Why I won’t be setting a reading target for 2012

I keep track of what books I read in a year at goodreads.com, and I make little virtual bookshelves to keep each years books separate. I don’t really know why I do it by year. I like browsing back through my books and having them separated by year makes it easy to navigate and keep track of. In previous years I have been tempted to set a goal on how many books I will read but this year I’m not tempted at all. Goodreads has its annual 50 book challenge, I hear of other people setting themselves an arbitrary figure of books read or total page count. But I’m just not doing it.

A couple of years ago, just after new year I started setting myself all kinds of targets and goals and things so that I could quantify my time and how successful the year had been. I set a target on books read, words written, kilometers swum; then a few weeks later I had a brain haemorrhage and spent two months recovering. The haemorrhage wasn’t connected to the stress of setting strict targets on my time, but it certainly threw it into perspective. I stopped worrying about whether I was achieving enough.

I remember a few years ago watching a friend reading a book of short stories. As he finished one he just immediately started reading the next, no time for rumination or reflection on what he had just finished, he would just flip the page and keep going. Some books I have read have affected me so deeply or impressed me so much that I take a break from reading for a little while to let it sit in my mind. Setting a target of fifty books – or however many – means reading becomes more mechanical. Would I find myself deliberately reading shorter books? Or less challenging books? Would I despair at reaching a paltry 49 books read on December 31st? Would I quickly read something, anything, in the final hours of new years eve to hit the target?

I read far fewer than 50 books a year by the way. I think I could read 50 books in year, but it would mean either reading when I wanted to be doing something else or, like I said, avoiding longer books. When I look back on my year, scrolling through my virtual bookshelf, I am reminded of all the great books I read. The Marriage Plot, Cloud Atlas, The Box Man, Midnight’s Children; I want my reading to be entertaining, challenging, thought-provoking, occasionally difficult, sometimes easy. I’m not especially worried whether it adds up to a certain number, no matter how that number is chosen. If a book is boring me, or I don’t feel like I am getting anything from it I want to feel free to abandon it because, after all, I am free to do that. I don’t like the idea of equating books with time, and if I were to try and accomplish a fixed target I would certainly do that. 50 books a year is a little less than one book a week. If a book takes two weeks to read I need to read another book in less time, I can get ahead in January by reading some novella’s so I can take my foot off the pedal in December. I want to read IQ84 but I ought to avoid it because it will put me behind schedule.

Doesn’t that sound like stripping all the joy out of it? It does to me.

So that was 2011

I was going to write a post about my top reads of 2011 but a quick glance at my goodreads 2011 bookshelf reveals that I have read very few books that were released this year. Of the 31 books I read only five were. This is how my reading tends to go, I am constantly trying to catch up on an ever growing pile of books. If I read a lot of contemporary stuff I then feel like I ought to read something classic, and vice versa. So I guess for a full run-down of my favourite books of the year you should come back next year. Undeterred though I am going to announce my favourite book of the year. I will buck the traditional literary award method and skip the long-list as it would inevitably involve every book I read this year and still not be long and just skip to the end and reveal the winner. My 2011 read of the year is;

The Tiny Wife by Andrew Kaufman

To demonstrate how much I enjoyed it, this book is the only book I have bothered to review on Amazon. You can follow the link above to see my slightly pretentious review. I read it in one sitting, early one Saturday morning before I even ate my breakfast. It is even shorter than The Sense of an Ending, and the length of that one got a lot of people wondering how long a proper novel ought to be. And yet somehow this book still manages to feel sprawling. The scant detail given is like catching a momentary glimpse of something, or peering through a keyhole and only seeing a little of what is inside. In 80 odd pages Kaufman manages to tell a story and take time to explore some of the side avenues that branch away from it. He does this with a kind of confident brevity, by just telling you something plainly and not bothering trying to explain it or justify it.  It doesn’t matter how these things happened, simply that they did happen. In the way of magic realism, you can render the magical as real and the real as magical simply by treating them as such.

So if you only read one very short, illustrated, allegorical fairy tale in 2012, make it this one.

And just to pitch in on the the whole Sense of an Ending, how-long-is-a-novel discussion; as long as it needs to be to tell the story the way it wants to be told. I’m just not convinced that a longer version of The Tiny Wife would be any better than it already is.

As for how my writing went in 2011, I started the year by finishing the first draft of my novel and spent most of it working on further drafts and polishes. I took an elongated break in the middle because the process of fixing it up was becoming so frustrating. During that time I wrote my e-book of short stories and then, once that was complete, went back to the novel and worked on it some more. I finally have a first chapter I am satisfied with. I have selected my first group of agents to whom I will be sending it and that is my project for the new year. Once those first agency submissions are made I am going to start on the next novel. Something I have been building toward for a while now, and am really looking forward to getting going on it in the new year.

My plan for next year is to write more about the books I read, this year I have a taken a more scattershot approach to writing on here. I always wanted it to be about whatever I felt like writing at any one time. Going through the different search phrases people have used to find their way here quite a few have just been looking for advice on how to make good chutney and to those people I can only apologise.

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides

I first discovered Jeffrey Eugenides after seeing the film adaptation of his debut, The Virgin Suicides. I liked the film so much I read the book, and promptly fell more in love with the book than I was with the film. It is darkly poetic and had the tone and quality of magic realism without any actual magic in it and was incredibly tightly written. It feels longer and deeper than the page count suggests. When his second novel came out, the Pulitzer Prize winning Middlesex I was surprised to discover it was a sprawling family epic. The books seemed so disparate and different from one another that I wondered for a long time what his third, The Marriage Plot, would be like. As it turns out it is also quite different from his previous novels.

At its simplest, The Marriage Plot is a book literally about the marriage plot. A girl, Madeleine, has two guys, Leonard and Mitchell, interested in her, and needs to choose between them. Being set in the 1980’s however adds a twist to the marriage plot of old. In the Victorian novels, marriage was an unbreakable vow and so who the heroin chose to marry had a greater significance and an absolute finality. This book is set in a time when divorce is legally and socially acceptable. The novel then seems to ask a simple question; with divorce, can the marriage plot still function within literature?

As a piece of literature exploring literary concepts the book often feels reflective and self-referential. Madeleine herself is a literature student exploring the marriage plot in Victorian novels. The two guys are also students, one in science, the other in religious studies, forming a complex triangle of academic disciplines. Leonard, the scientist, who also suffers from manic depression, has a kind of carefree pragmatism and Mitchell, the religious studies student, seems to be struggling with a crisis of faith. Both of these qualities do much to call into doubt the absolution of marriage.

As I was reading the book I started to form an opinion on whether or not the marriage plot could still work in literature. An opinion that was then echoed in the book itself.

A thing like that, once said, was not easily unsaid. It would be there from now on, whenever Leonard and Phyllida were in the same room.

This quote, taken slightly out of context admittedly, sums it up quite nicely. Divorce, and even annulment (which is discussed in the book), might be able to remove a marriage, but it can never erase the fact that the decision to marry was taken. Its like standing at a crossroads and choosing to go left. You can turn around and go back to the crossroads if you want to but you can never undo the fact that the first time around, you chose left. The point at which the heroine picks one suitor over another creates an unchangeable dynamic between the three of them. The rejected man must go and live his life and even if the marriage fails and ends in divorce he will have been irrevocably altered by the rejection. Divorce doesn’t just offer a second go to try all the options that were initially ignored, going back to the crossroads might lead to the discovery that some of those paths that weren’t taken are no longer there.

One of the things that I really appreciated about the book was that all three principal characters were given equal standing. Rather than a central female protagonist and two loosely defined male caricatures all three were explored sympathetically and given plenty of space. This is not a book about judging its male love interests and hoping that the woman makes the right choice, it is a book about the complexity of love.  The final page of the book is a brilliant, if slightly self-conscious, breaking of the fourth wall that talks about the insufficiency of a simplistic romantic conclusion.

As a ran of Roland Barthes there were enough references to him in the first half of the book to make me smile, and there was some stuff toward the end that really highlighted the quality of Eugenides research. I was very impressed by references to electrophoresis tanks and Rhone-Poulenc; sciency stuff that I knew about, as well as a worryingly familiar student at the start of the novel who was so pretentious he actually made me a little angry. Writing the words ‘not real skin’ on someones skin is lazy and obvious and something I might have thought was really, really clever fifteen years ago, which is, I suspect, the real reason it made a me a little angry.

So, in conclusion, another fine novel by Jeffrey Eugenides. May the next one take less than eight years to write.

Beautiful objects

It happened again. I was at work holding my kindle, settling yet another semantics argument with the dictionary, and someone came along and said ‘oh is that one of those e-book thingies?’ I said it was and, knowing that she is a reader herself, asked if she was thinking of getting one. She said no, because she likes books.

I wanted to say that I like books too. In fact, that’s why I like to be able to carry lots and lots of them around with me and buy new ones whenever and wherever I want to. That’s why I like the ability to get out of copyright works for free like the copyright laws intend, rather than having to pay a publisher almost the same amount as a new paperback. That’s why I like a forum that allows writers to share whatever they want to, whether it is good enough by traditional standards or not. I didn’t say these things though. I said something like ‘oh, right’, because I was tired.

I’m tired of always taking e-books side in the digital vs traditional argument because, in truth, I’m not a total convert. I still buy a lot of my books in print. Whether I choose to buy a print or e-book very much depends on which book it is. I never even considered buying a digital copy of IQ84 and when the book arrived I was really impressed with the way it looks and feels. Equally when I decided to buy Trick or Treatment I never even considered getting a print copy. I knew it was a book I was going to read on the train and then I’d be done with it. Browsing in the book shop the other day I saw a big hardback copy of The Night Circus and cooed over it in a way an e-book version would never have elicited.

The plain fact is, books make really lovely objects. Not all of them, obviously, but the ones where publishers decide to make a really attractive object usually end up really bloody attractive. Books have a lot of history bound up in them and its hard not to feel nostalgic about them. In his Booker prize acceptance speech Julian Barnes made the following statement;

“And if the physical book, as we’ve come to call it, is to resist the challenge of the e-book, it has to look like something worth buying and worth keeping.”

And, you know, while I can’t help but agree, as someone who has put out an e-book I got to wondering why digital objects can’t have the same allure.

Digital books are bound by a different set of limitations. For all the freedom and ease they bring they also take a lot away. You can’t really do fancy typography. You don’t get to choose your typeface (on kindle anyway) and you can’t lay the pages out exactly the way you want to. The fact that the type size can be changed by the reader takes that away. The book will always be framed by the e-book reader. Ipads looks pretty cool but my kindle is one of those old, bigger white ones so no matter what there will always be a thick white frame surrounding it and a little keyboard at the bottom just out of view.

So does that mean e-books can’t be attractive, alluring objects? Well, actually I think they can be. When I put my e-book together I spent quite a bit of time doing some nice illustrations for the different sections of the book and putting in page breaks so it flowed nicely and proofreading it so that I knew it was as good as it could be. Nothing spectacular, but I have seen some shockingly produced e-books that are so badly put together that it left them looking at best tawdry and at worst unreadable.

When doing the illustrations for my book I kept in mind the kind of screen that was going to be displaying them. E-ink displays, only being able to show greyscale, have a pretty severe limitation built directly into them, but I deliberately did stark black and white designs for my e-book and they look pretty decent on a kindle and on the i-phone app. Limitations inspire creativity, rather than stifling it.

Ultimately of course, its all about the words. The thoughts, the ideas, the stories; the container they come in is only of secondary importance, but it does have some importance. Books have been gorgeous things for a very long time. Digital books are so new they haven’t really had much of a chance to mature. But just because it is possible to slam a slab of html code into a kindle file doesn’t mean that that’s what we should be doing. Getting design, formatting and presentation right means a book will at least look like it deserves not to be dismissed as lazy and amateurish. Seems a shame to have the means to allow all writers an audience and then spoil it by producing work that looks sloppy before the first word gets read.

The tragic saga of the onion chutney

I have been in a doing mood recently. I noticed that if I’m not careful quite large chunks of time can pass by quietly without me even really noticing them. It’s almost November but the year still feels young. Somehow I have nearly been married for a whole year. So, when I noticed that time keeps moving even if I don’t, I decided I needed to do more stuff. It was this doing mood that caused me to enroll in some evening classes. It was the same doing mood that led me to be lying in the mud in a forest wearing full army fatigues while holding a decommissioned assault rifle. It is the same doing mood that inspired me to submit a piece of writing to the excellent McSweeneys website. And it was the same doing mood that got me to thinking that it would be far superior to make some onion chutney rather than just lazily buying some from the supermarket.

It wasn’t my first chutney. I had made some with the excess courgettes from the garden, and it was reasonably well received. But I had a particular chutney in mind. What I wanted was a dark, sticky onion chutney. I assumed it would require balsamic vinegar, and so went looking for recipes that featured that. With a suitable looking recipe in hand I went to the supermarket to buy the ingredients. Making chutney is, essentially, the process of taking lots of food and reducing it into a very small amount of food. I sliced up all the onions, the peppers, weighed out the sugar, measured out the vinegar (both red wine vinegar and balsamic) and all of it took up almost the entire work surface of my relatively small kitchen. I put the onions in the pan for a while and then poured all the vinegar and sugar in and, as instructed, left it on a low heat.

Slowly the house became permeated with the smell of hot vinegar. It’s not an especially nice smell. I stirred it intermittently, and played xbox while I waited for it to be done. Hours went by. I blame the recipes vague instruction of ‘leave on a low heat for an hour and a half’. My idea of a low heat was obviously lower than the recipes. After an hour and a half the chutney was still  much too thin. The vinegar was a long way off of being reduced far enough for the thick chutney I had in mind. It was slowly getting there, but was taking much longer than anticipated. Not deterred I simply left it on the low heat until it was done. Three to four hours later it had the consistency I was after. I spooned it into a jar and put it in the fridge.

The next day I decided to give it a little try. I opened the jar up and the chutney looked good. All sticky and shiny and sweet. Kerry took a spoon and went to try some, but the spoon just thudded against the chutney the way a spoon would thud against a brick wall. I should have realised something was up when my chutney recipe, which stated would be enough to serve 20, ended being able to fit into a single jar. I had reduced six onions, six shallots, one red pepper, three cups sugar, over half a litre of vinegar and a pinch of rosemary into a space of about five-hundred millilitres. It was like a small onion based singularity. You know how most of matter is made up of empty space? Not in my chutney jar. In there all the onions protons and electrons are squashed up against the side of the glass. It is the densest preserve I have ever witnessed.

I was pretty annoyed with myself. I had wasted a lot of time, ingredients, money, and the house still smells faintly of vinegar. I then decided to check my emails to see if McSweeney’s had got back to me about the piece of writing I had submitted to them. I thought maybe some kind of cosmic harmony would balance up my chutney failure with some good news. Perhaps I had earned it. They had got back to me, with a classically polite rejection. I don’t actually believe in cosmic harmony. You can’t get writing accepted by making dreadful chutney.