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When How You Read Changes

A photograph of Elizabeth Fremantle's Queen's Gambit and Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl lying on a shawl in the sun

I’ve come a far way since the days when I had to had absolute silence around me to read, and having travel sickness. In the past year I started being able to read on buses (for a short time and as long as I didn’t look up much) and just recently I’ve come to find solutions to other problems, namely keeping my attention on the book.

As much as I can’t not place some of the blame on myself, it would be correct to say that since social media and phones and so forth have been contributing to our world-wide attention span problems. I’ve often had issues with reading, especially when it comes to longer books and that delayed satisfaction of completion that naturally accompanies them. If I’ve had all I can take of the internet in a day, I can read. And if a book is very good, I can read, which is of course something to think about in this respect – our fast-paced lives are not the only reason.

I’ve come to find that I’m at my reading best when reading first thing in the morning, before I’ve done anything that will get my brain heading in a different direction. If I can, breakfast then book, or book then breakfast is the best way to read. On the days when this happens, I consider any extra reading to be a bonus. (Interestingly, despite this and despite multiple reading slumps lately, I’m currently on track to make my average of 50 books in a year for this year.)

Lots of studies have found that keeping the parts of your day not related to screens away from screens provides the best chance for getting things done. As I’m not a big TV watcher, I can sit in front of a TV and read a lot, but I do find it good to stay away from the computer. I often sit in a particular seat in another room where I can have a drink on a table. In the summer, reading outside is wonderful – I believe it’s the reason my Julys are always full of books – lots of sun, warm weather, and to be outside is to be ever further from the computer. The only thing downside is that a computer or other device is useful for looking things up you may not understand, and so there can be anxiety if I come across something in a book that I feel needs explaining before I continue. Do I go to the computer and potentially lose some time in research (admittedly often very worth while), or do I try and remember for later what I want to look up? The latter is fine… until you’ve a small list of things to remember. I also find I don’t concentrate so well once I’ve something noted to research.

This brings me to note-taking, which can of course help with items of research – taking notes is great but it can pull you away from your reading flow. I also find that once I start taking note of a good quote or two, it’s all too easy to pinpoint further quotes of worth.

In terms of noise, I can now read with a bit of noise. There’s a bit more traffic where I currently live compared to my previous home – the first time I attempted to read with the windows open I soon came to the conclusion that as nice as the place was, reading was going to be difficult. But I kept at it; a few weeks later I found I’d blocked out the noise.

Whilst I can read on buses, even when there’s quite a few people on there, I find trains impossible. And those ‘quiet’ carriages are often the most loud. I’m not sure what the difference is – a bus is more bumpy, there are more stops and there’s more bustle.

When I need to relax I ironically find chores a better escape; mindless activities. I’m also not too great in a library; I browse and then bring the books home.

Writing this, it seemed my reading life has become more limited, however until quite recently most of the above would have been off the table to the extent that they wouldn’t even warrant a mention. I reckon that whilst it’s happening slowly, I’m moving in the right direction.

How do you read best, and what are your limitations?

Returning To The Question Of Ratings

An image containing the numerical ratings I use

A few years ago I wrote about how ratings show one’s opinion. At the time I was considering dropping ratings from my blog; I was conflicted.

That conflict remains. I’m still considering dropping them but the reason I continue to keep them is because I know that to go without them would present its own set of problems. (Not least because I’d have to restructure several on-going posts!)

On one hand, ratings make reviewing easier. Using numbers to back up your thoughts – both in the publicly accessible review itself and whilst mentally planning what you’re going to say – is a boon. A number can help when you’ve not yet found the words, or, if you’ve found the words already they round it all off.

On the other hand they can be restrictive. Words provide description, a rating can only ever help sum it up (I still believe a rating without words to be of limited value). On the occasion that you have the words but can’t decide on a rating, it can be incredibly difficult to reach the balance of words and numbers that feels right. And as it’s both inevitable and understandable that sometimes people will look for the rating rather than the rating and the words, the pressure to get it right increases.

Sometimes there is no one correct rating; I’m writing this post with the Valeria Luiselli book in mind – the book is of high literary value but at times I feel it goes a bit too far in the way it expects you to keep up with its concept. I’m nearing the end of the book and really should have made up my mind already as to the rating; after having written about books for the time I have I generally have a good sense of what my final rating will be by about halfway through (this is of course subject to change as I continue the book and I have and do change my rating). This time, I don’t know, and although this conflict doesn’t happen all that much it’s enough to make me consider throwing in the ratings towel. Excellent literary content – I’m thinking 5. But that feeling of ‘too far’ – I’m thinking 4. Perhaps I should split the difference and say 4.5.

A 4.3 might be more appropriate, but I’ve never wanted to go down the decimal route. I admire those who do but it looks like too much to keep track of. I chose to rate out of 5 with .5s included because it’s near enough to 10 but different enough to get around the problems I had with the idea of 10 itself.

No, that doesn’t make sense to me either but somehow it works. I may be over-thinking this. I still haven’t made up my mind.

Have you changed your thoughts about ratings as you’ve continued to read (whether you review or not), have you ever felt conflicted as to their value?

In Which I’m Researching Authors Again

Anne Richie

A couple of years ago, I created a bookmark folder in my internet browser for books I’d like to read, placing in it reviews, other articles, and some author websites. I found it a useful way to keep all those pieces of information that I hope to one day use but likely rarely will (I have bought a couple of books due to going through it which I consider makes it a success).

Then, sometime earlier this year, I started a ‘literary criticism’ folder in case I wanted to write articles based on the books those articles were talking about. Purposefully being more picky before I commit anything I read to the folder, it’s working out quite well. What I hadn’t reckoned on, though, was the way in which I’d be wanting to note each new classic author I came across. (‘Classic’ here used for both those who are famous and people less known/unknown who have long since passed.)

I have a penchant for keeping information I may need in the future, mostly because it has indeed come to pass many times that information has been used, and whilst in terms of handwritten notes – university and so on – I keep a lot less, when it comes to the internet and computers all bets are off, particularly in the case of literature. If I come across a person from the past who happened to be a writer, I will be bookmarking that page, no matter whether I’m interested in the subject they wrote about or not.

Still, as much as the information will be useful to somebody and indeed I am using it elsewhere, I wonder about it all. I remember reading a blog several years ago in which it was noted that it’s estimated we can get through about 5,000 books in our lifetime; constantly seeking out old authors only reminds me of this sobering fact. (There were certainly more than 5,000 books in the Beast’s library, which is something I think it’s fair to say we all aspire to emulate.) Even if you seek to read only the best of the best of the best, you will never cover it. (To include another sobering bookish screen reference, a statement by Ted Danson’s Gulliver comes to mind, from his main statement in court about his travels: “I could read every book ever written” – 1996 adaptation.)

I think, beyond the reasonable hope and plan to write about these authors, I just like having the information. I find I retain much more knowledge after a second read of information, and keeping it allows this. It also allows me to look back at people when other connections are made, such as my recent finding of the possible (likely?) inspiration for Jane Austen’s title for the book initially called First Impressions, as well as what got the ball rolling on Northanger Abbey.

Maria Edgeworth

It makes sense that I write about a few of them here. Aside from works on authors I’ve written about recently and thus don’t need repeating yet again, I have work on Christine de Pizan, Mary Hays, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I’ve saved pages on Adela Florence Nicolson (1800s poet from England, died in India, who wrote who the pseudonym Laurence Hope); Amelia Opie (1700s-1800s novelist and leading abolitionist – Amelia’s was the first name on a petition to parliament from women to end slavery); Ann Hatton (1700s-1800s popular English novelist); and Anna Bray (1800s British novelist).

Most interesting so far has been Anne Richie née Thackarey, the daughter of William. Wikipedia says this: Her 1885 novel, Mrs Dymond contains the earliest English-language use of the well-known proverb “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for life”. It would also seem she visited Southampton, my city, where her father once attended a school he found wretched but the city itself he liked. There is also Sarah Burney, half-sister of Frances, who wrote several novels but isn’t much remembered, possibly because she didn’t have too many friends. The Burney sisters’ father was more supportive of Frances, disliking Sarah’s Clarentine, and Jane Austen’s thoughts (as we know she liked Frances’ work) are thus:

“We [the Austen family] are reading ‘Clarentine,’ & are surprised to find how foolish it is. I remember liking it much less on a 2d reading than at the 1st & it does not bear a 3d at all. It is full of unnatural conduct & forced difficulties, without striking merit of any kind.” (Letter to Cassandra.)

But Sarah’s third novel, Traits Of Nature, did very well.

Finally there is Maria Edgeworth who may well be well-known today (and I would have just missed the discussion). She was an early realist writer of children’s literature, and a ‘significant figure in the evolution of the novel in Europe’ (Britannica 2014). Her novel Belinda depicted an interracial marriage and was thus controversial.

Austen, again:

“Oh, it is only a novel… It is only Cecilia or Camilla, or Belinda; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed.” (ibid.)

Unfortunately, when looking through my browser bookmarks for this post I happened upon yet another author. I’d better call it a day.

So today I would very much like to know, do you collect information for later use and are there occasions when you’ve come to use some of it? And which relatively unknown authors of the past do you recommend reading?

Reading Life: 8th June 2018

A photograph of the green outside Salisbury Cathedral

As you’ll have seen, I finished Lennox’s The Female Quixote, and wrote the review. Throughout my blogging years I’ve often found myself floundering when it comes to writing reviews of books I have taken a lot of notes for; it’s most often led to me not completing the review; but this time, I did it. I wrote a basic plan and then made it more detailed until it was practically written. I will be trying out that method again in future.

Having started reading around the subjects of the book, I ended up going down an internet rabbit hole and searching through digital copies of 1700s literary magazines for information required to write this post. Many issues of Samuel Johnson’s The Gentleman’s Magazine still exist, which as it turned out not only included Johnson’s blurb for the book and Henry Fielding’s brief views, but the month in which Lennox’s book was published. After two hours searching through the editions for the correct information, finding the month of publication was an added bonus. I may have celebrated with coffee.

Having finished all the research, I’ve moved on to Frances Burney, which also sent me on a search for information, this time in view of Austen’s usage of ‘pride and prejudice’, which is believed to be taken from Burney’s Cecilia:

Remember: if to pride and prejudice you owe your miseries, so wonderfully is good and evil balanced, that to pride and prejudice you will also owe their termination.

I’m reading Evelina and getting back into Valeria Luiselli’s Faces In The Crowd which has turned from ‘simply’ meta to ‘a book in a book in a book maybe in a book maybe reality’… yes, it requires a lot of attention. I’m also reading The Peace Machine, a steampunk-esque Turkish novel set in the 1800s, and so far so good. It’s about a Turkish erotic novelist, who publishes under a pseudonym in France. The first couple of chapters covered his childhood during which he was living in poverty, before he saved a rich man’s life and being adopted. The blurb speaks of WWI and the fictional creation of a machine, which reviews online mention can create peace but at an ethical loss. The translation is excellent – the translator has chosen to keep the rhymes of the fragments of poetry that are scattered about so that whilst the words may by necessity be changed, the concept carries over completely.

A photograph of authors Rosie Travers, Sue Fortin, Carol Thomas, Lyn Lile, Liv Thomas, and Rosemary Smith

Lastly, I spent a lovely Wednesday lunchtime with a group of writers, most local but a few from as far as Devon, and a diverse selection of genres. It was interesting hearing about marketing and publication from an author’s perspective, as well as the writing process. They are, from left to right (excuse the awful photo – mine): Rosie Travers, Sue Fortin, Carol Thomas, Charlie Cochrane, Lyn Lile (May Raymond), Liv Thomas (writes as Isabella Connor together with Val Olteanu), and Rosemary Smith.

On a completely different note, given the Twitter-trending Love Island and Big Brother-esque set up of many discussions and challenges but nothing otherwise to do I would like to ask you: how long do you think you could leave reading behind before you’d need to return? (I reckon I could go without reading for a month fairly easily but I’d want to leave from then on.)

May 2018 Reading Round Up

May was quite the busy month. With packing, then a wedding/holiday to go to, an event, and various other things (including the birth of some baby rabbits I had to go and visit, because you can’t not), I haven’t finished as many books as hoped. But I do have a few books on the go and completed Marian Keyes’ tome on the 1st June, so that technically counts. I got my library books back on the return date and took them out for another month, adding an older Nicola Cornick book into the mix (she’s our next author; older books are hard to come by). So here is what I finished in May. Most likely June will have quite a few books to speak of.

All books are works of fiction.

The Books

Book cover

Charlotte Lennox: The Female Quixote – As an isolated child, Arabella educated herself via the fiction books that belonged to her mother and, upon the arrival of her cousins and her entrance into society she finds conducting herself in the same manner as the histories she believes to be real very difficult. A parody of Cervantes’ classic, Lennox’s book was written and is set in the 1700s so there is much drama and fainting (or wish for fainting) but it’s pretty fun.

Book cover

Manu Joseph: Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous – On the day of election results, social media prankster, Akhila, comes across a crumbled apartment building in Mumbai, a victim of an earthquake, and offers to help the rescue team get to a man buried in the rubble; he’s mumbling about a potential terror attack in progress. Quite good, but more of a report than a fully-fledged piece of fiction.

Book cover

Weike Wang: Chemistry – The unnamed narrator has been proposed to by her boyfriend twice and can’t find it within herself to say yes; there’s a lot of confusion – she’s struggling with her PhD and is unconsciously still suffering from the neglect of her parents. A search for identity where the reader is more privy than the character, this is an excellent book full of vignettes, humour, and boasts an interesting writing style.

Book cover

Yaa Gyasi: Homegoing – As the slave trade continues in Ghana, one sister is ushered into marriage with a white man at the ‘castle’, whilst her unknown half-sister is taken into slavery to be shipped to America; we follow both women’s decedents as they tackle their pasts. A wonderfully written book that succeeds in writing short pieces about various characters without you ever feeling lost.

Tough call as to a favourite this month – both Wang’s and Gyasi’s books were fantastic; as Wang’s in particular will be on my ‘best of’ list I should probably choose that, though in all likelihood, Gyasi’s may be on the list too.

Quotation Report

Hilarity and heartbreak in Chemistry:

At the gate, he goes through his repertoire of tricks – sit, lie down, crawl, play dead, roll over, high-five, sit, lie down, crawl, play dead, roll over, high-five. I ask him to please be dignified about this, but I have not yet taught him that command.

Whilst in The Female Quixote, Arabella’s cousin and suitor agrees to read her favourite books at his peril – it just so happens her favourites include the (still) longest fiction book published, all 13,000 pages of it.

Earlier this year I began reading books from the 1700s almost on a whim – I read one and then just thought I might read another. Now I’m on my fourth book, Frances Burney’s Evelina with no thoughts as to when I might ‘stop’ or which to read next. It has meant that I’ve read both the 1700s Charlottes I spoke of last year (my plan to read five classical Charlottes) which leaves me with one remaining – the Victorian Charlotte Mary Yonge. It’s also given me a crash course in a number of literary subjects I hadn’t expected, as evidenced by a few recent posts. All this to say, this month I’ll be reading 1700s fiction. I’ve also a couple of review copies to get to and I’m hoping to finish Claire Fuller’s upcoming Bitter Orange and those library books.

What are your favourite books of the year so far (of those you’ve read, regardless of when they were published)?


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