[From my Metro Now column]
Being a lit-journalist has its advantages. Among these is the daily receipt of a number of attractive-looking books from a multitude of publishers. Given the 24-hour limit on one’s day, it isn’t humanly possible to read more than 3 per cent of these, but the others can be arranged like building blocks in innovative shapes. Alternately, you can remove the cover jackets of a few books, cut them up here and there and stitch the pieces back together in colourful collage patterns. These activities are good for one’s creative skills and improve hand-eye coordination.
But there are also disadvantages to working on the books beat, such as the constant danger of being assailed by recommendation requests. The most terrifying of these typically comes from an acquaintance who has been gaping at my bookshelves, and it goes:
“Suggest me a nice book.”
“Okay, but what sort of book exactly?” I ask, as my throat dries up and droplets of sweat gather on my forehead.
“Oh, any nice book.”
Such phrasing suggests that the asker is very open-minded about what he is willing to read, but this is usually far from the truth. The first problem is how to interpret the bland and unspecific word “nice” (a word that some people use as if it’s the only adjective in existence, but more on that in a future column). If I take it to mean a book that I personally enjoyed, it’s certain to cause trouble: experience tells me that a casual reader asking for a “nice” book is unlikely to warm to a title such as The Intimate Personal Histories of Cannibalistic Serial Killers. But why shouldn’t such a book – assuming that it’s well-written, informative and insightful – be categorised as “nice” too? Why should the word be used only for the Paulo Coelhos of the world? This seems like genre-discrimination of the worst sort. Cannibalistic serial killers deserve the same respect as cannibalistic motivational writers.
Another problem with the above request is that it invariably comes from people who are not habitual readers (in other words, they have read The Alchemist and two issues of Reader’s Digest in the past three years). Without being judgemental about these sub-humans, I have to say that giving them recommendations can be a hard task. Especially since they genuinely think of themselves as seasoned readers and have very firm ideas about what a worthwhile book should be.
But I still try.
“There’s a great new novel out. It’s all about this serial killer who...”
“Novel? Oh no no, sorry, I don’t read fiction.” (said derisively)
“No? How come?”
“Because it’s not real. I only read inspirational or motivational books.”
On hearing this familiar proclamation, I grit my teeth and explain, as politely as I can, that high-quality fiction can be more inspirational and motivational – more “real”, in fact – than a facile self-help book that sits in the non-fiction section of a bookstore and claims to solve all the reader’s problems. Whereupon the recommendation-seeker looks at me as if I were something that had just crawled out of her kitchen drain. So I mutter something vague under my breath, excuse myself and get back to playing building blocks, which in the final analysis is the only thing a book-reviewer is good for.