My Book Life

I’m not usually one for New Year resolutions, but this year I made one that I told nobody about in case I spectactularly failed; my resolution was to have read, by the end of the year, an average of one book per week. So far, 30 weeks into the year, I’ve read 24, so, while I have a little catching up to do, I’m confident now that it’s an achieveable goal.

I’m doing this because I realised last year how little I was reading compared to how much I used to read in my pre-university days. I used to read more, much more, and had amassed a collection of several hundred books that I was quite proud of, until I returned to them a few months ago and discovered that the bulk of the collection was average-quality science fiction and fantasy — the book collection of a 14-year old nerd, basically, and lacking somewhat in any significant read-again or monetary value. Having carted them all around with me (or with my parents) for several years, I eventually culled them — I kept about 30 or so and donated the chaff to charity, or ‘Clarie’ as she is also sometimes known.

I’m trying to read more because it helps get me away from reading endless articles on the internet by amateur pundits just like myself, staring at the screen and burning my retinas on line after line of light grey, 10px Verdana. I’m trying to read more because doing so helps me to become a better writer, and because there’s a much wider variety of high-quality writing in the world of print than there is online. I’m trying to read more because it’s an incredibly enjoyable way of soaking up the hours in a day, and I’d forgotten how nice it is to lose yourself in a book without an instant messenger popping up or your feed reader pinging away.

Of the 24 so far read, I don’t think there’s been a single disappointment. I’ve begun to explore authors whose work you’ve heard of but never read — Brighton Rock, Down and Out in Paris and London, Lolita — and discovered Italian and Cuban writers — If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, Dirty Havana Trilogy. I’ve learnt about Buddhism and David Bowie, about Blade Runner and Chip Kidd, and am basically having a lovely time.

It helps, I think, that reading is an essentially anti-social activity as well, because I do very well at anti-social activities. I’ve noticed though that people seem more likely to talk to you when you’re face-down in a book and then get offended when you don’t respond to them, which is odd. People are often deeply interested in what you’re reading, leading to conversations like:

“What are you reading?”
Redemption Ark by Alastair Reynolds.”
“What’s it about?”

That question leaves you with two possible routes: one is to try and describe the plot of a 400-page novel that is in itself part of a larger story spread over several other novels, and watch as the other person’s eyes glaze over and they look a bit uncomfortable as the coffee they’ve just made grows steadily cooler, and the other is to try and summarise the entire plot in just one sentence. It’s not easy.

I’m very wary of book groups, which seem to be popping up like mushrooms these days and strike me as being unenjoyable and forced affairs. Everyone I know who is in one seems utterly depressed and exhausted by the experience, slogging their way through endless reams of turgid, sub-Brick Lane prose just because Marjorie from HR thought a particular book was rilly brilliant. It feels a little too much like school for my liking.

It’s another drain on my finances, sadly, and with the added downside that the re-sale value of the average dog-eared paperback is barely worth considering, so read books tend to accumulate around my ankles until I can bag them up and pass them on to someone else. I did try joining a library again, something I’ve not done in years, but I didn’t enjoy the experience — all the books tended to be massive hardbacks with atrophied spines, all laccquered in sticky-back (and often sticky-front) plastic. I do like hardbacks, but I also like being able to carry books around with me in the same bag as my laptop and other accessories. Yes — I may have grown upwards and outwards over the years, but I do still have roughly the same level of strength as that 14-year old nerd, so I have to cut corners where I can.

By Paul Haine, in