Saturday, 17 December 2011

Read a lot? Of course. You sure?.

A recent post on a Facebook page asking members to name their favourite book of the year and why they liked it got me thinking back on the books I have read in 2011. Initially I was wondering how I would chose from so many but it soon dawned on me that I had not read that many books this year and the choice of best book was not that hard. The fact is, though I have started to read many books this year I have only finished an embarrassing total of 3.

The result of my own analysis somewhat surprised me because I am always reading something-just necessarily a book. I read at least 15  feature articles a day and as a user of Kampala’s public transport I always have something at hand to peruse through to take my mind off the sounds around me and the lengthy periods of no motion due to the traffic jams. Because of this I had initially assumed I must have read quite a number of books.

I sat down with a pen and notepad and listed every book I had attempted to read during the year and in the end  even the list including the unfinished books was not impressive. Here they are in no particular order (there are many others but I only list those of which I read more than 4 chapters)

God is not great-How Religion Poisons Everything- Christopher Hitchens (he passed away 16/12/2011)
A Short History of Nearly Everything- Bill Bryson
A Case of Exploding Mangoes- Mohammed Hanif
White Teeth- Zadie Smith
The Believing Brain-Michael Shermer
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy- John Le Carré
Middlesex- Jeffery Eugenides

Of these I only got to finish Middlesex, God is not great and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Technically speaking I didn't read all of God is not great because when I was a few chapters into it I came across the audio book and that's how I got to finish it. The rest are in various states of “unfinishedness” from almost finished for A Case of Exploding Mangoes to just got started for White Teeth with many others being somewhere in-between.

After reflecting on my list I asked myself why I am always reading many books at a time and why I can't seem to finish any (at least not immediately). The answer I realised is, in part, due to how I decide what books  I should read. I sometimes get interested in a book because its been reviewed on a programme or some internet forum (and in my case The Strand on the BBC is a major culprit). Take Tinker  Tailor Soldier Spy, for example . I decided to download a copy of it after listening to an episode of The Strand on a new film version of the John Le Carré classic cold-war spy thriller starring Gary Oldman as George Smiley. I had grown up around Le Carré books but I had never read any and I also learnt from The Strand that George Smiley was as different from James Bond as a spy could possibly be, which got me thinking that the movie must be an intelligent (less brawn, more brains) kind of spy movie. I wanted to watch the movie but I knew it would be a while before I had any access to it so I decided to acquaint myself with the characters so that I could play a better game of compare-the-movie-to-the-book when I did eventually get to watch it.

However, while still reading Le Carré , I was listening to The Strand (again) and they had on a Pakistani author called Mohammed Hanif talking about his second novel (something about a nurse in a Karachi mental hospital). During the interview they kept referring to his first book and talking about what a surprise hit it was, how it was darkly satirical and not afraid to tackle subjects considered taboo by Pakistani writers etc. Immediately, the words dark, satirical and taboo had me hooked because I had this stereotypical idea of what novelists in a predominantly Muslim country were allowed to write about and I sensed Hanif didn't quite fit into that box. Smiley was forgotten for a while and I turned my attention to the shenanigans of Ali Shigri Pakistan Air Force pilot and Silent Drill Commander of Fury Squadron. Shigri was soon overthrown by Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything (whose review I had read on some internet forum). Bryson’s book was in turn overthrown (albeit very briefly) by Michael Shermer’s  The Believing Brain before both were permanently dethroned by Middlesex, which I finished like three days ago after going back to finish Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and almost finish with the exploding mangoes. Hitchens’s book survived interruptions because I listened to it while I was on the road and I didn’t have much else to keep me occupied.

I also realised that because I read mostly e-books and I am too broke to get myself a Kindle or a Samsung Galaxy tab (definitely cannot afford an iPad) I read mostly off my laptop, which unfortunately also has the internet and all those other websites and articles all too eager to distract me the minute I log on. Oh yes It also has work stuff that needs doing. I cannot carry the laptop with me everywhere. I did download a small ebook reader for my not-very-smart phone on which I read most of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy while trying to pretend that the queue at the bank is not that long or that if I concentrated hard enough the advertisements for the latest Kiggunda Kyo Mwaka blaring out the taxis speakers would disappear.

I have come to accept something I had known before but forgotten, my brain probably works best with small, different, portions to read at any given time. I say I had realised this earlier because for the last 6 or so years I have hardly read any fiction but I have read many non-fiction books. With non-fiction I tend to take my time and I don’t sweat it if I read a chapter a month. With fiction on the other hand I feel I need to take in everything at once lest I forget some important bits but my wandering brain just wont let me. The upside is that I get to read a little something on nearly everything.

Hmmm… I am sure some shrink has an ADD-like new agey name for my (dare I call it one?) condition.

Oh and my favourite was Middlesex

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