READING OUTSIDE THE COMFORT ZONE

I’ve deliberately been trying to read things that don’t immediately appeal to me in recent months. That may sound odd, but I find that I can sink into a groove of ‘cosy’ reading, safe reading, if I am not careful. Not necessarily in the sense I saw ‘cosy’ used recently in the blurb for a Kindle Daily Deal book – a cosy country house murder. I know what they mean, it uses the trope of a murder as the key to a cerebral exploration of relationships in a single setting and leaves clues for the reader to be cleverer than the fictional sleuths. Fair enough, I quite like the genre myself to be honest, not so much Agatha Christie though for some reason. My mother liked the Georgette Heyer murder mysteries and I guess it rubbed off. But the term ‘cosy’ about the untimely ending of a life, however much of a rotter these elderly, financially secure, smug, and sometimes plain horrible victims deserved to be whacked over the head with the lead piping in the drawing room, seems inappropriate.

However.

The cosy I mean is the tendency to pick a genre, demanding or frivolous, and stick with it to the exclusion of other styles or genres of writing.

My sink holes of laziness tend to be spy stories, and military history. I love le Carré, Deighton, and then a whole plethora of writers at what may be unflatteringly called the second tier in the genre. Many of them were regarded as top rank in the Cold War heyday of the genre, but have not withstood the test of literary time. I had an unfortunate loss of many of these paperback books from the 1960s and 1970s some years ago, so I cannot simply go back and re-read them to check my suspicion that some of them owed their appeal to the immediacy of the threat which ended c1990.  Acquiring second hand or e-book copies is not always simple, and when I have bothered I have often been disappointed.

This genre has been appealing since I first read ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ on a train back from University one dark winter’s night in the early 70s. An impulse buy on the way to the station I started at the top and have been searching for a repeat of that sudden realisation I was unexpectedly reading something great.

Of course the purists would sniff at that word for a ‘genre’ writer, though Le Carré has surely transcended that slur? But my ‘cosy’ reading does not just consist of those two genres. I have been through phases where my go to literary relaxation has been RL Stevenson, Bram Stoker, Evelyn Waugh, Orwell,  Terry Venables (yes the football manager – the Hazell series), Austen, David Lodge, Malcolm Bradbury, the tumbling Brontës and Allan Mallinson. Eclectic enough possibly and read because I liked them all. Others, particularly some of the accepted western literary canon, have bored me to tears, while others have found a place in my heart and my mind. Turgenev I like – he has the great virtue lacking in many Russian authors of being brief and concise. War and Peace I have never finished. Likewise Don Quixote (and I know Cervantes was Spanish, not Russian). Many of the ‘classic’ writers lurking in the back rooms of the ‘canon’ seem to have been paid by the yard – yes Dickens is one of those great short story writers who strung them out into novels that outstay their welcome by several tens of thousands of words. Steinbeck may have been a great social chronicler but his writing just doesn’t grab me. Hemingway I don’t think gets a seat in this musty Valhalla according to the band of smug gatekeepers. I can’t make my mind up whether they are right or not. People certainly talk about him pretentiously enough for him to make it, but he was probably too popular. Does anyone read him these days? For pleasure? If not he should certainly go in.

I’ve read Virgil, in translation and struggled with bits in Latin at school. He’s okay – needed a good editor.

But the point is what should I be reading now to open my mind a bit?

Maybe full form literature is the problem. Perhaps blogs, vlogs, YouTube, the Twittershpere, Instachat and Snapagram are the modern literary canon?

I have been reading some Paolo Coelho recently, and Sebastian Faulks, Henryk Sienkiewicz and Anthony Horowitz. I’ve enjoyed all of them, including the Sienkiewicz, but possibly the latter only because I started reading With Fire and Sword in 1986 when an American friend lent me the book. I returned it, unfinished, c1990 and restarted reading a kindle version at the end of last year. It seemed to have changed in the interim but I suspect that was my memory rather than a rewrite, as Sienkiewicz died in 1916.

All of these were probably books that I would not have read without a conscious push to read ‘new’ stuff although I have to confess having started reading Horowitz when I stole borrowed my daughter’s Power of Five books. I’ve never read any of his Alex Rider books, which I am sure is unforgiveable.

So what next to shake my brain?

That of course is the point. To see how others have transcribed the world and experience, real or imagined, into the written word. Not to steal ideas, styles or plots but to be aware that there are other ways of doing this.

I wrote a large chunk of a novel in the form of transcripts of telephone intercept some years ago when that was a less well known activity. I am tempted to dig it out to see how it reads now. It was of course simply an extension of the epistolary novel exemplified by Richardson’s Pamela, Stoker’s Dracula or Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole. Others have brought it up to date with things like ‘Texts from Jane Eyre’, so I have missed the novelty boat in any event.

Maybe burrowing into the horror of social media is real answer.

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