Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Reading Patterns


I sometimes wish I had kept a record of all the books I have read in my lifetime. What would the total be? I can't even guess. Having said that, my reading pattern actually resembles a low frequency sine-wave. I started reading "adult" literature when I was 10 years old. My first proper novel was The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. Then I read The Time Machine, The Island of Dr Moreau and The First Men in the Moon. I adored the first three but I didn't understand the fourth, so I stopped reading "Literature".

Before discovering H.G. Wells I had mostly read comics (Whizzer & Chips, Marvel, 2000AD) or Dr Who novelisations (the first one I tackled was Doctor Who and the Cybermen by Gerry Davis). I also enjoyed various SF film "tie-ins" (Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Alien) but there was a surprise in store for me: the "tie-in" of the Rollerball film turned out to be a short story collection by a writer called William Harrison; I enjoyed the title story and found the other tales bewildering, disturbing and fascinating; they were among the first adult short stories I ever read.

When I was 14 I went back to "Literature". I read Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. I enjoyed it so much that I decided that "Literature" wasn't such a daunting thing at all; and the whole pantheon of Great Works throughout History was suddenly available to me. I immediately plunged into War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, followed by Homer's The Iliad and its "sequel" The Odyssey (I bought the third "sequel", The Aeneid by Virgil, but have still never read it). I had no idea that to claim to have read such works at that young age would later be considered "pretentious" by my future critics. So I persisted in reading Tolstoy, Kafka, Voltaire, Cervantes and many others.

In the following decade I surely read hundreds of books, but then I ran out of steam in my mid 20s. By the time I turned 30 I was barely reading any fiction. Indeed, I recall that during the whole of the year 1996 I read a total of one novel (The Assignment by Friedrich D├╝rrenmatt). My zest for reading didn't really return until 2001. It was a Dunsany novel (The Chronicles of Rodriguez) that re-opened the floodgates. Since then I have averaged a novel every two weeks. But clearly there's a pattern going on, a pattern with a period of 10 years. It seems to work like this: 10 years of frantic reading, followed by 10 years of barely reading anything, followed by another 10 years of frantic reading...

If it turns out that the wavelength of this sine-wave is constant (it might not be; I might have an "FM" personality) then I should now be coming to the end of my new frantic period. Next year should see my reading rate dropping off. I can but wait and see. In the meantime here are pictures of the three most recent books I've read... All three authors have been a big influence on me, especially Calvino, who is probably my favourite ever writer.

One thing about my reading patterns that I need to change is the way I tend to read more than one book at the same time. Simultaneously reading is fine if the books are radically different from each other, with their own distinctive rhythms. Unfortunately I seem to have got into a situation where I am currently reading 10 books with overlapping themes and concerns. This is proving to be a difficult management task: I need to reduce my reading to a sensible level. How I yearn for those more innocent days when I only read one book at a time! I have a plan to return my reading life to that condition -- I am only allowed to start reading one new book after I have finished two from the pile I'm currently tackling. This way the grand total should slowly go down. That's the idea anyway!

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