25 February 2015

Reading blind: the thrill of reading books someone else chose for you

By nonfictioness

Last Christmas when my husband asked me what I wanted as a gift my reply was simple: ‘books’. ‘Will you give me a list?’ he asked.

I thought about this for a second then realised that actually what I wanted was to widen my reading.RBbooksx600

I generally go into a bookshop and gravitate towards certain genres of books and certain authors. I needed to break this habit so I thought of an experiment. What if I ask my husband to choose five books for me?

So that is what we did and on Christmas morning I excitedly unwrapped five parcels and started a new reading journey.

Reading blind

Now at this point I should also mention I have a bit of a strange way of approaching books. I never (or nearly never) read the blurb. I really hate the way some books (I’m looking at you here A Prayer for Owen Meany) give away a vital plot device in the blurb.

My position was further reinforced when I recently bought my friend a copy of The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, a book I had really enjoyed and wanted to share with my friend. The shop assistant said she too had loved the book and was so glad the publishers had re-written the blurb on the back because the original blurb had put her off reading the book. Case closed.

The books

These are the books my husband chose for me: The Beast Within by Emile Zola; The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky; Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr; Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris and Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser.

He said he was trying to pick a broad range of books, ones that would challenge me, ones that were outside my comfort zone and some he knew I’d like – just in case!

I read The Beast Within first. It just seemed like the kind of book I would never have chosen for myself, so I thought if I was going to push my reading habits I should start with this.

I would like to say it opened up a whole new world for me and changed my reading habits forever, but that would be a lie. I certainly appreciated the book and the skill in crafting such a story exploring the intense themes of what lies beneath the surface of ordinary people.

But the characters were all so horrible I struggled to relate to any of them or really care about what happened to them. Plus the extended train metaphor was really laid on with a shovel. So in short, I was left feeling a bit disappointed with this first foray.

I moved onto Flashman thinking it would be a bit of light relief after The Beast Within. Here I think my expectations tripped me up. Looking at the cover art it looked like a pastiche of Victorian adventure novels so I was expecting to have a bit of a laugh.

However on reading it the lines began to blur and I began to question whether the book took the joke just a bit too far. I wasn’t really comfortable laughing at the endless sexism, racism and unnecessary violence.

I felt I was maybe being a bit po-faced about the whole thing so ploughed on to the end and did find some enjoyment in the book. But ultimately I felt like the Flashman character was not enough of a caricature to be wholly enjoyable.

Next I dived into The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I really enjoyed this book and boy was my husband glad to hear it! He had been getting more and more downhearted about his poor choice of books and was so relieved that I had discovered a book I could relate to and enjoy.

Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris didn’t quite fit the brief, as I have to admit I read an extract in the Guardian about a year before publication and howled with laughter. My husband noting my gleeful reaction resolved to buy the book for me when it finally came out. It was therefore unsurprising that I really enjoyed this book.

The anecdotal style of writing and the lovely mix of memoir and short story really appealed. I will certainly be reading more David Sedaris.

The final book in my pile was Last Exit to Brooklyn. I tried starting it, but reading as I do just before bed means my level of concentration is not always that great. As I attempted the first page I felt no connection to the book whatsoever and put it to one side.

I do intend to read it but my husband got there first and he admitted it was pretty dark. I am not against dark, in fact I am a big James Ellroy fan, but sometimes you want books that bring some joy into your life and with the world being quite a bleak place at the moment I thought I’d leave this book on the side just a bit longer.


So what did I learn from this experiment? Well, I learned to go outside my comfort zone with reading and though you may not always love the book you read you will certainly gain something from having read it.

It was definitely worth it, so much so that when my husband asked me what I wanted for Christmas this year I gave him the same answer as last year.

This year I got How to Be Both by Ali Smith, The Dog by Joseph O’Neil, H is for Hawk by Helen McDonald, The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell and The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson. I will report back when I have read them all!