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Posts Tagged ‘reading challenge’

As I mentioned in an earlier blogpost, I set myself the challenge to read all 100 books in the BBC’s list of the Nation’s Favourite books.  When I first saw the list I’d read approximately 33 of the books, so I figured it wouldn’t be too difficult a challenge.  There were a few books on the list that I was not looking forward to reading; namely War and Peace, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Midnight’s Children, and the Jacqueline Wilson books!  There were other books that I had never heard of and had no opinion on whatsoever; such as Dune and Magician.  To my surprise I found that I enjoyed War and Peace, Captain Corelli, Dune, Magician, The Shell Seekers, The Thorn Birds and many, many more.

I didn’t enjoy reading Midnight’s Children, One Hundred Years of Solitude, The God of Small Things or Crime and Punishment.

But I found a love for Terry Pratchett!  Who knew I would enjoy sci-fi so much.

Generally, it wasn’t a difficult list to complete, I struggled to get through some of the books I’ve mentioned, but I also wasn’t going to give up on any of them and they didn’t feel insurmountable. And the number of books I liked and the new found loves kept me interested and ready to try anything.

However, there has been one book that stopped me from completing this challenge a year ago!  That book was Ulysses by James Joyce.  I picked it up in October 2009 prepared to read it and complete the challenge by Christmas.  But I just couldn’t do it; I’ve never put down a book so much in my life before!  I was so fed up with it I put it down in November and didn’t pick it up again until March 2010.  But I soon put it down again.  Then in late October I decided I’d had enough, I wanted to finish the damn thing and be done with it.  So picked it up and set myself rules; I was only allowed to read Ulysses and nothing else during the week but I could read other books at weekends.  I found myself actually hoping that I wouldn’t get a seat on the tube, because the book was too heavy to hold with one hand whilst standing!  Ridiculous, I know!

But I persevered and on Friday 17 December I finally finished Ulysses, the challenge was over!

I was so relieved.  You may have guessed that this was one of the less enjoyable books on the list.  It was a strange book; it certainly wouldn’t be in my top 100 of favourite books and I couldn’t recommend it as a good book to read.  But it is interesting in its own way.  It’s intellectually stimulating and it explores a multitude of literary and grammatical styles which challenge the reader throughout.  I want to call it an indulgence on Joyce’s part; a book he wanted to write without really caring what anyone else thought.  The sort of book a well-renowned author might produce and get published because his publishers have made enough money to lose some on their author’s whim!  But that doesn’t feel fair.  Joyce struggled to complete this book, struggled to find someone willing to publish it, and struggled to get it accepted by general society.  It only exists because of his pure determination and the generosity and courage of his friends.  It had to be smuggled into the United States and the publisher lost a lot of money producing the first edition.

Now that I’ve completed the book I think I have a better insight into why Joyce wanted to create such a work.  He wanted to challenge our perceptions of how books should be written and what they should be written about.  And he does that.  Ulysses does challenge and stimulate, no matter how infuriating it might be!  And although the novel is a day in the life of Leopold Bloom my favourite section was the last, when it’s written from the point of view of his wife Molly and Leo’s asleep.  Many parts of the book are dull and tedious, other parts are amusing or barely decipherable, but the last section feels the most human and realistic.

Overall, this is a book that I will probably never read again but it’s also one I’m not likely to forget!  Try it if you dare.

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I recently read a piece on http://shelflove.wordpress.com called Sunday Salon: Why We Dislike What We Dislike, the piece focused on why we dislike certain books and why we don’t even attempt to read others.  Are they just bad or are we biased or trying to read them at the wrong time?

This set me thinking about how the choices I make when it comes to the books I read.  Why do I pick up the books I do?

I think the first reason has to be favourite authors.  For example I’ve read every Jack Reacher novel by Lee Child and I’ll certainly be reading the next one.  The same goes for JD Robb’s ‘In death’ series, John Sandford’s ‘Lucas Davenport’ and Linda Fairstein’s ‘Alex Cooper’.  I pick these books up as they’ve all ready proven their entertainment value to me and I trust they will deliver again.  But why did I start to read these books in the first place?  I think this brings me to the second, and probably primary, reason for choosing books…

Favourite genres.  I am a fan of thrillers and crime/detective fiction so I’ll often browse that section of my local library and take a chance on authors I’ve not read before.  I also use sites like fantasticfiction.co.uk where you can look up authors and find links to other similar authors.  But I’ve noticed that I do discriminate within this genre.  For example I prefer not to read books set in the UK.  I think this is because I live in the UK and I don’t want to be able to identify the location of a murder, it can add a sense of reality that I’m not looking for, I read this genre for escapism, not realism.

I also like classic literature such as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Alexandre Dumas, to name a few.  So generally I’ll be more likely to pick up a piece of classic literature rather than a work of modern fiction.  Perhaps because the classic is still around it’s proven that it can last the test of time and is therefore more likely to be worth reading.

So generally I think there’s a lot of prejudice and bias that goes in to choosing whether or not to read a book.  I’ve often told people a book didn’t sound ‘like the sort of thing I’d like’ after only the briefest of descriptions.  But I recognise that I do this and a few years ago I decided to try and broaden my literary horizons and diminish my preconceived notions.

It all started with the BBC Big Read, which I’ve previously mentioned in an earlier post.  When I first looked at the list of 100 books I immediately discounted some as books I wouldn’t want to read.  Why?  Simply because they didn’t fall into the categories of favourite authors or genres.  So I decided to finish the entire list whether I liked the book or not.

This has broadened my reading hugely, I always thought I was pretty well read but now I realise how I had limited the scope of books I read by dismissing so many genres/authors because of preconceptions.  I probably would never have read Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series if there hadn’t been some of these books on the list, and now I’m huge fan.  It turns out I love a bit of science fiction!

I’ve also discovered a love of historical fiction too.  Then there are the authors like Salman Rushdie who I wouldn’t have read if he hadn’t been on the list but I probably won’t read again!  As well as broadening my choices I also confirmed a few dislikes too.  But now I can say I don’t like these books and I can back my decision up because I did give them a go, I’m basing my decision on fact not ignorant prejudice.

And then there are those stand alone books that are simply just a good read, it might be due to a fantastic story, engaging characters or a setting/situation that the reader can relate to but generally none of these are good enough to make a book stand out on their own.  I believe the one constant across all good books has to be good writing, it doesn’t matter if it’s simplistic, descriptive or emotive but whatever style it has to suit the characters and story and engage the reader.  No matter what the genre, good writing should stand out.

I think that overall I’m much more willing to give any book a go and not just dismiss books willy-nilly.  As well as reading the BBC Big Read list I also asked friends to nominate a book each that I should read and that was a great way to find new books and learn what my friends liked.  I’d encourage others to get outside their comfort zone occasionally and try something new, you never know where it might lead.

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In 2003 the BBC launched the Big Read, which aimed to discover the nation’s favourite books by getting members of the public to vote. You can see the list here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/bigread/top100.shtml

When the list was first released I’d read about 33 of the top 100, so I decided to read the rest. But I didn’t really put much effort into it, mainly cause there seemed to be a lot of books on the list that I ddn’t want to read! But last year I decided that I’d complete the list and by December 2009 I had read 99 of the books. I was well chuffed with myself. So I only had 1 to go – not a problem I figured. Except that the book I’d left till last was Ulysses by James Joyce.

I started it in December, I read a 100 pages or so and then I got distracted by other books. I put Ulysses down in mid-December and I didn’t pick it up again until March, when I read another 70 pages or so.  But I’ve decided it’s time to finally finish the list. So as much as I may not want to, I am going to finish this book!

I must say that whilst reading the list I came across a number of books I would never have picked up normally but that I really enjoyed. This includes the Terry Prachett Discworld series which I’ve loved. The humor, sarcasm and satire is brilliantly written. I also finally read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. I tried reading this 2 or 3 times previously but I just couldn’t get into it, this time round – no problem at all. Maybe I’d forced myself to read such rubbish that I realised it really wasn’t that bad and actually quite enjoyed it.

Some of the books I struggled with included Love in a Time of Cholera, Crime and Punishment and Midnight’s Children. But I’ve now read them so I’m allowed to slate them as much as I like! Whereas previously when people asked why I’d never read these books I didn’t have a suitable answer, I’d just say they didn’t seem like my type of book and I was right!

But I can’t use that argument to not read a book again as I was often proved wrong. So if anyone is looking to expand their literary horizons, you could do worse than taking a book or two from the list.

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