Sunday, February 18, 2007

On Reading (and, More Importanty, Finishing) A Book

There is a sense of satisfaction in finishing a book. This has been on my mind for the last week or so, mainly because I'm in the process of reading a book that is going to take me quite a while to read.

Earlier this month, I read Wilbur Smith's River God, which is a long book but a fast read. (It's also filled with sex and violence, but I don't say that as if it's a bad thing. Mind you, I could perhaps have done without the intimate description of a full castration but, like most men, I'm rather sensitive that way.) Anyway, while I enjoyed River God, as I've enjoyed most of Smith's historical novels, the dodgy sex apart, I also felt a degree of satisfaction as I closed the book and put it to one side. There, I thought: another book read, and a lengthy one at that. For a moment, I was one step closer to reading every book in my house, albeit a step forwards that would soon be nullified. River God will probably go to my local Oxfam shop, and there is now a space where it once sat on my bookshelves, a space that can be occupied by a new book as soon as I find the time to amble into one of my native city's many bookstores.

And that, after all, is the blessing and the curse afflicting all those who love books and reading: we will die surrounded by books both read and yet to be read. There will always be one more book that we'd rather like to get through before our God takes us. I have visions of myself on my death bed, knowing that I have only days to live, and sizing up the books on my shelf in an effort to calculate which one I'm likely to be able to finish before I gasp my last breath, performing complex mathematical equations involving length of book, ease of reading, and potential literary value versus entertainment value.

As I am now more than halfway through my biblical allocation of three score years and ten, I suspect that I am going to start doing such calculations sooner rather than later. My awareness of my own mortality will make me reluctant to start long books that I may die before I finish, so I'll probably stick to short-to-medium length pieces of literature. With this in mind, I started reading Dickens's Our Mutual Friend last week. Our Mutual Friend is a very, very long book. It's also ripe, late-period Dickens; in fact, it's his last completed novel, and it's a dense, complex read. At a rough estimate, each chapter is about 5000 words long, and it has 66 chapters. That makes Our Mutual Friend the equivalent of almost four literary novels of average length.

It's also wonderful, of course, a reminder of just how thin and unambitious so much modern fiction really is, but I have resigned myself to the fact that I am likely to be reading it for a number of weeks to come. (To give myself the occasional break to draw breath, though, I am dipping into GUBU Nation, Damien Corless's collection of some of the stranger moments in recent Irish history, which I can heartily recommend to those who would like an insight into why, and precisely how, Irish people are very odd indeed.)

Our Mutual Friend also made me mull over, in passing, the major difference between crime fiction and great literary fiction that uses crime as a catalyst for the action of the novel. There is a suspicious death at the heart of Our Mutual Friend, but the death of Harmon is interesting to Dickens principally because of the ripples (both metaphorical and literal, as Harmon's body is fished from the Thames) it creates in the lives of a great many others. Similarly, Dickens's Bleak House could be regarded, on one level, as a precursor of the legal thriller, except, of course, that the issue of law involved in the case of Jarndyce & Jarndyce is largely irrelevant to the plot of the novel. I wonder, perhaps, if that is what distinguishes the crime novel from the literary novel: the literary novel may sometimes use elements of crime fiction, but it looks outwards from the crime and is under no obligation to return to it. Crime fiction, meanwhile, must always return ultimately to the scene of the crime, and provide some sort of solution to it, however partial that solution may be. It is at once both its principal strength - giving a sense of propulsion to the narrative, a direction that compels the reader towards its finish - and also, arguably, a possible source of weakness.

Ultimately, though, that depends upon our reasons for reading crime fiction to begin with, and to ask it to perform the same task as literary fiction is, perhaps, unfair. That said, I thought George Pelecanos's The Night Gardener was Dickensian in its aim, less interested in the series of murders that inspired it than the impact of those murders upon the lives of a number of individuals. It's interesting, too, that Pelecanos writes for HBO's The Wire, which is similarly Dickensian in its sweep.

Now it's time to return to Our Mutual Friend: rich, challenging, and 142 years old.
Or young.

This week - and for weeks to come - John is reading

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

and listened to

My Heart Has A Wish That You Would Not Go by Aerogramme
Late Night Tales compiled by Nouvelle Vague


Mairi said...

I understand this completely. As a member of the book industry I get sent free books in the hope of them being recommended pre-publication. And then they sit there on the shelf (well, growing mound would be more precise) and berate me for not reading them, because I'm looking though a food magazine. I always find Dickens easy to read once I get into the rhythm of his writing. I read Bleak House very quickly (well I thought so) because I was sick of waiting for the television show to reveal the story in such arbitary increments. I was very proud of myself too.

Banbury Bookseller Extraordinaire

P.S. Did you ever read 'The Girl who Played Go'? Sorry to add to your reading woes!

Tom Hyland said...

I’m laughing aloud as I read this. And the reason for laughing is that I fully agree with everything said. My own collecting of books is seen by my wife (an inveterate non-reader) as something ominous and intangible and also maybe organic in nature; receding from time to time but never really losing grip.

Next month I pass that sixty-one year old signpost that announces in bold letters an appreciation of mortality. But I’m all right with it. The thing I’m not all right with is the fact that time allowed for reading is narrowing.

I just finished 766 pages of Terror by Dan Simmons. Not Dickens by any stretch, and not bearing the thickness of War and Peace, but a longer read than most of my more recent stuff. And, I suppose, worth the effort.

Debi said...

Haha! In my case it's a husband who - albeit another avid reader - is, well, beyond despair really, over an obsession of mine he believes to be out of control. Though I like Dan Simmons I haven't read the mentioned work. And Tom Hyland is a good twelve years ahead of me. That said, I would like to go along with everything in the above post. Mr H put it all so much more eloquently than I ever could.

Am I destined to get through even half the hundreds of volumes that weigh down and literally warp shelves all over the house, while yet other books pile up in increasingly precarious stalagmites on many an available, not always strictly convenient, surface? Will I ever do more than look at the pretty pictures in all the lavishly illustrated art tomes? (Oh, such as learn about the lives of those who painted said images.) I have come to the realisation that both questions can possibly, even probably, be answered in the negative. I guess I'm just going to have to learn to be OK with that.

The trick is to go with what feels right at any given time. Another's work attracts and calls out to an individual for a reason. Pieces we connect with - because they reinforce and confirm our own world view, or because they introduce ideas and images so radically different their beauty is staggering beyond reason - will find their way into, be embraced by, the soul as well as mind and heart. Such favourable outcome being the ultimate goal each time a book is opened we just have to hope we keep picking up the good stuff.

Formerly a reader who held onto books from first page to last with almost terrier-like tenacity (You bought it, you'll read it!) I have come to the conclusion life really is too short to persevere with something unless it works for you. A liberating idea to say the least!

As for getting older; running out of time - and I would swear to each year disappearing faster than the one preceding it - I rather like the following from Norman Mailer on old age:

'If you're not in pain, and you're not in terrible trouble emotionally with your children or your mate finally are cool in a way you never were before. What you didn't succeed in doing, you didn't succeed in doing, so feck it.' (Er, he probably used the u shaped vowel in the penultimate word there!)

Keep adding to the book pile(s). You'll select for perusal those works that speak to you; with luck some will touch you profoundly, the way your own writing touches others. Books you fail to find time for will be the least important ones. Working in the time we have we each can only do so much. It has to be enough!

Stay safe,


Debi. x

P.S. It's always a joy to come here and find something new, like these blogs and comments, perhaps an interview or another piece of journalism. Laughed all the way through 'One Last Go on the Bumpers'. Was suitably moved too, as is often the case.

You've done it now it though! Beal is definitely off my list of places to visit. Small dark bugs that don't even have the decency to wait till you've breathed your last before burrowing into the dermal layers? (Just how RUDE is that!) Good grief! If similar ever happened to me trauma induced hysteria would be the least of my problems!!

Tom Hyland said...


lucifuge616 said...

I know this is irrelevant to the blog, but I just read the Prologue of 'The Unquiet' and it intrigued the hell outta me. Can't wait 'til May!