Wednesday, 19 January 2011

It's terrible to be between books

On January 6, as I was dismantling the Christmas tree, I was also listening to Bookclub on Radio 4. 

The recent Booker Prize winner, Howard Jacobson, was talking about one of his novels -- and to tell the truth, I was listening half-heartedly until he got on to the topic of failure and its relationship to readers and writers.  He started off by saying, quite reasonably, that he was only interested in writing about failure because success didn't make for very interesting characters or plots.  But then, quite startlingly, he flung out the idea that we are writers -- and readers, even -- because we are failures at life.

Did I imagine that the collective intake of breath from his live audience turned into a sort of hissing . . .?

Maybe I remember it wrongly, but I do recall that he start "explaining" (backpeddling, in fact) rapidly.
Apparently what he really meant is that we are readers (and failures at life) because we want the world to be another (different and better) place.  Writers (and also readers) have gone into the imagination to remake and relive the world.

I have been ruminating on this assertion, especially because I find myself hiding out in books at this time of year.  Do I read more when I am depressed?  Well, yes.  But then I always have a book on the go, whether happy or sad, and my involvement in it has more to do with its own intrinsic interest (I will venture to say) than my own emotional state.  Do I actually want to remake the world through reading?  No, I don't think so.  Relive the world?  Well, of course; I appreciate the access to all of those other worlds I would otherwise be ignorant and deprived of.

This time last year I made a resolution to keep better track of what I read.  (Like any avid reader, sometimes I consume books so rapidly that I can barely remember the plot -- much less character names -- by the following month.)  My dear blog-friend Relyn recommended goodreads -- and although it took me a while to get started, and to be consistent with my recording, I have come to thoroughly enjoy and appreciate it.

I was looking through the list of books I read last year, and I started thinking about how some books create such a compelling world that it is always a bit of a wrench to leave that place.  In most cases, it's not that I would want to live there -- even if I could; but rather, that I have been so thoroughly immersed in that imaginative design that it becomes, for a time, more real than the "real world."  I think that I know the characters; I'm swept up into the plot; and yes, I feel a sense of loss when the words run out and I turn the final page.  Do I prefer books to real life?  (Does it make me a failure to admit that is sometimes the case?)

On goodreads, the reader gives each book a starred rating -- from one stars to five (the rather cheesy "it was amazing" rating).  The books on the following list weren't always a FIVE, and I wouldn't claim that they were perfect books and that anyone would love them, but they were the books that transported me to a fictional world that felt quite, quite real.  I was a tiny bit bereft when I finished them.

The Priory, by Dorothy Whipple
The Group, by Mary McCarthy
The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen
Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen
A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore
The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst,
The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, Monique Roffey
The Cookbook Collector, Allegra Goodman
Any Human Heart, William Boyd

It strikes me, looking at this list, that I'm partial to a reading experience that begins with The . . .

I leave you with some borrowed words from another delightful book that begins with The:
The Love Letter, by Cathleen Schine

"I need something to read," a man said to Helen.
Her attention shifted to him instantly and completely.
"It's terrible to be between books," she said.
And Johnny marveled at the tenderness of her voice.  It suddenly seemed
terrible to him, too, to be between books, though he was
often between books for months and had never really noticed it before.
"It's so disorienting, isn't it? Helen was saying.
"Like a divorce.  An amicable one, but still."


Sarah Laurence said...

Here’s another theory: books are our real life. We aren’t failures, just women with lively imaginations and a healthy desire to roam further than our wallets or commitments will allow us.

Nice to get your Good Reads recommendations. It sounds like a great site.

Great quotation! I love Cathleen Schine’s humor and enjoyed her Three Weissmanns of Westport. I go everywhere with a book. I usually have 2 going at once so I’m never between books.

Dan said...

What a strange thing for an author to say! I certainly don't see reading (or writing for that matter)as being an occupation for life's failures! I enjoy books immensely, and think they add to and enrich our imaginations, rather than being an escape from real life.
Of your booklist, I've read The Help, which was a fantastic read. I've been recording my book progress on Goodreads for quite some time now, and I enjoy looking back and remembering what I was reading and when. I saw a wonderful post on reading journals at A Circle of Rain - where the first and last lines of every book read were recorded. I thought this was a wonderful way of preserving the memory of books read over time.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

I loved The Love Letter. What a wonderful place that was to spend a few days.

I've just finished Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker. That one should cheer you up!!

Teresa O said...

That was a startling remark for an author to make. I read for many reasons, sometimes it's to gain information other times it's to travel to places it's doubtful I'll ever go and then there are those times I wish to escape. Does that make my life a failure? I don't believe it does, but it does make me ponder the need to escape.

My living comes from offering information in written form, not always exciting, but necessary. When I have time, I like to create new worlds through my words, perhaps this is an escape, too.

I've not read one book on your list, but I'm curious about goodreads.

foto-sh said...

book are small islands .. where I can dream
loved to read your text tks ..

Magpie said...

I'm never really between books, because I'm always reading 2 or 3 or 6.

The book that left me most bereft was "A Suitable Boy". Have you read it?

elizabeth said...

Ah! booktalk.....
Well, I think the most attentive readers are prisoners of any kind: escape being the name of the game
people abroad
people in boarding schools or other institutions
I'm generally reading several books at once though occasionally there will be a book drought.
You must read Denis Mckail's Greenery Street for the reading habits of young marrieds circa 1925...
So I must obviously get "THE HELP" since everyone is loving it.
Great thrill the other day. Boast boastGot 'friended' on Facebook by Gabe Rotter, an ex-student, 'advanced writing' circa 1994. Has two novels published by Simon and Shuster. Thanked me for blah blah....the truth is writers 'are born not made' but it's helpful to have a cheering section.

Am loving The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding.The main character has a very strong-willed teenaged daughter whom the mother is very protective of.....!!need to finish the book to hand on to book group member.

Always love Melanie singing "I WISH I COULD FIND A GOOD BOOK TO LIVE IN'

steven said...

i think it depends on what you read bee. see i love to read travelogues and very often they step into the imaginary world of my inhabitation and i can place steven in that world. then again i love fiction and that covers the long span between the eighteen hundreds and january two thousand and eleven. they are places of cerebral, sensual, pleasure for me. places where the world is clear, not necessarily beautiful and right but clear. i always have iles of books waiting. always. it's a small kindness i extend to myself. steven

Star said...

I like nothing better than to be 'lost in a book' willingly. I have read some lovely books over the last 12 months, The Help being one of them and I am looking forward to the next 12 months of reading too. Like you I always have a book on the go, usually two - one heavier than the other. I like the lighter one in the morning and the heavier one at bedtime.
Happy Reading. I enjoyed your post today.

Catalyst said...

Very thought provoking post, Bee. I, too, can escape into books though I find I'm reading less and less fiction. I just read "The Last Stand" by Nathaniel Philbrick. It is supposed to be non-fiction but there were many conversations and thoughts in the book by people who did not survive the Custer massacre at the Little Big Horn. I wondered how Philbrick got those details but I didn't let me stop enjoying a tale of a great disaster brought on by foolish bravado and jealousy.

ArtSparker said...

What this author said ties in with the assertion that genius is "divine discontent". If artists of any kind were happy with the world as it is, there'd be nothing created, it is all an insistence that others pay attention to some aspect of the self of the artist meeting the world and transforming it. At its weakest, it's entertainment, at its best, it provides communion. Mostly it's not an either or proposition, though.

Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...

Hello Bee

I will have to give Good Reads a look. I like your book list and thank you for sharing with your readers.

I love books and I have them in everyroom in my home--my family thinks I am crazy!


Tracy :)

Peggy said...

Bee, fabulous, fabulous post!

I'm often very briefly between books. It's self-imposed. I feel that "divorced" feeling for a short time after a book ends, and I'm not yet ready to let go of the characters' lives I've just been such a part of. I felt it most keenly recently with The Help and Little Bee. So I give myself a day or two for the dust to settle before beginning another adventure.

Gigi said...

Hmmmmm . . . as a reader and a writer, I think my motivations to read are quite different from my motivations to write. None involve failure, really, so i find Jacobson's comment interesting. I certainly have times when I feel like I'm failing at life, but sitting down to write (or read) doesn't improve or change that feeling one bit! :)

When I ask a classroom of students why people read, the first answer is nearly always, "to escape." That strikes me as odd, for reading has never felt like an escape to me. It is a part of my imaginative reality, which is very much a part of my everyday life. Perhaps I am just mad!

Like you, I read even more in the winter. I think it has something to do with everyday realities like being inside more and fewer hours of sunlight.

I love your observation about books beginning with "The." I haven't joined goodreads yet because I fear another internet habit, but now I think I must make a list of recent favorites and see how many begin with "The"!

Thank you for this post, Bee. It's just what I needed today. xo Gigi

Plantaliscious said...

Nothing wrong with escaping to or exlporing another world provided you don't entirely opt out of this one. I think it is utterly daft to suggest that readers are failing at life and so seeking refuge. Mind you, I freely admit to seeking refuge in a good book and the way it can transport you to another time, another place, introduce you to new people. Its better than resorting to excessive drink. But I return, refreshed, sometimes even inspired, to "real" life. Read on, I say! I will save your list because rather wonderfully I haven't read any of them!

Cottage Garden said...

Great quote Bee!

I always listen to Bookclub and remember the Howard Jacobson interview. It does seem a very strange thing for an author to say, alienating his audience and in doing so, biting the hand that feeds him!

I often have two or even three books on the go but this year I'm limiting myself to one at a time in order to immerse myself fully. Does that make me a failure? I think not!

A thought-provoking post. I'm talking about books over at mine at the moment too.

I loved The Priory.


Lisa said...

One of the things I'm really enjoying about Goodreads is the ability to "talk" with my friends about the books we're reading.

Kelly H-Y said...

Wow, what an interesting remark ... I liked Sarah Laurence's take on it! :-)
I always feel a sense of loss when I finish a book .... unless there is a sequel! :-)

Lucy said...

I like ArtSparker's comment.

Howard Jacobson is most certainly not daft, and it's a very characteristic thing of him to say, to shock people a little, and make them look again at why and how they read (with quite a big element of performative utterance involved too, I think!). Evidently it's worked if the response provoked here is anything to go by.

But if we who read are the failures, who are the successes, if there are any, and would we want to be among them?

I wish I could be between books more often, like I wish I could be bored with nothing to do; mostly books and life are piling up waiting to be attended to (like the e-mail I owe you, which I haven't forgotten about but I want to do it justice!). But that feeling of bereavement is to be treasured, I think, and sat with for a time, as it means one really has been possessed by a good book.

I too find I am reading less fiction. It's partly because much I seem to be sticking on suspension of disbelief more and more; even well-written novels I love often annoy a bit these days because I find myself taking issue with the premises on which their narratives are built. But also I think I'm not sure I want to get caught up with stories when there's so much in the way of poetry and history and ideas and suchlike which I need to find out about; there's still so much to learn...

I will check out goodreads, but I too fear another internet habit.

Shaista said...

Bee, you write so beautifully :)
I love visiting you.

I dove into my kindle immediately on reading the quote from the Love Letter... but sadly it doesn't exist in kindle form. But The Three Weissmanns of Westport does, also by Schine :)

The SAD poem is spot on too... why oh why do the clouds gather for us, year upon year? But Dad always reminds me that Jan is for snowdrops and aconites too...

Amanda said...

howard jacobson's comment about writers being failures at life is provocative indeed. he got the audience's attention, that's for sure!

oh such good i read more when i'm depressed ---- do i prefer books to real life? much food for thought here, bee.

must give this goodreads a look-see~

herhimnbryn said...

Hi Bee,
Just for your info. You don't have to be a uk resident or pay the fee to hear any bbc radio! I listen to radio3, 4 and 7 here in Australia. I also download free podcasts of programmes from these sites too.

I have started this year to keep track of my reading. I seem to read more in the hot months, when I can't cope with the heat!

I am on the 3rd book of the Millenium trilogy now, 'The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's nest'. This is NOT the sort of tale I would normally read( quite gruesome, in places and somewhat confronting). However, I cannot put the book down and read 200 pages in the first day.

Marcheline said...

It's funny you just posted about missing books as if you had left a place... I've just posted about Riven, a computer game which I also feel homesick for when I finish it.

Lucy said...

Oh yes I meant to say that there's no problem with listening to BBC radio abroad, it's only the telly that doesn't work, same as you don't need a licence for radio!

Christina said...

i wish i was a resident of the uk. i would come and see you, all of the time. and bring cookies. : )

Kristen In London said...

Have we ever said before how much we adore (I do!) Cathleen Schine? Rameau's Niece... sigh of love. I was so sad when someone told me she and David Denby of the New Yorker had divorced.

Jayne said...

Hello - came by from Pamela and Edward's blog. :)

Failures at life - that's a bit harsh, isn't it?! I think books, like art and music, have the power to make you live a rich life, filled with soaring emotion, that help you know how it is to be human, to live as humans.

yumant said...

book is a broad picture of the world, if people know the book so familiar he is the person who has held the world. and the need to remember that inspiration sometimes comes from a book that is old. which although is old but very useful large

Meri said...

I recently read The Help for the second time and enjoyed it all over again. And like you, I read so much that I forget plots a short time after putting the book down and diving into another. I always try to time completion of a book club selection no more that a day or two prior to the meeting.

20th Century Woman said...

It's an interesting idea that readers are failures who want to live in a more ideal world -- or at least a different world. Perhaps a more simplified world. After all, no writers world could be as complex as the one that faces us each day when we wake up. I do think when I write (I write about myself or my world) that I have idealized it and streamlined it for the reader. I have eliminated all the boring and extraneous details and omitted the really ugly or embarrassing bits or the ones that might offend friends and family. So in that sense I guess I am hiding the failure of reality.

Dick said...

I'm still in only partial recovery from A.S. Byatt's 'The Children's Book'. Nothing has managed to top it during the past year. I too always have a book on the go - generally several - but 'TCB' has cast a long shadow!

herhimnbryn said...

Bee, I haven't forgotten your 'image request'. It will be up after the present post!

Stephanie said...

I keep a journal of books I read and have begun, besides writing down the title and author, writing a short synopsis as I find my aging gray matter can't remember a thing about the book soon after I finish them.

Thanks for the list here...I've read a couple but many are new to me. I'm reading a fascinating book right now...On Gold Mountain by Lisa See, autobiographical work of her Chinese/American family.

HAPPY to see signs of spring here!!


Emm said...

I love Goodreads. It is one of the few sites that I open up every single morning. I store all of my book history and recommendations there and I think it is a brilliant site.

That is quite a strange thing for an author to say but I've not been able to disprove it by looking at my own reading habits. Certainly, I like to read a lot of historical non-fiction and that is based on understanding the past so that I influence the future. But in the event that I ever was of any influence, I would see that as my gratest achievement, not failure!

Merisi said...

Oh, that is such a touching post, for more than one reason!

"It's terrible to be between books" says so much more than just the stated fact. When somebody expresses a feeling that one has felt with ever having done so consciously, and suddenly there it is, put into words, what better proof of a relationship that goes beyond the ordinary, be it love or be it friendship, or both? I have to read Cathleen Schine's book!

And you read "The Group", one of my favorite books ever! Would you believe that one of my daughters is reading - and loving it! - right now? It is one of my most precious experience as a reader when my children read the books I read when I was their age. My youngest went through my library shelves a few days ago and we chose together a stack of books she plans on reading. For some strange reason, I never thought that one day I would go through my books with my children. I collected them for my own pleasure, to have them at my disposal whenever the desire struck to go back and read a passage again (I am known for having read many of my books more than once).

Thank you for this wonderful post, I shall come back to it! I have to think about Howard Jacobson's remark, it is so intriguing.

Btw. when I am a bit down in the dumps, I am unable to read fiction. only poetry and non-fiction books.

Merisi said...

Regarding the reasons of reading fiction:
Books give us the power to live more than one life.

Maybe Mr. Jacobson meant we are seekers?
Only the self complacent think they already know all the answers.