Thoughts on the enduring power of Sherlock.

Conan Doyle had his first Sherlock Holmes story, ‘A Study in Scarlet’, published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887. According to the Wikipedia page, neither the public nor publishers were bowled over by it.

For writers with aspirations, such snippets are reassuring. Publication success can take time, and certainly needs patience. For readers, it demonstrates something of the drive behind the pages we readers consume. I don’t need to point out that Conan Doyle didn’t abandon his characters.

Ward, Lock & Co published that first story as a hardback book in July 1888. It sold well enough to deserve a second edition the following year. This did not mean that the ‘cult’ of Sherlock and Watson had properly begun at that point.

It wasn’t until 1891 that the duo began to build a following. That was after they began to appear as a Strand Magazine series.

In Britain, Strand Magazine was one of THE places to be published. The Wikipedia entry for the magazine says that that first issue, of January 1891, sold nearly 300,000 copies.

There’s an interesting fact filled essay about the magazine on The Strand Magazine website. In, The Story of The Strand, Chris Willis explains that:

…the Strand aimed at a mass market family readership. The content was a mixture of factual articles, short stories and serials most of which were illustrated to some extent. Despite expense and production difficulties, Newnes aimed at having a picture on every page — a valuable selling point at a time when the arts of photography and process engraving were in their infancy. “A monthly magazine costing sixpence but worth a shilling” was the slogan the publicity-conscious Newnes used to advertise the Strand – which was half the price of most monthlies of the period.

Did you note that fragment of a sentence I started the Willis quote with? ‘…the Strand aimed at a mass market family readership.

In this period, books often came into households as communal items. We should count those 300,000 copies as being read by at least two, rather than one reader, even if we’re just looking at married couples. However, if we assume children, and perhaps a servant or two, the readership for the magazine rises significantly, and we’ve only considered the first few issues.

So popular was this magazine that circulation soon rose to almost 500,000 copies a month, and continued at that rate until well into the 1930s. That’s a lot of audience for stories. I wonder if there’s an equivalent opportunity for new writing today?

Conan Doyle was not the first, and is far from the last, writer to have demonstrated that persistence needs to be a feature of the fiction author’s character. Beyond the necessary dedication to putting time into practicing your craft, is the effort needed to find a way to access an audience.

Marketing may change, but the principles remain the same. It can be useful to think about how much of the fiction that we now see as part of our literary heritage went unrecognised, in the first steps towards publication.

Take heart, writers. Keep crafting: keep grafting.

Incidentally, should you happen to have a copy of that 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual on your shelves, you might like to dust it off and treat it with especial care. There are only eleven known copies, up to now.

One thing about books…

A couple of weeks ago Deborah raised a question that I’ve been asking in various ways, most of my life, “how and why do we outgrow books?” More specifically for me, how do I decide when a book has been outgrown?

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

In theory, the answer’s easy. Once I learned to read, surely there was no reason for keeping those early readers, the Jane and John stories, or my beginner Ladybird books. Certainly the ones with only a single word on the page were handed on, if they survived.

Books, for me, have always been valuable but portable entertainment. They’ve shared my adventures, and often returned home looking as untidy as I did.

It’s not that I’m generally a hard reader. I try not to break the spines, I’ve never folded corners and always use bookmarks. But still, it’s usually easy to see they’ve been in my possession.

From the beginning, this created a problem. Tattered volumes are not really suitable for offering to another reader, and I knew instinctively that destroying books was wrong. So, the titles I’ve kept finding space for have often been sorry specimens.

Perhaps I could do that still fashionable thing, and blame my parents. If only they’d been stricter, insisting on my discarding things, rather than allowing me to develop what may be (at base) a sentimental attachment to specific objects. It’s lovely being able to hand over responsibility in that way.

Except, there’s a little voice squeaking away with a bothersome question: ‘So, at what age did you become a grown-up, and take responsibility for your own actions?’

Ssh, you contrary other-self. Don’t open that can of worms, it’s far too complicated for a few hundred words on a weekly post.

Photo by Emre Can on Pexels.com

Instead, I’ll look for another beginning. Perhaps I’ve been driven by my desire to own a library. I think that came in early. Maybe I was born with it. I’m certain I never experienced a private library in the family, or amongst our friends, so where did that idea come from?

Later I read of them in historical novels, but my ambition had been fixed long before that. Was it those old films, repeated on Saturday afternoon tv throughout my childhood years, that seeded an image in my head? I frittered away many of my school age Saturdays watching the kind of period dramas that featured aristocrats and eccentrics drifting in and out of beautiful private libraries. I think Rex Harrison had one, in Dr Dolittle, and again in My Fair Lady.

Aspiration is a wonderful thing, and for a while I did base my collection around a matching set of religious books I’d been given by my grandfather. They looked so charming, and neat, with their black spines and gold lettering. Perhaps it was because they looked so perfect I didn’t open them.

Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

I owned them for years. Then, one day I had to move house and realised that they no longer belonged. I passed them on.

I’d outgrown an idea of symmetry. I no longer wanted to inhabit the kind of library seen in stately homes. I wanted my shelves to be eclectic, fluid spaces, where ideas could lie in ambush. Many of them would be old, perhaps dated, waiting for a moment when I might want to turn to them again.

Some I’d read once, and be sure I’d never want to do that again. But I’ve stopped being certain that I’ve outgrown anything. Life this year has demonstrated, for me, the error of that. In recent months I’ve returned, for comfort, to some of the light thrillers I thought I’d left behind.

I was lucky, having recently had a box full of them passed on to me by a friend. My own copies had been discarded. So, now I’ve developed a ‘holding’ space, a shelf where I stack books that might deserve a second chance.

I’m sorry, Deborah, it seems I’m unable to answer your question. I’m not sure I’ve outgrown any of my books. Even those matching religious volumes were never really given up, as I’ve got at least three bibles which contain the same stories in a much more economical form.

I’m sure I’ll change my mind, one of these days. But for now, I pass that question along: ‘How and why do we outgrow books?’

If you discover the answer, I hope you’ll share it with me.

Reading for a good cause.

If there’s one thing I suspect that all bookworms have experienced, it’s the shocked expressions of the uninitiated when they see our bookshelves. Then the question, ‘Why?’ is asked, in one form or another.

It was many years before I understood that most of the people who asked were not going to be convinced by any answer I could give. Sometimes, when I knew someone well, I’d turn the question round, and say, ‘Why don’t you?’ Just to share that sense of defeat.

Photo by Nightingale Art House on Pexels.com

The word hoarding has drifted back into focus in the UK this week. I’ve never thought of myself in that way, but I was brought up in a household where the well stocked pantries and larders of my parents and grandparents were considered, stores.

Often these were constructed seasonally. It began with things gathered from the garden and the hedgerows, and was supplemented with bought tinned and dried goods. Such activities were traditions, based on anecdotes, or experiences of: rationing, heavy weather, economic uncertainties… times when shopping would not be an option.

I’m reminded of that this week, as friends who are venturing into supermarkets report that shelves are once more being cleared of some stock. Need I mention toilet rolls?

I’m curious about the quantity of goods that count as a hoard. Perhaps there’s a specific number of tins or bottles beyond which we should not go. I can see how the extremes fit this, those pictures of bunkers with industrial shelving, for instance. But for the rest of us, how do we know whether our shelves are sensibly, rather than excessively stocked?

When it comes to books, I can hold my hand up and say I’m a story-hoarder, banking up food-for-the-mind for the future. There’s only one room in this house without bookshelves.

And then there’s my shed. I mean office, of course, and whoever heard of having an office that wasn’t designed around the tools for one’s trade?

Maybe, when we are again able to invite people in, and someone’s eyes widen as they look at my walls of books, they’ll understand them in the light of these times.

Meanwhile, my blogging friend Ann Burnett has drawn my attention to an interesting new way to buy books and donate money to a good cause, an on-line ‘auction of signed books and items donated by celebrated Authors and Illustrators from around the world‘ called ‘Children in Read. Proceeds go to the BBC charity, Children in Need. There are, as of Sunday morning 573 interesting lots to chose from, divided into 25 categories.

My book buying, over the last six months, has been based on tracking down specific titles, and my random reading from my TBRs has made a little space. So, it was good to browse a virtual bookshelf, and put on a bid or two. I got that lovely feeling that comes from mitigating having indulged myself by supporting a charity.

Am I a hoarder?’

Let me quote Miss Piggy, ‘Who, moi?’

Why Robertson Davies?

This week I thought I’d join in the Robertson Davies reading Weekend organised by Lory, over at The Emerald City. I’d planned to think about some of his essays, as I recently bought the collection, The Merry Heart. The first one is actually a lecture, from 1980, called A Rake at Reading. It begins: “ ‘People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.’ Did I say that? No, Logan Pearsall Smith said it, but I have thought it so many times that sometimes I mistake it for my own.

…and that was all I needed to remind me that Robertson Davies wrote just for me.

I’ll allow that some of you may feel something similar, but I can assure you, that I was, and am, his ideal reader.

My first Robertson Davies novel was borrowed from the local library, a couple of decades ago. I hadn’t heard of him then, but there was a book with a jester on the cover, and I’m drawn to the motley. Amorality in life is to be avoided, but in fiction? It’s exciting.

My choice wasn’t only based on that cover. The book was a doorstep, and in those days, that mattered.

I weighed my reading from the library. The building wasn’t on any of my usual routes, so borrowing books meant a special journey and that effort needed to result in two bags at bursting point.

I hadn’t checked the blurb of What’s Bred in the Bone. I did my usual test, and read a couple of random paragraphs. I’d no idea I was taking the middle volume of a trilogy.

In the course of my life there have been several significant novels I’ve looked forward to discovering for myself: Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Tess of the D’Ubervilles, Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Orlando. These and others I heard about long before I was old enough to get hold of copies. Many have proved to be trusted friends.

What those novels gave me was the theory of fate. In fiction, it’s a tricky thing to pull off effectively. But, I can give you chapter and verse on how it’s shaped my life, and particularly my reading.

I knew, within a few lines of What’s Bred in The Bone, that it was a novel I was meant to discover. I read it at every daylight moment when I wasn’t working, at breakfast, lunch and tea, and until past midnight.

The world of Robertson Davies was wicked: not just in the modern slang sense, but in a deliciously dangerous way. There were twists and turns that kept me guessing, and laughing. Reading it was an audacious adventure, something that was different to anything I’d read before, and yet I knew that it was what I’d been working my way towards all of my literate life.

His characters entranced me even when I was appalled by them. His Canada was visceral. It smelled of wet tweeds, freshly baked bread and cool, deep water.

I’ve no idea whether any of those things featured in that Davies story. What I retain is a memory, because rereading this novel is a treat that’s always before me. I’m looking back at impressions, in the same way that I recall details of a wedding attended around the same time. That also is, I know, true to me only.

Reading this novel left me with a landscape that was endless, spacious and welcoming. I was never going to visit any of it in real life, because that would be asking for disappointment all I wanted was to move on to another of those worlds. Reading it, was to recognise that although I hadn’t realised it until that moment, his was a world I’d always hoped existed.

ROBERTSON DAVIES, UNDATED. © WALTER CURTIN/LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA

This week, in his essay, A Rake at Reading, there was so many things about which I could say, ‘Yes, that’s it, that’s it exactly,’ and sometimes I said it with envy, other times with a smile, because really, when you look at the argument from that angle, it actually is rather funny.

…”A Rake at Reading.” The phrase comes from a letter written to a friend by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: “I have been a rake at reading,” she says. The word rake, in the middle of the eighteenth century when Lady Mary make her confession to the Countess of Bute, still meant to roam or stray, but I think she also meant to have a hint of what was dissolute and irresponsible. So – I confess I have been a rake at reading. I have read those things which I ought not to have read, and I have not read those things which I ought to have read… I can only protest, like all rakes in their shameful senescence, that I have had a good time.

Am I an audio-book-person?

I must thank Ola, at Re-enchantment Of The World, for the hint that even though libraries are closed to foot traffic, we can still borrow audio downloads, onto our phones. The carrot she tempted me with was her review of The Hazel Wood, a fantasy novel by Melissa Albert. It was on our library site, too. So, that was where I started.

It’s a young-adult novel, and I’ve enjoyed a few of those, even though it’s a while since I fitted that age-group. This one had good characterisations, and some interesting twists and turns.

As I like BBC Radios 4 and 4-Extra, I assumed that I would find audio books an easy listen. I hadn’t factored in that most books featured on the radio are abridged, or that I’m a fast silent reader. How stupid am I, not to have expected that having a book read to me, by someone who takes care with the words, is a much slower process?

So my main feeling, as I reached the end of The Hazel Wood, was that it was very long. Was it? I checked Amazon. At 365 pages it isn’t out of the way huge. My summer read-along commitment, The Mysteries of Udolpho, is 632 pages of small font.

I decided that one book did not constitute a trial, so, when insomnia had me trawling my bookshelves for something soporific, I went back to Borrow Box and browsed the catalogue. I don’t remember what search terms I used, but I found Georgette Heyer, in the Crime section.

Her regency romances had whiled away many babysitting evenings, during my teenage years, and recent revisits to a few of the familiar titles hadn’t disappointed. They’re not great literature, but they had engaging characters and some neatly turned plots with safe outcomes. In my experience, this is a good formula for a written lullaby.

Another attraction was that Heyer books are short. Popular novels written in the middle part of the twentieth century are often around 230 pages.

Ulli Birve, the reader, had a pleasant voice. But oh, dear, what was she saying?

It was apparent to Miss Fawcett within one minute of her arrival at the Grange that her host was not in the best of tempers. He met her in the hall, not, she believed, of design, and favoured her with a nod. “It’s you, is it?” he said ungraciously. “Somewhat unexpected, this visit, I must say. Hope you had a good journey.”

The Unfinished Clue did not have the lively, economical, and witty, voice of the regency romances. It was more like a masterclass in clunky writing.

Miss Fawcett was a young lady not easily discouraged. Moreover, she had been General Sir Arthur Billington-Smith’s sister-in-law for five years, and cherished no illusions about him. She shook him briskly by the hand, and replied with perfect equanimity: “You know quite well it’s impossible to have a good journey on this rotten line, Arthur…”

Was it because I was listening that this clumsy piece of exposition hit me so hard? Worse, was I going to let it keep me awake?

It was 3 a.m., and I wanted to sleep. Who was I to be critical?

I made some mental adjustments. Ulli Birve’s voice was so comfortable that I could allow the content to drift past me. I dozed off with the headphones on, around about the end of Chapter Two.

I don’t want to write negative reviews of writing. The next day, I listened to the rest of the novel. I missed the sense of joy I’d found in the regency romances. This one included cliche characters and situations, a thin plot, some obvious pairings, and casual racism.

I’ve not given up on the audio books. I’m enjoying Bridget Jones’s Baby: The Diaries, by Helen Fielding, read by Samantha Bond, though it is, perhaps, too humorous to be an antidote for insomnia.

Meanwhile, my Cosy Crime novel experience has left me with some questions:

  1. Is it acceptable that The Unfinished Clue is still available for loan?
    1. Don’t novels like this belong in the archives, as part of our historical record, rather than offered for circulation?
  2. The Borrow Box catalogue is quite small, and several of the alternative Cosy Fictions were already out on loan. Doesn’t this mean that borrowers are being put in situations where they will borrow books they might not otherwise choose?
    1. Isn’t it even more important that the decisions about what is included are vetted for content, and levels of potential offense?

My Life in Books, 2019

Over on Annabookbel’s blog, this week, I discovered a quirky approach to summing up my year of reading. The idea is to finish fourteen sentences using some of the titles of books I’ve read during the past twelve months.

Apparently this challenge has been circulating since at least 2009. I’ve never been adept at keeping pace with any kind of fashion, but even so, ten years late is probably a record for me.

So here I am. Are you ready? Who knows what these add up to…

In high school I was The Day of The Triffids (John Wyndham)

People might be surprised by The Secret History (Donna Tartt)

I will never be The Power of The Dog (Thomas Savage)

My fantasy job is Eats, Shoots and Leaves (Lynne Truss)

At the end of a long day I need Bluebeard’s Egg (Margaret Attwood)

I hate The End of The Affair (Graham Greene)

I wish I had Our Man in Havana (Graham Greene)

My family reunions are The Blush and other stories (Elizabeth Taylor)

At a party you’d find me with Resurrection Men (Ian Rankin)

I’ve never been to The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Richard Flanagan)

A happy day includes Essential Stories (VS Pritchett)

The motto I live by, I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith)

On my bucket list is, The Public Image (Muriel Spark)

In my next life, I want to have My Cousin Rachel (Daphne du Maurier)

Six degrees of separation: Alice inspires a literary treasure-hunt.

It was a particularly soggy Saturday afternoon, and the heat from the wood-burner was beginning to make me drowsy. “November is such a very predictably weather-full month,” I muttered to Rusty, who had taken possession of the hearth-rug, in a somewhat Elinor Glyn style. “I can’t think of anything better to do than leap into a literary rabbit hole, can you?”

At the word ‘rabbit’, Rusty had opened one eye. He watched me for a moment, then sighed and closed it again.

When outside he’s as keen as Mr McGregor on chasing the little carrot-nibblers. Merely naming that rodent sets him in search of a scent.

Rusty’s nose is phenomenal. Certainly as discerning as Jean-Baptist Grenouille’s. Though I don’t remember Patrick Suskind mentioning its dewy nature, I wonder if that was the secret of Jean-Baptist’s dubiously employed skills.

Unlike Rusty, Jean-Baptiste was not an attractive character, even without mention of a wet nose. I can still remember how I was held by his story, though, both fascinated and horrified. Rather like Ripley, now I come to think of it.

I’ve followed his journey more than once, trying to figure out not just what he is, but who, as he sheds friends and adopts new identities. In some ways, Ripley is the reverse of Jason Bourne, who is trying to remember his real identity.

Glancing across at my DVDs, I realised that the same actor played both rolls, and there was an interesting angle that ought to be pursued.

I’ve never been too good with doing what I ought to. I was already thinking about Fanny Logan, who tried pursuing love, but was frequently to be found in the airing cupboard, with her cousins, because the enormous mansion they lived in was incredibly drafty.

I’d worried over this since first reading Nancy Mitford’s novels, as a teenager. Drafty houses I understood, because we didn’t have central heating or double-glazing at that time, either. But Fanny would have needed to curl herself around the water cylinder on a narrow shelf full of folded laundry, to fit our airing cupboard.

Since then, when visiting stately homes or castles, I’ve taken special note of the airing facilities, trying to estimate how many Mitfords could comfortably gather within them. The girls have refused to materialise.

Rusty watched, without interest, as I went to check my airing cupboard. Three well-bred faces glared out from behind the heaps of sheets and pillowcases. There was a horrible silence, then in a “U” accent, one of them asked, “Are you an Hon?”

“We’re moving away from using titles,” I said.

“How too awful,” replied the one I thought might be Linda. She exchanged glances with the other two, then smiled sweetly and added, “I say, would you be a perfect darling and shut the door?”

“Look here,” said another voice, as I was beginning to comply. “You won’t believe what I’ve found at the back. Isn’t it too frightful?” She was waving a dusty pyjama top that I hadn’t seen for years.

There was a burst of sneering laughter.

“Barely a rag,” cried Lynda.

“Counter-Hon, without a doubt.”

“I just knew it.”

I threw the door open. “That’s an old favourite, if you don’t mind,” I said, making a grab for the brushed-cotton.

“Don’t snatch,” admonished Lynda.

Then came a loud, “Halloo,” and a bunched-up hand-towel was launched at my head.

A duster followed.

Someone yelled, “Death to the horrible Counter-Hon.” In moments, the contents of my shelves were raining down on me. If it hadn’t been for Rusty, arriving with his lead, who knows what might have happened then…

I struggled out from under the heap and noted that the world beyond the window looked a little less grey and cold than it had earlier.

“Good idea,” I said to Rusty, “I think we both need some fresh air. As for you three…” The Mitfords hung their heads, and began to look like any other teenage delinquents. “I expect that laundry to be just the way you found it, by the time we get back.”

Thanks to Kate, at booksaremyfavouriteandbest, and I hope she doesn’t mind my taking liberties with her excellent six-degrees-of-separation meme. Alice was a temptation I couldn’t resist.

First impressions

One of the benefits of researching for my creative-reading groups is finding new authors, and mostly that only means new to me. Recently, for instance, while googling for background information on Lorna Doone, the tome I’m sharing with five groups this autumn, I wandered off route.

I was looking for a concise summary of the reigns of Charles II and James II. Maybe I accidentally miss-typed the date, because I found myself reading about their distant relatives, who took over the British throne two steps on down the line. I’d wanted Stuarts, but found Hanoverians (that’s the kings, Georges I to IV, and William IV).

The problem with having so many Georges at once is that they tend to become blurred and to be known vaguely as the four Georges, or any old man in a wig. How to tell the Georges apart is something of a problem.

This, I thought, is the kind of history teacher I would have appreciated at school. Despite it being of no use what-so-ever for my Lorna Doone research, I read to the end of the extract.

George the first was the one who couldn’t speak English, and didn’t try. …He was brought over by the commercial interests and reigned until 1727 without the least notion of what anyone was talking about.

During this time there was no Queen of England. George the first kept his wife in prison because he believed that she was no better than he was.

What I like, when I’m trawling around for quotes to throw to my students, is something succinct, and challenging. This writer, I thought, would surely have something interesting to say about Charles II or James II. So I checked the title. The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, by Will Cuppy. It was first published in 1950, but – oh joy! – there was a copy in one of our local libraries. I put a request in.

‘It sounds wonderful,’ said the librarian. ‘I might borrow it after you.’

This week I picked up my copy. A handy little paperback, with attractive illustrations on the cover. It looked promising.

Imagine my disappointment on finding not a chronological history book, but a random dipping-in approach to history.

Let me qualify that. The essays were delightful. Witty, concise pen portraits that gave me a glimpse of characters and times drawn in absurdist style. But neither Charles II nor James II featured.

…Menes, King of Upper Egypt… in 3400 BC… is said to have been devoured by a hippopotamus, a rather unlikely story, since this animal is graminivorous and has never been known to eat anybody else. Modern scholars, therefore, were inclined to regard Menes as a myth until recently, when it was pointed out that a slight error in feeding habits of the hippopotamus does not necessarily prove that Menes never existed.

Cuppy’s subject choices are varied and intriguing. I enjoyed them all, and feel that I might now manage to sound quite knowledgeable, in an irreverent sense, about Attila the Hun, Charlemagne, Lady Godiva, Lucrezia Borgia and Philip the Sap, amongst others.

To say the least, I now know that graminivorous means an animal that eats grass and/or grass seeds. Which seems so much more precise than using herbivore.

As for Lorna, and the last of the Stuart kings, I’m consulting elsewhere.

Seven ‘Bookish’ deadly sins

Having boasted of my ‘bookish’ virtues last week – I do love an oxymoron – this week I thought I ought to even up the scales.

I’ve tracked back through a few blogs to see if I should be crediting this tag to someone, but it seems that the originator has either been lost in the mist, or they decided to remain anonymous. Given how much we reveal in answering these seven questions, to ourselves, as much as anyone else, maybe they wisely preferred to disappear.

So, deep breath, and before I change my mind.

GREED
What is the most expensive book you own? Which is the least expensive?

I’ve just treated myself to The Writer’s Map, which cost nearly thirty pounds, and think myself very extravagant.

The least expensive? There have been so many bargain books, and the ones I didn’t value haven’t stayed with me… Recently, I bought The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, for fifty pence, in a charity shop. Whether you measure that in pages or weight, that’s a lot of book for the money.

GLUTTONY
What book or books have you shamelessly devoured many times?

Where do I begin? Probably with my earliest memories, ‘See Jane, Spot, see Jane run.’ Those were The Happy Venture Readers books. I was still returning to them after becoming hooked on the Famous Five, Secret Seven and The Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse. Was it for the sake of the illustrations, I wonder?

I’ve just looked them up on a bookseller site, and if only I hadn’t read mine into bits, I might have used it for my GREED answer.

Lets fast-forward to adult reading, and some of the ones that I turn to most often. The short stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, oh, and Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude. Then, there’s Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons, The Wonder Boys, by Michael Chabon, any Jane Austen novel… all the writings of Angela Carter – yes everything, because all of her writing feels fearless and exciting.

LUST
What attributes do you find most attractive in your characters?

Curiosity.

ENVY
What books would you most like to receive as a gift?

Something that is one or more of the following: witty, challenging, thought-provoking, beautiful, exotic, poetic, prosaic, magical, exciting, shocking, hard-hitting, atmospheric, minimalist, heartfelt, hilarious, relevant, life-affirming, emotive, complicated, surprising, relaxing, warming…

Have I missed something? That’s the book I really want.

PRIDE
What book or books do you bring up when you want to sound like an intellectual reader?

How honest must I be? I want to claim that I don’t try to sound like an intellectual reader, but I used to boast about how many books I’d read. Luckily, no one ever challenged that, or they’d soon have discovered that most of my list was light or pulp fiction.

SLOTH
What book or series have you neglected out of sheer laziness?

I started The Odyssey around a year ago, and do want to finish it, but somehow I keep picking up other books instead. Maybe it’s because I already know the outcomes.

WRATH
What author do you have a love/hate relationship with?

I’m trying to think of a writer I find offensive, and yet read. I can’t. I stopped wasting valuable reading time on fiction that didn’t work for me years ago, once I’d realised reading wasn’t a test of endurance or a competitive sport, and that I’d completely missed the true meaning of ‘being well-read’.

But, an author I have mixed feelings about is DH Lawrence. I love most of his short stories and poems. Through them, he covers many on the list of wishes I made under the ENVY heading above. His short writing is often layered, complex and surprising.

His novels, on the other hand, leave me mostly cold. I’ve tried, and tried again, to see them as something other than interesting examples of techniques. I always fail.

You may have noticed I’ve not been tagged. I’ve done that thing my dad advises me is best avoided, I volunteered.

If you’d like to see where the idea came from, you might start with Re-enchantment of the World, or Calmgrove, and work back.

Seven ‘bookish’ heavenly virtues.

This week I’ve been reading more lists, though you might call them expanded. Re-enchantment of the World came up with the idea of connecting our reading experiences to ‘ideas of moral excellence’, and created seven questions that allow us to explore the positive aspects of reading. So thank you, Ola and Piotrek, it’s been fascinating seeing your answers, and tracking down some of the others.

So fascinating, I can’t resist claiming my space.

Chastity
Which author, book or series do you wish you’d never read?

This is tricky. There have been plenty of books I haven’t enjoyed, and several I’ve not finished. But they all showed me something. I like thinking about how or why a book didn’t work for me.

There have been books that offended me, and one I was so disgusted by that I threw it in the fire. I can’t remember who wrote it, or the title. All I remember is that it romanticised rape.

Temperance
Which book or series did you find so good that you didn’t want to read it all at once, and you read it in doses just to make the pleasure last longer?

North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell. I read it over seven weeks, in equal sections, with my autumn reading groups, last year. I’d decided not to pre-prepare in the summer, because I wanted to discover the story alongside the group. It took a lot of will-power to resist finishing it ahead of the schedule. I re-read it again, right after the course finished.

Charity
Which book, series or author do you tirelessly push to others, telling them about it or even giving away spare copies bought for that reason?

The short stories of Elizabeth Taylor (1912 – 1975). Kingsley Amis called her ‘one of the best English novelists born in this century’. I like her novels, but the short stories are stunning.

They’re subtle, and subversive. Approach them with the idea that she had hidden depths, and you’ll find layer upon layer of meaning. I could go on, and on, but I won’t – here.

Diligence
Which series or author do you follow no matter what happens and how long you have to wait?

I love trilogies, but add another title to that, and I tend to drift. So, not a series.

Author’s, on the other hand, I’ll wait for. I’ve been collection Jeffery Farnol novels for decades. They’re tatty old hardbacks dating from the 1920s, 30s and 40s. I haven’t wanted to read them for years, but I continue looking out for them, because one day he will be just what I need.

Patience
Is there an author, book or series you’ve read that improved with time the most, starting out unpromising but ultimately proving rewarding?

I was a teenager when I read my first Henry James, it was Portrait of a Lady, and I was determined not to be beaten. After that, I avoided him.

Then, I wanted a book to put with Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum, for a reading group, and What Maisie Knew, was the best match. It was a revelation. I’ve read more of his shorter fiction since then, and his essays are fascinating. When I have enough time in hand, I’m going back to try Portrait, again.

Kindness
Which fictitious character would you consider your role model in the hassle of everyday life?

That varies, day-by-day, depending on what I’m reading. I can’t think of a single model. I do frequently wish I was as feisty as Lisbeth Salander, but I’d prefer not to have had the kind of experiences that seem to have caused her to develop those attributes.

Humility
Which book, series or author do you find most under-rated?

If only I hadn’t already mentioned Elizabeth Taylor… I don’t like to repeat myself, so looking back a little further in time, how about Arnold Bennett?

He was prolific and popular, in his day. But saying you write for profit, and letting people know that you have a rigid routine bothers some critics, especially if your books sell well.

The Grand Babylon Hotel was written in a month. I’ve read it, and while it didn’t strike me as being ‘great literature’, it was a lovely time-slip into Edwardian England.

The Old Wives Tale, which took him about seven months, has more power, and ambition. It hooked all four reading groups I shared it with, two years ago.

Virginia Woolf played a part in crippling Bennett’s reputation, in a 1924 lecture called Mr Bennett and Mr Brown. I suppose she had to. Though if she’d read his work closely she might have recognised some of his techniques.

On my bookshelf, Mr Bennett and Mrs Woolf sit side-by-side.