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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?

 
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Americanah

Book Cover

Working with stereotypes.

Publisher: Fourth Estate (HarperCollins)
Pages: 475
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-007-35634-8
First Published: 14th May 2013
Date Reviewed: 8th October 2018
Rating: 5/5

Ifemelu met Obinze at a party – everyone expected him to be interested in one of her friends. After an initial romance, Ifemelu leaves Nigeria to go to university in America, and once there she comes to discover that she is black. Working as a writer in the industry, she later starts a blog on the subject of race in America, becoming very popular. Meanwhile Obinze looks to get into Britain, but finds it hard to gain a visa despite his status in Nigeria. He doesn’t understand why Ifemelu ended contact, and sometimes, neither does she.

The above is the bare basics of this complex book. Americanah is both a commentary on the concept of race in America – African American, black, in particular – and a romance with a bit of ‘finding oneself’ included. Told in sections, moving between Ifemelu and Obinze, and moving back and forward in time, it studies its major subject to excellent effect.

The variety of conversation in this book would be difficult to list, especially without spoiling some of the plot. It is huge, encompassing a great many thoughts, general ideas, specifics, and from all manner of viewpoints; the characters’ moves from Nigeria to America, and Nigeria to London, enable Adichie to study her subject thus. There’s the Nigerian perspective that takes into account the perspective of the African continent in general through the use of other characters, and how ‘black’ isn’t a thing there. There’s the concept of there being no such thing as race, from various perspectives, and the breaking down into pieces of all of them as commentary. Adichie uses Ifemelu’s experiences her, with the character experiencing racism as a new ‘black’ person, the conversations black Americans have amongst themselves and with others of different races, conversations where Ifemelu is the only non-white person, and so on. The character tends to question everything. And then there are her own thoughts, that are used for her blog, her commentary drawn from her boyfriends, and various privileges.

What’s interesting here – beyond all of the above, of course – is that Ifemelu isn’t a particularly likeable person; the author has commentary happen through the use of the character but not only develops her into her own person away from that but makes it so that you’ve a mix of stunning inner thoughts and actions that aren’t always nice, are, in fact, often selfish. It’s a bold move on Adichie’s part that rounds off the whole novel with aplomb. Ifemelu is nice enough for you to keep reading, and then there’s Obinze to take over when she becomes too much, his character representation an entirely different world to the one Ifemelu moves in and objectively being a much better character in terms of reader enjoyment. His life in Britain offers the perspective of immigrants in the current political climate – that which would soon aid the lead to a Brexit vote – poverty, and the working class in general. (The book was written before Brexit; there is more of a focus on the reason for immigration on those who travel, rather than the thoughts of those already in the country.) Obinze’s life is more of an extra when it comes to commentary; Adichie uses him more for general narrative purposes and the novel is all the stronger for it, having therefore both a good plot and good commentary.

The romance is very much a secondary, almost tertiary part of the novel. Due to Ifemelu’s personality and choices it is obviously not developed as much as it might have been otherwise but is still written well in accordance with the rest – it’s a romance that’s not great because it’s been planned to be so.

There is a general look at Nigeria on its own terms, both at the beginning before Ifemelu’s move and some increases in time spent on it as Ifemelu inevitably compares her life before and after.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that Americanah minors in books – it’s a book about books. The main characters share a love of literature, particularly classics and famous contemporary books, and there are a good few discussions. Literature and literary education is one of the main factors of their chemistry, and Adichie, somewhat understandably for an author, doesn’t scrimp on details.

Americanah is a feat of writing. The sheer amount of commentary included, the number of angles and takes on each subject and the dedication to covering it in detail is incredible. There’s a reason this book is so long. To read it is to take on a study, but also a tome full of enjoyment. It is quite an undertaking but it’s worth it.

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Colm Tóibín – Brooklyn

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Concrete jungle where dreams are made of… or pressed upon.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 250
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-141-04174-2
First Published: 5th May 2009
Date Reviewed: 4th October 2018
Rating: 3.5/5

Ireland in the 1950s and Eilis, recently having left school, is living with her mum and sister. There aren’t many jobs available but she manages to get Sunday work at a grocers her mother dislikes. She’s happy with life as it is, but one day her mother and sister start talking to her about sending her to New York where there are lots of opportunities. She goes, reluctantly, and begins a new life, but it’s hard forgetting home when you didn’t want to leave it.

Brooklyn is the acclaimed novel by Tóibín that looks at a young person’s emigration away from all she knows. Shorter than some, it offers some interesting descriptions, circumstances, and knowledge, but never really ‘goes’ anywhere despite the literal journey Eilis makes.

What’s good in this book is the use of time period and situation. Tóibín brings the era to life masterfully, writing descriptions that provide enough for you to create a good image in your head of the way things look, both the location and the people. He doesn’t describe everything – most readers will know the basics about the 50s after all, given its ‘vintage’ status – but it is more than enough.

There is also the social angle, which is only a minor feature but means that parts of the book are compelling; the regular life occurrences such as dances and movie nights, but also the racism between immigrants, and the changes that came with allowing black people to move in previously white-only spaces. Tóibín does not spend long on these, and more’s the pity, because they’re the highlight.

The storytelling in itself is fair. Language is generally good. Reasons for character decisions, whilst not often reasonable in terms of what we’d think now or what the reader themselves might do, are accounted for.

However the novel falls down a few levels when it comes to characterisation. A number of the secondary characters, in part, for certain, due to their role as secondary characters, are developed a fair amount – developed as much as they are needed to be. But Eilis is largely vague. She is very passive and easily replaceable.

The problem here is that Eilis never makes decisions for herself, something that becomes incredibly apparent during the last section of the book wherein she lets a lot of people walk all over her, keeps secrets, and goes along with things that she ought to consider ludicrous. It is difficult to talk about without giving away a small piece of information that may or may not be considered a spoiler – included in this book is Eilis’ return journey to Ireland. She’s not intending to return for good, having a specific reason for going back for a short time, as many people would have (hence why it’s not exactly a spoiler to reveal it).

Although Eilis had been making ‘decisions’ based on what other people were pushing her to do before this, her lack of agency in the last section is particularly frustrating and unfortunately, whilst you’d expect Tóibín to do something about it at the end, to show Eilis coming into her own, he does not. Whether or not that was something he purposefully excluded to create a discussion is hard to say; it’s fair to say Eilis’ sister had good reason for putting Eilis on the boat, and that Eilis is and likely always was the victim of emotional manipulation, but whilst Tóibín allows you to see this, somewhat, he does nothing to change Eilis’ situation. And whilst that in itself is not bad, because it can be hard for someone in her position to find herself, there needed to be something from Tóibín, even if just a direct, single line, on why Eilis is so passive. It might have helped account for the strange turns Eilis’ ‘choices’ take and definitely would have given the story a bit of action.

Therefore you have a book with wonderful world-building and writing, a book that you won’t want to put down, but ultimately there is no real story here except of constant indecision and pressure, and a sudden and completely unsatisfactory ending. Again, perhaps this is something the author was actively looking to achieve, because it certainly creates a reaction, but that doesn’t help make Brooklyn any better.

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September 2018 Reading Round Up

September was fairly good for reading. The weather has changed but the hours around noon, when there is sun, are hot enough to read outside. Otherwise planning is afoot, for both Christmas and autumn in general. In terms of reading, in keeping with my plans I’ve got a couple of Christmas books from the library; I found Dilly Court’s The Christmas Card and so loaned it out, and they had Jenny Colgan’s Christmas At Rosie Hopkins’ Sweet Shop so I got that too. I’ve no idea what the Colgan is about or whether I need to read any previous books first, but the title sounds suitably warm and fuzzy. I like the idea of reading them now – well, I kind of have to, having loaned them! – and thus having reviews ready for early December. Interestingly, according to the issue slip, the copy of the Court has been issued out in the spring and summer months but never any later.

All books are works of fiction.

The Books

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Americanah – A Nigerian student leaves behind the love of her life to study in America, where she discovers that she is now ‘black’. This book is fairly complex, summing it up difficult, but it’s incredible, albeit that the heroine isn’t particularly great (the hero’s fine).

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Özgür Mumcu: The Peace Machine – A Turkish writer of erotic fiction comes to know about a theoretical ‘peace machine’ that would eliminate hate in the world, and joins the highly political faction that is spending time with those working to assassinate the Serbian monarchs whilst working on their machine. Yep – it’s confusing all right.

Book cover

Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar – A high-achiever moves to New York but starts to fall into a deep depression over various social ideals; she had had periods of mental illness before. Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel, it’s one to read and a good literary text.

I’m just over halfway through Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn which is quite enjoyable and features department store work in 50s America which I’m loving – I enjoyed reading about and watching the following TV series on Mr Selfridge, as well as the glimpses of historical department stores in The Marvelous Mrs Maisel. Tóibín has included the social change wherein black Americans were finally invited in to shop, too, which is both fascinating and awful – lots of staring, and only 70 years ago! After this, I’ll be picking up those Christmas books.

I’m hesitant about the next few months as I’ll miss the weather. I also can’t get my head around the fact that it’ll soon enough be time to decorate for Christmas. We’ve got a new family member this year so more planning to do.

What did you read in September?

 
Film Review: Fallen Stars

A screenshot from the film

Screen shots copyright © 2017 El Camino Entertainment/Thousand Miles Entertainment.

I have an interest in small independent films, and whilst the trailer for Fallen Stars didn’t grab me, I thought I’d give it a go because it stars Michelle Ang whose work I like a lot. (She’s most well-known for playing Lori Lee in Neighbours, Akemi in Xena: Warrior Princess, and Kimmie in Top Of The Lake.) It turned out to be an incredibly good, bookish, watch.

The plot is as follows: A thirty-something year old man (Ryan O’Nan) who has a very mundane, routine life, starts to feel stifled by the bartender job he’s been doing for 10 years. When a new customer, Daisy (Ang) walks in with her book, few words, and sullen manner, he’s intrigued, but her mood remains. Meanwhile, Daisy is facing a monotonous life of her own. On her walks she goes to the dog shelter but although she becomes fond of one of the dogs, she won’t let herself adopt it.

A screenshot from the film

The film shows us the progression of the pair’s friendship day by day. It’s as slow as the blurb sounds but that is the point of it. It’s obvious that every little thing in this film has been thought through, from the same old takeaway menu that gets dropped through Cooper’s letterbox every day, to the plot that carries on with little change for quite some time. Cooper wakes up at 7, gets coffee, naps, goes to work, and returns home with little difference for days, the story unapologetically portraying aspects of regular life at the same time it shows how unexciting this particular one is.

As the film continues little changes start to be added and mount up – Cooper rises at 9 one day (you notice the alarm clock), he starts to meet up with Daisy, he sits in his garden to read the book she was reading at the bar. And along with this, the plot ekes out what Cooper and Daisy’s backgrounds are; ashamed of their lives, it takes events like bumping into old friends for their history to be revealed to the film-goer. The eking out also applies to the friendship, as the characters hold back their emotions from one another and mistakes are made.

A screenshot from the film

The whole is about how life is when you haven’t reached your potential and feel it keenly, as well as how life is when you’re overwhelmed by your work to the point of avoiding it. As the film continues it becomes particularly poignant and there is a big reveal about 2/3 of the way through that completely changes everything, not in a major shock-tactic manner, more in the way you’ve been viewing these people and their lives. It’s a surprise that will be welcomed by readers, in fact the film’s atmosphere as a whole is a sort of Groundhog Day/literary fiction mash up; Daisy uses books to halt conversation and Cooper to try and improve it; and then there’s the surprise.

When it comes to the dog shelter there’s an early punch, and this feeling extends for a while before reaching a better place, this is to say that if you’re an animal lover you’re potentially going to find it very emotional.

Restrained acting, storytelling, a dull pastel palette to work with – by description it’s boring. But if you’re prepared to give it time, it comes into its own, the character development, the acting, and the whole concept planned and executed to perfection. It’s available to watch on Amazon and iTunes and in some countries available to purchase on DVD.

 

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