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So many books, so little time …

In addition to hundreds of thousands of English language print books published globally each year, the self-publishing phenomenon puts even more texts at our disposal.

According to a report by ProQuest affiliate Bowker, self-publishing of print books grew at a rate of more than 28% in 2017, up from an 8% increase during the prior year (from 786,935 to 1,009,188). (Interestingly, self-published e-books decreased in that time by 13%).

Although digital technology has impacted public libraries heavily, borrowing and use still continues to increase. In 2014-15 (the latest ABS report at the time of writing) Australia had 1,631 public library service points, branches and outlets. Over 166.7 million items were lent to 8.2 million members of Australia’s public libraries, over 114 million customers visited and over 38 million items (including e-books) were made available for the use of the community.

With hundreds of new texts hitting retail bookshelves and online sellers hourly, the proliferation of strategically targeted marketing and public libraries regularly updating their collections it is a reader’s paradise.

So why re-read favourite books?

Literary academic Daniel Lattier admits new release book lists are “stressful and anxiety-inducing. They are yet another reminder of how many great books in various genres are being written, and of how little time I have to read them”. He cites futurist John Naisbitt: “we are drowning in information but starved for knowledge”, believing this to be common for many today. The Internet, social media and publishing houses provide a dizzying amount of textual information, and attempting to process it frequently afflicts us with ‘intellectual paralysis’.

I also have this affliction. Every year I peruse the various prize shortlists, and new release guides, succumb to ‘new book expectation’ (the Liane Moriaty effect?) and flick through The Australian Summer Reading Guide. And give up. Overwhelmed.

I retreat to well-trodden ground, and pull the old favourites from the shelves. What is it that draws me back into their constructed worlds? Why is it necessary to revisit these old friends?

I have devised a list of books that I re-read and re-read. These are the ones that tug me to them and beg me to pick them up, the ones I lend to friends and for which I feel a yearning if their return is delayed.

To be honest, I did not love all of these books on the first reading. Some angered me or confounded me, yet I persisted past my page 17 rule (if a book hasn’t grabbed me by that page, I will give up) … and now, something of their author’s and/or characters’ DNA is entwined in mine.

How I devised my list

I loosely categorise the books to which I return frequently, or which have a special place in my educational / moral / environmental / social / emotional development, as follows:

  • Are they cautionary tales by which I can set or check my own moral compass (The Stranger or To Kill a Mockingbird)?
  • Do they provide windows into shocking and visceral experiences I hope I will never personally undergo, by allowing me to be armchair voyeur (The Vivisector)?
  • Are they simple stories exquisitely and tersely written (The Old Man and the Sea or Nana)?
  • Or are they simple plots, made rich with unusual structure and fascinating layers (The Secret History)?
  • Do they take me back to the place I first read them, often ironically, given the topic (The Cancer Ward, in tropical Sumatra)?
  • Are they stories made more shocking because today’s context has shifted so much (Lolita)? Or conversely, because their predictions have become startlingly realised (Brave New World or 1984)? Or, sadly, because things haven’t really changed at all (Damned Whores and God’s Police or Fahrenheit 451)?
  • Is their language so deliciously unusual, I must construct a new lexicon as I proceed (Jolie Blon’s Bounce)?
  • Do they tell a story about a time and place I knew well, but see anew with their words (Praise or Pig City)?
  • Do they talk with me directly? Can I feel the author’s warm breath in my ear as they pronounce the words I echo verbatim (Breath or Eucalyptus)?
  • Are there locales or theme so unfamiliar they immediately inspire travel or further intensive research (The God of Small Things or Middlesex)?
  • Do they create such strong mental images there is no need to see the movies on which they are based (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or The Lord of the Rings trilogy)? (OK, Bladerunner is my favourite film, but I have resisted seeing LotR).
  • Are they worn, thumbed and faded through frequent handling and lending (Neuromancer, A Place of My Own or Derek Jarman’s Garden)?
  • Or are they simply shining examples of a favourite genre (The Cuckoo’s Calling, The Broken Shore or The Belltree Trilogy)?

 

This is list of much-loved stories, exemplars, how-tos, tall tales and homilies. But several things stand out. Not many are contemporary, due I think to the overwhelm factor noted earlier. Clearly, I’m also not a reader of autobiographies, or for that matter, biographies, and very few of these texts are non-fiction.

I’m a lover of science fiction and crime. Author Melanie McGrath believes, “brutally detailed murder stories appeal to female readers both for the real anxieties they tap into, and for their metaphorical resonances”. And I think women, by nature, seek and value resolution.

This year though I will read some contemporary books. I promise. I hope.

My list, chronologically (not very academic, I know)

Nana, Émile Zola, 1880

Brave New World, Aldous Huxley, 1932

L’Étranger (The Stranger), Albert Camus, 1942

Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell, 1949

The Old Man and The Sea, Ernest Hemingway, 1952

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, 1953

The Lord of The Rings trilogy, J.R.R Tolkien (The Fellowship of the Ring, July 1954; The Two Towers, November 1954); The Return of the King, October 1955)

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov, 1955

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee, 1960

The Cancer Ward, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1966

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Philip K. Dick, 1968

The Vivisector, Patrick White, 1970

Damned Whores and God’s Police, Anne Summers, 1975

Neuromancer, William Gibson, 1984

The Secret History, Donna Tartt, 1992 (my favourite re-read)

Praise, Andrew McGahan, 1995

Derek Jarman’s Garden, Derek Jarman, 1995

The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy, 1997

A Place of My Own, Michael Pollan, 1997

Eucalyptus, Murray Bail, 1998

Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides, 2002

Jolie Blon’s Bounce, James Lee Burke, 2002

Pig City, Andrew Stafford, 2006

The Broken Shore, Peter Temple, 2006

Breath, Tim Winton, 2008

The Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith (= J.K. Rowling), 2013

The Belltree Trilogy, Barry Maitland, (Crucifixion Creek, 2014; Ash Island, 2015; Slaughter Park, 2016)

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