Today was Word by Word. I enjoyed this morning’s writing exercise, inspired by Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree, so thought I would finish it and post it here.
Recently read by me:
American Gods – Neil Gaiman
Plain Janes – Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg
The Gum Thief – Douglas Coupland
Slam – Nick Hornby
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle – Barbara Kingsolver
Why these books? Why not weightier tomes? Well, as it turns out, I have read The Polysyllabic Spree and when I read what Hornby says in his introduction about putting down a book that bores, I wanted to cheer! I’ve long felt some sort of residual guilt about the major works I should have read; having done a BA in English and Theatre the list is long indeed. In fact, there were whole subjects I did at uni without having read anything on the reading list…perhaps I was a better actor than I thought, and have a way of being able to bluff my way through any essay. I wouldn’t recommend it though.
The problem for me is one of pressure. I’m not good at reading to a timetable or a deadline, which is partly why libraries don’t work well for me either. The thing about uni was that there was no sense of discovery, of exploration in reading. There should have been, but there wasn’t. All there was was a long list of guilt and pressure.
A similar principle applies to the books ‘everyone’s talking about’, the bestsellers, the top tens, the must-haves. I don’t want to digest a book just so I can have an opinion on it, that can be talked about in lofty tones in gatherings of people who are in touch with the zeitgeist. I don’t want to frantically scan the pages to see whether I agree with whatever review I read about the book in the Saturday paper (both are reasons why I avoided the Sydney Writers’ Festival for so long, that Fear of the Literati. I needn’t have worried; it was marvellous and I’ll go again this year…does that make me One Of Them? Hmm…).
I have some friends whose recommendations I trust. Friends whose taste is similar to mine. Friends who don’t even have to tell me why they like something as they press it into my hands; I know I will like it, I know I will see why my friend likes it, and it will bring a deeper connection to that friend because it adds to the repository of our shared experience. These friends know that even if I don’t read the book immediately, I will get to it one day.
But then there are those well-meaning friends who don’t know my taste, who just know I like to read. They will say, “You must read this. It’s great. You. Will. Love. It.” I will accept the book with a sinking heart – how do you refuse? – but it’s almost as though the command to love the book means I will automatically hate it. I’ll usually try to give it a go, but more often than not I will remember why I don’t like that kind of lurid-covered airport thriller book, and it will sit for months on a shelf. After a long enough wait, I will try and return it and the loaner will say “did you like it?”, I’ll have to admit I haven’t read it, and then they won’t hear of me returning it until I have read every word. I have several books like this still sitting on my bookcase.
But the books I discover, they are different altogether. I enjoy the process of unearthing a gem, the languid browsing through bookshops for something that grabs my fancy, and reading it right away. Even as the pile of unread books atop my piano grows, I can’t help sneaking back into the bookshops and getting lost in the possibilities. I would be lying if I said that any of these books were more or less respectable than the ones my friends try to lend me; in fact they are often guilty pleasures, easily read and enjoyed. But there has to be something – good writing, a quirky plot twist, a fascinating conceit – to reel me in. Nick Hornby’s Slam is novel for young adults, but his writing and his characterisation is so good that it doesn’t matter who he’s writing for, I’ll still enjoy it. He may as well be writing for me.
Likewise, Douglas Coupland. I went off him a bit after gorging on his bleak 90s worldview, but recently his latest book The Gum Thief just seemed to call to me from the new releases table at Gleebooks. I read it in a couple of days and loved every word. I then, as is my habit, found a few reviews online and was disappointed by their sniffy tone; to me, the book was simple but beautifully done. It wasn’t pretending to be high art. But it worked. So I decided to ignore those reviews.
Sometimes, books need time to percolate for me. Something I know I will really enjoy, but I’m just not ready to read – these ones can sit atop the piano for years (I move them every so often to dust…but not that often). I can’t remember when I borrowed American Gods from Brett, it was that long ago. But when it was finally time to open the cover and give myself up to the book, I knew the wait was worth it.