A Idea Bubbling Away

What remains of fiction read in our most formative years? An atmosphere, certain sentences, some nuances of character, memories anchored in the place and time a book was read. A quarter of a century after reading a story I still retain not-quite images, not-quite sensations, but definite specific memories. A woman sitting on a thistle in order to fix a memory; a teenager-who would become a junkie-coming to Swiss Cottage to meet his sister; a man hidden underground while spies search overground for his traces, each memory almost as real as if they had happened beyond the pages of a book.

I read differently in those days, before the internet, when I relied on browsing and serendipity to lead me from one book to the next. When I read something that made the world feel charged, made me see, hear, sense the world around me in new ways, I read and reread, often reading a book three or four times in a row, and again after a few month’s break.

Those books, which wouldn’t fill much more than a typical shelf make me curious. Some of them are almost certainly poorly written, many riddled with cliché, some maybe ideologically unsound, but what would it be like to return to them now, to re-explore those early encounters?

Would it be awful, inadvisable to put together a short reading list? It would be primarily a list of male writers, curated not to allow an imbalance of science fiction. There would perhaps be some William Gibson, a Patricia Highsmith, maybe Kingsley Amis, Trevanian, Winston Graham, Iain M. Banks, Kem Nunn, maybe a Neal Stephenson, almost certainly a Richard Allen or two, perhaps Anne Tyler, Paul Theroux, J. P. Donleavy, Douglas Coupland or Nicholson Baker and Margaret Atwood. (There is also a very long list of those I know I couldn’t stomach again.) This is probably a rotten idea. I hope it goes away.

My Reading Years

My insatiable appetite for reading was borne from scarcity. Growing up in the Far East, the local bookshop thrived off the sale of potboilers: Arthur Hailey, Wilbur Smith, Ed McBain. Thirty years ago, the latter two writers formed a significant part of my early reading consumption.

During my years of formal education, my taste evolved into science fiction, particularly Robert Heinlein and Kurt Vonnegut. William Gibson and Neal Stephenson followed. Discovering Dostoyvsky and Kafka in my late teens changed my literary landscape. Crime and Punishment and The Metamorphosis were jump leads that accelerated my reading. Throughout my twenties I read omnivorously, with an insistence to finish every book I started: Proust, Nietzsche, Sartre, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Chekhov, Balzac, Maupassant.

Entering my thirties, bruised after a disastrous first marriage, I motored at a more sedate pace. Enthusiasms during this period are a source of blushes today: Nick Hornby, Iain Banks and John Updike. Eventually I drifted away from reading fiction, partly as a consequence of a heavy Masters reading list. Instead I read economics, history, travel, biographies and architecture.

Today, having crossed decisively into my forties, my taste for reading fiction is revived. My inclination though is resolved to read better, to spend time only on what is, or might be, worthwhile. I drift easily from essays, diaries, biographies back to fiction. I reread little, putting this off for another time. My hunger for the unread is intense. As I read I create myself.