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Musings On The Importance Of Contexts When Forming An Opinion Of Characters

A photograph of three books: Vanity Fair, Anna Karenina, and David Copperfield

In trying to write about a particular character, I reached a point where I couldn’t continue without considering the author’s reason for including that character. This of course led me to consider the oft-debated topic of whether we should view a text in the context of its writer. And due to the fact that what I’d been working on had been inspired by a discussion about a character from not only a different book but different type of book, I’d also recognised the difficulties in applying any sort of template to a character study.

Of backgrounds, if we use my inspiration (Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina) and the character I wanted to write about (Diana Gabaldon’s Claire Fraser/Randall), it’s immediately obvious; you can’t apply or, generally, so much as consider, the characters from a similar perspective without soon finding yourself in a bit of a quandary. Anna Karenina is – spoilers incoming – a way for Tolstoy to discuss the different ways society treated infidelity depending on gender – and Claire Fraser is the way in which Gabaldon explores the idea of romance in the context of time travel. It would be difficult to compare the two characters – there’s little reason to – and likewise, it’s difficult to apply the same modes of thinking to a character study for each, beyond insignificant (to their stories) details. How they takes their tea? Perhaps.

Context of all kinds allows us to give reason for motivations and thinking, and the author context is a part of that. Both need establishing for the rest to work.

In terms of my plans, they’ll require a bit more research.

Who is one of your favourite characters in terms of their role in the book?

 
If Long-Awaited: Possibilities

It was the melding of ideas that made Ana and Iris’ long-awaited reads month compelling, the combination of books that had been languishing, together with starting the new year with books you’d not yet read. It’s been a good few years since the Month ran officially but nevertheless, whether I opt to ‘use’ it or not, come each January I’ve got the concept in mind.

Looking at my books I found myself creating three categories – books that, if I’m being honest with myself, I’m probably not going to read for ages if at all; books I expect I’ll read but have no idea when; and books I’d like to read in the near future. This made creating a basic idea of which books I might like to add to this year’s reading a lot easier – I’m listing only books in the third category. I also stuck to physical copies; I’ve too many free books downloaded on a whim.

I wanted to post something on the subject of Long-Awaited without harping on, so this will be it – suffice to say if I happen to review any of the books below within a few months, I probably read them in January, not forgetting the basic timeline my round-ups provide. Brick Lane, carried over from last year, is also technically Long-Awaited – a book I’ve had for 18 months or so that I had been wanting for a few years more than that.

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Anna Hope: The Ballroom (early 2016)Loved the debut, bought the second novel. This was one of those occasions where I was raring to read my brand new book but decided to finish the one I was currently reading, and we all know what can happen when you don’t immediately start a book you’re wanting to immediately start.

Barbara Kingsolver: Flight Behaviour (mid 2013) – I went looking for The Lacuna – that door stopper I’d heard was slow but nevertheless wanted to read – and when I couldn’t find it I shrugged my shoulders and decided a different book by the same person was good enough. Of course it never is – while I do want to read Flight Behaviour, the reason I haven’t is simple – it’s not the book I’d been wanting.

Deborah Levy: Swimming Home (early 2016) – I remember reading a review and putting this on my list, then hearing Levy speak at a Peirene Salon, and deciding that yes, I should indeed buy it. It’s a very short book, it’s still on my list simply because I know it’s quite literary and I’m looking for that impossible perfect moment. For the past couple of years I’ve been working on the idea of ‘done is better than perfect’ – I haven’t yet added books to that and need to.

Eowyn Ivey: To The Bright Edge Of The World (Christmas 2016) – Although I loved The Snow Child, I hadn’t been following Ivey’s writing career, and it was only when this book appeared on blogs that I found out about it. Like Ivey’s debut, it is about Alaska, and already knowing I wanted to revisit the area in fiction, I added it to my list. I made a brief start on it last year but it’s very different to her previous, and because I’d thoughtlessly expected a fair similarity, I decided to move on to another book and revisit it when looking for the sort of book it actually is.

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Lauren Owen: The Quick (Christmas 2016) – A book widely lauded by bloggers, I stayed away from spoilers and put it on my list, eventually listing it as a Christmas gift idea. There’s no real reason as to why I haven’t read it – it’s fairly long but hardly a tome compared to others.

Haruki Murakami: Norwegian Wood (early 2016) – This was always the Murakami I knew I wanted to start with, for no reason other than the previous cover intrigued me more than the rest and I reckoned starting with a shorter book was best. Picking the short book hasn’t helped the daunting feeling, however.

N M Kelby: White Truffles In Winter (mid 2013) – The idea that this might be about Christmas and chocolates, warm and cosy, and that combined with the foodish alliteration, drew me in. It’s a different story to what I had in mind, and indeed may well be about the more savory truffles, but when the nights draw in I often find myself thinking about this book, all its possibilities. I need to get around the difference between my early expectations and the reality.

Robert Galbraith: The Cuckoo’s Calling (mid 2013) – I bought this for the same reason as everyone else, and purchased the hardback because I’d enjoyed reading The Casual Vacancy in that way and the cover was, is, gorgeous. Expectation is the only reason I’ve not read it – I’ve the second and third in hardback, too.

Right now, the Kelby and Ivey are calling to me most; it’s likely I’ll finish my current read, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, and head on over to my bookcase.

Which unread book have you had on your shelves the longest?

 
2019 Goals And The Previous Year

A photograph of the lake at Hever Castle, with row boats on the water

At the beginning of what is now the previous year, I set out one ‘main’ goal as well as a few other ideas that were more wishy-washy. The main goal was ‘read as much as I comfortably can’.

‘As much as’ is technically an easy goal, because there are a lot of notions that can be applied to it, but with what was a busy several months in 2018, I almost feel I achieved this goal far better by reading less but perhaps more widely and for enjoyment, than in other years when the same goal was reached but with a bigger number of books.

It’s incredibly true, somewhat unfortunately I feel, that I didn’t get to as many new books last year, particularly as I do now have a small stack of review copies that I didn’t cover in any way at all, but there was a benefit in terms of getting through books I already owned, getting to books or authors I’d wanted to read for a while, and reading more books than usual in my preferred genres.

This year, I’m setting the ‘comfortably’ goal again, just with a few more caveats:

  1. Keep reading favourite genres but also put a priority on review copies I let linger. At first I thought to name specific books here, but I think that’d be more hindrance than help.
  2. Keep reading classics, with an emphasis on re-starting and completing Vanity Fair. Having now read Mitchell, Gabaldon, and Dickens, I really shouldn’t be having so much trouble with the idea of just getting it done.
  3. Read a novel or two by Charlotte Mary Yonge.

The last goal is two-fold – for one, it will aid my classics statistic, but more importantly, it will complete the goal I set in 2017 to read the five literary Charlottes I had identified. In 2018 I read two Charlottes: Smith (Emmeline, 1788), and Lennox (The Female Quixote, 1752 – June, according to a contemporary literary journal I found during my research).

In terms of 2018’s statistics, I didn’t do as well as I hoped but did do better than usual. I would like to up my diversity, classics, and (hopefully) translation numbers. I’m still reading far more women than men, which I’d like to do something about. The big difference to my statistics compared to other years was my use of the library. Eight out of the 39 listed books were from the library and I came to really appreciate how borrowing enabled me to read new, and slightly older, popular, books.

As it currently stands, I’ve carried over Monica Ali’s Brick Lane from where I left it on page 81 at the start of November, together with the eternal Thackeray. I’ve made a firm decision not to return to Ali until I’ve completed one new entry to the list so that everything feels fresh; my current read is Susanna Kearsley’s Season Of Storms.

Do you have reading goals for this year?

 
On The Concept Of A Book For Someone Who Doesn’t Like Reading: An Argument Against

A photograph of a copy of Jane Eyre with a lock and chain around it

The photograph above was taken by Joanna Paterson.

I don’t remember ever feeling particularly against the idea of ‘a book for someone who doesn’t like reading’ – to use the phrase that first gave me this post idea, but thinking about it recently, I was a bit ill at ease, and although I’m still to make up my mind on the whole thing, I wanted to explore it from this angle of unease.

There are of course good goals to be found in getting non-readers to read, goals such as having children read more, which leads both to their own enjoyment in a new hobby and inevitable education benefits. There’s also the occasional – I’m guessing here, as I’ve not seen it happen – adult convert to reading, as well as people who fear reading for various reasons but might take it up with support.

But the idea itself, of getting someone who doesn’t like reading to do so seems a bit passive aggressive, a bit manipulative. We all have our interests and passions and I don’t think there’s ever an age at which we’re not susceptible to becoming a preacher of something we love, something that another may not feel similarly for. But, or especially in this case, if the person is an adult, you have to respect their interests are different.

I’d say that if someone says categorically that they don’t like reading, you’re not going to find a book for them unless, perhaps, they like the idea of picture books and graphic novels that have few or no words. (If you give them a graphic novel you might be putting in place the pieces for an argument when they tell you yet again.)

An argument in favour of the idea of a book for someone who dislikes them, is the similar idea, ‘if you don’t like to read you haven’t found the right book’, to which I expect the person who is looking for an answer to the initial question would respond ‘bingo!’. (We probably don’t want to get these two people together with the non-reader.)

We could consider the idea of ‘the right book’ strange, because it surely infers that there is one, or just a handful… so what do you do after that? It of course depends on what a person doesn’t like about reading but if by chance they find the metaphorical unicorn, what happens next? Are they now a reader, with one book behind them and no more on the horizon? And is there one or a few books that could really suit everyone?

I love finding or suggesting books for/to people who like a particular genre, or just books in general, but I’m yet to come across anyone who doesn’t like reading be open to the idea. It’s like ‘a car for someone who doesn’t like driving’ or ‘a mountain for someone who doesn’t like hiking’ – nowhere near as extreme, but it shares the same basic premise.

I love books and reading, but there are lots of things I don’t like that others do like, and even if reading is linked to health and education and betterment and many other hobbies aren’t, it still shouldn’t be forced. (And most other hobbies are linked to betterment by their hobbyists, anyway, as would be expected of those with different personalities.)

What do you think of the concept and do you have any anecdotes on the subject?

 
How Can We Make Literature Less Intimidating?

A photograph of a copy of Jane Eyre with a lock and chain around it

When I sat down to brainstorm this idea, I found answering the question hard, until I decided to reverse it. Thinking about how could we make literature more intimidating immediately brought to mind that to do so would mean having to keep doing what we’re (general) doing, stick to the status quo rather than continue down the paths a few people and publishes have started to take. Which then answers the first question.

To look on the idea of making it less intimidating, one of those paths that have been created is Quick Reads, the handful of short, easy reads, that are published each year, written by well-known writers. I’ve only read one, but it was enough to see the idea fully in action; I would presume the thought is that after some of these books a person might try something longer and more complex. Might – they don’t have to of course. (A note: Quick Reads is just as much about time constraints as it is making literature less intimidating, I believe.)

The ‘problem’ with the idea of less intimidating literature is that you have to look at specifics rather than the broad picture or it becomes controversial, for example, if ‘literature’ means classics and literary fiction, the argument would be that they ought not be ‘dumbed down’ in any way (and indeed to do so would mean current readers may not like them). But if applied broadly, then we can consider all the genres, which includes fantasy, science fiction, and crime, which often seem the most intriguing and most likely to be read by non-readers. With fantasy there’s less you need to know, in terms of facts, going in because it’s all to do with making things up.

A different point is the importance of letting people read what they want to read and come to their own conclusions. School English lessons, when part of the mandatory curriculum don’t often help with this and if it puts people off that’s a problem. It’s important that someone is allowed to interpret a book through their own experience, no matter how much, or little, or relevant or not, it might seem to others.

I think we do a good job with covers – lots of variety, though obviously trends stay in place for each genre – and in having books that relate to the audience that the shop serves; there are a few specific genres in supermarkets here. You rarely find literary fiction in them but the ‘easier’ books that are stocked must have an audience they wouldn’t be on the shelves. (I know there’s dislike for supermarkets and knocked-down prices, but it’s surely a very good place for fiction if you want to reach those who wouldn’t normally go to a bookshop, whether due to intimidation or price, and it’s easy to find yourself in the aisle whilst looking for something else.)

I do think a lot of it comes down to support and accessibility – accessibility of conversation and a good welcome to it – more than the books themselves. If you feel included in the conversation and able to ask questions and make mistakes, then you’re surely going to be more interested in the idea of picking up something that might be challenging.

How do you think literature could be made less intimidating, and do you have any stories of converting daunted non-readers?

 

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