You really do meet all sorts of interesting people on twitter through a shared love of books. Today’s guest book blogger is Alan, aka Words of Mercury, a PhD student at Durham University who also maintains a cracking blog on books.
Could you tell us a little about your PhD? What are you working on, and where would you like to go with it afterwards?
I’m working on the role of attention in aesthetic experience: what is it, exactly, that paying attention, either mental or perceptual, does for our experience or awareness of aesthetic properties or features of art, nature, and everyday life. That’s meant that I’ve done a lot of reading and thinking about the kinds of experiences we have in daily life which differ markedly from the kinds of special experiences we aim for in the art gallery, theatre, or nature reserve. Those are the kinds of experience to which we pay attention – after all, that’s why we went in the first place. My central question, then, is whether everyday life – when we are too busy to pay attention to much of our surroundings and their features – can support aesthetic experiences or some kind of aesthetic engagement with the world even without our being aware of it.
Attention (suitably understood) plausibly affects the complexity of the properties we can perceive as well as the sophistication and accessibility of those experiences for higher cognitive functions like appreciation and judgement. Or so I argue.
As to where I go after all that is done with, I’m not sure. Academia is always a possibility, of course (should one be able to find a job). But I would like to continue thinking and writing about books and, eventually, to write them as well. So we’ll see.
Why do you blog about books? Has reviewing books changed the way you read?
I began blogging about books when Penguin started something called the Penguin Proof Group on Google+ last year. I thought it sounded like a good diversion from my PhD, so I set up my blog and put my name down for Evan Connell’s Mrs Bridge. I’ve had a few blogs in the past which had some bits and pieces of philosophy and art criticism posted (the exhibition reviews are up on my current blog), but none of them had really stuck and I’d never been able to engage with other people. That all changed when I got to know people on Twitter and found lots of excellent book blogs on all sorts of books. Suddenly I could talk to all sorts of people with all kinds of approach to writing and reading.
So, I began blogging about books as a sort of side project, but I’ve kept on doing so because I really enjoy discovering new things and talking about them with others. My literary horizons have really expanded. I knew a lot about books already, but I feel like reviewing has given me more traction. I also think (hope) that my writing has great improved as I’ve learnt how to approach books and how to relax into the process. Reviewing has unquestionably changed how I read: I’m now more attentive to language, structure, and thematic development and, as I read more, I think my judgement develops as I have greater experience to draw on with each book I read. Sometimes this means I can overanalyse when I should just get on with reading, but I definitely get more out of books now that I did before.
Do you copy/paste your reviews onto places like GoodReads, Amazon etc? What do readers get from visiting book blogs rather than just browsing the book in online stores?
Not as a rule, largely because I’m not a fan of Amazon’s copyright rules for reviews. I’ve never really got into GoodReads, for no very good reason. Book blogs are great because they are far more idiosyncratic than the standard front page of an online store. Amazon and Waterstones are going to recommend you buy the latest book or one fairly similar to the last thing you bought there. Not only are bloggers more likely to read books I never would have thought of reading, they are more likely to read older books which won’t be found on online store front pages.
There is also the obvious benefit of a person whose taste you have come to understand and trust reviewing a book you might want to read, not to mention the sheer enjoyment of reading someone who has written about something because they like it and want to tell you.
Finally, I think I’ve learnt a lot about how to review and write and generally think about books from the book blogs I visit. That’s not something I could say for the average Amazon review’s writer being caught up in its own outrage over the book they ordered not involving likeable characters or being slightly the wrong colour.
It’s clear you read a lot (38 books so far this year). Was that always the case? How do you decide which books to read, and of those how do you decide which to review?
Some of those books were quite short! I’ve always read a fair amount but I think I’ve actually sped up recently even as I become more careful when I do so. I think that’s because I devote more of my time to reading these days. It’s cheaper than beer.
I try to balance working my way through books received/solicited specifically for review and the library I seem to have assembled over the years. I’d like more of a grounding in early to mid-twentieth century literature, so everyone from Woolf to B.S. Johnson are fair game there. In general it depends on my mood when I happen to finish the last book. I’m going to try and read more novels and texts on artists and creativity in the next few months so that will affect my choices. I’ve been asking everyone on twitter for their favourite novels in that vein and people have been very helpful.
I used to try and review everything I read, but I’m realising more and more that not every book one reads is suitable for reviewing: that may be because I haven’t really been able to engage with the book, it might not be for me, or it might just not be very good or interesting. These days – what with the PhD breathing down my neck – I’m much more selective. I have to really enjoy and feel that I have something interesting to say about a book to review it. (Or (foolishly) I’ve promised someone a review).
What are the high and low points of reviewing books for you?
The high points are unquestionably reading a book you might not have picked up and finding something you never thought you would inside; the occasional review where you feel you might have written something worth reading; and the opportunity to talk to everyone from bloggers, reviewers, writers, and publishers.
The low points are those moments when you suddenly feel obligated to review a book rather than wanting to. A few months ago I managed to make myself ridiculously anxious because I was missing publication dates or the author was on twitter and I hadn’t liked the book and so on. There is also a tendency in both myself and others to be ever attracted to the new books, the shiny proofs, and the publicity-promising blog tours. This can get in the way of a proper engagement with the books that appeal to me. There is so much I haven’t read (or reread), so an infatuation with the new can be quite damaging.
That’s an interesting point, because whilst twitter can be great for networking and sharing ideas, as you get to know people it can be easy to feel obligated to buy/review or promote their books. Of course it’s impossible to do that for everyone. How do you manage life on twitter?
Fortunately the people I like best on Twitter, whilst they would love a review (who wouldn’t?), value talking to people who like books and will write and talk and them in an unpretentious and enthusiastic way. I have reviewed the books of people I know on twitter. Fortunately, I liked them. The ones I didn’t like I haven’t reviewed. Some of them I liked but haven’t got around to yet. I used to worry about that, but it’s ridiculous to be pinned down by who you happen to know on twitter. I imagine it’s the equivalent of writing blurbs for other author friends. Every now and then I get anxious because twitter has revealed a whole swathe of literature I didn’t know about, and then I rush off to a book shop and some blogs to find out what I can about those books. Fortunately I can’t buy them because my wife and I have agreed a monthly book budget. Otherwise I would be surrounded by books but a pauper. That’s the danger of twitter.
What would you say is your taste in books? What makes a book good for you?
I really have no idea. My taste seems to veer wildly. I love travel writing but I hardly ever review it, which is a shame. It may be pure escapism: which probably also explains my taste for fantasy and science fiction, neither of which I’m an expert in. All of those areas have serious and interesting things to say beyond their (fairly fluid) genres and I suppose I’m interested in books which really have something to say about people and things: not just stories, but ideas. But that just means I like good books – and poetry. That probably also explains my fondness for books which aren’t quite novels but aren’t quite anything else. I love Sebald, but then so does everyone else: poetic delvings into place and history are my sort of thing. Hence my enjoyment of Robert MacFarlane, Colin Thubron, and Rory Stewart, amongst others.
My favourite recent novels are from all over the place: James Smythe’s The Explorer and The Machine, Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn and Child, Sam Byers’ Idiopathy, Nicholas Royle’s First Novel, Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods, Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, Christa Wolf’s Cassandra.
I suppose what these books have in common are a (diverse) concern for language and the nature of thought and identity, and how those two might be best married in order to represent what is important about the human and society. That might be grief and despair and its expression, the fragmented nature of thought and the illegitimacy of coherent narrative, the narcissism of our lives and rationalisations, or the fugitive nature of the mind itself. Yet, I don’t like books that become too caught up in their own style, which is why I put down Herta Müller’s The Passport last week. Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner might also have become a bit too self-involved by the end.
What is your point of view on the star rating system of book reviews? What, for you, do 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 stars mean to a prospective reader?
I’m entirely unconvinced by star ratings. Any judgement of a book has to be qualitative rather than quantitative. Books can be terrible and great for any number of very different reasons. It’s unclear how any given reviewer really thinks their actual experience of a book translates into star ratings. It’s equally unclear how a prospective reader is to interpret those ratings.
Recommend me three books that have blown you away.
Hawthorn and Child by Keith Ridgway
Fragmented, tormented, unrelenting.
The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon
Generous, lost, unbearably sad.
Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar
Intimate, grand, poetic.
Many thanks, Alan, for your time & your thoughts.
Do visit Alan’s blog. Also why not catch up with other interviews in this series: