Man Booker winner: must-read item?

I’m a fan of the Booker Prize. It tends toward my personal taste and I have read and enjoyed many past winners, not to mention runners up. With my TBR pile teetering as high as it is I’m unlikely to rush out and buy this year’s winner, The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobsen, but I will probably read it eventually.

All of which has got me thinking about book-buying habits. Would you buy a book just because it won a particular prize – e.g. the Orange Prize or the Hugo Award? Do you tend to buy books on a whim, maybe based on a combination of title, cover and synopsis? Do you only ever follow recommendations or stick to known authors? Do you possibly even read book reviews with the actual purpose of finding out about books you might like?

Personally I do all of the above, hence my TBR. None of them is guaranteed to lead to a great reading experience. My favourite books have come from all sorts of sources but I have also had recommendations, prizewinners and promising bookshop finds turn out to be a bit rubbish. Or at least, not to my taste.

Celebrate your freedom to read

This week is Banned Books Week in US and UK libraries, with the aim of raising awareness of the freedom to read, hopefully with an added bonus of getting people talking about censorship and its ramifications. I don’t know how big an event it is outside of getting book bloggers excited. There’s nothing on my local library’s website about it. But even if it’s just a series of articles in the Guardian, I hope that it does get this issue talked about.

I have certainly seen plenty of mentions on Twitter, and books blogs For Books’ Sake and Books on the Nightstand have some interesting things to say. For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts.

These days censorship mostly seems to centre (at least in the UK and US, to my knowledge) around children’s books, or books that are deemed as being aimed at children. There’s a whole range of objections that stem from the viewpoint that parents know best – and not just for their own children but for all children. I understand a parent who knows their own child worrying that a particular book may be wrong for their child at that time and gently suggesting that they wait a year or three, but to insist that any book is banned from a school or public library is denying other children the opportunity to read a book, often classics. It is making the arrogant assumption that you know better than other people. And what does it achieve?

I believe in reading as wide a range of books as possible, especially as a child. In a privileged sheltered life reading is your greatest opportunity to learn more about the world, how other people think and live. While I would prefer that children not have to see a dead body until they’re grown up, I do think they should learn about death and reading is a good way of doing that. I also don’t see any point in hiding them from knowledge of war, prejudice, disability, disfigurement because they will find out that those things exist and wouldn’t it be nice if they were able to come to terms with that in the safety and comfort of their own bedroom? I definitely think children should learn about the normalities of life that aren’t talked about much with the young like what puberty is really like, relationships, sex, masturbation, religion, class/money, and books are the best way to learn about things like that.

I think children are often underestimated, that they understand and can cope with far more than adults give them credit for. I also think it’s important to expose children to lots of different concepts and viewpoints to prevent prejudices growing from not knowing anyone who’s black/gay/Mormon/whatever or indeed from believing playground talk, where “gay” and “spaz” are often accepted pejoratives. And if that child does think they might have different religious beliefs from their parents or want to stop eating meat (or start!) or stop wearing skirts even though they’re a girl won’t that be easier to talk about in the real world if they’ve encountered it in a few books and seen how it can work out?

Yes, there are some people who will write books that to most other people are hate-inciting, prejudiced, dangerous even. But the problem with any level of censorship is that someone, with their own personal set of morals, gets to choose what is and isn’t acceptable and to me that is a far more dangerous position. If I can read a story with an anti-Semitic narrator I can decide for myself that I don’t agree with their views but also learn a little about why they think that way, what exactly it is they believe and, being widely read, I will probably figure out that their hate is based on lies/misinformation/assumptions made with no basis. By not letting that person speak all we have is a hatred that no-one understands and therefore no-one talks about. And by letting someone choose what is and isn’t acceptable we risk letting books about important issues be banned because that person is in the small minority who don’t want children to hear the word sex before they turn 21. But that’s a whole different matter…

I have rambled on a bit, haven’t I? But this is important. Read everything! Let children read everything! And then teach them that the written word is not always the truth, even if it sounds like a fact. If they haven’t already figured that out from reading so much.

Never lend a book?

When you’re a bibliophile, lending books can be problematic. They may come back damaged or dirty or not come back at all. The borrower may declare that they hate the book that you only loaned because you thought they’d love it. Many people choose not to ever lend books, instead only giving them away or keeping them.

For me, there is nothing worse than leaving books neglected and unread. I have a lot of books and, though I try my best to only keep the ones I think I will want to read again and/or that I want to pass on to my children, most of them will spend decades sat on a shelf. So I do lend books, even though some of them have never come back to me (I currently have two-thirds of the His Dark Materials trilogy…if anyone has my copy of The Subtle Knife I would greatly appreciate it back!), because I want them to be read again and again. I love that my copy of Lord of the Rings has become separated from its cover and is bent in several directions because it’s been read so many times, by various people. (I should say, though – if you lend me a book I will endeavour not to leave it in that state, or one approaching it. Really.)

I’m not precious about the state of my books – if it makes it easier to read it I will break the spine and I often carry them around in my handbag (but don’t worry – I remind myself to be careful with other people’s). So a little bit of damage to a book of mine that I’ve loaned out isn’t going to bother me. But something that seems to bother other booklovers that I really don’t mind is when others don’t like the books I have loaned them, or vice versa.

I don’t expect to like all the same books as my friends. There are so many books out there that it would be odd if we did. And I’m a critical reader; I rarely rave unreservedly about a book. I enjoy discussing books with people but if that conversation just went “I loved it!” “Me too!” wouldn’t that be dull?

What about you? Do you have any strong feelings about lending books?

Eyes bigger than my capacity to read

In a shameless copy of a brilliant idea by Novel Insights, I have painstakingly listed all of the books that I own but have not yet read – my TBR list. There’s quite a lot of them because I am very naughty about buying more books than I read, but it’s a useful exercise to have undertaken so thank you Novel Insights for the idea.

The 137 (!) books on my list would probably take me about two years to read and I am clearly not going to stop buying books for two years, but I will at least try to buy them at a slower rate and also to read at a faster one. Most of them were bought by me, but some were given to me, some acquired when I was the intern who got first dibs on the unwanted review copies at a certain magazine, some passed on to me by friends or family, some I have been hanging on to for so long I couldn’t say where they come from.

It struck me that this would make an interesting permanent feature, so I’m going to try to keep it up to date. Even if I don’t remember to update it constantly, it’s been a useful exercise for showing up my book-buying habits and if I compare it to what I’ve read over the last four months, I suspect the two won’t quite match up. Is that always the case or am I particularly overambitious?

This won’t include every book that I review because I do get loans from friends and I may even go to a library again one day. Maybe. Clearly, I have no pressing need. This may even result in a clearout of some of those books that I have tried and failed to read, nevertheless hanging on to them for years in the belief that I will read them one day – unless anyone enthusiastically recommends any of them to me, spurring me to try again.

I notice that I have a bad habit of buying several books by the same author after reading one of their books and then not getting round to that pile (case in point: Salman Rushdie). I should stop doing that.

I am reminded that I still need to get hold of Balthazar by Lawrence Durrell so I can read the full Alexandria Quartet, rather than 3/4 of it. I’ve been trying to find it in the same lovely old Faber edition that I have the others in. I also notice a few books from my degree course here, which I should probably have read about eight years ago. Oops.

Now I need to stop listing and get back to reading!

On being a book lover

I love to read. I mean, I really love to read. I was that child whose parents had to wrestle the book from my hands at the dinner table to get me to eat, who had to seriously weigh up severe car travel sickness against the awful idea of a (sick-free) journey without reading, who read almost every book at the local library so was greatly relieved when they largely restocked in my early teens, who in a recent house move packaged up my most beloved books more carefully than the crystal wine glasses. In my defence I know that Debenhams still sells those glasses.

The point is that I write about books because I love them. I love the look, feel and smell of them, old and new. I love the shape of words on a page. I love the language of books: folio, typography, endpapers, head and tail bands.

But mostly I love to read. As a grown-up I read a lot less than that book-obsessed child I once was, because reading has to fit around work and housekeeping and socialising and all the rest of it, but reading is still a great pleasure, a guaranteed escape to a good place (no matter what the book is about).

My favourite books is an ever-changing list, partly because there are so many great books out there. But my favourite ever grown-up book is probably Sophie’s Choice by William Styron.

My favourite books as a child were much more clearcut. They were:

  • The Ghosts of Motley Hall by Richard Carpenter
  • Alpaca by Rosemary Billam
  • Carbonel by Barbara Sleigh
  • The Wickedest Witch in the World by Beverley Nichols
  • The Jolly Postman by Janet and Allen Ahlberg

Plus I also devoured everything by Roald Dahl, Colin Dann, Brian Jacques, Noel Streatfield and Frances Hodgson Burnett over and over again. Which is probably a more sophisticated list than the five I’ve picked out above, but taste is taste and they were my absolute favourites.

It’s personal, it’s about you the reader as much as anything else, it can be hard to put a finger on. I rate enjoyment of a book separately from quality of writing or storyline or characters because sometimes an author does everything well but I still don’t enjoy the book. And vice versa.

So, without further ado, my first Nose in a book review is here.