Reading Challenge 2016: I haven’t forgotten about it

Reading Challenge 2016

I haven’t forgotten about the 2016 Reading Challenge – I just haven’t been very diligent about writing it up. Truth be told, though, I’m behind with the reading, and given that it’s mid-November, I think this is going to turn into a challenge for next year as well as this one, but THAT’S OKAY and I’m not going to beat myself up about it BECAUSE it occurred to me last week when I was attending a conference at Sheffield Hallam that I’ve done very little reading this year outside the confines of my MA course. I read all the time, but I’m reading books about books rather than just books (if you see what I mean). For example, at present I’m reading John Guillory’s Cultural Capital because I have a unit coming up which focuses on the literary canon. It’s an interesting but difficult book: I’m reading at frustration level a lot of the time, but I understand just about enough to persevere with it. It is a shame, though, that studying for a literary-linguistic degree means I’m struggling to make time for a bit of the actual reading-for-pleasure. Trouble is that when I want to relax, reading isn’t my activity of choice right now: I’ve been reading all day, I say to myself, and now all I want to do is listen to that Pink Martini CD and paint pots.

A pot I painted instead of reading

So, this is a sort of cheat of a blog post because actually I’m just going to recap where I’ve got to with the reading challenge and list all the stuff I still have to read.

Okay. So. The image above lists the twelve categories for the challenge. I’ve already written about A Book Published Before You Were Born and A Book You Can Read In A Day, but that’s as far as I’ve got. I’m waiting until the end of the year until I make my choice for A Book Published This Year, but I’ve chosen titles for all the other categories and  I’ve listed these with notes below.


A Book You’ve Been Meaning To Read

Well, actually, I haven’t decided this one. But my bookshelves are full of books that I’ve been meaning to read, so I could put LITERALLY ANYTHING here and it wouldn’t make any difference.

A Book Recommended By Your Local Librarian Or Bookseller

The Chimes by Anna Smaill. Yes, I have a copy. No, I haven’t read it yet.

A Book You Should Have Read In School

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. I also have to read The Ambassadors for my course, so 2016 is clearly my year for reading Henry James. Plus, see below…

A Book Chosen For You By Your (etc.)

The etc. denotes that I roundly rejected the book chosen for me by my sibling, which was A A Gill’s Pour Me: A Life (sorry Tif) and have chosen instead a book recommended by a friend. I just couldn’t get on with Gill. I found his overwritten and self-indulgent prose quite nauseating, and then I read somewhere that he murdered a baboon just to find out what it was like to kill. Gill is in the news this morning because he’s announced that he has cancer, but I don’t care. My sympathy lies with that poor baboon. For this category, I’ve chosen instead The Spoils of Poynton by Henry James, and I have read this and I ENJOYED IT! I’ve been meaning to write a post about Spoils and ekphrasis, but, you know…it’s coming. It’s coming.

A Book That Was Banned At Some Point

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. My Significant Other is always nagging me about not having read this. It is (apparently) an unacceptable gap in my knowledge. Okay, fine, I’ll read it. I’ve bought a copy. I haven’t read it yet.

In case you’re wondering why it was banned, the Wikipedia page for banned books tells us that Alice was

Formerly banned in the province of Hunan, China, beginning in 1931, for its portrayal of anthropomorphized animals acting on the same level of complexity as human beings. The censor General Ho Chien believed that attributing human language to animals was an insult to humans. He feared that the book would teach children to regard humans and animals on the same level, which would be “disastrous”.

A A Gill would probably agree with General Ho Chien’s sentiments, but I don’t, and I suspect that baboon didn’t either. Oh, and by the way Ho Chien! Your name is French for dog.

A Book You Previously Abandoned

Oh god. This is Nabokov’s Pnin. I started it – and it is wonderful – but I’m a very anxious person and this book is an absolute nightmare for those of us who worry all the time about journeys going wrong, things getting lost, important stuff getting left behind, etc. This book is like all my anxiety nightmares rolled into one big fat sweaty never-ending anxiety horror film.

A Book You Own But Have Never Read

I’ve done this one! I read The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins and it was bloody awful. It helped me remember why I avoid nineteenth-century fiction. Proper blog post to follow. In due course.

A Book That Intimidates You

Ah, now, I’m going to have a go at House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. I’ve never read anything like this before, plus it’s HUGE. But given the way my literary interests are leaning these days, I think this is a must-read.

(What’s the Z for? Is it for real or is it a pose?)

A Book You’ve Already Read At Least Once

I could cheat with this one because I had to re-read Titus Andronicus as part of my course, but I’m going to stick with my original choice of Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, just because Gibbons’ book is enormous fun. I’m saving this one for the Christmas holiday.

Ta-dah! All my procrastinatory effort laid out before you in block quotes. There’ll be more to follow. I’ll get back to you on this.


People are very funny about books


Me reading a book in sepia

Me reading a book while on holiday in the Norfolk Broads a couple of years ago

People are very funny about books – funny peculiar, that is, rather than funny ha-ha.

For example, the last time I bought a bookcase, the retail assistant informed me that the smaller compartments in the particular case I was looking at were handy for storing DVDs or displaying ornaments and other such fripperies. ‘No, I need all the space for books,’ I replied, and even as I said it, I knew what her response would be – and yes, it duly came – ‘Oh, yes, well, I’ve got far too many books myself. I never have enough space for them.’ Right, fair enough, but then why try to encourage me to use up valuable book-storing-space by plonking a vase where the books should be? The thing is, the assistant felt that I’d made some kind of imputation about her intelligence because I’d implied that I owned more books than she did, and she felt the need to correct me on this.

But – the number of books you own is not an indication of how clever you are. What sort of books do you have? Do you have a houseful of Barbara Cartlands and Jilly Coopers? All very well if you like that sort of thing, but I doubt it’ll do much for your IQ. And if you own books of a more intellectual nature, have you actually read them? Again, it’s all very well to own expensive hardback copies of the major works by influential western philosophers, but if you haven’t read them, then you may as well clutter up your bookshelves with china dogs and tea-light holders.

People say they don’t like giving books away: ‘Oh, I couldn’t possibly part with my books. It would be like giving away a little bit of myself.’ Would it? Of course it wouldn’t. There isn’t any part of my physical being that I would give away – at least not while I’m alive and still using it – but I donate books to Oxfam all the time, because I’ve read them. I give books away partly because I know I only have a finite number of years on this planet and it’s very unlikely that I’ll have time to read them again, but mostly because I only have a finite amount of storage space and I part with the books I’ve read in order to make room for the books that I haven’t read. (Of course, this doesn’t always work. I keep the books I know I will need again – textbooks – plus the books I know I will read again – mostly comic books – and just occasionally, I’ll give a book away and then decide that I wished I hadn’t: I did this recently with du Maurier’s Rebecca. Three weeks after having parted with it, I ended up trotting round the charity shops looking for a replacement copy.)

People like books as a physical object. Kindles and similar products have not really taken off as they might have done, despite some clear advantages over bulky hardbacks: Kindles take up less storage space (again!), and are not so heavy to hold. This latter point may seem frivolous, but I struggle to read Simon Schama’s A History of Britain mostly because it’s so bloody heavy and my hands start to ache after twenty minutes or so. The advantages to Kindles are obvious if you are travelling – no excess baggage payments and more room for insect repellent and stomach tablets. But I must confess here that I prefer a good solid paperback myself, although my own reservations about Kindles have more to do with the comparatively small amount of text shown on the screen and the continuous interruption to the reading experience that ensues as a result. We can’t use our peripheral vision when reading from a Kindle in the same way that we do when reading a book, and as far as I know, there hasn’t been any research into this area yet, so it’s possible that when using a Kindle, we might be missing out on a vital part of the reading experience. I do know that I always cover up the last page of ghost stories with my hand because I don’t want to glimpse the ending by accident before I get there.

People won’t write in books or deface them in any way. Why not? It’s your book. You can do what you like with it. I scribble all over mine. I like my books to contain my experience of reading them. For example, there are crinkly pages in my copy of The Three Musketeers because I blubbed all over the chapter in which Constance is murdered, and as for my copy of Watership Down – well, some pages have been welded together forever with snotty salt water. I like it when I buy a second-hand book and someone has drawn little pictures in the margin, or written a mysterious note to the previous recipient of the book. It’s nice if a book retains that small fragment of human experience.

What I’m getting round to, I suppose, is that a book should be a dynamic, not a static, object. It shouldn’t sit on a shelf gathering dust. It shouldn’t be used as a status symbol. It should be read and wept over and annotated, and then it should be passed on for someone else to read and perhaps spill coffee on, and then passed on again and again, until eventually all the pages fall out when the glue in the binding perishes and then it can be recycled and made into another book. Hurrah!