Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Two different ways of reading

I've always been fairly obsessional, meaning that once I get interested in something I get fairly single minded about it for a short time, until I put it away and move on to something else. That sounds callous, doesn't it? I don't mean it like that. But I sometimes think of my interests as a kind of revolving assembly line, which, as it rotates, reveals forgotten interests which I add a piece to, and then allow to begin to go round again. Sooner or later that interest will come back round again, and be at the forefront of my mind once more. Then it keeps rotating. When I think about music, the obvious example and the easiest to demonstrate, it's clear. I could even reel off the years and observe the cycle, I'm sure.

1990 Baggy, Indie pop
1991 Shoegazing
1992 Early Warp Records stuff, Hip Hop
1993 Pavement, US Indie
1994 Riot Grrl, UK Indie
1995 Blur, Mod stuff
1996 Synth Pop, R&B
1997 Hip Hop, Mo'Wax
1998 Synth Pop and house music
1999 Punky guitar rock
2000 Hip Hop
2001 XTC, pastoral pop
2002 US indie (Mercury Rev etc)
2003 Modern Classical, Krautrock
2004 IDM, Tech House, Garage

All containing plenty more minute shifts and swings, of course. It's the same for everything else, to a varying lesser or greater extent. Past obsessions: TV comedy, films, comics, football, cutting clippings out of newspapers to make scrapbooks, art galleries, dropping my h's, emphasising them.

What made me think of this, was that although I change my subjects, certain things remain the same. You wouldn't have to try to hard to link together the progressions above, and in a sense they're all united by exactly the same approach: a feverish desire to be discovering new (or old) things, and too much free time and (in the distant past) money. Occasionally something comes along which changes your approach (the obsession with Pavement and UK indie came with the discovery of John Peel and home taping, a marvellously cheap year. I discovered synth pop and the Style Council through car boot sales. Limewire has been instrumental in guiding my music tastes over the last 6 months) but for the most part I've stuck with the same principles, and the same feeling of what it is I'm doing. Looking for just-about-to-be-fashionable, clever music, that I can research and collect, look forward to having, be made cool by.

What made me think all this, eventually, is, well a number of things. Firstly, I reported with enthusiasm to Vic yesterday on a cheap bottle of red wine I'd found via Superplonk, and she commented that, if only she'd been

"been 'systematic' enough to realise it, getting you to consult a grid, list or chart proves to be a motivating force for you to do some shopping!"

after which we mused that the research, the categorising, the list-making is most of the fun for me. I've always enjoyed planning my buys and buying the records more than I have enjoyed listening to them (it's always a disappointment).

Anyway, likewise books. I even went so far as to start compiling a list of the books I've read the other week. There was not as much variety as I might have expected, heavily dominated by the Amises, by Wodehouse, Julian Barnes etc. The same logic has always applied. I love buying books, absolutely adore it. I had a passionate fling with the idea of the author Maggie Gee a month or so ago, all before I had read one of her books, so excited at the idea of a writer who seemed to be interested in things that interested me. Since then I've read two of her books (one great, one not-so-great) and the great passion is quenched. On to the next, then? I always want something to want.

Anyway, I was thinking, then, about all the books that I excluded from the list, the books that I knew I had read, but chose not to add to the list. Invariably they were either bad books (like The Da Vinci Code, which I recently read) or - more often - the product of brief obsessions.

My dad, incidentally, is the same, though perhaps a little less flighty. But his interests are similarly single-minded. For him, it is boats, or cars, or motorcycles, or bikes, and when one interest runs at the forefront of his mind the house is filled with appropriate magazines, catalogues, items and accessories. When it is time to move on, say from bikes to boats, the magazines change their titles from Mountain Biker UK to Boating Monthly, the catalogues are for marinas, the accessories morph from bicycle wheels to lengths of rope and boat furniture. And for a summer our cupboard was filled with pots of home made jam, when his obsessions took him suddenly in that direction.

When I read, I find it easy to become gripped by the subject matter and it often effects my next choice of book. Lots of the books I've read land in this category; sometimes with comical results. I read Mick Jackson's Five Boys a couple of years ago and was somehow intrigued by the beekeeping described in the book. Shortly after, I was attracted to several books with similar themes. In the end I spotted my work book club were reading a book called The Bee Season - I joined up and got the book out of my library. As it happens, it was 6 months before I attended a book group session, and the book itself turned out to be about, ahem, spelling bees.

But these aspects of a novel are often what jumps out at me. The kind of book I read, like the kind of music I listen to, falls into a certain type. High-ish brow, wordy, left-of-centre, and led primarily by character rather than plot. I should say at this point that I'm aware I'm making unsatisfactory generalisations. And yet in all these books, where we are asked to examine characters, relationships, and ideas, it's often objects and facts that stay with me. I come away from Five Boys (a book about childhood during the war) thinking about beekeeping. It's often these inconsequential things that appeal to me, and I'm aware that my subconscious obsessiveness underpins this somehow. I think... "now I must find out everything about beekeeping". That's maybe not the greatest example. Or maybe it is, because it demonstrates the arbitrariness of the whole affair.

Last night me and Vic watched University Challenge, and I was aware that, and it's not the first time I've thought this, there are a great many things that people know which I do not - particularly in the area of science, history and geography. I was wondering where people get this information. Vic pointed out, accurately I think, that one thing about this kind of knowledge is that it's very much the kind of thing one acquires in a private education, something which I didn't have. And I guess there's also a kind of person who thirsts for these things, and hangs on to them.

But it got me thinking again about the books I read and what I learn from them, and I realised that - though I have perhaps gained an insight into people and the way they (and I) think (as well as a tendency, currently much evident towards verbosity) - the books I have read have not really 'taught' me much (in the conventional sense of any better equipping me should my general knowledge be put to the test).

Those books I never listed? Among them were the kind of books (like The Da Vinci Code) which I read as time out from the 'proper stuff' - holiday reads, dumb thrillers, comedy, books about pop music; books which are lighter going, I guess. The reason these books have been on mind, I suppose, is that I've just read a couple of Michael Crichton novels - Timeline(which was mostly awful, actually) and, currently, Congo. Part of me - and this is silly - feels embarrassed about this, although I don't know why. Perhaps I really am too much of an elitist to admit that sometimes I enjoy something which does not speak from 'inside' the protagonist's (or the author's) head, but which, well, entertains. And these books do that, and I enjoy them.

And when I think about what they've given me (apart from the excitement that a thriller gives, something which is in itself more exciting than the slow pace of the latest tome by Literary X), I realise that, as an obsessive, these books are actually tremendously attractive to me, because they give me plenty of set-pieces to enthuse about.

So, the books of Michael Crichton. They haven't given me much insight into my fellow man (unless he's a gun runner from Borneo), but Jurassic Park, for all it's silliness, taught me things I never knew about DNA (and revitalised the sleeping knowledge I have of dinosaurs from when I was a kid), Timeline taught me not much about time travel but plenty about medieval villages and architecture (which I find interesting), Prey taught me about distributed computing and nanotechnology, and Congo, which I'm just about to finish, and which I've thoroughly enjoyed, contains heaps of fascinating information about the rainforests, about Africa, and about the differences between Gorillas and Chimpanzees. This is stuff I want to know about, somehow.

Now I'm getting ready to go up to the library and get a book about exploration in the African jungle. You see what I mean? It's addictive.

There are two kinds of reading, and they're both valuable. There's the kind which goes for hidden truths, insights, and strives for moments of beauty and pain. Literary fiction, if you like.

And then there's the kind which just aims to entertain (or, should we strike out into the area of non-fiction, educate), which can be maddeningly bad (not that, say, Martin Amis can't be awful too) but which works with the truths that aren't hidden at all - the kind of truths which one discovers in science, history and geography.

I've always been fairly prejudiced towards the former, and I still am. But the obsessive side of me, which likes to grasp on to something I can research, become an expert in (whether it's Italian football, Beekeeping, Geology, post-war Japan or paganism) can see the appeal of the alternative. So I'll see if I can find the list of books I've read and I'll add Congo to the list.

But why am I writing this? Because I'm in the grips of another brief moment of obsession. Email me in a month. We'll see how I feel then.

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