How I Choose What to Read

I am a writer. Apart from these blogs, I like to write fiction. I have written and published one novel and have nearly completed my second. Keep you eyes on for updates as I make them.

All writers are readers. I am too. I would typically read 10-15 books per year, some quite lengthy, most of them fiction. At the beginning of next year, I shall give you a rundown of what I read in 2020, together with comments on what I liked best.

So, how do I choose what to read?

In any one year I always read or re-read some classics. They may have been written decades or even centuries earlier but, despite inevitable anachronisms, that doesn’t mean they are irrelevant to our times. The fact they are still in publication is an indication they are relevant to all times. In other words, they come with a guarantee of sorts. This year, for example, I re-read William Shakespeare’s Richard II, and Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

I also read what I shall call ‘modern’ literature. As a rule, that means to me stuff published in the last (the 20th) century. The fact I can still buy it means it too has stood the test of time, albeit less of it than have the classics. So they also come generally with a ‘guarantee’. This year, for example, I read Frederik Manning’s The Middle Parts of Fortune, and Clarice Lispector’s Hour of the Star.

And I also read what I shall call ‘contemporary’ literature. As a rule, that means stuff published in this (the 21st) century. It comes without much of a guarantee if any at all. With contemporary literature, you have to take an awful lot on trust. And you will inevitably read some clunkers. This year, as examples of contemporary literature (not of clunkers), I read Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, and Jesse Ball’s The Divers’ Game.

I try to be eclectic in my choices of what to read. I look for a balance of sorts between male and female authors. I choose books not only written originally in English, but books translated into English from other languages.

I include at least one non-fiction book per year. There is something to be said for keeping your feet on the ground, sticking to the truth, giving the nod to reality, or however else you might like to phrase it. But I believe non-fiction, constrained as it is by the bald facts of the case, is not usually in the best position to examine issues of great breadth or depth. I believe life has a tendency to imitate art, not the other way around. Or, as I have put it in my published novel, Where Pademelons Play, fiction can be more potent than truth, especially when it has a mind to morph into truth.

What is the best thing, considered as literature, I have read this year so far? Almost certainly Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector’s startling short novel, The Hour of the Star. The worst? A toss up between Mary Trump’s Too Much and Never Enough, and Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas’ Damascus. These are, of course, my subjective opinions, and other readers have every right to a contrary opinion.

As I promised, I shall revisit this subject around the beginning of 2021 to give you the full run-down of what I read in 2020.