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


Roberta said...

I agree with you fully about the aspect of buying your own books...I too once vowed no to enter a bookstore before I've read all the books I still have to read. The temptation always proves too large for me though!
I'm Roberta from Malta, 19 years old and I read The Book of Lost Things not long ago. I loved it. I know you don't write in that genre much but you should. It kept me glued till the end and I thank you for it!
I too love writing...a mixture of historical fiction and fantasy. have you ever experimented with those genres? I find them oddly satisfying! All the best from Malta!

lilacsky said...

I have vowed to do the same thing, like you and roberta here, to not buy another book until I've finished what I've got! And believe me, I've got plenty!

I've actually started reading books from this book journal called "Read, Remember and Recommend" by Rachelle Knight -- it solves the problem "what do i read next?" (link: It's a spiral bound reading journal with Awards Book Lists including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Los Angeles Times Award for Fiction and National Book Award for Fiction), Notable lists (BBC’S Top 100 is included) and Author Pages.

There's also a space for you to write down your personal favorites, list down the books you loaned, and write down insights you may have about books you've read. The best thing about is the book suggestions -- the book selections are awesome and will help any book lover read the right books.

It really helped organize my book reading because of the tons of lists that it has. Highly recommended! If you ever have gone through all the books you have, and are looking for your next literary conquest, this book journal will help you out loads.

Rosemary Harris said...

I recently attended the New England Booksellers convention in Boston and that is essentially an airplane hanger filled with people who want to give you free books - ostensibly so that you will write about them, chat them up, and oh, yes, buy them for your bookstore. I was there to give away ARCs of my own book, which I now know better than to ask you to blurb, but since the book was late, I walked around and picked up free books.
You could spot the first-timers...they came with wheelie suitcases..people who'd been to the show before were more discriminating. I picked up
The 19th Wife, The Given Day, All the Living, and In Hovering Flight. It was almost as good as shopping but I didn't have to hand our my credit card.

Reader said...

Taking a sabbatical from what one usually reads, is like spending a good vacation exploring a strange and wonderful new place. I just finished a very quick charming animal lovers' book titled "Dewey:The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched The World" By Vicki Myron. Sweet read.
As far as not buying anymore books before I read what I already own, I realized the futility of this vow long ago, it's like asking any addict to abstain from their substance of choice. I'm the numero uno founding member of Bookaholics Anonymous or as I call it BAA. Books are my drug of choice.
One option that I've considered, is only reading dead authors, but I'd be salivating the next time a John Connolly bk surfaced and I'd be off the wagon in no time flat. As it is, I made a friend in Ireland, send me a copy of The Reapers, the day it was released over there as it was going to be another month before it was released in the U.S., and I couldn't stand the wait. I have no willpower where books are concerned.
I recently picked up a book by an author that is new to me, Stieg Larsson, called The Girl w/the Dragon Tattoo. It's new to the U.S. and I understand that it was big in Europe....the most attractive thing about reading this author, beside the fact that the book is very good, is that he is dead and there are only two more books coming out by him. When book three is published, I know that I'm done, that I've read all that I can read of this writer.
My nightmare is that I would get to heaven and there would be no books or dogs. I could see myself saying to St. Peter, "Ok, if there are books and dogs in hell, change my itinerary."
Alas,Too many books and not enough time. What is a book junkie to do?

TomH said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JJ Cooper said...

I've recently secured a publishing deal and found myself blabbering to my editor about how cool it is to be in the same house as some of my favourite thriller writers. When she offered to send some new releases my way, I think I was more pleased than getting a contract and an advance.

All the best.


TomH said...

The problem lies in taking one for granted. Once started, you never stop.

Angie said...

I agree with you completely about the joy of buying books. I have also vowed, at one time or another, to stop buying books and read the ones on my shelf, or better yet, use a library if I want to get new ones.

But, whatever people say, and for all libraries are great and wonderful places, it's just not the same. There's so much choice at a library - all these books that you can have and read for free - that I, at least, find myself plucking them willy-nilly off the shelves and piling up a far too ambitious stack. Which I will inevitably take home, probably read one of, and then let sit until they're overdue and accruing late fees.

There's something about going into a bookstore with thirty or fifty dollars, and thinking I have enough for one or two books. Which ones will I choose? And having selected them and paid for them above scores of others, I find myself much more likely to read them.

Eamon said...

I'm not sure I agree with LilacSky. How does someone decide on "the right books"? If a book wins a Pulitzer then that must feel great for the author, but it would mean little to me as a reader. I don't want a list of books that I should read, I want to make up my own mind. I want to discover things for myself, yes time is short and life doesn't last forever but I want to take a chance on a book that I've chosen for myself. I don't agree with tags such as 'literary fiction', and find that it is unnecessarily snobbish behaviour. A book is either well written or it is not, and the decision about that is a personal one. I don't mean to start an argument, but if someone handed me a list of books I 'should' read I would crumple it into a ball and bounce it right back at them. However, I know that some people will disagree, which is fine, of course. Bookclubs and readers groups work well, but I think that is different. If wondering what to read next is a problem then it is a good problem to have. If I HAD to define what is a 'right' book, I would have to say that the 'right' book is the one that hit you straight between the eyes when you are at an age for maximum impact. If so, then the right books for me started with Peter Straub's 'Shadowland' and S.King's 'Salem's Lot', back when they came out. Some books still grab me by the throat, but they work best when they sneak up on you and stab you in the heart before you've even smelled their breath. They don't announce their coming on a booklist, but lope like a shadow from Whitechapel with a cold blade. Can I undermine my entire argument by saying that the 'winner of CWA Dagger' sticker on a book does tend to snag my attention! ACTON

SheenaLM said...


Call me cynical, but three paragraphs lauding this wonderful book journal!? I think you might find that lilacsky IS Rachelle Knight or is in some way affiliated with said journal. Correct me if I'm wrong....

I completely agree with your point though; I too abhor 'Top 100 Books' lists and the like. A hefty chunk of the satisfaction of adding a new book to your collection is the excitement of searching for and finding it. To me it usually sweetens the deal that little bit more if it's a book that you've never heard of, and have uncovered in some dingy little charity shop or market somewhere, that turns out to be phenomenal... thus alerting you to a new author that you would have never before been aware of due to the lack of his or her presence on some shite 'best of' list! Incidently, this is how I discovered John Connolly (although I am fully aware, John, that your name appears, on many of the afore-mentioned 'shite book lists!') My point is, that while many of these guides or lists do indeed contain some of our generations best writers, isn't it more thrilling to discover them by yourself?

Masybe I'm slightly idealistic, but there's just too much out there to be blinkered by what a list recommends. May I tentatively suggest taking the same tack with your music searches!!