Friday, 4 June 2010

A week of reading

With the exception of having the freedom to drink in the mornings, the most exciting part of going on holiday is the joy of having a week in which to do little else but read. It is a perfect indulgence and, for me, a unique literary opportunity: the only time I get to read a book in one sitting, the one chance when a long novel can be experienced in long, immersive sittings. There are no tube stops to interrupt a chapter, no hissing thump from cheap commuter headphones to distract from the prose, no lunch break to disappear quicker than every other hour of the day. It’s just me, my book, and hopefully an ice-cold glass of wine sweating on a table beside a swimming pool.

Selecting my holiday books is a rigorous process, one that conforms to a basic stratagem developed and honed over many years. Firstly, I work on the basis of one book per day. This may seem excessive, but one year I came perilously close to running out of reading, and that experience still gives me a little swell of fear. I’m going away for seven days, so seven books it is. Secondly, the books must sort of complement each other. This is a more nebulous concept and is often utterly irrational. While one can understand the logic of not wishing to read both Updike and Roth on holiday, quite why Updike does not sit comfortably with Ian Rankin I can’t explain. But trust me, he doesn’t.

Finally, I really need a balance between brand new fiction and novels that have sat on my shelf for years without having read. Selecting this lost classic is possibly the most pleasurable part of holiday anticipation: hours spent looking up and down shelves, picking up books at random, reading the blurbs, remembering where and when the book was bought, putting it back making a mental note to consider it later. For the most part these tend to be books that I’m ashamed not to have read – previous holiday rehabilitations have included Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer and Jealousy by Alan Robbe-Grillet – and this year is no exception: Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor has made its gimlet eye towards me and flirted its way into my case.

Back in 1991 I bought a copy of Red Dragon to read by the pool in Florida, and that sort of became the benchmark for what a kind of traditional beach read should be. The problem is that very few people have Thomas Harris’s ability to shock, thrill and repulse, while giving you characters to believe in. After reading so many serial killer novels on holiday and being disappointed – especially by Jack Kerley’s Blood Brother, a novel so didactic and poorly written it made me feel like I was being intimidated by some pimple faced youths on a bus – I’ve given the genre a wide-berth. But a holiday without a good crime novel is just not a holiday, so this year’s place goes to Bad Penny Blues by Cathi Unsworth – a seamy, dirty, retro slab of London noir.

As for new books, this is perhaps the hardest of all categories – an opportunity to read a great new voice, or to have wasted a day of precious reading time on something really not worth your time. I’ve whittled down my list and am happy – for the moment – with my selection. First up is Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman, a book I know little about except its opening line: “In idle moments I sometimes like to close my eyes and consider Joseph Goebbels’ fourty-fourth birthday.” Which is so wonderfully exact yet askance, I couldn’t help but add it to the pile.

Lee Rourke’s The Canal – a tale of boredom set in the hinterlands between Islington and Hackney – is one of the books I’ve most looked forward to this year, and from the opening few pages, I know is going to be a read in one hit novel that sticks around, whistling tunelessly in my head for months later. Despite Ludmilla’s Broken English provoking little more than a yawn, I’m sure that Lights Out in Wonderland by DBC Pierre will be a return to form (depending of course where you stand on Vernon God Little – a good book, but an odd Booker winner).

Which leaves me with just two more to go. Nourishment by Gerard Woodward looks like the kind of book that may just break him out of the “respected but modestly selling” category and into a wider, more appreciative audience. I heard him read from it recently and it sounded incredible: intimate yet with a scope and scale that allows his storytelling gifts to fly.

My final choice is the new Jonathan Franzen, Freedom. 4th Estate won’t send me an advance copy – something about wanting coverage nearer the time – but have found someone who can hook me up. It feels like a drug deal or something.

I go on holiday next week. I can’t wait to start reading.


  1. My criteria are

    1. Paperbacks for space and weight reasons, so sod the new titles either in hardback or bulky proofs.
    2. About 50% more books than I think I will actually get through, for reasons similar to your above.
    3. At least one long book that I will have a better chance of getting through than I would at home, where so many other shorter titles tempt me away from getting stuck into such a biggie.

    This year the biggie will be Elliot Perlman's Seven Types of Amibuity, which an Australian reader of my blog sent me (and had previously been recommended independently by a friend), so I feel I should get through it before too long. Other than that, who knows? I'm not going on holiday until mid-July, so plenty of time to acquire new possibilities.

    And I am conscious that having a one-year-old on holiday with us this year is going to significantly cut my reading time anyway.

    Bon voyage!

  2. As we're staying the UK, I can afford to take HBs which is a real luxury..

  3. Hi Stuart,

    Great post. Just a quick question, do you ever read non-fiction? After a couple of novels in a row I get a bit bored of fiction.

  4. Good point. Actually this year we're staying in the UK too (well, Ireland, so same land mass) so it's space rather than weight. And two grown-ups and one child plus all their luggage on a 350 mile drive in a Nissan Micra will be challenging, I suspect.

  5. Hi Fred - yes I do, but I find my mind wanders too much with non-fiction. I should try to more, I think.

    John - that sounds like quite a squeeze. And kids have so much stuff, don't they?

  6. Stuart,

    What is your secret? How on earth do you read so quickly. And it's not like you're reading easy books. Marilynne Robinson is not exactly a quick read.

    Please share you secrets, because I have a ton a novels here and I just can't get through them fast enought.

    With a Ken Follett thriller, I can average around 40 pages an hour, and that's only at the height of the action.

    Let me know...and your blog is fricking out of this world!