Start Where You Are: How to get into new authors, feat. the Man Booker International Prize shortlist
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…
Love this post even though when I started reading, I turned to the 1001 Books list to find what to read. I think it is useful to have things like ‘where to start’ posts and books, but it will always remain a personal opinion. Out of all the Krasznahorkai books I’ve read, I wouldn’t recommend starting with The World Goes On but clearly it works for you and that is all that matters. I just worry about people reading The World Goes On and dismissing him based on that one book…but then again so many people dismiss an author based on the one book they read.
Ugh my thoughts in this comment feel conflicted.
Ha, I had a whole paragraph about how I realize that when people say “don’t start hey’re” its because they’re afraid of just that. Authors get written off, even genres or countries… but this post was getting too long so I cut it 😁 I think we’re on the same wavelength here!
Love this post! I love going into a bookstore and picking a random novel off the shelf simply because it looks interesting… but award lists like the Man Booker are also so enticing! Some year I’d like to read the entire shortlist, but I just haven’t had the time 🙂
I love that too. Seldom do so, since blogging… feel like I’ve heard about all the books! That’s why international prizes are good… unexpected stuff.
Great post! I couldn’t agree more. I find that posts discussing an author’s entire bibliography can sometimes be very useful in deciding where to start, but I hate those lists that compare different authors and recommend to “read this instead of that”, and basically recommend dismissing certain authors.
Oh yes, those are my pet peeve! That would be a whole other post!
I’m impressed that you got so much out of reading Flights. I was sent a review copy and really struggled with it. I eventually managed to skim it. I kept looking for a narrative, but only finding the occasional profound line.
That’s the way I felt about Bluets and others! Very subjective. Do you like Maggie Nelson, just curious?
I’ve read three of her books. I wasn’t keen on Bluets, but enjoyed The Red Parts. The Argonauts is stunning.
BookRiot drives me absolutely bananas. Good for you for taking what you could from the guide, but going off on your own. You’re certainly at a place in your reading life where you don’t need the help (although a little help is always exciting, if unnecessary).
Books about books–The Novel Cure, End of Your Life Book Club, etc.–frustrate me to no end. Their coverage of each book is either too sparse or too comprehensive. And in the age of the internet is there even a point to these books? Does anyone need them anymore? We flock to them, as readers, because the prospect of finding our next big thing, somehow undiscovered to this point, is tantalizing. It rarely works out, though. For me, anyway. But I know I’ll flock to it the next time, because hope’s a powerful thing 🙂
This post was great. You pulled content for fear of it being too long but this was one of those posts I wished could go on and on. I loved it. I learned about two interesting books and I didn’t need BookRiot or some other guide to do it. This is blogs at their best.
Thank you! Yes, Book Riot is maddening for many reasons. They certainly aren’t the first or last to go down this “how to” guide path, though I think these work better as online articles than books – and they still do plenty in article form.
I don’t know that I’ve ever found a book about books that I loved. I listened to a podcast with Pamela Paul, who wrote My Life with Bob – I’ve heard such good things, but honestly, even listening to her talk about it was kind of insufferable, lol. I’m sure she’s a lovely person but so. much. navel. gazing. (said the blogger, haha)
And I pulled stuff because it was going to take me too long to write it up properly and make it coherent – I wanted this up before the prize is announced! You know I’m not afraid of a 2K word blog post 🙂
I’m glad to hear you ended up loving a couple of the books on the shortlist – I was feeling as though most of them were turning out ‘meh’ for you. Although, I find even the ‘meh’ ones can at least be interesting to read… I like trying out new authors to see how they compare with everything else I’ve read, even if I don’t end up loving them.
I completely agree with you here – books are way too personal to come up with instructions on how and what to read that will work for everyone.
Yeah, some were definitely MEH but overall this was a real positive. I have a couple writers I can read more from. And it helped me towards some personal reading goals (translation!)
Excellent post. I think lists can be a great resource to help a reader expand their reading horizons but you’re absolutely right that you can read whatever you want and no one can stop you. I love that. It’s when criticism comes into play that it all gets a bit dodgy, giving us preconceptions of a book without the pleasure (or pain) of the encounter. And it works both ways, not just in pointing us away from books but in pointing us towards particular types of books which just so happen to fit in the happy box of the reviewer or critic.
I also loved Flights, and I hope it leads to more translations of Tokarczuk’s work. I also quite liked Bluets, though I thought The Argonauts was a vastly superior and, perhaps, a little less introspective a book. Fitcarraldo Editions are such an extraordinary publisher, I keep thinking I’ll subscribe and then balk at adding to the TBR list (whilst coveting, madly).