Saturday, 17 January 2015

A good read

Reading is one of the singular pleasures in life. Regardless of whether you prefer fact or fiction, a hour (or three) spent reading a good book ranks as one of the most pleasurable things a person can do to relax. It does not matter what the subject matter is, and here is where I disagree with my I-only-read-non-fiction friends, because you can always learn something from a good book.

What makes a good book? That answer changes for every person. It will depend on your level of education (no point reading something that is far beyond your ability to grasp). It will depend on your preferences (no point reading something that is as dry as sawdust).

When I was a pre-teenager I read just about anything I could get my hands on.The first book that made an impact on me was Cocky's Castle by Celia Syred. The adventure excited me, the emotional ending shocked me. I read all of Enid Blyton's Secret Seven and Famous Five and I do not remember a time when I have not been reading a book since then.

My parents called me a book worm. They love to tell the story of the time when some old lino was being pulled up in the kitchen to make way for renovations. As the lino came up, sheets of newspaper, lying between the lino and the floorboards, were revealed. Apparently I was of little help to them as I insisted on reading every sheet as it was released from the floor.

Life takes many twists and turns, and mine has had many that were unexpected and difficult. Some things remain as constants though, and one of those for me has been reading.

In an effort to conform with my afore-mentioned friends I took a journey into the domain of non-fiction. I read biographies, auto-biographies, historical treatises, white papers, etc. I enjoyed most of them. But I don't read just for content. In fact, given that the larger portion of my reading is fiction, content has been a minor consideration for many years. I read to learn and to expand my vocabulary; to improve my communication skills. In my experience, non-fiction is generally written with only the content in mind. This leads to lazy writing.

One of my favourite authors is Charles Frazier. He became famous in 1997 with his first full-length novel, Cold Mountain. The movie was rubbish. The book was a tour de force in how to describe something with expression. He described several characters as "not precisely old but he was working his way there" and "had a natural inclination toward bile and melancholy" and "poisoned by lonesomeness and longing".

Another fabulous author, Simon Winchester, wrote The Surgeon of Crowthorne". This is one of the few non-fiction books I have read that match the prose and beauty of script that is commonplace in fiction, but so often sadly lacking in non-fiction. Winchester's masterpiece proves that it is possible to cover a topic that many would consider dry as old bones with artistry and aplomb, thus elevating it to the level of the sublime. The Surgeon is sub-titled A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words. It details the story of how the Oxford English Dictionary came to be published. One could be forgiven for thinking that the pursuit of ensuring that the mite of a two-letter preposition should have no less standing than the majesty of a piece of polysyllabic sesquipedalianism would be banal and trite. One would be wrong, but I digress.

This post started with an intention to alert you to an excellent book I read over the Christmas break. I don't usually recommend books to others as I know that reading is a very personal enjoyment, and like art and love, there is no accounting for taste. Written by William Kent Kreuger, "An Ordinary Grace" is the story of one summer told through the eyes and perceptions of a 13 year old boy. Read it for the story or read it for the beautiful prose and exquisite phrasing, but read it.

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