Authors familiar and unfamiliar
A friend asked on Twitter whether people read anything by authors that were unfamiliar to them, and I thought that if an answer to that was to be worthwhile, it needed to be longer than 140 characters, so here are some thoughts about it.
Yesterday I went to the Alkantrant branch of the Tshwane public library, and for the first time I went armed with a list of books and authors to look for. Usually I just browse the shelves and pick out anything that looks interesting, but this time I had a list of books that had been recommended by various people, a bucket list of books, as it were.
So here are the books I found:
- The Glass Bead Game, by Hermann Hesse.
- The Book of Evidence, by John Banville.
- The only daughter, by Jessica Anderson
Actually only one of them was on the recommended list of authors I hadn’t read, the John Banville one. I had read another book by Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf, which I read about 50 years ago. And the recommended book by Jessica Anderson was Tirra Lirra, by the river, but that wasn’t on the shelf at the library, though she does count as an unfamiliar author.
And then I went browsing for some non-fiction (not on my list), and found this:
Palimpsest: A Memoir by Gore Vidal
I’m not quite sure why I took this book out of the library. I sometimes find that I like literary biographies of authors more than the books they wrote, and I’ve never read any books by Gore Vidal. In my youth I was vaguely confused about Gore Vidal and Vidal Sassoon, who were both celebs at the time, though I wasn’t quite sure what the cause of their celebrity was.
Much later a relative in New Zealand sent a transcript he had made of my wife Val’s great great granduncle’s diary. He was Edward Lister Green (1827-1887). In it he describes travelling by ship from Bombay to Hong Kong, and striking up a friendship with David Sassoon, the “million heir” (I wondered whether that was the normal spelling of “millionaire” at the time, or just an elaborate private pun). That got me reading The Sassoon dynasty, about this remarkable family of Iraqi Jews whose business in Bombay (now spelt Mumbai) expanded over most of southern and eastern Asia. I also read Siegfried Sassoon the biography of the poet, who was a member of the same family, as was the Vidal Sassoon who provided a very tenuous link with Gore Vidal.
When I’ve finished reading those (or abandoned them, if I don’t like them) I still have these on my list:
Anderson, Jessica — Tirra lirra by the river
Bell, Sara Hanna — December Bride
Burgess, Anthony — Earthly powers
Byatt, A.S. — The children’s book
de Bernieres, Louis — Captain Corelli’s mandolin
DeLillo, Don — Underworld
Hosseini, Khaled — The kite runner
Kadare, Ismail — The successor
Tartt, Donna — The secret history
Not all those are unfamiliar authors either — I’ve read other books by A.S. Byatt and Ismail Kadare — the latter I had never heard of until we were sitting in a cafe in Tirana, Albania, and our friend told us that Kadare was sitting at the next table and was the most famous author in Albania. A little while earlier we had seen the most famous film star in Albania, riding his bicycle down the street, but I forget his name.
So this might be the appropriate point to mention the last book I got from the library, though it’s not on the list and I was browsing the shelves in the non-fiction section.
Albania: The Bradt Travel Guide by Gillian Gloyer
One normally reads travel guides before one visits a country. If you find it useful, you might take it with you on your visit, but I visited Albania 16 years ago and I’m unlikely ever to travel there again unless we win the Lotto, which is unlikely even if I do remember to buy a ticket. So I took this book out of the library to remind me of our previous visit. Apart from anything else, I don’t think this book was available when we visited Albania in 2000 — the first edition seems to have been published in 2005.
So it’s really for the memories, and perhaps to find out a bit more about the places and things we saw.
And I’m looking forward to tomorrow, when we have our Neo-Inklings Literary Coffee Klatsch, and Duncan Reyburn will be telling us something about G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton is not an unfamiliar author to me, though I’ve only read a few of his books. And if anyone is interested, and living in or near Tshwane, come and join us at Cafe 41 in Eastwood Road (opposite the US Embassy) at 10:30 am on Thursday 7 July 2016.
Thanks, Steve. This was awesome!
For anyone reading this, I’m the guy who asked the question on Twitter: https://twitter.com/GrahamDowns/status/750449700504006656
You are obviously much better read than I am… or we just have radically different tastes. I haven’t read a single one of the authors you mentioned here, although I’ve heard of more than a few, at least.
These days, though, with the massive e-book explosion (and I only read e-books nowadays; I tried to read a print book again a couple of months ago, but a) I couldn’t find the time, and b) I struggled to read the print), I must confess to very seldom reading two books by the same author. I also read mostly self-published books, since these are very often free on Kindle promotion, or free series starters. Even if I hardly ever go on to buy or read the follow-ups to those series.
So I guess you could say I’m always reading unfamiliar authors. Oh, there are exceptions of course. I read a lot of Stephen King, and I’m also quite determined to finish George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. 🙂