Why won’t my kids read the amazing books I recommend?
THE HOLIDAYS – peak time for reading.
I’m about a quarter way through The Enchantment Of Lily Dahl – an old paperback by Siri Hustvedt that I saved from the bin at the charity bookshop where I volunteer.
Before that, I took ten days to crack through Conspiracy, the last (so far) of S J Parris’ Elizabethan-era detective novels.
Prior to those, I demolished Michael Palin’s Erebus and the latest of Ian Rankin’s series featuring the seemingly immortal John Rebus, In A House Of Lies.
I bought both of the latter books in desperation at Luton Airport (Ooh-Eee-Ooh!), feeling twitchy about the books that I’d already packed; dreadfully naked and vulnerable without a satisfactory supply of words to burn through.
My wife has also been cracking on. She’s normally too tired and busy to read at anything but a snail’s pace, but she read a book a week lying by the pool, which for her is pure Linford Christie.
This combined reading frenzy has enlarged the big pile of paperbacks on top of our already full bookshelf in the hall, so we’re due a drop-off soon at the charity shop, where I can maybe buy one or two while I’m at it…
Because although I’ve got a running memoir and an economic history thing to fall back on after the Hustvedt, I’m already fretting about where I will get my next hit of fiction, of adventure, time travel, exotic locations, crime and sex.
I’m a hopeless junkie. I’ll get ‘em new in Hardback and paperback, germ-laden in libraries, and bargain bins, in the British Heart Foundation – even left outside on the street. I’m never going to kick the habit. I will always want more, more more stories.
I should chillax, of course. Google books reckons that there are about 130 million books that I can read and UNESCO reckons about two million are published each year.
So there ought to be plenty for me to find out there, but I don’t help myself.
For a start, I don’t like reading old books. And by old, I mean anything pre-1900, although I’m glad that I made an exception for both War and Peace and Anna Karenina.
I also have to admit that I’m a bit of a middlebrow. I read fast and unthinkingly, relying more on tone, character and a steady stream of incident to nourish me – as opposed to nuance and ideas. I’m therefore not great at challenging or experimental stuff, and have tried but foundered on Ulysses, Mrs Dalloway, Infinite Jest, and many more.
What further narrows down my options is the fact that I’m also a snob about what I read.
I won’t (generally!) read your Jeffrey Archers, your John Grishams, Lee Childs and your Dan Browns (all right: I read an Archer when I was a teenager and enjoyed -!!- The Da Vinci Code less than a decade ago).
Even The Girl On The Train seemed a bit contrived and likely to disappoint, so I gave it the dodge. In fact I’m boycotting anything with ‘Girl’ in the title after reading Gone Girl to the bitter, biter end, caring neither about the characters or the hateful world they lived in.
What I would really like is this: to go back to when I was my kids’ age and hadn’t yet read the thousands of books that I’ve devoured since I was in my teens.
Think about it: not yet having read Hemingway, Updike, Tolstoy, Rankin, Ian McEwan or Iain Banks yet. Not having yet discovered China Mieville or Rumpole; Nicholson Baker or the books behind Game Of Thrones…
Which is probably why, every now and then, I pick up something I think The Dustbins might like – such as Richard Morgan’s sci-fi/detective Altered Carbon or Philip Kerr’s Nazi-detective Berlin Noir – and try and talk them into reading it.
But, naah! Our daughter won’t touch a thing that either parent recommends and my son – though he read both The Revenant and The Martian because he saw them around – has spurned my Altered Carbon, which currently sits forlorn on the stairs just a yard from where I handed it over.
Of course, it’s a truism to say that kids have so many more leisure options these days. He is big into gaming, while she is partial to quite a bit of Insta and willingly invested heart and soul into Love Island for six weeks.
I suppose that the growth of on-demand TV has a lot to do with it, too. My kids are more literate than many, yet much of their demand for stories is catered for in the high-quality book adaptations we see everywhere these days, from the BBC to Netflix.
I remember, when Box Sets first became A Thing, someone explaining to me that watching a series of The Wire was much like reading. It was divided into chapters, for a start. And, just like a book, you could pick it up and put it down at will.
Certainly, I can see that immersing oneself in a new Netflix series must have much the same thrill as starting a new book, or discovering a new author. You know that you will be entertained for days on end; and that warm sense of anticipation is half the thrill.
And yet, while I like a bit of telly, there’s something about being fed unalterable images created by someone that seems somewhat passive and unsatisfactory. I prefer the freedom, and the mental effort, of recreating for yourself what an author has written down.
Tonight, my daughter told me, she’ll be finishing a Netflix drama from South Korea, and already has another one lined up after that.
I almost envy her, but for as long as my eyes do the business, I’m sticking to books.