Making Choices

On Friday I completed what I think will be my last survey for an online market research forum into contemporary books. When I first received the email inviting me to join, I liked the idea of filling in surveys about the books I bought and read. The reality has been surprising, however.

The vast majority of questionnaires have been about supermarket books, the most mass market romance and thrillers to which I don’t pay much attention. The most persistent questions concern the covers and the blurb, as well as the endorsements that feature there. I’m not sure whether I have ever convinced the shadowy forces behind these surveys that I really do not buy books for their covers. And certainly not supermarket books whose covers are far from innovative. Time and again the questions back me into a corner. Of three dull and ordinary covers, which one do I like the best? Reluctantly, I click. And what do I like most about this cover? (Please be as detailed as possible.) I struggle to find a polite way to say: absolutely nothing, but I prefer it to the other two, which I sincerely hate. The survey presses on. Which one of these blurbs makes me most interested in reading the book? Where is the option to say I am not interested in reading this book at all, regardless of blurb or endorsement or cover? In the eighteen months or so that I’ve been responding to these questions, there have only been two surveys about literary books, one of which was about repackaging modern classics for book clubs. The rest of the time I’ve been doing what I thought was impossible – responding to questions about books in which I actually have no interest. It’s not even that I wouldn’t buy a supermarket book from time to time; it’s just that scrutiny of them reveals a sort of painful banality.

Yesterday, in the spirit of Bank Holiday spring cleaning, I decided I would finally tackle the great heap of academic books that came back from my university rooms and which have been lying for almost three years now under a throw. The hope was that they might have the vague appearance of a table, but they have never really looked like anything other than the corpse of my intellectual life. I’ve done a lot of book culling this year, and before storing what I wanted to keep in plastic containers in the loft, I knew I ought to make a serious attempt to reduce their number. When I first took the throw off it was like unveiling a time capsule, packed full of books I had completely forgotten about. I sat back on my heels, thinking how smart I would have been, had I managed to read all of them. The question now was how many to keep, which translated as: how smart did I think I would be in the future? There was an honest answer to that and an idealistic one. Which to choose?

It occurred to me that these two experiences concerned the books at the furthest ends of my reading spectrum. I’ve always really liked reading everything. I’ve never wanted to define myself by being the ‘type of person’ to read only one genre or another, high literature or low. I never wanted the possibility of a book foreclosed to me before I even knew what it was about. When I was a teenager in the 80s, I loved reading Jilly Cooper and Judith Krantz, Susan Howatch and the sort of family saga that reached a zenith with Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles at the start of the 90s. After that, there was a great phase of witty, sharply observed women’s writing, by authors like Kathy Lette, Anna Maxted, Victoria Clayton and Caro Fraser. All the time I was reading these books, I was studying Beauvoir and Proust, Camus and Sartre, Colette and Duras, Hermann Hesse, Kafka, Goethe, Barthes, Freud, Lacan, Nietzsche, Derrida. Why not? As the new millenium approached, I spent an hour a night reading children’s literature to my son and loving that, too. The more the merrier. I loved the feeling of imaginative expansion, all these ways of seeing, all these approaches to storytelling.

But in the past few years something has definitely changed. I suppose it is probably me. I decided with great reluctance to give away the pristine, untouched books I owned by Deleuze and Guattari, philosophers I barely understood when I was at the height of my intellectual curiosity. And I have to say that I don’t like a lot of the mass market fiction that’s currently being written. The Girl on the Train was its epitome (or nadir?) for me – a narcissistic narrator, a silly, overly sensational plot and badly written. It’s that flat, first person present tense narration that I truly hate, all cliché and ultra-conventional emotions laid out as if they were insightful. I find myself much more drawn towards Dorothy Whipple, Angela Thirkell and Barbara Pym for my essential comfort reading, as all three can turn an exquisite and characterful sentence.

In one way it’s sensible to focus in on the authors that I appreciate the most. However much I want to read everything, I don’t have the time for it. And I seem less able to tolerate the styles of writing that displease me; I’m more critical than I used to be, and I’m not at all convinced it’s a good thing. I’ve never thought that the greatest powers of discernment when it came to books had anything to do with value judgement. Instead, I valued elasticity, the ability to look at any book on its own terms, and engage with what it was doing and how it was doing it. But my tastes are narrowing. However much I don’t want to make choices in my reading life, I seem to be making them anyway.

Maybe for that reason, I found I couldn’t give away many of my academic books. Instead I sorted them into different areas of criticism and theory, packed them into storage containers and let Mr Litlove struggle under their vast weight to the loft. In all honesty, I’m not getting any smarter. But I decided I’d keep the hope that one day, it might happen.





41 thoughts on “Making Choices

  1. Covers seem to be some sort of acid test for many readers but I really don’t care too much at all about what they look like and as for the “blurbs”, I absolutely wish they would disappear entirely! I agree that it is potentially a bad idea to limit ones reading to authors one loves however it is also a bad idea to read (too many) books that make you grind your teeth too! Interesting that you think that reading makes you smart (also interesting that you don’t recognise just how smart you actually are!).

    Sometimes ditching the corpse can be a good idea.

    • Dear Dark Puss, aren’t the majority of blurbs dreadful? I couldn’t agree more! And also that the ideal would be to find that comfortable middle path between too much familiarity and too much teeth-grinding (something I do indeed hope to avoid). I did smile at the idea of ditching the corpse – aren’t there laws against that? 😉 And you are very kind to think me smart – I certainly was, though I’m not so sure about nowadays!

  2. I can’t bear to part with any of my college books, even though I hated college. Their existence reminds me of someone I thought I’d be, once…and although in my own case, I don’t want to be that person, there’s a kind of…comfort? Anchor? Something like that, in keeping the books.

    I too have become very fussy about what I will read for comfort/pleasure, and I find that I return again and again to books I read before I was twenty. I was a quirky kid, so my comfort reading is Iris Murdoch, Mervyn Peake, Robertson Davies, Patrick White, Wilkie Collins…and volumes of collected comic strips, which defined my growing-up years in the way that no other popular culture did.

    • You remind me of something I think Nick Hornby said, that every book we have ever owned is a part of our mental life, whether we read it or not, liked it or not, wanted it or not. I think you put your finger on it – there’s a version of me attached to those books that I don’t want to get rid of, not yet. You also remind me that I really must read Robertson Davies and Patrick White. I can imagine Wilkie Collins being very comforting, and the Murdoch I read in my late teens made a strong impression on me. I think they’re great choices.

  3. I think I’ve been completing the same surveys as you (I was seduced by the idea of winning books, which I accept is really unlikely!) Trouble is, the books they ask about are such pap that I’m starting to get very snarky in my responses. I think they may well ask me to leave soon….

    I find as I get older I’m getting much, much pickier about what I read. I have less time left to read books so I’m not going to waste it on a light and pointless volume – if I want comfort reading it will most probably be crime, but apart from that I want to read things I will enjoy and things of substance. i think you were right to keep the course books….

    • I was seduced by the idea of winning those books, too! And of course, not a dicky bird in all this time. I am very comforted to think you have had the exact same experience as me! Also, yes, we feel very much alike when it comes to our reading. I do also feel that I don’t have the time left to waste on books that I’m not sure I’m going to enjoy. That sounds like an excellent formula you’ve hit on – books to enjoy and books of substance. I like that.

  4. If you have room, keep the books. I now regret jettisoning a lot of my past reading, including textbooks…but a cross-country move and tiny living spaces made it impossible to hang onto them without buying storage. I still have a plentiful supply of books I haven’t read yet, though.

    • See, this has happened to me – I throw a few books out and next thing I know, I want to consult one of them. At the moment the floor of our loft space is holding out, but there as in the rest of the house, I’ll reach capacity eventually (and in the not too distant future). You’re not alone in having a fair amount still to read! 🙂

  5. Glorious post, Victoria! I love the idea of your books under a throw looking vaguely like a table… and I wish you could have brought yourself to be bitterly sarcastic when filling out those surveys.

    Also, although only in passing, an intriguing comment on The Girl on the Train. I was getting tempted to give it a go, after hearing positive things, despite it not being my cup of tea. I’m glad now that the temptation never materialised into anything else.

    • In some ways I wish I hadn’t put you off, as I can envisage the review you’d write of The Girl on the Train, and I don’t doubt it would be most amusing! But the writing style is just ghastly – do have a look at it when you’re next in a bookshop. I’d love to know what you think. Thank you for your lovely comment! I did once manage to make four piles of historical fiction novels into a sort of table, but the academic books were too unruly. Which figures.

  6. I never accept doing surveys because you’re not allowed to skip questions. I don’t buy books in supermarkets as that doesn’t exist here, but I’m like a good cover and title. It doesn’t make me buy a book but it can draw my attention. The opposite has happened. I’ve not bought books because of their covers,
    Like you I’ve kept most of my academic books, Deleuze et al. and always think I might read them one day. It’s possible. I’ll let go of other books first.

    • It IS possible, isn’t it? You never know. And yes, I agree that a bad cover can put you off under certain circumstances, and I was horrified to hear of publishers using white faces on books about non-white races. I would have been able to answer a question on that if they’d asked me!

  7. Very enjoyable post! I do have a bugbear about jackets which springs from a decade of bookselling – if I read a book which has been ill served by its jacket I know that its unlikely to reach the readers it deserves which saddens me, both for the writer and for the many readers who might have enjoyed it.

    As for keeping books, the only ones that make it onto my full to bursting shelves these days are the ones I think will be worth rereading. Which brings me to the contents of my (academic) partner’s office – all four walls lined with books, apparently. Time marches on but retirement is some way from the horizon so we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it!

    • Yes, you’re right. I don’t like it when the cover misrepresents the book, particularly when it dumbs down something that is perfectly accessible, just a little more literary than chick-lit. It’s true that issues of space here are making me cull more these past few years than I ever have before, and I’m happier to pass on review copies than books I’ve decided on and bought myself. Somehow the pot luck element means I don’t attach to them so tightly!

  8. Great post, Victoria – full of interesting reflections. I think my tastes in reading have changed a great deal over the years, and I can identify certain phases that were linked to particular periods of my life. (For instance, a penchant for Agatha Christie in my teenage years to counterbalance those ‘serious’ classics I had to read for school.) A little like Karen, I feel I’m getting more selective when it comes to reading choices these days. I feel I’ve missed out on many wonderful modern classics over the years and there’s only a limited amount of time left to plug the gaps. Penelope Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Didion, Patrick Hamilton, Ross Macdonald…these are the kinds of authors calling me right now. Who knows, things may be completely different in five years time!

    • And those are wonderful authors you name. I do know what you mean; it seems more imperative to fill in the gaps (particularly with modern classics which I love) than read yet another book like so many others I’ve read before. And reading does go in stages, I agree. Though I will still willingly reread Agatha Christie when I want something I don’t have to chew!

  9. I think it is a good idea to be more critical (I also think it’s a function of being older – although you’re far younger than me!) because it makes a truly good book, when it comes along, a real treat. (I think that makes sense … .) We went to see the new Far From the Madding Crowd last night and I thought it embarrasingly bad … mostly because my critical faculties are far more highly honed than they were in 1967 (I can’t believe it was that long ago) … but I like the ability I think I now have to discriminate, see clearly and say why I think a piece works or doesn’t.

    • I have seen that film go past on the side of a bus lately and I wondered if it was any good. Thank you for the warning! I like the idea of exerting critical faculties in the spirit of honoring the best books… that’s a very positive way of looking at it. And very useful too, as I am definitely more critical and yet unsure about the value of value judgements. I always want to build something positive and that is a good way of doing so!

  10. Although I have undress of books in the attic I now jettison with gay abandon and only ask for loved ones to be returned. Pap has its places but interrogation of pap attraction is, I think, one slippery step too far.

    Utterly agree about ‘narcissist on a train’.

    I met Judith Krantz, sunbathing at the Hotel Bel Air, many many moons ago. I told her I liked her stories. She told me she liked my swimsuit.

    • Too true, Mrs C! Enough already with the interrogation of pap attraction. That is absolutely putting your finger on my problem. I also laughed a lot about ‘narcissist on a train’, ho! I will be calling it that from now on. And I’m sorry but I had to leave undress as it also gave me such a lovely giggle. If it’s any consolation, you make the best Freudian slips. I should think a compliment on your swimsuit from Judith Krantz more than restores your stars for being cool.

  11. I similarly gave up on the surveys and was also seduced by the prospect of free books (although nothing ever materialised…) I found both the questions and book choices so out of alignment with what I actually read that I thought my comments weren’t probably of any use to them!

  12. I got rid of half of my uni books this weekend as well – also in the spirit of spring cleaning. I think, as you have, I would have kept some had I the space. A few of the philosophy ones I keep saying I’ll come back to, I’ve still got some Nietzsche on my shelf I really should part with…

    But, hurrah for Spring cleaning, and I don’t think this lessens the span of which you enjoy reading. 🙂

    • Nietzsche’s sort of hard to let go, isn’t he? He clings. But the spring cleaning has its rules, too, and must be obeyed. I can’t quite bring myself to the kindle solution yet, though I know I’m reaching capacity in my house, too. Still, I will pack them in while I can! Thank you for the lovely comment.

  13. Just hearing about those surveys makes me feel depressed.
    I suspect that the world of academia is set up to make many feel like losers and very few like winners. Do you feel that the ideas you explore now, outside academia, and the words that you write are more or less relevant/effective?

    • Ooh that’s an interesting question. Umm, I find the ideas I work with now less powerful and they feel less enlightening, though that may be because I don’t have to fight so hard to reach them and grasp them. Sometimes the battle can give a distorted impression of the outcome, I think. And in an odd way, I think I’m less effective as a writer. But I find all sorts of solace in the expression of simple, truthful things and if I’m trying to cultivate anything at the moment, it’s the art of suggestion, which I admire a lot in other writers. Thank you for asking me that – it was extremely useful to think about.

  14. I read something once that helped me so much with book purges (and all kinds of stuff purges really!). This woman said that she used to treat her stuff like she was a Barbie, and all she’d have to do to become a different kind of person (like a person who did crafts or a person who played clarinet) was buy the accessories, and boom, that’s who she would be. But that is not how people actually work. When I am doing purges, that’s what I try to ask myself — are you keeping this because it jives with an identity you want to have of yourself, or because you actually want this and will use it? (And then a firm subsidiary, If you have not used it in the last [time range], you probably will not miss it so OUT IT GOES.)

    (I am very fearful of becoming a hoarder.)

    • That is a very good strategy, Jenny, and an effective one I imagine. I will definitely say to myself: am I being a Barbie? when I next come to cull the shelves. Heh, it amuses me already. Clearly you are not going to become a hoarder, though I still fear I might. I definitely have that tendency!

  15. Bookman somehow got started doing consumer surveys a number of years ago. Every few months he gets one in the mail with a $5 bill enclosed as incentive. It asks about what he thinks of sports channels and news networks (he doesn’t like sports and we don’t have a TV), They want to know about whether or not he recognizes certain brand names and what he thinks of them and how often he buys them. That sort of thing. I am afraid he/we are very disappointing to the marketers looking at the responses. So it’s pretty funny about your book survey experience!

    As for sorting through your books, that’s always hard especially when they represent a visual aspect of your life. When the ceiling below the loft begins to bow out, you might want to consider emptying a few bins 😉

    • Lol! Yes, I’ll keep an eye on the ceiling joists, check they’re not sagging! 🙂 See, at least Bookman had the nouse to sign up for surveys that always send him $5. I fear what I would agree to do for that amount of money!

  16. Surveys can be addictive – I just did one for IPSOS Mori in which I had to complete a chart of what I did for each half an hour that I was awake. I didn’t cheat either, but did fill in the slots in batches – was it worth it for the £25 Amazon voucher I got – No! Having said that I just won a set of William Maxwell books from Vintage classics for answering 4 questions – which were interesting as I had to look up the answers – and a lovely prize.

    Only keep the textbooks if you have room. I will hang onto the three I have left for a while – just until I know whether Juliet may do something chemical at uni… My book purges are going to go up a notch – if I’m going to downsize and buy that bookshop …

    • Yes, but Annabel, you are also very good at actually winning books, too. That makes it worth your while to enter these things (and I shudder to think what I would agree to do for a £25 amazon token; I would be way too keen). At the moment, the floor of the loft is holding out, so I can store books there for a while. Now you just have to take that time management chart and apply it to your bookshop project and I would put that amazon token on you being ready for your bookshop in no time at all! 🙂

  17. These surveys are for the good of capitalism not books. In essence it’s find the denominator and sell the product – no matter what it is! Don’t underplay your intelligence, because it’s very demoralising for those like myself who are many notches below you, based on your wonderful blogs here. Anyway at least I’m no longer under the misapprehension that Deleuze and Guattari are cities in some distant tropical state. Getting rid of books is a serious affliction. It hurts to cast them away and it hurts to keep them when you feel time bearing down on you. I like the middle way – keep them but hide it from everyone, especially yourself.

    • Heh, that is a truly excellent solution. I will do my best to turn a blind eye to my hoarding; I think I’m capable of that! As for the surveys, ach, you are so right. I am not the denominator they are looking for. You did make me laugh about D & G, and ahem ‘those like myself who are many notches below you’ – pot calling kettle black, dear friend! 😉 Let us just say we are both delightfully modest.

  18. I sincerely hope that you received some small (really you deserve a big one) compensation for all the moments of reading you gave up to take those surveys. Surely this will cut down your time in purgatory and send you to heaven all that much sooner….. I like to play this little game when I go to the supermarket (and I am actually being honest here–I really do do this)–I will look at the racks of mass market books and pretend that there is some weather emergency and we must all stay in the store and so being a captive audience which book would I pull to read and pass the time. I cannot tell you how difficult it is. I pick up a book read the first line of the blurb, nope, nope, nope, nope–it only takes one line (since as you note the cover illustration is generally the least appealing aspect of the book)–the worst are the ones that have a full black cover photo of the author and tell nothing of the story–so sure is the author or publisher that the writer’s fans could care less what the book is about–they will just buy it irregardless…and maybe that’s true? What is it with mass market books–the stories (and covers) are all so samey—which I am sure you know. I move on to the romances since I am often in the market for a good (smart) romance (but ALWAYS come away empty handed) and then get downright depressed. Surely this is not it? Well, I always end up figuring the time spent stuck in the store might be better used sleeping. If there is one book that I could salvage from the racks it is inevitably the one book I have already read–often a re-jacketed classic–Lord of the Flies being a particular summertime favorite over here. So I had a chuckle over your post–especially like the visual of a corpse those books made! 😉 I think you are much safer keeping the academic books-I think there is actually something there you could go back to. And Girl on the Train has almost ruined me for stories set on trains and most suspense novels since now they are all in that same vein hoping for the same success. Since apparently in the publishing world being creative and telling a New or Different story is not the thing to do! (And I am totally with you on your favorite authors–that are keepers). Sorry–this has turned out way too long but I have thought about all this a few times before as well…..

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