Fifty Shades of Hurray! Why you shouldn’t wait for Christian Grey to come spank you, but should, in fact, spank yourself. Or something.

I was three when I learnt how to read. It was awesome. ‘Oh brave new world,’ I (probably) said, ‘that has such goodly creatures in’t!’ It felt like a secret. A secret that adults were keeping. And now I was part of the club. There were all these black words on white pages, and under those words, or inside them – by some kind of alchemy – there was all this cool shit going on. I mean, WHOAH. While your body was under the covers, lamp on, with one eye closed and the other one squinting to carry on reading a little bit longer, your mind could be anywhere. Anywhere! And you didn’t even need to take a sick-bag for the journey.

Me being me, I didn’t journey terribly far. I was too poor to bother with Swallows and Amazons: that was for middle class kids (they had posh schools and trips to exciting places in real life; literature had to work harder to give them a thrill). As for me – stick a toasting fork in my hand and gently swell my bosom with a sense of school pride, and I’m happy as proverbial poo-covered pigs.

Words were everywhere. Hell, yeah. And even though some of the words had clearly missed a trick (to this day I remember the deep sense of personal affront on discovering that chimleys were actually, disappointingly, not chimleys at all but chimneys) I loved them as if they were tiny, mewling kittens with pink noses. Carrying fifty-pound notes in their mouths. And sitting on top of a freshly-mixed gin and tonic.

All of which is to say:

I like reading.

I like reading so much that I’m not even opposed to ebooks. (Back in the day there were probably monks who thought the printing press was the work of Satan.) Yes, I own a Kindle. Sorry, decent citizens who have their priorities properly in order: for me, morals are quashed by the need to have more books now, now, NOW from the world’s biggest book shop – and if you’re not excited by the idea of the world’s biggest bookshop AT YOUR FINGERTIPS then clearly your inner reading geek is less vocal than mine.

I don’t love ebooks: they’re ugly and they don’t smell of paper (yet) and I weep for the absence of page numbers (because that’s just wrong, damned wrong), but a train trip with a Kindle is a happier thing than a train trip with a paper copy of Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests or Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety (and I can say this because I own the mega-beast olde worlde versions of both books). My failure, so far, to finish The Paying Guests is partly due to the relentless world-building where there ought to be plot, but mainly because it’s too big and pointy (hardback copy) to be read in bed.

Where’s the Fifty Shades stuff, you’ll be wondering round about now?

Well, a long time ago I was reading (of course) about star signs. Mine is Virgo. ‘Virgoans make great bus drivers,’ the book said. ‘They’d rather read than have sex.’

One of my fellow Virgoans.  (Fairly sure he preferred sex to reading, though.)

One of my fellow Virgoans. (Fairly sure he preferred sex to reading, though.)

In a similar vein, I gave books to a friend once for her birthday (we were seventeen at the time) and her younger sister, who witnessed the gift-opening, looked up at me with jaw a-gape and said, ‘Lynsey, why are you so boring?’

A boring, celibate, bus driver. That’s me. Apparently.

Just occasionally (Henry Miller, anyone?) books are so saucy they make people want to have sex while reading, or immediately afterwards (one hopes, for the sake of secondhand book-buyers). One of those books, as you can’t fail to know, is Fifty Shades of Grey. 

As a resident of Planet Earth it’s equally hard not to know the following two facts:

1. Valentine’s Day is coming.

2. Fifty Shades of Grey THE MOVIE is also coming. (Oh yeah, baby, it’s coming. It’s coming right in your face.) Fifty Shades of Grey THE MOVIE EVENT OF THE CENTURY is, purely coincidentally, coming right in your face the day before Valentine’s Day. And if you didn’t want a spangled riding crop and a set of fluffy handcuffs for your Valentine’s gift the following morning then, tough shit, because – if you’ve been to see the movie with your other half, or intend to see the movie, or even once remarked over your morning cornflakes that the movie was showing at your local multiplex – that’s what you’ll be getting.

Okay, listen up, everyone. I’ve read two chapters of Fifty Shades and, as Bill Hicks once said (with his usual Anglo-Saxonisms) of Basic Instinct… 

If you don’t believe me, try this test.

Reimagine every scene with John Major in the place of Christian Grey.

John Major is grey. He is also (probably) a Christian. He even gets angry (real angry, baby).

Look how angry he is. If you don't pay your poll tax he'll come and spank you.

Look how angry he is. If you don’t pay your poll tax he’ll come and spank you.

While Prime Minister of this jolly old isle he was shafting this woman:

Is that an egg she's holding or did she *actually* break his balls?

Is that an egg she’s holding or did she *actually* break his balls?

And you may find it helps to imagine her in the role of… hold on while I google this. Anastasia Steele. (Ah, yes. How clever. She, in fact, is the ‘steely’ one. Do I pass Dickensian Naming 101?)

(Unspecified time passes, during which you reimagine the entire book with Prime Minister Major and Edwina the Ball Breaker… the entire trilogy, if you’re a hardened case… or if you have a secret thing for greying politicians, in which case I cannot help you).

Okay.

You’re back in the room. Back in reality.

Still feeling horny?

Excellent! And now that you’re not feeling horny anymore, you can read with your brain instead of your loins.

50 shades

Where was her editor?

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I’ll just have a quick look at the inside of my eyelids…

Maybe the red ink ran out – I mean, literally, the entire world’s supply of red ink – and the editor (waking, startled, from her impromptu nap, cheek coated with dribble) thought: ‘Ah, what the hell. They’ll be too busy masturbating to notice the adverbs’ and went back to sleep.

That’s the ONLY possible explanation.

So what’s going on, world? Can it really be true that 97% of the adult female population wants to be spanked and bossed by exceptional entrepreneurs whose time is extraordinarily precious? Are we yearning and burning for the egomaniacal attentions of some mega-industrialist tycoon we’ve never heard of? I mean, damn my hair if I’m wrong, but isn’t that all a bit Super Soft Shampoo 1975?

Here I am sighing. And it’s not even a sigh of post-coital contentment. What I want to say to everyone who NEVER NORMALLY READS, BUT HAD TO READ THIS BOOK is: bugger off back to your back issues of Cosmo. 

If you don’t bugger off back to your back issues of Cosmo, then eventually the book trade will only ever want books this badly written. Worse still, men will only ever want women who submit to their every whim, and women will think it’s okay to choose men who are rich and want to hit them, and all manner of disturbing shit will happen.

Let me put this out there into the universe: I don’t want to be spanked. I don’t fancy Christian Grey. I won’t be watching the film, hot-faced with embarrassment in the darkness (because, seriously, who wants to watch a porno in a cinema?), and I won’t be receiving anything – not even a nipple clamp – for Valentine’s Day. That doesn’t mean I won’t be celebrating. I’ll be celebrating the fact that I’m happy by myself.

I’ll be having a chilled white wine or two in the company of the yellow roses I bought myself the other day and watching a film of my choosing and reading in bed with my one squinty eye. It’s all right, you know, being single. Don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t. It’s fifty shades of hurray, if you secretly like spending more time in your head than hanging out with other people.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a bus to drive.

30 Days of Nano: Day Twenty Six

As Tigger very nearly said: the wonderful thing about writers… is writers are wonderful things.

Er, no. Let’s try that again. (Some of them are wonderful; some of them aren’t. At all.)

The wonderful thing about writers… is that writers are full of wonder. And if they’re not, they jolly well should be.

Oh, look! Turns out writers have something else in common with tiggers... they wish (yes, they do – they really really really secretly do in their innermost souls which are made of slugs & snails & puppy dogs' tails wish they were THE ONLY ONE and no one else had worked out how to do it. Even nice people like Hilary Mantel secretly wish this. Martin Amis definitely wishes it.

Oh, look! Turns out writers have something else in common with tiggers… they wish (yes, they do – they really really really secretly do in their innermost souls which are made of slugs & snails & puppy dogs’ tails) that they were THE ONLY ONE and no one else had worked out how to do it. Even nice people like Hilary Mantel secretly wish this. Martin Amis definitely wishes it.

Who else in this world is full of wonder (or jolly well should be)?

Children.

Aw.

Perhaps, right now, as you’re reading this blog, you are not feeling especially full of wonder. Perhaps you are meant to be writing something. Perhaps you are struggling. Perhaps the stone doesn’t feel remotely stony; perhaps the stone isn’t there at all. 

What you need, struggling writer, is a dose of Childlike Wonder™. You need to be curious about the world again.

How, Lynsey?

Well, the really excellent thing is that you were a child once. And if you stop being a bloody adult for two minutes, you can remember quite a lot of what being a child is like. As the Jesuits famously said, ‘Give me the child for seven years and I’ll give you the man’ (which would, frankly, be a miraculous achievement if that child happened to be a girl, you sexist old so-and-sos) and as Shakin’ Stevens (all the high culture references on my blog, readers!) nearly said : there’s a whole lotta shapin’ going on… in those formative years. (He didn’t say formative years, of course. In fact, where was the shakin’ going on? Was it all just in Shaky’s trousers? Life is certainly too short to google a Shakin’ Stevens lyric.)

I won't, thanks, Shaky, if it's all right with you. (Who knew Shaky was involved in illicit organ harvesting?)

I won’t, thanks, Shaky, if it’s all right with you. (Who knew Shaky was involved in illicit organ harvesting?)

Q: Why is a writer like a child? A: Because s(he) is spoilt, demanding, and self-centred to the point of alienating everyone s(he) knows eternally curious. Any one who’s raised a child, or indeed sat within earshot of one on a bus or train journey, knows that children ask lots of questions. Why is the sky blue? Is the moon following me? Can you please provide, in front of these people on this train, Mummy, the answers to the following: how the train works; why the sun shines; where babies come from; why that man is having a baby; why that lady’s drawn those funny eyebrows on her face. Etc. And so on. Forever.

Funny, but sweary bit from Louis C.K. on the wonders of childlike wonder.

Asking questions is a writer’s modus operandi. The writer’s job isn’t to answer those questions (hurrah!), but simply to formulate the questions ‘correctly’. (Here I’m paraphrasing Chekhov on Tolstoy.) Literature aims to provoke thought, not tell you what to think. We leave that to the school teachers. Bastards.

So, for writers, it’s not what you know, nor even who you know: it’s what you don’t know – but really, really want to find out – that makes for good novels. The writer needs a ‘grain of stupidity’ (said Flannery O’Connor). And a willingness to think about things for a really long time. And perhaps you know that the moon isn’t really following you, but a story in which the moon did follow you might be kinda interesting, right?

The State of Wonder: where all the good shit happens.

Go on, let’s pretend we’re still kids for a minute. Let’s look at some picture books.

Was I freakishly weird, as a child, or did you too sit staring and staring and staring at your favourite pictures until they were seared on your brain? Where the Wild Things Are, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Tiger Who Came to Tea… These are books you may have read yourself. You, too, might have pushed your miniature finger tips into the holes left behind in the fruit by the ravenous – and titular – caterpillar.

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He just wants to get to the page with the lollipop on. (Don’t we all.)

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Perhaps you, too, had a secret longing to feed finger sandwiches to a tiger.

...and he drank all the milk, and all the orange juice, and all Daddy's beer, and all the water in the tap... but fortunately Mummy's wine was left untouched! Hurrah!

…and he drank all the milk, and all the orange juice, and all Daddy’s beer, and all the water in the tap… but fortunately Mummy’s wine was left untouched! Hurrah!

All good fun. But two of the books in our house that I stared, and stared, and stared at were slightly less jolly. They gave me a frisson, a thrill, when I looked at them. The first was the Butterfly Ball: 3534192302_9261e1759c

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and the second was Kit Williams’ Masquerade. 

I have crazy goosebumps looking at this.

I have crazy goosebumps looking at this.

Excuse me while I have A Moment here. Since the internet was invented, I’ve never once thought – till now – to google the Butterfly Ball, and I’m feeling a little peculiar seeing the pictures again.

It's not just me, is it? That's quite disturbing.

It’s not just me, is it? That’s quite disturbing.

Wikipedia tells me The Butterfly Ball was not only a book, but a poem, a concept album and a rock opera. Well, I never. This post has all the pictures, if you’re brave enough… I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that illustrator Alan Aldridge may possibly have been within sniffing distance of a psychedelic drug or two.

Come on, now. At the very *least* he ate some funny mushrooms.

Come on, now. At the very least he was eating some funny mushrooms.

This, I think, was my book porn. Something I felt a bit weird about wanting to look at (like the nudie lady weighing herself on the cover of a ‘health and well being guide’ my parents had… I don’t think that’s a euphemism; you’d have to ask my mum and dad) but, weirdness be damned: I couldn’t quite stop myself wanting to look.

I was nine, I think, when I got my copy of Masquerade, and by then the famous riddle contained within its pages (go here if you’d like to know more) had already been solved, and the treasure (a gold hare) retrieved from its grave, near the Catherine of Aragon monument in Ampthill Park.

Not that I’d ever have solved it in a million years. I’m a numbskull. (It had something to do with fingers, and eyes, and blah blah blah: I couldn’t even concentrate long enough to read the solution, let alone deduce it myself.) But I was very drawn to the pictures. They gave me the goose pimply feeling the insects did in the Butterfly Ball. 

More, importantly, though, they were perfect writing prompts. I was twenty, and finishing up my English degree, when I wrote an odd story inspired by a curious mix of these two pictures:

Tara Tree-tops. She inspired me to make a character fly.

Tara Tree-tops. She inspired me to make a character fly.

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Run, children!!!!!

This one inspired some nightmares.

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And as for this boy gazing dolefully at a jelly… page10

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This mightn’t make sense in a logical way, but I think there’s a bit of this picture – a bit of the feelings it makes me feel – in everything I write, somehow. (I like feeling my way through a story, not puzzling it out like a sum.)

I’ve a theory. It’s this. The things that you see when you’re young, you see forever. We adults – we’re here, we’re there, we’re everywhere: we’ve seen everything twice already and, yawn, it takes something incredibly shocking, or rude, or unusual to make us really see. But the writer must keep hold of, or retrieve, that State of Wonder. Wide-eyed wonder.

You may not have owned the Butterfly Ball or Masquerade. But the odds are you had your own pictures you loved to pore over, and, equally, the odds are you’ll find them somewhere on the internet (if the pesky old paper copy’s gone walkies). Who knows what might inspire a story, a scene, a character?

I’ll leave you with Jan Pienkowski’s Haunted House, and my own realisation that even a pop-up book can seep so thoroughly into a child’s subconscious that she ends up – very slightly, subtly, not so anyone would ever notice – borrowing a little something something from it for the novel she’s writing thirty-five years later.

193px-Jan_Pienkowski_Haunted_House_-_Portada

‘Let yourself in’. Mwa ha ha!

Wake up, dude! There's, like, a ghost in your bed!

Wake up, dude! There’s, like, a ghost in your bed!

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Thirty-five years later and my saw still works. There are benefits to being a spiteful bitch who won't let other children touch her things.

Thirty-five years later and my saw still works. There are benefits to being a spiteful bitch who won’t let other children touch her things.

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Come play with my comments box, children, if you read these books yourself as a kid. Or have weird ‘uns of your own to share…

No one else is going to write it for you.

So, diet books, huh? (Don’t worry; you haven’t come to the wrong website.)

The Fast Diet. The 5:2 diet. The Super Juice Diet. The Atkins Diet. The New Atkins Diet. The H2O Diet (really?!?). The Lemon Detox (mm, tasty). And that’s leaving aside the more emotive titlesSlim to Win. Skinny Bitch. Clean and Lean… (Meaning what, exactly? That fat people are dirty?) images

Business, of course, is booming. (I even own one of these books myself – although not the disturbingly-named ‘Skinny Bitch’, I hasten to add.) I’m not saying that diets don’t work, per se, I’m just asking – by show of hands – who here doesn’t already know exactly how to lose weight?

[Insert drumroll.] Yes, you guessed it! Healthy eating and exercise.

That’s not how we are, though, is it? We humans. We want to believe in magic, in miracles. Why – in today’s culture of instant gratification – would we want to eat more vegetables and fewer crisps when a nice man called Atkins is telling us, actually, we can shrink to the width of a Twiglet whilst stuffing our pie-holes with bacon all day?

Which brings me, at last, to the point of this blog.

Tap the phrase how to write a book into the Amazon search bar and what do you get? 14,784 results. There’s Novel Writing for Dummies, and How Not To Write a Novel (this one, to be fair, is quite funny), something (I haven’t read) with the frankly extraordinary title of Piss Or Get off the Pot: Time to Write Your Novel, and Louise Doughty’s rather good A Novel in a Year (which doesn’t really expect you to write your novel in a single year, but A Novel in Three to Four Years On Average would certainly be a less enticing title).

‘What’s that?’ says the author of A Novel In Six Months. ‘You’re going to waste a whole year on that shit? If you buy my book, you’ll be done in six months… then the other six months you’ll be sunning yourself in the Bahamas on the proceeds…’ 

‘Look, I don’t want to interrupt, but—’

‘Who the hell are you?’

‘I’m the author of Book in a Month.’

‘Ah.’

You’ve got to love an optimist. (Actually, no you haven’t. I can’t bloody stand them myself.) These listings are full of them: ‘No Plot? No Problem!’ screams one.Writing the Breakout Novel.’ ‘How to Write a Damn Good Novel.’ Best of all is: ‘Novel: Plan it, Write it, Sell it.’ I don’t know who author Lynne Barrett-Lee is but I probably need her to stand in my living room shouting at me. ‘But, Lynne, this character – I’m not really feeling him… and this scene, it’s not working somehow…’

To which Lynne would reply: ‘What are you whining about, you dick? I’ve told you everything already –  just plan it, write it, sell it!’ Full_Metal_Jacket_small

At this point I should say: this is not, repeat not, a rant against books about writing. I’ll freely confess I own loads of the buggers myself. I’m a magpie for quotes about writing (I’ve gathered them into a Scrivener file) and, loathsome hypocrite that I am, I’d actually like to write one myself, one day, when I’ve earned the right to do so with a published book or two. I will also confess that I teach short story writing (hence the large collection of said books) so, clearly, my stall is already set out on this issue: many aspects of the craft of writing can be taught – or at least semaphored, for the eagle-eyed to pick up on – but it’s also time to admit to myself that the purchasing of a book entitled Nail Your Novel will not (and did not, in fact) enable me to nail my novel. Not that it wasn’t a sensible, thoughtful, insightful read: it’s just that these books are the literary version of The Lemon Detox and, while they might give you a shot in the arm on occasion – and frequently do – at their most basic level they’re cramming your pie-hole with bacon when really it’s cabbage and tap dance you need. By all means read a book on technique. Take a course. Get some practise. And never say never: it may be that 79.7% of published authors owe their success to Book in a Month, or Book in a Week, or Book in the First Seven Seconds of Post-Coital Bliss, in which case, yes, I’ll look foolish. But one of my loveliest former students (who’s recently tasted some much-deserved literary success) once told me the best piece of advice I gave her was this: ‘No one else is going to write it for you.’

The unpalatable truth is that catch-all solutions don’t exist: the fact that you’ve purchased Piss or Get off the Pot will ultimately make no difference. You may piss, yes. But, equally, and more likely, you’ll stagger off the pot – or remain there, trousers round your ankles, no closer to nailing, stapling, or building your novel from spare bits of string than you would have been sans pot-pissing guide. Any shot in the arm will have dwindled around page 12 – if you’re anything like me, that is – and you’ll face the cold, hard truth that no one (not even Lynne Barrett-Lee) is going to write the book for you. And even if she did, she’d be unlikely to finish it in a single frigging month. So step away from A Novel in Two-Eighths of a Nano-Second and welcome to the real world.

You’re going to hate it.

 

Why writing is not the same as reading, and other painful truths.

Ah, reading.* How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…

1) A nice chunky novel = soaking your brain in a long, hot bath. (Although anything by David Peace = an episode of tachycardia.)

'The Bath of Knowledge' designed by Vanessa Mancini.

‘The Bath of Knowledge’ designed by Vanessa Mancini.

2) A good short story = an invigorating dip in the North sea. 

3) Most poetry = ten seconds of toe-tickling, or an accidental pinprick. (N.B. The very best poetry = blinding flash of glory, or leg mangled horribly in man-trap. Which brings me back to David Peace…)

Each experience may, of course, feel different for you. But the odds are, if you’re reading this post at all, that you somehow – in your own unique manner – derive at least a modicum of pleasure from the act of staring at words on a page. And if, like me, you attempt to place words on a page yourself there’s a fair chance you like it a helluva lot.

There’s an outside chance that you might even like reading about other people’s lives a little more (sometimes) than you enjoy living your own. But, ssh, we won’t go into that. 

It’s important – if you’re one of these people, like me, who would shrivel and die without books – that you take a few moments to remind yourself of the following fact: Writing is Not the Same as Reading.

Well, duh, you might be thinking. But, actually, I’ve a theory that most of us – at least once in our writing ‘careers’ – have fallen prey to the following thought:

(S)he makes it look so easy. 

From this thought we move rapidly to: (a) If it looks easy, it must be easy… (Reaching for laptop and/or pen and paper.) Closely followed, an hour or so later, by (b) What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I do this? (In manner of Marlon Brando wailing, Stellaaaaa!)

I thought rocket science was hard. Then I tried writing!

I thought rocket science was hard. Then I tried writing!

The thing is, you see, the more you love reading – the more you equate it with soaking your brain in a long hot bath – the more likely it is that you’ll come to assume that writing is similarly pleasurable. And, yes, in its own twisted way it is pleasurable – very – and yes, you are right to assume they are sister activities (writing, for instance, should never be done without first having liberally steeped one’s brain in the bathtub of literature). But – and as I often say when catching sight of my rear end in a mirror, it is a big but(t) – if reading is the blue-eyed photogenic child with the nicely brushed hair who remembers her pleases and thank yous, then writing, I’m sorry to say, is the family’s black sheep that they generally keep locked away in a Mrs Rochester-style attic arrangement to wheel out, under duress, on special occasions.  

That squeaking noise, yes, it’s the Bath Tub as Metaphor being dragged out again, and if writing a novel is in any way akin to the wallowy soak of reading one then you’re likely to find it’s a bath tub with horribly faulty taps that spurt cold water over your toes every time you relax, or a wobbly cat stalking perilously around the rim with its claws out, poised to fall in. Think this scene’s going well, do you, Lynsey? SPLASH. Think again.

As a reader you plunge yourself into a ready made world of another’s invention, and everything – if it’s done as it should be – feels wonderfully real. Organic, you might say. As if it just happened to bloom on the page, like a plant or a flower. As if there was never a poor fool, like you, fiddling endlessly (painfully, sometimes) with every last page. When you enter a room in a novel and marvel – oh look – at details they’ve chosen to etch in the scene (the frost-stars on a window; a sunrise of bright yellow wallpaper; a fly on a cobweb trapeze) just remember you’re only a guest. And, like guests in real houses, you won’t be obliged to take part in the manual labour of styling the place (anymore than your host would expect you to take out the rubbish or sweep up the gunk down the back of the oven).**

You know where I’m going with this As a writer (and this is the painful bit) you’ll have to lay your own bloody floor before you can even set foot on it (let alone lay the carpets). A few leggy strides and, yup, you’ve run out of floor again: time to get down on your knees and build it. You strip off and dive in your bath tub – to find out (with chilling effect) that it hasn’t got taps yet.

So only know this: writing is locked in that attic for good reason. Forewarned is forearmed. Approach with caution.

I’ll leave you with this quote, from Jonathan Myerson in The Guardian, in the hope that it jollies you up as it did me (with its appreciation of the trickiness and slowness of it all): ‘good writing comes from someone sitting alone in a room, undergoing a distinctly unphotogenic process of self-discovery. Good writing comes from experimentation, word by word, sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter, and thus it grows into something that probably even the author did not predict and could not have foreseen. The writer needs a chance to try again, fail again, fail better.’

*This post is about the pursuit of reading, as opposed to the Berkshire city of Reading. (I did, however, have an excellent weekend at the Reading Festival in 1990. Just thought I’d mention.)

** My own personal house porn comes in A.S.Byatt’s PossessionAmong the many (better known) delights of this novel, Byatt also Gives Great Room.