The Scribbler

27 October 2015

Reading wildly

Filed under: books,words — The Scribbler @ 06:45
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One of the sessions I attended at Wordstock last week was to hear Andy Miller speak about his year of reading dangerously. Picking up and actually finishing books he’d once claimed to read but hadn’t. Books that people consider difficult to read. Books like Moby Dick and Anna Karenina.

There was lots that struck me in his empassioned presentation, but one that chimed true is what he said about the books we have read recently. How they are limited, and for a large part, chosen for us.

Bookshelf full of classics

Books are there for reading

If you still have a bookshop, the fiction section is largely dominated by the top ten hardback or paperback titles, pushed forward by the major publishing companies. Unless it’s a very large, independent or particularly quirky place, there’s little space for anything outside the popular in all genres and the well known classics. And so, those of us who read, get a narrowing choice of the new, and we all pick up “We need to talk about Kevin” or “Wolf Hall’.

Ah, and there’s the other thing that Andy spoke about. If you start a book, you should finish it. And I haven’t finished Wolf Hall. It isn’t very often that I fail to finish a book, but Wolf Hall I put aside after giving it a really good try, with that standard excuse of “Life’s too short to read something I’m not enjoying.”

And yet where would I be if I hadn’t persisted with difficult books? As a student, I toughed it out through the Faerie Queene, various medieval texts and far more impenetrable stuff. I stuck with Dickens Our Mutual Friend, which, quite frankly, really takes some time to get going, but does pay off.

The Japanese have a word for a pile of books waiting to be read – it’s Tsundoku.  I’ve managed to keep mine manageable this year, by virtue of not acquiring new books, until I’ve read the ones I already have. I currently have four in waiting, including two non-fiction titles, but I’m prepared to put them to one side a little longer to take up a challenge to read outside my usual range. To finish books I’ve started, to read some older stuff I may have missed.

I am starting with John Buchan’s 39 Steps, which I don’t expect to be a difficult read, but I prepared to be challenged. This is a rich time for my reading list, with a birthday and Christmas approaching. So I’m asking you to recommend some titles and until the end of January, I’ll read a little more dangerously.

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25 September 2015

Reading and eating

Filed under: eating,food,Japan,reading — The Scribbler @ 17:15
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I always delight in a new book. And although I have embraced the electronic version as an excellent way of carrying a library around with me, there’s nothing quite like the feel of book made of paper.

Today’s is a particular delight, being an extravagant hardback. A hefty tome that sits, spine along the palm of my hand as its glossy pages open, peppered with photographs. For, this is not fiction, but a cookery book.

As I glance through its pages at random, I stop at one headed ‘Breakfast in Japan’. Here’s the first paragraph:

“Kyoto wakes late, which at least gives me time to write. A perfect morning. Grey clouds. Mist hangs low over the hills like woodsmoke. Soft raindrops. An old woman rides her bike, wobbling, a transparent umbrella in her right hand. Breakfast is miso soup in a deep, black, lacquer bowl, and grilled silver mackerel. A plate of pickles, vivid purple cabbage, white radishes, shredded daikon is salty, sour and crisp.”

Fresh sushi

Sushi at Tsukiji

Which is why Nigel Slater is my favourite food writer. You will find recipes in his books. Good ones, creative and useful ones. But he’ll also take you through the whole sensual experience of growing, preparing, cooking and sharing a meal.

In a few words he’s taken me to the other side of the world and offered me a rather strange, but enticing breakfast, and I’m hooked to a cookery book. Maybe it’s because I’ve been to Japan and had fish for breakfast – raw fish in fact in the form of sushi and sashimi just outside Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fishmarket. But good writing can transport you to new places and give you a sense of sights, sounds and cultures you may never actually experience.

So what does it matter that a cookery book is beautifully written? Surely it’s all about the recipes and the method? The proof’s in the pudding, so to speak.

Well I think it does matter. Because it shows me that Nigel Slater really cares about his work and that he wants to share, not just the end result, but the whole experience. By opening up his memories and thoughts he shares something of himself, as he passes on the pleasures of tastes, flavours and ingredients. If he writes so beautifully, you just know that what he cooks will be served up with as much love and care. To me, Nigel Slater is just as much a writer as he is a cook. And probably the person I’d most like to invite me round for dinner.

Dipping into the third volume of his Kitchen Diaries at that particular page has also brought back memories of my own wonderful time in Japan. The blog posts I wrote then are no longer online, but I still have my notebooks, photographs and poems inspired by my trips there. Maybe it’s time to reflect and republish. Would you like to read more about travelling and eating in Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara and Takayama?

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