Go Wide Or Go Deep

Is it better to read a wide variety of writers, or to read a small number of writers more deeply? When I was in my early twenties I was starting to take writing very seriously and so I figured I needed to take my reading very seriously as well. I didn’t feel that I was anywhere near well-read enough so I stopped reading the same writer two books in a row thinking that reading as wide a variety of writers as possible was the best way to get caught up, and I felt like I had a lot of catching up to do. For a while I wasn’t reading the same writer twice in a year. I covered a lot of ground that way but I couldn’t really get a deep understanding of any one writer. In that time I read one Salman Rushdie novel, one Dostoyevsky novel, one JD Salinger novel. Lots and lots of one off’s.

There were a few writers I read more often simply because I liked them so much. Jeffrey Eugenides, for example. I have read all of his books but he has only written three and there are such long gaps between them when the next one comes along (should be soon*) it won’t count as binge reading any more. Haruki Murakami too. I love his books so much that of course I read new ones instantly but for a long time I had his back catalogue to make my way through and so there was a lot of Murakami in my life for a long while. But mostly, even if I really loved a book or really felt interested in a particular writer, I would space the books out so that I wouldn’t be saturated with any one writer.

Do you know what book it was that caused me to break my own rule? The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I read the second one about two years after the first just because someone told me I ought to keep reading them (I had enjoyed the first one but not enough to go straight to the second and after a while I just lost interest). But a friend insisted I go back to them so I read the second and then instantly read the third and then a little while after that the new one by David Lagercrantz came out and I read that too. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo isn’t exactly the sort of thing I normally go for but it was fun reading those books all at once. So I started doing it with other writers too. I had loved The Lighthouse by Alison Moore a lot, so I just went out and got all three of her other books and read them all in a relatively short space of time.

Obviously what you get from doing this is a deeper understanding of a writers work. A deeper sense of what they are all about. Naturally with a series like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo you get a coherent single narrative, but even outside of a series you can start to see the little trends that emerge in their work. The themes that keep coming up, the tricks and tropes that they use. The voice starts to sound a little clearer.

There have been a couple of writers I discovered recently and I’m not even bothering to try and space out their books. I did that for a long time so I don’t feel like I have to do it any more. One of these writers, Cormac McCarthy, has a big back catalogue and I don’t want to wait to read them. So I’m not. Same with Tom Drury. I read his trilogy and he has a couple of others which I would have read by now, if they were a little easier to get hold of.

I have no idea if reading a wide range of writers is better for fuelling my own writing than deeply reading a few. I am sure that to be a serious writer you need to be a serious reader, and that probably you should be a reader first and a writer second. At least that’s how I feel. For a long time spreading out and reading widely felt right, now I am enjoying sinking into a handful of writers.

 

* I googled Jeffrey Eugenides while I was writing this because it occurred to me that he might have something new coming out. His books tend to come out about seven years apart, roughly, and I figured he was due. Sure enough, new one is coming out this October. I’m excited already. I’m having a holiday in November and if I can resist I might make it my holiday reading.

January’s Reading

I read a little less than normal this January. Only three books. When I read I want to be as attentive to it as I can be, and when I have other stuff going on that is taking up a lot of my brain capacity my reading can really slow to a crawl. I’m sure it’s familiar to everyone but that sudden realisation that I have been reading for thirty minutes but have no idea what any of it said has been happening to me a lot recently.

But I did manage three books. The Pre-War House and Other Stories by Alison Moore, Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino and Widow Basquiat by Jennifer Clement

I read Alison Moore’s collection of short stories after reading her three novels, The Lighthouse, He Wants and Death and the Seaside. I love Alison Moore’s writing.  I read The Lighthouse years ago when it was short-listed for the Booker prize and it really made an impact on me. I couldn’t get it out of my head for ages after. All her writing has this quiet, whispery, haunting quality and the stories kind of get away from you as you are reading them. The writing is so delicate and so understated in places that it is only once you have finished reading that you realise what you just read. It is only once it has all gone that you realise it was unraveling. It’s an amazing feat. The pattern I adopted while reading her shorts was to read the story to its conclusion, and then read the last two pages again, just to take it all in. Highly recommended and a writer whose books will be must-reads for me from now on.

Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino was supposed to be my light-hearted crime novel for the month. When I have a lot going on and I am finding it hard to relax I like a good crime novel so that I have something fun and easy to read. This didn’t turn out to be as light as I was looking for but it was still compelling and fascinating. On the surface it’s a story about two prostitutes who get murdered and the past they shared.  Under the surface it is a story about deceit (of others and oneself), the slow untangling of our own lives and the lies we tell ourselves along the way. It takes unreliable narrators to a new level, with three separate narrators in different sections of the book, none of whom come off as especially credible. So really good, but next time I want something junky to wile away an evening with I may not pick another of Kirino’s books. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be back to read more of her work in the future.

Lastly was Widow Basquiat. I found this in Waterstone’s purely by chance and bought it instantly. A long time ago I saw the movie Basquiat and loved it. I watched the movie more times than I can count. Basquiat was an artist living in New York in the eighties who died of a drug overdose. He was a black artist fighting for his place in a white world. This book was Basquiat’s story from the perspective of his girlfriend, Suzanne. It’s written in a chaotic jumble of scenes, thoughts and images all tossed together. But the picture of Basquiat and the world he lived in that emerges is fascinating. I started reading it on Friday evening and finished it on Saturday afternoon. I couldn’t put it down.

So that was my January reading. I hope yours was as rewarding as mine was.

Some Books I Read This Year

So as I sit here with my news years eve lunch of cheese and crackers (a mild goats cheese with some delicious red onion chutney) I’m going to scroll back through the 2016 shelf of my goodreads account and remember some of the books that I enjoyed the most this year.

I hope you don’t mind me just listing the books that I thought were great without going into too much detail about them. I feel like I could try and explain what it was about them that worked for me but I think too much would get lost in the attempt. That personal connection to a book that comes as much from inside the reader, their mood, the place, the time, is hard to pin down. But great books are great books, and these were the ones that meant a little something extra to me.

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes was excellent. A story of a conductor in 1936 Russia, trying to balance art and expression with the dangerous politics of the time. I also really enjoyed The Ploughmen by Kim Zupan. This was about a young sheriff who is tasked with looking after an elderly criminal with a violent past and the unsettled relationship that forms between them. I also read No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy (the first Cormac McCarthy I have read, but there’s certain to be a lot more). Both those books now occupy the same little bit of my memory, since they have very similar settings and tones.

So what else? Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama was a random purchase and ended up being the perfect accompaniment to a two week break from work that I took in March. This gigantic Japanese crime novel is about a detective who has been moved to the media department and ends up embroiled in an unsolved case that has been dredged back up. Reminded me a little of The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy.

My Mr Bs Reading Year turned up some really fascinating books. My personal bibliotherapist selected Martin John by Anakana Schofield for me, which was one of the most unsettling reads I have had a for a long time. The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector and The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt were both excellent as well. In fact, The Sisters Brothers now lives in that same bit of my brain as The Ploughmen and No Country For Old Men. While I think of it, The Ploughmen was a Mr Bs Book too.

Two of my favourite writers had new books out this year. Dave Eggers Heroes of the Frontier was wonderful and I loved every word of it. It’s the story of a woman and her two kids travelling across Alaska in a camper van, trying to leave the past behind and figure out a future for themselves. It was sort of chaotic and calm all at the same time and the ending was perfect. I adore the ending. Also Alison Moore’s new book Death and the Seaside took a look at unethical social science experiments, which is a subject I have been fascinated by ever since I first heard about stuff like the Stanford prison experiment and Stanley Milgrim. I love Alison Moore. All her books have this haunting, whispery quality. Very quietly spoken books. I also read her second book He Wants and am currently reading her collection of short stories.

So there you go, a bunch of cool books that I read this year. I have a massive to-read pile on the go so 2017 should get started with some decent momentum. I think hidden in books seems like a sensible place to be.

Happy new year.