Books found and books lost: another year of reading

Two thoughts, or questions, struck me recently as I reflected on the books I’ve read during 2018.

The first was, where do all these books come from? I don’t mean in a literal sense; from a shop or library, but where did I hear about them? I often wonder this about authors in end-of-year-round-ups of best books. Apart from the ones they were sent to review, or asked to comment on by a shared publisher or a friend, how did they hear about, get to know about a particular book? And what impelled them to read it?

This sort of thing rarely seems to come up in those annual newspaper round-ups, which are always more concerned with the more immediately interesting whats and whos of writers’ choices, rather than the whys and wheres of the titles they offer up.

The second thought, more of a realisation, is something that I suspect affects every reader to a degree: just how much you forget about the books you’ve been reading over the course of a year by its end.

Over the last twelve months, not counting stories read aloud to children, individual poems, news, blogs, IMDb profiles of actors in the latest binge-watched TV series, or countless other online articles, I read 37 actual books. A slight majority of these were novels or short story collections. The non-fiction mostly consisted of natural history/nature writing; in particular, books about trees (my two young sons are convinced that aside from The Lord of the Rings, I only ever read books about trees or ghosts – and I’m not sure they’re entirely wrong).

I couldn’t remember even this total unaided, let alone what happened in the books, who they were by and what I thought of them. Thanks though to the Goodreads app I have a neat list, with cover shots as a handy aide-memoire.

From here, for your delectation and delight, I was able to work out more or less what compelled me to read them.

Of the 37 books I read over the past twelve months, 12 were inspired by Twitter, 7 by the brilliant Backlisted Podcast, 5 were given to me – either by my older brother Nick, or offloaded by my parents, 5 I sought out in one way or another, 3 were recommended/passed on to me by my wife Abi, 2 I had to read for a bookshop festival event I chaired and a further 5 were random purchases/acquisitions (Hey completists, don’t worry, there’s a full list at the end of this post).

Inevitably, as an incorrigible book-hound and haunter of second-hand bookshops, I bought a lot more than this – including, in my collector’s coup of the year, a first edition of J A Baker’s The Peregrine for just £4 in a Bristol charity shop! However, of all the books purchased and added to already over-stacked shelves at home, I read but 5.

What strikes me now, looking at the above list, is the increasing role that social media plays in my book choices. I suppose this is really a techy extension of good old word of mouth, although I find it interesting that my two primary online sources of reading inspiration work in quite different ways.

Twitter, in my case at least (similarly to politics and social attitudes), in the main simply reflects back my existing tastes. In some ways it focuses or even narrows them down. I already like Ghost Stories, Folklore, Natural History, Landscape and certain kinds of fiction, so naturally I follow authors, critics, bloggers and others who talk about these things.

This isn’t really a problem, as I have other ways to explore and widen my leisure reading, but it does illustrate – albeit in a single case-study – just how easy it is to become siloed within a timeline. Thanks to Twitter (Robert Macfarlane in particular who lead an online book club) I re-read W G Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn after a twenty-year gap and was pleasantly surprised to find how much I still got from it. Twitter also led me towards two new novels I may not have otherwise read – coincidentally both reflecting on ancient history and its ongoing influence on us now and both including obsessive fathers – one of whom proved to be the nastiest, most brutal, unaware, selfish bastard I encountered in fiction this year, thank you Sarah Moss.

Without exception I enjoyed, one way or another, every book I was led towards by Twitter, however as I mentioned above, this is a fairly self-selecting list, that throws up titles I’m already predisposed to find interesting.

Based solely on my Twitter profile I’d never be tempted to read Ayn Rand, Three Things about Elsie, or Ant Middleton’s First Man In: Leading from the Front (ok, in the case of the latter two titles, I never will. Fortunately, or not, I have actually read some Rand, and was delighted to find that Objectivism does nothing for me. I can also report that I don’t believe Right Wingers, Trump Fans or Brexiteers like to say they’ve read and enjoyed Rand’s work because they were swept along by her scintillating wit or prose style. They do quite possibly fancy themselves as John Galt or Howard Roark and think about this often, especially when in the bath).

So, er, yes, Twitter and books: great for giving you what you already love, not so hot on fostering a free-ranging, eclectic and enquiring approach to reading.

By contrast, the Backlisted podcast does both of the above and does it wonderfully. Of the 7 books I read as a direct result of listening to Backlisted, perhaps there are 3 that I would have somehow come around to by myself.

Other than a welcome push in the direction of those, I have to thank the podcast especially for introducing me to Berg by Ann Quin, which I might well never have heard of or read otherwise. And If not for Backlisted, Adam Thorpe’s Ulverton may have remained quietly in its alphabetical place, lost amongst the other T novelists at home, waiting for me to finally, maybe, one day, get around to reading it. And It’s bloody brilliant. And I left it sitting on the shelves, untouched for years – a slightly creased, faded circa 1992 paperback edition has moved home with me at least four times.  

And now, the forgetting thing, or reader amnesia. As I looked back over the books I read in 2018 I couldn’t help but notice how much, in terms of detail, plot and character I’d forgotten about much of what I’d read. Initially I was a little concerned, these were, after all, books I’d enjoyed on the whole, some of them a great deal. Yet, by the end of December, whole aspects of them were lost to me already. In a couple of instances, there were even corners turned down to mark passages, or lines I’d liked, but now re-reading those pages, I struggled to recall what in particular had made such an impression on a previous Me back in March, or August.

I do actually write down specific quotes that I’d like to remember at times, and sometimes share these on Twitter, along with general feelings about a book or writer (making sure to only @ writers when I’m being positive).
A lot of the other things had gone. I started to worry, thinking what was the point of that? I’m left with 37 books worth of fleeting impressions: a bunch of vague half-memories of bits I liked, characters I thought were well drawn, ghostly saucepans that were unexpectedly terrifying, random snatches of London street slang and technical terms about hedging techniques that no longer had a context.

Then, in the process of writing this, I noted down some of what I remembered, and realised that the details aren’t necessarily the thing, or what’s most important  – unless you’re studying for an exam or writing a review, in which case, make notes – but when reading for pleasure, it’s the feeling or emotions stirred by a book that count for more.

All those impressions, recollections of beautiful style, page-turning, tense plot developments, move you to tears endings, or generally interesting bits of knowledge, all this does hang around, but in a more informal way.

All of it, the good and the bad sinks down and settles somewhere in the reader’s head and heart. Each author leaving an idea, an expression, a moment that adds to the sediment of the mind, building the cultural layers up and up, within a rich, and fertile pool. Perhaps some of what’s left, will never be forgotten entirely and one day, out of nowhere a great line, a sensation, a character’s gesture will be plucked back out, gleaming like an ancient ring, returned to the surface to bring magic and perhaps danger into your imaginary life once more.

Looking forward I aim to get more recommendations from my wife and others with different tastes, accept more gifts from my brother and remember that when it comes to reading ideas, Twitter’s not enough.

Right then, it’s 2019, now where is that Gary Younge article on reading African Women, Kintu sounds great…

Richly Evocative’s 2018 Reading List

Eight Ghosts: The English Heritage Book of New Ghost Stories, Ed Rowan Routh
What led me to it: Twitter
Note free lingering Impressions: A Dover Castle immigrant security guard haunted by his own past. Eltham Palace with ghostly Leopards?

Lost Bristol by Victoria Coules, 2007, Birlinn
What led me to it: A present from my parents.
Note free lingering Impressions: Knights Templars. Bristol, my hometown not being quite what it was. Impressive glass.

A Natural History of the Hedgerow by John Wright, 2016, Profile Books
What led me to it: A present from my parents.
Note free lingering Impressions: There are a hell of a lot of plants living in and around a hedge. I’ll never remember all these terms. Pleaching. Every county in Britain seems to have its own style of hedge.

Wildwood by Roger Deakin: A Journey Through Trees, Hamish Hamilton 2007
What led me to it: Had a copy already. Twitter reminded every so often mentioned on internet, reviews.
Note free lingering Impressions: The wonder of apples. Walnut dashboards.

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, trans Jennifer Wright, 2017 Fitzcarraldo Editions
What led me to it: Deciding that I needed to read more books in translation I found a Guardian Top 10 list of Books in translation.
Note free lingering Impressions: A train in the night. A mother and child lost on an island. A ferry heading out to the open sea. Curiosity.

The Fountain in the Forest by Tony White, Faber & Faber 2018
What led me to it: Backlisted.
Note free lingering Impressions: Streets of central London around Holborn, Lambs Conduit Street. Lost and changing places. Big Noses. French Film Star type girls. Woods. Police brutality. Green Protests. Crosswords. Personal lies.

Winter, by Ali Smith, Hamish Hamilton 2017
What led me to it: I’d read Autumn, wanted to continue.
Note free lingering Impressions: Snark about Nature Writers. A bus load of twitchers descending on a house in the snow and departing soon after…

A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr, Penguin
What led me to it: Backlisted. Had a copy. Never read because of Merchant Ivory style film tie-in cover.
Note free lingering Impressions: It is bloody good. A far away summer, repair and recovery in multiple senses. A landscape like a dragon’s back.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit, Canongate 2017
What led me to it: Had previously read and enjoyed Wanderlust.
Note free lingering Impressions: Blue. Fizzing with ideas, beautifully crafted lines, paragraphs. Buzz. Life-affirming

Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? by Lev Parikian, Unbound 2018
What led me to it: Twitter. I supported it on Unbound. Then Lev approached to do a ‘blog’ tour review.
Note free lingering Impressions: Funny – unusual and refreshing for a ‘Nature’ book, though not exactly, or quite that. A memoir with birds. Moving.

The Devil’s Highway by Gregory Norminton, Fourth Estate 2018
What led me to it: Twitter
Note free lingering Impressions: Past Present and Future intertwined on an ancient road. Roman Britain…warning, danger…teenage girl with an obsessive father. Loss.

Berg by Ann Quin, 2001 Dalkey Archive Press
What led me to it: Backlisted
Note free lingering Impressions: Not what I expected. Modernist, experimental. Funny, odd, bizarre moments of dirty/seedy beauty. Kind of Patrick Hamilton with Laughs….Greb/Berg. Seaside. South Coast. Maybe Brighton.

In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne, 2018 Tinder Press
What led me to it: My wife Abi read and pressed it on to me.
Note free lingering Impressions: Great. Visceral, wise, several POVs, interlinked. Kind of London voices rarely heard, echoes of Samuel Selvon’s Lonely Londoners. Shadows of Grenfell

Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit, Canongate 2005
What led me to it: Reading other Solnit.
Note free lingering Impressions: Resonant now. Though from a decade that seems strangely far from now. Where to find it. What to do.

Tin Man by Sarah Winman, Tinder Press 2017
What led me to it: Abi.
Note free lingering Impressions: Friendship lost/changed. Sad. Oxford Setting. Cruel/Ignorant Father. Cruelty of AIDs. Bicycles.

Hidden Nature: A Voyage of Discovery by Alys Fowler, Hodder & Stoughton 2016
What led me to it: Twitter – liked the cover
Note free lingering Impressions: Birmingham by small boat/canoe – back ways – learning about herself. Sympathy for rats. Secret dark water.

The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald, The Harvill Press, 1998
What led me to it: Twitter, Robert Macfarlane but read first back in 1998.
Note free lingering Impressions: Trains and Old Houses. And Coasts. Meandering narrative. Fallen trees. Empty landscapes. Haunted islands.

Religio Medici & Urne-Buriall by Thomas Browne NYRB Classics 2012
What led me to it: Twitter and read off the back of Sebald.
Note free lingering Impressions: Buried things. Meditation on time. Loss. Sense that some things, essentials don’t change.

Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle Earth by John Garth, HarperCollins 2004
What led me to it: Backlisted.
Note free lingering Impressions: WWI played a big role in informing much of the sentiment and some landscapes of LOR. Loss. Death-haunted, scarred fields. People spitting at civilians not yet gone off to war.

The Horned Man by James Lasdun, Jonathan Cape 2002
What led me to it: A random purchase in Bookmongers Brixton. The cover?Note free lingering Impressions: Unicorns. Monsters. Lies. Deception. New York. Fort Tryon Park. Space on shelves. Austerish.

All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison, Bloomsbury 2018
What led me to it: Twitter – originally but I’d also Read Clay, Rain and At Hawthorn Time.
Note free lingering Impressions: Evocative. 1930s. Creeping nativism. Fascists. Hidden bigotry. Lovely map. Elements of witchcraft, cunning. Dark thread underneath. Heart-rending, finish. Exciting to see a talented writer getting better by the book.

Deep Country: Five Years in the Welsh Hills by Neil Ansell, Penguin 2012
What led me to it: A gift from my brother Nick
Note free lingering Impressions: Deep in snow. Hills. Buzzards. Tracks in woods. At a remove. Hut. Making something new. Isolation of a sort. Postbox on a fence. Watching.

The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall, Faber & Faber 2016
What led me to it: ‘Random’ purchase.
Note free lingering Impressions: Sex. Wolves. Rewilding. North West of England. Strong female character. Cramped island. Escape. Mothers. How had I not heard of her before?

Through the Children’s Gate: A Home in New York by Adam Gopnik, Quercus 2008
What led me to it: A gift from my brother Nick.
Note free lingering Impressions: That there are names for different gates in Central Park. Including the titular one. Whirl of New Yorky things, avenues, bustling. Some stuff about reading Lord of the Rings or getting kids into it. Language. Stories. Place

The Great North Wood by Tim Bird
What led me to it: Abi
Note free lingering Impressions: Charming, magical. Fox. Robbers. Good doctor. Stories from an old wood, blurring into present day. Thamesis.

England’s Dark Dreaming by Paul Watson, The Lazarus Corporation 2018
What led me to it: Twitter.
Note free lingering Impressions: Darkness. Light. Alternative visions of England. Intro essay and forward. Full of interesting ideas, alternative to more rightwing vision nationalistic/simplistic takes. Shadowy figures. Fertility. Rites.

The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius by George Orwell, Penguin 1982
What led me to it: Backlisted
Note free lingering Impressions: Sense of somethings remaining – anti-intellectual tendencies. Alternative possibilities. Stubbornness, strange. Class. Education. Clarity.

The Extra Man by Jonathan Ames, One 2018
What led me to it: Dulwich Books, Festival America.
Note free lingering Impressions: New York. Cross-dressing. Odd couple. Finding self, love. Breaking into social circles, establishing self in a city and sense of self. Possibilities. Older wisdom. Funny. Farcical. Heart.

Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott, 
Hutchinson 2018
What led me to it: Dulwich Books, Festival America.
Note free lingering Impressions: Chorus. We narration. Plural. Lies. Twisting. Betrayal. Black and White. Hotels. Swirling social scene. Writers decline. Fame v Talent. Money. He knew her?

Ulverton by Adam Thorpe, Minerva 1993
What led me to it: Backlisted
Note free lingering Impressions: Layered time. Witches. Deep impressions. Things change but don’t. Loss. Funny. Building. Developers.

Trees & Woodland in the British Landscape by Oliver Rackham
, J M Dent & Sons 1976
What led me to it: Random Buy
Note free lingering Impressions: Cutting down. Coppicing. Diminished. Less than other countries.

Tongues in Trees: Studies in Literature and Ecology by Kim Taplin, Green Books 1996
What led me to it: Given by parents
Note free lingering Impressions: Writers and poets on trees. Hardy. Thomas. Tolkien. Surprise at how important this was to Forster, a rare writer I’ve read all novels – but years ago – suppose the dells and Pan stuff in The Longest Journey should have told. Swim in Room with a View. Sensual delight. Frances Horowitz.

The Tree by John Fowles, Little Toller 2016
What led me to it: Promo email from publisher about a sale.
Note free lingering Impressions: Garden vs Natural. Fathers. Living things. Lyricism meets science. Suburbia

The Virago Book of Ghost Stories by Richard Dalby, 2008
What led me to it: Backlisted. From Edith Wharton Episode.
Note free lingering Impressions: The Haunted Saucepan. Surprisingly frightening. Venice Island Salome. Unexpected weeping at end of a story I thought I didn’t like.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, Granta 2018
What led me to it: Twitter and a Guardian Review.
Note free lingering Impressions: An obsessive, wrongheaded, nasty father. A brilliant main character in Silvie. Misuse of history to justify/excuse the present. Skulls atop a wall. Could see as oblique commentary on Brexit impulse. Violence. Abuse of women. Lots of things and more than a parable for this. Time place, land, darkness. Genuinely thrilling ending. Page turner. Men have a lot to answer for.

A Treasury of British Folklore: Maypoles, Mandrakes and Mistletoe by Dee Dee Chainey, published by National Trust 2018
What led me to it: Twitter. I follow and take part in Folklore Thursday most weeks.
Note free lingering Impressions: Black Dogs, river spirits, avoiding bad luck, ash trees. All sorts.

The Light in the Dark by Horatio Clare, Elliott & Thompson 2018
What led me to it: Twitter
Lingering Impressions: deep shadows of winter gloom lightened through glimpsed moments of joy in shared smiles, old hotels, plays of light, northern skies, varieties of snow, childish delight, changing landscapes, winter birds & trains

7 thoughts on “Books found and books lost: another year of reading

  1. Damn you and damn this great article. More books on my list that will never be complete. Like Katherine, I started making a list of books and films I enjoyed but then I forgot to keep it up. I guess books just drift through us like everything else but they leave their impression with us and some will never be forgotten. One fascinating book I read this year was This is London by Ben Judah. Another I am about to read is Heroic Failure by Finan O’Toole which is supposed to be excellent on seeing Brexit through te national character of the English. This is London is superb on immigration, both rich and poor, and how it has changed London. Revenge is served!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Alex. First time I’ve ever been damned with great praise. Ahem. Both titles you mentioned sound really interesting. I’m now on another fictional take on Brexit – sort of – in Olivia Laing’s Crudo. Though no fiction is quite up to the increasingly strange reality of our politics – biggest Gov defeat ever and no sign of PM stepping down or any change of direction or any direction at all. One reason I’m increasingly fleeing into books – alright for you some might say. You might well like Sarah Perry’s Melmoth which I’ve just finished. Also looking forward to reading Poverty Safari and Kintu soon. Thanks again for your very kind words. One day I’d love to visit Glasgow – in the meantime I’ll keep getting tasters from your blog. Matt

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great list. Last year I bought an index file so I could start writing down author, title, date of reading, two line summary inc what I thought of it. As I’m so long in the tooth. Another symptom of aging is the increasing frequency of ‘didn’t finish’ – life too short. Happy New Year.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you liked it. It’s V good practice making notes as a reader – I still hand write those, it’s just quite easy keeping the general list on an app. I finally weaned myself off having to finish every book started quite recently. Though I fear a blog about books I didn’t enough like to finish would be too mean. Happy New Year.


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