A month or so ago I was in the Oxfam Bookshop on Nicolson Street riffling through the sci-fi and fantasy section when a strange encounter occurred. I took a copy of Iain M Bank’s The Player of Games from the shelf, glanced over the back cover then returned it to its slot, when the man wedged into the small, U-shaped shelf capsule alongside me – a man I had, in the grand tradition of book shopping, done my best to pretend was not blocking my access to sections G-P – spoke to me.
Such a clear breach of the unwritten rules of British public life took me by surprise. I once fell on top of a man on the London Underground, grabbing his shirt front to stop me crashing to the floor of the tube carriage where I would have no doubt been crushed with merciless indifference by the shuffling hordes of capital commuters, and he didn’t even cast a pitying gaze my way. As such, the polite interjection by a fellow book shopper took me by surprise.
‘That’s a really good book,’ he said. ‘Have you read any other of the Culture novels?’
I had, I told him, still slightly unsure if he was about to mug me or ask for 75p for the bus. I had read the first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas, and quite liked it. I wasn’t blown away but it had been a good read. Truth was, I said, I had more or less decided Iain Banks wasn’t for me.
‘You should give this one a try,’ the stranger said. ‘It’s much better. One of his best. You’ll like it.’
Well, I thought, I’m game. Why not? Turns out I did like it. I liked it a lot. My reservations about Banks were blown away, like so much of the wondrous galaxy he delighted in creating and destroying, and I’m sure I will read more of his work in future.
This experience brought home something to me which I have long suspected. I’m not very good at choosing books for myself. I tend to pick books that I either know I will like (because I’ve read other books by the same author) or ones that I think I should like because someone gave them an award. The first kind I enjoy, but like with heroin I never recapture that initial buzz of a new discovery (I’m guessing about heroin here. The hardest narcotic I have ever experimented with is probably extra strong mouthwash). The second kind I tend not to enjoy because I’m too busy trying to find the award-worthy bit: Is this it? No. Is this it? No. Is this it? No. Oh, that’s the end. I must have missed it.
Therefore, after failing in my ‘finish all the books in my to-read pile before buying anything new’ challenge of last year, I am ready to start a new literary endeavour.
Here it is: This year I will only read books recommended to me by other people.
If you have ever been asked ‘What is your favourite book?’ you’ll quickly recognise that this is quite a wide remit. To give things a bit more structure I’m going to split things up by theme. First up is female authors.
Why? Because on reviewing my bookshelf there is an awful lot of swinging genitalia on display (that is literary, not literally, speaking). This seems odd since I like to think I’m a bit of a feminist, and penises can’t grip pens and are therefore not required for good writing (I suppose you might be able to type with one but I wouldn’t recommend doing it at work).
Via the magic of Facebook I now have a list of books by female authors recommended by people other than me. They are:
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Not that kind of Girl by Lena Dunham
A Place of Greater Safety by Hillary Mantel
Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie
The City of Beasts by Isabel Allende
Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingslover
In the next few days I will see which ones I can find in my local book shops and then the adventure begins.