A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Saturday, 12 March 2011

A Literary Smorgasbord

Buying books would be a good thing if one could also buy the time to read them in! SCHOPENHAUER

A few posts ago I mentioned I'd been reading John Sutherland's 50 literature ideas you really need to know. In his final chapter he writes about 'literary inundation', and reflects on how to deal with the flood of literature and information overwhelming us today. Sutherland guesstimates that in Shakepeare's time there were only about 2000 volumes in print. So the 'well-read' men of his period (few women, sadly) could have read everything worth knowing. Nowadays the amount of printed matter has rocketed to stratospheric proportions. There are 15 million books available on-line thanks to the Google Library Project. Three times as many new books are published each year as were published even as recently as the 1980s. How do we cope with all this stuff?

Sutherland suggests three possible solutions:

1. Just continue to read within the limited area of your own personal 'comfort zone'.

2. Discriminate and rigorously select, if you can, only the 'best' books: the classics, the cream of new writing, the books by the leading 'authorities' in their field.

3. Read, or more accurately surf, the whole ocean of literature. Kind of indiscriminately. Treat it as a vast, ever-to-be-replenished smorgasbord of wonder and delight.

I must say I identify with, and indeed subscribe to, all these three strategies:

1. I'm at home with my own literary likes and dislikes - liking above all poetry, fiction and travel; and biographical, philosophical and spiritual books. I like things that are authentic, well-written, inspirational. I don't like money-making celebrity autobiographies, self-promoting and self-excusing political memoirs, manipulative self-help books, dishonest bestsellerdom-seeking non-books, badly written genre novels.

2. As you get older, you have to discriminate somehow. There just isn't the time to read everything. In fact we can only ever read a tiny fraction of even the good stuff out there. I do read and love the classics - and, my God, there are so many more to read - and I do read some book reviews (particularly in Saturday's Guardian). These reviews inform me about what is potentially my bag, what may be important, what I can afford to disregard.

3. This appeals to me: the vast, suck-it-and-see smorgasbord approach to literature. Of course, it risks superficiality, dilettantism, a knowing-a-little-about-a-lot mentality. However, I think that by keeping a broad and open-minded attitude you can encounter surprising, unexpected treasures - gems you would not have come across had you simply kept within your own literary 'comfort zone' or stuck only to the classics.

Some books I've read fast (Julian Barnes: Before She Met Me), some I've read slow (Tolstoy: War And Peace), some I dip into all the time (The Penguin Krishnamurti Readers), others I dip into now and then (Ted Hughes: Birthday Letters), and many above me here on the shelf I fear I'll never read at all. Does it matter? Not a lot, probably.

Though I really do love a good book. It's one of the joys of my life. I've just begun Gerald Brenan's South From Granada, which is shaping up to be the best book on Spain I've ever read ...

I wonder how all of you deal with this age of over-information and superabundant expression?


martine said...

I so understand this problem, I almost find myself avoiding looking for new books as the list waiting to be read is enough for the next year or so. I like to have a mixture of things I plan to read and then interrupt that with spontaneous finds or recommendations.
thanks for sharing

Alive said...

That's delightful. I tend to spend a whole day in a book store, reading of course. I then ask for any books really required at the Library, just hope that the Gov dont close to many. I rather liked your own personal 'comfort zone'.

Ruth said...

It's a dilemma for me too, even though I really don't read as much as I would like to. What I mean is, I would like to be more of a reader than I am. But what I read, I read discriminately. I wait for recommendations. As you know I am reading W & P. I am going so slowly (mostly because of night time sleepiness) that it will take forever to get through. But I enjoy every sentence and paragraph so very much, that I really don't care how long it takes.

One of the best things about blogging is getting these recommendations from friends. Thanks, Robert. Again.

Grace said...

I used to always finish a book, no matter what. Now I allow myself to quit if I don't like the book for some reason, which gives me more time to read books that I do like. Now if only I could learn to do the same thing with boring movies . . . because sometimes they just don't get better, no matter hard you wish!

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks martine & alive ... how fast or how slow isn't the point with reading, is it, Ruth? It's the savouring and the enjoyment ... Grace, it's harder, isn't it, to walk out of a movie theatre - when you've just paid good money - than giving up on a crap book!

Julie said...

I enjoyed your post and especially liked your answer to #3. As a poet and writer, I take reading very seriously. Though I love to read, it is also how I continue to learn the craft. My number one rule is that I read a variety of styles. Whether poetry or fiction, I alternate between classics and new releases.

I also make sure I read different voices and much writing from cultures that are not my own. I think writers and poets who only read styles they "like" are missing out (and it shows in their work). People who aren't poets or writers can also benefit. Variety opens up a whole new world for everyone.

The beauty of reading a book I don't like is figuring out why I don't like it. Sometimes, a book is just publishing industry hype. Other times, I may not personally like a book, but I can understand why it is good writing. It helps me.

Like Martine, I have a list of books and am constantly adding to it. I doubt I will live long enough to read them all. But that is the thrill.

Thanks for an interesting conversation!

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for your long and thoughful comment, Julie. I agree with you absolutely that it's important to read different voices and writings from different cultures. We can broaden our minds so much in doing this - and foster empathy, compassion and understanding. Plus developing our own writing skills, as you rightly say.

George said...

I'm late getting here, Robert, having been on the road for several days. I really enjoyed this post, however, because it addresses something that is a constant challenge for avid readers and questers. I sometimes feel quite overwhelmed by the seemingly infinite number of books I want to read, compared to the finite time within which my life takes place. One the one hand, I like the idea of restricting my reading to the zones of interests which have always been fruitful and rewarding for me. On the other, I feel that getting beyond one's comfort zone if one of the reasons to read in the first place. One thing is certain, of course: It becomes increasingly difficult to bear the sheer burden of information that is thrown our way each day.

The Solitary Walker said...

I feel much the same way. It's good to read what you know you'll like - and it's also good to experiment. I like to do both.

Elizabeth said...

Like you, I have my comfort zones, but aren't averse to travelling outside them once in a while when something about a book grabs my attention - and for me, it is always a book that I can smell, touch and interact with, rather than a kindle.The Guardian reviews are great for giving 'snapshots' of what to expect from new works and I do buy and read on their say-so, but also a great deal is down to instinct and a good blurb. x

Caroline Gill said...

I think, Robert, that the word 'smorgasbord' is right here (for its category). I was about to mention 'pick and mix', but this gives a rather 'quick fix' - so we'll stick with smorgasbord for a breadth of choice variety.

I think our reading surely reflects our motives: are we reading for devotion? In which case I read my Bible - and choose additional material with care. Are we reading for fun and relaxation? In which case I might re-visit 'The Island of Sheep'or another Buchan yarn. Are we reading poetry for enjoyment? If so, please give me some Edward Thomas or Kathleen Jamie. Perhaps we are reading poetry to stretch our own oeuvre - and therefore to move out beyond our comfort zone into e.g. (in my case) Plath or Olds (though I tend to shy away from confessional poetry). We may be reading poems written by fellow writers, and our reading will not only encourage them, but will often enhance our own writing by default. Sometimes we read for 'the ride': I have devoured a number of travel and wildlife books about places I know and love (some feature in 'Wild Places' by Macfarlane). I also read about many of the places that (partly on account of my disability) I know I will never reach ... except via the word of others. There are (many) times when the beauty is in the detail: 'Crow Country' by Mark Cocker completely re-shaped my view of corvids in a landscape: the landscape happened in his book to be the countryside of my Norfolk childhood. Only wish I had read it then!

Sorry to have written so much: I'll end by saying that I must find a 'dip-in-and-out-of' book to keep in the car for those spare minutes when I am waiting for an appt. etc ...

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks, Elizabeth - and also Caroline, for your long and interesting response. Don't be 'sorry' about the length! I loved it! 'Crow Country' has been on my must-read list for quite some time. And I too enjoy Edward Thomas, Kathleen Jamie and Robert Macfarlane.