Types of Readers

The Atlantic had an on-line article 31/8/2012 which i found both interesting an humorous.  It listed the types of book readers.  Lest you conclude that this is a definitive list, I can assure you that there are as many different lists as there are book enthusiasts who like to categorise complicated subjects.

Here is an abbreviated sample of The Atlantic’s list:

The Book Snob. You are hard to impress. You only read books that are well reviewed by critics that you have determined to be of the highest caliber. You would never stoop to read something on a best-seller list, or something sold in a discount department store, or something NOT GOOD. Paperbacks offend you; you only touch hardcover—preferably, award-winning in some form or fashion. 

The Hopelessly Devoted. You stick to the authors you like, and you read them, pretty much exclusively, whatever they write, good or bad, regardless of reviews or the opinions of your friends or family. Everyone knows what to get you for your birthday or holidays. You are a true fan, and have been known to stand in line for a book signing from your BWF (Best Writer Forever)..

The Audiobook Listener. So, ya like audiobooks? That’s cool. There’s a place for you, person whose ears are essentially eyes. Not that we understand, exactly, but, hey, different strokes for different folks.

The Conscientious Reader. It’s nonfiction or nothing for you, reader! It should have a purpose, too, and be meaningful. You should learn something. There should be ideals! If it’s just fun, you can read it on the Internet, in your humble opinion. You like reporting, true tales, and journalism.

The Critic. Yes, it is easier for you to hate than to love, but when you love, you love deeply and in the most eloquent of fashions. It’s not a book if you don’t discourse about it, and so, discourse you shall! No one can stop you. You allude to metaphors and figurative language and concepts and conceits and plot points in daily conversations. You adore a spectacular conclusion as much as you do a foreword and an afterword. But especially, you love something that you can sink your teeth into and discuss. But only with those of a similar intellectual bent. You find book clubs too “mainstream.”

The Book Swagger. You’re the one wandering around book conventions with that acquisitive gleam in your eye and a pile of ARCs in your tote bag. If it’s free, you’ll take it, and even if it’s not, you’ll try to get it for free. Whether you read all this swag or not is really of little consequence. It’s not that you don’t love books, you do. But you also really, really love getting to see them before anybody else. And for free!

The Easily Influenced Reader. If someone says it, they must be right! You listen to everyone, from your mom to Oprah to the members of your book club to Michiko Kakutani, and you believe them all! There are so many books for you to read, you better get started. Don’t worry, you already know how to feel about the books you will read. You enjoy reading in group settings.

The Compulsive/Voracious/Anything Goes Reader. Wherever you go, whatever you do, there’s a book with you. It doesn’t matter what it is, really, so long as there are pages with words on them, or an e-reader with words on it. We can’t really suggested anything here because you took it with you to the grocery store or subway or library or laundromat or coffee shop, and you’re standing in line or sitting down and reading it right now.

The Sharer. You read something you like and you simply will not stop talking about it; you tell everyone you know, and you will not give up until they read it too. And then you want to talk about it.  If you are one of these, sometimes you loan people books, too, and that is a good quality. We like you, book sharer. We really, really do. You’re a giver, not a taker.

The Re-Reader. You know what you like, and instead of branching out and possibly finding something new that you don’t like, you focus on what you do. You read the same books over and over again, returning to them as if they’re old friends, which, pretty much, they are. Your book-reading motto is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The Hate Reader. Oh, you. You pretend to be curmudgeonly, you do, but you really just devour the reading you do in a different way. You’re loving it nearly much as you’re hating it, even as you complain the author can’t put two sentences together properly or that the book is dragging hopelessly in the middle and what kind of plot twist is that, even? An elephant in Act 3? These characters are so poorly drawn as to be comical! You call that a conclusion? Vampires, really? If you are a hate reader you will finish each hate read down to its very last word, and you may well close the covers and toss the volume across the room, but you will do it with a great, secret frisson of satisfaction because it feels so good. You may be an aspiring, disgruntled novelist yourself.

Delayed Onset Reader. You are without a doubt a book lover, and when you walk into a bookstore or any place books are available, you can’t help yourself, you buy one or many. When you get home you put them aside, often reverently, as if they were art, displaying them on a bookshelf or propping them up on your bedside table, pages ready to meet your eyes as soon as you have the moment. But you’re very, very busy, and days, weeks, or months may go by before you actually crack open one of these books. It’s not for lack of trying! When you finally do, you will be overjoyed by all the learning and emotional depth and humor and writing quality that exists in this book that’s been sitting within reach all along, and you will be amazed that you waited so long to ever open it.

The Multi-Tasker. This is the nice way of saying you are a promiscuous reader, but it’s not that you don’t finish reads. Instead, you just have a sort of hippie reading way about you, free love or some such. You might start the day out with a few pages from one novelist, then read something entirely different on the subway, and when you come home from work, another work as well. Your bedtime read, too, might be different, and all in all, when you count up the books, you’ve got quite a lot of irons in the fire all at the same time. Do you confuse characters or plots? Do you give more attention to some books than to others? Perhaps. The point is, you’re not ready for a book commitment just yet, and you’re doing a brilliant job dating them all in the meantime.

 

 

Review: Daemon Voices

Daemon Voices by Philip Pullman, master storyteller, attracted my attention because it is  collection of essays on storytelling.  I thought is might include some tips from an expert.  The book, when it arrived from Amazon turned out to be a hard cover edition of 460 velum pages.  The essays are mostly presentations given at various literary events, and compiled by Simon Mason, who writes for adults and children and his fictional works have won and been shortlisted for literary prizes.

Wikipedia says this about Philip Pullman: “Philip Pullman, CBE, and fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (born 19 October 1946) is an English novelist. He is the author of several best-selling books, including the fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials and a fictionalised biography of Jesus, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. In 2008, The Times named Pullman one of the “50 greatest British writers since 1945”.  In a 2004 poll for the BBC, Pullman was named the eleventh most influential person in British culture.

Philip Pullman

“The first book of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, Northern Lights, won the 1995 Carnegie Medal from the Library Assocaiation, recognising the year’s outstanding English-language children’s book. For the 70th anniversary of the Medal it was named one of the top ten winning works by a panel, composing the ballot for a public election of the all-time favourite. It won the public vote from that shortlist and was thus named the all-time”Carnegie of Carnegies” in June 2007. It was adapted as a film under its US title, The Golden Compass.”

Daemon Voices contains 32 essays covering a wide range of topics: childrens’ literature, education, religion, science, folk tales, fairy tales, Pullman’s books, other writers, culture, the writer, and on the practice of writing.  Since most of the essays are oral presentations, they come across as informal, but learned and interesting.

There are many detailed references to particular stories, some of which is valuable and unique, but much I found myself skimming as it did not assuage my interest in technique.  What was of particular value to me were his remarks about stories in the present vs, the past.  (He prefers the past as it is less limiting, while I prefer the present as conveying a sense of immediacy).  He reveals specific instances of stories in a mix of past and present tense.  Also valuable were his thoughts on the use of various narrators, including devices where a character becomes a narrator.  Much of this is contained in his essay The Writing of Stories.

I took particular exception to his drum beating for atheism, particularly his essay, The Republic of Heaven: God is Dead, Long Live the Republic.  As I understand it, his atheism is based on there being no proof of God’s existence, and scorn for the evil deeds committed in the name of religion.  What this fails to recognize is that God can exist for a host of reasons without any proof of his existence, and that evil deeds committed in the name of religion (of which there are many, many) are actually committed by human beings, there being no necessary relationship between the evil acts and the existence, or not, of God.  It also fails to consider the enormous number of human beings (two of three billion?) who believe in God, and each of whom has a personal experience which accounts for their belief.

Daemon Voices is of particular interest to those who are fans of Philip Pullman.

Lemn Sissay

Lemn Sissay was interviewed by Stephen Sackur on BBC’s Hard Talk a few weeks ago.  At the time, I was impressed by this man who lifted himself from ignorant child immigrant to intellectual star in the most adverse circumstances imaginable.

Lemn Sissay

Sissay’s mother, an immigrant from Ethiopia and pregnant with him, arrived in England in 1966.  He was born in Wigan, Lancashire in 1967.  The social worker responsible for his mother renamed him ‘Norman’ and gave him to foster parents with the suggestion that they should consider it an adoption, while his mother went to Bracknell to finish her studies.  She refused to sign the adoption papers, saying that she wanted her son back when she was more settled.  Social services ignored this.

Sissay’s adoptive parents, being strongly religious, wanted to rename him Mark after the Christian evangelist and give him their surname: Greenwood.  They were very strict parents, but kind in their way.  When Sissay reached the age of 12, he became somewhat difficult to manage.  The Greenwoods, who by then had three children of their own, decided he was possessed by the devil, turned him over to social services, and announced that they wanted nothing more to do with him.

From the age of 12 to 18, Sissay was held in four childrens’ homes where he was physically, emotionally and racially abused.  When he left the care system, he was given a flat with no bed; the head of social services said he should be taught a lesson, but what was the lesson?  Sissay asked to see his files from social services; he had no family, no papers and no photos.  His life history was contained in those files.  He was given only two documents.  One showed that his real name was Lemn Sissay.  The second was a letter his mother had written to the social worker when Sissay was one, pleading for his return.

He continued to request his files.  In 2015, after being told that the files were in remote storage and had been lost, he was given his files and an apology by Wigan Council.

In 1988, after a long search, he met his birth mother in Gambia where she was working for the UN.

At the age of 17, Sissay used his unemployment money to self publish a pamphlet of poetry .  He released his first book of poetry in 1988 at the age of 21 and he has been a full-time writer since the age of 24, performing internationally.  He has written eight books, and eleven plays, four for BBC radio, many featuring his maltreatment as a child.

In 2009, he was made an honorary doctor of letters by the University of Huddersfield and the following year he was appointed an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire).

In June 2015 he was elected Chancellor of the University of Manchester for a term of seven years.  In January 2016, Sissay wrote an article for The Guardian in which he said, “How a society treats those children who have no one to look after them is a measure of how civilised it is. It is scandalous that a prime minister should have to admit, as David Cameron did last autumn, that the care system ‘shames our country’ and that Ofsted should report that there are more councils judged as ‘inadequate’ than ‘good’ for their children’s services.”

Simon Hattenstone, a journalist with The Guardian, said, “Sissay is an old friend of mine. He is one of the funniest and warmest people I know, extraordinarily animated with a life-affirming laugh. He is also one of the most damaged people I know, suffering paralysing depression that forces him to withdraw into himself and disappear for months at a time, sometimes longer.”

During the Hard Talk interview, Sissay made the following observations which I think are memorable:

  • Our families are the repositories of our histories and therefor of our memory.  Without family we are amnesiac.
  • Forgiveness of the injuries we have suffered leads to healing of those injuries.
  • “Define me by my healing not by my suffering.”
  • “Forgiveness lets you live in the present.”

 

Proofreading 101

There is a post on the Reader Views blog with this same title, written by Sheri Hoyte, Managing Editor, and President Book by Book Publicity.  Ms Hoyte is also a reviewer.

Sheri Hoyte

This post caught my eye, because I’m a terrible proofreader.  In the course of writing a novel, I will re-read what I’ve written at least half a dozen times, yet once I send the manuscript to a copy editor, it will be returned with corrections on every other page.  Admittedly, some of these corrections are quite minor, and most would probably miss the attention of the average reader, there are still too many (mostly punctuation) corrections.

One thing that’s good for me about the copy editing process is that I’ve learned some of the finer rules of punctuation and grammar, which makes the editor’s job easier the next time.

Ms Hoyte says, “Proofreading is the most basic of all editing functions.  It can also be the most overlooked or neglected function in the process of getting your book published.  Taking the time to check your document for punctuation and spelling mistakes, and grammatical and formatting errors, can take your finished product from good to great.  Proofreading should not replace professional editing.  Rather, proofreading should be done before sending the manuscript to be edited.  The cleaner the manuscript, the better the chances the editor will catch everything else through their special lens.  More importantly, the cost of editing a well finished manuscript will be less than a messy one for sure!.”

She then offers these specific tips:

  • Don’t depend on the spell checker and grammar checker built into your word processing program.  Spelling and grammar checkers are a great place to start, but they don’t catch everything and shouldn’t be considered the final word.
  • Patience.  Proofreading is about as monotonous as it gets, but rest assured that it does get easier with practice.  Set yourself up for success by creating a distraction-free zone; put the phone away and turn off the music.  Steer clear of anything that may cause your concentration to stray.
  • Don’t try to proofread something you’ve just spent hours writing.  Your brain and your eyes need a break.  It’s too easy to overlook errors when you are tired and have been working on the same thing for too long.
  • Proofread from a hard copy.  Online writing software is great, and I love technology – almost always; but there is something to be said for spreading your document out on the table and getting down to business with your red pen.  It’s easier to gloss over errors on a screen that oftentimes jump out at you on paper.
  • Read slowly and read everything.  Read every single word.  Slowly.  Again.  Get the picture? Oh, and don’t skim past the obvious places errors like to hide, such as chapter numbers and titles, page numbers, character names, addresses, capitalization, etc.
  • Have someone else read your work.  Often a fresh set of eyes may be just what you need to put the finishing touches on your masterpiece.  

Ms Hoyte is right about the spell and grammar checker.  I have found that the grammar checking function is nowhere near sophisticated enough and that the spell checker can be wrong.  If I re-read slowly and carefully – every word – assuming that there are errors buried here, I find I do a better job.  If I re-read just after I’ve finished writing, I’ll catch the glaringly obvious mistakes; the less obvious ones get caught months after writing in a hard copy review.  There’s something foreign about the hard copy which makes me unconsciously suspicious of its content.  Then, there’s my wife, who’ll say, “Are sure this is right?” and “This isn’t working for me.”

Can Reading Make You Happier?

Ceridwen Dovey
In her article, Ms Dovey says she was “given a gift of a remote session with a bibliotherapist at the London headquarters of the School of Life, which offers innovative courses to help people deal with the daily emotional challenges of existence.”  She was sent a questionnaire that asked about her reading habits and her personal concerns by the bibliotherapist, Ella Berthold.  There followed an exchange of emails with suggested readings.  For those who are interested, there are a number of particular novels recommended in the article for specific reasons.
Ms Dovey says: “In a secular age, I suspect that reading fiction is one of the few
remaining paths to transcendence, that elusive state in which the distance between
the self and the universe shrinks. Reading fiction makes me lose all sense of self, but
at the same time makes me feel most uniquely myself. As Woolf, the most fervent of
readers, wrote, a book “splits us into two parts as we read,” for “the state of reading
consists in the complete elimination of the ego,” while promising “perpetual union”
with another mind.
“Berthoud and her colleague, Elderkin, trace the method of bibliotherapy all the way back to the Ancient Greeks, “who inscribed above the entrance to a library in Thebes that this was a ‘healing place for the soul.’ ” The practice came into its own at the end of the nineteenth century, when Sigmund Freud began using literature during
psychoanalysis sessions. After the First World War, traumatized soldiers returning
home from the front were often prescribed a course of reading. ‘Librarians in the
States were given training on how to give books to WWI vets, and there’s a nice
story about Jane Austen’s novels being used for bibliotherapeutic purposes at the
same time in the U.K.,’ Elderkin says. Later in the century, bibliotherapy was used
in varying ways in hospitals and libraries, and has more recently been taken up by
psychologists, social and aged-care workers, and doctors as a viable mode of therapy.
“For all avid readers who have been self-medicating with great books their entire
lives, it comes as no surprise that reading books can be good for your mental health
and your relationships with others, but exactly why and how is now becoming
clearer, thanks to new research on reading’s effects on the brain. Since the discovery,
in the mid-nineties, of “mirror neurons”—neurons that fire in our brains both when
we perform an action ourselves and when we see an action performed by someone
else—the neuroscience of empathy has become clearer. A 2011 study published in
the Annual Review of Psychology, based on analysis of fMRI brain scans of
participants, showed that, when people read about an experience, they display
stimulation within the same neurological regions as when they go through that
experience themselves. We draw on the same brain networks when we’re reading
stories and when we’re trying to guess at another person’s feelings.
“Other studies published in 2006 and 2009 showed something similar—that people
who read a lot of fiction tend to be better at empathizing with others (even after the
researchers had accounted for the potential bias that people with greater empathetic
tendencies may prefer to read novels). And, in 2013, an influential study published
in Science found that reading literary fiction (rather than popular fiction or literary
nonfiction) improved participants’ results on tests that measured social perception
and empathy, which are crucial to “theory of mind”: the ability to guess with
accuracy what another human being might be thinking or feeling, a skill humans
only start to develop around the age of four.
“Reading has been shown to put our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, similar to meditation, and it brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm. Regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers.  ‘Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines,’ the author Jeanette Winterson has written. ‘What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination.’
“Elderkin says the number of books in the world is one of the most common woes of modern readers, and that it remains a major motivation for her and Berthoud’s work as bibliotherapists. ‘We feel that though more books are being published than ever before, people are in fact selecting from a smaller and smaller pool. Look at the reading lists of most book clubs, and you’ll see all the same books, the ones that have been shouted about in the press. If you actually calculate how many books you read in a year—and how many that means you’re likely to read before you die—you’ll start to realize that you need to be highly selective in order to make the most of your reading time.” And the best way to do that? See a bibliotherapist, as soon as you can, and take them up on their invitation, to borrow some lines from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus: ‘Come, and take choice of all my library/And so beguile thy sorrow…'”
Thank you, Sue.

What Do Bookshelves Reveal About You?

Last month there was an article in The Daily Telegraph written by Shane Watson on the subject of our bookshelves as an important personality indicator.  This Shane Watson is not to be confused with the other Shane Watson, the Australian cricketer, and who may not know much about bookshelves, or books, for that matter.  This Shane Watson looks like this:

Her Penguin Books biography says: “Shane Watson writes regular columns for the Sunday Times Style magazine and is a contributing editor to Easy Living magazine. She is also the author of two novels, The One to Watch and Other People’s Marriages.”  There is also a third book: How to Meet a Man After Forty and Other Midlife Dilemmas Solved.  Presumably, this is non-fiction.

Turning now to her column in the Telegraph, she said: “This week a lifestyle blogger called Laura Coleman, whose house was featured in the latest issue of Ideal Home magazine, has been wishing she never revealed her tastes to the world.  Ms Coleman has bee vilified on social media, not because she has a stuffed bear in her front hall, or the world’s largest collection of framed butterflies, or a walk-in wardrobe that could accommodate six families.  No, Coleman’s crime is having arranged her books on her shelves, with their spines facing the wall, so as to keep the colour palette of the room a creamy, book page neutral.

“The incident of the backward books, apparently a decorative trend, has evidently struck a nerve – and the haters are out in force.  What kind of person arranges books in this way?

“The kind of person who doesn’t read books, that’s who.  The kind of person for whom books are just shelf fillers!  Shelf Candy!  A bad person who sees more value in the parchment colour of a page end than in the printed word!  How low is that?!

“This shelf hate seems to be driven by two impulses: one, outrage at disrespecting books and reducing them to shelf padding; and, two, contempt for the sort of people whose homes are pristine, neutral environments, all about the surface with nothing genuine behind the facade.  Poor Laura Coleman has found her shelves being held up as the epitome of style over substance and the shallowness of ‘lifestyle’ trends. . .

“Still, singling out these shelves and their owner for death by social media seems rather unfair.  It is true that unless Ms Coleman cunningly photographed all the books in situ before reversing them, she would have a job locating a specific title.  We can safely assume that these backwards books were never intended to be read again.  But in her defence, she says these are all chick lit sorts of paperbacks which (my observation not hers) you might otherwise leave on the train, or throw away to make room for others.   Books with loud covers and title like Maisie’s Fat Day Out, which don’t have much of a shelf life anyway, not to mention typically being bound in garish covers that clash with anyone’s colour scheme.

“But more to the point, who among us is not guilty of shelf rigging?  Who doesn’t have a guilty book presentation habit?  If the books on your shelves were slammed up there with no thought whatsoever for the impression they were going to give . . . then we would be very surprised indeed.”

Ms Watson then goes on to mention several ‘shelf stuffing’ techniques:

  • Hiding books that might put the owner in an unfavourable light
  • Substituting a prominent author or title for one less fashionable
  • Arranging books according to size or colour
  • Displaying books with beautiful covers at the top of a coffee table pile
  • Treating books as decorative objects  (Is this bad?)

As for me, one wall of my office has floor to ceiling book shelves, and I have to admit that most of the books are arranged pretty randomly, so I have to search for a particular book.  However, there are two shelves full of business reference books (from a prior life), one shelf of religious books, and three shelves of novels.  One of my problems is how to dispose of business books to make space for new novels.  Libraries don’t want them, and it seems wrong to just throw them away.

My bookshelves: partial view

 

Review: Lincoln in the Bardo

This novel, by George Saunders, won the Man Booker Prize in 2017, and I felt obliged to read it.

George Saunders – according to the bio included in the book – is the author of nine books, including Tenth of December, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the inaugural Folio Prize (for the best work of fiction in English) and the Story Prize (best short story collection).  He has received MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships and the PEN/Malamud Prize for excellence in the short story and was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  In 2013, he was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine.  He teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.

George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo concerns the death of Willie, President Lincoln’s younger son, his burial and the President’s intense grief over his death.  This major theme in bound up in a collection of ghost stories in which a state of bardo is conceived and in which the ghosts provide a commentary on racial, social, financial, sexual and religious mores at that time.  There is no central narrator; rather, the stories are told by several dozen fictional ghost characters (two of whom are prominent) and by quotations from contemporary news articles and other sources.  These quotations lend a sense of reality, even though the viewpoints represented (of the President, himself, for example) are conflicting.  The style of the book is oblique, particularly as to the individual ghost stories, so that the reader is left to exercise some deduction and imagination.  The writing is innovative, but faultless. The author’s central question is: “how do we live and love when everything we love must end?”

For me, Lincoln in the Bardo was not an easy or a captivating read.  This was due, in part to the author’s technique of presenting the ghost’s dialogue frequently as fragmented hints (which is fine for ‘ghost speak’ but doesn’t make easy reading).  I also felt that the ghost stories did not always mesh well with the Lincoln tragedy. In my opinion, the author was trying to do too much in one novel.  Interestingly, I don’t recall seeing the word ‘bardo’ mentioned in the novel itself.  Bardo is a Buddhist concept of a transitional state between death and rebirth.  Two other minor comments.  I think the title of this novel should have been: Willie Lincoln in Limbo.  As a Buddhist concept, ‘bardo’ does not fit well in a Christian setting; bardo is a state, so the definite article ‘the’ is unnecessary – one wouldn’t say ‘in the coma’; and Lincoln (the President) was not in bardo – his son was.  But my suggested title is not as intriguing.  At the conclusion of the book, there are 11 ‘Reading Group Questions and Topics for Discussion’.  This says to me: ‘ I am not only the author, I am a distinguished academic’: hubris.

For me, this is another example of the Man Booker Prize Committee selecting works which are intriguing, different, innovative, rather than lucid, beautiful and memorable.

Making Oneself Clear

Do I Make Myself Clear?: Why Writing Well Matters by Sir Harold Evans Was published in May, this year, and there was an intriguing interview with Sir Harry in the June issue of Time Magazine.

The first two questions caught my eye:

Q: You discuss many writing evils in your book, from pleonasms to pesky pronouns.  What kind of bad writing upsets you most?

A: Writing that is deliberately designed to deceive – insurance policies, political statements.  Business verbosity wastes money, confuses millions.  I find myself getting much more angry about the moral obligation of fairness than I do about a misplaced semicolon.

Q: And do you believe in freedom from the language police?

A: The language police are a bloody nuisance, some linguists in particular.  The English language got corrupted by pettifoggers.  Do you know that word pettifogger?  It is somebody who stumbles over a neck, but misses the body lying on the floor.

Sir Harold Matthew Evans (born 28 June 1928) is a British-born journalist and writer who was editor of The Sunday Times from 1967 to 1981 when he had a falling out with Rupert Murdoch.  He moved to the United States in 1984 and was naturalised as a US citizen in 1993.   He had leading positions in journalism with US News and World Report, The Atlantic Monthly and the New York Daily News.  He has written various books on history and journalism, with his The American Century (1998) receiving particular acclaim. In 2000, he retired from leadership positions in journalism to spend more time on his writing. Since 2001, Evans has served as editor-at-large of The Week magazine and he has been a contributor to The Guardian and BBC Radio 4 since 2005.  In 2004, Evans was knighted for services to journalism, and he became editor-at-large of the Reuters news agency in 2011.

Sir Harry Evans

In a New York Times book review in May 2017,  Tim Holt says: “As a master editor and distinguished author, Evans is well qualified to instruct us on how to write well. But can he delight us in the process? After reading this book, I can affirm that the answer is yes. For the most part. Up to a point.  ‘What really matters is making your meaning clear beyond a doubt,’ Evans tells us. And the key to clarity, he insists, is concision — a virtue allegedly less honoured in the United States than in the author’s native land: ‘Newsprint rationing in wartime Britain enforced economy in language, a conciseness not required in American print journalism, where acres of space invited gentle grazing.’

Holt continues: “I also enjoyed Evans’s history of the ‘readability’ movement, launched by 19th-century American reformers who wanted written sentences to be shorter and easier to understand (especially for immigrants); his witty choice of quotations, like Winston Churchill’s gibe that Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald had ‘the gift of compressing the largest number of words into the smallest amount of thought’; and his various lists of pet peeves — pleonasms like ‘close proximity’ and ‘self-confessed,’ abused pairs like ‘discomfit/discomfort’ (to discomfort is to make uneasy; to discomfit is to defeat or rout), and ‘flesh-eaters’ like ‘We are in receipt of’ for ‘We received’.

In a Financial Times article in May 2017, Matthew Engel writes: “He is a sworn enemy of . . . the lonely modifier  — which means one had better explain what he means by a lonely modifier. His example is a sentence in the New York Times where presidential ‘advisers’ and the crucial fact that they were taken ‘by surprise’ were separated by 36 words of the same sentence, all irrelevant parenthetical detail. He is also a welcome enemy of two of my own hates. One is the ludicrous non sequitur, found most abundantly in American newspaper obituaries: ‘A keen golfer, he leaves three children.’ The other is what he calls monologophobia, a phrase he credits to Theodore Bernstein of the New York Times, who described a monologaphobe as someone ‘who would rather walk naked in front of Saks Fifth Avenue than be caught using the same word twice in three lines’. This is the widespread practice (also known, too kindly, as ‘elegant variation’) whereby sports writers, having said Federer once, have to refer to him thereafter as ‘the Swiss’, ‘the 35-year-old’ and ‘the seven-times Wimbledon champion’ before they dare use his name again — even if the reader ends up forgetting who is under discussion.

At the very least, Sir Harry has a keen sense of humour!

How Long Should a Novel Be?

There was an article in the 13th August 2017 Sunday Telegaph, written by Ysenda Maxtone Graham entitled “Have People Forgotten How to Write Short Books?”  She makes a number of interesting points which I will quote below.

Ysenda Maxtone Graham is the author of five books: The Church Hesitant: A Portrait of the Church of England TodayThe Real Mrs Miniver, which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Biography Award, 2002; Mr Tibbits’s Catholic SchoolAn Insomniac’s Guide to the Small Hours; and Terms & Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding Schools, 1939-1979.  She writes for The Spectator and is a columnist on Country Life.

Ysenda Maxtone Graham

“Stranded in the middle of a great fat brick of a biography recently, I wondered: do books, like films, plays, concerts, sermons, cricket matches and, indeed, life itself have a natural length.  My instinct is that they do and that it’s about 280 pages.  To open a book, particularly a non-fiction one, and see that it’s all going to be over before the 300 page mark makes me set out into it with a spring in my step.  If it goes up to the mid 500’s, as that fat brick did, I check the back section in fervent hope that the last centimeter of its thickness will be taken up by an index, bibliography, extensive footnotes, and at least three pages of acknowledgements.  While reading such a book, I’m forever measuring, comparing ‘amount already read’ to ‘amount still to read’.

“Many fiction addicts insist that, in the case of novels, the longer the better.  Why this hurry to say goodbye to characters you’ve made great friends with?  You’ll feel bereft. When it works it is indeed a delicious feeling to be in the middle of an enthralling fictional world, less like being stranded, more like being enveloped and carried away.

“I ask Richard Beswick, publishing director of Little Brown Book Group. what his thoughts on novel length were.  ‘I like the pleasure of a long absorbing book with lots of attention to psychologically convincing characters played out over time,’ he says.  There is talk of long novels becoming fashionable again, and this ‘may reflect TV tastes for long series’, but he thinks our perception has been skewed by a few, very successful, very long novels, ‘such as those by Donna Tartt and Hilary Mantel’.  From a publisher’s point of view, they are outliers: ‘Eighty thousand words seems to be the kind of length readers like.’  (That equates to my ideal length of about 280 pages.)”

She learned at her favourite bookstore in Chelsea that “some customers had baulked at Paul Auster’s 4321 (880 pages) and Annie Proulx’s Barkskins (772 pages), but had snapped up Robert Seehtalter’s A Whole Life (148 pages) and The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price (155 pages)”.  She makes the point that there was a craze in the 18th and 19th centuries for the ‘three-volume novel’, and that in the early 20th century, it became fashionable for novels, like skirts, to be short.  (Except Ulysses.)

“I’ve calculated the average length of books reviewed in a literary journal last week, and I’m pleased to announce that it comes in at 296.6 pages.”

As for me, my three thrillers are about 100,000 words, as is Seeking Father Khaliq, which I would classify as inspirational.  The other two inspirational novels: Sable Shadow & The Presence, and the novel I’m just finishing now are in the 120,000 word range.  In my case, what determines the length of a novel is the complexity of the plot.  I would agree with Ms Graham that long novels can be a chore to read.  I’m currently reading On Hundred Years of Solitude (review next week).  It is 417 pages, but not only that, the font is small and the text is tightly packed.  A long read!

Review: The God of Small Things

This novel won the Booker Prize in 1997, so I am somewhat tardy in reading this Indian author, Arundhati Roy, whose background interested me almost as much as the novel.  She was born in 1961 in Shillong, Meghalava, India, to Rajib Roy, a Bengali Hindu tea plantation manager from Calcutta and Mary Roy, a Syrian Christian women’s rights activist from Kerala. When she was two, her parents divorced and she returned with her mother and brother to Kerala.  In her early career, Roy worked in television and movies, but she became disenchanted with the world of films and began writing her first novel,  The God of Small Things  in 1992, completing it in 1996.   She has since written The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017), and a long list of non-fiction works, most of which seem to be associated with her advocacy work.  Ms Roy has opposed India’s nuclear, industrial, and economic development policies, as well as US foreign policy, Israel, the Sri Lankan government, and numerous other initiatives.  She has been a controversial figure in her home country.

Arundhati Roy

The God of Small Things was critically acclaimed by major newspapers in the US and Canada.  Ms Roy received and advance of £500,ooo which, along with her prize money, she donated to her causes.  The novel was a commercial success.  Critical response in the UK was somewhat less positive, and the award of the Booker Prize was controversial.  Carmen Callili, a 1996 Booker Prize judge called it ‘execrable’, and The Guardian said its context was ‘profoundly depressing’.

I found the book neither execrable nor profoundly depressing, but I didn’t think it is extraordinary as the New York Times did.

The book is set in the 1960’s in Kerala, India, and much of the story is autobiographical about a somewhat dysfunctional middle class family.  The principle characters are young twins Rahel and her brother Estha, aged about 7, their mother Ammu, who is divorced, and their maternal grandmother, Mammachi.  There are also Chacko, Ammu’s derelict cousin, his English ex-wife, Margaret, their nine-year-old daughter Sophie, and Chacko’s mother – the twins great aunt – Baby Kouchamma.  Gradually emerging from the plot is Velutha, a Paravan untouchable, who is beautiful, competent and Ammu’s lover – the God of Small Things.  There are some terrible things that happen: Estha is molested by a soft drink seller in a movie theater, the twins rebel and go into hiding, Sophie drowns, and Ammu’s affair with Velutha is discovered, but none of these events, in the context of India is depressing.  All, with the exception of Estha’s molestation are the natural flow of events.   As it is told, the assault on Estha seems largely preventable.

The writing is certainly very clever: much of the story is told from Rahel’s point of view, with child-like idiosyncrasy.   The characters are unique and credible, though I have a lingering doubt about the fraught relationship between Ammu and her twins: why did it become so bi-polar?  There is a considerable amount of scene description, such that if it were abbreviated, the book would be at least 15% shorter.  But Ms Roy’s descriptive talents are so imaginative, and with some exceptions, so satisfying, that most readers will forgive her.

If you know India and like India, this is a book that should be read, not because it will help one understand India today, but because it provides a context for today’s India.