A time for shelf analysis: New Year reading resolutions

FullSizeRenderIt’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.

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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…
  1. 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
  1. 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.



15 thoughts on “A time for shelf analysis: New Year reading resolutions

  1. Just seen this one Matt! I sympathize entirely with your thoughts. My piles of books increase much faster than I can read them even though I have been reading a lot lately (as you may have seen on my Goodreads page). I find I read books I happen to come across in the library before I read ones I have at home quite often. Maybe I am fortunate in having a library nearby, and one that still seems to buy books (actually I belong to about 5). I also bought a kindle last year, as it was only £10 in the Oxfam shop. I have found I read different sorts of books on there, especially ‘classics’ – War and Peace just finished – or old publications which are often available free. I am considering a John Cowper Powys though as I have at least 3 by him, only one of which I have read, years ago. I got in the rural mood with Return of the Native, one of the few Hardy’s I did not know the story of. Beginning to think life is too short though so maybe just go with the flow!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Diana

      Glad it struck a chord. I have noted your voracious reading on Goodreads. You’re partly to blame for my recent attempts at fitting more in. You’re certainly to blame for pushing me over the edge and ordering Fife Psy’s collection – From Hill to Sea, which I have just sent off for. However my recent trip to Bookmongers in Brixton to ‘clear some space’ was entirely my own fault. I diligently made up a hefty rucksack of books to get rid of, took them to the bookshop (our local charity shop doesn’t want any at the moment) and ended up exchanging them for other books – though in my defence I brought home less than I took. There’s a great JC Powys quote about second hand bookshops – I’ve posted it on this blog somewhere – in quotes maybe? I’ve recently been ripping through a couple of Kathleen Jamie’s books (more nature/wandering about pointing at things stuff) which I’ve enjoyed very much. Also half way through last year’s booker winner A brief History of 7 killings, which is pretty entertaining if rather hefty. I love Hardy but haven’t read that one – another for the TRL!

      Glad you understand the bibliomania.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Also empathise and have similar angst as my to read list gets longer and I can’t keep up with it. Then I get cross and tell myself to stop being such a puritan about it, reading should be a wonder and a pleasure. I do try and mix-up what I read – eg a classic, then something modern, then something non-fiction. Last year I got bogged down in Little Dorrit which is over 700 pages long. Much as I love Dickens it was a relief when I could turned the final page on that one and could read something lighter. So far this year read three books so I am on a roll compared to last year.

    Anyway – a thought-provoking post although I’m not sure how successful it was since I took from it a tip for a TV series! Only just discovered Hinterland existed via an accidental Google Search so you and Eddie giving it the thumbs-up gives further prompts to give it a try.

    Liked by 1 person

    • My Mum (in her bookseller days) used to wear a T-shirt that said: Buy a book, help stamp out television) I hope you enjoy Hinterland – it’s a kind of Scandinavian police thriller like The Bridge or the Killing, but in Wales – around Aber to be more exact. Some beautiful shots of landscape – urban and rural in there too.

      As for the books, like you its a battle I’ll never win there’s always another book shoving its way into my consciousness – but I try to mix it up in a similar way. Currently reading The Small Heart of Things, by Julian Hoffman – which is a mix of some of my resolutions – technically non-fiction, not set in UK or North America – its filled with beautifully crafted, almost poetic description of the land and people near his home in Greece.


      • Damn you – another book to add to the list. I enjoy Julian’s writing and forgot that one. Currently reading My War Gone By, I Miss It So by Anthony Lloyd. A grim account of the Yugoslavian civil war and why war reporters do what they do and how it affects them. So as a balance also dipping into the enjoyably quirky Gin Lane Gazette: A Profusely Illustrated Compendium of Devilish Scandal and Oddities from the Darkest Recesses of Georgian England. Which is exactly what it is.

        I know it’s probably heresy but I thought The Killing (series 1) was over-long. It was good but not great – maybe the hype over-sold it as it so often can. Not like Fargo TV series – now that hit the excellence mark and good for landscape shots as well.

        Liked by 1 person

        • And curses back – both sound v interesting. If you’re interested in 18th century Britain – Albion’s Fatal Tree is probably right up your alley, or Gin Lane – crime and punishment in Georgian Britain – poachers, wreckers, highway robbery and how the law protected the rich


        • Also just read a book called The Loney, slightly supernatural tale set in bleak, strange coast somewhere in the North West of England. Still not sure quite what to make of it, but might pique your interest.


        • Oh nuts – looks intriguing so another one for the list although one of the few new year resolutions I am bothering with is to read all the books on my shelves I have not read before I buy anymore. There are quite a few. So I am not saying any more or we will continue to trade blows by recommending books to add to each other’s lists but if you want some interesting 18th century recommendations let me know!

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Matt. Enjoyed this and can empathise with your mild angst.

    My reading pile could be more diverse for the same reasons but, hey, at least we’ve got one!

    Also agree about Hinterland – best Welsh language gritty crime drama with a strong sense of place around.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly. I wondered if you liked Hinterland. Or Y Gwill as I nearly put. I think I like it as much for the setting as anything else. Similarly Detectorists – though I kind of like everything about that.


      • Detectorists provokes a warm glow. Slow television is the way forward.

        Meanwhile and in contradistinction, I’ve just rewatched Django Unchained. Tarrantino/Spaghetti Westerns/ 70s Westerns being one of my guilty pleasures. Old Quentin has an eye for landscape himself, Cormac McCarthy-like. There’s a post in there I reckon.

        Liked by 1 person

        • You’re right there. On a rare foray to the cinema I’m going to see The Revenant next week. Though for Weatern landscapes you can’t really beat John Ford – especially The Searchers. As for slow TV did you see the BBC reindeer journey at Christmas? Great stuff.


        • The landscape of the West – plenty of rich material there, in film alone. I remember watching Ford’s The Searchers as part of a course on American film as part of my degree – one of the things highlighted was the constant framing of Ethan (the John Wayne character) in doorways, as a way of illustrating the tension between home (civilisation) and outdoors (the wild), which I found fascinating. There was a school of thought in American writing that divided on similar lines with ‘Redskin’ writers – concerned with the outdoors, the wild, emotion, rebellion and the ‘New’ world of the West – typified by Whitman vs ‘Paleface’ writers, interested in the home, indoors, civility, society, Europe, the ‘Old’ World in the East. I used to spend a lot of time idly dividing various writers into the two camps. http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/08/20/paleface-v-redskin/?_r=0


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