Shelf life 2013

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BooksGoodreads tells me that I read 25 books this year. You ought to be able to see a list of them here. 25 isn’t that many, but i’ve been busy. Give me a break.

Two questions:

1. Anyone know of a book listing site which isn’t owned by a tax-avoiding global corporation?

2. Notice anything unusual about this list of 25 books?

No reason you should, so let me tell you. If you ignore ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ and ‘At The Mountains of Madness’ – both re-reads, listened to this year rather than read – and two graphic novels, then I haven’t read a single work of fiction in 2013.

I wasn’t fully aware that a shift was happening, if indeed one has happened. I did however begin to feel that things were changing every time I approached my ‘to read’ shelf for a new book, or looked online or, on the odd occasion, in an actual bookshop for things to stock that shelf with. Fiction just hasn’t had a look in, where up to this point it has completely dominated.

Why? I’m struggling to put my finger on it, and am vacillating between two diametrically opposite explanations, both made plausible, triggered perhaps, by one central fact: I’m getting old.

Now I come to think about it, and to cast back to the reading choices I made this year, imposing a retrospective rationale, I fancy I can divine two possible motives. Firstly, novels seemed too insubstantial. I must have felt, did and do indeed feel, that I need to understand more of how the world works and to do so in more direct terms. I’ve been interested in stuff, and have wanted to find out more. In some clunking way, I felt that novels had less to teach me.

I know that’s silly. I know that novels can give unparalleled access to the heart of what it means to be human, to be alive here and now, or there and then. So here comes theory number two: perhaps I don’t want to know. Facts are fine. I’ve read loads of them this year. Now, without looking at the list of books, I can remember very few. I learned about the notion of cosmic war as a driver for religious conflict. I learned that World War 2 was significantly more grim that most of us could possibly imagine. I learned some stuff which was helpful for work. I learned that David Sedaris lived in Japan for a while. I learned that the CIA has been lurching around in the dark for the last 50 years.

I guess there’s a bunch of other stuff I learned which is in there somewhere. But how does that help me? Could it be that all this fact gathering (and dropping) is just displacement activity? A means to avoid the real, harsh truths that sometimes fiction reveals most effectively?

Both these explanations sound simultaneously as banal and overblown as each other. I’m back where I started. I haven’t read any novels this year because I haven’t wanted to. I do feel that this is because of some tapping sense of change, of urgency, but I can’t say with any certainty whether this leads me to want to know more about life, or to know less.

I have four novels on my ‘to read’ shelf right now. ‘Austerlitz’, ‘Oryx and Crake’, ‘In The Skin of a Lion’ and ‘All Quiet on the Orient Express’. I’m going to get one of them down and see what happens.

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