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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.