Thursday, October 02, 2008

On Books, and Being a Blurb Whore

Every month, the English novelist Nick Hornby produces a very wonderful column entitled “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” for The Believer magazine. (The columns have been collected in an anthology entitled The Polysyllabic Spree, and it really is worth seeking out if you have any fondness at all for books and reading.) Anyway, Hornby routinely starts his column with a list of books bought and books read each month, with the former always exceeding the latter by some degree.

It’s the book lover’s dilemma in a nutshell, really: there are so many books, and so many new ones being published each week, yet there is only so much time in which to read them. Recently, one of my friends vowed that he was going to stop buying books entirely until he had read all of the ones on his shelves, an ambition at once both entirely logical yet also rather sad, as well as being rather impractical if one is a true reader with enough money in one’s pocket to be able to afford the odd book. I can’t even walk past a bookstore without browsing, a particular curse for me as walking, or even catching the bus, from my gym to home requires me to pass at least four bookstores along the way. This week alone I’ve bought four books, or one for every bookstore. I’ve managed to read one that was already on my shelves (Death By Leisure by Chris Ayres, a kind of prequel to War Reporting for Cowards, but not really as good and, less forgivably, bedevilled by so many typos that one wonders if anyone bothered to read the book at all after it had been typeset, or if the job was simply delegated to the nearest passing child. Actually, I suspect that a passing child would have done a better job, or would at least have been more conscientious about doing it.) and have now started on a second, J.G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur, which won the Booker in 1973 and, according to many critics and commentators, might well be worthier of the recent ‘Best of Booker’ title than the actual winner, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. I’m halfway through Farrell’s novel, and it is very good indeed.

What you will notice about both of these books is that neither is a mystery. In addition, I bought them with my own money, which is something that occasionally elicits an expression of surprise from the booksellers who recognise me as I pay for stuff and, indeed, from my own publishers, who are always offering to send me things. The problem is that I’m less inclined to read something that I haven’t bought, or chosen, for myself. It’s almost as if, by spending money on the book, I’ve already begun the process of reading it. I’ve made a financial commitment to the book, which will be followed by a similar commitment of time and concentration. Free books just don’t do it for me in the same way. Don’t get me wrong: it’s lovely to receive them, and occasionally I’ll be sent an advance copy of a book that I’ve really been looking forward to reading, but it’s still not quite the same as choosing a book from the shelf of a store, bringing it to the counter, and then paying for it. Even purchasing books online doesn’t match that satisfaction.

Which brings us to a related issue. While I bought four books this week (not counting two research books for The Lovers, which has reached the stage where I’m filling in little historical details that require me to read huge historical tomes, an imbalance that I’ve never quite been able to work out) I also received three more in the mail. All of them were novels seeking approving quotes, or ‘blurbs’, for their covers. One of them was unsolicited and came from a publisher, and the other two were manuscripts, only one of which I could remember agreeing to read. Over the last month I’ve blurbed two books, I think, although it might be three, and I’ve been asked to consider two more. The more books that one blurbs, the more one is perceived as someone who blurbs books, and therefore the more books one will receive looking for blurbs. It’s a vicious circle. Eventually, if one isn’t careful, one gets the reputation of being a ‘blurb whore’, which is less financially rewarding than being a real whore and starts to appear a little self-serving, as though having one’s name on one’s own books isn’t enough and one now needs to have them on other people’s too.

In addition, I only ever seem to be asked to blurb mysteries. It’s not surprising, really, given that’s what I’m best known for writing. Occasionally, someone will send me something that isn’t a mystery, and it’s like manna from heaven, but those books are comparatively rare. As far as publishers and other authors are concerned, it’s mysteries all the way for me.

But mysteries aren’t the only books that I read. In fact, horror of horrors, mysteries are the exception rather than the rule for me now. Oh, there are mystery writers whose books I love, and I’ll seek those out as soon as they’re published, but I like to read non-fiction too, and, for want of a better term, literary fiction, and most of my reading is comprised of books from those categories. I’ve also just spent two weeks reading only mysteries, as I was interviewing two mystery authors and reviewing a new book by a third. I’m mysteried out. Hand me a mystery now and my eyes will glaze over. My toes will turn up. I don’t want to read any more for a while. I can’t do it.

It’s a stupid complaint, right? After all, being asked to read books is no great burden. And yet, when reading becomes a chore, something is terribly wrong. I’ve come to realise that, if I allow it to be the case, I might spend most of my time reading nothing but new or forthcoming mysteries, and all of those other fascinating books on my shelves, both old and recent, will start to move out of reach. It’s just the nature of things: I’m more likely to read new books, the ones that are fresh in my memory, than the ones I bought a year ago or, worse, a decade ago. But I want to read those older books too. I chose them. I wanted them on my shelves, and I wanted them to be read. I made that commitment to them and, in a strange way, I don’t want to renege upon it.

And so, for the next couple of weeks, I’m going to treat myself a little. I’m going to read only my books, the books that I chose and for which I paid, and nothing else. I’m going to read obscure film books, and a couple of Penguin Classics, and Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, which I should have read in college but never did. And I’m going to finish The Siege of Krishnapur, but not too quickly, because I’m enjoying it and I want to make it last for a while.

It’s a luxury, I know, but a small one.

And it’s the small luxuries that make life liveable.

This week John read

Doors Open by Ian Rankin
Death by Leisure by Chris Ayres
and will finish The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell

and listened to

The Hawk is Howling by Mogwai
Dear Science by TV On The Radio
Way to Normal by Ben Folds