Normally I will move straight on from one work of fiction to another. As I finish one novel another is ready and waiting to take its place. This is not only simple to achieve in a house that is primarily inhabited by books, it is also essential given the presence of an ever growing tbr pile and the mounting number of library borrowings rapidly approaching their return date. (Note to self: in any future life do not join three different library systems just because you can. That way madness lies.) However, occasionally I look around for a new book and realise that fiction simply will not do. Sometimes this is because the book I’ve just completed has been so overwhelming that I need time to consider, to reflect, in greater depth than usual. Moving on to a different fictional world too quickly would seem, disrespectful, occasionally even disorienting. Take time to pause says Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and this is precisely how I feel in such circumstances.
There are other times, however, when the motivation behind not wanting to move quickly onto another novel is less palatable, when for one reason or another I am sated with the fictional world and need to step back for a while to regain my appetite for make-believe. Sometimes this is because I have read too much of a particular author, especially if that author always writes in the same genre and style and, to be blunt, isn’t particularly good. I’m thinking here of one summer break when I only took with me the works of a lesser spotted crime writer thinking to catch up with her series chronologically. After the fourth book in which she explained the reason her main character found himself working for the legal firm he did in exactly the same words she had used in the other three I was ready to dump her entire back catalogue into a nearby lake and any reading material would have been welcome as long as it wasn’t fiction.
The same thing can happen if I read too many examples of any specific genre, regardless of whether the particular novels be good, bad or indifferent. I went through a fantasy phase some years ago when almost every book I picked up was set in a world a long long way from our own. Too many, too close together, I’m afraid. Now, while I will read a new book by one of my favourite authors working in that field I found recently that when I wanted to go back and revisit a series in order to prepare myself for a forthcoming publication I simply hadn’t the appetite any longer. My taste for the genre has diminished.
And, just occasionally, I can be put off fiction by a single book that goes badly wrong. It might be that the plot goes off on a course of its own, taking over from the writer and waving them and the reader goodbye as it meanders along a path that suggests it has completely lost its way. It might be a book where the writing is so clichéd that it actually leaves my mouth feeling coated with an overplus of sugary residue. It might be as simple as a book that has no spring in its step – perfectly adequate but nothing to make me feel that time spent reading it is time well spent.
Last weekend I had a confluence of all three of these single book events, one after another, until I put down the third novel, the one, you might say, where I quite literally lost the plot, in the middle of a chapter and declared “No more.” But, for me it is unthinkable that such a declaration could mean ‘no more reading’. Not take a book to bed with me? Impossible! What it meant was that I needed a palate cleanser, a piece of non-fiction that would take away that cloying feeling, rest my taste buds and sharpen my appetite for fiction again. But what could possibly fit that particular bill?
I suspect that the answer is different for each and every reader. For me there is a limited number of options. It might, although I have to admit it’s unlikely, be poetry. I have to be in the mood for poetry and if I’m already feeling on the grumpy side then probably I’m not going to go in that direction. Much more likely is some form of book about books. I may not want to read fiction itself, but reading about other people’s favourite novels is a completely different matter. Something along the lines of Ann Fadiman’s Ex Libris is guaranteed to leave me feeling renewed, cleansed and ready to head back into the narrative jungle, usually because I’ve been reminded of something I’ve always meant to read or been introduced to a book that seems to be just the necessary antidote to my literary blues. Top of the list, however, are collections of letters and journal entires and should those collections be associated with writers then that’s all to the good. As you can see, even when sated I don’t want to get too far away from the fictional world.
So what did I turn to this time? Well, when I was writing about my visit to the bookshop, Heywood Hill, Ali commented asking if I knew there was a collection of the letters exchanged between Nancy Mitford (who used to work there) and Heywood Hill himself. No, I didn’t but I very soon put that right and my copy of The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street arrived last week, just in time to serve as the perfect remedy for my reading malaise. Not only do they discuss the books that are being published, stocked and read, but Mitford’s links to the literary and social world of the period mean that there are all sorts of juicy anecdotes about the people she meets and her views, sometimes complementary and some times definitely not, on their characters and behaviour. Sheer gossip, of course, but book gossip and therefore of the very best sort. If you’re a Mitford fan, and I know that some of you very definitely are, then this is a book you might want to add to your tbr pile. Light, frothy, bookish and exactly what I needed to pull me back into the world of fiction.
But, next time the usual remedies might not work. We all know that too frequent an application of the same medication can result in our minds developing a resistance. So what do you turn to when you need to cleanse your reading palate? It would be useful to have alternatives that I can apply whenever the fiction malaise strikes again.