I used to read whatever took my fancy: a history of witchcraft, a novel about a Japanese student’s existential crisis, a children’s picture book about death. Oh, happy carefree days!
I loved to delve into topics about which I knew nothing: fungi, deep sea creatures, obscure art movements in Eastern Europe, a history of hermits, the life of a geisha.
But lately my reading, while fascinating, has become more focused.
I’ve been writing a book set in 1851, so for the past couple of years I’ve read almost nothing but books about the Victorians: general histories, social histories, biographies, art histories, novels, interior design, fashion, architecture.
I work and have kids. Making time for reading and writing is like carving treacle. Sticky demands are always glooping back in.
So latterly I’ve been choosing books the way I’d choose a house. Not with a careless laugh and a gleam in my eye, but cautiously, with a grim set to my mouth. I ask questions that are the bookish equivalent of asking estate agents about drains and insulation. Is it my era? Does it contain the right information? Would google serve me better? Sensible questions; probing, a bit suspicious.
The other day, as I closed the fourth biography of Queen Victoria I’d read that month, I felt a longing to read about the secret police in East Berlin in the 70s. Or marathon-running Buddhist monks. Or appaloosa horses. Mayan burial customs. Anything. If someone had handed me a pamphlet on scabies I’d have shaken them by the hand.
Books about Queen Victoria are awesome. I love them. I do. But I felt as if I’d eaten nothing but Salad Nicoise for a year. It’s my favourite, but for the love of god someone give me a curry!
So I read Marina Warner’s The Dragon Empress – the life and times of Tz’u-Hsi, the Empress Dowager of China. As I turned the pages, it dawned on me I’d picked another book about a powerful woman ruling in the 1800s. It was the other side of the world and a completely different culture, but still. Get thee behind me, subconscious.
I’m now reading Bill Bryson’s The Road to Little Dribbling. It’s got nothing to do with anything I’m planning on writing, and it’s like inhaling a fragrant Thai red curry with coconut cream and fresh lime juice.
I love you, Victoriana, but occasionally I need a break.
What was the last book that really freshened your reading palate? Let me know, I could do with some recommendations.
Here’s a few faves of mine… novels from around the globe
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian — Marina Lewycka
A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry (set in India)
Unaccustomed Earth – Jhumpa Lahiri
Sky Burial — Xinran (set in Tibet)
Or if non-fiction is more your thing…
Unruly Places : Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies – Alistair Bonnett
Satisdiction: one man’s journey into all the words he’ll ever need – Ammon Shea
The Hare with Amber Eyes — Edmund de Waal
I can’t believe you read four bios of Queen Victoria in one month 😉
I’d like to read one – what do you recommend?
Nice recommendations, thank you! And not a Victorian history book in sight! I especially like the sound of the Inscrutable Geographies book…
Re Queen Victoria, I thought the best one was Gillian Gill’s ‘We Two – Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals’. Possibly it owed a fair bit to Christopher Hibbert’s ‘Queen Victoria, A Personal History’ but I enjoyed Gill’s social insights which helped me feel I understood Victoria better. Hibbert’s book is also excellent. You couldn’t go wrong with either one.
I’ve just finished reading Graham Norton’s ‘Holding’ which is fine if you want to read something light and non taxing. I was impressed with his development of character. Also enjoyed Muriel Spark’s ‘A Far Cry From Kensington’ as I enjoy reading books set in London. As a reader you feel fully absorbed into post war Britain in the 1950s.
Light and non-taxing is good! Plus I’m a Londonophile too – both good recommendations thanks!