I picked up Book Riot’s “Start Here: Read Your Way Into 25 Amazing Authors” as a free Kobo download a while back, and gave it a skim: each entry offers a short introduction to an author, and a suggested reading list to ease your way into their work. I thought this would be light and entertaining, but I found it all a bit depressing. Much like my experience with The Novel Cure, what’s meant to be a bit of fun comes across as too preachy and prescriptive for my liking. As I keep impressing on my kids: once you know how to read on your own, you can read anything you want and no one can stop you.
(Plus, how badly do you think Book Riot wishes it could take back the very first entry in Start Here volume one, on Sherman Alexie? These things don’t always age well.)
Anyway, I was reminded of this particular brand of reading guidance while reading the Man Booker International Prize shortlist. In particular, The World Goes On by László Krasznahorkai and Flights by Olga Tokarczuk are spoken of a bit dismissively – not their best work, not the best place to start.
I already gave a rebuttal to the Krasznahorkai thing on YouTube. Briefly: yes, these stories are very weird. But the collection works because someone (who picks the order in short story collections? The author? The publisher? One of those questions where Google is not helpful) placed them in an order that knocks the reader off balance, then gradually reintroduces the usual trappings of plot, character, and setting, not to mention punctuation. The effect is comforting, in a weird way.
The World Goes On was a perfect place for me to start with Krasznahorkai , because I was travelling for work and had irregular blocks of completely uninterrupted time in which to not just read but process all the weirdness, and because Krasznahorkai’s walls of text really benefit from being read aloud, which, being alone in a hotel room, I could do. This is not the type of “start here” scenario that Book Riot, or anyone, could predict.
Quiet hotel rooms aside, the ability to jump in anywhere, to start where you are, without a reading guide or safety net, might actually be a hallmark of a “good” reader or a “well read” person. If you’ve read, say, just enough about Hungary (hardly anything) and just enough literature in translation (quite a bit, this year) and just enough “autofiction” (also quite a bit, seems to be a thing these days) to not get freaked out by the Hungarian-ness, the weirdness, the lack of normal plot in The World Goes On – then you’ll be just fine.
The situation with Flights was a bit different. One of my favourite Booktubers, WhatKamilReads, said Flights was not Tokarczuk’s best work. He’s followed this prize for years, and he’s read Flights in its original language, so this gave me pause. Unfortunately for us Anglophones, we don’t have much choice in where to start with Tokarczuk. Only a handful for her twelve novels are translated into English. Flights isn’t even technically available in North American yet (order directly from the publisher!) She has a couple more translations coming out in the UK in 2018 and 2019, but for now, Flights is what we’ve got to work with.
And, I think most of us will be just fine starting here, best work or not. Like The World Goes On, it’s an hard-to-classify collection of essays, stories, and travelogue., but it reads like a dream. Not nearly as discombobulating as The World Goes On, I eventually just sort of forgot that there’s no consistent timeline or perspective, and I didn’t question (till now) whether I was reading an essay or a memoir or short story collection. In a shortlist that was full of autofiction, or at least very autobiographical novels, Flights was the most audacious of them, and the least self conscious about what is was trying to be.
I tried to make a go of it with Flights, despite my trepidation, by reading it while flying to Toronto. Where better to read about airport psychology and the strangeness of flying backwards through time zones, than a rare no-kids-no-husband trip? Instead, I got sucked into Krazsnahorkai, for reasons mentioned above, and on the flight back, I inhaled The Perfect Nanny (meh). I didn’t even get a decent Instagram shot of the iconic blue cover on an airplane tray or anything.
Turns out, I didn’t need to be travelling . Flights was the perfect place for me to start with Tokarczuk because Tokarczuk is the perfect antidote to a bunch of hyped, unconventional memoirs I’d read recently and found wanting:
- The relentless navel gazing and self involvement of Bluets by Maggie Nelson (don’t @ me)
- The intellectual posturing and lack of self-awareness of The Dead Ladies Project by Jessica Crispin
- The ethereal nature and ultimate emptiness of The White Book by Han Kang (also shortlisted for the Man Booker International)
In addition to avoiding those pitfalls, reading Flights satisfied a desire I only sort of knew I had: to find a female writer and thinker I can look up to, who’s solidly Gen X (instead of borderline, like me), who’s a bit out there, but who isn’t too precious about writing, or if they are, backs it up by publishing something brilliant. Someone who writes something like Flights, in other words.
I mean, she says in one line what I think Crispin was trying to say in a whole book:
Each of my pilgrimages aims at some other pilgrim.
And she says more about relationships in an odd, three-part short story of a woman who wanders away from her husband while on vacation, vanishing on an island where people simply do not vanish, than I found in all of Nelson’s breakup musings.
Flights was the right place for me to start because of who I am – my age, what I’ve read, what I’ve rejected, and what I’m seeking. No prepackaged guide would lead me here.
(Though I will suggest that, even if the stars don’t align so well for you, try to stick around for the short story Kairos, the “old man marries younger woman” cliche brought to its inevitable conclusion. It’s also the inevitable conclusion of Flights, bringing together as it does science, marriage, and travel, the threads flowing through this book.)
So, start where you are. Read a book because it’s on an awards shortlist, whether or not it’s the author’s best work. Or because you found it for a buck at a garage sale. Or whatever. It doesn’t matter if you’re an expert on the author or the genre. Keep reading, and the more you read, the more you’ll be able to make something of any book, anytime – or know when to put it down and try again later. Book Riot’s guides and books like The Novel Cure should be viewed as entertainment, not as instruction.
And yes, I’m aware of the deep irony of this post, given that I started this blog reading exclusively from the 1,001 Book You Must Read Before You Die…