Since I’m aiming this year to think more deeply about what I read and why, I wanted to begin this occasional series of posts on how things are working out and thoughts that come my way. It’s been a good start: I’ve read three books which are certainly going to stay with me – The Vegetarian, Manazuru, and The Wandering Pine. They inspired strong responses from me, and I can recall vividly what it was like. That, ultimately, is what I’m looking for.
But there was a time, towards the end of last month, when I felt the need to read something ‘lighter’. I wasn’t even sure what that was going to mean in my current reading context; I suppose it really meant a book which I could read once and wouldn’t mind if it didn’t stay with me. I tried a few books and found voices with the potential to entertain – voices telling of crime capers or small American towns under the burden of peril; or a quirky voice masking a darker experience of the world – but I put them aside. Some of those books would probably have done the job I wanted them to; the thing was that I felt I knew where their voices would take me, and it turned out I didn’t want that.
It’s one thing to abandon books that you’re not enjoying; I have no qualms about doing that. But putting aside books which might pass the time pleasantly enough – that’s new to me, and it is not easy. Yet I resolved to do it more this year, and it’s something I will have to do to get closer to the books that really count for me. It’s a risk with every book we don’t finish, and every book we never start, that we’ll miss something vital. But that’s the way it is, so I let my instinct prevail.
The book I chose to read in the end was The Amber Fury by Natalie Haynes, which is a thriller about a woman who takes a job as a drama teacher in a pupil referral unit in Edinburgh; manages to get one of her classes interested in Greek tragedy; then finds that a tragedy has unfolded in front of her before she realised what was happening. I was immediately intrigued by the protagonist’s voice:
The first thing they’ll ask me is how I met her. They already know how we met, of course. But that won’t be why they’re asking. It never is. (p. 5)
Naturally, this opening prompts plenty of questions in the reader’s mind. There were soon hints of tragedy in the narrator’s past, and of course an uncertain future. The Amber Fury held out the promise of leading somewhere perhaps largely familiar, but not entirely. It was enough for that moment. I carried on.
Did I get what I wanted from The Amber Fury? Yes and no. It might have helped if I knew more about Greek tragedy, because I suspect there were deeper parallels in Haynes’s novel that I missed. As it was, I had to rely mainly on the book’s qualities as a thriller, and… Well, all thrillers of course play a certain kind of game, and to read one is implicitly to accept that game. The Amber Fury’s game played out pleasantly enough; but, towards the end, I was getting impatient with it. I’d had enough ‘light reading’ and was ready for something else.
Don’t get me wrong: I wanted to be ready for something else, but I’d anticipated that being at the end of an enjoyable palate-cleanser; I hadn’t imagined that I would get fed up with the whole idea of palate-cleansing before it was finished. Of course, it could just have been the choice of book; but the experience has left me wondering: if this ‘light reading’ got me hankering after something else, was it really what I wanted in the first place at all? If it was, will the price of light reading always be that I end up falling out with it? Time will tell.
9th February 2015 at 8:23 pm
Interesting post – I find the palate cleansers I go for tend to be classic golden age crime. It’s pretty reliable, enjoyable and I can get through it quick enough not to feel about ignoring the *big* books.
9th February 2015 at 8:33 pm
Ah, I know what you mean, David! I read “meaty” books quite a lot – books with both literary and personal resonance, books which stretch my thinking, books which make me want to re-read them – whether I get to or not.
But after some time with that kind of mental exercise I need a break – a “light” book for which crime stories usually fit the bill – entertainment only really, but I need the break. Then it’s back to a classic or a prize-winner or a translated novel from somewhere. I read a lot of non-fiction, too – both lightweight and heavier material.
I’ve never set myself a “goal” in that way – I keep plenty of books around and belong to several reading groups for more suggestions. I try one book and then another until I find what seems right at the moment. But what you described is about goes on – something usually appears to fill the bill. Sometimes I’ve got two books going – one audio and one text – but one or the other always wins out. lol
10th February 2015 at 11:53 am
I loved The Amber Fury – but maybe knowing quite a lot about the Greek tragedy therein, it had a bit more significance for me?
I know what you mean about meaty books and I read plenty of them, but I enjoy a lot of lighter books and can still find plenty to think and say about them – their cultural touchstones resonate for me. Sounds like it was an escape that you were after 🙂
10th February 2015 at 5:25 pm
I think even palate cleansers can be good, bad, brilliant or terrible. The novel I read recently Where there’s Love, there’s Hate is a palate cleanser but a superbly well written one. I’d argue that you could read Antal Szerb as a palate cleanser, but again he’s a superb writer.
Becky refers to meaty books, which I think is useful. I wouldn’t refer to Where there’s Love, there’s Hate as remotely meaty, but again it is very good. I wonder if what you’re finding is not that palate cleansers no longer speak to you or fill a need for you, as that as you’re upping the quality of your meaty reads (which you are) you need to similarly up the quality of your light reads.
I’m not criticising The Amber Fury here, I’ve not read it and can’t speak to it. Perhaps though as part of your review you need to look for a different kind of light read. I’d be surprised if you don’t still need them, all meat all the time leads to burnout for most of us.
Have you tried say Raymond Chandler, who is a superb prose stylist again but more on the entertainment side? I’ve found Jeanette Winterson good as a refreshing read (which she might not thank me for, but I’m not saying there isn’t stuff to engage with there and she can definitely write). If you want something more punchy and plot driven perhaps you want something pulpier though, something which goes straight to the literary jugular? There’s loads of approaches, but I suspect you need to reconsider what you want from light fiction just as much as you have from the meatier stuff (accepting obviously that that’s a wholly artificial distinction).
11th February 2015 at 12:03 am
Thanks for your comments, everyone; they’ve really helped me clarify my thinking.
I think Max has hit the nail on the head: when I wrote the post, I was still implicitly equating light reading with being throwaway, which, I now see, is the wrong way to look at it. I guess you could put what we’ve been calling meaty books at one end of a spectrum, and less demanding ones at the other end. But then perhaps there’s another axis, with involving books (which is what I think I’m looking for most of all) at one end and throwaway stuff at the other.
So my ideal light reading would then be less demanding but still involving (which sounds about right, and certainly more promising than ‘meaty but throwaway’). As to what it would be – something comic, maybe; or, yes, someone like Chandler (whom I really ought to read). I’ll have to experiment and find out.