Constitutionally incapable of reading . . .

April 29, 2015 § Leave a comment

There are books which we see from year to year on shelves of libraries or in charity bookshops, and we are conscious of their great popularity. All the same, we appear to be constitutionally incapable of reading them. Some we have not read at all. Of others we might have read an opening paragraph or a blurb. Are we reluctant to read them because there has been too much talk of them? Do we suspect from the little we know that we won’t like them? It is true that we have read other books we anticipated not liking and discovered that we did. Yet what is it about this handful of books that we simply will not take down from the shelves to read further in an endeavour to overcome our prejudice? We may even have sought and received confirmation from other people that these are good books, but we shy at the thought of reading them. And we do not. Ten such books are listed below:

The White Tiger by Aravid Adiga

The Curious Incident of a Dog at Night-time by Mark Haddon

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières

The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

The Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

 Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier


Would you read a novel by Paula Fox?

October 30, 2014 § 1 Comment

Archie Leach, Frances Ethel Gumm and Norma Jean Baker were known to their public as Cary Grant, Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe.

Good writers can be called names such as Dawn Powell, Paula Fox, and Jan Mark. And I think that’s a pity because their names rather put some of us off. Would the Brontës have appealed as much if they had perpetuated the name Brunty (or Prunty)  from which Brontë is derived?

Elizabeth Taylor still, after all these years, the best known unknown writer: Rediscovering writers

February 20, 2013 § Leave a comment

At regular intervals someone writing in the Guardian (Review) brings Elizabeth Taylor to readers’ attention. I wonder how she can have escaped their attention, if they have been reading the Guardian in the last ten years. Haven’t articles about her appeared in the Review no less than three times?

Many years ago a journalist friend of my mother’s recommended Elizabeth Taylor to her. So those articles in the Guardian were not the revelation to me that they might have been. (I wish the Guardian would discover some writer for me.)  In a Summer Season, a yellow hardback, I found at home in Dublin was the first Elizabeth Taylor I read. Later, I bought some of my own in green Virago covers which ultimately disappeared. I now have copies of the Virago reissued, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, In a Summer SeasonAt Mrs Lippincote’s, A view of  [not from] the Harbour, Blaming, an old Virago edition of Angel and a penguin edition of A Wreath of Roses (reprinted 1984).

When I first read In a Summer Season I was younger than Arminta, now I am a good bit older, but Arminta (Minty) has remained, for me, one of the high points of that book. Sometimes you are sorry to reread a book, after a long interval, and discover you cannot recapture the pleasure you once took in the characters or the story. All you do is spoil the memory of that pleasure.

I have read most of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels twice and some three times, possibly more. Every so often, Elizabeth Taylor crops up in my reading cycle, and I read a handful. Some such as At Mrs Lippincote’s and A Game of Hide and Seek, I don’t feel inclined to read again. Yet I am very taken with Julia and her son in the first, and the romance between Harriet and Vesey in the second. However, both books were spoilt by secondary scenes with ancillary characters. At Mrs Lippincotes was spoilt by Roddy’s cousin Eleanor and her communist friends, A Game of Hide and Seek by the too frequent appearances of Mrs Brimpton and other shop assistants. Robert Liddell (Ivy and Elizabeth ) does not share my feelings about this book: Mrs Curzon, her ‘lady-cleaner’, is in the great tradition of comic servants, always so well done in this author’s work.

For me the appearance of these servants in various guises has sometimes made me sigh. I think of them as stock Elizabeth Taylor characters, just as I often think of a difficult adolescent girl (with the exception of Portia, Death of the Heart) as a stock Elizabeth Bowen character. Yet I enjoyed Ernie Pounce—another servant, perhaps his being a man introduces a necessary variation—in Blaming.

Why hasn’t Elizabeth Taylor’s popularity grown, despite repeated rediscovery? Some people, Sarah Waters included (in her introduction to A View of the Harbour) is of this opinion: This is due partly, I think—and it’s a daft reason, but by no means a trivial one—to the eclipsing of her reputation by the other Liz Taylor; for even booksellers confuse the two, as I discovered when I asked for ‘anything by Elizabeth Taylor’ in a second-hand bookshop recently, and was promptly offered a book on the making of Cleopatra.

A well-known name, shared with a film star, should not do much damage. Surely anything that rescues you from obscurity works in your favour. In the future, the similarity in names may be of less importance; the actress may become less famous. Not long ago, I was told of a young person who did not know who Elizabeth Taylor (the actress) was.

It is easier to advance a reason for Elizabeth Taylor’s repeated discovery—the consistency of her work—than to explain why she is not more popular. Although I don’t like some of her books as much as others, they are all well-written. It is a remarkable achievement to have written so many readable (and good) books. Most authors don’t achieve such consistency. Sometimes we can’t believe that a writer of books, we have admired, produces one which is not at all as good. Was The Zigzag Way really written by the same person (Anita Desai) who wrote Fire on the Mountain and Clear Light of Day?

Besides, Elizabeth Taylor offers not only quality but quantity: twelve novels and four collections of short stories (included with other uncollected work in Complete Short Stories) make her a writer well worth discovering. What other unknown writer is likely to offer us such a treasure trove?

If I recall correctly, Nicola Beauman in The Other Elizabeth Taylor mentions that Elizabeth Taylor described herself as the best known unknown writer. She has retained this title for years. Do the Guardian’s stores of information on unknown writers, worth discovering, contain just one name: Elizabeth Taylor?

Called to account for reading defalcations

January 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

A few years ago someone said to me, ‘I must catch up on my reading.’ He was talking about reading fiction, not reading relating to a course or a job. Do people feel that an invisible reading list is handed out at birth?

Different imperatives, quite unreasoned, seem to be attached to reading. People read and review books they haven’t enjoyed. They go to the bitter end. Have they become confused between ‘Eat everything on your plate.’ and ‘Read all the words in the book.’ They may make a statement like this ‘I always finish every book I begin no matter how much I dislike it.’ Are they of a higher moral order than those of us who do not finish every book we begin?

When I was younger, it is true, that I felt a compulsion to finish books. By finishing a book, despite disliking it, I emerged the stronger for it. Is that so? You would probably be the better for doing yoga everyday even though you might not feel like doing it, but how can you be the better for reading a (bad) book that you did not enjoy?

Character building is out of context, if you read for pleasure. Why else would you read fiction? Or is there a better reason?

I took myself in hand some years ago and made it clear to myself that a book could be abandoned at any stage of reading. However, we all know that liking and disliking a book is not so clear cut. Occasionally, we feel we are deficient for not liking a book, so we read on. The book is not a bad book and we hope to like it better. Plus we have gone beyond the half way point which is sometimes beyond the point of return. We read on but we don’t enjoy the book any better, and it does not improve (or we do not improve enough to be up to it).

My decision to abandon a book is complicated by another factor. What about my reading record? Does half a book count? I must have read quite a chunk of Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood, and over half of Innocence by Penelope Fitzgerald before abandoning them. I didn’t mind so much about Cat’s Eye but I had enjoyed The Gate of Angels  and Offshore (both by Penelope Fitzgerald), and I wanted to like Innocence.

Worse still, I can’t say that I have read War and Peace. I have read all of it except a tenth. I skipped a ‘war section’, just one. I gave away that copy of War and Peace. A task awaits me; I shall have to buy another copy and read the skipped section (whichever one it is): otherwise I will never be able to say ‘I read War and Peace’—to the roomful of expectant people who will have gathered for this announcement—and my standing as a reader will never be what it might have been.

So I lay down no rule that I must read every book I begin. But I try to abandon the book early on, the first paragraph. Occasionally I make a mistake or indeed come to a section I deem that I am not up to reading. Towards the end of After Julius by Elizabeth Jane Howard, a notebook is produced, containing an account of a wartime operation that Julius undertook.

This account was about twenty pages long and I was in no mood to read it. So I skipped it, and finished the book. Then I was in a quandary; I had read the book bar twenty pages. So I hadn’t read the book. There was nothing for it but to go back and dose out that section to myself, a little like medicine—five pages a go until the course ran out. This is contrary to the spirit in which I read.

Who will I be telling that I read After Julius? Will I be attending the National Book Reading Accounting Day? No indeed. The knowledge that I have read various books will, by and large, die with me.

I have, however, noted that I read After Julius in my book-reading record. What about those books I did not finish? Should I round up all these half and three-quarter-read books? Is that the way book-reading accountancy is done?

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