A couple of days ago I received an email from a friend asking me if I would recommend novels that would help ease a friend of hers back into reading. Now, I’m sorry if this is going to sound uncaring but I really hate requests like this. Reading is such a personal experience and suggesting books for another reader is chancy enough even when you know them and their tastes very well. However, I have never met this woman and I know nothing about her other than that she stopped reading when her husband died thirty years ago and that she has poor health herself. How can I even begin to select novels that might tempt her back into the world of fiction on such little information? Actually, if she hasn’t felt the need for fiction in her life for so long, does she really want to read now or is this our mutual friend telling her she ought to?
Anyway, whatever the truth of the situation is, I have turned my mind to this over the past couple of days and have one or two possibilities I might suggest.
I thought that Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge might prove a good way in. I have no idea whether or not reading stamina is a problem for this woman, but if it is then the way in which this book is organised might be helpful. If you haven’t read it (and if not, why not, it is superb) it is structured as a series of short stories which together build up a picture of the Olive Kitteridge of the title. It’s perfectly possible to pick the book up, read a story, and then put it down again until the following day. I suppose I could just recommend a short story collection but then I’m not much a reader of the genre myself and anyway if the idea is to ease her back into a full novel then this seems like a good half way stage.
Then I though I might offer one of Anne Tyler’s books. Tyler is a stylish writer but the books are never that demanding in terms of the stamina they require and they frequently deal with the type of social and personal issues that, given our mutual friend, I would imagine this reader to be interested in. I could go for almost anything in the author’s output but A Patchwork Planet is probably my favourite. I’ve always thought that the idea of Rent-a-Back was absolutely brilliant. Why every town doesn’t have one is beyond me. Maybe I should use my retirement to do something about it. I’m sure there’d be a call for their services.
I’d also like to suggest Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees on the same grounds as the Tyler. I think the social and political issues might be appropriate. But, like Kingsolver’s central character, Taylor Green, this woman was left with a small child to bring up on her own. Is it too close to home? I simply don’t know because I don’t know her.
Am I alone in thinking that this is a nigh impossible task? Has anyone out there ever been asked to do the same thing and if so what did you recommend? And was it successful? Any feedback would be gratefully received and any suggestions even more warmly welcomed.