Delaying the inevitable

September 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

So, it’s ten days since NW arrived. I’ve picked it up, left it out on the table to admire, opened the covers and looked inside for no more than a second at a time, and even almost killed myself by stepping on it on the stairs in the dark. What I haven’t done is read it.

It’s a strange thing, anticipation. I’ve been waiting for this book for a long time. I think it was about a year ago that my obsessive googling of Zadie Smith revealed that she had a new novel coming out. I didn’t really like White Teeth, and barely got anywhere in The Autograph Man, but I love her non-fiction, so I’ve been desperate to get my hands on this book.

But instead of reading it, I’ve been picking up books from the Booker Prize, the Giller Prize, and a few other random ones. In other words, instead of reading the book I really want to read, I’ve been choosing to read things I don’t particularly want to read.

The best two of my recent reads (coincidentally the two books I have particularly wanted to get to for ages, but have been putting off like the Smith while clearing some of the other debris) were Heather Birrell’s short story collection Mad Hope and Stop What You’re Doing and Read This!, a collection of essays, ruminations and reminiscences on the act of reading.

Mad Hope (done with nice paper and a pleasing font by Coach House Books) is Canadian Heather Birrell’s second collection. She’s a perceptive, precise writer who catches the moments of pain along with the snippets of joy and wraps the lot up in astute portraits of people and lives. The stories are inventive without (hurray!) using idiosyncracies–either of behaviour or settings–to add interest to a tale that otherwise is pretty feeble (something I find is a common fault in short stories).

I wish I was doing this collection justice with a proper review, but for now it will have to do that, in my opinion, this (along with Carrie Snyder’s The Juliet Stories and Anakana Schofield’s Malarky) should have been on the Giller longlist instead of quite so many of the usual Giller-bait historico-mysterio-Canadian-mosaic sagas. (I say this on the totally informed basis of being partway through one of the books on the longlist, having read none of the others as yet–but plenty of the covers tell me I’m not wrong.)

Stop What You’re Doing and Read This! is an odd duck. The ten essays are almost all intelligent, interesting, thought-provoking and enjoyable. What they don’t have is a coherent audience in mind. Some are a conversation with equally bookish readers; some are exhortations to the massive numbers of people who don’t read (the UK figures quoted in the introduction say that one in three teenagers reads two or fewer books per year). The introduction calls the book a manifesto, with essays that “aim to convince you to make reading a part of your daily life.” All right, but I’m already convinced, and so, surely, is every other likely reader of this collection. I can sort of see why Vintage might have wanted to market the book this way, but an essay collection with such high-calibre writers all discussing the art of reading would be an easy sell, no?

The essays themselves are good. My favourite Smith opens the collection with her personal-political take on the importance of libraries. Earlier this year her piece in defence of Willesden library became one of the hottest things on the web (after Katie Holmes and Prince Harry, obviously). Other high-cachet contributors include Mark Haddon, Blake Morrison and Michael Rosen. All fascinating, all charming pieces. I particularly liked Jane Davis’s essay about reading out loud and reading in institutions. Quibbles over title and marketing aside, this is a great little volume.

Two bright spots among an expanse of greyish worthiness. So why do I do it? Why not pick up Zadie Smith, read it, and trust that something else good will come along? I don’t believe in keeping special dishes for visitors or wearing old rags for gardening. But the fact remains that the books that stay on my shelf the longest (apart from the worthy mistakes that I’ll never pick up) are the ones I most want to read. Whatever the reason, I think I’ll hoard NW for just a little longer. Once I start reading, I might be disappointed. Once I start reading, I will definitely not have Zadie Smith’s new book in the TBR pile. And that will be the biggest disappointment of all.

(c) All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content, except comments by others, copyright JC Sutcliffe.

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