Books About The Pleasures Of Reading

Reading & Writing


UnknownThere’s a whole subcategory about reading that can teach you a lot about the pleasures of books. Lists of books that you must read before you die, books that will change your life, books about bluffing your way around the fact that there are certain books you haven’t read – books for book lovers. Here are a few.

Perhaps you have to be born with the desire to consume books, and perhaps a percentage of the population had it and will always have it, no matter how many times we’re told that a/ libraries are dying b/ bookshops are failing and c/ nobody has time to read. You can make time to read easily enough, by first cutting the amount of TV you watch in half, or by avoiding noise and other people for a for minutes of calm each day.

The act of reading is a solitary experience, no matter how others dress it up. We can share thoughts on Goodreads or Twitter of Facebook, in book clubs and through websites like Bookcrossing (remember that? I used it until it started to remind me of chain-letters) but when you actually do, you know, the reading bit, you have to sit quietly alone. Which for me means screening out London’s increasingly violent and hostile soundscape of pointlessly stupid announcements (‘This train is held up for a minute. We will be moving again in about a minute’), traffic (sirens all night? Is that really necessary?) and the empty chatter of people who are amazed that they’ve actually managed to make a baby that can walk around a restaurant unaided.

I’m not a parent. I didn’t give up my personal development in order to procreate, and I find reading as necessary as breathing. Which is why books about reading sometimes help. Dubravka Ugresic’s ‘Thank You For Not Reading’ is a collection of acerbic essays in which Ugresic dissects the nature of the contemporary book industry, which she argues is so infected with the need to create and promote literature that will appeal to the masses — literally to everyone — that if Thomas Mann were writing nowadays, his books wouldn’t even be published in the U.S. because they’re not sexy enough. But it’s very funny.

John Sutherland’s books about books are a great trawl through the back-alleys and gunnels of literature. ‘Curiosities of Literature’ is a book-lover’s anthology, from quotes – ‘I love being a writer, what I can’t stand ins the paperwork’ – Peter De Vries – to articles on stimulants writers us, Thackeray’s handwriting being so neat and small that he could write the Lord’s Prayer on the back of a stamp and the truth behind writers’ deathbed utterances. (I just tried the Lord’s Prayer thing – I got us to ‘green pastures’.)

My favourite book of Sutherland’s is ‘The Literary Detective’, in which he investigates 100 puzzles in classic fiction, like what on earth is little Jo actually sweeping in ‘Bleak House and why is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein yellow? This book series is now available in a single volume.

Sutherland has made a career out of this sort of thing, and is very good at it. His ‘How to be Well Read: A Guide to 500 Great Novels’ is a crib sheet to the classics, but ’50Literature Ideas You Really Need to Know’ is very useful if you’re not sure what, say a roman a clef actually is.

Jim Shepard is a frustrating, strange, brilliant American writer whose own novels and superb short stories are unknown in the UK, which is frankly a disgrace. With Ron Hansen he edited a superb anthology, ‘You’ve Got To Read This’, in which contemporary American writers introduce the stories that ‘held them in awe’, as the cover says.

None of the choices are obvious and a few are downright perverse, with very few mainstream selections, most choosing other literary US writers we may not have heard of over here (I certainly hadn’t). Not the most accessible book, then, but some wonderfully surprising stories await.

Of course, graphic novels can convey complex ideas just as easily as novels, although the British are horribly snobbish and old-fashioned about reading them in public, which is a shame because ‘100 Comics You Must Read Before You Die’ by Paul Gravett is a top-notch guide to the key comics you should tackle – many take very serious subjects into the graphic form with considerable success.

All further suggestions on books about books welcome.

14 comments on “Books About The Pleasures Of Reading”

  1. steve says:

    Hiya Chris, typo there, you mean Paul not Phil Gravett. He’s a very articulate promoter of comics in general, have you had a chance to get to see the exhibition at the British Library that he’s involved in?

  2. Alan Morgan says:

    ‘I didn’t give up my personal development in order to procreate’ is an interesting statement. Might I perhaps trouble you to expand upon that one, Chris? 🙂

  3. admin says:

    ‘The sum total of human thought ends with the cry of a baby’ – can’t remember who said that. I was kinda being naughty. You have to watch me sometimes.

  4. Hi,
    Books about Books: Stephen kings “Danse Macabre” book had a very good section on books committed to the horror genre, films etc. You’ve more than likely read it, if not you should.
    Kind regards,

  5. agatha hamilton says:

    Cyril Connelly in ‘Enemies of Promise’ would have agreed with you: ‘There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.’
    But the Lord’s Prayer and ‘green pastures’? That’s Psalm 23, isn’t it?

  6. agatha hamilton says:

    Motes and beams – I misspelt Connolly.

  7. admin says:

    Can I just say I love the people in these comments!

  8. Helen Martin says:

    Whoever made the comment about the pram was right on. The disturbed sleep, the need to supply the creature with food and a lot of other things, the difficulty of finding a place to live that permits children, the stultifying conversation, the short temper of the partner, no not much to feed the muse there. Still, Bach managed it, so did Dickens (more than a little weirdly) and I’m sure others as well. Just a little naughty, Chris.

  9. Alan Morgan says:

    Also, there’s definitely a proportion of parents who get to read more because you can’t actually go out and have fun. Sure there are those that watch more tele, but they watched tele anyway. So really those that read, read more. Those that watched tele, watch tele more. Then sometimes you put the tele on for the sprouts and go and read even more again. Then later throw books at kids who even being to say, ‘But I’m bore…’ the ‘d’ is squashed by the sound of a Garner, a Dahl, or at need a Beresford, striking small plum on noggin.

  10. Alan Morgan says:

    Oh, and parents use libraries. A lot. And so then the circle of readership remains whole as the kids gravitate up the shelves. 🙂

  11. Vivienne says:

    Used to feed my offspring whilst reading Dickens. Tears would fall on their heads!

  12. Brian says:

    A small literary correction. It was the creature who was yellow, not Frankenstein. Always surprises me that so many people confuse the two. Perhaps people think that Frankenstein was a monster in moral terms for creating the creature thus leading to this confusion?

  13. Keith says:

    In Waterstones, Amsterdam, there is a rack of books in all genres by authors from 50 different countries. A nice idea I thought. You can read yourself around the world.

  14. Normandy Helmer says:

    On the broad off-ramp subject, I am the mother of two and their appearance most certainly made reading difficult for several years. But, to their credit, they are delightful people that Admin would enjoy, and they mostly always have been. Two other great assets they provide: I got to revel in the really extraordinarily GOOD books being published for kids, and they are willing to tote boxes of books around for me. Sadly one now seldom reads (but listens to radio & podcasts) but does think, and the other gets her books in audio.

    If you are forced to spend time with small children, you might try reading aloud to them and 1. Doing voices for the characters–Peter Lorre is excellent for little girl voices and 2. Turning the page in between paragraphs and seeing how long it takes for them to catch on. Oh, the charm of those befuddled but increasingly suspicious little faces!

    Back to the experience of reading, a splendid topic. I do feel suspicious of people who don’t read as they must have no intellect, intelligence, or ability to exist, even momentarily, in solitude. And their priorities suck.

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