A few years ago, when on holiday in Morocco, I had a stomach upset.
Well, no, that’s putting it mildly; on my return to Blighty, it was diagnosed as amoebic dysentery and an infection of the intestine, but what’s relevant to this tale (which started charmingly, I think you’ll agree) is the fact that it utterly scuppered my holiday and made me have to stay in my hotel room much of the time, visiting the bathroom literally dozens of times per day, and being unable to eat for a couple of days. Over the course of the ten days or so it lasted, I lost a stone and a half (but no, I would not recommend it as an approach to weight loss).
After a week or so of this, I’ll cheerfully admit that my mental state was pretty strange; I was dehydrated and lacking in intellectual stimulation (you can only stare at the ceiling for so long before it starts getting boring – for me, about three days is my limit), and the vast majority of my interactions with other people (mainly hotel staff) were being conducted in French, leading to a slightly odd state where my mind was simultaneously translating my thoughts even as I was thinking them. In short, I was not a well chap.
They say that if you don’t use it, you lose it, so I decided to stop the mental rot, and do a bit of writing. I started well, coming up with a pretty decent ‘Elseworlds’ Batman story (that is, a story based in a slightly different version of the Batman set-up), but that was about it for writing, until the wooziness and general illness passed again and I decided to make a deal with the universe.
Yes, you read that correctly. Don’t ask me to explain it, just chalk it up to me being profoundly unwell.
So, I made a deal with the universe, which went pretty much like this: if the universe let me live, and get well again, I’d finally get round to reading the key books by all the ‘big and important’ authors. The ones I’d always pretended to have read, but really I was just bluffing based upon having seen them referred to in other places, or having read the back covers or other synopses. Don’t look at me like that, you’ve done the same sort of thing, whether it was about books, films, music, art or whatever. You don’t fool me.
Anyway, I compiled a list of authors, and then against each name, put the most important or famous book they’d written (if you’ve never made such a list, I recommend it as an intellectual exercise – it’ll make you realise just how daunting it is trying to read all the books that are supposed to be classic or important or both). And I made a solemn vow that if I got well again, I’d keep up my end of the bargain.
As you can tell by the fact I’m telling this story in the present day, I didn’t get better – I died alone and unmourned in a Morocco hotel room, and my body was shoved into the wardrobe of the room, the better to frighten the next inhabitant of the room. Or, rather: I got better, and returned to Blighty, and there, once I was strang enough to leave the house, and the urge to sleep non-stop, along with the infection, fled my body, I set about buying the books on the list. And then, more importantly, reading them.
I’m not going to name the authors or books involved (well, with one or two minor exceptions; see later), but a lot of the authors were male, a lot of them were reviewed as groundbreaking and important, and a lot of their books were either boring or self-indulgent or pointless or all of the above. Several of the books featured self-absorbed male characters (I won’t call them protagonists, for reasons Robert McKee acolytes would understand), wandering from one joyless and cold sexual encounter to another, full of loathing for, and a baseless sense of superiority to, the world around them.
It was hard work reading these books, and whilst with some of them I struggled all the way to the end, it was after about ten such tomes that I developed my reading rule, which I live by to this day, and which I think is worth your considering as well, so I’ll put it in bold here and now: If I’m not enjoying a book, I will stop reading it after 100 pages, or one-third of the book’s overall length, whichever is the shorter. Obviously, we all define ‘not enjoying a book’ in differing ways, but I think there are common ways in which the lack of enjoyment manifests: not remembering the character’s names, not remembering story details, not caring what’s happened or what might happen to the characters, staring into space instead of reading, having to read pages over and over again, looking at the page numbers and figuring out how much further you’ve got to go… that sort of thing.
I know a lot of people feel that once they’ve started a book, they have to finish it, and some are even thoughtful enough to say that the author probably worked hard on it, so they feel obliged to do do. I don’t feel this way – I think there’s an implied agreement that the author will try to hold your interest, and if they fail to do that, you can leave – and anyway, there are so many good books in the world that I’ll probably never get round to reading that I really can’t afford to spend time on ones I consider to be … let’s say ‘not good’.
Interestingly, the male authors tended to be the ones who interested me least, and after feeling things were improving a bit with The Bell Jar, I found that next on my list was To Kill A Mockingbird. And what a relief it was to read: likeable characters, a moral centre to it, a mystery element, courtroom drama, issues of race and prejudice, and an ending which came as a bit of a surprise, despite it being referred to early on (if you’ve read it, you’ll know what – or rather who – I’m referring to). A brilliant book. That’s how you do it.
For me, working my way through the list of ‘great books’ was a bit of a chore, and because of that, a revelation. I remember being told at college* that the ‘canon’ of good books was heavily influenced by F.R.Leavis (who we all know best from his appearance in the Bridget Jones film), and whether or not this is strictly accurate, I certainly learned that it doesn’t always do to take other people’s words for it about books.
Bearing in mind that I haven’t posted in a while, only to return with what appears to be textual diarrhoea (perhaps appropriately, given the opening paragraphs), I’d like to try and find some message or conclusion to all this, maybe even a lesson or two, so here we go – what I learned:
– If you’re unsure about your stomach’s resilience, don’t have salad in Morocco
– Read books because you want to, not because someone else insists you must (unless you’re a student)
– Some classic books may be respected because of the step they made at the time, not how they read now
– The library is your friend (as is Project Gutenberg if you’re techno-hip and modern), especially for relation to books you may only read once (if that)
– To Kill A Mockingbird is a fine book, and if you haven’t read it, I heartily recommend it.
I hope this has been helpful.
*I was, on the other hand, told this by someone who believed that books were the one and only valid art form (forget about painting, photography, film, or music), so I should perhaps have taken the remark with a kilo or two of sodium chloride.