More and more I find myself fearing that I might be reading too much and too fast, and not reading well enough.
Have just finished reviewing Andrea Levy’s Small Island for our paper (will put it up here once it’s been published). Considering how highly it’s been regarded in most quarters, mine is a not-too-favourable review - I had a few reservations about the book - but then, yesterday, while flipping through its pages again, I chanced upon a striking (and thematically important) passage that had somehow just not registered with me earlier. That was scary, because it suggested I hadn’t been reading (at least some portions) with full concentration. Personally speaking, that’s a depressing thought because of what books have meant to me for most of my life. And professionally it’s distressing because if I haven’t read it well enough, what right do I have to write even a partly negative assessment, to throw in even a few dismissive sentences in a 1000-word review? (That won’t stop me, of course!)
I marvel at how some of the professional reviewers/dedicated lit journos I know manage. A few weeks ago I nearly fell off my chair when I heard one of them rattle off the names and complex relationships of some of the more marginal characters in one of Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle books. (I loved that series myself but off the cuff I can only recall Lord Emsworth, Rupert Baxter and good old Galahad. Oh oh, and Beach the butler.) Wodehouse just happened to come up in conversation, and I know that the friend in question, a polymath, reads hundreds of books each year on every subject imaginable - I seriously doubt he would have just happened to pick up a Blandings Castle book in the recent past. So is this just a case of vastly superior memory, or concentration, or what is it? How does one balance reading a lot with reading well?
I’m not sure who it was that said it was better to know one book intimately than to know a thousand books sketchily, but Frank Capra once proclaimed that you can’t call yourself poor if you have one really good friend: “Three of them, and you’re a millionaire.” The comparison makes sense I think; of the hundreds of books in my room, there are some that I once knew so intimately but which seem like strangers when I approach them now - like lost schoolfriends.
Back in 1989-90, which was when I read almost all the Agatha Christies in a space of 7-8 months, I was astonished by my mother’s admission that she had read them all in her youth but didn’t remember most of them anymore. “That’s never going to happen with me,” I vowed, and to ensure it wouldn’t I solemnly repeated the murderer’s name and modus operandi to myself each time I reached the end of a Christie. Today, as I scan the titles on their shelf, I recall the denouement of only 9 or 10 of the books - and even among these, a couple of the memories have been kept alive by filmed versions I later saw. (Of course, every once in a while there’s a happy incident, like when Yazad Jal started talking about Ordeal By Innocence at our bloggers’ meet and the plot suddenly came back to me.)
Actually, Agatha Christie isn’t even the best example, because unexpected endings/revelations tend to stick with you - thereby creating the illusion that you remember the book better than you really do. So what of other books that I knew really intimately at various stages of my reading life? To name a few: Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (which I was so proud about reading when I was just 12 that I re-read it almost immediately). Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Shame, most of the essays in Step Across This Line. Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. Steinbeck’s East of Eden. (Okay, it might not be a great book but I loved it and was sure I would never forget the plot, and now I completely have.) Catch 22 and Something Happened, Joseph Heller. More recently, Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, Tolkien’s The Silmarilion. Best of all, Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree books.
That’s a decent list up there, though of course it’s only a small selection. But I can’t claim to know most of these books very well anymore. And one has so little time to revisit them, let alone reread them from beginning to end. There’s so much new stuff demanding to be read, reviewed on deadlines. Sometimes I wish I could create a vacuum in time for myself, crawl into it, reread all the books of my past, and then reemerge to tackle all the new stuff.