Tuesday 17 July 2012

just like a paperback novel....

I’m stuck in a book.

Judging from my booklist it looks like I started “Something Happened” by Joseph Heller at some point in March of this year. When I picked it up yesterday, I reckon that I’m something less than 25% of the way through. Progress, clearly, has been slow.  This isn’t the first time this has happened to me, and I’m sure it won’t be the last… like most people I go through phases…. but it’s always frustrating to be stuck like this.

 Sometimes this happens because the book you’re reading simply isn’t very good. The solution to this is easy: put it down and start another book. Life’s too short to read crap books. I learned that the hard way when I slogged my way through the “Da Vinci Code” even after hating it from the very first sentence (“Renowned curator….” What kind of a way is that to start a book?). Sometimes it’s not that the book in question is a bad book per se, it’s just that you’re reading it at the wrong time for you. I can remember hating Dickens when I was forced to read “Our Mutual Friend” at school, but found him to be a delight when I picked him up many years later.  Reading a classic voluntarily, it seems, can make all the difference (although I still don't really care for "Emma").

Mind you, even with Dickens, I had something of a sticky patch with “Great Expectations”. In the end, I enjoyed the book enormously, but I won’t deny that I found it somewhat heavy going reading it relatively soon after finishing David Copperfield, which I loved. With the best will in the world, Pip and David’s stories follow a fairly similar curve, at least in part, and for a while I found it somewhat turgid wading my way through another set of false-starts and wrong-turnings made by a young lad from the country when he first arrived in London and set himself up in a trade.

There’s nothing wrong with “Something Happened”. I’d been warned that the title is somewhat ironic and that, in fact, nothing happens…. But the writing style is engaging and the subject matter is something – the utter futility of corporate life – that I think I might want to have a go at writing about myself (well, if the quality of Heller's writing doesn't make me feel desperately inadequate, anyway). It’s just that, well, I’ve put the book down and haven’t really picked it up in three months.

To be fair, that period does coincide almost exactly with my subscription to the New Yorker, so it’s not as though I haven’t been reading at all (and the pressure of the new edition arriving onto my iPad every Monday without fail is a marvellous incentive to keep reading, even if the quality of the writing itself isn't plenty motivation enough)… it’s just that I want to spend more time reading books.

Inspired by the article about great American novelists I was reading the other day, I actually picked up some more books at the weekend. I thought about downloading them directly onto my Kindle, but it turns out that my hardback copy of Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy was actually about the same price as an electronic copy of one of those books… so I bought the hardback copy. I’ve read “The Road” and “No Country for Old Men”, both of which I very much enjoyed, so I thought I’d read more of his stuff. I also picked up a hardback copy of “A Farewell to Arms” for £2, which seemed like a bargain to me and I'm justing setting out on a Hemingway voyage, having loved "The Sun Also Rises" and with the short stories on my TBR list. I also have a desire to re-read "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "The Catcher in the Rye" and probably some more Steinbeck too.  There’s so little time and so many books.

When I was a teenager, I used to read a lot of science-fiction and fantasy novels… which is fine… but I had a moment of clarity when I was about twenty that I hadn’t read anywhere near as widely as I might have done and felt intellectually and culturally poorer because of it. There’s nothing wrong with reading Terry Pratchett novels or Dragonlance or David Eddings or David Gemmil or Gerorge RR Martin or whoever, but I promised myself then and there that I would read more contemporary literature and Twentieth century classics. I started with “The World According to Garp” by John Irving, who remains one of my favourite authors… but that was just the start and from there I went on to discover Paul Auster, Kurt Vonnegut, Salman Rushdie and other fantastic, inspiring writers like them. I like reading books. For as long as I can remember, I have defined myself as a reader, and I just don’t feel like I’m reading enough. 

Perhaps less time in Skyrim would help…perhaps  not entirely uncoincidentally, I bought that game at around about the same time I started reading "Something Happened".  Hmm.  Well there’s 170 hours or so I could have spent in a good book, eh?

I’ll start tomorrow, maybe.  There's still a few more Draugr I need to deal with first....not to mention the fact that I haven't even started last week's New Yorker yet....time, time, time, see what's become of me.


  1. I was just about to say that men always seem to read books written by men and then I had a think about what I choose to read and it generally tends to be books written by women. Is this because they write about different things or because they write about the same things differently?

    I am trying to read more men and have recently read Cloud Atlas (brilliant), a Martin Amis book which was shit and a Patrick Gale (which doesn't count as he writes like a woman). If you have any desire to up your female author quota I would thoroughly recommend "How to be a Woman" by Caitlin Moran - it's very funny.

    PS I really liked Great Expectations but the BBC do such a good job of serialising them all I don't think I can be bothered reading any more Dickens. Don't judge me.

  2. You've got me thinking now. Female authors. Hmm. Well, Austen is the obvious riposte to that, although I'm a little ambivalent about quite how highly she is praised by some people (although P&P is pretty hard to beat and Mr. bennett is one of the best characters in all of literature). I was also a big fan of Gaskell's "Mary Barton" and I like a bit of George Eliot from time to time. Also really enjoyed "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall" by Anne Bronte. Oh, and JK Rowling, of course..... my literary heroine though is probably Dorothy Parker. Resume is perhaps my favourite ever poem.

    Razors pain you;
    Rivers are damp;
    Acids stain you;
    And drugs cause cramp;
    Guns aren't lawful;
    Nooses give;
    Gas smells awful;
    You might as well live.


    Oh, and Catherine Blyth writes books and is an old schoolfriend of mine, so she's brilliant, obviously.

    And yes, I do like Caitlin Moran.

    Any other female novelists I should be looking out for. No 50 Shades of Grey, please.....

    1. I take it all back - you do read women. I was making a generalisation because a lot of my male friends only read man books. Predictably I love Jane Austen, Mrs Gaskell, George Eliot, Nancy Mitford, the Brontes. In terms of more contemporary female authors I am a big fan of Margaret Atwood, Sarah Waters, Maggie O'Farrell, Kate Atkinson.

      Love the Dorothy Parker poem.

      Haven't succumbed to 50 Shades of Grey...yet.

  3. You're not wrong: I had to think hard about female authors I read. I carelessly listed the books I want to read and they are all by men. My wife got all offended on my behalf, and I do think it's true that I don't consciously take the gender of an author into account.... But in think it's a point worth making. That thing in the guardian I linked to about the great American novel actually discusses exactly this thing: why aren't there more women on the list, then the subsequent comments debate who you would add, and then which of the men you would remove. They did come up with a few, but they had to think pretty hard too. Coincidentally, was reading Ursula le Guin saying the Other day how she had to bill herself by her initials and surname only when she was first published in Playboy!

  4. On, and I've also just realised that I failed to say that Harper Lee is also a woman and the dragonlance books were co-written by Margaret Weiss. I'm on a roll now!

  5. It's a different subject, but actually I've always been struck by how well and how sensitively George RR Martin portrays the strength of the "weaker" characters in his Game of Thrones novels. For a world dominated by physical prowess and where women are pawns in a dynastic game, I think it's telling that his strongest characters are often the weakest: Cersei, Danaerys, Tyrion..... Fantasy is famously not a genre well-stacked with nuanced female characters....

  6. Trudi Canavan, Robin Hobb, Anne McCaffery, Liz Williams and of course Ursula K. LeGuin are a few female writers of sci-fi/fantasy off the top of my head.

  7. We have a shelf of Steinbeck - he's J's favourite author. You're more than welcome to a borrow.