On Reading

Jan 4, 2012

Like the cool, quiet hours linking dawn and daylight, the days between Christmas and the first day of a new year seem similarly stolen, and tantalising in their possibility. For me, it was a time to catch up on forgotten books in the steadily growing and increasingly precarious mountain beside my bed.

In an essay in The White Album, Joan Didion wrote of ‘spending most of a week writing and rewriting and not writing a single paragraph.’ For me – and anyone with an interest in books – life is similarly spent reading and re-reading and not reading all the novels you’d like to have consumed.

I often think of my reading choices as a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ story. Which novel do you choose? If you take the Penguin Classic, turn to page xi and feel worthy. If you choose the Man Booker Prize winner, turn to page 1 and feel zeitgeist-y. With all the novels in the world to read and only a certain amount of time in which to read them, to commit to one book is to inevitably sacrifice others. To read a new novel is to deny yourself the pleasure of returning to an already read and loved story. Sometimes we don’t get to choose at all – work, study commitments, life determines the path of our reading adventures for us.

My first half of last year was spent as a university tutor in a subject entitled Art/Porn/Blasphemy/Propaganda – so my winter months were spent in the literary company of perversity, gore, sadomasochists, serial killers and forbidden language. All in the name of exploring literary censorship of course! There was the occasional break to catch up on Franzen for his visit to the Melbourne Writers Festival, and a thesis chapter on L.A. fiction which saw me in the company of Didion, Fante, Fitzgerald, West and Chandler. My literary year was thus lived overwhelmingly in the past – the classics read, of course, at the expense of many of the latest releases.

The dawning of a new year is an appropriate time to reflect upon our own reading goals  – especially in this, the National Year of Reading. Last year brought important debates about literature, publishing, and the choices we make as readers:

The representation of female authors – which spawned the wonderful Stella Prize, Meanjin’s all-female Tournament of Books, and is now culminating in the Australian Women Writers 2012 Reading and Reviewing Challenge – was a particularly important issue, and something many of my friends and I have added to our reading resolutions in an attempt to redress this pervasive and often unconscious gender imbalance.

Where we buy our books also became a political decision. The lure of online prices meant the demise of many retail booksellers. As unlikely as it may once have seemed (I often think of the Black Books episode in which the presciently named ‘Goliath Books’ opens up beside Bernard’s secondhand bookshop) it was the Goliaths that came crashing down, with the survival of the indie booksellers relying on our continued support. While the evolution of e-readers meant that the manner in which we read and purchase books has become as fraught a decision as the novels we select.

I’d love to hear about everyone’s reading resolutions for this year. In your own literary ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ story, which paths in 2012 will you take?

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17 thoughts on “On reading and re-reading and not reading

  1. NickyFr

    Kate, I am late to the discussion too. My twelve year old boy, also a keen reader, enjoys Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. He also loved Tom Sawyer although he found Huck Finn a bit dull. He recently enjoyed Around the World in Eighty Days too. My daughter, at the same age and also a keen and advanced reader, found Jane Austen far too dense but is beginning to enjoy her now (at 19) so there’s hope for later.

  2. Meski

    Online ebooks vs retail outlets. I think the bricks and mortar outlets have simply lost it. With an ebook I can preview a few chapters free to decide if I want to go on and buy a book, show me a retail outlet that’s going to be happy about me doing that. With ebooks, books no longer go out of print a month or so after release, never to be seen again. With ebooks, many that are out of copyright are now free.

    Against ebooks, there’s DRM, which stops you handing over a book to someone else to read. And the cost should be lower than it is. Recent works have come out equivalently priced with hardcovers…

    Recent ‘real’ books I’ve bought have been limited edition works from specialist publishers, take a bow, Subterranean Press. And I often find myself buying an ebook of the same, to prevent damage to the limited edition… Really, the ebook should be free, I’ve paid a licence on the book, after all.

  3. [email protected]

    Kate – My strongest reccomendation would be the Obernewtyn series, by Isobel Carmody. It’s probably best described as speculative fiction. The books start at a managable length and get much longer and more dense, so they’ll grow with her over a while.

    Someone else recommended Tomorrow When the War Began, by John Marsden which is excellent but won’t at all meet your ‘no sex’ criteria. She might also enjoy Jostein Gaarder’s stuff, if you can get your hands on it – The Solitaire Mystery and Sophie’s World are challenging but satisfying for a bright kid of that age.

    Both those authors work has an interesting moral / philosophical bent which I think will appeal particularly to a kid who’s enjoyed The Golden Compass.

    Looking for Alibrandi and Saving Francesca might fall within your definition of modern teen-lit but I still think they’re worthwhile. You might want to skim yourself first to check your comfort with the sex references on those.

  4. abarker

    PS another read that I tried and I tried and I tried to get into was ‘Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance’. A director at my old job told me it was the best book he’d ever read and he had read it 5 or 6 times, so I bought it, and fritz, it was the most laborious read I’ve ever encountered.

    I never finished it. Yet some people swear it is the greatest book they have ever read.

    I must have missed something.

  5. abarker

    @Beth – I’ve had a bit of a ‘lost garden path’ approach to what I read. Usually it’s a comment or a sentence or a comparison by someone mentioning a book or a series, and, after looking it up, it’s sounded interesting – so I have gone and bought it and read it.

    A Game of Thrones was a lucky find, my wife bought the first three books as she said she wanted to read Fantasy, but after a few chapters put it down and said she couldn’t get into it. Initially, my response was ‘We paid for these, so if you don’t want to read them, well, I will put them to use!” but I was hooked after a few chapters and I’m so glad I never looked back. The TV show is a great adaptation.

    Catch 22, well, I know it’s supposed to be a comedy. It took me a little while to figure out it was supposed to be ludicrous but even then, I re-started it with this in mind, and still couldn’t get into it. At a party I had a friend ask me if I’d read it, and I said I tried, and she said ‘If you find out what the big secret is, can you let me know?” Apparently she had recommended it to her book club and all of them thought the same thing as I did – she was embarrassed to have raised it as an option.

    Right now, well I’m reading ‘Calculus Made Easy’ and ‘Earth: Portrait of a Planet’. Not the most inspiring reads but, I have to get through it for Uni and while I’m not sure I understand it, I am eager to learn this stuff. It’s a career change and the closer I get to it the better!

  6. Jennifer Howard

    Kate- perhaps Marsden’s ‘Tomorrow when the war began’ series or something from Robert Cormier, Meg Rosoff- ‘How I live know”

  7. paddy

    Late to the party Kate. But my suggestion would be The sublime works of the recently departed Anne McCaffrey. The Dragonworld series are true classics.

  8. pk_x

    Three things I learned last year:

    1) Always have fiction and non-fiction on the go at the same time. I know those categories aren’t rigid, but too many novels is just as fatiguing as slogging through dense history.

    2) Don’t assume that just because a translation is still around means it’s any good! I struggled through a 1990s Wordsworth edition of Don Quixote, assuming that the publisher would have chosen one of the better versions … not at all. It’s hard to read and inaccurate, apparently. Motteux for those playing at all.

    3) Robert Graves’ I, Claudius is an excellent historical novel. But it will probably lead you to spend a lot of time on Book Depository and Goodreads finding 2,000 year old classical histories to buy … the Crusades are also a perilous field.

  9. Bethanie Blanchard

    Thanks so much for your comments everyone – it all makes me feel very inspired! x

    Kate – unbelievable timing with that question – I’ve got a series coming up probably next week (but I’ll try for sooner!) about precisely that, so stay tuned. But if she’s enjoying Agatha Christie and Harry Potter what about the classic Sherlock Holmes stories – I always loved them when I was little. And Edgar Allan Poe? He’s wonderfully evocative.

    RamaStar- yes time is the issue. I always want to devour a book in a few days – I don’t like to have to fit it in between other things, but at the moment that’s a luxury I often can’t afford. I quite like your idea of reading 2 books – ‘com-fiction’ and ‘literature’ at the same time. Both can be lovely breaks from one another.

    Ben – I know, social media is such a distraction when you’re trying to write or focus on something, but then Twitter in particular exposes you to so many interesting articles too! I’ve imposed a few hours a day away from laptop and iPhone just to read and it’s been great.

    Nicola – my goals are exactly the same! Goodluck.

    abarker – wow what an interesting collection of novels. haha Catch 22 seems to be a very divisive book! Several people have recommended it to me as their all-time favourite. I didn’t mind it, and I think the actual concept of a catch-22 as Heller explains it is wonderfully winding and brilliant, but I wasn’t as enamoured of it as some people. I love Orwell though – maybe try ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’? It’s one of my favourites.

    and thanks ggm for your recommendations!

  10. RamaStar


    I agree with Isaac Asimov. He has some great short story collections. Not only they fantastically written and entertaining, but a great introduction into quality SciFi.

  11. ggm

    Also Terry Prachett: who can go past a series of 30+ books?

  12. ggm

    Kate: A few ideas..

    Dorothy Sayers. Good contrast to Agatha.

    Dumas: Monte Christo, and the Three Muskateers series.

    Thackeray’s ‘Vanity Fair’

    Trollope (‘the warden’ and ‘dr thorne’)

    Charles Palliser’s ‘the Quincunx’

    Dickens. Especially Bleak House and Great Expectations

    Herbert Read ‘the green child’

    Isaac Asimov

    Len Deighton’s earlier spy books like ‘The IPCRESS file’

    Randolph Stow ‘Captain Midnite’ (his one book for children, but really its for anyone)

    Swallows and Amazons

    Russell Hoban: ‘the mouse and his child’ and ‘Turtle Diary’ for instance

  13. abarker

    I’ve churned through the Bookdepository delivery I got a few months ago. I’m just completing the Christ Clone Trilogy by James Beausigneur, and before that finished off Karen Marie Moning’s Fever series, with Darkfever and Shadowfever. Before this is was Matthew Reilly’s Seven Deadly Wonders, Six Sacred Stones and Five Greatest Warriors.

    I was gagging for A Dance with Dragons by George RR Martin and read the four previous books at the start of the year, as luck would have it, a few months before I discovered it was turned into a cracking TV show by HBO and the same year his long awaited follow up appeared.

    I’ve tried the classics. 1984 was good and very relevant, but I tend to find them very dated. Farenheit 451 (541?) was OK but very old. Catch 22 was one of the most un-interesting and boring books I’ve ever started to read. I tried The girl with the dragon tattoo but fell away in the second book and couldn’t get interested.

    Sadly, this year is likely to be filled with textbooks with a return to study on the cards, but I’m looking forward to that, so it won’t be so bad.

  14. Nicola Heath

    Read more books by female authors, more non-fiction, more Australian literature, and more often!

  15. Benjamin Solah

    It is exciting to see, alongside blog posts about writing goals, a real focus amongst the lit blogs on reading, spurred on I imagine by the year of reading thing, but also a culmination of everyone thinking about it. I hope this means this discussion will continue throughout the year and maintain our reading appetites.

    My main goal is just to read more regularly and consistently. I can remember patches of 2011 where I barely read at all. By that I mean, books, long essays, whether they be in print or eReaders. I’m quite happy to always be reading blogs, tweets, comments, emails, articles, but there is something different, more focussed about reading things that have traditionally been in print, even though they exist online now as well. And as much as I hate people who go on about ‘going offline’ and ignoring social media, I think it’s something I will have to try and do occasionally. Close my laptop and read away from the screen.

    It’s why I love my Kindle so much and am aiming to use it more and more, because I can even send articles or online writing (though a handy browser plugin in Chrome) straight to my Kindle, away from the temptation to constantly check Twitter.

  16. RamaStar

    My increasingly precarious mountain beside my bed is a mix of literature (Siegfried Sassoon, Graham Greene, a couple of Cormac McCarthy’s and Kim Scott’s ‘That Deadman Dance) and commercial fiction.

    Don’t get me wrong I prefer the ‘literature’ I have over the commercial fiction, but this summer I find time & again myself reaching for David Rollins, M. R. Hall and the like.

    For me the reason is time. To read literature I want to sit down for a few hours and have a solid read. For me it takes that long to get absorbed into it and to feel like you’ve got something out of the book. Also I find there aren’t as many convenient breaks in the story to leave like there is in Com-Fiction, so you need time to read whole chapters.

    But much of my reading is done in short time period. On the bus to/from work for 20 – 30 minutes, or 45 minutes in bed before I fall asleep. Those times are not long enough to get into the literature. So I tell myself I’ll read two books at a time, reading the Com-Fiction for weekdays and Lit for weekends. However come Saturday I find myself a third of the way through the Com-Fiction book and want to spend my solid reading time finishing it! Then come Sunday night when I’m done… the process repeats itself. Actually the best time I find for reading Lit is at the airport on a plane combo.

    I’ve actually enjoyed it I must admit, there is some great commercial fiction out there to read. It also makes me realise how many hoity-toity readers there are out there who look down on it (I’m looking at you First Tuesday…)

    As for re-reading, I never do it. I don’t have enough time and too many books to read. I’ve only ever re-read a book once.

  17. kate

    Hi Bethanie and fellow-Crikers,

    Can someone give me some ideas for classic novels to give a bright, articulate 12 year old who is a voracious reader? I don’t want modern teen-lit, vampires or any sex. She has of course read Harry Potter a thousand times. She loved the Golden Compass trilogy and Lord of the Rings, and is now devouring the complete works of Agatha Christie.

    Perhaps Pride and Prejudice? Any other thoughts?

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