Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Highly Recommended

If there's one thing more confusing than the slightly unsettling emotion of loving someone who doesn't get one of your main passions in life, except to love the fact that you have a passion, I find, it's the feeling created when someone of whom you are very fond recommends you a book - and you cannot muster any enthusiasm at all to read it.

There's a certain school-like pressure about being urged to read something, regardless of who by. 'You'll love it,' friends or family say. 'I did.' And so you should: you love them, so why wouldn't you love reading what they've loved? Sadly, it's not always the case.

My main objection to recommendations is feeling deprived of the book-buying experience. I could take a hundred books home every year from my local bookshop - savouring the smell of new paper and print, the careful balancing up of the merits of one book over another, the heady last-minute decision to buy something I've never heard of instead of the well-reviewed something I've been eyeing up for weeks.

In all this, editing is crucial: I have neither the time nor the shelf space to buy every book that catches my eye, so difficult decisions about what to take and what to leave are necessary. When a book's recommended by a friend, I may already have mentally rejected it - and strangely, that's a decision that's hard to turn back from. The pile by my bed is already quite tall.

If it's not already been rejected, it may simply be a topic that I find uninteresting. However good a book may be, if it's about Queen Victoria or her reign, chances are I don't want to read it. I couldn't watch the film Young Victoria, although everyone said it was wonderful, on that ground alone. I can't be alone in having this sort of irrational taste block.

My mother has a maddening habit of recommending or buying for me books she's merely heard are good - but that's just too tenuous. Her friends' tastes aren't necessarily mine. It's such a kind impulse, but they lie unopened for months before being taken to the charity shop.

Writing this makes me think of the way the New Yorker drops relentlessly onto the doormat in so many American homes, a weekly pleasure that becomes, by its very regularity, an obligation as well. Ever more intimidating piles of beautifully-selected and -edited, high-quality, highly-enjoyable writing tower besides loos and beds. It's like having a book recommended to you, and then before you've even had the chance to open it, another arrives, and then another.

Perhaps this is what it feels like when your friends - or even your wife - write books and expect you to read them.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Dear Reader

The opening essay of Anne Fadiman's charming collection, Ex Libris, entitled 'Marrying Libraries' is about her and her husband's efforts to 'mix' their books together. Their other effects had happily cohabited for years, but five years into their marriage her Billy Budd remained at the north end of their apartment, his Moby-Dick at the south. When their shelves were finally collated the ensuing arguments - Fadiman is a 'splitter', George a 'lumper' - made her husband seriously contemplate divorce.

I labour under no such pressures. When I moved into my husband's flat I had a wall of bookshelves installed, and they easily accommodated my husband's spare and random collection of books (an ode to his school; a not-very-good novel by a comedic National Treasure; miscellaneous Australiana; a dictionary of wine bigger and more detailed than the OED).

Here, I've given him a few little sections of his own: a row of books about his family history, mostly gifts or in waiting for our sons; a few books I think he might like, and have put aside when requested to wait for him to notice them (this is the section that grew steadily by his bed for 4 years in our old flat, and includes 2 books by me published since we've known each other, but which, to my knowledge, remain unread, apart from the dedication pages); and journalistic books about the state of the nation or the modern world - Who Runs Britain, Freakonomics, that sort of thing.

The problem (if it is a problem; perhaps situation is a better word) is that he hasn't ever, to my knowledge, finished one of them. One of my mother's few pieces of advice to me when I was a girl was not to trust people - men was the implication - Who Didn't Finish Books. That won't be something I need to worry about, I remember thinking. You may have chosen badly on this account with my father, a delight in other ways but not, in his youth at any rate, a sticker; but I won't make that mistake. How could I possibly fall in love with someone who doesn't read?

And so sure enough I find myself with someone who not only has barely any books to contribute to our shared bookshelves but someone who never finishes a book - not even a book he likes. I tell myself that it's because he's too obsessed by current events, and that anyway it wouldn't do to be competing on the same field - another reader might not have given me the space I need. The strange, and extraordinarily touching, thing is that he's almost more wedded to the idea of me being a writer than I am.