When the year turned, I was reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, something I’ve been intending to read for years, but was jogged into by Sam Byers recommending John E Woods’ translation for Everyman’s Library. I’m currently about halfway through its 800-odd pages, but it sits neglected on my bedside cabinet because of other reading commitments.
A rush of reviewing work at the beginning of the year (a good time for new fiction in the literary calendar) brought me Roberto Bolaño’s posthumous The Woes of the True Policeman, Nicholas Royle’s First Novel and Niall Griffiths’ A Great Big Shining Star. I don’t want to pre-empt my reviews, except to say that anyone who read and loved either of Bolaño’s ‘big’ novels and has been discouraged or disoriented by the flood of slighter pieces from his backlist and bottom drawer work should definitely give this one a look. And that the good things you’ve been hearing about the Royle are justified. And that the Griffiths, while familiar in its style from his previous novels (a good thing), takes an interesting turn in its subject matter.
But, in the manner of this blog, I’m interested not so much in what I can say about those particular books as in how they arrange themselves in my wider reading. Thomas Chadwick wrote a piece for Litro recently in which he took exception to the demands of the publishing/marketing/reviewing machine that insists on an immediate response to new books. As a result, he said, i) the critical responses are rushed and so unconsidered and ii) don’t take account of the longer-term effects that books have on the reader, as they slowly sink to the deeper levels of the consciousness.
I couldn’t agree more, while also accepting that a certain level of cultural hoo-ha is essential to the continuation of the publishing industry in its current form, however doomed and knackered that may be. What would happen if we abolished literary prizes, and the whole hardback/paperback two-step publication process, and just brought out books and let them find their readerships – and their critics – according to the timescales and schedules of those parties, rather than the imperatives of the publishers and the media?
Well (and I sense a digression coming: I do intend to come back to Thomas Mann in a minute) quite apart from the damage it would do to the already shaky economic model, my first thought is that it would be psychologically disastrous for authors. Working on the maxim that no writer can ever be truly satisfied with what they’ve produced, it must be a blessed relief to send off a book to your editor and finally have done with it, no matter that the little boat you’re setting down to voyage bravely over the waves is, you suspect, inherently unseaworthy and likely to go down with all hands. Continue reading
About a year ago I began writing a monthly post on this blog responding to the books that I had read over the last month – not reviews so much, nothing so considered; more a summation of what had stuck with me from those books. It’s not that I don’t like book reviews – people pay me to do those – but that I wanted to move beyond the balanced, culturally-engaged appraisal they call for to see if there was more to get out of writing about books once the books had been finished, put down, half-forgotten, and allowed to relax into the seething primordial swamp of read books, their sentences lost among the millions of other sentences read, processed, filed, erased. (It’s no surprise that I count among my favourite critical books Nicholson Baker’s U&I and Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage.)
I kept it up for all of 2012, not always posting on time – but then not all of the books were timely books – and letting myself slip only for December. And, indeed, what I found as the year went by is that single issues, single books, tended to dominate the posts. Some months had photographs of big piles of books at the top (nine, ten, eleven books), some three, or even two. Sometimes those books were big books, and so took up lots of reading time (January 2013 I’ve been reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, which doesn’t leave much head space for anything else) but sometimes I had read other books but didn’t much feel like writing about them.
Then there’s the question of how you actually define reading. For a book to be read, must it be completed? Properly engaged with? Where do you draw the limits? If I’ve ‘been reading’ The Magic Mountain does that mean I’ve not ‘been reading’ anything else? No. Also by my bed is Bettany Hughes’ The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life, which I’ve been dipping into after a discussion of philosophy books with my good friend Neil and his son Harrison, who’s just starting to study the subject at school. As part of that discussion I took down from the shelf my favourite philosophical anthology Porcupines – that got read, too, a bit.
Last Saturday, while supposedly watching Borgen on television with my wife, I found myself dipping into another of my favourite ‘dipping into’ books, Clive James’s book of essays Cultural Amnesia; I read two or three entries, including his spirited takedown of Walter Benjamin Continue reading