Do you have a tall pile of books-waiting-to-be-read? I certainly do – that’s mine in the picture. And how did they get into the pile? Mine are mostly the result of other people’s actions. I have identified five ways they pick my reading.
- Newspapers (especially The Guardian Saturday Review) eg Diego Mariani’s New Finnish Grammar which was highly recommended by Nicholas Lezard in his weekly choice. I read all those end-of-year choices. You know, the ones where writers, or readers, or columnists write half an inch about two or three books they have enjoyed in the last year. Then the paper sits around for months until I transfer the items I’ve marked as interesting into my notebook, or polish my walking boots on it.
- Literary publications (such as London Review of Books, Slightly Foxed, Mslexia). I tend to read the very erudite reviews in LRB, instead of the book. But occasionally I follow up a review by actually reading it: eg Robert Macfarlane The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot.
- Blogs were invented for people like me. It was a review on Book Snob blog that led me to Marghanita Laski’s Little Boy Lost. I read a review of Miss Ranken Comes Home by Barbara Euphon Todd on Cosy Books and now I want to read that too. Both these books are published by Persephone, by the way, in their tasteful and elegant grey jackets, endpapers that reproduce a relevant fabric design and – delicious treat – tucked inside is a matching bookmark. I love a book that is beautifully produced.
- Radio programmes such as Woman’s Hour, book and arts programmes. Radio was invented for reading aloud: poems, children’s stories, serial chapters, short stories and god bless public service broadcasting.
- My friends always talk about what they have been reading. Out comes my pen and notebook and I make a note, or I borrow from their shelves, or pitch in with my recommendations.
- Literary prize long- and short-lists. Some of the literary prizes are like The X Factor for the literati but I think these work well when they bring unknown but brilliant writers to our attention, like Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012. I would never have met Futh without the MBP. And for non-fiction you can’t beat picking from the shortlist for the Samuel Johnson Prize.
- Literary events such as festivals and readings. At Ways with Words in Devon I heard Anita Desai talking about the importance of place in fiction and read The Artist of Disappearance. Nadine Gordimer at the South Bank Centre told the audience she was most pleased with The Conservationist and Burger’s Daughter. I’m reading the latter at the moment.
- Writing classes can produce great recommendations through the examples provided by the tutor, and discussions with participants.
2. Book Club. One of the joys of a book club or reading group is the requirement to read designated books. Some people avoid them for that reason, but I love serendipitous discoveries, like The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. We wont dwell on Absolom, Absolom!
3. My local library. It doesn’t exactly select my books, but it adds to the randomness of my reading because reservations arrive in any order and I have often forgotten the impulse that made me request it. I like the idea that others have and will read the same copy.
4. Gifts. My sister sends me books from time to time, which I love. She introduced me to Barbara Kingsolver a decade or so ago. I like to set an example by giving books to friends and relatives.
5. Subscription. For Christmas this year I bought a subscription to Peirene press for which I get three books a year and access to other goodies. They are translations of books that are best sellers and award winners in their countries of origin. What a good model for a small independent publisher. And, as a bonus, they are beautifully presented, great design, nice paper. I loved my first volume: The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch – what a treat.
If this makes me seem like a reader at the mercy of other people, well perhaps I am. I don’t suppose I am alone. And although I don’t have a reading plan, I manage to satisfy my intention to read more foreign fiction and more classics and to read as a writer. I’m more than happy to receive your recommendations.