Thank you to everyone who has given this series of blog posts such a warm reception. I’m so pleased you’ve been interested in finding out more about people who blog about and review books online. My last guest is Rob, aka Rob Around Books. Rob describes himself both as a ‘book sniffing weirdo’ and as a ‘literary evangelist’, and having known him online for 3 years now, I’d say that’s a fair assessment!
When did you become a literary evangelist and why? Has reviewing books changed the way you read?
I’d like to think that I’ve always been something of a ‘literary evangelist’, but it’s only been about a year or so since I first started labelling myself as such. It all came about when I realised that the term ‘blogger’ just didn’t really fit with what I stand for in the world of book reviewing. You see, my main aim in doing what I do is to encourage people to pick up books and read – nothing more, nothing less. And the most powerful ‘weapon’ I have at my disposal is my own passion and enthusiasm for the written word. I guess I view reading as a form of religion, and to spread this ‘religion’ effectively involves plenty of overzealous preaching to the masses, much like an evangelist who spreads the word of the gospel. It all sounds a bit nuts I know, and as though I have ideas above my station, but in reality ‘literary evangelism’ is just a fun role that I try to live up to.
You describe sharing your passion for reading as a kind of religion. To continue the metaphor, do you remember the moment when you were ‘converted’?
My ‘conversion’ came at a fairly young age. As an only child I used to spend a lot of time on my own. I was never unhappy, but more often than not I had to find ways to entertain myself, especially during the summer months when I stayed with my grandparents in the country village where they lived. It was here that I first discovered the wonderful world of Just William and The Famous Five. These books gave me so much entertainment and companionship, and they fuelled my imagination as I recreated scenes from these books in the open countryside around me.
As far as my conversion to literature goes, I have a lot to be thankful to my grandparents for. They, together my parents, were very encouraging when it comes to reading, and there was never a time when a new book wasn’t sitting there waiting to be read.
As time progressed I did gravitate more towards nonfiction – nature, science, history etc. to the point where I never really read much fiction. In fact my conversion back to fiction only returned in recent years, when I realised once again just how much value I got from reading novels, and especially the classics.
Are you a literary superhero, and if so what is your mild mannered alter ego? How do the two get along?
Oh I don’t know, ‘literary superhero’ sounds awfully pretentious doesn’t it? That said, I was playing the role of ‘literary superhero’ last year as part of Book Week Scotland’s celebration of the written word. Selected as one of the members of the League of Extraordinary Booklovers, my job was to dispense book advise to all those seeking it. It was a lot of fun – the perfect job for me you might say – and I even came away with my own cape and a mask to keep the persona going in my own time, and to remind me of the rewarding time I had during what was a wonderfully bookish week.
Do I really consider myself to be a literary superhero though? Well if superhero powers are measured in terms of passion and enthusiasm then I guess I am, but in reality I’m just a regular guy with an insatiable passion for the written word and a drive to get others reading. Have I a mild mannered alter ego? Well, if you’re asking if I’m ever away from books, then the answer is no. I do take time to connect with the world around me of course, but barely a minute goes past without the written word being somewhere at the forefront of my mind. I know, there’s an institution for people like me, right?
What are the high and low points of reviewing books for you?
I get many highs from reviewing books, and one or two lows as well. The biggest high of course comes from finding out that your reviews have made a difference to somebody, whether that be author or reader. I get no greater satisfaction than hearing that a book I’ve shone a light on has motivated others to read it, and a word of appreciation from the author him/herself makes all of the countless hours of effort worth it. The biggest prize of all in this respect, is hearing that I’ve encouraged a non or seldom reader to pick up a book. When that happens I can think of no bigger high.
I’ve also connected with a phenomenal number of beautiful minds through reviewing – authors, fellow reviewers, publishing people, book lovers – who have given me more than I could ever give back. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve felt truly blessed to be in the company of such people – both virtually and in person – and it is, for me, one of the major plus points of reviewing.
Additionally, book reviewing not only brings me to books I may never have considered, but it also ensures that I connect with a book with more thoughtfulness and depth than I might have given it otherwise. That niggling reminder in the back of my head that you’re sharing your reading experience with others is a great concentrator. It’s like reading a book for a test I guess, and we all know how much more attention we give to our reading when it’s for such an important purpose as this, right? So what I’m saying I suppose, is I get way much more out of a book when I’m reading it for review.
As to the downsides of book reviewing? Well, the most noticeable thing is how much time it sucks out of your life. If you’re going to commit to reviewing books with any kind of seriousness then be prepared to invest many long and torturous hours. This game is seriously time consuming, and although there are rewards are there to be reaped, the time investment often outweighs the benefits. There is no end to it either. It’s perpetual, and if you have an anxiety linked to never being able to get to all the books you want to read in a lifetime, then it that anxiety becomes ten times worse when you start book reviewing. Arrggghhh!!!
Although you do review some general fiction, you tend to steer into other areas. How would you describe your taste in literature? What makes something stand out for you?
Oh, I think my literary tastes are definitely eclectic, and a little left of field. I’m a little strange in that I tend to steer away from books that are heavily marketed and/or being spoken about by everyone, because as snobbish as it may sound I like to read differently so that I can bring something different to the table, so to speak. The Japanese author Haruki Murakami once remarked, “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking”, and this I’ve adopted as a mantra, not at all to be pretentious or exclusive, but just to add something new to the mix.
I also consider it something of a duty to shine a light on lesser supported titles (debuts, releases from small presses) and genres (particularly translated fiction and short fiction), and there’s nothing that satisfies me more than when I’ve encouraged somebody to read a book that they’ve never heard of before, or to engage in a genre that’s new to them.
As for what makes something stand out for me? Well, it’s certainly not ‘shiny and new’ that does it for me. Rather it’s literary works which have stood the test of time. It saddens me to see so many readers these days easily seduced by fancy covers and clever marketing. As a society we have an obsession with the new and the up-to-date, and consequently we shun anything that’s more than five minutes old. We pick up the latest literary creation from an author of the minute and we hail their writing as the greatest thing that we’ve ever read, yet most people have not really read anything more than a handful of years old.
No, the real treasures in my mind are the ones that are already under our noses i.e. the works of literature that have fuelled past generations and have endured. For example, I remember re-reading The Great Gatsby not long ago and telling people that once you’ve read this literary masterpiece you realise that there is nobody alive today that can even get close to touching the genius of Fitzgerald. And the same in my opinion goes for the likes of Steinbeck, Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, Chekhov and Maupassant, to name but five. Recently, I’ve discovered the Canadian author, Morley Callaghan who seems largely forgotten outside of Canada, and yet reading him one discovers just how alive and precise his writing is, and how easy it is to engage with. His novels and short fiction zing with freshness and they feel as invigorating today as they must have during the decades they were first published. In other words Callaghan’s prose has very much stood the test of time, and this is very much what makes something stand out for me.
Where do you get your reading recommendations from?
My reading recommendations come from all over the place. Friends and colleagues are a big source, and I include the dear people that I know and love on Twitter and Facebook in this. Never a day goes past when I’m not noting down another half-a-dozen books or so that people have enthused so magnificently about.
Literary award longlists and shortlists are also a big source of reading inspiration for me. I don’t tend to focus on the bigger prizes so much, like The Man Booker and Costa Book Awards for instance, but more specialist prizes such as the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award, are constant sources of inspiration.
Finally, books themselves are a primary source for recommendations. Books about books especially are like untapped gold mines waiting to be discovered. My current infatuation with the Canadian, Morley Callaghan came about solely as a result of reading about him in Joe Queenan’s ‘One for the Books’. And, my love affair with the ‘father of the essay’ Michel de Montaigne, stemmed from reading Sarah Bakewell’s ingenious biography on the man, ‘How to Live’.
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 use star ratings for my reviews and have always done so. However, I would never use such a system works on its own because I don’t think it works. But when used in conjunction with a written review it does offer a reader an instant snapshot of a reviewer’s opinion. As to a star rating’s meaning? Well, it’s intuitive enough surely? 5 stars signifies a triumph, while 1 star means it’s a bit of a flop. Anything in between is a variance between these two extremes.
Recommend me three books (or other pieces of literature) that have blown you away
Herodotus’ The Histories – This is the book that made me want to study history at university. It’s all about epic wars, lost civilisations, great kings, myths and legends. What’s not to like?
Shusaku Endo’s Silence – Based around the persecution of Christians in seventeenth-century Japan, this is one of those deeply affecting novels that climbs to the bottom of your soul and lives there for ever more. Martin Scorsese is meant to be adapting this for the big screen, with Daniel Day-Lewis playing the chief missionary who bears witness to the all the wrongdoings, but thus far nothing has materialised.
John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row – When people recommend John Steinbeck they usually talk Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men or East of Eden. However, my favourite Steinbeck novel is Cannery Row. Populated by endearing and never forgotten characters, Cannery Row is by far Steinbeck’s greatest triumph, and although it’s nowhere near as epic in scale as Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden, it’s the kind of novel that has your mind continually wandering back to it, even years after first reading it.
Many thanks to Rob for his illuminating evangelism, and once again to the others who took part. Do explore their websites, and if you’ve enjoyed this post, please do visit the other interviews in the series: