Too many books

2013 September 022-002

There are far more books in the world than anyone could possibly read in their lifetime. There are far more films than anyone could possibly watch, far more songs than anyone could possibly listen to.

I don’t know how old I was when I understood that. I feel that it might have been university, when all my horizons expanded in all directions at once, and I realised that:

  1. I didn’t know everything
  2. I was never going to know everything
  3. I didn’t have to know everything

Before that, the books I knew about were at home, or in the school library, or in the local library. And yes, that was a lot of books, but I always felt that if I really applied myself I could work my way through the whole lot in a logical fashion.

Maybe it was seeing the university library that did it. Who knows? I wish I had one neat moment of epiphany to trot out, but I don’t.

Anyway, once you’ve had that epiphany, what do you do with it?

There are a variety of approaches.

You can read/watch/listen to as many of the books/films/songs as you humanly can. Read every book that your hand touches. My godmother told me once that John Cage said that one should only ever listen to each piece of music once, because there simply isn’t time to do more.

But I know that if I only listen to a piece of music once, I can do little more than nod and smile. In order to really appreciate it, I need to listen to it over and over again, to get right into it. If possible, to perform it, even.

(Probably if I were a better musician, this would be a quicker process for me. A degree in English Literature and a decade plus of creative writing trial and error have enabled me to see how a text is put together without having to think much about it.)

So that suggests an opposite approach: consume very few pieces of art, but really get into them. Re-read, listen over and over, watch again and see what you didn’t pick up the first time, or the second time, or the third time.

The temptation then is to ensure that the art that one does examine is somehow worthy of all these hours that one’s putting into it – but, without putting the hours in, how does one know what’s worthy? One ends up deferring to others’ judgement. Let us watch the films that won the Oscars, or read the books that are on the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, or whatever it might be.

(Personally, I find that any attempt to tell me that I must read anything results in instant resentment and a resolution not to read the thing if humanly possible. As it happens, I’ve read a decent number of those books, but not because they’re on that list, and I feel no compunction to read all of them.)

There are two main dangers that I can see to concentrating on the good stuff.

Firstly, you might miss things. But that’s inevitable, however you go about this. That’s the whole point of this post. You will miss things.

Secondly, you might never read anything because you actually want to read it. You might end up trapped in a book you hate, never finishing it, and never starting anything else, either.

In fact, that’s the main drawback to both of those approaches, and I’ve tried them both. ‘Read everything, no matter what it is’ – and you’ll end up slogging through a whole load of ill-written drivel, pompous litfic, formulaic genre and spectacularly biased unclassifiable screeds, and hating all of it. ‘Concentrate on what is known to be good’ – and it’ll be like having to get  through plateful after plateful of worthy vegetables before you’re allowed pudding. Pudding might never come. You might never get round to reading anything fun.

And if reading isn’t fun, then why on earth are you doing it? (Well, actually… to be discussed in a subsequent post.) These days, you know, I mostly read what I feel like reading, and I stop if I’m not enjoying it. And that’s good enough for me.

E-books versus tree books: a false dichotomy

Books

Tree books are dead. No, wait, e-books are dead. E-books are e-books and tree books are tree books and never the twain shall meet. Loyal paper book readers will never read an e-book. Converts to e-readers will never pick up a physical book again. People fight to the death over this. TO THE DEATH!

Really, if you believe the press, it all sounds like an even pettier version of the Montagues and Capulets biting their thumbs at each other. But, while I know several diehards who wouldn’t know how to turn the page on a Kindle, and I’m sure there are a few e-book zealots who have pulped all the paper books they’ve ever owned, most of the serious readers of my acquaintance flick between paper books and e-books without a second thought. Why argue about formats when you could be, you know, reading?

As a reader

For me, it comes down to practicalities. On the most obvious level, if a book was printed in 1995 and nobody’s thought of releasing it in e-book format, then of course I’m going to read the hard copy. Or if it only exists in electronic format, then it goes on the e-reader.

In fact, the format in which I choose to read a book often depends on where I am when I decide I want to read it. At work? I’ll probably pick up a paperback in one of the station bookshops on my way home. At home? I’ll download it to my Kobo. If I’m standing in a charity shop, slightly bored and wondering what to read next? I’ll get the most interesting looking thing on the shelf.

Still on the theme of convenience: these days, most of my reading time is on the train, so the question of size becomes important. If I can’t fit it in my handbag, it’s probably not going to get read. And yet… I read War and Peace this year. I’d attempted it a couple of times before, but the physical copy is so big and so bulky, and it’s so easy to lose track one’s track among the various plot themes, that I never managed it. Having it on the Kobo (free from Project Gutenberg, I might add) I was able to just keep plugging away, a couple of chapters every day, until I got to the end.

On the other hand, if I’m going somewhere damp (the bath, for example, or northern Spain), I have no desire to risk an expensive piece of electronic equipment. As it happened, all the books I took to Spain with me came back in the state in which they left, and I’ve never dropped a book in the bath, but there’s always a first time.

In short, I tend to read books in whatever format I have them, and to obtain them in whatever format suits me at the time. Whatever makes it easiest for me to read, in fact.

When you dig into the debate, it often comes down to nebulous feelings about what the experience of reading should be like, and an aesthetic appreciation of the book as an object. Which affects my choices some of the time, but not always.

I’ve finished 45 books so far this year. 11 were e-books. 7 were hardbacks. Of those hardbacks, two were the family copies of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and three were John Buchan thrillers in the Nelson edition, which I’ve been collecting. I had no particular connection to any of the other hardbacks, or to any of the paperbacks, as objects. Indeed, some of them I read specifically to see if I really wanted them taking up space on my shelves, and now they aren’t on my shelves any more.

People talk about the smell of books. I’ve never quite got this. In my experience, old books smell of dust and possibly damp, and new books smell of solvent or nothing. But then I don’t have a very good sense of smell, so this argument doesn’t do much for me.

Books can be lovely things. They can also be hideous. (My photo above doesn’t do justice to quite how hideous the cover of Mulligan is.) To be honest, so long as the loveliness or the hideousness doesn’t get in the way of my reading the story, I don’t care.

As a writer

Similarly, I really don’t mind which format somebody chooses to read my book.

In pure financial terms, e-books make me more money. I can charge half the price for an e-book and still make twice as much as I would from the sale of a paperback. (Which is why the high price of a lot of mainstream publishers’ e-books is annoying, because I know what the mark-up is. I’m unlikely to spend more than about a fiver on an e-book, unless I’m really desperate.)

On the other hand, I miss out on the phenomenon where one of my readers says to one of their friends, ‘You might like this one,’ and lends them their copy. And the one where the friend of one of my readers, having a sneaky nose along their bookshelves, sees my book, thinks, ‘oh, that looks interesting,’ picks it up and starts reading.

Why should I care about that? you might well ask. Or, indeed, why am I not up in arms about it? I don’t make any money off that.

No, not immediately – but it means that another person has heard of me, has had the opportunity to see if they like my writing. My book doesn’t get into libraries or bookshops, so I’m reliant on this sort of interaction to spread the word. And anyway, since that’s the main way that I’ve discovered authors whose work I love, it feels a bit off to whinge about it. I very rarely buy a book by an unknown author at full price, and I don’t believe that many other readers do.

Anyway, maybe they then buy their own copy. Or maybe they nick the copy from their original owner, who buys a replacement.

You never know.

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LGBTQ Christian fiction book recs

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Yesterday, I got chatting on Twitter with the user of the Diverse Church account about books with LGBTQ Christian characters, and how few of these there actually are.

Now, at least part of the reason I wrote one of my own was that I was frustrated with the lack of representation. However, I’ve found a few over the years, and it only seems fair to share the intel. In this post, I’m only listing books I’ve actually read, but in some cases it was a while ago, so I’m not going to warn for anything in these, for fear that I’ll not have remembered something horrible. Proceed at your own risk!

While not all of these end with hugs and puppies, they do start from, or at least eventually arrive at, the assumption that being Christian and being LGBTQ are not incompatible states, and call, in one way or another, for affirmation. Although, reading down my list, I fear that it’s mostly about the G, with a very little about the L. (How like the debate on sexual and gender identity in our own dear Church of England, she says bitchily.)

As for things I haven’t read (yet)… I’ve found Jesus in Love to be a very interesting source of recommendations. There’s also the reliqueer tag on LGBTQ Reads. Do add your own – either for individual books or authors, or for rec sites or round-ups – in comments!

On to the books…

 

Michael Arditti, Easter. Set in a London parish over the course of one Holy Week, with multiple storylines playing out, seen from multiple perspectives.

Paula Boock: Dare, Truth or Promise. New Zealand teen fiction of the ‘challenges of high school’ type. One of the main characters is Roman Catholic, and there’s a lovely scene with her priest, which meant a lot to me back in the day.

Catherine Fox: Lindchester chronicles (Acts and Omissions, Unseen Things Above, Realms of Glory, the last still under construction). Barchester for the modern day, with outright representation of gay and lesbian characters and engagement with the politics.

Radclyffe Hall: The Well of Loneliness. Definitely short in the hugs and puppies department, but I couldn’t leave it off the list, for much the same reasons as those that Kittredge Cherry explains over at Jesus in Love.

Alex Sanchez: The God Box. American teen fiction, also of the ‘challenges of high school’ type; engages the question head on throughout the book.

Antoinette before Bertha

I’ve been thinking more about Me Before You and ableism, and I think I’ve finally managed to pin down what disturbs me about the book. Spoilers, as before, for that book, and also for Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, and for my Speak Its Name. As ever, there’s a picture first so that you have a chance to click away.

always another way of looking at the world

always another way of looking at the world

Another story from another book club

My current book club has a practice of actually discussing the book, which was a bit of a culture shock, but, you know, I’m getting used to it. There was an interesting discussion last time around about Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys’ reply to Jane Eyre. One member of the group had found the book dissatisfying. The bookseller had described it to them as a ‘feminist work’, and they were disappointed that the main character, Antoinette, retained very little agency and ended up thoroughly subjugated – in fact, in the same attic in which Brontë’s Rochester had incarcerated her over a century before.

I felt, and argued, strongly that Wide Sargasso Sea is indeed a feminist work. I don’t think that the fact that Jane Eyre still happens, that Rochester’s wife still ends up in the attic, stops it being feminist. I don’t believe that a book has to end ‘and they smashed the patriarchy and lived happily ever after’ for it to be feminist. I believe that feminist literature has as much of a responsibility to present the problems inherent in the world in which we’re currently living, and the consequent detriment to women, as it does to offer a glimpse of a world beyond that. If not, Virago’s output for most of the seventies, eighties and nineties was a huge waste of time. There has to be a place for books that portray the unpleasant aspects of the world we live in.

I put some things into Speak Its Name that I don’t agree with. Religiously-motivated abuse, homophobia, one-true-wayism. In fact, I put them in because I don’t agree with them. I think they’re absolutely awful. But they happen. I don’t think they should happen. I don’t think they have to happen. If my writing Speak Its Name (and generally being loudly queer and Christian) can contribute in even a minuscule fashion to a world where they stop happening, then I’ll be delighted. Besides, a novel where nothing controversial ever happens and all the characters agree with the author’s worldview is not going to be a very good book*.

So why am I still so suspicious of Me Before You?

After all, I’ve just said that it’s not anti-feminist to point out that it wasn’t much fun being a woman in a westernised culture in the early nineteenth century.

It’s not homophobic to point out that it’s not much fun being a lesbian in a socially/religiously conservative milieu.

It doesn’t have to be ableist to point out that it’s not much fun being disabled in early twenty-first century Britain.

The problem for Moyes is, I think, that she hasn’t quite picked up how much of the unpleasantness is contextual.There are moments where she almost gets it – the scene at the racecourse, with its accessibility nightmare topped off by the revelation that Will doesn’t like horseracing anyway, which would probably have emerged earlier had Lou not gone into ‘able saviour’ mode, is a lovely satirical demonstration of the social model of disability at work. But Moyes and her hero Will both seem to have bought into the idea that this is how things are always going to be. Disabled parking spaces will never be in an appropriate place, ramps will always be too steep, well-meaning non-disabled people will never stop to ask what a disabled person actually wants or needs… This is always going to be a world, says Me Before You, that a disabled person literally would not want to live in. And it never stops to ask whether that might be something to do with the world as opposed to the person.

I don’t believe that. I don’t believe that’s the way that the world has to be. Sadly, I don’t believe that Me Before You‘s lazy assumptions about what being disabled is actually like have contributed to changing it.

 

*There were originally three speeches in Speak Its Name that express my pure opinions, which I would have happily claimed for myself regardless of who was saying them or what the context was. Two of them I gave to Peter. One of those was the rant about bus preservation, which isn’t particularly relevant to this post and got deleted anyway. The other comes a couple of paragraphs before the end of the Summer chapter, where he tells Lydia that God always welcomes her, and that anyone in the Church who doesn’t has got it’s wrong. That’s all me. Well, my High Church reader pointed out that Peter would say ‘the Church here on earth’, but apart from that it’s me.

And the third was Abby’s point, very near the end, about the hidden bisexuals. At the time I wrote it, that was my own experience. Not any more – but that’s another story.

Unreliable narrators: a pet peeve

In this post I talk about unreliable narrators in works by various authors, some of whom are or were very prolific, and some of whom are famous for only one or two works. I don’t name any of the books, but in some cases it won’t be difficult to work out. I also discuss the career choices of characters in Little WomenThe Princess Diaries, and the Chalet School series. I’d advise you not to read on if spoilers particularly bother you.

I am also more opinionated than usual, and don’t apologise for it, though I respect your right to enjoy books that I don’t, or not enjoy books that I do. This is, as ever, implied.

Here follows a picture of some street art to give you a chance to escape.

"I thought it was love"

“I thought it was love”

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I enjoy writing unreliable narrators. I enjoy reading them, too. I like to see convincing human beings with their own little biases and weaknesses, who think they’re being ever so objective but are in fact revealing their assumptions and prejudices on every page.

What I am not so keen on is the recent trend for malicious, self-consciously unreliable narrators, the ones who turn on you when you get to the end of the book and say, ‘oh, sorry, did you believe me? MORE FOOL YOU! I’m WRITING A BOOK, you know, and I can write LIES if you like!’

There are two reasons why it annoys me.

Firstly, it breaks the fourth wall and, with it, the implied understanding between author and reader.

I’ve never been particularly interested in reading about writers. I remember getting annoyed by the number of heroines of children’s books who wanted to be, or indeed became, writers. There are an awful lot of them, starting with Jo March in Little Women and stretching all the way to Mia Thermopolis in The Princess Diaries. Almost certainly further, in fact. Joey Maynard in the Chalet School was particularly irritating: she was in a school story, writing school stories. How far down did it go? There are good reasons for this, of course, like the dearth of respectable careers for women in the nineteenth century, but I always felt it betokened a certain lack of imagination.

Something of this irritation has carried over into my reaction to unreliable narrators. I don’t want to be reminded all the time that I’m reading something that’s been written. If good prose is like glass, allowing you to see through it to the story, then reading about writers writing is like a frosted bathroom screen – and getting to the end of a story that turns out to have an unreliable narrator is like walking through a plate glass window. Dramatic, but not actually something you want to do all that often.

Which brings me to my second objection. It’s a bit overdone, and I think it could do with a rest. It’s not just the thriller writers who are at it: big litfic names like Ian McEwan and Lionel Shriver have produced knowing, irritating, unreliable narrators in the last decade or so, and there are only so many times that I can enjoy reaching the end of a book to find that everything that came before is basically meaningless. Apart from anything else, a character who’ll pull that on you is probably not a character with whom you want to share too much headspace.

So far as I’m concerned, you get one free pass on that trick. Not one free pass per author, either. One free pass per reader. And Agatha Christie took mine, years ago.

 

 

Deleted scene: a committee meeting

Not actually Sainte Chapelle; it's St Mary's, Itchen Stoke, which is about as good an illustration of the complicated nature of the history of Christianity as I've got on my hard drive

Not actually Sainte Chapelle; it’s St Mary’s, Itchen Stoke, which is about as good an illustration of the complicated nature of the history of Christianity as I’ve got on my hard drive

I got an ebook reader for Christmas, which is great, because it means I’ve been able to read heavy books on the train. One of them is Diarmaid McCulloch’s Christianity: the first three thousand years, which I am enjoying far more than I expected. It’s much more nuanced than the accompanying TV series, which had me muttering, ‘no, affirming the humanity of Christ is not actually heretical’, and is hilariously bitchy in places and very interesting throughout. At least, if you find deeply-felt squabbles over apparently trivial differences with appalling results interesting, which I do. I’ve given up apologising for Those Christians Over There and whatever they’ve done now, but I do feel that it’s worth knowing how they got there, and how I got here, and what we still have in common. And getting to very different places using the same map has been a feature of Christianity since, oh, the book of Acts.

In that spirit – here’s the AngthMURC/Cathsoc committee meeting that happens between chapters 2 and 3 of the first section of Speak Its Name. All the inter-denominational schism and bitchiness that the heart could desire.

 

‘Hmph!’ Sophie said, when Peter had finished reading out Jake’s email. ‘Well, it’s a pity, but I can’t say I’m surprised.’

There was just about space for the six of them around the kitchen table at 27 Alma Road. Georgia was in fact at the sink, frantically washing up mugs so that due hospitality could be offered. Sophie, Tim and Kasia, the operative half of the Cathsoc committee, were squashed onto the bench on one side; Becky, still in her pyjamas, crunched toast opposite them; Peter sat on the wobbly chair, at the end that wasn’t against the wall, and spread ancient AngthMURC paperwork across the vinyl tablecloth.

‘I don’t suppose we could compromise?’ Kasia said.

‘How do you mean?’ Georgia asked.

‘Well, of course we can’t sign their Statement – have you read the thing? – but could we perhaps suggest the Creed instead?’

‘No,’ Becky said, blinking over very strong coffee. ‘Sorry – that was a bit abrupt. I didn’t mean to be rude. What I mean is, of course you could, but I wouldn’t sign it. Wouldn’t sign anything. I’d still come, but I couldn’t be involved in the organising if that was the condition. Same with most of the Friends, I would think.’

Olly wandered into the kitchen in his dressing gown, said, ‘Oh, God. Christians. Shouldn’t you all be at church?’

‘Colette’s gone,’ Becky said.

‘Hmph. Vicarious holiness, eh?’ He wandered out again.

‘I doubt Fellowship would go for the Creed,’ Peter said, as the door shut. ‘They would say it’s too woolly. Anyway – which one? Half the Evangelicals I know don’t believe that Jesus descended into Hell, which excludes the Apostles’, and if we use the Nicene then we’ll start filioque all over again.’

‘Ah,’ Kasia sighed, ‘those were the days. Proper schism, none of your modern namby pamby stuff! Do we even have any Orthodox who’d want to be involved?’

‘You never know,’ Georgia said, peeling off the rubber gloves. ‘So are we going to write a tactful email to Jake Warner telling him to take a long walk off a short pier?’

‘Why are you all looking at me?’ Peter asked, with an injured air. ‘OK, OK, I’ll write it. And I’ll email the rest of Fellowship, too, letting them know it’s still happening. Together with an annotated copy of the Statement of Belief, explaining why it’s exclusive bullshit?’

No,’ Georgia said, apparently before she realised he was joking.

‘It’d be handy to have,’ Sophie mused. ‘We could make hundreds of copies and hand them out at the Freshers’ Squash. Poach a few members from Fellowship…’

‘Which reminds me,’ Tim said, ‘I still owe you lot my three pounds fifty for this year. I assume you’ve still got me listed as a member, since I’m still getting AngthMURC emails.’

‘You are. And I’m still getting Cathsoc ones,’ Georgia told him. ‘Fair exchange, no robbery.’

‘Remind me,’ Becky said, ‘why the Statement is exclusive bullshit? I always get stuck on the fact that they make you sign the bugger.’

‘Penal substitution, and sola scriptura.’ Kasia ticked them off on her fingers.

‘In English?’

‘Oh, Lord,’ Peter said. ‘OK. Penal substitution is the theory – which some Evos will try to make you believe is held by all Christians, but which really, really isn’t – that humanity is so fucked up that God (who in this version of events is omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent, but apparently really unimaginative) has to torture somebody horribly to make it all better.’

‘That somebody being Jesus,’ Tim put in, helpfully.

‘See me looking blank,’ Becky said. ‘Don’t take it personally. It may never make sense to me; Quakers aren’t really big on sin.’

‘I vaguely recall Father Steven explaining it all using There is a green hill far away,’ Peter said, ‘but I can’t remember how.’

‘That’s really helpful.’ Georgia was getting impatient.

‘And what was the other thing?’ Becky asked.

‘Oh, sola scriptura. The Bible alone – as a means to determine God’s will, I mean. They mean,’ Kasia corrected herself. ‘Leaving out of it tradition and reason.’

‘And experience,’ Georgia added.

‘Leaving the poor old Wesleyan quadrilateral wobbling on one leg, and causing alarm and despondency through the Church Rational,’ Peter said.

‘What about the Spirit?’ Becky asked, and laughed bitterly when nobody answered.

August Moon: check-in

It’s a beautiful moon. We are staying with my mother at the moment, and she has put us in the bedroom with a balcony looking south out over the English Channel. There’s very little sky-glow and the moon is a sharp silver sickle. Vega is very bright and the Milky Way stretches east-west. We’re very lucky.

I have come down with some vile bug and have spent most of today either in bed or sitting up in a chair feeling sorry for myself. I suspect it’s a case of not having had enough holidays, and having been doing too much gallivanting on the ones I have had.

This weekend – a long drive and a wedding and a family get-together – has been the hinge between a week of work and a week of (it seems) enforced idleness. (Although I am still holding on to the hope that I’ll be well enough tomorrow or Thursday to go to Amazon World and look at the poison arrow frogs.) In some ways it’s easier to get August Moon posts done during a work day; I have the prompts buzzing in the back of my mind all day and the words pour out pretty quickly. On holiday – particularly one like this, where there are friends and family all over the place, and the laptop’s at the bottom of the suitcase, and my brain’s running on only two cylinders – it’s more difficult. But I’m managing to carve out half-hours here and there to get on with it.

I’ve just finished reading White Feathers, Susan Lanigan’s first novel, and am feeling mighty privileged because I don’t think it’s officially released yet, and also I saw the thing come together before my eyes. (In the acknowledgements, Susan credits the Pico group. I don’t wish to blow our cover, but I’m part of it too and it’s a fantastic, supportive, encouraging group, the best incentive to write that I’ve ever come across.) I will content myself for the moment by saying, see? It can be done and I can do it too