“Book collecting is an obsession, an occupation, an addiction, a fascination, an absurdity, a fate. It is not a hobby. Those who do it must do it” – Jeanette Winterson[1]

 

Most bookworms know that it is almost impossible to walk into a bookshop without wanting to buy every single one because the thought of missing out on any of them is almost unbearable. Working at a literature festival means I’m always hearing about new books to read, whether it’s my director telling me about an epic Punjabi poem that hardly anyone in Britain has ever heard of, or new, exciting releases by up-and-coming talents. Conversely, for many adults, the constraints of daily nine-to-five life make it easy to become ignorant of the abundance of fantastic literature that already exists, and what new, innovative writing is being published right now. It is easy to fall into familiar reading habits, sticking only to what you know, while at the same time amassing a pile of material that will never be read – what the Japanese call “tsundoku”.

We book lovers must accept the horrible truth that it’s impossible to read everything. It makes me wish I was Bill Nighy’s character in About Time when – mild spoilers ahead – he uses his special powers to go back in time and read more books. In reality, choosing which books to spend your precious time reading is difficult, but there are many resources available for literature lovers to turn to.

One place to which many people turn is Goodreads. You can sign up with an email address or with Facebook so you can easily connect with people you already know, see what they’re reading and how they rate it, and mark any books you’ve got your eye on in just a couple of clicks. Once you’ve finished something, you can rate and review it yourself. Goodreads also compiles lists of recommended reads based on genres and themes you’ve previously enjoyed. While this is a brilliant tool for seeing what like minds are reading and keeping track of what you’d like to read in future, it comes at the cost of sticking to what you know.

Another big indicator of a good book is literary prizes, the most famous of which being the Man Booker. The Booker tends to offer up an intellectually challenging but rewarding book as its winner each year. Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings (2015) and Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (2016) are both difficult, yet stunning books, and credit is due to Oneworld, the indie publisher responsible for both of them. But it is worth noting here that the prize is not without controversy. Funded by the Man Group, one of the world’s largest hedge fund companies, the Booker’s history is intrinsically linked to large capital, and for many writers, readers, and experts this severely compromises the integrity of the prize. Furthermore, the decision in 2014 to extend eligibility for the prize from Commonwealth, Irish, and South African writers to any novel published in English was not universally welcomed.[2]

A more democratic alternative to the Man Booker Prize is the Guardian’s Not the Booker prize. Although the longlist tends to be too extensive, it is chosen by public vote and therefore is a good indication of what most readers enjoy. Other prizes more focused on representation and diversity include the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, which always picks a strong shortlist, and the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, to name just a couple of examples from a huge list of literary prizes around the world.

One of my personal favourite ways to choose a new book is the Waterstones Book of the Month. The high street chain offers a monthly selection of fiction, non-fiction, thriller, and children’s titles, and some of my favourite reads of the past year have come from their choices. This is particularly good for a recent university graduate, or someone whose job keeps them extremely busy, since it’s such a simple way of getting back in touch with contemporary literature. What’s more, if you’re lucky enough to live near a Waterstones with a café, the book of the month comes with a free hot drink and a cake – the growing trend of bookshops also having cafés is, in my opinon, a positive sign that they are adapting to a more connected world, becoming more social spots and finding new revenue.

Taking measures such as these is incredibly important in the age of the internet. While the proliferation of eBooks and online bookselling has numerous advantages, and the internet as a whole has an important role to play in literature, it also has its limitations. Buying a book online usually means buying a book that you have already heard of, whether it’s one of the classics you never got around to reading or a recommendation from somebody else. True book browsing can only be done in a shops. As Mark Forsyth writes in his wonderful rumination on bookshops, The Unknown Unknown (2014), “the internet takes your desires and spits them back out at you, consummated. You search, you put in the words you know, the things that were already on your mind, and it gives you back a book or a picture or a Wikipedia article. But that is all. The unknown unknown must be found otherwhere”.[3] Whether it’s a high street bookshop, an indie one, or even part of a museum or a theatre, the internet could never fully replace the discovery of finding a new book in such a way.

Now, what all avid readers have to face up to is that we do not, in fact, have Bill Nighy’s special powers and we do not have all the time in the world to be reading books. With that in mind, life is far too short to read a book you’re not enjoying. Sometimes there will be books that everyone else loves and you just can’t get your head around because taste is still subjective. There’s nothing wrong with closing the book and putting it down – you can always come back to it later when the time is right.

Finally, a piece of advice against conventional wisdom: sometimes it’s okay to judge a book by its cover. Compare the 2008 Virago Modern Classics Designer Collection’s edition of Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop to the 1981 edition. The 1981 design features a cartoonish illustration of a young girl being attacked by a swan, and would not look out of place in the Young Adult section. The newer edition, featuring covers by vintage textile designers Marian Mahler and Jacqueline Groag, reflects Carter’s macabre, twisted fairy tales and induce intrigue. The two different covers give completely different perceptions of the book. For me, as a book purist, a book is a physical object and the whole object matters. A good cover doesn’t just catch your eye, it’s an indication of what publishers and publicists think of the book, and it is as valid a reason as any to choose new reading material. Nothing beats the feeling of buying a new book that’s visually beautiful.

The key message, then, is that, to find great new reading material, it is imperative to explore wherever you can. There are plenty of resources that you can use to guide you and inform your choices, but always keep an open mind and be ready to find books in unexpected places. Instead of being envious of what everyone else is reading, you can read something that no-one else you know has discovered.

 

[1] Jeanette Winterson, Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery (London: Random House, 2013)

[2] Victoria Ward, “American dominance of Man Booker Prize longlist ‘confirms worst fears’”, The Telegraph 29th July 2015. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booker-prize/11771096/American-dominance-of-Man-Booker-Prize-longlist-confirms-worst-fears.html

[3] Mark Forsyth, The Unknown Unknown: Bookshops and the delight of not getting what you wanted, (London: Icon: 2014)