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6 January, 2007

Well, read

It's not something I've overtly considered, but, avoiding false modesty, I've always had a subliminal sense of being reasonably well-read.  However, I'm beginning to question whether that necessarily means widely-read.

My mother gave me a meta-book for my birthday: '1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die'. I think it was intended as reinforcement, and she expected me to flick though and (metaphorically) tick off the dozens I'd read. Not the case – I've read a tiny minority of those I'm 'supposed' to have experienced.

Similarly, Tim published another meme questionnaire a few weeks ago which involved identifying those sci-fi/fantasy novels one has read from a 'top 50' list. It wasn't really worth my completing it in detail, as I've only read twelve. That may be a special case, as I don't really like the 'fantasy' genre and only the hard-tech, near-real-world type of sci-fi which features realistic people interacting with a realistic environment in a credible way – as I've said, interstellar travel and aliens aren't my thing.

Don't misunderstand; I do read a lot of books, but not so wide a range as might be expected. Once I've found an author I like, I tend to read everything he/she has written, rather than reading one book by each of numerous authors. Seven of my favourite authors probably account for over 100 novels of my personal bibliography. One could summarise by saying I'm an intensive reader rather than extensive, though less charitably, that could be rephrased as saying I'm conservative in my tastes and a little unadventurous.

That wouldn't be entirely fair, but I can't deny a certain reluctance to invest time in the totally unknown or try something simply because the masses or intelligentsia rate it. I've been 'burned' a few times, having read books I really haven't enjoyed, and somehow resented the lost time. I don't only mean trashy mass-market or genre stuff; the attraction of certain 'acknowledged classics' has eluded me, too.
For example, I've always found the prose styles of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen insufferable (sorry, A.), irrespective of their characterisation and plotting. I don't disrespect their work, of course – that'd be perverse – I simply don't derive pleasure from it. It's a fine balance, but sometimes the authorial voice interposes a little too much and dilutes the conveyance of a book's ideas. It's the classic issue of 'show, don't tell'; I want to be presented with a situation and either interpret it myself or empathise with the characters. I suspect my ideal book would be rather stark...

As I've also mentioned before, I favour online retailers over high street bookshops (chains more than independents, but the general point holds), so I'm disinclined to browse and buy on the strength of a cover image or back-cover text (actually, I very rarely read the latter until after I've read the book, as I don't want a summary to define preconceptions). Hence, I suppose I have limited exposure to new material, requiring reviews, recommendations, or references in articles by/about authors I already recognise. It's a problem.

So; do I plan to do anything about it? No. For the past couple of years I've been making a deliberate effort to catch up on acknowledged 'must-see' films (as defined by the IMDb top 250), but at least at the time of writing, I don't feel an inclination to do the same with books. It may be a matter of time investment, but more fundamentally, I enjoy reading too much, and I couldn't imagine artificially treating it as a chore.


I have a 100-page rule: if I'm not enjoying by then, it gets abandoned. Life's too short.

I read all sorts of out of the way stuff along with some classics. As you say, although there is an intellectuial pleasure to be had from reading, there's got to be something purely enjoyable first.

Posted by looby at January 7, 2007 02:29 PM
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