Friday, July 1, 2011

Between the covers

Untold wealth

You can’t beat a good book. Well you can, but as far as life’s more gentle pleasures are concerned, there is something very satisfying about losing yourself in a really good book.

And for me, it generally has to be a novel. My favourite reading is fiction, although I do read factual stuff too.  I’m happy to read a biography if the subject is interesting to me, and books on social history are usually welcome, but for relaxation, perhaps something to read by the pool or more likely while tucked up in bed, a good meaty novel is my escape route of choice.

Short stories are OK, but I tend to avoid them nowadays. The problem with the short story is that it’s either badly written, in which case it appears to be a fudge job in which the author apparently started off with an idea and just gave up, or else it is so well written that you enjoy it but feel short changed, as if the author should have kept going and made a ‘proper’ novel out of it.  I can’t off the top of my head think of a single short story which didn’t roll one way or the other, not one which made me think “great story, I’m so glad it ended just when it did”.

Of course, hypocritically, if I ever tried to write something to be published by, you know, an actual publisher in actual book form, I would almost certainly go for the short story, because I’m too bone idle to put the physical and mental effort into writing anything more epic.  And I could guarantee that my short story attempts would fall woefully short of anything worth reading.

So, a novel it is.  I love Dickens, Trollope, Hardy, Austen, Eliot and others of that ilk. It’s partly the way you get a sense of social history from reading them, especially Dickens who gives you a real feeling of what made people laugh, what they ate, how they dressed and so on.  I don’t pretend it’s an entirely accurate portrayal of the 18th and 19th centuries.  This is particularly so if you read someone like Austen who never dips below those of the ‘gentleman’ class when choosing her protagonists, but even so, her observations on social etiquette alone are worth reading.

There is a whole mountain of genres I have no interest in reading. I’ve never enjoyed Sci-Fi for example, and I tend not to ‘travel’ too far.  I don’t know why, but books set outside Europe usually leave me cold, with a few notable exceptions (such as John Le Carré’s ‘The Constant Gardener), so I tend to avoid them.  I’m fully aware that this is a ridiculous prejudice and that I’m probably missing out on a wealth of brain food, but I can’t help it.  And besides, I like to re-read the novels I have enjoyed many times over a period of years.  My wife will ask me why I’m reading ‘Pickwick Papers’ for the umpteenth time, and it’s simply because I like it.  To me it’s only like digging out a record you haven’t heard for a while and having the pleasure of getting to know the songs again.

At least I’ve cured myself of one thing. I was probably well into my 30s before I realised that the world will not end if I don't finish reading something. There was a time when I forced myself to read books I wasn’t enjoying right to the bitter end. Not anymore; why waste time when there are better things to read?  It’s not like I’m going to take an exam or anything.

And that reminds me; in my English A level exam I answered a question on Dickens’ ‘Bleak House’ without having actually read the book. The exam was a disaster; I have no idea what possessed me to do something so arrogant.  About 10 years later I decided to read ‘Bleak House’, just to see what I’d missed out on.  I absolutely adored it. Perhaps we do get a bit wiser as time passes after all.
Mr Pickwick; one of Dickens' earliest - and best - creations.

1 comment:

  1. A Christmas Carol has to be one of the best short stories