A novel is a sequence of words, one after the other — how do you improve on that?

I watched the video of Steve Jobs’ keynote speech demonstrating the new iPad when it came out and felt a bit underwhelmed. My main interest in the iPad was in the area of ebook readers — could the iPad do for books what the iPod did for music? By the looks of it, and despite the media buzz, I’d say the answer is no. But I wasn’t expecting that it would.

I’ve kept half an eye on ebook readers as the technology has developed, and have even a couple of times found myself on the verge of buying one. The main thing that stopped me each time is the fact that I just love books as physical objects too much. There are, nevertheless, things I like about the idea of having an ebook reader. The main one is that it would free me from having to have a physical copy of every book I read. I’d be quite happy to have most non-fiction books that I’ve read in digital form, for instance, so that, once I’ve read them, I can refer back to them, without their having to take up my rather limited shelf-space.

But the real issue for me is novels. Would I ever want to read a novel on an ebook reader? There are a few advantages I could see in it, but from Steve Jobs’ demo of the iPad, I can’t see that those advantages have been addressed. Jobs was obviously excited about the new iPad, and in particular about the ebook store aspect of it. But when it came to showing the results of buying an ebook, and addressing what you actually do with it once you’ve bought it, he seemed to hit something of blank, which was quickly passed over with a happy return to the ebook store, with its potential to sell oodles of a whole new form of digital product.

What about the most important thing (from the consumer’s, not the producer’s, point of view) — the reading experience? Books, for most people, are fundamentally different from music. The whole point about the iPod is that it lets you take your music with you and listen to it while you’re doing other stuff. Even audiobooks, Apple’s main brush with the literary world so far, are mainly of advantage in that you can listen to them while doing something else, like walking the dog, or doing the housework. Reading, however, is something you do as an entire activity all of itself. And I think there’s really very little in terms of bells & whistles you can add to it.

Then, today, I came across this video of Penguin’s ideas of how they’re going to transform their stock of books for use on the iPad. It all looks great, but the trouble is, these aren’t the sort of books I’m interested in. Yes, the iPad is great for reference books, because it can turn them into hyperlinked multimedia applications. But we know computers can do that, because they’re already doing it. On websites, and before that, on CD-ROMs. So there’s nothing really new there.

I have a few ideas — a set of minimum demands I’d like to be met before I’d buy an ebook reader.

First, and this I think is already in place anyway, is an ability to change the size and style of the text. But I’d also like to change the amount of whitespace, so you can have lines double-spaced, or line-and-a-half spaced (my favourite), and set your own margins, which makes things a lot easier to read. And you’d have to be able to save those as a style sheet and apply it to the text of any book you read. Perhaps have one for horror novels and one for classics, and so on.

Next, bookmarks. You’d have to have a bookmark for where you’re reading, obviously, but you’d also want to be able to place quick-flick bookmarks for places you want to refer back to. And I’m not just talking about reference books, here. If you’re reading something like War and Peace, with its vast cast of characters, you might want to create an index page of names, bookmark-linked to the places they first appear, just so you can keep track of who’s who (along with all their Russian diminutives). Also — and this is mostly for reference books — I’d want to be able to view the book split-screen, so I can have two sections open at once. For instance, to keep a diagram from one page up whilst it is being discussed, and so on.

Next, as an expansion of bookmarks, I’d want comments and annotations. I know things like the Kindle allow you to make comments, though I’ve never checked to see how easy that is. But what I like the sound of is opening up comments and annotations so they can be shared. So, you’d be able to put your own private annotations on the page (or as hidden pop-ups); but you should also be able to share your comments & annotations, for instance with other members of your book-club; and, you should be able to subscribe to (even pay for) annotations from third-parties — for instance, in the case of scholarly annotations to a classic book. So, you could buy S T Joshi’s annotations to Lovecraft, as an example. Or, you could (if you really wanted to go in-depth), buy both the Penguin and the Oxford Classics annotations for some classic novel you’re reading, and have them both appear linked to the one text. (I have to say here that I love annotations to books. I can’t resist a book with annotations.)

The thing is, though, when it comes down to it, the experience of reading a book is irreplaceable by any activity other than reading the book — following it on, word by word, and creating that thing in your head which is the result of having read a novel. The whole point of that experience is just how unadorned it is. A nice edition, a nice typeface, some informative annotations, perhaps some illustrations, are all essential, but when it comes down to it, the reading of a book is something that happens deep within your head. And I can’t think of anything that any technology could do to improve on, or even alter, that. It’s brainware, not software, not hardware — brainware alone.

And this may the point — reading is a creative act, with the book as the script and you, the reader, as the performer. What you do with the book as you read it is personal, perhaps a bit experimental, and probably incommunicable. And it may be the luddite-Romantic in me — though I love technology and what it can do well, just like I love my iMac — but I think it’s one the few areas no technology will ever improve. It’s a human thing, a truly human thing, like dreaming, like hoping, like wishing, and all those other (mostly useless) things we humans do which will never be digitised.

So, while I’d love for Apple to have success after success, there’s a part of me sort of hoping it won’t happen in this case, just so the march of digital progress might finally find the point where old-style entertainment digs in its trenches and holds the front-line. If it’s going to happen anywhere, it’s going to be in the most low-tech, do-it-yourself area. And I think that area may be reading novels.

When do you give up reading a book?

So, when do you give up reading a book? I mean, if you’ve started it, but realise you’re not enjoying it? Do you push on, telling yourself it might get better in the second half, or do you cut your losses, give it to charity/sell it on eBay, and read something else? Is there a point you have to get to (halfway? quarterway? eighthway? Captain Janeway?) to prove to yourself you’ve given it as much chance as it deserves, or can you really only know a book isn’t for you if you’ve read it right to the end?


It’s stupid, but I always feel guilty about giving up on a book instead of finishing it, even if it means slogging through pages of prose that feel like wading through mud. Partly because there’s always the nagging feeling that I’d be missing some magical best bit that redeems the whole thing. As in: “You gave up before the scene with the toadstools? But that’s the whole point of the book! It all makes sense after that!” (Because I did find one of my favourite books, A Voyage to Arcturus, a bit like that till the penultimate chapter made me look at the whole thing in an entirely different way.) But on the other hand, there’s that exchange between Will Self and Richard Littlejohn, about Littlejohn’s novel:

SELF: I’ve read 200 pages of it and that is a 200 page recruiting leaflet for the BNP.

LITTLEJOHN: Well, you can’t comment until you have read the other 200.

SELF: Why? Does it suddenly turn into Tolstoy?

It should be obvious, shouldn’t it? If you’re not enjoying a book, give up and read something else. It’s not going to suddenly turn into Tolstoy. But instead, I agonise. I go to Amazon and read the reviews, hoping for justification that I’m right to give up on it. Inevitably, there are just as many good reviews as bad, which makes me go back to the book and give it a second chance. After all, every book deserves a second chance, doesn’t it? It’s been lovingly crafted by its author as the heartfelt, earnest expression of his or her deep-held beliefs, hasn’t it..? Hey, stop that cynical laughter at the back there!

One of the reasons I agonise, I think, is because of whatever it is that made me buy the book in the first place. You read a blurb or a review, or sometimes (I admit it!) just get a glimpse of a cover, and it lights up your imagination. “Yes, that’s just the book for me!” you think. “I know exactly the sort of thing it’s going to be!” But when you read it, of course, it’s never exactly the sort of thing you imagined it being. A good book — perhaps this is the definition of a good book — is always one that’s so much better than your idea of what it was going to be, that it just wipes out all your expectations, and suddenly the book could only ever be what it is, and you’re so glad you’ve read it.

The Magus by John FowlesBut far too often, it’s the opposite situation. The book’s not quite (or no way near) as good as you imagined. But because you’re still hoping (ever the optimist, me), you keep reading. I find that if I put a book down and stop reading it, I’m all too often haunted by that initial idea of how it could have been. And once or twice, after a few years, I’ve even convinced myself I must have been totally wrong about the book in the first place, and started reading it again — even to the point of having to buy the stupid thing again to do so! (I’m talking about John Fowles’s The Magus, here, which I read to the end, was disappointed, then convinced myself to read all the way through to the end again a couple of years later, because I couldn’t believe it really was as disappointing as it had turned out to be… And then realised it was! So I’ve kept it on my shelf as a reminder. (I liked The Collector, though, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman — apart from the modernist bits, which seemed, oddly enough, rather dated.))

The Magicians by Lev GrossmanThe book I’m wavering over at the moment is Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, which sold itself to me as a sort of slightly grown-up, grittier Harry Potter. It’s been getting a lot of attention and reviews. I reached page 75 or so and started faltering. Then I got the far better Logicomix in the post and rushed through that in a couple of days. Then I forced myself back to Grossman’s book and now, about two weeks after I started it, I’m still not halfway through. I keep finding other things to read instead. The trouble is… it’s got no life. The characters have no character. One of them, a girl called Alice, is described as being “painfully shy” (that cliché is bad enough) on one page, and on the next is happily speaking whole paragraphs. In fact, however much the writer tells us she’s shy, she rarely acts it or sounds it. And another weird thing is, for a book about magic, there’s no sense of magic at all. No-one seems excited to be in a college teaching magic. The only good bits — the only bits that have kept me reading, so far — are when Grossman talks about his lead character’s love of a fictional Narnia-type world called Fillory, but that’s such a minor part of the book it’s hardly worth reading the rest for. But I don’t want to write a review of The Magicians (I feel I can’t, because I haven’t finished it yet!). Some people obviously like it. I just happen to find it rather lifeless…

There, I’ve admitted it. Now I can stop reading the damn thing and get on with something I might enjoy. Thousands of books are published ever year, but really, really good books are so rare. What makes it worse is that sometimes it seems everyone else likes books which I find limp, dull or shallow. Which means the limp/dull/shallow ones get published and publicised, and the good ones take some hunting down. (Or perhaps — eek! — don’t get published at all!)

But, you know, what if it does get better in the second half? Damn, maybe I really ought to finish it…


On Re-Reading Books

farnsworthIn the words of Futurama’s dithery Professor Farnsworth, “Good news, everyone!” — apparently, I am incredible. At least, I am according to this rather fatuous report, “Oops — I Read It Again!” (link from Neil Gaiman’s blog).

Why am I incredible? (You read my blog, yet have to ask?!) Because, it seems, I’m part of a rare 13% of the reading population — not just that 77% of it who admit to having “enjoyed a book* so much that they’ve gone back to read it again” (I’m not sure why “book” gets an asterisk — perhaps it’s a term that needs a more precise definition for the sort of people who read a site with a name like booktrade.info), but I’m part of the 17% who “have re-read a favourite tome more than five times” (surely not all of them were tomes, you lazy journalist, you — try scratching your head a few times before reaching for the thesaurus!)

Alright, so maybe reading a book — or several, I’ll not get into specifics yet — five times or more is odd, but surely it’s not “incredible”? But that’s just the word-geek in me getting picky. (To show how picky I can get, I also wonder why the report gives “C. S. Lewis” a full-stop after each initial, “J. K Rowling” only one, and “JRR Tolkien” none.) What makes this all the more distressing is that this is a report, I assume, from some sector of the book trade itself — as if the trade were so assured the wares it sells are so deeply worthless that reading them even once, after buying them, were to take things a bit far. (Certainly true in the case of sleb biographies and their like — maybe that’s the special meaning of book-with-an-asterisk I was looking for.)

Now that my incredible nature is out in the open, I might as well be frank about it. Not only do I habitually re-read books, I tend to regard reading a book for the first time as merely an opportunity to decide whether it’s worth re-reading — the re-reading bit being, for me, where the fun really starts. I tend to only keep books if I plan to re-read them at some time.

fantasy_100_bestI haven’t always been like this. I used to be un-incredible, at least most of the time. (Except as a kid. All kids demand re-reading of the books they like. They’re not stupid.) I can’t actually pinpoint when my incredible, perhaps even mythical, status kicked in, but aside from re-reading favourite Doctor Who novelisations (which, at one point in my life, were all I read), I tended to read books only once. What happened was something like this: I kept buying new books and finding they were bad. After a while, getting distressed that I hadn’t read anything good for a while, and worried that it was me that had gone wrong rather than the hallowed publishing industry, I decided to revisit a book I had enjoyed, just to make sure. To my relief, I found I enjoyed it even more. And then, perhaps, other new approaches to this whole business of “reading books” (that’s books-without-asterisks) started to suggest themselves. Such as the idea that books which have been around for a long time, and which have continually been published and read for decades, if not centuries, might actually be better than new books. Classics, as they’re sometimes called, even by people without thesauruses. This was when I started reading (and re-reading) books like Moorcock and Cawthorne’s Fantasy: 100 Best Books and Horror: The 100 Best Books edited by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman, and doing bizarre things like frequenting secondhand bookshops.

I know I’m probably still in a minority to re-read at least as much as I first-time read, but I do genuinely find it more pleasurable to re-read a book. Perhaps this is in part because I am, by nature, rather untrusting and over-critical as a reader. I want to know a book is worth investing in before I really go for it 100% in the reading — but if I am untrusting, it’s only because I’ve read so many bad and disappointing books that I’ve ended up that way.

murakami_sputniksweetheartThe main objection to re-reading a book is that there’s no point because you know what’s going to happen. But, to me, knowing what’s going to happen not only doesn’t matter, it actually makes it better. Exposed to stories as much as we are, we’ve all developed enough of a “story sense” to second-guess where a story is going anyway, and the real pleasure of a twist-in-the-tale is not so much the twist itself, as how skilfully it’s handled. My two most recent re-reads are both minor books by favourite authors — Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami, and The Violet Apple by David Lindsay. The first time I read Sputnik Sweetheart was when I’d just discovered Murakami. At the time, I’d only read his massive (genuinely tome-like) The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and in comparison found the slim Sputnik Sweetheart a bit disappointing, though with a strikingly weird bit in the middle (where a young woman gets stuck at the top of a Ferris wheel for the night and has an experience that turns her hair completely white), mainly because I wasn’t sure how to understand the end. Re-reading it, knowing how it ended, everything fell into place and made sense, and I had time to relax and understand other things about the book, like how each of the three main characters faces the same sort of strange crisis, but one evades it, one falls before it, and one — maybe — triumphs. With The Violet Apple, I found that knowing what was going to happen at the end only made the build-up much more poignant and emotionally powerful. (That’s how tragedy always works. Macbeth’s downfall was only a surprise for Macbeth himself.)

Another possible peculiarity of mine comes into play here, and this is to do with re-reading books by certain authors. The more you read of an author’s work, the more you get to understand them, and the more you get out of reading them. The first time I read the David Lindsay book, The Violet Apple, I was still under the spell of his most famous and impressive book, A Voyage to Arcturus, and so I read The Violet Apple with that other book in mind. But The Violet Apple is a very different book. It’s very un-fantastic, whereas A Voyage to Arcturus is almost nothing but fantastic; it’s also very human, whereas A Voyage to Arcturus is starkly inhuman. A Voyage to Arcturus could never contain a sentence such as “She could not bear that awful family loneliness and unsympathy”, but The Violet Apple does and, knowing Lindsay to be capable of writing such a sentence, I will in future re-read A Voyage to Arcturus slightly differently.

You don’t listen to a favourite song only once, do you? Why should books be any different, just because they take more time to re-experience? Human beings are memory-loving creatures. We treasure our experiences and go back over them, in our heads, again and again. Sometimes we do this to understand the experiences better, sometimes it’s just because revisiting them is so enjoyable. The reading of a book is an experience just like any other, and the reasons for doing it can be just the same.

fourtimesbooksTo end off, a not-necessarily-complete list of books I’ve read four times or more (with no explanations or apologies — though, to intensify my weirdness, I’ll say that at least two in this list are books I’ve re-read straightaway after reading them for the first time): Moving Zen by C W Nicol, The Belgariad by David Eddings, A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay, The Outsider by Colin Wilson, The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin, Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse, The Influence by Ramsey Campbell, The Drowned World by J G Ballard, V for Vendetta by Alan Moore & David Lloyd… Not to mention the countless short stories I’ve re-read many more times than four or five. Short stories are, after all, so much more re-readable. But simply reading short stories nowadays is enough to commit you to a very dark and dingy corner of the asylum reserved for book-readers. Catch you re-reading the things, and they throw away the key. Before you eat it, or do yourself an injury with it or something.

Comment imported from the old version of Mewsings:
Gavin Burrows

Hi Murray, My response here!