Palate Cleansing

IMG_0046Normally 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.

imagesSo 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.

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28 thoughts on “Palate Cleansing

  1. This book sounds both a timely read for you, and rather wonderful – I see the Mitfords as literary sirens – and may just have to add this one to my growing pile of Mitfordabilia (can I claim that as a new word?).

    1. Whether it’s a new word or not, Annabel, it is certainly a splendid one. I have to admit to never having read anything by the Mitfords, although I did used to see Debo around on the estate at Chatsworth when I visited friends up there. What should I move on to next?

  2. I will also be looking for a copy of the Mitford/Hill book. I remember it caught my eye too when Ali mentioned it. With your question, I am finding the book jar (actually a box) helpful. It usually gives me something completely different, and though I frequently think, “I don’t want to read THAT now,” I generally end up liking whatever book it picks – sometimes very much.

    1. Yes, Lisa, i think I might have to adopt that idea at some point in the future if only to do something about the tbr pile. For one of my book groups this week we have to take a book along as a mystery Christmas present. We each take a wrapped book, put them in a pile and then all draw one. I was looking through my collection this morning and everything I’ve got has either been kept because I want to read it again or has yet to be read the first time. The latter is by far the bigger of the two categories. And I still don’t know what to take with me on Wednesday.

  3. Glad you liked the book as much as I did. Don’t worry I won’t tell you about the follow up book – A Spy In The Bookshop: Letters Between Heywood Hill & John Saumarez Smith, 1965-74 – there’s little mention of Nancy – but it is a marvelous continuation of the gossip from 10 Curzon Street. – oh oops 🙂

  4. Like you I’ve never read anything by the Mitfords. But I am off to visit the Heywood Hill bookshop next week so I might still be tempted by the book anyway. My recharge reading sources are probably not much use to you. It’s sometimes poetry but if I’m not in the mood for that I indulge myself with a footballers biography or something football related. If you’re into football I can heartily recommend Jimmy Burns book about Spanish football ‘La Roja” and the wonderful books by Gary Nelson who used to play for Charlton. If you don’t like football of course then my suggestions are useless!!!

    1. Well, I did work for West Brom for a while when I was a student, Col, but my father was a Yorkshireman and so it is cricket and horse-racing in this household I’m afraid. Actually after the current debacle in Australia, I am very much afraid.

  5. I tend to turn to re-reads when I hit a bad patch – knowing that enjoyment is assured gives me the necessary impetus and by the time I’ve come out the other end my enthusiasm is usually restored. And if not – then time for another old favourite. Reginald Hill tends to be my first choice in these circumstances…

    1. Re-reads can help sometimes but I am always so afraid of finding that the book is not as good as I remember it being and consequently being thrown into an even deeper slough of despond.

  6. When the literary going gets tough I either re-read or turn to knitting and knitting magazines. But I’ve learned over the years that mixing things up and not reading the same type of book back-to-back means that doesn’t happen too often now.

    1. You’re right, Fleur, there are ways to avoid this type of impasse, but when I’m tired or unwell I always seem to plump for the Lowest Fictional Common Denominator and that’s when inevitably the rot sets in.

  7. I hate to say it, but I usually just power through it. But the truth is really that I tend to pick up very different books one after another, rather than reading a lot of one type of thing, so this particular type of burnout doesn’t happen often. But whenever I do feel burnt out, I generally just keep reading, and my energy comes back eventually. Most often, it comes back the next day, when I’ve had a good sleep and am a different mindset. I find that listening to bookish podcasts helps get my enthusiasm back. Hearing people talk about books with joy and energy makes me want to read again.

    1. Podcasts are an excellent idea, Rebecca. I enjoy both ‘Books on the Nightstand’ and ‘The Guardian Podcast’ and I’m always behind in listening to them. I should take more advantage of what’s out there.

  8. Alex, I read this post and recognized myself immediately. “Yes! That’s just it,” I said to myself. I get too comfortable all of the sudden with an author or a genre. One really does need to “mix it up” a bit. But don’t loose the list! You’ll be back.

    1. That’s really good advice, Grad. And I like the notion of getting too comfortable as well. It neatly sums up that feeling of having lost the edge that a good read should have.

  9. That sounds like a very familiar predicament. I think I usually give up on reading much at all for a bit- that is to say, I read blogs and magazines and newspaper articles but nothing that needs too much attention, becuase nothing can hold my attention for a while. But if it is just a case of over-reading in one genre, just looking for the polar opposite works. Too much grim literary fiction? Look for some chick-lit. Too much fantasy? Maybe non-fiction. Or just try various methods until enthusiasm for fiction returns.

    1. I used to read a lot of magazines at times like this but since I retired I’ve had to watch the spending in that area. And, there are so few good book magazines, which really would provide the perfect solution.

  10. I read poetry all the time, but turn especially to Auden, Larkin, and Stevens when I’m feeling grumpy about whatever I’ve just read.
    My best palate-cleanser is rereading a good children’s book. Or even better–but much more difficult to achieve–finding a good one that’s new to me. I just did this with The Little White Horse, by Elizabeth Goudge. I found it by taking a Facebook quiz (of all things), and it was the only one on the list I hadn’t read or heard of (the other one I hadn’t read was Hugo Cabret, and I am not attracted to books because of the pictures.)

    1. Going back to children’s fiction is always a good idea for me, Jeanne. I love the way in which the best books for children cut to the chase with no waffling about by writers who want to make themselves look good. Successful children’s authors know very well that their readers will not stand for it.

  11. It can certainly happen to me if I’ve hit a run of so-so or poor works of fiction, that reading slump thing. A good memoir can sometimes pick me up, but usually I listen to a favourite audio book. I can listen to Golden Age crime over and over again, if it’s a good actor doing the narration. And I might well watch a film by Hitchcock. I hardly ever watch TV, and actually prefer watching something for the second time rather than the first (less adrenalising!). It’s doesn’t usually take long before I slink back to fiction again. 🙂

    1. I hadn’t thought about audio books, Litlove. My problem is that I find unless I’m actually doing something while I listen I do tend to drop off to sleep, but that might be because I normally have them on last thing at night. I shell have to try earlier in the day.

  12. Do you remember the craze for anthologies – the Oxford Book Of That or the Faber Book of the Other….it got a bit out of hand. However, a good anthology can be a good way out of a reading slump and can at the least give you a taste of new writers to look out for. Good examples might be Pandemonium by Humphrey Jennings or the Oxford Book of Work by Keith Thomas… both creative and stimulating anthologies.

    1. That, Ian, is a very good idea. I do have some anthologies of short stories and some of essays but neither of the titles you mention. I shall go and look them up immediately, thank you.

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