It’s even more difficult a decision to make than the one around how many pairs of shoes.
The last thing I want is to be on an eight hour flight with a book that I’m not enjoying. Which is why I invariably end up buying another book in the airport ‘just in case’. And why my iPad has been loaded with e books – again ‘just in case’ of a calamity. Because that’s what it would be to me if I run out of reading options before landing.
So the choice of book requires some careful thought.
If I was being good, then I would of course take one of the reading texts from the Plagues, Witches and War historical fiction course:
Fever by Mary Beth Keane. This is a novel based on the true life story of Typhoid Mary. Mary Mallone was an immigrant to the United States who was discovered to be a carrier of the disease, passing it on though never suffering herself. Branded by the press as a murderer, she was arrested and held in confinement. The plot sounds good but I’ve seen some comments that the narrative style isn’t wonderful.
Ghost Brides by Yangsze Choo. Set in colonial Malaya, this novel looks at an ancient custom of ghost brides which is a practice said to placate a restless spirit. It features a genteel but bankrupt family who are tempted by the offer of a ghost marriage for their daughter who otherwise would have few prospects. The setting of turn of the century Malaysia is considered to be one of the highlights of the book.
My hesitation is that I’ve read a lot of historical fiction recently so a change of genre could be welcome. My two shortlisted options are:
The Man Who Forgot his Wife by John O’Farrell. This is the selection for the December book club. It’s about a man who steps off a London Underground train one day (there is a suggestion he was involved in a terrorist attack or a fire) and has no idea who he is. The rest of the novel involves him trying to piece together his life.
L’Assommoir by Emile Zola. This is on my Classics Club list. I’ve enjoyed two of the other books in the Rougon-Macquart cycle and this one has come highly recommended. But I’ve also had one experience with another highly recommended Zola novel – Nana – which I couldn’t finish. So it might be a gamble.
Any suggestions on how to resolve this dilemma? What would you recommend if you’ve read any of these books?
There was a column published recently by Stuart Kelly in the Guardian newspaper here in the UK, that got me thinking about my reading habits. More particularly it got me thinking about my re-reading habits. Or rather the lack of them.
Kelly was one of the judges for this year’s Man Booker Prize which meant he got to read rather a lot of novels. He read all 151 submitted novels once but then, because of the way the judging process works, he read the 13 longlisted novels again. And then read six of those a third time in order to chose the ultimate winner. It was a process which made him realise that he seldom re-reads contemporary novels. Classics yes, but modern day fiction – very rarely.
It was something I’d never really considered before but now I too have come to the same realisation as Kelly. I hardly ever read a book more than once. I can count on two hands the books I’ve read twice. Those I’ve read more than twice are even more rare, particularly when I discount texts I had to read for school or university. I can actually only think of six books I’ve read multiple times because I wanted to do so:
Jane Austen: Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion
George Eliot: Middlemarch
Emile Zola: Germinal
Paul Scott: Jewel in the Crown
Anthony Trollope: The Warden & Barchester Towers
Not much in that list that could remotely be considered ‘modern’ let alone contemporary. In fact there is only one that was published in the twentieth century (Paul Scott).
And yet I have scores of books at home that I’ve been reluctant to give away because “I want to read that again”. So why don’t I? That’s a question that’s been running through my brain as I’ve been driving to work.
As Kelly says, some types of book just don’t lend themselves to more than one read. I don’t read a lot of crime fiction but when I do, once I’ve discovered who the murderer is and how the crime was committed, I don’t have a lot of interest in going back to it a few years later. Nothing will have changed, the murderer will still be the murderer and the way they committed the crime is still the same . Literary fiction on the other hand offers many more possibilities for discovering something new in the text.
So maybe I don’t re-read because somehow I don’t consider modern day fiction on a par with those classics from the nineteenth century?. A convenient answer but wrong. I don’t happen to believe literature more than 100 years ago was necessarily ‘better’ any more than I think that every summer in my childhood was warm and sunny (although I remain firmly of the opinion that when it comes to tomatoes,they actually were more tasty in the past. On that point I refuse to budge). Nor do I believe the old masters were more creative or more inventive than their modern counterparts. I don’t happen to enjoy his work but there is no denying the innovation in narrative techniques coming from Will Self for example, or the freshness of voice and ways of seeing the world evident in the writers on Granta’s Best Young British Writers list. The ‘novel’ aspect of the novel isn’t confined to the UK either – some of the most enjoyable writers I’ve experienced this year are from Africa.
Then I started to wonder if the real reason I don’t re-read some books is because I’m afraid that a book I thoroughly enjoyed will not stand up to the scrutiny of a second read and I don’t want to dilute the pleasure of the first experience? A bit like going back to a restaurant where you had a wonderful meal only to find the service or the food wasn’t anywhere as good. Except each time I’ve returned to Middlemarch I’ve actually enjoyed it more, not less.
It took multiple journeys before the penny dropped. What really stops me re-reading is the lure of the unfamiliar. There are just so many writers I have yet to discover and, thanks to the blogosphere, the list grows every day. It’s so tempting to think that the very next author I read could become my favourite. Old friends are set aside in favour of the new. I wonder whether that will ever change – that as I advance in years and face the reality that I only have so many reading hours left, will I change my affiliations and go back to those old familiar friends that are so comforting.
I’m curious whether my habits will change in the future. I’m also curious to hear your experiences of reading and re-reading….
Stuart Kelly’s article is here if you’re interested in what sparked my meditation.
You open a book for the first time and read the first few sentences. You might be confronted with a ‘brick through the wall’ type of opening much favoured by writers of crime and adventure stories – the kind that plunges you straight into the action with barely a pause to work out what’s happening.
Other times you’ll be faced with one of those measured openings, the type that might not contain any great revelation or insight but intrigues you enough to want to read on. And as you do, the power of the language takes hold and you become suffused with the consciousness that you’re leaving the world you inhabit and being taken over the threshold into a newly imagined world.
That’s the feeling I get with the book I’m using to answer this month’s Classics Club question: What is your favourite opening sentence from a classic novel (and why)?
For me, just choosing one sentence from all the classics on my bookshelves, felt like an almost impossible task. That’s why it’s taken me almost a month to decide and even now, it’s a close run thing between two novels that are tremendous, though vastly different.
Runner up is George Eliot’s Middlemarch; the book that is my number one favourite and the novel that, were I ever to be stranded on some desert island with only one book available, I know could sustain repeated readings. Although it has an extensive Preface, the story proper begins with this sentence:
Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.
It’s a classical opening; simple and lucid yet there is a ironic hint about the character concealed beneath its stylishness. Reading further into the novel is to discover how Eliot continues to gently mock her heroine’s desire to vouchsafe everything that doesn’t fit her ardent desire to do good in the world. This is to be a story of misguided ambition and thwarted dreams.
But the novel I chose in the end is Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown, the first of his Raj Quartet series set in an India in the dying days of British colonial rule. It opens:
Imagine then, a flat landscape, dark for the moment, but even so conveying to a girl running in the still deeper shadow cast by the wall of the Bibighar Gardens an idea of immensity, of distance, such as years before Miss Crane had been conscious of, standing where a lane ended and cultivation began: a different landscape but in the alluvial plain between the mountains of the north and the plateau of the south.
This is a sentence that grabs my attention because it’s so mysterious: Why is the girl running? Who is Miss Crane? What’s the significance of the Bibighar Gardens? And so elliptical – there’s a hint of a connection between the two women. Some experience they both had but there is no clue as to what this might be. It’s a paragraph that’s so replete with atmosphere, of darkness and of space.
What emerges on reading further is that the girl is white and running away from the Bibighar Gardens where she has been raped by four Indian men. She, like Miss Crane, had dared to cross the line between two cultures and paid the price; an event that has political repercussions in a country where relations between the ruling class and the native inhabitants is about to reach a turning point.
It’s a book that poses serious questions about racism and cultural divisions, about colonialism and self determination. A powerful novel that more than lives up to the promise of that opening line.