On reading

I found this the other day. It is the start of an essay I was asked to write for an anthology, plans for which came to an abrupt halt when the publisher went out of business. So it was never finished, but I thought it worth sharing as a snapshot and a reflection. It was written 3 years ago, hence references to my second son (now 4) being 16 months old. (Plus: remember Sudoku?)


Before I sat down to write this piece about my reading has changed, I went to the bookcases in our living room and dining room to see how many unread books I have. I have so many unread books that those are the only kind that are displayed now. The ones I read go ‘to the charity shop’: mostly, in fact, to the loft when my wife is out. Because I review books and get sent many which I never read and do give to the charity shop, this fiction about my fiction can be maintained.

So I counted them and the total is around 750. I didn’t count the ones in the bedside cupboards. Immediately I wondered how long it would take me to read 750 books: that is, if some event prevented me from acquiring any more (a strain of bubonic plague which affects only publishers, perhaps; or Amazon’s final success in becoming the world’s only book supplier). Julian Barnes rejects as “weird” the idea of “hav[ing] around you only as many books as you have time to read in the rest of your life.” Yet my sense of order means I find it impossible not to measure out my life in books, and my books as slivers of my life. Writers do it as well as readers. Kazuo Ishiguro publishes a work of fiction on average every five years, and observed on publication of his last book, Nocturnes, in 2009, that this meant he had “only four left.”

How many do I, as a reader, have left? A few years ago, it would have taken me around 5 years to get through 750 books, though ‘getting through’ is probably not the best way of paying tribute to them. Now, it is more likely to take me 10-12 years . What happened? How did I get here and where am I going?

As a child I didn’t read books much. I could read a bit before I went to school, squeezing in beside my father in his armchair and pointing to words in his Daily Express, but there weren’t many novels around: the only ones I remember seeing were Henri Charriere’s Papillon, and Spike Milligan’s Puckoon, books which have not much in common other than slightly chiming titles. In my teens, I became shortsighted and began wearing glasses, and a lifetime of being considered bookish was on. Even then, I read only a couple of reliable favourites, imitating my friends: for a long time it was my personal conviction that I had no personality of my own but simply, like a cushion, adopted the shape of the last person to leave an impression on me. These early adoptions were Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, authors at extremes of productivity but with something in common, not least their appeal to geekish boys. I had no exposure to classic novels (still an omission in my reading), and didn’t study English literature beyond GCSE level.

It was in the summer of 1990, mid-A-levels, aged 17 and working for £9.50 a day in a fashion store on a declining side of Belfast city centre, when I bought my first book of what is generally termed literary fiction. (In fact the shop in question shelved such books under the even more offputting label of Discerning Novels.) It was A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving: not a bad first choice, and clearly a book with legs, as affirmed by its appearance in the BBC’s Big Read poll of popular books in 2003; it was one of the few books there without an adaptation, award or school syllabus to its name, whose popularity had spread without artificial enhancements. Conscious as I am of Forster’s comment that “one always tends to overpraise a long book simply because one has got through it,” I loved Owen Meany – even now I can recite its opening and closing sentences – and soon made my way through Irving’s backlist. I would sneak upstairs, hoping my mother wouldn’t notice under my coat the fat paperback on which I had spent more than half my day’s earnings. (Now, I sneak books past my wife. Plus ca change.) I also read a couple of Irving’s later books, but found myself getting less and less pleasure from them; he has been for me the opposite of an acquired taste.

Shortly afterwards, I read two other authors for the first time: Julian Barnes, whose novel A History of the World in 10½ Chapters had come out in paperback, and Iain Banks, whose novel Walking on Glass was lent to me by a schoolfriend. These were revelatory texts: fractured stories, told in parts which may or may not align if the reader made the effort to meet the author halfway. Almost before I knew what a ‘normal’ novel was, my understanding of what a story could do, and the form it could take, was disrupted. Around the same time, I discovered Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry, a book which doesn’t fit with anything else, a literary firework that didn’t so much expand my mind as explode it. It seems obvious now, though it didn’t then, that these early reads forged my taste for novels which are not straightforward: for the structurally crooked, the stylishly substantial, the satisfyingly odd.

Most of all I wanted, and still want, novels that meet the reader on the level. I tried a little genre fiction – a Michael Crichton here, a Thomas Harris there – but didn’t enjoy them. It’s not that I disdain plot, though there is an element of that. One author – I want to say Terry Pratchett but can’t find any trace of the quote online – spoke of books where “the last 90% of the action takes place in the last 10% of the pages,” and my feelings on finishing a book whose main purpose is to get you from A to B is similar to the sensation when I finish a Sudoku: Right. What now? It’s not just the pull of a strong plot, or the sense that a book which makes you turn the pages quickly isn’t making you linger and think, but the requirement for elements to fit together at all, and the insistence on causation. I was disappointed by the Thomas Harris (Red Dragon), for example, not just because the book sought to explain the killer’s mindset, but that it thought explanation was even possible. Compare that with, say, Patricia Highsmith, who sets the reader sail in the company of the dangerous and disturbed, not only without a map but without the desire for one.

A novel which poses questions is more interesting than one which provides answers. Another way of putting it is that a book should be a dialogue between reader and writer, rather than a monologue. It is unlikely, of course, to be an evenly-balanced conversation, if you also subscribe to Martin Amis’s idea of the perfect read (in his case Saul Bellow) as being “a transfusion from above.” Everyone reads upwards, right? For reading a book by an author only as intelligent as I am would be about as sensible as voting for a president because he’s the kind of guy you could go for a beer with. The play between reader and writer is what makes the book different for each person who reads it, and the more the author gives, the less the reader has to contribute.

I want a novel with something hidden in it, but not necessarily for it to be revealed in the end. I want the draw of a novel to come not so much from the story as from the voice; a long, unbroken monologue that you can’t pull yourself away from. For a long time this meant a particular treat for me was the unreliable narrator, as perfected by authors like Patrick McGrath and Kazuo Ishiguro. There is much more satisfaction to be had for me from the uncertainties and frustrations of The Unconsoled or When We Were Orphans, than from the neat perfection of The Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go. I never viewed books as a source of escapism. Literature, as Jeanette Winterson said, “isn’t a hiding place. It’s a finding place.”

Running through backlists and “modern classics” like the late starter I felt myself to be – though rarely venturing earlier than the 1920s (Waugh yes, Woolf yes) – I began to feel that time spent not reading was time wasted. Finally I seemed to fit the mould that others had made for me, of a bookish young man (I already had the look: pale, skinny, sportless). Finding something that I was good at, I ran with it. My rate of reading began to describe a J curve. I became, in short, someone who reads a lot.

I am still someone who reads a lot. I know this because everyone I know thinks so, even though it’s no longer true. I read hardly at all these days. But I know I read a lot also because nobody ever buys me a book as a gift, even though they think books are what I love more than anything. And I know it because friends, family and colleagues, most of whom also don’t read much, ask for my advice on bookish things. (What could I take on holiday? Have you read Fifty Shades? Where in Belfast could you buy books by Julio Cortazar?) When I say ‘friends’, naturally I am using the word in its twentieth-century meaning: I have come to accept that, just as a friend of mine has a six-year-old son who doesn’t believe you couldn’t rewind live TV until recently, my own children will not understand my definition of a friend as someone you have at the very least met. Now that I have an endless network of online ‘friends’ all of whom love books at least as much as I do, I have hardly any time to read as a result. The J curve has become a bell curve, a normal distribution, for very normal reasons.

In his 1938 book of memoir-cum-criticism, Enemies of Promise, Cyril Connolly wrote of the perils to the writer of domesticity.

If, as Dr Johnson said, a man who is not married is only half a man, so a man who is very much married is only half a writer. Marriage can succeed for an artist only where there is enough money to save him from taking on uncongenial work and a wife who is intelligent and unselfish enough to understand and respect the working of the unfriendly cycle of the creative imagination. She will know at what point domestic happiness begins to cloy, where love, tidiness, rent, rates, clothes, entertaining and rings at the doorbell should stop, and will recognise that there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.

The last line is well known, but the whole paragraph shows that Connolly had a very different view of marriage, 75 years ago, than we do now. (And of artists: his writer is by definition a man.) He seems to see gradations of marriage, with “very much married” the worst option of all. But as far as “good art” is concerned, his comment holds true for reading as well as writing. A parent is a willing player in the project of being pushed into a corner of their own life, even more so now than in Connolly’s time, but that doesn’t make one any less bouleversé when it happens. For Connolly, fatherhood – which is strictly what he was talking about, rather than parenthood – meant being a breadwinner and staying put, and that seemed to him to be challenge enough. Now fathers wish to have an active role in their child’s upbringing, and it’s not incompatible with good art, provided you have nothing else to do. J.G. Ballard balanced the domestic blitz not only of fatherhood but of single parenthood with writing original and interesting fiction: but writing was his job. Could he have done it while holding down another full-time job?

As it happens, I managed pretty well to keep my reading up after our first son was born. The thing about two parents and one child is that you outnumber them: you can give your partner a break, and vice versa. My wife and I adopted a shift system for nights, many of which I spent reading and writing reviews while monitoring the Moses basket. With two children, the first thing you realise is how easy it was with one. Now there are no hiding places, no spare hands. Once they’re both sleeping through the night (and with our second, currently 16 months old, we’re still waiting for that), you have the evening free; but you’re too tired to concentrate on anything longer than a tweet. Most of all, with two young children, you’re never really alone. Connolly again: “In general it may be assumed that a writer who is not prepared to be lonely in his youth must if he is to succeed face loneliness in his middle age. The hotel bedroom awaits him.” I am trying right now to remember the last time I was truly alone: no family or children, no colleagues alongside, no passersby or surrounding traffic, no prospect of interruption. I think it was probably about 9 months ago, when I made a trip to London on my own to attend a literary event: the hotel bedroom awaited me.

Deeds of possession for property speak of the tenant or owner having “quiet enjoyment” of the premises. Those two words placed together will have most parents scratching their heads with quizzical eyebrows. Quiet enjoyment is not part of the deal. But it is essential if you want to read, or write, or write about reading. It is essential if you want to engage with a book that can’t be fully absorbed with Octonauts playing in the background. Perhaps books should come with a rating label, like the warning sign on a tail-lift truck which warns following drivers how far away they must remain. Do not read within 10m / two rooms / one landmass of other people.

That is, perhaps, a plausible point, but I wonder whether I am shamefully using my beloved boys as an excuse for a phenomenon which has at its source other reasons. For example, having 750 unread books – or rather, having 750 unread books and feeling that you really must read them all at some point – cannot be conducive to good reading. We love to have a go at the decisions of literary prize judges, but the need to make it through all the books is so demanding that, as Adam Mars-Jones said of judging the Booker Prize in 1995, “it was great to find a book so inept you could chuck it aside and get on to the next one.” What reader with a pile of books looking over his shoulder doesn’t recognise that? It may be no bad thing: ensuring that, in literary terms, you don’t suffer fools gladly. But it tends to enhance that other human desire to have an opinion about something, to make your mind up. Taking a view about a book, I’ve heard it said, is like a tree beginning to fall: once it begins to tilt one way, it is very difficult to change its direction. Everything that supports the forming opinion is enhanced – ears pricked for it – and those that counter it tend to be overlooked.

What hope is there, then, for thoughtful and mindful reading, for taking time over the sort of book which makes you pause for thought, and not just rush toward the exit? Rushing-toward-the exit books are, of course, satisfying in their own terms, and have the added bonus that I’m less likely to want to write a review of them for my blog or elsewhere. It’s hard, for me, to write about a book that I fully understand and have no need to wrestle with a little. The process of writing a review tells me what I need to know about it. It also, for better or worse, cements my thoughts on a book, so that when I look back at a review I wrote years before, I will be unable to think of anything else about the book other than what I have written. This is, I suppose, preferable to the alternatives of not being able to remember what I thought or – increasingly – whether I’ve read the book at all.

This project of writing about books is partly vain – I must think my thoughts are worth sharing – and partly altruistic – I want others to get the same pleasure from a favourite book that I do. It also appeals, I think, to a completist impulse in me – others may prefer a different term – where my experience of a book is somehow unfinished until I have reduced it to writing. Or, what better way to do tribute to a piece of writing than by writing about it? Writing, of course, takes even more time and effort (for me) than reading, so the problems above are intensified. When plucking the next book from my shelves, I am torn between a thin one (so I can make a faster start on the overall project to clear my shelves of unread books, to get rid of all that potent, potential pleasure; to wish, finally, my reading life away) and a fat one (so the delay is longer before I ‘have to’ write a review of it).

But if reading has changed for me in one crucial way in the last few years, it has changed for others too. A survey published for World Book Day this year said that 29% of people rarely or never read, and that they blame “pressure of time” for this. We readers typically scoff, and wonder what uses they have for their time that couldn’t be squeezed a little to accommodate a slim volume or two. Yet I just made a similar excuse myself – about my children, and about being too tired in the evenings to concentrate on anything longer than a tweet. Twitter, in fact, entered my life exactly one week before my elder son. Now, like so many readers, I am trapped the give and take of recommendations, the presence of the authors, the murmur of links, replies and retweets. I find it hard now to read more than five pages of a book without sharing my thoughts on Twitter – briefly, inarticulately – or quoting a passage, or sharing an image of the brilliant/terrible cover. It is a hall of mirrors from which I can see no escape.


  1. That’s a marvelously thoughtful and entertaining read. A great deal of it rang very true. Although I don’t have kids I do have a job that gets in the way of reading: a job that leaves me exhausted, although probably no more than many other jobs. I love your description of books that take you from A to B in which the action all takes place at the end. One of the problems I have with crime fiction (ie. not enjoying it except for the likes of Patricia Highsmith who you mention) is that the last sixth of the book always bores me. In the same way that I hate action movies I hate ‘action novels’ or should I say ‘compressed action novels’. I’m also totally with you in preferring the rewards of The Unconsoled to,say, The Remains of the Day. The former, in fact, is one of my favourite novels of all time and I remain mystified as to why it had such a hostile reaction on its publication (although one hears more positive things about it these days). Thanks for posting this piece John. It really was splendid. I kind of hope it gets published somewhere as it definitely deserves to be read more widely.

  2. That’s a wonderful read. Thanks for sharing. So much of this resonates. I, too, feel the pressure of the unread books on the shelf but can think of no better way to spend my time (or life) than reading them.

  3. Very thoughtful post. I suspect age comes into it too – my children are grown and flown the nest so theoretically I should be able to read just as much as I want. It doesn’t seem to work like that and I think my reading has slowed down. I’ll never read all the books I own but I’ll have fun trying! 🙂

  4. I started my blog because I counted my unread books 2 years ago and it came to 746 books. I calculated that it would take me about 18 years to read them all but I’ve upped my game a bit and now I’m around the 13 year mark…

  5. Thanks for sharing these thoughts, shared by so many readers. That’s a familiar feeling to us all. Last time when I tried to estimate the time necessary to read all the books I would like to read I came up with a three-digit number. That is why quality should come before quantity. As years pass, you realise you can’t waste time on mediocre literature.

  6. Wonderful. Best thing I’ve read in ages, John.

    I haven’t done the dreaded count, but it’s certainly in the hundreds. Since we opened a bookshop last year, the number has probably doubled – there are, literally, books everywhere. I’ve been reading Swimming on Dry Land (Helen Blackhurst) and The Lie Tree (Frances Hardinge) over the past few days, but before I came up the stairs just now my eye was drawn to an old hardback, in good condition, of a book I’d never seen nor heard of before an hour ago, by one-time Guardian journalist Lawrence Donegan of his time writing for a rural Donegal newspaper in the 1990s. There goes my attention for a while.

    One problem I have, mystifyingly and increasingly, is an inability to finish. Even if I’m *really enjoying* it. I had this with Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk last year. I read 100 pages, loved it, was note-taking whole sentences every couple of pages. Then I put it down somewhere and didn’t pick it up for three months.

    I also blame Twitter and children and “external pressures”, whatever they are. Mostly, though, I blame unprecedented choice. I mean, I wake up tomorrow morning and before getting out of bed I can choose from thoughtful, thought-provoking, excellently-crafted often long-form articles published in hundreds of newspapers and magazines all over the world. And that’s just the new articles. Never mind the archives of many worthwhile outlets, all up there and forever free. And that’s just *reading*. Throw in on-demand TV and the endless distractions of social media, and it’s a perfect storm. It’s a wonder we ever get to read a book at all, or that a publisher can ever make any money from one. (I’m depressing myself now. I must stop.)


    P.S. It strikes me that a really good blog post, much like a good book, is a two-way dialogue – except this one actually gets acted out below the line.

    1. Thanks Shane. I think you analyse the situation perfectly. In terms of not finishing books, I probably abandon more books than I complete these days, even if I think they’re fine – it’s almost as though, with the sense that time is against me, ‘fine’ doesn’t cut it.

      1. There’s a lovely Tim Parks post on the NYRB on not finishing books even when you’re enjoying them: http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2012/03/13/why-finish-books/

        Enjoyed this a lot – thanks John. My youngest is nearly 10 now & I still don’t feel I’m ‘back up to speed’ in terms of how much reading I can fit in… but I’m less scared by the prospect of all the unread books now I know about your 750! (Or rather: 750 as it was then.)

  7. A pleasure to read this on a beautiful April day in Los Angeles. The morning after I returned home from a business trip to find my book filled house ineptly burgled. They took an old ipad, but left just about everything else. Even placed a letter they found out for me on my desk.

    I just wish they would have emptied the place of books, but alas not a one, or at least non I’ve missed yet.

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