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Restarting A Book You Were Enjoying

A photograph of a watch resting on an open book

How long a time between starting a book, leaving it, and picking it up again would you/do you need before you choose to restart? This is presuming you were enjoying the book and put it down out of necessity (maybe you just didn’t get back to it). In this, the ‘you’ is you yourself rather than people in general.

From my experience so far, a fair amount of time needs to have passed between putting down the book and restarting it. If attempts are being made to continue it can make it more difficult; just continuing the book, to me, means having only really read the latter part or so on, two distinct reading periods creating the effect of reading two books.

A restart after a long time feels right to me because by then I’ve forgotten enough to feel that it would be an entirely new read. I view the decision in the context of reviewing – I won’t have done the book or author justice, I won’t have had as good an experience, if I just continue. I’ve found restarting too soon adds up to wasted time – it’s the extreme reverse of ‘sunk cost’ and effectively just creates a variation on a theme.

Sunk cost comes into it for me, though, and so whilst I may restart, I have to be far enough away in time for that to really work. I kind of have to get away from my own imposed ideal.

What has been your experience?

A Lot Of Thoughts: Reading And Reviewing Classic Individual Short Stories And Poems

A photograph of Kate Chopin

I can’t remember the last time I read a short story that wasn’t part of a larger collection. And I admit to avoiding them these last few years.

I love short stories but in terms of reading I don’t know what to do with them, whether in terms of record or reading.

Record: a few years ago I read a novella that was to all intents and purposes a short story and whilst it was nice to have another number in my statistics, I felt uncomfortable with it – it was not really a book. I doubt anyone would begrudge me a single digit for the ‘book’ but I felt I was cheating myself.

Reading: a while back I read the Everyman’s Jane Austen collection – Sanditon, various other shorter works, and didn’t review it for a couple of reasons. It was my first collection in a while, my first collection since I’d started reviewing, and the thought of trying to condense it all to a thousand or so words was overwhelming. But reviewing each story separately seemed silly as there wouldn’t have been enough to say to make it worth it.

Yesterday I was researching Kate Chopin. I want to return to The Awakening, delve into the themes in more detail, and so I was researching the book, the author’s life, influences… I ended up reading Désirée’s Baby. I then started down one of those research rabbit holes, wanting to learn about the French Creoles Chopin writes about, and ending up a couple of hours later reading about Native American Territories.

I’ve decided to record short stories read in a different place to my general reading, with the idea that it will be exclusively stories that weren’t collected and in the public domain. Classic work is what I’d like most to focus on and recording will allow me to remember for later. This takes me to a sort of sub-decision: recording the publication details of the story. In part because I’m aware Désirée’s Baby was published in a collection a year after it was printed in Vogue (14th January 1893 – I was pleasantly surprised to find the exact date) and thus is actually out of the bounds of what I’m aiming for, I want to keep a record of all those magazines and pamphlets that stories were published in. My thought is it’ll be interesting to note trends, to see where writers shared space, and to learn more about early literary publications. (I’ve often thought of looking at Dickens’ Household Words away from the context of the fiction itself, and as Vogue is now synonymous with fashion, Chopin’s inclusion is intriguing – what’s the history there?)

As to how to review them, I’m considering the ‘mini-review’ collective format some bloggers use. I’ll likely read stories in author phases, so to speak, and round up that way. As for Chopin, because many (all?) of her stories were collected, that will see a bog-standard review. In these cases I’ll likely defer to the original compilation rather than any from our present day.

I’m going to do the same with any poetry I find myself wanting to discuss. I don’t know nearly enough to consider a poem per post. There are some Tudor poets out there, often included in fiction, that I’d like to study. Shakespeare’s excluded for now because I wouldn’t know where to start, but as I said last week I’m enjoying reading about Aemilia Lanyer. I’ve found her poetry online – an easy read which, although it would be considered too simple nowadays, is quite enjoyable.

I think the ‘too long; didn’t read’ version of this post is that I’m giving myself more literary freedom. I think (hope!) I’m at the point now in my journey where I’m reading in such a way and with enough background context that I can discuss shorter works for more than a couple of sentences.

How do you go about reading (and reviewing, if relevant) short pieces of literature?

Reading Cause And Effect: The Origins Of Western Children’s Literature

The original illustration for Hans Christian Andersen's Thumblina, drawn by Vilhelm Pedersen

In reading Elizabeth Fremantle’s Watch The Lady and mulling over the books people read in past times, I started wondering about children’s books – what books did children read in times gone by? Of course this necessitated choosing a certain period so I chose my lifelong interest, the Tudor period.

I forgot something important. I suppose when you study a period and have a general interest in it, the most obvious ideas can be forgotten… or, at least, when I myself study a period, the most obvious ideas can be forgotten. So there are no Tudor children’s books (thing I didn’t know) because children were not considered as we consider them today (thing I did know). Or, at least, that second statement is what can be ascertained by everything that is to be found – in other words, we know it is true, but to my knowledge there are no primary sources from the Tudor period addressing the lack of young adult literature.

But children read; they must have. Learning was important, especially to those who had money. And they did read – children read books that taught subjects. We can assume that to some degree – based on age and learning – children read ancient literature. Aesop’s Fables, says one source; Chapbooks, books by tutors such as Roger Ascham – a name well-known to us. People had nursery rhymes, folk tales, and so forth.

I suppose this post was always going to spin off at some point:

Children’s literature – fiction, what we would call children’s literature – became a thing in the 1700s. Previously, in the 1600s, John Locke had suggested children should have some fun books to read, but it was the 1700s that made the mark, a century the Wikipedia article notes ‘the development of the concept of childhood’. Thomas Boreman produced a book of animals.

A Little Pretty Pocket-Book

But we have one John Newbery to thank in general. Called the Father of Children’s Literature, he was a publisher who started out publishing adult fiction. It seems the first children’s book he published was the sort of thing you might expect of a person venturing into such new territory – the book had no ‘author’ and was a compilation of rhymes for the letters of the alphabet. So we’re still in distinct teaching territory here, but it looks fun and surely a lot more simple than the Latin texts of the previous centuries. It contained the first written (typed?) reference to baseball in print – though considering it was English this actually meant ’rounders’ – and for a couple more pennies you could get a small toy or a pincushion with which the child could record their good or bad deeds.

That last bit doesn’t sound so fun, but I suppose it was good preparation for Christmas.

After I’d researched Newbery I found myself wondering about children’s literature in other countries. It may be that Newbery was the first to act on it, but surely others had considered it elsewhere?

Giambattista Basile

In Italy in 1600s, a poet produced a book of fairy tales. It wasn’t published as children’s literature but people considered it only good for children. Fairy-tale enthusiast Giambattista Basile is credited for the earliest known versions of Rapunzel and Cinderella. The Brothers Grimm’s interest brought Basile’s work back into the spotlight.

Denmark trumps Britain’s John Newbery – A Child’s Mirror was published in 1568. Sweden swiftly followed. Russia produced picture books in the 1600s.

Mine was a fruitless journey where the Tudors are concerned – I really should have looked into what adults were reading instead – but the information about the later years and the development of the concept of childhood are fascinating to read about.

What is your favourite fairytale?

Contemplating My Reading Statistics 8 Years In
2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
Men 7 21 8 13 14 5 15 22
Women 20 39 45 37 61 45 39 35
POC 4 3 4 4 9 3 4 13
Anthology 0 2 0 1 1 1 0 4
Translation 2 1 3 3 1 6 8 6
Pre-1970 1 8 6 6 3 1 9 4
Poetry 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 1
Non-Fiction 2 3 5 6 9 3 3 9

This is data taken from my reading logs. Some of the data has been added retrospectively – as a prime example, I didn’t start keeping records until mid 2009 but having read few books in the prior months it was easy to remember what I’d read. As the years have continued and my goals and general reading interests have changed or increased, I’ve added categories of the sort that can be completed just from basic information, such as ‘Pre-1970’ – so long as the publishing date is online that one’s easy. There are many authors left out of this table due to writing as part of a duo or team – too many zeros in those categories to make it worthwhile.

It’s taken looking through these stats to see I’m not reading as I used to. As I started to add categories it became increasingly apparent that pre-blogging me and during-blogging me are rather different. Given there are 7 years in-between those times this sounds obvious – it’d be worrying, if I hadn’t changed somewhat, but some things stand out:

Taken as a whole, I have been reading far fewer authors of colour and far fewer books by authors white or otherwise that concern non-western countries. As I said previously, in the few years before blogging I read a lot of Asian authors and some books set in Asia by white authors. You can see that hike last year where I noticed the dearth of colour and made a decisive effort to improve. I tend to say yes when review copies are offered.

Without much thought, my reading is skewed towards women. It was before blogging, but not so much. I believe I have a tendency towards female authors due to the emotions/domestic/social versus political stereotypes. I prefer reading about individuals rather than great big armies, for example, and in my experience the likelihood that any one ‘army’ book will have been written by a man is high. Whether this will change as literary expectations of men and women change I’m not sure. I do reckon that if I wasn’t so big on historical fiction the number would be more balanced.

My translation number has increased and it’s mostly down to reviewing for Peirene Press and Pushkin Press. I’d read a few translated novels prior to blogging but it was by accident, so to speak, for example when I read Shan Sa’s Empress for the first time, I didn’t realise that the book had been translated from the original French. Translation is something I’ve worked my head around slowly – I’m very much an original language person.

As said in my goals post, I want to read more classics, and I’m including in ‘classics’ some pre-1970 books; this is my version of classics, if you will, including the likes of Du Maurier and Thirkell. I added pre-1970 as a category to my list retrospectively last year. 1970 was the date I chose as my then and now point, somewhere between my birth date and what would be considered historical. It’s far from perfect – it effectively renders my parents’ childhoods historical and that’s just weird – but for now it’s the best date I’ve found. This number, this ‘pre-1970’ is a ballpark figure – I use it as an initial sorting method – many will not end up on my Classics Club list because objectively they really aren’t classics.

My non-fiction reading officially needs help. I’ve found I love narrative non-fiction, there is often so much detail in it, but it’s often long. For the most part my reading in this genre is limited to review copies so it varies, and as contacts and publishers change, so too has this number. However I can’t deny that I’ve a few hardbacks I’m still putting off.

Poetry I’m keeping in mind but not making any plans for. I’m starting to enjoy it much more – Andrew McMillan’s Physical and Sarah Howe’s Loop Of Jade have been turning points for me – but it’s a bit like my feelings for anthologies – I prefer longer works and do feel sometimes that adding a book of poetry, with its white space and general shortness, is cheating. Perhaps if I wasn’t a slow reader I would feel differently.

So there’s a lot I’m working on, a lot I’m keeping in mind, and I admit to loving having all this data. I know many of you will empathise with that last one and I know a lot of posts both here and on others’ blogs would not exist without it.

How are your stats looking?

Knowing About An Author: The Effect On Our Reading

A photograph of Marlon James

In the context of this post it would be more appropriate to use a photo of Elena Ferrante, but I don’t want to do that.

We know a lot more now about the lives and views of authors than we used to. I remember choosing books in Waterstones as a young adult; few included photos, some included mini biographies; while that can still happen, in those days you couldn’t just turn to the Internet to gain the knowledge. I find myself disappointed now when a book doesn’t have much author information in it.

We’re ‘supposed’ to be able to read a book in a vacuum as far as author information goes. People write articles about how we shouldn’t judge a book by its author but even if you try to adhere to this, you hardly have to make an effort to learn details – they’re a few clicks away. Authors are more often in the news or features section. You’ll often hear about them anyway. The increased access we have to authors is a great thing – it was the main reason I started events and made them free, because I wanted people to be able to have access to authors and literary events – but it makes it difficult to read a book without any extra details, details it could be argued are irrelevant. Our reading has changed: knowing about an author will impact on us somewhat no matter how much we try not to let it.

In thinking about this, the recent unmasking of Elena Ferrante comes to mind. I’m very aware that when I get to her work it will be with the knowledge of who she is. I wonder how this will affect my experience – so many people had already read the books and I had naturally (rightly?) assumed my reading would be similarly in the dark. I looked forward to it. How will my reading, now, differ to others’ for that reason? What would my experience have been if she hadn’t been unmasked? I do know that it will be different to what the author may have hoped because of the anonymity. I rather liked not knowing – yes, I felt curious, it was an exciting mystery – and not knowing wasn’t a drawback.

Album cover of Rurutia's Promised Land (2004)

Contrast this with a musician whose first album was released in 2001. Rurutia is a new age Japanese singer who until recently never showed her full face in music videos or photos. She used make-up and costumes, veils and lighting. As far as I can tell, allowing the photos, when they surfaced, and the gradual increase in quality of them, was her choice. Her real name is still unknown. While the mystery might have grabbed the listener’s attention, not knowing about her allowed your focus to be fully on the music.

Some books require context. There are books that don’t make sense until you read about what the author wanted to do, others that seem a political tract – for example – that prior research better prepares you for. In these cases, knowledge enhances your reading. But otherwise it could be said to harm it or to distract – are you too focused on the author? Has reading about them changed your stance on the work?

Do you prefer to know about an author in advance?


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