When did you last see someone reading a book? Not someone you know, just someone you happened to pass who was reading.
Of course, I know it’s not a spectator sport, there wasn’t some point in history where the public used to gather in concert halls or football stadiums and hold mass book reading ceremonies. It’s always been a private activity, which takes place behind closed doors in small groups or in isolation, almost as though there is something shameful about it.
But I do feel that these days I just don’t see people reading books as much as I used to.
When people ask me about writing, which sometimes they do, one of the questions they are most likely to ask is ‘where do you get your ideas from?’
It’s a tough one to answer, partly because I don’t think about the process very much and also because there isn’t just one place where ideas are floating around and we writers gather with our butterfly nets and haul them in. At least, I’m saying there is no such place, if there is let me know, it will make things a whole lot easier.
One of the hardest things to spot in your writing I think is when something hasn’t come out on the page the way you intended when you wrote it.
So you imply one thing, the reader infers another. It can happen in small subtle ways, or great big clunking ones – the character you intend as a noble hero can seem more of a villain for example. Why is it hard for the writer to spot? Because it’s still you doing the rewrites, and you still have your initial perception colouring your view.
Here’s an example, not from art but from life, of this effect in motion.
First thing I want to say is I’m a big fan of Bob Dylan, have been for years, nobody enjoys a bit of Blonde and Blonde or Blood on the Tracks more than me. But I don’t believe he should have won the Nobel Prize for Literature – it’s not the right award for him.
Fans supporting his win are talking about what a wonderful poet he is and what fantastic lyrics he writes, and I couldn’t agree more. He writes and performs wonderful work.
And he has received countless relevant awards for that, endless Grammys, an Oscar, you name it, probably had to build a new wing on his mansion to keep them in. Plus he’s had his mouth stuffed with gold, and he’s been feted for all kinds of stuff he’s not much good at, he’s been lauded as an actor when he can’t act, as a painter when he can’t paint worth a damn.
I was in a branch of Waterstones the other day, which is the big bookshop chain in the UK, and I noticed that, where the face-out copy of J.K Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy should have been something else had appeared.
Another book was sitting there, taking the glory, and, to make things worse, it was a pretty shoddy looking book. It was skinny, barely more than a pamphlet, and it had a dull maroon cover with a white line drawing on the front. It reminded me of school text books from the 1970s. How could this cuckoo in the nest have got there? Well, I’m not Raymond Chandler, I wasn’t even in the detective fiction aisle, but I’m guessing we need look no further than the author of the ‘misplaced’ book.
I was reading at the Evesham Festival of Words last night – lots of fun. What’s an Evesham I hear you ask? It’s a small town in Worcestershire, semi near to where I live in the UK.
I enjoyed it. The whole thing it was delightful. It was held at a wonderful museum in a 14th century building called the Almonry in the town, which is one of those places which we tend to overlook in the UK but are genuinely ancient and overflowing with stories. These are buildings with low beams because people used to be shorter. Listen, I’m going to say, without bothering to check on Google, that this building is older than America. (White people America). It was doing its thing before McDonalds, imagine that.
An old mate of mine, we shall call him George, for that is his name, once told me a story about his childhood. His family was a long way from wealthy and foreign holidays were not on the agenda, but his aunt once made a trip abroad to Austria and returned to Glasgow with a gift for George.
He opened his parcel it to find, to his horror, that it contained a pair of lederhosen. To his even greater horror, his mother made him wear them to school the next morning. He had been hoping to get through the day by keeping a low profile but it wasn’t to be as his form teacher dragged him up in front of the class and made him model his outlandish attire.
“Look everyone,” she said. “George is wearing genuine Tyrolean Lederhosen.”
I don’t read that many bad books, I take no pleasure in them. People sometimes talk about how they are going to gorge on book-junk as though a bad novel is a messy burger and there is a special joy to be gained from swallowing it. Not me.
I like many kinds of fiction and there are great writers in any genre, but I would rather seek out the glittering best of any given type rather than read that which is merely mediocre or indeed plain awful. So I do some research, take advice from people whose taste I trust. Hence I read very few bad books.
I’ve been reading The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, the case notes of the recently departed neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks. It’s a fascinating book and deeply humane, dealing with the amazing curve balls our complex brains can throw at us when they go wrong.
It’s also very well written by someone who was clearly a great story-teller as well as a great scientist.
Literature festivals seem to be increasingly popular in the UK – big ones attracting thousands of punters, little ones popping up like mushrooms.
Over the last few years, as an author with a couple of books out, I’ve appeared at both kinds – and the first thing I want to say is that I think they are a force for good. Anything which encourages people to cherish books is on the side of the angels in my view. And the ones I have attended have allowed me to flog a few copies of my own books – what author wouldn’t like that?
But something has struck me about literature festivals in this country which is that, increasingly, they don’t bother too much with literature.