As I typed out lists of books read, starting below with 2014 and copied from yearly diaries, I realised how many memories were attached to them – to most of them anyway. More than music, it struck me that reading was richly evocative of friendships, relationships, events and obsessions.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Paradoxical Undressing by Kristin Hersh
Hiroshima by John Hersey
Ragtime by E. L Doctorow
How to Breathe Underwater by Julie Orringer
Perfect Lives by Polly Samson
The Examined Life by Stephen Gross
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
I Don’t Need You Anymore by Arthur Miller
The Fall by Albert Camus
Ten Stories About Smoking by Stuart Evers
Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
After the Fire, A Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld
The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner
Serpico by Peter Maas
Collected Stories by James Salter
Desperate Characters by Paula Fox
By Blood by Ellen Ullman
The Paying Guest by Sarah Walters
Bad Behaviour by Mary Gaitskill
An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell by Deborah Levy
Pollard by Laura Beatty
Black Flowers by Steven Mosby
Larry’s Party by Carol Shields
I remember crying at my desk in the office I worked in as I finished The Goldfinch. It had been loaned to me by a colleague – a sweet, smart and funny boy. He walked in one morning to see me with my head in my hands, tears sliding down my face. ‘Have you finished The Goldfinch?’ he asked.
I bought Paradoxical Undressing at my local independent bookshop, the marvellous Bookseller Crow on the Hill, run and owned by Justine Crow and Jonathan Main. It was at an event with the author, Kristin Hersh, at the publication of a new book and some music. She played guitar and sang; the shop was packed out, every inch of floor space crammed. It was clear that fans had come from far and wide; I felt oddly territorial, like I wanted to question newcomers. “Can you name three shops on Westow Street? No? Then piss off.” Kristin signed my book and let me take some photos with her; we discussed a mutual friend, Vicky – the first new friend I made at university and someone I saw for the first time since graduation in February of this year, in Grasmere, when she picked me up from a mini writing break and took me to stay overnight at her place in Hornby Castle. Yes, she lived in an actual castle. Well, a house adjacent to it.
There are some new authors on this list, too – by which I mean new to me. Unbelievably, this was my first ever Julian Barnes novel, although I can’t say it inspired me to want to read more. I read Rachel Kushner because of her appearance at another event at the Bookseller Crow, and Pollard came to me from my friend Jude, a book she loved and wanted to pass on. A boyfriend loaned me Black Flowers. I liked the plot more than the writing; and I didn’t love it anywhere near as much as he did. We didn’t last long; our incompatibilities were not just due to our difference tastes in reading matter. But when we first met, I was reading The Paying Guest. I messaged him the day before our first date to say, “I’ll be the one reading The Paying Guest“. After a couple of drinks he said, “I wasn’t sure how I was going to use that to spot you, seeing as how I don’t know what the book looks like. But I do know what you look like.”
Serpico was clearly the outcome of deciding – briefly – to give the unread books on my shelf a go.
I just had to Google the Paula Fox book, having no memory of reading it, of its subject matter or, seeing as how I don’t own it, who might have loaned it to me. The synopsis rang a bell, but there the story ends for me. I’d love to fill in the blanks.
The last full book I read, Larry’s Party, was a gift from one of my drinking, er, writing group. In 2012, 20 or so people formed the inaugural creative writing workshop at the Bookseller Crow on the Hill. Six of us hit it off and started a splinter group once the workshop had ended. We became friends. We see less of each other now, for writing and fun, but we get together for birthdays and weddings and for a Christmas meal, where we give Secret Santa gifts. There are two caveats to the gift-giving: we must give books and they must be bought from the Bookseller Crow. Kirsten had called up, spoken to Karen (our creative writing teacher, novelist, poet and part-time bookseller) who had recommended the Carol Shields. I had loved her short stories, and Unless, which I had read in 2005. I took Larry’s Party to Liverpool with me for Christmas. Reading it over dinner on Boxing Day, the waiter told me his mum had a copy. We chatted about literature for a bit. He reminded me of an absent friend, an old work colleague who had left his job and gone AWOL from the lives of me and my colleagues.
During the year, I also read some of John Cheever’s stories (ploughing my way intermittently through his collected short stories); some of Ted Morgan’s Reds, which I started reading the year before, inspired by having read both E. L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, and Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna – two books that have at their centre the Communist witch hunts of the1950s; some of George Plimpton’s Truman Capote biography; and I began reading Viv Albertine’s Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys, which leads me to ….