Thursday, April 21, 2022

Time To Read

Before Beryl the Dog moved in there were more than a few ways I thought adding a puppy to the household might affect day to day life. It never occured to me one of them would be that I'd start reading more.

The pandemic had an odd effect on my reading habits. You'd think that two years of enforced leisure, often with restrictions amounting to something like house arrest, would lead to an uptick in pages turned but things didn't always go that way. I did read and re-read quite a lot, in fits and starts, but mostly I spent my bonus time on much-needed redecoration and renovation around the house, on gardening and on playing and writing about video games.

It's not that I read any less at home than I normally would have done. I probably did read more. What I didn't do was read on my commute to work, even when I had work to go to. 

Before the pandemic I was working four short days a week, which meant eight short bus journeys totalling something like two hours. Breaks, in which I mostly read as well as eat, added another hour so when I stopped doing all of those it took three hours a week out of my reading program.

When things finally got back to what we're now calling normal I'd changed the four short days to two full-time and stopped taking the bus altogether. My new schedule now dovetails nicely with Mrs Bhagpuss's, so she drives me into work and back, something we started doing to avoid using public transport during the pandemic and now just both prefer.

That puts me back exactly where I was, with two hour and two half-hour breaks making up the same three hours I had before. Add in the time I read during breakfast and in the bath and once in a while in the evening and I probably spend something like seven or eight hours with a book in my hand on the average week.

In the two weeks since we got Beryl that reading time has almost doubled. Beryl has three main modes: asleep, awake and awake and crazy. In the mornings, as soon as I come down to breakfast, she's decided that the best place to sleep is on my lap. That's meant me sitting in the kitchen for two or three times longer than I would have before. 

It's another week before she gets her second round of vaccinations so we can't yet take her out for walks. When she's awake and active and the weather's good I often sit in the garden with Beryl on a long lead. She wanders about, pulling up grass, digging holes and generally indulging in all the behaviors that would drive a real gardener to canicide. I am not a real gardener. I read my book. 

When she's awake and crazy, no-one gets anything done.

I have no idea how long this is likely to last but while it does I'm very much enjoying the extra reading time. The only problem is going to be finding enough to read.

Enough, that is, that I want to read. Obviously there's no shortage of material. A lunatic number of books are written every year and these days an even more lunatic number of them are published in some form or other, a situation currently being highlighted by IndieApril as reported by Tessa at Narratess.

I did take a look at some of those but they're mostly eBooks and I don't get on all that well with the
format. Not because it isn't an excellent way to read - I find reading on my Kindle Fire every bit as natural and immersive as reading ink on paper. The problem is the barrier to entry that comes with having to switch the reader on, sign in and wait for it to finish doing all the little updates it always seems to have queued, even though I use it every single day.

That barrier is tiny but it's bigger than you'd get with an actual book. The difference between deciding to read and reading in each case is probably no more than half a minute but thirty seconds is a lifetime in whims and fancies. I have literally given up waiting for the Kindle and picked up a book instead more times than I care to admit.

The other factor mitigating against eBooks, in my case, relates to my employment. I work in a bookshop. I get a 50% discount on almost everything we sell, including all books. What's more, I recently qualified for a twenty-year long service reward and I chose a £300 gift card. With the discount, that's a lot of paperbacks.

And of course I get books for free. Not so many as I used to, it's true, what with publishers moving to Netgalley as their preferred means of promotion within the trade, but plenty of hard copy proofs still pile up, along with stacks of books my co-workers have done with and bring in to leave lying around for anyone interested to take.

One way or another, I'm never short of new books. The problem, if you want to call it that, is that I'm very fussy about what I read. Not fussy as in I only read certain things, although we all do that to a degree, more fussy as in, like most things in my life, any choice I make is likely to be based on emotion rather than logic.

I have to be in the right mood to read a book. It doesn't matter that I have forty or fifty stacked up waiting, I'll still stand there for ten minutes looking through the bookshelves to see if I can find something more suited to my mood. 

And then there are the books I just can't wait to read. Often that means the next in a series, because let's be honest, continuous narratives that stretch across multiple volumes are really one gigantic single book, annoyingly interrupted by the time it takes to the author to write the damn things.

Sometimes, though, it's a new book by a writer I absolutely love. There aren't that many of them and quite a few of those died a while ago. They aren't going to be putting out anything new ever again, more's the pity.

Right at the very top of my must-read list right now is Emily St. John Mandel, about whom I've posted before. She has a new novel coming out at the end of this month, on the 28th. It's called Sea of Tranquility and I just finished it yesterday. 

I got a proof copy. I emailed and asked for one, something I almost never do. Her publisher, Picador in the U.K., sent it to me along with a copy of her best-known book, Station 11, which I already had.

I read Station 11 in proof back in 2014, when no-one had ever heard of it or its author. It won the Arthur C Clarke award the following year and was made into a critically-acclaimed HBOMax series a few months ago. 

Station 11 impressed me so much back then I immediately bought all three of her earlier novels, none of which had made a dent in the public consciousness but all of which turned out to be excellent. Last year I caught up with her fifth, The Glass Hotel. It came out in 2020 and I was dithering over whether to buy in hardback or in paperback on import. As usual, when I delay, I ended up not buying it at all. I finally picked up a copy last month. Just as well I did, too, for reasons that will become plain.

Station 11 was marketed mainly as a science fiction novel although it's really more in the specific SF sub-genre of post-disaster novels like The Death of Grass or Day of the Triffids. The book it most reminds me of is Earth Abides

It's a very significantly better-written novel than any of those. She's a wonderful prose writer, incredibly clear and precise without ever feeling brittle. I'd label Station 11 literary fiction rather than any kind of genre, if I was into labels, which I both am and am not.

The Glass Hotel is more difficult to classify. It has some science-fictional or fantastical elements but nothing that wouldn't have been called "magic realism" a while ago. I found it compelling, disturbing and strange in all the best ways. I kept thinking about long after I'd finished reading.

Sea of Tranquility is without question a Science Fiction novel. It features both time and space travel, domed cities, space colonies, robots, all the trappings. It even has a proper SF plot. 

It's also the most metatextual novel I have ever read. I was thinking about reviewing it here but it would be such a huge undertaking I decided against even trying. I realised we were in for something extraordinary when the novel's opening line  began with the name of a character unmistakeably both like and not like that of the author.

From there it's a wild ride that takes in Station 11, itself a novel about a global pandemic, the actual
global pandemic we've all just experienced and the way writing a novel about a global pandemic immediately prior to an actual global pandemic affects the way an author's work is received and perceived. 

There's a character in the novel whose written a book that did just that but it's not the author of the book I read and author of the book in the book I did read didn't write Station 11. I'm pretty sure even the name of the fictional book about a pandemic is a metatextual reference outside the text but within the cultural milieu that supports it.

Several of the main characters from The Glass Hotel appear in Sea of Tranquility. Most of the same things seem to have happened to them as happened in that book but there's one very significant difference. If some of what we learn in Sea of Tranquility is true, some of what we thought we learned in The Glass Hotel is probably not.

I wondered as I read how much someone who hadn't read The Glass Hotel would be missing when they read Sea of Tranquility and I decided it would be a lot. Then I wondered how much they'd be missing if they hadn't read Station 11 and I decided that would be a lot, too. Even having read the three early novels, about which no-one speaks, made me feel I was squeezing a little more out of the story. They are not mentioned but they are not not mentioned either.

And yet you could absolutely read Sea of Tranqulity, never having read any of these other works, not even knowing they exist, and you'd still be reading a superb novel that would feel perfectly complete in itself. It's a work of genius to have knitted all of these threads together and left no seams showing at all.

I'd love to quote a couple of passages to give some idea of excatly how good the writing is but one thing you must never do with proofs is quote from them. It's strictly forbidden and for good reason. The less important but still important reason is that there may be changes to the text before the book goes to print and no author wants their dry run to be presented as the finished item.

The more important reason is that proofs haven't necessarily passed through the fine toothed comb of the legal department. If you were to quote something from the proof that later had to be revised before publication so as to avoid some potential legal challenge, you, as the promulgator of the libel or defamation or whatever it might be, would be liable. Not likely but not worth the risk.

I'll settle for giving Sea of Tranquility my strongest recommendation although I also suggest, almost as strongly, that if you follow it up you read Glass Hotel first and maybe Station 11, too. You should read them both anyway. They're amazing.

And I think I will have to take up my seven-day free trial to Starz, the streaming platform currently showing the Station 11 series in the U.K. It's eight and a half hours long. I should be able to fit that into a week. 

Maybe I'll watch it in the garden with Beryl on my lap. That'd be a better use of my Kindle Fire than reading eBooks.


  1. It's kind of funny that I was at a bookstore last evening and saw Sea of Tranquility and considered checking it out. Now it looks like I'll have to give it some more serious thought.

    ::Stares at the To Be Read pile.....::

    Oh crap.

    1. There's always room for one more on the pile!

  2. I've found that I've been reading more lately than I have been in years. In my case, stepping back from being an active raider in Wow really freed up time for me to reconnect with other activities. Sometimes you don't realize how much time an MMO can consume until you are well away from it.

    I used to have many physical books, but over time, due to some events and mostly choice I've slowly moved towards being much more minimalist about physical possessions. I do have some physical books, but that's generally because there's no ebook alternative. My iPad loads the Kindle app and the book I'm reading instantly, so having a growing library at hand is addicting. (Of course, I had your bookstore discount I would likely change my purchase habits. ^_^) Especially when, it seems like you, I putter around trying to figure out what I want to read. Do I continue with something new or do I want a comfort book at this time?

    1. I got rid of huge number of books during lockdown (Well, while I was on furlough) but I already seem to have acquired as many new ones since. I'd love to go digital and free up a ton of space but until we move to somewhere smaller and it has to happen I imagine I'll just keep piling up more and more.

  3. " The problem is the barrier to entry that comes with having to switch the reader on, sign in and wait for it to finish doing all the little updates it always seems to have queued, even though I use it every single day.

    That barrier is tiny but it’s bigger than you’d get with an actual book. The difference between deciding to read and reading in each case is probably no more than half a minute"

    I think the Kindle Fire specifically is the problem here - on my Kindle Oasis (and on previous Paperwhites), the process is:

    1. Press power button
    2. Wait 4.8 seconds (I timed it) for the device to wake up
    3. Start reading

    As a bonus, the eInk display is much nicer to look at than a regular screen, and can show the cover of your current book when the device is off/asleep.

    1. Yes, it's absolutely the Fire that's the problem. Mine is four years old and jailbroken and I have a lot of apps installed. It always has to update a bunch of things every time I power it up and it's getting slow anyway. It's a media device, not an eReader.

      A Kindle proper is intended to compete directly with a book so it works very differently. The thing is, I really don't want to add more devices to the mix - phone, tablet, PC, laptop - it's already too many. If I was serious about going digital, though, I'd definitely get a dedicated eReader.


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