What informs our decision about which book to read next? Most likely it's at least one of the four elements of the Book-Choosing Code:
1. The book charts
2. New publications that we've seen/read/heard about via booklists or reviews
3. The ones (especially the classics) you feel you ought to have read
4. Personal Recommendations
For the most part this book buying - or borrowing - code is a very good one to go by in order to navigate our way through the endless sea of books on offer. What's wrong with choosing books because they are popular, new, 'classic', or recommended by a likeminded individual, newspaper or programme? The answer is that there's absolutely nothing wrong with it. It's a very good code, and I am often a 'follower' of it myself. However, what is doesn't offer is that magical, vital, and rarely seen 'rogue' element to your book choosing, book reading, and the reverberating post-book experience.
Many many moons ago I was fortunate enough to attend a one-man show called The Meaning Of Life, presented by one our most original, experimental (and to my mind, massively undervalued) writers and performers - the late Ken Campbell. In it he declared "I'm not mad, I've just read different books" - a powerful sentence that has stayed with me ever since. He said he didn't know the answers to life but listed some things he'd found to be of help - these included page 81 of the Times Books Atlas of the Crusades, a Japanese translation of Anne of Green Gables, oh and the last 20 minutes of Jackie Chan's Drunken Master II. Whether you buy into the entire thesis is not, it's hard to argue the overriding ideology - that reading 'different' sorts of books adds to our individuality.
It's all very well being steered and orienteered through literature by linear searches (actual or virtual) via charts, reviews, recommendations, or even by automatically generated lists that guess what we might 'like' based on what we've bought before - but if we all read the exact same things all of the time - what of the longer lasting implications for the intellect, the imagination, and nuances of the individual psyche?
It's not an 'all or nothing' situation. There's a reason why lots of people read just some of the books, most of the time - because they're literary masterpieces, brilliantly written, hilarious, fine examples of a genre, or socially important...the list goes on. And there's another reason why we often choose what to read in a linear way - because it's a well-trodden and easily accessible route. However, what delight it is to step outside of the book-choosing and reading norms, with absolute regularity.
You could call this the 5th element of the book-choosing code: the one where you go completely off-piste.
I have just finished reading the third book in a row - the third novel in fact - where I did just that. Leonora Carrington's The Hearing Trumpet, followed by a translation of Arto Paasilinna's The Year of the Hare, and onto Ransom Riggs's Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.
These three novels have taken my mind and my imagination for a wander along the path less trodden - and it's been liberating and exciting. They are not all without fault - I loved The Hearing Trumpet but found it hard to engage with the book-within-a-book element at times; Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is ostensibly a 'young adults' books and isn't brilliantly written much of the time but (and it is a big 'but') it has merits that well outnumber its faults - the idea at its core, the use of old photographs to weave the weird and wonderful into the story, and the fact it's like a cross between the Spanish-Mexican horror film The Orphanage and The Matrix, but in book form; and The Year of the Hare? Well, that was just a treat. The thing they have in common is that they are all books which I wouldn't necessarily have chosen or read if I hadn't strayed from the 'code'.
Whether we choose authors and titles that are popular or not, or on lists or not, it doesn't really matter. What matters is how we choose them - allowing ourselves to be randomly led from one title to the next via researching and web searching in a leisurely, sideways and random fashion. So, in a time when blandness and uniformity can prevail too easily for us all, and when doing our 'own thing' can seem so difficult and time-consuming, I call upon you to remember (if you don't already of course) to mosey off and find books - and other stuff - without the use of a map.
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