In Susan Hill’s A Change for the Better Deirdre Fount finds herself traversing a path that is not the one she intended to venture down. Though she might have stumbled upon it of her own accord, her marathon trek along it is due to a mix of personal inertia and the pressures and expectations of others around her.
This is how I’ve been feeling about this website for some time.
I began Read in a Single Sitting in response to series of reading assignments I’d set myself: a holiday spent working through Herman Hesse, Shusaku Endo, Kenzaburo Oe and other works. I’d been reading voraciously, furiously, making up for the literary starvation endured during my university years, when most of my reading comprised textbooks and linguistics articles.
These reading habits had led to a sort of cerebral imbalance, a deficiency of creativity, and in response I gorged on all manner of worthy tomes, attempting to redress this balance.
I am prone to overdoing things.
After spooning down the final mouthful of the ten-course meal that is the The Glass Bead Game, and washing it down with a slug of post-modern something or other, I found myself doing the literary equivalent of collapsing supine on the floor and unbuttoning my jeans button.
And like many have done in the same situation, I decided to make a change to my reading diet. No longer would I binge on bookish fois gras and black truffles; instead I would opt for a more moderate approach. And sure enough, I did: though I took to grazing on this and that, I was cautious about my portion sizes, eschewing reading anything that was likely to give me a hernia were I to pack it up and carry it around with me.
All was well for a while.
But then things started to change (including that extended food-themed metaphor, which has been extended so far it’s about to break through a neighbour’s fence…)
The site began to grow, and with that growth came review copies and approaches from PR agencies, authors and so on. It was a delightful novelty at first, and I was happy to intersperse my reading with this or that new release–at this point largely only titles that I’d requested.
But this is not a slippery slope I recommend attempting to navigate. The review copies started to pile in, arriving with the vim and profligacy of lemons on a tree, and soon I had more than I knew what to do with. Like an introduced pest species, they began multiplying until they reached plague proportions, burying beneath their gloss-finished pelts the hundreds of books I’d lovingly purchased of my own volition.
I began reading as though I were bailing out a boat: as much as possible, as quickly as possible, motivated by both guilt and obligation. Of course, the faster I read, the faster they piled up, a tetris nightmare from which there was no escape. Meanwhile, all the books I’d been actually wanting to read–the literary fiction I so adore, the classics I’ve longed to get to, the fusty Penguin modern classics that fill whole shelves–continued to languish. They were a mirage-like oasis in the distance, getting farther away the more determinedly I approached.
Was I doomed to die of thirst in this literary desert? (Oh, the irony of living a Borges-like existence while scarcely having dipped into the Borges on my shelves…)
Then I read Joe Queenan’s One for the Books, an unswervingly curmudgeonly rant that resonated with me on a number of levels (not least that I am myself an unswerving curmudgeon), but in particular in his calculations about how many books he had left to read before his death. I did the maths for myself, and assuming a long life with plenty of reading time, I have some 10,500 books remaining.
That may seem like a lot of books, but in fact it’s not.
Since starting this site three years ago I’ve reviewed just under five hundred books, and a good deal of them have been mediocre; many of them have been truly, eyeball-excoriatingly terrible. If I’d been left to my own reading devices I probably would have read a good many fewer terrible books and many, many more wonderful books. Books that are not only objectively better–books that have, say, stood up against the erosive forces of time–but that are suited to me as a reader.
And to me as a writer.
Writing is how I make my living, and by consuming all of these mediocre books at the (polite) behest of others I am doing myself a disservice. I’m tired of having others directing my reading choices. I’m tired of trying to drag meaning out of superficial pap and of being blinded by endless sandstorms of woeful writing. I am tired of tiptoeing along the very thin line between critique and public relations.
And so it’s time that I make a change before I become a Deirdre Fount myself.
The direction of this site will be changing from books that are ostensibly long enough to be read in a single sitting to books that are worthy enough that I truly want to read them in a single sitting. I’ll be writing fewer reviews and more personal responses and reflections–and the books I’ll be reading will be those that invite that sort of response.
After three years of living largely on junk food, I’m ready to return to what is, for me, fine dining.
But this time around I’m going to do it a little more slowly, a little more restrainedly…and perhaps wearing the literary equivalent of elastic-waisted jeans.