My mother always had a deep dislike of books. They were dusty things that got in the way. They had to be stuffed from sight into the backs of cupboards. In the front room bookcase was a set of china dancing ladies, a carriage clock and a fruit bowl with no fruit. My books were upstairs, under my bed, in a box. How reading became my lifetime’s obsession I’ll never know. It could have been my uncle, who each Christmas gave me books about Poland. Or my father who’d offer me Dickens when no one was looking. Or maybe it was the local library where out of nowhere I found choice and freedom and endless science fiction.
Once this road had been embarked on there was, of course, no end. It was never a battle between reading or not reading but always one of what to select next. The massively politically incorrect Henry Miller, when I discovered him, offered a panoply of directions. Barely a chapter of any of his books went by without the author coming up with long lists of recommended works and the names of great authors that readers should follow.
In a dark corner I found the great fantasist John Cowper Powys’s 100 Best Books which offered a sort of road map. Better was Philip Ward’s mind-bending A Lifetime’s Reading in which a game plan for the next fifty years was delineated. This offered the reader an enthralling education through the consumption of five hundred books. Did I manage it, all 500? Certainly not. But I had a go.
How you decide on what to read next is, of course, a matter of enormous interest to publishers. Do you pick your reading matter by reputation of the author, because you’ve read about the book in the papers, heard about it on TV, liked the sound of title, or seen it in the hands of others, intently being read on the train? “I can’t understand why anyone would want to write a novel when you can pick one up for just a few cents” said an American journalist. And he was right. The market is glutted. The choice goes on forever.
Bookclubs offer one way out. Here you gather among friends, all having consumed the same title, to praise, destroy and discuss. Once that’s done you collectively select the next month’s read and off you go, a mandated title to explore.
Sometimes there’s a surprise waiting. At a club I attended I had the author secretly wait in the kitchen while the discussion rolled and then brought her out when all was done. Luckily the book had gone down well. But it might not have.
Book clubs are booming. Check your library for information about the nearest one to you.
An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #173