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Inside Books: New Year reading resolutions

5 January 2012

12:09 PM

5 January 2012

12:09 PM

Amazon reported that Christmas Day was the ‘biggest ever day for Kindle downloads’. Evidently, this year, many people are going to begin to read eBooks. Shaking off the doom-and-gloom
that a seller of printed books inevitably feels at such a prospect, I can’t help but notice the nice timing. All these people are trying out a new way of reading for a new year.

Falling into a habit of reading isn’t such a bad thing. (Far better to be the habit of reading a certain format, genre, or author, than to be out of the habit of reading altogether.) But
sometimes it doesn’t hurt to shake things up a bit. January is traditionally a time of change, of resolutions, of giving up one thing and taking up another. This New Year, why not resolve to
read differently?

Working in a bookshop, I witness many different methods of choosing a book. Most of them are geared towards finding a safe bet, a book that the customer will definitely enjoy. Some people ask for a
book of which they’ve read a good review, others buy one that a friend has recommended. Sometimes they ask for something similar to a book that they’ve liked — ‘something
like One Day’, for instance. Indeed, the first thing I do when asked for a book recommendation is to find out what the customer has enjoyed reading in order to tailor my choice to
his or her taste.

Indeed the ‘if you liked x, you might enjoy y’ is a powerful purchasing model employed by far greater beings than us humble booksellers. It is a tool used by powerhouses like Amazon,
Lovefilm, Netflix, and Google to name just a few. And it works. If someone relishes a diet of John le Carré, I would point them in the direction of something like Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada, or Snowdrops by A.D. Miller, rather than Westwood by Stella Gibbons.

But the problem with such tailored recommendations is that they narrow people’s horizons. Yes, a John le Carré fan would almost certainly love Hans Fallada, but there’s also a
chance that they might — albeit unexpectedly — find they love Stella Gibbons. They are very different writers, but they both write very good, very enjoyable books. Someone who is stuck
on Cold War crime might just find they come to enjoy a bit of light, curiously dated, social comedy once in a while.

It seems a shame to constrict one’s reading by letting past experience entirely dictate the future. There is a greater risk of not enjoying something if it is completely different, utterly
new, but you might just discover something brilliant that you’d never have otherwise found.

So, how about trying a different, somewhat more esoteric, way of choosing what to read? Here are a few suggestions of ways of reading that encourage the discovery of different books. You might come
across some books you hate, but you will certainly come across others you love. I’d love to know how you get on!

To read alphabetically, begin by picking a book you haven’t read by an author whose surname begins with A (Austen, Auster, Ackroyd, Atwood, Amis — to
name a few) and continue in this fashion until you reach Z (Zola, or Zweig). The twenty-six letters make the maths work out rather pleasingly to equal one book for each fortnight of the year. The
simple tool of the alphabet can throw up all sorts of surprises when it comes to authors’ names; some letters are blessed with a plethora of talented authors and others are rather more
sparsely populated.

For those of you who don’t want to commit to a whole year of alphabetising their reading, another useful exercise is to use the alphabet to examine what you’ve already read and then to
fill in the gaps. I always find it about three parts interesting to one part shameful. I realised that I’ve not read much by any author whose surname begins with I, for instance, so have
resolved to read some Isherwood.

Work your way around the world, reading a book from or about each country. It might prove reasonably straightforward while treading familiar territories, but I
certainly don’t have to get far to come unstuck. Have you read anything by a Bulgarian author? Or Lithuanian? Of course if you can tie any of this reading in with holidays you might have
lined up for the year ahead, so much the better. If not, then you might find the lot of the armchair traveller rather a happy alternative.

By genre
Read books from as many genres as you can think of. It is so unbelievably tiresome to be told by a customer that they ‘don’t like’ short stories, or
biographies or travel writing etc. How can one possibly write off a whole type of book!? This is the time to cast aside your blinkers and try every genre of book, especially the ones that
you’d normally avoid. And, before you think you can get off lightly, there are many more subdivisions than just fiction and non-fiction. Literary fiction, romance, thrillers, historical
thrillers, classics, anthologies … And let me just put a word in here for children’s books. These are too often overlooked by adults, but really can be fantastically enjoyable.

Pick a subject, any subject, and determine to read it to death. (Or at least five books about it, at any rate.) For those of you who might sneer at the
superficiality of the first few methods and prefer to delve rather than skim, then this is for you. You could go for books about or set in London, or coming-of-age novels. Or you could go for
something a bit wackier, like books about duels, or rivers, or revolutions… There are infinite possibilities and what fun trying to come up with all the books!

Reread your favourite books, or books you’ve read that you can’t really remember, or books from your childhood, or books that you studied at school or
university. Rereading is all-too-often dismissed as a guilty pleasure. With the pressure of there being millions of books yet to read, it’s understandable why going back to the books already
under one’s belt can feel too much like a waste of time. But the pleasure of revisiting an old favourite is truly wonderful. It can be comforting, enlightening, nostalgic and more. While this
method might not make you discover new writing, it will certainly make you rediscover a great book, or help you discover something new in it. Just think how often one listens to a piece of music
— surely words deserve to be read more than once?

Emily Rhodes works in an independent bookstore in London and is writing a novel. She blogs at Emily Books and tweets @EmilyBooksBlog.

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