We still seem to be in a period where everything is unnecessarily fraught. This week my attempts to write another biographical essay have been undermined by getting mad at my son for staying up too late at night texting his girlfriend. We now have a new agreement in place for his bedtime, but oh I loathe conflict so much; it makes me feel properly ill. So, given I have not finished a book, I thought you might like to hear about what Mr Litlove’s been reading lately. There’s been quite a lot of it.
He was given quite a few books for Christmas, and wasted no time in consuming them. He began with The Craftsman by Richard Sennett, a curious mixture of philosophy and real world examples exploring the idea of craftsmanship as ‘the desire to do a job well for its own sake’. The reviews on amazon had been very mixed for this book but he felt interested in reading it anyway. However, the issue with the book you can see for yourself, right there in that oddly bland and limitless definition of what the practice of craft might be about. If pressed, I’d say it had something to do with creating materially pleasing or useful artefacts with one’s hands. But every time Mr Litlove put his head up from the book to tell me about what he was reading, he was talking about the NHS or playing jazz piano or working in a laboratory. ‘What’s that got to do with craft?’ I kept asking, and Mr Litlove was never sure. Afterwards, he was glad he’d read it, but not convinced he liked it.
After that he moved onto Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, Reamde. Mr Litlove often surprises me by the amount of pages he can consume. He is a fast reader who is not afraid to skip, interested in plot more than in language and able to read solidly for far longer than I can. By the time he got to Reamde, he’d developed a cold, and so he spent the next four days working through its 1,000 pages, barely moving a muscle. He was so still it was as if we’d had him stuffed. When I asked what the plot was about, he said it concerned an ex-drug runner turned computer game designer who had designed a wildly successful online role playing game. Only the game had been targeted by Chinese virus writers, and the virus had in turn had impounded the files of the Russian mafia, who happened to be living in the same house as a Welsh, black, Muslim extremist.
Well, I guess if you have 1,000 pages to fill, you have to be inventive. All I can say is that we didn’t get a peep out of him until the book was finished.
Altogether more recognisable as a novel was Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, a book that seems to have garnered a fair amount of media attention. Harold Fry lives a life of quiet desperation. When he receives a letter from a friend who is dying, he knows he has to write back but struggles to find an adequate reply. Rather than posting the letter, he surprises himself by setting off to walk to her, a long, long journey over the course of which he will meet many people who have their own stories to tell him. Mr Litlove really enjoyed this one, and it even brought a little tear to his eye. It was, of course, a very manly tear, and we will not mention it again.
Then he read Quirkology by Richard Wiseman, which is basically a psychology book that takes really odd facts and offbeat topics and explores them with ‘scientific methods’. Mr Litlove showed me the epilogue, where the author had listed the 10 factoids that his friends had voted the most likely to enliven conversation at an otherwise dull dinner party. Like, for instance, women’s personal ads attract more attention if they are written by men, but this is not the case when women write ads for men. And people would rather wear a sweater that has been dropped in dog faeces and not washed than one dry-cleaned but last worn by a mass murderer. Oh academia, is this what you have been reduced to by the demands of groupthink? Anyway, I’m sure it’s all very jolly really, though I can’t say that I have prised anything like an opinion about it out of my husband.
A couple of days ago a new book arrived in the post for me. Mr Litlove had contrived by pure chance to be there, as he always is when my sinful cheeky online purchases arrive, and he commandeered this one. It was The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz, a series of brief essays surrounding ephiphanies that occurred in therapy sessions, the distilled wisdom of 25 years Grosz had spent as a practising psychoanalyst. Instantly, he settled down with it. ‘Do you mind?’ I complained. ‘I quite like to read my own books first.’ ‘Mmm,’ said Mr Litlove, ‘and you’ll enjoy this one when you get around to it; it’s very good.’ Now, I realise I may be petty but where else can this be indulged except in one’s marriage? ‘Fine,’ I said. ‘The next woodworking tool that arrives in the post for you I will look forward to trying out myself first.’ Mr Litlove did not care for this deal and put my lovely new copy of The Examined Life down. But there was much grizzling subsequently about ‘that book you wouldn’t let me read’ and so inevitably I relented and he zipped through it in about 24 hours.
I realised this must have been a very good book as he began it at the beginning and read through to the end. There’s this odd thing he does when review books or research books arrive on the kitchen table: he picks them up and starts in the middle. My Inner Librarian is horrified but Mr Litlove is wholly unrepentant. ‘I get through a lot more of your books than you do,’ he often tells me. And this is true. But when I read them, I remember a lot more about them than he does. After nineteen years of marriage we have now learned how to use this efficiently. From his useful initial screening, I figure out which of the books are worth reading in their entirety, and when he remembers half an anecdote from one of them, or half a theory, I can be relied upon to supply the rest. There’s a reason why opposites attract!