Books About The Pleasures Of Reading
There’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.