So many books, so little time

Reading a good book can be such a satisfying experience in so many ways. It offers physical rest, escapism, food for the imagination; it raises questions to consider and issues to mull over afterwards. I read an eclectic mix of genres, generally eschewing the most popular best sellers. I like my books to be meaty or amusing and not too predictable. I do not need to like the characters, but I do like to be able to empathise with the situations they experience. I wish to immerse myself in their world; sometimes I do not wish to leave.

I have loved books from as far back as I can remember. As a child I would spend many hours enjoying the worlds created by Enid Btlyton, Francis Hodgson Burnett, Laura Ingalls Wilder, C.S. Forester, Arthur Conan Doyle and J.R.R. Tolkien. As a teenager I was made to study the classics at school, an experience which put me off these wonderful books until I was well into my twenties. I then I gave Jane Austin, Thomas Hardy, George Eliot and the Bronte sisters another chance and found that, when I could read the books purely for pleasure, I enjoyed them very much. I still dislike Dickens and find Shakespeare only works for me when played rather than read. As a lover of literature this shameful admission makes me wonder if I am lacking in some intellectual ability. Sorry guys, but Shakespeare just doesn’t do it for me.

In my late teens I discovered the bookshelves in local charity shops and went through a phase of reading cheap, romantic novels. I would buy them for next to nothing, read them like comics and leave them wherever I happened to be for someone else to find and, hopefully, enjoy. On a back packing trip around the Greek islands I filled the bottom of my rucksack with a dozen or more of these tacky tales and abandoned those completed in the Gideon Bible drawer of whatever accommodation I happened to be in. They seemed appropriate, sunny holiday reading at the time. After the pressure of exams, they allowed me to switch off.

I have always been influenced by the books being read by my friends. I moved from my romantic trash period to reading Jeffrey Archer, Ellis Peters, Ben Elton and Douglas Adams; only the latter has stood the test of time. I still seek out recommendations but have learnt to listen most carefully to those who know my tastes and are therefore likely to recommend a book that I will consider worth reading. Whilst I do not wish to limit my choices unnecessarily and thereby miss the next book that I will adore, there are too many popular, formulaic, easy reads out there that I have no wish to spend my valuable time on.

I do try to find new, contemporary authors to read and have very much enjoyed books by Sebastian Faulks, Maragaret Atwood, Iain Banks. Lionel Shriver,  Kazuo Ishiguro and Haruki Murakami. My shelves are overflowing with other books, some of which I have rated highly but represent my only experience of that author. There are so many good books out there and so little time to enjoy them.

Of course, there are also the many books that I have read and been disappointed with. Some have been almost good, others easy reads but weak. If I truly dislike a book then it is consigned to the charity shop as I never seem to have adequate space on my shelves for all the books I buy. I have also lost more books than I can count because I have leant them out to friends. There is joy in sharing a good book even if this does risk never seeing it again. I like the feel of a physical book in my hands and have no wish to move to an electronic reader.

I am fortunate in having a few friends who are writers. Their quick wit and erudite conversation makes me want to bask in their company; my mental abilities are sloth like compared to theirs. I am always interested to read their work but find it hard to then give an unbiased critique. There are so many preconceptions to get through; it can be difficult to read the story for what it is.

In many ways the same is true of any reading experience. When I pick up a new book by an author I have not tried before, I judge only the contents of the pages I am reading. If I have read and enjoyed another book by that author then I cannot help but compare them. From time to time I will read up on authors that I admire and I then find that I am adding that knowledge to my judgement of their books. An extreme example of author bias spoiling my potential enjoyment of a book would be ‘A Million Little Pieces’ by James Frey. This was written as a work of fictional but was marketed as a memoir (a genre I dislike). Many authors base their first book on their own experiences and, if James Frey had sold this as originally intended, then it may well have been considered an insightful if ultimately unrealistic exploration of the mind of an addict. By trying to pass it off as truth both he and his book were discredited.

As a lover of books I am always interested to find out the types of books enjoyed by my friends and acquaintances. Although I believe that the books we enjoy give an insight into our character, I am wary of any attempt to prove any sort of  intellectual superiority. If we did not enjoy different books then the variety available would not be published and we would all be the losers.

Who is to judge what makes a book good? It is my view that a good book is one that may be read and enjoyed. Whether it educates, stimulates, amuses or merely entertains it serves a purpose. If it is beautifully written, atmospheric, evokes emotion, admiration or empathy then all the better, but if an author can write a book that others wish to read then they have succeeded, whatever the highbrow literary world may make of their work. In these days of competition, profit and self publication it is harder than ever for an author to get their work under the radar of the reading public. I will not judge those who succeed any more harshly just because I, personally, do not choose to read their work.

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