and the working class, appropriately so since Williams was a well respected academic who took a Marxist approach to his work.

I’m more likely to read Turf or Stone by Margiad Evans which is also set in rural Wales though has a much darker tone. It’s apparently a tale of “passion, violence, cruelty and unexpected tenderness” and came highly recommended by Richard Davies, at Parthian, the publishers of the National Library series.

Right at the top you can just see another classic – One Moonlight Night by Caradog Pritchard. Paula has chosen this for a readalong during the month of March. I managed to retrieve my copy from my niece who has this habit of “borrowing” books, none of which I ever seem to see again.

One Moonlight Night, published in 1961, is set in a Welsh village during the years 1915-1920 and tells the story of a mother-son relationship from the perspective of the boy. It’s based on Pritchard’s own experience of growing up in the Camarthanshire area.

Join The Readathon

If you’re interested in discovering more about Welsh literature, do come and join us in Dewithon 2020. Details are here on Paula’s site. Or you can watch from a distance by keeping an eye on the Twitter hashtag #dewithon20.

2019: The Reading Year In Review

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair … we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Dickens must have been looking over my shoulder in 2019 because it was definitely a year of mixed fortunes.

I started with great optimism that I would – finally – complete my Booker Prize project. But I’m ending the year with one book still to go.

In January I was confident I would also finish the long-overdue Classics Club Project. Yet, here I am a year later with two books adrift from that total of 50.

On the plus side of the 56 books I read this year, 39 were by authors I’ve never encountered before. Some of them are going to be writers I will want to read more from in the future; such as Diane Setterfield, Vita Sackville-West; Brian Moore and Patrick Gale.

I also added four new countries to my world of literature reading list thanks to the 20booksofsummer reading project (or in my case 13 books). Austria, Croatia; Jamaica and Rwanda brought the total of countries to 41 and edging me closer to the target of 50.

And now for the 2019 roll of honour

Shortest Book Of The Year

Sanditon by Jane Austen. Calling this a book is actually stretching the description. It is only 128 pages long and isn’t complete. It’s a fragment of a novel Jane Austen was writing when she succumbed to illness. She laid it aside and died before she could complete the text. It was re-issued in 2019 to coincide with a new television version written by Andrew Davies – you can’t even call it an adaptation since he admitted he’s used all of Austen’s material before even episode 2. Not that it matters because I watched part of it, thought it was dire, and resolved not to bother any further.

Longest Book Of The Year

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry is 614 pages of sheer bliss. He takes four strangers from different backgrounds and with vastly different attitudes to life and throws them together in an unamed Indian city. Around them the country is in turmoil as the declaration of a State of Emergency gives official licence to detention, torture and forced sterilisation. The novel is a joy from start to finish.

Biggest Surprise Of 2019

I read eight non fiction books this year; more than in any previous year. Even more of a surprise – five of them were outstanding. One is even shortlisted for my Book of the Year award. I seem to be developing an interest in memoirs which is a genre I’ve never given much thought to in the past. It will be interesting to see if this continues through to next year.

Best Book By Welsh Author 2019

The prize goes to Alis Hawkins for None So Blind, the first in the Harry Probert-Lloyd historical crime fiction series. Set in rural Wales in the nineteenth century, this novel demonstrates admirally how to seamlessly weave research into a novel without detracting from the narrative flow.

Most Disappointing Book 2019

I had three contenders for this award. William Boyd’s Love is Blind and Kate Atkinson’s Transcription were in contention but ultimately I gave the prize to An American Marriage by Tayari Jones.

Cue wailing and gnashing of teeth among the thousands of readers for whom this was a favourite book of 2019. It was hailed as a powerful story about a miscarriage of justice and the black American middle class experience. But I never felt the injustice issue was being tackled head on in a way I would have expected given all the praise heaped on this novel.

Best Non Fiction Book 2019

I’m really spoiled for choice but I’ve narrowed the options down to three books. Becoming by Michelle Obama was an outstanding mix of humour, insight and reflection This Is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay took us behind the scenes of the medical profession in the UK with a book that had the ability to make me chortle and vent in equal measure. Reading The Salt Path by Raynor Winn, the memoirs of a couple who embarked on a 600 mile walk when they were evicted from their farm left me awed by their resilience but angry at the way homeless people are viewed.

And the winner is ….. The Salt Path. I felt I walked every step with this couple, feeling their hurt when people shunned their company and sharing their joy in nature. A tremendous book that deserves all the praise it’s received.

Best Book In Translation 2019

A Whole Life by the Austrian author Robert Seethaler was remarkable. Just 149 pages long it was an evocative, tender story of a quiet soul who has a remarkable capacity to accept whatever life throws at him. It was moving but wasn’t sentimental. Just pitch perfect I thought.

Best Book 2019

And now for the ultimate accolade: the title of my favourite book from 2019. I was looking for a book that I enjoyed reading at the time but have continued to think about long after I closed it for the last time. I asked myself which book/s had I recommended most frequently and which book/s had I talked about most often during the year.

There were four books that stood out.

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West for its tremendous portrayal of an elderly woman

How It All Began by Penelope Lively; an exquisitely contrived novel of seven lives derailed because of a single event.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore is an unflinching yet sympathetic portrait of loneliness. It qualifies as the most painfully sad book I’ve read for many years.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn. For the reasons I described earlier.

And the prize goes to ……

…. The Salt Path. A book I have urged friends everywhere to buy and read. I hope I’ve encouraged you all to go out and buy/borrow it as soon as possible.

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