I’m three books into my tour around this year’s Booker longlist. Not a reading challenge I’ve attempted before, but under A C Grayling’s chairmanship this year’s list has such an intriguing crop of titles, it’s hard to resist. No doubt I’ll still be working away at this well past October 14th when the winner is announced (let alone the shortlist on September 9th). But speed isn’t the point, for once.
Why? Three reasons: I miss reading fiction; I have never read enough new fiction; and I’m making an effort to read ebooks in a variety of e-reading environments, to experience what does and doesn’t work about using ebooks. This is partly work related: the Newsweek Insights eBook-first publishing model I’m working on means I’m more engaged with eBooks than ever before. It’s also partly personal. We’re planning to spend a few years living on a boat. Whilst this has many compelling attractions, it does mean that any print book is going to have to work hard to justify space on board.
Already I’ve discovered that although I love the flexibility of font size, and the ability to flip between iPad and phone reading (depending on where I am) I miss some of the certainties of print: the place on a page a character or an idea first emerges, and the ability to revisit it in exactly that spot whenever I want to. I’m currently talking with a friend about starting a new book group locally and worrying that if we all read on the Kindle app, we’ll miss out on the ability to refer to page numbers and collectively locate ourselves as we talk. Ebooks suit me well geographically but less so metaphorically. The answer to “now where was I?” can no longer be “bottom of page 125″, and that feels like a loss.
It’s apt that book two on my Booker odyssey was Niall Williams’ History of the Rain. This is a story where physical books take centre stage, and which pushed me to reflect deeper on the nature of books and reading. I found it so compelling that after a few chores and an early-morning teenager-taxi-to-work-run on a waterlogged bank holiday Monday I snuck away to finish it. As the rain battered my window, I found tears rolling down my cheeks. It’s hardly surprising, really: I grew up in the household of a salmon-fishing, book-loving, self-critical, somewhat impractical autodidact, married to a wise and self-effacing woman, making Williams’ narrative one it would be impossible for me not to relate to, for all that my sole knowledge of Ireland is mediated through the plays of J M Synge and Sean O’Casey, the poems of Bernard O’Donoghue and W B Yeats, the satire of Jonathan Swift and the novels of writers like Colm Tóibín and Anne Enright.
On finishing the book and recovering my composure, I did what many of us do these days: searched to see if the author is on Twitter (Dear Reader, it seems not, although his sharp-eyed wife, the novelist Christine Breen is). But that little hunt took me instead to Max Liu’s iron-fist-in-a-velvet glove Independent review of 24th August. I don’t agree with Liu’s summation, and can only conclude that he didn’t grow up in a somewhat less economically pressed English version of the Swain household. Though I should acknowledge his piece did touch on things that niggled as I read, and which I put down to a self-conscious concern about my lack of experience of Ireland (and therefore the danger of over-romanticising the rain and the people).
But my purpose is not to talk about this novel’s failings, but rather to probe what were, for me, its resounding success. It doesn’t really matter that our protagonist Ruth Swain is impossibly well-read even for a bookish teenage misfit. This is a book-lover’s book, and plausibility is not the point. We’re readers: we know how and when to suspend our disbelief. What matters in History of the Rain is the nature of books, and the way in which they are an eternal paradox: being simultaneously a door through which we experience and explore the wider world, and a door through which we withdraw from the world and into ourselves. The question “have I taken so many wrong in my adult life because I stopped reading fiction and lost my route map to life, or because I read too much fiction and used it as my compass?” is unanswerable, as it is for key characters in History of the Rain. Books are Ruth’s atlas and her refuge, her prism and her lens as they were for her father and grandfather; as they are for me, and were for my father: all flawed characters in fiction and life.
Ironically for a book with so many words and such lyricism, the other irrepressible message of History of the Rain is one that its wide cast of characters communicate in abundance: the value of silence and the dignity of what remains unsaid.