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!