Friday, 27 May 2011

Reading Challenge 1

A couple of years ago I made a new year's resolution to spend the entire year without buying any new books. I can't remember exactly what inspired this: possibly I was feeling poor, possibly I was disillusioned with what the bookshops had to offer. I have to admit that during the year I bought a handful for my bookclub, but I did try to get secondhand ones, and of course I read the new books I bought for the girls, but I don't really think that was cheating, was it?

So instead of being tempted by Waterstone's 3-for-2s or Amazon's startlingly low prices (sure to keep authors in penury), I plundered the attic, rereading favourites and giving rejects a second chance, I picked up things I'd missed the first time round in the library, and I trawled through my mother-in-law's packed shelves.

You already know how I feel about rereading, so clearly that part was hardly challenging (though whether I could only reread for an entire year is another question). As to the rest, that expression 'the cream always rises to the top' springs to mind. I don't think  I'm all that given to such expressions, but funnily enough, I was just using this one this morning to Robert, as Chris Evans interviewed Neil Diamond who had emerged from the graveyeard that is 70s easy listening to prove himself a stayer. The point is that as time passes, the books no-one ever reads disappear off the shelves, both in the library and at home, to make way for new books. The stayers are the ones people still read, and they tend to read them because they're good. Look at the output of many modern popular authors: a book a year, every year, more in some cases, for year after year. They have to; it's how they make their living. But no matter how good they are, they're not all equally good. Now take the equivalent 100 years ago: E Nesbit. She was prolific, writing for both children and adults, but fewer than ten of her books spring immediately to mind (and none of them is for adults). Somewhere along the line, the less popular have gone from the publishers' lists, from library shelves, from collective memory. You may still find them tucked away in secondhand shops, but if you buy them imagining you have an undiscovered treasure, you're likely to be disappointed (as I know).

So, having sung the praises of my experiment, perhaps it doesn't seem like such a challenge. Maybe not, but I can't tell you how thrilled I was to get a good pile of glossy new books for my birthday and for Christmas!

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Rubbish is good!

There are times when only rubbish will do: illness, plane journeys, holidays, just after you've read something weighty. And I like rubbish. It can be deeply satisfying in a way that something you really have to work at is not. Like the difference between eating a plate of delicious food containing all the major food groups or eating a large bar of fruit and nut.You can sit back and let the words flow over you, disregarding clunky dialogue, inconsistencies, unlikeliness and the fact that you're sure the book you read last time you were in this situation had exactly the same story.

For me, quality rubbish, generally means something chunky with a bit of romance in it, possibly a bit of rags-to-riches or misery-to-happiness or just growing up, and most definitely a happy ending. To be honest, I could just re-read The Thornbirds and Lace  every time the need came on.They're all much of a muchness, aren't they? Occasionally something a little different will take my fancy, some fantasy, crime or horror. Last year, I devoured eight Charlaine Harris True Blood books one after another because I'd bought a job lot from the Book People for an unbelievable price. But the sweet-eating analogy springs to mind again: the last one or two didn't seem such a treat, just a bit too much of a good thing.

Sometimes Terry Pratchett seems to fill this rubbish need, but I won't quite allow myself to lump him with the rest of the category. He is clever and witty, but so very insubstantial, and I generally can't remember the beginning of one of his books by the time I'm halfway through it. I suppose I'm willing to separate him from the rest of the indistinguishable heap because his children's books, though very much in the same vein, are staggeringly good.


Sometimes I have to remind myself of my affection for trash when I try to steer children away from Roald Dahl and Jacqueline Wilson and towards Philips Reeve and Pullman. No, I'm not saying that RD and JW are trash, but that children tend to read them from habit because they know they will like what they'll get, rather than challenging themselves to discover something new. It's the same instinct that has me reaching for something fat with a picture of a pair of shoes on the cover or a watercolour of a French farmhouse or a straw hat abandoned on a picnic blanket.

So here's to all those authors who find a winning formula and then write the same book again and again. May they keep providing us with fruit and nut forever!