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Thursday, 16 October 2008

A judge's journal: part two

bedside pile

I am old enough now to recognise that as I have grown older my reading habits have greatly changed. And I don't mean just that I prefer different writers to the ones I admired (or adored!) when I was younger, or that I read more or less, more quickly or slowly, at different hours of the day.

(Though, as an aside: it is one of the ironies of my present life that although you might say I read for a living--how else to succinctly describe the job of the editor of a small literary magazine?--I often feel like I hardly read at all anymore. Skimming through dozens of review copies, keeping up with literary news via the WWW, and red-penning through contributors' copy is reading, yes, but of an entirely different kind to that blissful sinking into bed at day's end with fat volume in hand for a few hours' escape into someone else's stories and ideas. The day seems to end so late now--it is 10.43 pm as I type these words, and I am still at my desk--that by the time I do pick up whichever book tops the bedside pile, I am almost too tired to open it, and after five or six pages my eyelids sag.)

In her wonderful essay "Hours in a Library", Virginia Woolf asserts that "the great season for reading is the season between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four." That was certainly true for me. She goes on: "it is not only that we read so many books, but that we had such books to read." Such books to read! Ah, to be reading To the Lighthouse for the first time--or Middlemarch, or Wonder Boys, or Howards End--all touchstone books of my youth. (To not know how they would end, what would happen next! I tremble a little at the thought of that innocence.) Also--all novels.

And that is the great difference between my reading habits of, say, ten years ago, and the present. In my younger days I had an immense appetite for fiction. It is quite possible that in the "season between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four" I read nothing but novels. Nowadays? Perhaps every tenth or fifteenth book I read is fiction, and when I do read a novel it is more likely to be an old favourite read for the third or fourth time than the latest prize-winner.

I wonder if this is an idiosyncrasy, or a widely noted aspect of getting older? (I'd be interested to hear, dear readers, if any of you have noticed a similar pattern in your own reading lives.) Is it that I'm losing the taste for made-up stories, and am hungry instead for narratives that describe and explain facts? For what do I read mostly these days? Travel writing. Biographies. Diaries. Cultural histories.

I've been conscious of late that this shift in my personal tastes has been reflected in the CRB. I've realised, with some dismay, that over the last year or so I've been commissioning fewer reviews of novels and short stories. I didn't plan this. When the time comes to commission reviews for each upcoming issue, I send out the dozen or so books in the current pending pile that seem most interesting, most worthwhile, most substantial--balancing subject matter, regional coverage, famous writers and unknowns. But somehow, without meaning to, I've developed a blind spot for fiction. I've got to do something about that.

So here is another reason I agreed to help judge the 2009 Commonwealth Writers' Prize (apart from my belief that literary prizes are good things and ought to be encouraged). It compels me to read a wide cross-section of the new Caribbean fiction published over this twelvemonth. Not every single novel and short story collection by a Caribbean writer this year--just those entered for the prize by their publishers--but close enough. At the end of it all, I hope I'll have a clearer sense of the scope and direction of contemporary Caribbean writing (Canadian too, because of the geographical divisions of the CWP), and that I'll be introduced to some exciting new talents. The CRB can only benefit from that. And maybe it will also stir up my old appetite for fiction.

1 comment:

FSJL said...

I read a lot more novels between thirteen and thirty (to broaden the age range a bit) than I have since. And a far broader range of work. I think the thrill of discovery is immensely important. I'll never again know what it is to read Naipaul or Selvon or Hearne or Dickens or the Lazarillo for the first time.

For me, as a young man, the greatest treasure in the world was my library card (cards actually, the three little cards that the Jamaica Library Service doled out to me).