Monday, 12 October 2009

Reading habits

Well, that’s another short ‘review’ over on grumbooks. And while I was writing it, it struck me that my reading habits go through cycles. Sometimes, as now, I have several books on the go. I read a couple of chapters of one, move on to another, read a bit of that, then pick up yet another book. They are invariably variable. If I have three or more on the go, one will be non-fiction, one a children’s book, and the other something for adults.

I haven’t been reading a great deal of non-fiction recently, and what I have been reading has fallen into the vague category of research. I’m dipping into several tomes of late Anglo-Saxon history at present to refresh my memory (with the possibility of using this as a historical setting for some stories). Prior to that, I had read a lot about the home front during the Second World War. And now I am beginning to bone up on the period between 1955 and 1975.

Fiction… well, most of what I am reading is re-reading, and has been for three or four years now. I read new stuff, but that is mostly from authors I already know. I also try new work, but I have to say I find the vast majority of it that is classed as ‘literary’ to be dull, self-absorbed, and occasionally pompous. Anything exciting, anything that has something insightful to say about life, anything that plays with language, tends to be genre based or arrives in translation.

Perhaps it comes from having read so much, but I often pick up the latest sensation and think, ‘Oh yeah, so and so did that in the ‘50s, or someone else did something similar in the 60s – and they were so much better.’ In large part they were better because they were shorter, punchier, and not afraid to experiment. These days, books feel bloated. And safe. But maybe it’s just me. Perhaps I read too much (gives that two seconds thought and decides the answer is ‘no’).

Other times I can only read one book at a time. Which suggests there may be a larger cycle to my reading and that when I have had my fill of re-reading I will go in search of new stuff (or maybe there will be new stuff out there to suit my taste). I think my real problem is I like books that do something new. Genre, style, subject… But once they establish a trend, the books that follow rarely have the energy and sense of excitement of the ones that take the first steps (even if they are flawed).

That is why it amuses (and saddens) me to see something like ‘slipstream’ cited as a genre. Perhaps it is now. But the whole point of ‘slipstream’ was that it applied to books that had no genre. Now it is defined and people set out to write slipstream books. And they fail. Pretty much like any arts movement that starts with or develops a manifesto. The moment they do that, they kill themselves.

Art, writing, music, theatre – these are dynamic. OK, a finished product is a finished product, but even a piece of writing can, if it hits the spot, continue to evolve in terms of its relevance and interpretation. But that sort of writing (or other art form) does not come from a formula. It may use or subvert a formula, but what gives it a living core is its transcendence of what has gone before.

I’m not saying that books that stick to a formula cannot be and are not well written. Some are. Some are excellent, make you weep that someone is so talented. These are the swans. Their work glides sedately and gracefully along because of all the hard work they have put into it. I admire that. Which is why I admire the risk takers even more. Because they do all that hard work on something that has no easily reached audience because it is new.

Anyway, I’m rambling. Procrastinating as well, as I should be working on something else.

A story.

All the bits are there, but I can’t see, yet, how they fit.


Carol said...

I go through phases with my reading too....I read like it's going out of fashion and then I don't read anything for ages!! I think it's usually once I've finished a particularly good book and cant bring myself to start a new one!!

At the moment all I'm reading are Uni text books and I feel I may be doing that for some time to come!!

C x

Graeme K Talboys said...

Do you find that a book that has to be read (e.g. Uni reading list) is more difficult to get through than one you have chosen for yourself?

Vague said...

Impossible to read too much! Any book recommendations re the Anglo-Saxon history?

Graeme K Talboys said...

If you want a concise overview, John Blair's The Anglo-Saxon Age - A Very Short Introduction [Oxford UP - 978 0 19 285403 2] is excellent. For something more comprehensive (if somewhat dated - 1943), Frank Stenton's Anglo-Saxon England hits the spot. It is a little dry but is still considered a standard text. Somewhere in between is David Wilson's The Anglo-Saxons 1981, published by Penguin.

Vague said...

Brilliant, thanks! Hope the writing's going well.

Graeme K Talboys said...


I'm taking a short break to recharge batteries before going back to the spy novel.

How about you? Or are you still painting things?

Vague said...

Still painting things... was shattered after 363, taken a long time to get back into proper writing mode.