Wednesday, June 15, 2005

books meme

Yay, Andrew BB has invited me to do the book meme which is doing the rounds at the moment... OK, here goes.

Total Number Of Books I've Owned.

I really don't know – lots. At the moment I reckon there are about four or five hundred in the flat, about which half are mine and half are Vic's. We've sold an average of about a hundred a year for the last three or four years, so we must have had a thousand between us in the last five years or so. And I had at least as many books when I was a kid and a teenager, a great deal of them unread (I was and am a compulsive charity shop book-buyer). So I reckon I've personally owned about, oh, 1500 books or so. Could be a lot more or a bit less I suppose.

The Last Book I Bought

Two at the same time; Marina Lewyka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, and Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go – the first of which I have read and the second I have not yet. Both were bought in Gatwick airport as expensive 'airport editions' during a moment's last minute panic-buying – and despite the fact that I already had about four books in my bag for a meagre week's holiday.

The Last Book I Read

Justin Cartwright's The Promise of Happiness, which depicts a scattered family on the brink of a reunion; it's a pleasing, unsentimental story about goodness, disappointment and frustration; it feels like a bright, timely story.

Five Books That Mean a Lot To Me.

1. Martin Amis's Money is the book which had the most profound impact on me when I was a younger and slightly more voracious reader; it seemed then to represent writing at it's most bold and irrepressible, unassailably confident and rich, and with a savage, hilarious satirical streak. It was the first book I read which really united my interest in politics with my love of writing – not because it is a political book, but because it is a book which could not have existed without the politics of the 1980s – reading it I felt for the first time that I really understood the context of something beautiful and profound. It's still the first book I reach for if I want dazzling writing.

2. The slow decline of quality in the writing of Salman Rushdie (and, indeed, in Martin Amis) came as a massive disappointment to me when I thought, five or six years ago, that I'd found the two authors who would always stay with me. The Moor’s Last Sigh is the Rushdie book I loved the most; absolutely epic and full to burst with wonderful ideas about painting, cartography, authenticity and religion. It's probably not his best book, nor the one I've re-read most, but it's the one I remember fondly as a book whose world – from Moorish Spain to India - I inhahabited totally when I read it first.

3. Good Morning, Midnight, by Jean Rhys, gave me a real shock when I stumbled across it at University. It’s a slim, sombre novel about a woman who – alone in Paris after the breakdown of her marriage and the death of her child – does nothing but wander the streets of the city, drunk and alone, trying to put back together her life. It was a novel which left a lingering feeling that I had been punched in the gut, and a massive surprise to me at the time, when I was absorbed with writing by Amis, Bellow and Updike.

4. I read several Jean Rhys books, with mounting horror, and then went back to my old white guys – more Bellow, Philip Roth, the absurdly youthful (by their standards) Julian Barnes. Then I left university and went on reading these weighty, serious books, until one day I picked up A Summer Bird Cage, by Margaret Drabble. Short, precise, bright, eloquent and articulate, it was like a re-discovering of what I had liked best in Jean Rhys. A Summer Bird Cage – and the two books I read at the same time, AS Byatt's The Game and Iris Murdoch's The Bell – changed my whole understanding about writing, which until then (I had forgotten about Jean Rhys) had all been about expressing the arcane and the beautiful. Writing about the mundane and the ordinary seemed utterly nonsensical to me, until I read these.

5. I think the older you get the harder it is to find books which really mean something to you; it's much less likely that you'll find 'your author' as you get past your teens and early twenties, because it's in those years that the impression art and music make on you is the greatest. But my mid-twenties did mean discovering Pamela Hansford Johnson, who is a rather old-fashioned writer, not a million miles from Margaret Drabble, perhaps. But a volley of her books, 'The Holiday Friend', 'An Error of Judgment' and, particularly, 'The Humbler Creation', read in quick succession a year or two ago, completely blew me away; her novels deal with one or two characters in a very normal situation where one, usually the man, makes a very small decision which impacts in significant ways. The novels are not expansive or showy, nor particularly gripping. But they are incredibly even, detailed, realistic works which transmit an almost philosophical brilliance to me. So I found my favourite writer a good way into my twenties, after all.

I have to pick five people to take this challenge onwards now; so I’ll go for Assistant Pete, Vik Blackwell (who has been quiet for a while now but will hopefully get going on her blog again soon), Quin, Pete Ashton and Dan, once he gets blogging…

Obviously if any of them don't like these meme things, or have already done them, they should just ignore me, or send me a rude message.


Pete Ashton said...

Mine's up

Bloggers4Labour said...

Great - thought the meme was dying on its feet but you seem to have breathed some life into it!

Shame all my own books were so silly :-)