A Year Of Reading

Another year, gone… Almost. Just two short weeks and it will all be over. Back at the start of this long, long, stupidly long year I decided that I would read as many books about Italy as possible. I pulled in a load of super cheap ones from various places and a load from Project Gutenberg. Then, half way through, I decided that I would completely clear my eReader by the end of the year- At that point it had around sixty books on it, one of which was the already half read Finnegans Wake. It looked like an impossible task but here I am with three books left to go. I’ll probably manage to finish, though lord only knows how I’ve done it. So after having what must be somewhere close to eighty books this year, what is there to say? What conclusions can I draw?

SOME BOOKS ARE OBSCURE FOR A REASON

I came across The Gadfly, an obscure and largely unknown book by Irish writer Ethel Voynich, because of its connection to one of the most interesting and enigmatic figures of the early twentieth century; Sidney Reilly, the supposed ace of spies and (allegedly) one of the inspirations for James Bond. In the later 1800s he and Voynich had a bit of a fling (allegedly) and she (allegedly) based the book on his early life. Regardless whether she did or not (it’s up for debate as Reilly’s entire life is something of a mystery) I found the book to be a bit of a snooze fest. It wasn’t badly written but it wasn’t spectacular either. It was plodding, pedestrian. The actual prose was nothing to write home about and other than its reputed connection to the ace of spies I found that, mostly, it wasn’t worth reading.

Another one was The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim. This is slightly less obscure because they made a film of it in the early nineties but overall it was nothing- a story about four women who go to Italy on holiday. Whilst it had a few good points at the start it then went nowhere and for two hundred and fifty pages nothing happened. At the end it just sort of fluffed out. It had nothing in the way of a climax or a resolution at all, it just ended. Like The Gadfly it was also plodding.

Both of these books were obscure and both were instantly forgettable. Nobody remembers or reads them today for a reason. They just weren’t very good to begin with. They were never good enough to survive the ravages of time. There are many others like them, lining the shelves of Project Gutenberg.

There are of course a lot of other reasons why books get forgotten- The genre goes out of fashion (like the western or the boys-own adventure story) or the work gets overshadowed by something else by the writer- I read Romola by George Elliot this year, a writer more famous for The Mill On The Floss, and I read The Lost Girl by D.H Lawrence, more famous for Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Both were better books than the two I mention above but neither are very famous. Romola was alright, worth reading, but The Lost Girl was a bit of a chore, very slow paced and lacked any kind of ending. Like Enchanted April it didn’t really have one.

THERE’S AN AWFUL LOT OF SMOTING IN THOMAS MALLORY

‘And then he smote him and he fell down and then he stood and smote him in return. Then he found someone else and smote him as well. Then he smote himself…’ And so on and so forth until the end. I’d downloaded the first volume of La Morte D’Arthur not long after I first got my eReader but I never got through it all- Too much of the same sort of thing going on chapter after chapter- Knights rescuing magic damsels in forests, meeting other knights and then fighting with them. There are at least three smotings in every chapter. Whilst Mallory is undeniably important to the history of British literature, mythology and culture these days it doesn’t make for very exciting reading. All the smotings are ridiculous. It isn’t a modern work so we have to give it some allowances but it is not something I would recommend for casual reading.

Whilst Mallory is still famous, he is proof that as language and styles change some books become more difficult to read, even books that are supposedly written in the same language.

FINNEGANS WAKE HAS NO MEANING

This is something I covered at the time I finished reading it but I want to reiterate it again. Whilst there is some minor modicum of sense to some of Finnegans Wake, most of it is utter gibberish.  People have spent years combing through its utter incomprehensible mishmash of portmanteaus and made up words and obscure bits of dialect to try and come up with some meaning or plot but having read it I can say that there is nothing there. People who claim that there is something in Finnegans Wake are either reiterating what other people have said before or seeing something that isn’t there. My advice would be don’t waste your time looking for meaning and if you have to read Finnegans Wake do it for the glory. Also, if you can finish it you can finish anything.

JUST BECAUSE A BOOK STARTS BAD DOESN’T MEAN IT STAYS THAT WAY

I’ve read a fair few books this year that when I’ve got through the first chapter thought they weren’t going to be very good only for them to improve later on. Prime example, Where Angels Fear To Tread by E.M Forster. The first chapter was somewhat dull, someone being waved off at a train station. It didn’t set a good precedent but the rest of the book was alright and very readable. Not an all time favourite but passable. I can’t say the same of his other, more famous work, A Room With A View, which I really had to force myself to finish. Another was Hard Cash by Charles Reade, another of those obscure books I mention above. The reason this has been forgotten is probably because it takes about one hundred pages to start. The initial chapters were all about some sappy romance and nothing much happens. It was a drag to get through… Then the book switches to a high seas adventure and the introduction of the titular Hard Cash and it got interesting. It didn’t always keep that interest up once the cash reached England but it never quite got back to the levels it was at with the high seas adventure.

It goes to show that just like you can’t judge a book by the cover, you can’t judge one by only reading a few chapters. You have to read the whole thing before you can really pass judgement on it. Sure you might give up if those first few chapters are rubbish, but then you’ll never know if the book got better or not.

EVEN THE BEST WRITERS COME OUT WITH A TURKEY NOW AND AGAIN

Some books just don’t get better though. They’re bad to begin with. They can even, shock horror, come from people whose books are usually good. I’ve found several of those this year. I usually love Graham Greene but England Made Me just never gets off the ground. It is by far the weakest Greene book I’ve read. The characters were all weak and unlikable. They weren’t as well drawn as Greene usually does them. Overall the book was flat, a bit of a turkey.

Another that wasn’t good was The Last Continent  by Terry Pratchett. Usually I love TP- He’s very clever, usually funny and there’s a lot of intelligence to his books. I’ve found in the past that the Wizard’s sub series of the Discworld books have been lacking the usual spark but I’ve never found them really awful. Even The Colour Of Magic had some merits, though overall it wasn’t good. The Last Continent though, written whilst TP was at the peak of his powers, comes across as a lazy attempt to shoehorn in every Australian stereotype he possible could. The book lacked the usual wit, the warmth, the intelligence that I’ve come to expect from Discworld.

I’d heard good things about Around The World In Eighty Days but again, not good, despite it being hailed as a classic. A turkey. It didn’t have the same flair as Journey To The Centre Of The Earth or the interest of 20’000 Leagues (which I also read this year).

The point I’m making here is that these books were by authors who, usually, I like. These books, however, weren’t very good. That isn’t a problem though as every author, even the best, will once in a while produce something that is utter garbage. It’s the law of averages- If your write twenty books (or make twenty whatevers) they can’t all be absolute masterpieces unless you’re some kind of Leonardo Da Vinci. Then again even he, I suppose, produced some pretty rubbish pictures at some point in his life. Take TP for instance. He wrote FORTY Discworld books so there was always going to be one or two or four or five or ten that were going to be less than stellar. Moral of the story- There’ll always be one.

THE BOOK YOU’VE IGNORED FOR YEARS COULD BECOME A NEW FAVOURITE

For years I’ve had this battered old copy of White Fang by Jack London on the shelf. Someone gave it to me years ago, thinking I’d like it. At the time I didn’t much care, dumped it on the shelf and left it there. It stayed there until March when I finally decided I would give it a go. Holy cow was it worth reading. In fact, I loved it so much that it’s become a new favourite, one of the few books this year to do so.

I’m glad I left it on the shelf because I don’t think younger me would have appreciated it but my point stands. There could be a book sitting on your shelf, ignored, unloved, but secretly knowing that one day you’ll pick it up and you’ll begin to wonder why you neglected it for so long.

THE TRASH NEEDS TAKING OUT

Ooooh God! I usually don’t read a lot of modern literature and this year reinforced why. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some good stuff out there, but the trouble is that it is well hidden amidst an ever growing pile of throwaway, third and fourth rate trash. This stuff isn’t just bad, it is beyond bad. The plots are poor, the characters weak and the writing so hokey, trite and full of clichés that they make you want to scream. Most of it is written to a standard that wouldn’t pass primary school. The sad thing is that some of these books, mainly they were ones I read for my Italian odyssey, come with a ‘Bestselling Author’ or similar tag, indicating that they’re hugely popular. The reason why beffudles me because surely anyone with even a remote grasp of English should be able to see how bad they are. I think people buy them because they have bestseller written on them (or from the bestselling author of) and assume that because of that they must be good, despite the fact that it should be wired into everyone from birth that popular does not always equal good.

This doesn’t just apply to one sort of book or one type of author, it covers everything. It’s by men, women, it’s romances, thrillers, historicals… I would say that ninety percent of the modern books (anything from around the last fifteen years, let’s say) was total garbage- Trash. I won’t name them, should the authors or their diehard fans happen to stumble upon this piece, but I’ll give a few hints.

One was by a ‘popular’ writer of historical novels and I should have known it would be bad when it referred to Julius Caesar as an Emperor. He was never emperor btw. He was Dictator for life. Completely different. Another book had Venice in the title… The fact that Venice only featured in the first chapter and had nothing to do with the plot was the least problematic thing about it- You wonder how, when that book had to go through the writer, agent, editor, publisher and proofreaders and probably a whole lot more, this was allowed to happen. Another very popular book, supposedly based on a true story, came across as attention seeking and well over half of it was probably made up.

It’s a matter of perception, obviously, but with the amount of these sorts of books there are, especially in terms of books that are targeted more towards men, it’s a problem. Almost all of the modern books I’ve come across in recent years have been less than decent in terms of their quality. It really doesn’t help that most of the books for men are crime/action thrillers by straight, white, middle class men approaching or over sixty with some kind of English degree. With such an overly homogeneous state is it any wonder that men aren’t reading so much (in general) these days?

These are tomorrow’s obscure books I suppose, what those I mention above were in there day, but there does seem an awful lot of them. The state of modern literature is something that I should really discuss another time but from what I have seen over the last year it is in a really bad way. It isn’t all bad but a majority of it is. It is overdue a massive, massive shake up, one that does away with most of the kind of stuff that is currently out there- Not just the crime/action thrillers by white, middle class, approaching elderly men, but all the rest of the hackneyed, throw away stuff as well. In my view literature needs a major earthquake and needs to be taken in some new, radical direction.

DON’T RUSH

Eighty books is far too many to read in a year. I’ve been rushing through books, at one point I was reading five at once. I’ve had to set myself deadlines. With rushing through the bad ones at least it meant they were over and done with and forgotten but I’ve come to the conclusion that this shouldn’t be the way with any book, good or bad. A good book should be savoured, sunk into, enjoyed. It should be like a warm bath, an escape from the real world- One at a time, perhaps two at a push. There should be no end date for the finishing of a book. It doesn’t matter if you spend a year or a month on a book or a few days, they should take as long as they take. In future I am not going to rush my books- I will savour the good and bad, never rushing again. If that means I only read twelve books a year so be it.


Thanks to my Italian odyssey I’ve read a lot of books I might not otherwise have read. Some of them were bad, some of them good but overall it widened my literary scope. Cleaning my eReader has pushed my limits and was a seemingly impossible challenge that I somehow managed/almost managed. It probably wasn’t worth it but at least I can start the New Year with a clean slate. I’m going to go back to a few books I never managed to finish- The Return Of The Native and Watership Down most prominently- And because I’m a sucker for punishment I’m going to attempt one of the Grandaddys of long literature- Marcel Proust’s In Search Of Lost Time. That should take most of the year if I’m planning not to rush it.

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