Books about reading

By pleasant serendipity, the 50th book I finished reading so far this year is “The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books (And Two Not-so-great Books) Saved My Life” by Andy Miller (who is one of the co-hosts of my beloved Backlisted Podcast).

A couple of weeks ago I read another entry in the same genre of Autobiographies Structured Around Books, “How to be a Heroine: Or, What I’ve Learned From Reading Too Much” by Samantha Ellis.   Each one is a kind of memoir cum coming-of-age narrative, wrapped around an investigation of the books the author has read—or has set out to read as a project of, as Miller calls it, “betterment”*.  It’s exciting and a bit weird for me, to read about how other people react to books I myself love.  There’s always a sense that these books really just belong to me, that their authors unwittingly wrote them just for me alone to understand and treasure, yet at the same time it’s so comforting to know that out there in the world are people who also derive great life affirmation from the same book.  I think, ‘if only I met this person, we’d have so much to talk about!’.  Which we probably actually wouldn’t.

*Much as I was into this book and its entire premise, the whiff of self-improvement in this word put me off (and surprised me a little coming from an English writer–I think of doing things because it will somehow benefit you in an improving manner, rather than just because you want to–or avoiding doing them just because they don’t appeal to you–is one of those dreadful American traits we inherit from our Puritan forebears; a plague of life-suck-age.)

Reading these memoirs may have something to do with starting this blog.  Miller’s book in particular was terrific, in its relating of a mid-life reconnection with deep serious reading, and also in recounting a suburban childhood wreathed in books, a public library, and pop culture of benign effect and invigorating remembrance.  I identified deeply with those chapters, which sent me back to memories of my own nurturing relationship in childhood with the Bay Shore-Brightwaters public library.

Though I have friends who read, right now I have only one with whom I get into what I’d call substantive conversations about books.  We met at a reading group at The Center for Fiction (“The Ambassadors” by Henry James), and we’ve managed to read some of the same books at more or less the same time, and he has a wonderful aptitude for talking about a book not in terms of what he ‘liked’ but in a spirit of enquiry.  He asks me questions and we dig into problems of the text, things we’re not sure we understood, aspects of language and character that we admire.  I treasure this kind of talk, but it seldom comes up otherwise; whatever I’m reading is not what my other friends are reading, so we tend to exchange book reports rather than talk in depth about a book.  I’ve gotten some good recommendations that way, but it doesn’t quite scratch that itch.

There’s always been something paradoxical for me in reading; a good book makes me feel connected to humanity in a way that real life seldom does; but reading is a solitary pleasure and I’m fundamentally a mild introvert and singleton who best experiences life cerebrally. (Hence that unshakeable belief that books I treasure are for me alone.)

What I’m reading now: I’ve been reading Denton Welch’s first book, “Maiden Voyage” for a while.  Having done today with the Miller, I’ve got “Hotel Du Lac” by Anita Brookner on tap and am looking around for book number 3.  I generally read 3 at once.

How do you read?


Late august reading


This summer (I’m writing this in mid-August), my reading took an expected turn when I discovered a podcast that might as well have been made to order for my interests: Backlisted, which is about old books.  I don’t recall what put me on to it, but looking over their list of old episodes, I saw many writers I already liked, and sensed that whatever these folks picked out to discuss would be of interest to me one way or the other. Each episode was so full of enticing descriptions of books that even though I already had a to-read pile that was sufficient for summer, I wanted to read NOW.

The podcast put me on to “All the Devils Are Here” by David Seabrook, a Smiths-back-catalogue of a read that I’d never have discovered for myself.

A cock-eyed ramble among the seaside towns of Kent, taking in the weird, the violent, the homosexual, the  gossipy, the scandalous, the atmospheric,the  readerly and literary,  the murderous, the psychologically-twisted, imporverished, the fascistic, mysterious, pathetic, minor celebrity adjacent, in a mélange of deep inquiries and rambling anecdote given out by the kind of slightly spooky great talker whom you both want to listen to forever and back away from slowly.   I read the book again a day or two after finishing it, and then lent it to a friend.

Also read “Darkness Falls From the Air” by Nigel Balchin, a world war two story of London in the blitz, which again, I’d never have heard of, and which was compared, on the podcast, to Greene’s “The End of the Affair” much to the detriment of the latter (a book I’ve loved a time or two.)  This one is about a government official in London who’s allowing his beloved wife to have an affair with a literary twep because it’s the war and who is he to preclude her from having a life while they wait for the big bombing to begin, except that of course while he’s being very polite and repressed and civilized about it, he hates it.  It’s mostly dialogue of the kind that you long to hear coming from the black and white mouths of Bacall and Bogart, though they wouldn’t really do those clipped upperish English 1930s voices.  I imagined them though, with maybe Leslie Howard as the squirrely lover. A perfect downer of a book, which I mean in the sense that it’s melancholy, the inevitability of its surprises, and its ending, worked completely, a perfect unit of hope and despair.

With no prompt from this podcast, but because of a Meet-up reading group I really wanted to get off my butt and attend (that is, the small part of my psyche that wants to get off and usually is squashed by the larger part that wants to stay recumbent), I read The Alexandria Quartet of Lawrence Durrell.  I owned thse books, and had tried, off and on since the 1980s, to read “Justine“, always falling out in the first 30 pages with a sense that the characters and narration and apparent emotional situation of the story were overwhelmingly pretentious.  This time, with the idea that I’d go meet other people and hear what they thought of it, I persisted, and pretty much a page or so after my old falling-off point, I was gripped, and realized that in fact this book was just the kind I like best, set in a strange location, slightly overwrought, vivid, difficult to track, and soaked in all five senses.  And then as I read the rest of the quartet I was delighted to find it was one of those works that delves into point of view, into how inaccurate are our perceptions of one another, how unknowable everything is.  As the subsequent books reveal the apparent ‘reality’ that’s concealed from the narrator of “Justine”, worlds open up.  And ultimately the overwroughtness of it all was just the kind of overwroughtness that I eat up with a spoon.

What I’m reading right now: “The Year of Reading Dangerously” by Andy Miller, which makes me want to shout: “Comrade!”  (I tweeted the author my compliments), “Maiden Voyage” by Denton Welch, and “Hotel Du Lac” by Anita Brookner.

Finding exciting books and a revival of my reading intensity is this year’s one bright spot, in the midst of freelance longueurs, the collapse of my aged parents’ independence, and our appalling political dilemmas.  A cliche to say reading is a life-line, but for me it’s literally true; I don’t know if I’d have made it out of my childhood much less this far, without books.  (I may write more about why this is, but not yet.)

Finally, I’m new to the book-and-reader-blogging world, and frankly don’t know where to begin there either.  I suppose I’ll find like-minded bloggers (and readers)  bit by bit.  Meanwhile, comments welcome.



I read. My urge to read is physical, like a hunger pang or a good sneeze.

When it comes to books, I mostly read literary fiction.  For many years I enjoyed keeping up with critically acclaimed new fiction in the midst of reading “classics”.  Lately I’m much more interested in discovering or rereading old books.  My reading choices are the most purely free in my life: I don’t have any responsibility to anybody else and can follow impulses; all that I lack is the 9 extra heads that would enable me to read 10 books in one long lazy Sunday instead of just 1 of the 10 books in my to-read-next pile.

It bothers me a little bit that I’m not reading many new books.  It bothers me less than that, after decades of proactively–obsessively–following the music scene, and promising myself I’d NEVER become one of those people who at a certain age stops listening to anything they didn’t know and like, I got unplugged from music.  It was a combination of the rise of the iPod, the demise of the print music press, psychotropic issues, a new yen for the spoken word.  There was too much music too easily available, and some how the whole thing just got away from me.

But the thing with new books versus old books, is a strong sense I have that old books are somehow better.  Okay, before you splutter: better for me.  There’s so many existing books I want to read before I die, and I just want to be with them, to live with them.  Trying debut fiction these days so often feels like internet dating: something I have no energy for–that might give you back something great, but the sunk costs are just too high, because I have all these old books to read for the first time, and all these other old books that I crave to reread.

This picture shows some of the my best-loved books.  Most of them I’ve read more than once.  Only two of the authors shown are still alive.  Colm Tóibín is probably my favorite living writer, with the caveat that though she doesn’t seem to be writing anymore, Alice Munro is still with us.

Almost enough for first post.  The impetus for starting to blog about my reading life is that more and more my introspection about myself–I’m very introspective–traces through the books of my life (and the music, and maybe some other bits of pop culture that might turn up in these posts, we’ll see).