It’s dark. It’s raining. January is upon us and the season of reflection, projection and resolve is underway. For voracious readers, this means that the perennial question: what to read next will be nagging at their shoulders more urgently than ever.
This matter doesn’t simply concern the next book, but the next year of books. Set within a twelve-month time frame the question becomes a more existential ask: What kind of reader am I? What kind of reader should I be?
Specifically – Do I read widely enough? Deeply enough? Am I reading the ‘right’ books?
Looking back on my reading last year (the list’s here on Goodreads for anyone interested) it seems that I’m a bit of an ‘I know what I like and I like what I know’ kind of reader. I feel that I could and should, be a little more adventurous. I need to stretch myself, challenge my thinking, poke at my preconceptions.So for 2016 I’ve posed a series of semi-serious questions aimed at helping me to be a better reader. If you like you can apply some of it to yourself.
- Should I be reading books that are more weighty and worthy?
I’m probably not alone in having a lengthy list of books I think I ought to read. These variously float about in my mind, on online ‘Want to read’ lists and in yer actual real-world piles in different locations around the house. In my case a lot of these are classics, which for one reason or another I feel that I really ought to have read by now. These can include Great novels of ideas, keystones of the literary canon, or just bloody big books that have taunted and haunted me for years. I’m looking at you Middlemarch, Don Quixote, A Glastonbury Romance.
- Am I to be allowed so much snack reading?
In my case this usually means something plot driven and easy to burn through, or an old friend – something written by a trusty old stylist, or featuring a much loved character, theme or setting. These books may well be enjoyable and entertaining but, one must ask oneself, Will it present a challenge? Will it stretch my mind or give me anything new? Merrily Watkins, Easy Rawlins, Tyrion Lannister, Frank Bascombe; Messrs Leigh-Fermor, Macfarlane and Raban maybe you should take a break.
- Is this the year to read more widely in non-fiction?
When it comes to non-fiction I don’t tend to stray far from a few core areas. A little travel, some landscape related stuff, Natural History or (whisper it) a bit of New Nature Writing, a smattering of literary biography, the odd music or football book, a bit of history with a folklorish tendency and the occasional volume concerning ghosts or mysterious beasts. And that’s about that.Its 2016 godammit. I should know and read more about science and artists and technologists and the practise of Campanology in Albania. And I will.Oh hang on a minute, isn’t that a new book by some bloke pointing at landscapes in the Welsh Marches, with sites potentially haunted by a legendary folk-singer songwriter footballer? Sorry Tiranian bell experts…
- Do I need to read more works by Women?
Despite believing that I choose books by subject, or style and sometimes by the cover not by the gender of the author, I have a gnawing guilt that too much of what I read is written by men.In my defence I did read and enjoy several books by female authors in 2015, but they did tend to concern English landscapes and lives within them, 1950s Peckham and Green Men in Olde Albion.* (Weathering, Lucy Woods, Bloomsbury/ At Hawthorn Time, Melissa Harrison, Bloomsbury/ The Land of the Green Man, Caroline Larrington, IB Tauris/ The Ballad of Peckham Rye, Muriel Spark, Penguin) *see question 3 above
- I really ought to read more books in translation about places and experiences beyond these shores, oughtn’t I?
Well yes. Small town America and English cultural byways from Bristol record shops to names for British Landscape features were well covered (by British and American writers) in my reading last year. Matters elsewhere, less so.
So that’s my list, perhaps referring to it may help to better structure book choices for the year ahead. As a student back in the pre-Brit Pop 90s I remember quite liking the enforced discipline of reading lists. Being told what to read and read around for the next few months – whilst focused on particular periods, subjects or canons – was something of a comfort blanket – “go away, digest these books and you’ll be fine”.
Now, although I do hanker after a bit of direction once in a while, I can’t help but revel in my relative reading freedom – although I did recently flee from Foyles’ Charing Cross branch, after becoming momentarily panicked by looming shelves on multiple floors.
So while I do aim to think more carefully about my choices, I don’t think I’ll be able to break entirely from a pattern of semi-random grabs at books that take my fancy in shops, books friends recommend, or books that waft into my consciousness via review pages or social media.
And faced with ever growing competition for time from work, small children, gazing out of windows, The Witcher and a new series of Hinterland I think my only firm book resolution for 2016 is to try to read even more of the damn things.