I’m often asked to recommend a good book, and the question came up again the other evening when I was invited to give a talk to the local Women’s Institute. My answer usually depends on which hat I’m wearing. I have a variety of suggestions for creative reading and writing groups, but in those cases, I look for texts that work on more than one level. They should entertain, but also have enough going on with content and or style to provide discussion material.
Since my chat with the WI I’ve been thinking about how recreational reading works. A good book-group can provide added insight into a story, long or short. Each of us bring our unique life-experiences and history to what we read, and sharing those ideas with other people can help us to see a story in a different way, but I’m not trying to promote book-groups here, that can wait for another blog. This post is about the reading we do on our own.
I think of my reading as a pleasure, but that enjoyment extends to all words, so if, by some anomaly, I’m in a situation where I’ve not got a book close to hand, I’ll pick up the nearest text and read that. I’ve gleaned a lot of information that way, over the years, though if I add up all the breakfasts spent reading a cereal box, I’ve probably also wasted a lot of hours. Less said about that the better, I suppose.
The consequence is that I’m a bit of a genre-magpie, dipping into any text that comes my way. I may not keep up to date with all the novels – is that even possible these days? And no, I’ve not yet tried 50 Shades, or the Twilight Saga, but I’m not ruling them out. I may need to read them for work; I might be given a copy, or hear something intriguing about the writing. I only got round to the Millenium Trilogy last year.
What bothers me about my title question is the SHOULD. When I was growing up (in the 60s and 70s) my brothers and I were allowed one comic each per week, partly due to costs, but also because our parents thought we should spend more time reading proper books. Which was fine by me, but not my one brother. Beano or Dandy were the only fiction he willingly read outside of the school syllabus. So while I had my nose in a book, he was exploring other hobbies. These days he does read for pleasure, though not fiction. He prefers tales of true-life adventure, and cartoons, of course.
And thankfully, alongside the rise of Manga, and graphic novels, those old ideas about the worthiness of comics have been overturned. Anything that encourages a child to read must be good, mustn’t it? Besides, they may have been simple, and little short on lessons in grammar, but the clue about comics is in the name, isn’t it?
Surely, the first thing any reader should expect from a text is entertainment. It doesn’t have to be humour, though in my experience the best classics are layered with irony, but that’s a personal preference, and what might raise a smile for me could leave you cold, or even insulted. That, I would argue is where discussion comes into its own and why I’m once again veering off towards bookgroups when I’m trying to think about the experience of reading individually.
Reading is such a personal activity, and therefore individual, that I hesitated to suggest an individual title we should read. Instead, my answer to that question the other night was that it might be worth us all occasionally trying a type of book that we would not usually attempt. If you read romance, try a thriller; if you read historical, try some science-fiction; or swop long fiction for short or vice-versa.
You may think that I dodged the question, but what would you have said?
*Illustration, Alberto Manrique print.