I always have several books on the go at once, scattered around the house. My husband, Anthony, finds this behaviour peculiar.
“Surely everyone does that,” I said to him.
“No,” he replied. “Everyone else chooses a book, reads it, then starts another one.”
“But what if they’re downstairs and their book is upstairs?” I asked.
“Then they go upstairs and get it,” he said. “That’s what stairs are for. The invention of stairs was very important to the development of reading.”
Marketing folk tend to assume that readers can be neatly grouped according to the genre of book they buy but I reckon that most of us read a whole range of different things — even if not necessarily simultaneously.
Asking what sort of books you read feels a bit like saying, “What sort of food do you like? Do you eat salad or chocolate, pizza or soup?”
Sure, you may have a particular leaning towards sweet or savoury; you’ll have a few favourite dishes, and there are certain things you absolutely wouldn’t touch. But basically, you probably prefer to eat a variety of foods, and that’s important for your health, too.
Rabbi Howard Cooper of Finchley Reform Synagogue, talking about how he constructs a sermon, says that he is like a magpie, picking up, “lines of poetry or songs, quotations from the newspaper, biblical verses, jokes, ideas from novels, from TV characters, from films, from exhibitions in galleries, from a conversation I might have with someone, or something I overhear or see in the street.”
Though we are not all sermon-givers, I think we are all magpies to some extent, constructing our inner world from an endless, chaotic set of stimuli, much of which we have no control over. We can choose what we read, though.
I’ve recently finished two fabulous, but utterly different books. The first was What Alice Forgot by Australian novelist Liane Moriarty. It’s about a woman who, after a knock on the head, forgets the last ten years of her life and feels herself to be very much in love with her husband whom, in reality, she is in the process of divorcing.
The second was Lincoln in the Bardo. Winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize, it’s the first novel written by American short story writer George Saunders.
Structured around the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, it’s written as a series of monologues spoken by spirits in the graveyard where Willie is buried. It’s a startling, complex, virtuosic piece of writing and, like all the best fantasy, it’s actually deeply rooted in questions about the human condition.
What Alice Forgot is funny and deliciously recognisable, but moving, too. It was the kind of book I was desperate to get back to at the end of the day — an absorbing page-turner with immensely relatable, emotionally engaging characters. I haven’t, however, given it much thought, since.
Lincoln in the Bardo, on the other hand, was neither an easy nor a relaxing read, and it left so many questions unanswered that it wasn’t satisfying, either.
It was, however, nourishing and rewarding in great measure and has left my head spinning with all the ideas it raised.
While I was reading these two books, I dipped in and out of a hundred other things, on screen and on paper. For example, I spent far too much time scrolling through endless Facebook posts, some fatuous, some funny, or sad, or thought-provoking — and many of which, in their turn, led me off into pieces from the Guardian or the New Yorker as well as numerous blogs and other articles.
I read a parenting book as part of my ongoing quest to work out how to do that whole “bringing-up-children” thing. I extracted from my daughter’s room one of my favourite picture books — Clara Button and the Magical Hat Day — just so I could pore over Emily Sutton’s enchanting illustrations at leisure, instead of being propelled from one page to the next as one is when reading to a child.
I tried and failed to keep up with an anthology called A Poem for Every Day of the Year and I read small chunks of The Synagogue Survival Kit by Jordan Lee Wagner, which is teaching me about the meaning and structure of the liturgy, and which is brilliant — but too dense to read more than a short amount of at a time.
And I read the JC. Obviously.
Our reading choices serve so many purposes; they can educate, entertain or comfort; they can help us understand ourselves and empathise with others. In the ancient Indian epic tale, the Mahabharata, we are told, “If you listen carefully, at the end you will be someone else.” I love the idea of being transformed by what we read.
Even the most frivolous and shallow piece of text can help us take a tiny step forward in the impossible task of working out what life is all about and how to live it.