Choosing Books

My current "house-mate" (aka: Job-hunting Graduate Son) recently remarked that I always 'rave' about whatever book I happen to be reading.  He did not intend the observation as a complimen... t was more of  a how-dull-bibliophile-mothers-are type statement.  I immediately told him he was wrong (always a pleasure) and drummed up a couple of titles that had disappointed me, including - shock-horror - Richard Ford's 'The Sportswriter' which I think I simply found depressing... t a time in my life when I really wasn't in the mood to be depressed.  (And no, that is not an obvious thing to say, because different books suit different moods and stages of one's life.  One of the many pleasures of reading is the way a particular story can land in one's lap like a gift, arriving, as if by the twitch of some divine wand, at precisely the moment it is 'needed'.)

But the conversation with the house-mate got me thinking about How/Why I Choose Books.  I came to the following conclusions:

  1. There is something about a Critically Acclaimed Global Bestseller that makes me want to run in the opposite direction.  Particularly if it is called The Da Vinci Code, or Fifty Shades of Grey... simply cannot bring myself to add to the sales of these commercial hot-cakes, not even out of curiosity.
  2. More contrarily, even if the Global Bestseller is of a genre obviously up my street, there is a small obstinate worm inside my brain that makes me NOT want to buy it... t least not straight away.  I suppose it is to do with resisting the pull to become part of a stampeding herd.  I am not proud of this trait.  It has meant things like 'Wolf Hall' and 'The Book Thief ' took a while to get to.  Though boy, were they worth the wait.
  3. Friends' recommendations.  I have learnt to be cautious of these.   Tastes vary so widely, and being a novelist complicates things - however one responds, there is a danger of being thought uppity or envious or self-promoting.  Even with friends known well enough to be beyond the reach of  such difficulties, confessing to not having enjoyed something that has been enthusiastically pushed one's way is not always easy.  Friends want to like each other's book recommendations.  It verifies and validates the friendship.  And though, of course, all differences of opinion should be aired and are fine, sometimes they are quite telling.* _  Like the person to whom I recommended a treasured favourite - Marilynne Robinson's 'Gilead' - only to be told, bluntly, disparagingly, how much it was hated.  I simply could not like the person quite as much afterwards.  I am sorry if that makes me shallow, I just couldn't.  I love the book and they were cruel about it.  A response to a book shows our sensibilities.  It does not lie.  It _ can *matter.  So I am just as cautious about what I recommend to other people.
  4. I have a sister whose choices I trust absolutely.  If she says a book will get under my skin, it always does.  She is busy and doesn't read as much fiction as me, but if she offers up a title then I leap on it.
  5. I also trust my local bookseller, but for the opposite reason: He doesn't know me.  He also has broad, fine and eclectic tastes, which means he recommends books that never fail to surprise, delight and/or take me out of my comfort zone. It is thanks to him, for instance, that I read Yann Martell's letters to the Canadian Prime Minister.  A stunner.  (Warning: It's really hard to get hold of, even on Amazon, but worth hunting down).
  6. My biggest trigger for purchasing a book, however, is a good review in a newspaper.  This never used to be the case.  Indeed, once upon a time reviews were for casting an occasional eye over, playing only a minimal role in the unhurried, enjoyable business of Deciding What To Read Next.  But these days time is so much shorter.  These days barely a week goes by when I don't take note of a book(s) that sounds worth adding to my bedside pile.  (There were three on Sunday alon... he George Eliot one, the Forster one, and the Kim Philby one, since you ask).

So yes, the Job-seeker is correct: I often 'rave' about my bedside reading-matter, but this is because each book has been selected with the greatest hope, the greatest care.   For what the job-seeker, at 23, does not yet know, is the extent to which Time gallops.  He does not know that one day he might wake up to the sobering realisation that there will simply not be enough hours in his life to read all the glorious books already published, let alone the ones yet to be written.  His mother certainly knows it.  It has made her more fussy, more focused but even more appreciative.