Can you recommend something to read?

I am addicted to BBC Radio 4’s A Good Read.   I listen to Harriet Gilbert and guests in back to back episodes, pausing on my commute or interrupting my weekend potter to note down a particular novel, memoir or anthology.    My bedside table strains under the weight of recommended reads.

Piles of books
The current bedside table reading pile

One of Harriet Gilbert’s good reads was Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing.  It might feel a little circular (A Good Read recommends a book from an author reading and recommending other authors) but it got me thinking about the three books that have inspired me to read more widely, which were also a good read in their own right.

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Notes on book recommendations from Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing

For me the hero of the piece is Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree.   It’s the first in a series of anthologies of his writing (and reading) for Believer magazine.   There is only one book in the series where it feels like he has wearied of the venture, but even then I enjoyed his exasperation at spending so much time recommending books when he could be writing ‘real’ literature.  Sadly, I can’t remember which one, and I’m not willing to reread them all to identify the ‘bad’ one.    Anyway, its not The Polysyllabic Spree or Shakespeare Wrote for Money so tuck into those two.  Hornby’s reading is hugely varied and he (generally) only writes about books he has enjoyed so it’s a pleasure to enter his reading world.

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Nick Hornby’s reading list from The Polysyllabic Spree in April 2004

Susan’s Hill’s Howard’s End is on the Landing is more memoir.  She spends a year reading only the books found in her home and ruminates on her literary influences and preferences.   Of the three books it was from Hill’s memoir that I personally discovered the most new authors as her choices were, on the whole, slightly more obscure works.  Hill recently followed up this memoir with Jacob’s Room is Full of Books, which is more a diary of scattered bookish thoughts than memoir.

And if you think it’s a cheat that two of my three book recommendation companion pieces come from Nick Hornsby, then you should replace one with Andy Miller’s A Year of Reading Dangerously.  The book title is still a complete mystery to me, but similar to Hill, Miller set himself a reading challenge for one year.  His focus is on how reading the great novels from his ‘List of Betterment’ can bring wonder into his dreary life.   Both books end with a definitive list of books to read in a year (or a lifetime).

The key difference is that while Susan Hill is firmly ensconced in the literary world and her memoir is full of sketches and anecdotes of literary figures, Miller’s challenge relates more to mastering the classics and creating a reading habit.   Funny and inspiring, I’ve just added Miller’s book back to my bedside pile to read again soon.

And do these books work?   Yes.  Here are the books I can remember reading based on Hill, Hornby and Miller’s recommendations:

  • A Writer’s Diary – Virginia Woolf
  • The Blue Flower – Penelope Fitzgerald
  • The Wrector’s Daughter – F. M. Mayer
  • Skellig – David Almond
  • The Rights of the Reader – Daniel Penance
  • Poppy Shakespeare – Clare Allen
  • The Diary of a Nobody – George & Wheedon Grossmith
  • Weetzie Bat – Francesca Lia Block
  • Little Children – Tom Perrotta

A Good Read, Book Recommendations

 

 

The internet is a bad, bad thing.

All brilliant, immensely readable books in their own right, Dave Eggers’ The Circle, Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed and Jarett Kobek’s I Hate The Internet combine to make a powerful trio that unpick the negative impact of the internet on our lives.

I hate the internet, So You've Been Publicly Shamed, The Circle
“The internet was a wonderful invention. It was a computer network which people used to remind other people that they were awful pieces of shit” I Hate The Internet, Jarett Kobek

The public shaming of Kobek’s fictional Ellen Flitcraft and the real life shaming of the likes of Lindsey Stone and Justine Sacco in Ronsen’s Shamed most clearly connect the books.   Kobek builds on Ronsen’s exposé of the tyranny of Twitter, where our fleeting, collective outrage has the ability to wreak lives, in his dissection of the impact of unregulated capitalism on the internet – with social media organisations invested in enabling vile online abuse in order to monetise ‘heated debate’ through advertising.

Hatred towards women, corporate theft of intellectual property, the uber-gentrification and subsequent ethnic cleansing of San Francisco; Kobek’s writing virtually vibrates with rage.  I Hate The Internet has been compared to Kurt Vonnegut’s writing.  That’s a lazy review as it is no Slaughterhouse5, but it’s a great satirical diatribe on the modern internet-enabled age.   Kobe’s repeatedly calls it a ‘bad novel’ but it is a joy to read.

And finally to Eggers’ The Circle where, in a hyper-connected, dystopian near-future, we have our heroine, Mae Holland, live streaming her life to the world.   Mae works for an internet conglomerate (think Google buying Facebook and Microsoft) which promotes dictums such as ‘Privacy is theft’ and ‘Secrets are lies’ as it seeks to control the population through a form of relentless transparency that signals the end of personal privacy.

The Circle is at is best, for me, when Eggers skewers the insidious, all consuming nature of social media as he shows Mae’s struggle to maintain her social network in an increasingly futile yet addictive flurry of ‘smiles’ and ‘zings’.   If you haven’t read the The Circle, it is the perfect companion piece to the Black Mirror episode Nosedive (S3:E1 on Netflix).

Did I miss the point of this literary triptych on the encroaching horror of social media when I tweeted my 140 character review of I Hate The Internet?  Of course I did.  But someone might have ‘liked’ it (me).

P.s. if you are ever publicly shamed then Max Mosley is your go-to man.   Jon Ronson might be able to put you in touch.