Reading Outside the Box

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I read this illuminating article by one of this year’s Booker Prize winning judges earlier this week and found it an inspiration and a challenge. What particularly struck me was:  ‘Haruki Murakami once said that if you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking. What I found is that if you only read the kind of novel you have always read, you can only think the kind of things you usually think.‘ Both of these concepts are obvious, but the sort of obvious truths that are so obvious that you never actually stop to think about them. Afua Hirsch, the author of the article, says elsewhere in her piece that she only chooses books that reflect the world she knows and is comfortable experiencing. Anything that strikes outside of those boundaries doesn’t normally break through. I reflected on my reading habits once I reached the end of the article and came to the depressing reality that I rarely read anything that challenges my worldview too, because I deliberately avoid reading anything that might do so. This isn’t something I do with any other form of culture; I love watching films and documentaries that make me confront realities I normally shy away from, and I, as my poor colleagues at school know, am a massive fan of avant-garde theatre and am always pressuring them to teach the unusual plays I have discovered. However, with novels, I’ve been guilty of pulling up the drawbridge, and surrounding myself with my friends who make me feel secure for far too long. Apart from the occasional occupational necessity, it’s a solid diet of nineteenth and early twentieth century classic and middlebrow novels, with a side helping of contemporary, usually historical fiction. And while I love this diet, I don’t want to be someone who only ever gorges on the same limited selection of tastes. I want to be challenged to think in new ways, to be opened to alternative realities, to try new ways of expression.

Today I took my first step towards widening my comfort zone by reading Lanny, by Max Porter. I’ve wanted to try Porter for a while, but my understanding of his style of writing – all wavy lines and poetic structure, with fairy tale, almost magical realist elements woven in – had made me reluctant. I assumed I’d hate it, and think it was all style over substance. To my enormous surprise, I devoured it within a couple of hours, unable to put it down. This haunting, atmospheric tale of a home counties village and the ancient green man that lives at its heart, feeding off the lives of its contemporary inhabitants, should have been everything I roll my eyes at, but somehow, it managed to weave a spell over me. Lanny, a young boy who is ‘different’, has a deep connection with the natural world and senses the presence of the timeless green man. He sees and hears things others don’t, and causes tension between his parents, with his father completely failing to understand him. He goes to ‘Mad Pete’ – a local famous artist – for art lessons, and is enthralled by his stories about the lore of the village, but there are many who tut and whisper about what they feel is an inappropriate relationship between a ‘dodgy’ old man and a young boy.  One night, Lanny goes missing, and everyone points their fingers at Pete, but with the village swarming with police, it will ultimately only be the green man who can lead the way to Lanny.  Within this overarching narrative, the tensions amongst the villagers are explored, some of whom believe they have more ‘right’ to live there than others, their views largely revealed through the snatches of conversation the green man hears while he lies beneath the ground. Porter’s prose is poetic and beautiful, and his use of myth and folklore to shine a light into our present society and the growing tide of insular, prejudiced thinking that seeks to exclude rather than welcome those who are different, is incredibly thought provoking and powerful. I loved every word, and was thrilled to have my reading outside of my comfort zone so well rewarded.

So what is next? I have the Nobel Prize winning Polish author Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead to read, and then I want to try Edna O’Brien’s Girl, about the kidnapping of the schoolgirls in Nigeria by Boko Haram, and Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. Any recommendations for books that you know I wouldn’t normally read would be gratefully received. I have to say that through buying Olga Tokarczuk’s book, I have discovered the beautiful uniform royal blue editions of contemporary, largely translated, novels by Fitzcarraldo Editions, and I shall certainly be mining their list for new authors to try.

10 comments

  1. Rachel, i rarely comment on blogs but just wanted to applaud your effort to read outside your comfort zone. It made me think about my own reading habits, and whilst I make a conscious effort to read authors from a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds even so I manage to stay within a fairly limited range – realist, literary fiction in the main – and have a bit of prejudice / fear of trying more experimental and poetic prose. I’m convinced I won’t like it! I’ve seen and heard reviews of Lanny and my interest was piqued but I pulled back because of those fears (it’ll be stupid, annoying, won’t make sense…) and you’ve now inspired me to order a copy!

  2. I’m often guilty myself of sticking to the well-trodden furrow, so I appreciate your honesty and efforts to look beyond the comfort zone. I tend to avoid bestsellers and hyped books, a sort of reverse snobbery I think.

  3. A book I couldn’t stop thinking about is Painted Horses by Malcom Brooks. I live now in the high desert after years in the Colorado mountains. This book gave gifts of vision and appreciation for the haunted land that I now call home. It’s about the eternal struggle between greed for wealth and reverence for the natural land, for the history in the rocks, and for wild animals. Ultimately it is about the mystery of love. How it can happen that two completely independent people can unexpectedly find connection – the shape that such connection can take. The respect that we owe or ancestors and the earth. The respect that we owe to others. The respect that we owe to ourselves. And the imagery! This book is a banquet of words and sentences.

    But over all else, Annie Dillard. If you haven’t read Annie Dillard, you must.

    Enjoy every minute, reading and otherwise. Lyn

  4. This is a great post and a very timely reminder, at least for me. Like with many other book lovers, I but tons of books many of which I know will really push me if I actually read them but I always find myself making an excuse to read something else. I’m totally going to select a book that will actually push me next time.

    The books you mention all sound interesting! Good luck on your journey and I can’t wait to read about it!

  5. Food for thought here Rachel, thanks v much. I used to think a reading group provided this for me as the choices were often books I would never have given a second thought to (top of the list magical realism which I became more appreciative of) but now I’ve moved and don’t have a book group but I do have a bi-monthly subscription with @theopenbook2 and this fulfils the same purpose it seems.

  6. So timely, Rachel. Just last weekend the topic of being in an echo chamber when it comes to music and books came up while we were running errands. R and I enjoy all sorts of music but we’re dangerously close to predictable when it comes to books, although he’s had his fill of grump lit.
    Books pass through my hands for hours on end while working at the library. There’s barely a shift that goes by when a customer doesn’t try to press a book in my hands. But there’s always a book at home I’m really looking forward to…you know the sort.
    The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle would never have crossed the threshold if not for your blog post. It’s an excellent read that I recommend to people because it encompasses so many styles. I’ve placed a hold on Lanny because the English village ticks a big reading box and will let you know how I get on with it.

  7. I had a similar ‘wake up call’ a few years ago when I realised I was reading almost exclusively books written by British and American authors. Reading more translated books has given me a broader perspective – I can highly recommend the output of Pereine Press who bring lesser known authors to our attention.

  8. Hi Rachel, after nearly 20 years, our bookclub slipped into a sort of conventional malaise and stumbled across a ‘book bingo’ (lots of examples on Google), 25 squares of out of the box reading sub-sets. It’s been a bit of a success in that it energised our reading and chats. PS I really want to read ‘Lanny’!

  9. Lately I have been trying to read non-fiction books, and novels from different parts of the world. It was hard but also wonderful and definitely an eye opener. Also, you have a really engaging writing style!

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