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Reading habits

I’m an avid reader and am also fascinated by other people’s reading habits. For the last fifteen years I’ve recorded the title and author of every book I’ve finished (unfinished ones don’t count, it’s one of the odd little rules I have) in a dedicated notebook, and enjoy geekily looking through it sometimes to see what books I’ve read and when. Sometimes there are books listed that I have no memory of reading whatsoever! Sometimes seeing a few titles clustered together brings back that time of my life in a sudden rush of vivid memories.
I have a ridiculously long book ‘wishlist’ and love nothing more than daydreaming about which books to read next. I scan book reviews online and in newspapers, jotting down titles that interest me. I’ve noticed my reading habits changing over the years – I’m a better judge of what books I’ll like, but (perhaps rather contradictorily) my reading tastes have also widened. I read more non-fiction than I used to, and also more books in translation. I read a lot of short stories, a good smattering of poetry but almost no drama. And I worry less about ‘keeping up’ with the major British book prizes.
Reading is one of my great loves, but people often assume that because I’m passionate about reading now I must always have been a keen reader. And yes, as a child I was something of a ‘bookworm’ (the phrase still makes me cringe!) and had to have my Enid Blyton books wrenched from my hands at the dinner table. But in my teens and early twenties I lost my way – I couldn’t find the kind of books that had ‘sucked me in’ as a child. Clever friends were devouring the classics – Austen, the Brontës, Trollope, Hardy – but I struggled to get through them. I sometimes re-read my Enid Blytons for fun.
A few years passed and I tried again with some of those ‘must reads’ – and to my surprise I found that if I persevered I gradually came to enjoy some of the books I’d previously struggled with. Now I realise that reading is a skill that you can develop all your life – it’s not simply a case of being able to read or not – rather, it’s like an art itself, and the more you practise, the better you get.
I’m fascinated by the way that there are some books we feel guilty about if we’ve not read them – I’ve never read War and Peace by Tolstoy for example, and it niggles away at me. There are a few books that give you ‘digested reads’ so you can spout off about Proust at dinner parties. But I don’t see the point – I read because I love reading, it’s the experience that matters to me, and the way words and phrases, characters and places, get under my skin.
I’m sure we can all think of a few titles we feel we should have read, but either haven’t got round to or simply couldn’t get on with. Another confession – I’ve never got past page 50 of Madame Bovary. But life’s too short to slog through lots of books you don’t enjoy. As the writer Hari Kunzru put it in a recent interview:
“I used to force myself to finish everything I started, which I think is quite good discipline when you’re young, but once you’ve established your taste, and the penny drops that there are only a certain number of books you’ll get to read before you die, reading bad ones becomes almost nauseating.”
Reading’s not a competitive sport – there are clearly far, far more books than a single person can read in a lifetime. I think of books as a vast ocean that I’m swimming through, finding my own particular treasures along the way.
The American writer Rebecca Solnit points out the importance of reading beyond the present day’s bestseller lists:
“At any point in history there is a great tide of writers of similar tone, they wash in, they wash out, the strange starfish stay behind, and the conches. Check out the bestseller list for April 1935 or August 1978 if you don’t believe me.”
You can read the rest of her interview on the LitHub website, a brilliant resource for readers and writers alike.
I’d love to hear more about the reading habits of other members of the OCA community – any classics you’ve not read that niggle at you, for example, or that you’ve tried and found impenetrable? But also, perhaps more interestingly, who are those writers that you love, but don’t get the attention you think they deserve? One of my favourite writers is Laura Beatty, especially her novel Pollard which explores ideas of ‘home’ through the story of a teenage girl who lives in the woods. Her sentences are exquisite, and for me she knocks spots off many better known writers.
I’m always on the lookout for more books to read, so I welcome your thoughts and suggestions!

Posted by author: Vicky MacKenzie
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15 thoughts on “Reading habits

  • How funny, Vicky – I was just talking to my partner yesterday about those lost years in between children’s and adult books. I went through the same thing until an adored sixth form English teacher gave us a book list of ‘must reads’ and I was determined to work my way through them – and that re-ignited a genuine love of reading. I must look up Laura Beatty!

  • I think those ‘lost years’ must happen to most people. growing up is a challenge in itself and thoughts of career or marriage and/or babies seem to fill a few years. When we have mastered all those, I think that’s the time we return to our love of reading. I joined Goodreads last year and added a few books that I had already read. It’s easy to add books that you ‘want to read’ and it keeps a record of what you have read and that includes others comments and reviews. these are interesting to read to see if others have the same view as you on particular books. I used to feel that I had to read all the classics and, like you, Vicky, struggled with quite a few. I now only read what I want to read and enjoy the experience. I have just finished reading ‘The One in a million Boy’ by Monica Wood and was engrossed from start to finish. Very cleverly done and definitely worth a bit of your time.

  • I wish it had occurred to me as a child to actually ask the librarian for recommendations! When I’d read everything that I thought would interest me in the children’s library I begged an adult ticket at the age of twelve instead of fourteen. Having no idea what to look for I headed for children, and horses. I ended up with books about child abuse by the NSPCC, and very adult novels with horses in the title and no actual horses within! Steep learning curve about life, the universe and everything,,,

    • Hi Liz – you’re right about asking librarians for recommendations, I wish I’d done that when I was younger too! They’re such great sources of information and wisdom, I firmly believe librarians can change lives! It sounds like your adult reading matter had a big impact on you, as you still remember it…

  • Thanks for the book recommendation, Carole!
    Following on from what both you and Barbara say about the ‘lost years’, I wonder if the situation is better today – I certainly hear a lot more about YA fiction now than I did when I was in my teens. It’s such a formative time of life, it would be great too think there are more writers and publishers focusing on this age group now.

  • Vicky, I love your post! I love reading and this year, somehow I’m finding even more pleasure in it. I read every night, before bed (unless I get home late) and at waiting lines… It’s better than going through social media all the time. I read in Spanish and Portuguese as well, so I feel I get to read more of a “variety”… Not sure you like short stories but I do recommend “The 100 Best Brazilian Stories of the Century” from Brazil (not sure if there is a translation yet but the stories are great and you can feel the difference between all the writers. Also, books from Sergio Ramirez (Nicaraguan writer), he has great novels/short stories… The book I think I’ve enjoyed the most so far is “The Little Demon” by Fyodor Sologub. Have you read it? I just couldn’t stop reading it, and I think is the only book from this author. Do you know other books by him? Do you have a blog where you share the books you read? I’d love to find new recommendations to read. Again, thanks for your post. 🙂

    • Hi Ana, so glad you enjoyed my post!
      I’ve not read any of the books/writers you mention, so have been adding them to my wishlist this morning! I LOVE short stories! Unfortunately the Brazilian anthology you mention isn’t in English yet (a good excuse to learn Portuguese??), but I’ve found a couple of other collections of Brazilian short stories that are, which I can get going with. Browsing Amazon, Fyodor Sologub seems to have written some short stories too.
      I don’t have a blog about my reading, but I am in the process of setting up a website for myself, so perhaps I will have a section about reading on that!

  • Thank you for saying these things, especially about the books we feel are worthy because you’re right, they often turn out to be wonderful reads…which is why they’re classics in the first place, I guess. I can remember the things I loved as a teenager. Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes stories and the James Bond novels which I thought were utterly racy.I didn’t discover Tolkien until I was in my late teens, then just couldn’t re-emerge from Middle Earth! And, weirdly, perhaps, Winston Churchill’s History of the English Speaking People,through which I discovered my love of history…I had a very bad history teacher at school…

  • I never managed the transition from the junior library to adult books till I was well into my 20s – and the breakthrough was Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jnr. I read it only a few years after the ban on it was lifted – heaven knows who suggested it, but it worked! In something of a contrast, in recent years I’ve been working my way through Trollope, who I love. Hmm … edgy in their own way.

  • Thanks Nina – it’s fascinating to see what we latch onto in our teenage years! I rummaged around in my parents’ bookshelves, which meant I read Dick Francis and Monica Dickens – I wish I’d discovered Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes then too!
    Thanks for your comment, Jennifer. I love Trollope too! Sometimes people dismiss him as safe and conservative, but to me that proves they’ve not actually read him, or not his best works. The Way We Live Now (published 1875) has a great deal to say about the way we live in 2017 – in terms of politics, money, power, and the media, not to mention the literary world. I’ve not read Last Exit so will add that to my ‘To Read’ list, thank you!

  • Interesting comments. Now can I ask all the people who’ve just suggested so many fascinating books I’ve not read, how far their reading has influenced their writing. I’ve just read two books which are autobiography/creative non-fiction though they feel almost like fiction: East West Street by Philippe Sands and What Language do I dream in by Elena Lappin. And I’ve just come back from a writing retreat at Ty Newydd and been writing the fictional but hopefully historically possible letters of an Irishwoman in India in the 1870s. I happen to know her great great grandson who lives in Sheffield who gave me access to her mother’s letters from Dublin to Lucknow.
    I’m not sure if my reading influences my writing or my writing influences my reading! I suppose they go hand hand.

  • How good to hear of the passion for reading from others. I think as a teenager i was lucky to have a very extensive exposure to Eng. Lit in lyric poetry, 4 Shakespeare plays, sonnets, essays, 4 other plays and 4 novels. This was for O level! I can remember an almost physical pleasure reading some of this. But then I was introduced to Hemingway and especially Scott Fitzgerald. I’ve always rated Tender is the Night more than Gatsby. Now, as a generalisation, I find that ‘post colonial’ writers are exciting in their use of language. Have just read Kai Miller’s The Last Warner Woman. His poetry and Vahni Capildeo’s intense prose poems.
    If i am influenced it might be by those American writers, which have sunk in so that they are an unconscious standard. It helps to hear poetry read. We had about 2 records (78s) at school. One was John Gielgud reading The Journey of the Magi. Much better than TS Elliot!

  • Ah Jane, you’re one of the lucky ones! I was also exposed to a fantastic range of literature at school, including Shakespeare, but I didn’t connect with it, I simply wasn’t ready. That’s all changed now, I’m glad to say, but I had to “learn to read” classic literature in my 20s, I couldn’t do it at 15.
    Thanks for your recommendations – Vahni Capildeo is being mentioned to me all the time, I’m taking it as a sign I really should read her soon! And yes, hearing poetry read is a wonderful experience. Getting poets into schools to read their work is often a great experience for everyone involved.
    Liz, thanks for your comment – I’ve bought East West Street on your recommendation! I agree that what we read and what we write have a mutual influence. Looking forward to hearing more about these fictional historical letters you’re working on, it sounds like a fascinating project.

  • Hi Vicky
    My dad put Lillian Beckwith’s books in my hand to wean me off Enid Blighton! I have to say he chose well. I loved her stories of life on a croft in the Hebrides and keep meaning to see if my local library stocks any – they were written in the 60’s I think – so I can revisit them. I moved on to the Brontes, which I also enjoyed but Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings was my favourite – I read it every summer as a teenager, and beyond. School put me off Great Expectations and it was another 20 years or more before I could read it again and appreciate it, and Dickens.

  • Hi Sue,
    Thanks for your comment. I’ve not read any Lillian Beckwith – yet. Last year I bought The Hills is Lonely, I really should get round to it as it looks like a lot of fun! I think that’s the only one that’s been republished lately but if you read e-books you can get a lot of her work on Kindle.
    Such a shame how school can put people off reading. There are some teachers who can really fire a love for reading, but others who kill it off, and it’s luck of the draw who you get. I’m glad you found your way back to Dickens eventually!

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