I gave up trying to be well read a few years around the time I went back to university to study English Literature and I began to meet people who were so far ahead of me in the reading stakes that I realised it would be futile to try and match them.
I am however, unashamedly an absolute book snob. The only way I would read Bryce Courtney is if I were forced to with my eyes pried open with hooks A Clockwork Orange style; if you were to see me reading The Da Vinci Code, you would know that I had obviously been kidnapped by aliens and replaced with a cyborg twin. Life’s too short to read crap.
Now I have read a fair few books in my time, but my aim now is more to read well than to be well read. My reading history is pretty much a cook’s tour of literature – with only a few novelists being worthy of further investigation. To whit I have read at least one Dickens, Austen, Lawrence, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Eliot, Bronte, Hardy, Joyce, Kafka, Conrad, Mann and James. Some of them get more attention – I have only missed out on Mansfield Park in the Jane Austen cannon, but some, like Henry James are unlikely to see me revisiting – The Bostonians was good, but not good enough to have me clamouring to read Wings of a Dove or Portrait of a Lady. Who knows, that may change, but at the moment there’s a long queue and they are way at the end.
Many other novelists outside of that pantheon of stars of the 19th Century and early 20th Century have also been given the once over by my eyes, but for the most part I don’t read new novels or novelists. Occasionally I will give the latest novel by say Vikram Seth or Sebastian Faulks a go, but mostly I limit my novel reading to the much older tomes sitting on my bookshelf.
The book I am currently reading is however by a new (ie a living) author – Richard Ford. I have been meaning to read The Sportswriter for about a decade now, but had never bought a copy until a couple weeks back when I found a near new one in a great second-hand book store that I frequent on an almost weekly basis. It’s an excellent read, and I will most likely keep a look out for a good copy of its sequel – Independence Day.
The book that it replaced still sits on my bedside table, as it has on and off for the nearly 4 years since I bought it. Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann is an absolute thumper of a novel. In reality it is four novels – but the good folk of Vintage Classics have conveniently put them into one volume of a mere 1207 pages. The novel is a retelling of the story from Genesis of Jacob and his sons, of whom one was Joseph who was sold into slavery by his brother only to go on and become the Pharaoh’s right hand man.
Mann wrote it while in America in self imposed exile during the 1930s and ‘40s and apparently is somewhat allegorical to the rise of Hitler in his native Germany.
Now I think Mann is one of the great novelists of the 20th Century – Doctor Faustus and Buddenbrooks are right up there in my all-time favourites list (now there's a blog for another day). And yet every time I set myself to read Joseph I falter. The opening prelude starts with the magnificent line “Very deep is the well of the past.” A fantastic opening line, for the novel is also about history and the creation of western civilisation. And yet I have been unable to get through that 35 page prelude to Chapter One. Yes it is heavy reading – but it is great writing so that does not matter.
I think subconsciously the size of the novel is just too great for me; and so I look for an escape or an excuse, and one is always found – this time it was the Olympics; I would get to bed late and thus would put off starting as though because the novel is 1207 pages long, you can only start reading it if you can devote a good hour or so to the opening pages.
And so it was replaced by The Sportswriter, and it now goes back onto the queue; back into the list of books I want to read but haven’t yet – Dickens’ Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend, Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Cervantes Don Quixote; and back as well onto the list of books I have started by inexplicably stopped near the start – Eliot’s Middlemarch, Yoshikawa’s Musashi, Lawrence’s Women in Love, Proust’s Swann’s Way, Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Seths’ A Suitable Boy, Pamuk’s My Name is Red; and will sit alongside that long list of books that stare at me from the shelf wondering when am I going to give them a go – Solzhenitsyn’s August 1916, Tartt’s The Secret History, Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces and many, many (far too many) more.
The main reason I am never going to be one of the great well-read, is that I invariably stop reading a novel in order to start reading (or re-reading) a non-fiction work. In fact I am more likely to at any given time be reading a non-fiction work than a novel.
At the moment, on my bedside table (or in some cases laying on the floor next to it) is Martin Gilbert’s Challenge to Civilisation (the third volume in his history of the 20th Century – I’m up to 1980), the 2nd volume of Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples (I’m up to Oliver Cromwell); The Pelican Guide to English Literature (Dickens to Hardy) – I picked up the whole set of 7 for a $1 each from a Lifeline sale; Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch (was given it for father’s day, and will probably read it after I finish The Sportswriter); David Wallechinsky’s Complete History of the Olympic Games (a constant at my bedside); Gerald Lawson’s World Record Breakers in Track and Field (a complete account of every world record set in track and field, a nice companion to Wallechinsky); Barry Jones’s Dictionary of World Biography (a fun, chatty encyclopedia of just about every significant figure in history); the Chambers Biographical Dictionary (a more comprehensive version of the Jones); William Goldman’s The Big Picture (a collection of essays on Hollywood by a great screenwriter); the Bible (always good for a read – especially the Old Testament from Genesis to Kings, truly the greatest literature); and Danny Perry’s Alternative Oscars (an excellent review of the best picture, actor and actress awards, and his opinion of what and who should have won).
And it strikes me as I look at that list that there are a few books missing that quite often find themselves there – any of the books by Bill Bryson; either the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die or the 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die; and any of the many number of books I have on WWII.
Non-fiction is easy to dip back into. I don’t care if I stop half way through; in fact I like that I can do that. Fiction requires commitment – you have to give yourself to the book; non-fiction is all about giving me knowledge – it is not demanding.
And so when I am too buggered to read, but know that I need to read something or I will lie awake thinking that something feels wrong (that being that I didn’t read before going to sleep), I will grab one of the non-fiction books next to my bed (often in a lucky dip style) and enjoy 20 or 30 odd pages. Then I will look wistfully over at Joseph and His Brothers, sigh and think, maybe tomorrow night (and know probably not).