Thursday, 9 August 2007

On reading

Much of my reading of late, as evinced by the list at the side, is actually re-reading. I hadn’t realized until I made that list and thought back to stuff I had read before those. And then I started thinking about why.

To begin with, it is money, or lack thereof. Not just me (although I think I have always lived well on the ‘wrong’ side of the official poverty line; even when I had ‘proper’ jobs). I always find cash for books. But I do not buy anything until I have read it and know that I want to read it again. I cannot afford the luxury of buying books on the off-chance. That has always meant trips to the library armed with sheaves of request slips; knowing that I was getting a good read and introducing off beat titles that others might chance upon.

This year, however, one of the local authorities whose libraries I use has introduced swingeing cuts to their library budget (30% was the figure I was given). They are planning equally vicious cuts next year. This has resulted in rapidly emptying shelves where old stock is not replaced and a huge reduction in choice. It has also meant that members of the public can no longer request titles not already held in stock.

They are buying new books, but from a recent trawl through their idiotic online catalogue (that is another bone of contention – why do they list books on their catalogue that they do not hold in stock?), these are not books that interest me. I do realize, of course, the library system is not there solely for my benefit, but I can now no longer read new books in the hope of discovering a new author.

And the other local authority (the one in whose boundaries I actually live) is equally unhelpful. The main library is over thirty miles away, but we do have a tiny branch in the village. It is about the size of our living room. The problem is, it is not linked to the main system. I cannot, therefore, browse their online catalogue and order a book. I have to go to my branch, give the details to the librarian who then puts in a request on a slip of paper, and wait. I also have to pay up front. I don’t mind that from a cost point of view, but it is a real hassle if they don’t send the book as you cannot get refunds. You have to order another book. And their stock is not up to much.

Another reason I am re-reading is that after a long period of trying to discover new authors whose work I enjoy, I have given up. Now, I am happy to believe this is just me. I’m getting on a bit; probably fossilising. Nothing is as good as it was in my young day. Oh no. On the other hand, I do sometimes wonder what has happened to writing recently.

I suppose I could have a go at agents and publishers. They, after all, are the portal through which works must pass before making it into print on a commercial scale (that is, scale enough for the writer to earn something more than it costs to keep their printer filled with ink). And I know there are writers out there producing stuff that is far superior to a great deal of the crap that actually gets put on the shelves of book shops.

When I say crap, I am not making a judgement based on subject matter. Tastes are infinitely varied. When I say crap, I mean two things. The first is yet another book without merit or originality that is riding the tail end of a bandwagon from which agents and publishers hope to squeeze a bit more dosh. The second, and much worse type of crap, are all those books that are badly written.

“Is that not just as subjective as taste in content or style?” I hear you ask. To which I would reply with an emphatic and resounding, “NO!”

There are certain types of book and certain styles of writing I do not enjoy. The things I love, I know, are not liked by others. But there is, I would contend, a difference between personal taste and knowing whether or not something is badly written. This is mostly to do with syntax, but it is also about plotting and character development – all those things you will find in creative writing courses and in the countless books produced by editors, agents, and writers on how to write books that will get published. All the rules and pointers that are regularly and depressingly ignored in many of the books that make it into print.

I spent several hours in a bookshop yesterday, taking book after book from the shelves in the ‘New Titles’ section. And book after book went back onto the shelves because I could not find one that did not have some basic, syntactical error; or that did not read like something an earnest fifteen year old had written with a thesaurus to hand and a burning desire to impress.
Perhaps I am too sensitive about these things, but it seems to me that if I am paying out seven or eight quid for a book, I have a right to expect a certain level of basic literacy, something that is reasonably well constructed, with an absence of too many typos.

So I go back to books I know are well written; to authors I know who care about the language and have learned to craft it both appropriately to their story and with respect for a medium that can do so much to please and enlighten others.

I am not sure there is any point to this little grumble other than to explain to myself (and anyone else who cares to listen) why I am re-reading so much old stuff at the moment. Besides, revisiting old friends, sometimes after years of absence is great fun. I have started on a chronological read of Dickens and have promised myself the same with Virginia Woolf. I have been rediscovering the joys of Albert Campion and Sherlock Holmes; exercising my flabby intellect with the work of Langdon Jones and Barrington J Bayley; and experiencing yet again the awe I have always felt with what Samuel Beckett does with language. I have been smiling quietly at the antics of William; rediscovering some of my metaphysical roots in the books of Mike Moorcock; and immersing myself in the tricky mists of Celtic myth.

New authors? Who needs ‘em.


B.E. Sanderson said...

That stinks about your library. I'm not much of a library gal these days, but I take my daughter every day and if we couldn't request books, she'd be lost.

Sorry I haven't been here sooner. Welcome to the Novel Race. =oD

Graeme K Talboys said...

Thanks. I don't see any sense in such cuts as they are self-fulfilling. Fewer books so people use the library less, so the library needs fewer books. Madness.

Papoosue said...

Hi Graeme. This also seems to be happening where I am in Fife. If they haven't got it, then that's that. Extremely irritating to say the least. I have no spare cash to buy any book that takes my fancy and it just seems to me that the less money you have, the less is available to you in all areas. I could go on but I won't.....!

Papoosue said...

Yes. And another thing that really annoys me is that in bookshops/supermarkets etc we get what we are given, not what we want. There is no choice unless we go looking for it. GRRRRRRR

Graeme K Talboys said...

And without being able to browse physical books - enjoy the sensation of handling them and seeing how well produced they are as well whether the content is appealing - we lose the chance discoveries and the sensual pleasure of books.

Papoosue said...


Kat said...

I couldn't help nodding emphatically to myself whilst reading your post. I gave up on my local library when they took out all my old favourite classics, to be replaced by cardboard writing, that leaves you as hungry for the written word at the end, as you had at the begining of reading them.
I'm envious of my younger self for all the beauties I read and, like you, started to re-read them all a few years ago. What joy!