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12th January 2018: Combining Goals, General Thoughts, And Reading Life

A photograph of Netley Abbey

I didn’t read as much in December as I’d planned, what with all the busyness of Christmas and other happenings. I’m hoping to make up for it later this month; I’ve many ‘easier’ books to read (I dislike that term but romance and fantasy is generally less mentally taxing, and I welcome it).

The yearly tradition of Thackeray being moved to the new year’s reading list has happened. This year he took with him Solomon Northup – he got lost amongst review copies some months ago – and Courtney J Sullivan’s The Engagements, which is a relative tome to start in late November with the festive season looming.

For the first time since I started reading avidly, I specifically asked that any Christmas presents not be books. I received one book and that was only because it was a present that had been meant for another occasion and hadn’t turned up in time. It was a strangely wonderful situation; as much as I have lots of books to get to regardless, not receiving more was freeing. And as much as receiving an awesome book can get you out of a funk, I can say that not receiving any books can do similarly. In fact I’m now raring to go, there’s just one thing I’m having to consider:

I’ve been spending a lot of time knitting. A few years ago, my Second Mum, as I’ll call her, started making me sweaters after she saw me wearing shop-bought knitwear. Having always been interested in knitting but only ever knowing enough to start but not finish a scarf (I’ve 3 of those lying around), I asked for instruction and now have enough knowledge to graduate to sweaters myself. I did the logical thing and decided to make my first project one for a small person rather than my adult self so there was less to lose if it went wrong… and then soon realised it wasn’t so logical a choice because children grow at an alarming rate. At best, my nephew will be able to wear the sweater for the rest of the cold season we’re currently in so it’s a bit of a race against the clock. I’ve decided I’ll make him a hoodie next but a couple of sizes bigger so I don’t feel the need to spend all my free time making it and can pick it up every now and then. The good thing is that the reading in the small moments idea has translated well to knitting – from what I’ve read, those who knit a lot have their projects ready for queues and public transport, just like readers their books.

So that’s taking more of my time at the moment but I’ll be finished soon and looking forward to giving time back to reading; I enjoy it but knitting is going to have to go a few steps back in the priority line.

…Because I am reading, albeit slowly. On a few present-giving occasions last year, I found myself with a selection of romance books – hence the note at the beginning of this post. I received the last two books in Eloisa James’ Desperate Duchesses series, a couple of books by Sherry Thomas, and a Sarah MacLean I’ve heard a lot about. I also received Eowyn Ivey’s To The Bright Edge Of The World, and in terms of review copies Jessie Greengrass’s Sight is high on the list. I won’t be getting to them all one after the other but most will be read fairly soon.

Once again I’ve decided not to set any particular reading goals – I’ll read as much as I can get to. Last year’s reading wasn’t as diverse as I’d hoped and I think keeping that in mind this new year may mean it’ll be better. Certainly it seems that when I make any sort of specific target in regards to anything related to books it doesn’t happen. Vague notions are best.

What are you hoping to acheive this year, in terms of reading or otherwise?

The Absolute Right Mood And Time

A photograph of a copy of Helen Oyeyemi's What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours facing forwards against a shelf of books, and with a rose lying in front of it

Yesterday was a particularly strong example of a reading phenomenon that I don’t think has a name.

At some point in the last two years, I bought Helen Oyeyemi’s short story collection, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours and a little while later I attempted to read it. I want to say that these events happened in the last year – it feels like that’s the situation and it would make yesterday’s reading more interesting – but I have the hardback which was published in March 2016, so it can’t have been much longer than that date.

On trying to read the book I found I couldn’t get into it. I remember thinking the writing was lovely, but that it was too heavy a subject and needed a lot of attention. I considered what I’d surely considered before I’d bought it, that Boy, Snow, Bird had proved to be nice but a bit of a mess, and that buying the new book had been a bit of a silly idea.

I left it and left it and didn’t really have even a vague notion of returning it to for a very long time.

Well, in comes yesterday, I was wanting to read something on my shelves and as I was heading over to the books I received last Christmas that I still haven’t read, my eyes fell on the Oyeyemi and I thought I’d give it a go. I didn’t expect much.

It’s now Monday morning and it’s off the currently reading list already. I started it just before lunchtime and spent the rest of the day reading. I absolutely loved it; it was everything I look for in a book. Granted it was completely bizarre and didn’t always make complete sense, but those two things were more a positive feature than a drawback.

Being in the right mood to read a book is often discussed. So too is timing. And I think both of those ideas may have applied to me, but usually you get a sense that you’re reading the wrong book. That first time with the Oyeyemi felt, on the face of it, perfect, but, particularly in yesterday’s case, as I read the pages I’d read before it seemed to be a completely different book.

Perhaps it was because I was wary then, of reading another Oyeyemi, whereas since that time I’ve read interviews with her and have come to understand that the bizarre is a long-used feature. Maybe this time because I was resigned to the idea that I might end up shelving it again – I went in with the thought to take a quick peek and certainly didn’t envisage spending the rest of my day on it – it worked for me. I don’t know. But I think I should pay more attention than I do to that feeling of it being the wrong mood, wrong time, even when I’m otherwise raring to go.

Interestingly this doesn’t tend to happen with review copies. It does sometimes but generally not. Perhaps in those cases I’ve spent long enough beforehand contemplating them.

What books have you put aside with indifference only to return later and love them to pieces?

I Am Writing

The lack of posts on this blog recently may suggest otherwise, but I am in fact writing every day.

The festival I’m working for started on Thursday so my role has expanded – to the original public relations and marketing I am doing, I’ve now added event reporter and photographer. It’s often early mornings and late nights.

As for this blog, I’m going to aim to post again (properly) on Friday, but it may end up being Monday. The festival finishes on Saturday and I’ll be back to my normal schedule.

How is October treating you? We’ve had some t-shirt weather but the season is definitely changing.

Where Or When Does A Book Begin

A photograph of a book sat on an opened book-sized envelope

“Where – or when – does a literary text begin?”

The above quotation from the first chapter of An Introduction To Literature, Criticism and Theory by Nicholas Royle and Andrew Bennett, is something that’s often mused upon in articles but not always so… bluntly. Certainly it’s a question that’s asked in so many words, but more often it’s an idea in itself, a thought that gets banded around when people talk of authors and readers seeing things differently and believing that particular aspects of books should be shown or written in particular ways.

I think there’s at least three stages of the book process – rather than the writing process to consider: the forming of the idea, writing the text, and the reader’s reading of it (which in this case is largely focused on the experience rather than the exercise).

The forming of the idea is perhaps the most exclusive part of the process. Until or unless the writer decides to share their thoughts at this stage, it belongs solely to them with no outsider influence. (I say ‘belongs’ in the context of the experience of a text, where each reading of a book and the resulting thoughts or imaginings and so forth belong to that reader.) A text does in effect begin here, with the thought, but there’s obviously no physical evidence of it and everything about it can be shared or withheld as the writer sees fit, so few would know the entirety of it. At most, in terms of a concrete beginning, we’re dealing with content akin to quotations, extracts. But for the author it is the beginning. Perhaps it’s also the beginning for fans, when news of a work in progress is shared.

However once the book has been out a few years focus largely remains on it rather than its development, meaning that it could be said that there’s a time when the idea is the beginning and then a longer time when it is not.

With the writing, it depends on your view. From the author’s point and likely their editor or friends and family, the text has begun. It’s always in mind, it’s discussed, likely a lot. There’s that interesting division of beginning and ending, where the author celebrates the launch of a book and the ending of all the hard work, and the readers celebrate the launch and the beginning of their journey into the pages. If the author has chronicled the writing process on a blog or in newspaper/magazine articles, the book may begin for readers there; some fans may view the very first mention of the book as the beginning of it.

In terms, of course, of generality, it could be said a text begins when readers start reading it. This is when the discussion between author and reader starts happening, when an unlimited number of interpretations and imaginations occur, creating new thoughts and visual imagery than the one that up to now has most if not solely been just the author’s own. If we view a book’s success by how many sales it makes, how much discussion there is about it, then there is surely a strong case to be made that the book’s release date is the date the book begins.

It’s a sliding scale of access, if you will, ever more branches of a tree that starts with the author, extends to their publishers and friends, and becomes impossible to quantity after publication.

Perhaps it’s simply individual – where does a text begin for you, whether you’re the author or reader (more likely in this case, the reader, because I think it’s fair to say an author will consider planning and the moment of the idea as the beginning)? So many different opinions… it would be impossible to state a definite time because all three periods of time are valid. For me it has a lot to do with the discussion around the book – whether the book is part of a series and therefore discussion happens long before the release date (or in the case of Philip Pullman’s The Book Of Dust, the book’s been alive for 20 years…). If there’s hype, then actually holding the book in your hands can feel like the middle of the overall story, where the hype is the beginning and the final page the end. Books I haven’t heard about or for which there’s been less discussion, that first page is it. If there’s not much information about the author’s writing progress with the book, the idea of its existence is very much that, an idea rather than any true beginning.

What do you think – when does a book begin for you?

Reading Cause And Effect: Family History

A photo of a number of scrolls in a bowl

This photograph was taken by Clarence.

I once bought a book I’d never seen before by an author I knew nothing about – so begins many happy stories. But this one is quite different. Having studied the cover I came to the conclusion that the author was somewhat known and, liking the story set in historic Britain, bought it. It arrived battered. I was peeved – if anyone should ruin a book it should be the owner; in that vein I’ve now flipped through it enough I’ve added to the ruin.

It was a defining moment; one day some months after I’d finished it, my mother entered the room, speaking to someone on the phone about family history. I didn’t listen in… until she said the surname of the factually-based characters in my book. She had a book in her hands, a different one, with one of the surnames in her family tree on it. I commandeered it when she put the phone down.

I’ll say now, there’s no awesome end to this story. When you’re dealing with family trees and a book that follows only one line, trying to find out whether your own ancestors are in the muddle can prove impossible – it did this time. But my subsequent research led to experiences I’ll remember for a long while. After the author of the historical novel replied to my excited questions, sadly unable to answer them as they didn’t know of the people I’d quoted, I realised it was best to abandon my initial port of call – the start of the chronology in my mother’s book – and study the last pages instead, try and see if I could find a link to my family there.

To that end I contacted a historic house. This is a daunting thing to do when your query is valid but you know you’re likely to appear a gold digger. Nevertheless I got a reply from the archivist. I got the phone number of the owner of the estate. I got an invitation to talk about a possible link and my mother’s book; whilst my mother had her misgivings about my taking it, I had to point out that we hadn’t been able to work out if it concerned our family in particular but that it most certainly concerned the estate’s.

In the end I didn’t learn anything and having found nothing since have not been in contact with the estate, but I did have a lovely day. My meeting was scheduled along with that of the staff of another house. We had wine and made conversation in the library, followed by a wonderful lunch in the dining room. I got to see areas tourists couldn’t access and gained knowledge of periods I love, as well as history about the house. Yes, the content of my day did match my worry – it was a bit touristy and made me wonder if I was indeed thought a gold digger.

Still, it’s not every day a book results in such an experience. Sometimes it’s the people you meet only fleetingly that leave an impression on you. They can create a spark that leads to further adventures as the things the owner told me led to – it was a conversation with him that got me thinking about university. And I went back to the first pages of my mother’s book, researching simply out of interest, going a few generations beyond the information in the introductory pages. I’ve made a couple of trips to visit places of interest but I also find myself in places I’ve visited for other reasons, that turn out to be connected, which can be quite fun as well as a bit too uncanny. Not so fun are the times I wanted to see a sight for unrelated reasons, couldn’t, and learned there was a potential familial connection only once I was back home, too far away to return.

And yes, I’m still reading the author of the historical novel, finding a whole new meaning in their books.

Have you ever tried (or indeed succeeded!) to trace your family history?


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