Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Being well-read

At least ten years ago, probably more, I went on a literary tour of Oxford, a tour I nowadays enjoy leading. It was organised by Writers in Oxford of which I was an active, now inactive, member, and conducted by Peter, an independent guide who worked, and still works, through Blackwell’s the famous bookshop in the centre of the city. That bookshop is claimed to have the largest underground display of books in the whole of Europe: so many words, so many sentences, paragraphs, chapters and of course trees. Our group were not very impressed by the tour and, after it had ended, we walked away chatting about this and that. It was then that one of the more pleasant lady members of what we then called WinO said pleasantly, “Rob is the least well-read person that I know”. I was taken aback rather than offended and responded by asking if she had read the books of Douglas Kennedy, whose novels I was reading at the time. She had not and had not heard of him. I could have gone on by mentioning a long string of science fiction authors who had fed my hungry mind through teenage and beyond, or asked whether she had read everything that George Orwell had written and so on and on.  But this would not have changed her mind. She assumed that I had not read the books that she had read, and also, probably correctly, that most members of WinO would share her canon.

Where do people get their reading material from? Many, I think, read the books recommended by newspapers or magazines and thus Guardian readers would be exposed to a different choice to, say, Telegraph readers. Some are inspired by radio or TV reviews programmes, others by the short lists for famous prizes such as the Booker, and yet others by the many books that describe the books you must read before you die. And, of course, for many there is the well-established practices of bookshop browsing, visiting the local library or simply following up recommendations from friends.
Nowadays my source (as exclusively a Kindle reader) is BookBub which suits me entirely. Everyday I receive an email listing books on special offer (mostly £0.99) with a short description and a link to the book via Amazon. Mostly I reject the lot at that stage, but every now and then a book attracts me so I examine the more detailed description on Amazon and then reject, sample or buy it – mostly the former. For me this is great. I do preselect which categories of books I want to be offered, and within my categories I get some wonderful reads. What especially attracts me is that it is all so random: no political, sexual, trendiness, geographical, or intellectual bias as far I can tell.

I read a lot when I’m in Spain, especially now that my main building project over here is complete. Currently I am reading a grand overview of human history, a book on factfulness and a fascinating autobiography by Frank Gardner of Middle East reporting fame.  I have recently finished the riveting account of Alfred Wallace’s nine year expedition to the Malay Archipelago and plan to follow in some of his footsteps next year. And whilst travelling I have also read a couple of good novels: one for the second time – a first for me.

So, am I well-read? Well, I certainly wish that I was as an author, but as a reader it all depends on who is asking the question. I certainly do read a lot, and widely - which is why if I suddenly lost all of my possessions one of the first things that I would miss would be my Kindle – followed by my smartphone, from which I can also access my Kindle store of books.

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