Monday 1 August 2011

REVIEW: So Many Books, So Little Time - A Year of Passionate Reading, by Sara Nelson (4*)

(Berkley, 2004)

Sara Nelson sets out with noble intentions. A devout reader during both her working and personal life, she decides to set herself the goal of reading a book a week for a year, writing a journal of her bookish habits, reading choices and general reflections as she goes.  From idle moments and snatched pages to family vacations and whole insomnia-ridden nights, this book is the resulting chronicle of her project.

This is definitely a book lover's book - which may explain why I found this second reading so much more enjoyable than the first, a few years ago.  I have more bookish knowledge and hundreds more books' worth of reading experience behind me these days, so I appreciated more of Nelson's choices and reading reactions this time around.  I've heard of more of the books, read some of the same titles, and am more immersed in the literary world online, and thus I found I had significantly more to relate to. 

In a way, reading Nelson's book is a little like being part of a book blog, a book club or an online reading community - it's made all the more enjoyable by the fact that in the back of your mind there's a quiet chant of "One of us, one of us" making you feel like a part of the action.  I recognised many of the author's bookish habits as my own – the myriad ways of choosing books, the building of book piles and compiling of lists, and the art of reading ‘just one more chapter’ at night until your eyes start to close of their own accord - and I recognised too the reluctance to loan out books, the way book hype can be more offputting than appealing, and the discomfort that stems from a friend enthusiastically lending you an 'amazing' book that you really don't want to read.

Obviously, as will always happen when two readers clash, there are areas on which Nelson liked to dwell that didn't interest me.  That is an inescapable part of interacting with other book lovers, whether you are in a book club or reading a blog.  There were certain books that I would never pick up, and certain themes that related to her life that wouldn't relate to mine.  Sometimes she might read an autobiography that was evidently written by an American personality I'd never heard of, and I'd move on fairly quickly to the next chapter.  Roll on the British version, I say, to iron out some of these differences!

At the end of the day, this is one of those books that basically does what it says on the tin.  It is an amble through a year of reading, with detours into Nelson's life as it relates to the books she is reading.  Why does she choose one book over another when she is fighting with her husband?  Why does this particular title make her feel a certain way, and how do her mood and her circumstances affect what she chooses to read - or to put down - in any given week?  These are questions we all ask ourselves every time we stop to consider why we choose the books we do, and why we react to books in such different ways, and Nelson reflects them back at us with a tongue-in-cheek nod to our shared bookish whims and peculiarities.  One to dip into, to savour - and be sure to read it with a pen and paper standing by to note down all the books you fancy reading for yourself!

Notable quotables:
  • "Explaining the moment of connection between a reader and a book to someone who's never experienced it is like trying to describe sex to a virgin.  A friend of mine says that when he meets a book he loves, he starts to shake involuntarily.  For me, the feeling comes in a rush: I'm reading along and suddenly a word or phrase or scene enlarges before my eyes and soon everything around me is just so much different fuzzy background." (p33)
  • "That's the good news about a good first line: Like the romantic insanity of the first weeks of a love affair, it can ground you, and keep you from bolting later on when things calm down.  But there's a risk in opening big, too: A powerful beginning raises a reader's hopes.  Should the rest of the book not measure up - and let's face it, so few do - I feel ripped off.  Hell hath no fury like an expectant reader scorned." (p209)
  • "I've lived the past year exactly how I've wanted to - between the covers of books and in the places in my head that those books have taken me.  I've been agitated, excited, enthralled, annoyed, frustrated, and sometimes a little bored.  But I've never been lonely." (p229-230)

Source: I received this book as a gift from my mum a few years ago.