I was in a book shop last week and managed to resist buying any more books. That is probably a first for me, but I’m trying to be mindful of the two shelves of books waiting to be read (that is of course forgetting all the books which have now been shelved elsewhere in the house, unread). I was cheered by a comment from AA Gill that everywhere else in the world, literate people have a list of books they have read, it’s only the English (I am sure he meant British) who have a list of books they haven’t read.
I resolve not to beat myself up for never having read anything Russian apart from Solzhenitsyn, not having read Proust, or Chaucer, or any of the other worthies t I probably should have read and now probably never will.
However I’m constantly surprised by the fact that worthy books are often better than we think they will be. A book club I used to belong to insisted on reading Dickens; the book selected was Bleak House (this was before the marvellous TV adaptation). I found myself 400 pages in and still struggling to get interested, but had to keep going because it was for the book club, and then suddenly I found I could not put it down and the last 500 pages fairly raced by. Fantastic.
Generally though, I think it is a mistake to rely on TV adaptations to inform you about a book. I have seen at least three versions of Oliver Twist, but only the extended version first shown Christmas 2007 really gripped me, with all its extra characters and layers, and now I am determined to read the original.
Dickens breaks all the rules for writing. He relies on coincidence far too often, his nice characters are impossibly nice, especially given their backgrounds, but to be fair he was writing pre Freud and perhaps did not know that a neglected and abused child is unlikely to grow up into an unselfish, brave and self sufficient citizen, but is far more likely to turn into a psychopath. His names are weird and wonderful, utterly unbelievable, but entirely lovable. His characters are often larger than life, almost caricatures, and I wonder whether we could not learn from this as writers? Perhaps the best, most memorable characters are those who almost could not be real?
(first published January 2008)
Later comment: The bookshop in question was Borders, whose loss is much lamented. Those afternoons lost inside towering shelf stacks, the tempting aroma of Starbucks coffee wafting down to me as a promise of a sit down to read after my purse was emptied! And I still haven’t read Oliver Twist. Perhaps the greatest irony is that Amazon, which was probably responsible for the demise of Borders, has now produced the Kindle, onto which you can download most of the great classics for free….