I saw this tag floating around YouTube months ago but I never actually got round to doing it myself – well today is the day that changes, thanks to the prompting that Shameeka’s blog post provided. The creator of this tag, Marie, devised it around the questions asked of writers in the New York Times’ By The Book column, which I think is a great idea and makes for some really interesting considering to be done! So here are my responses to the By The Book tag…
1. What book is on your nightstand now?
Nightstand is a very aspirational term for a girl who lives in a box room. Instead, I have a stack of books piled beside my bed – luckily my bed is a quite high divan base, so don’t worry the stack is not quite level with it! But there are a few library books I need to get to rather than using them just as a handy stack – Mary Beard’s SPQR and Owen Jones’ The Establishment are probably the ones that have been there the longest though.
2. What was the last truly great book that you read?
I recently read Paul Kalanithi’s memoir When Breath Becomes Air and it’s really, really quite something. They weren’t lying when they said it was beautiful. If I can ever manage to marshal my many thoughts and emotions, I will attempt to write a coherent review. If not, just know that I highly recommend it.
3. If you could meet any writer – dead or alive – who would it be? And what would you want to know?
I had to do a piece of homework when I was in secondary school and I don’t think I would change the answer from the one that 11-year old me gave – J.R.R. Tolkien. I’d love to just sit down and have a long chat about mythical worlds and beasts and mythology, provided I wouldn’t be so star-struck that I’d just not be able to speak.
4. What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?
For those who don’t know me very well and only know myself as a literature student, they might be a little surprised to find that I own a few examples of (ugh here comes the awful label) “chick lit”. I love Meg Cabot’s Size 12 Is Not Fat books and Queen of Babble books, alongside her Princess Diaries series, and I will pick them up with just as much gusto as I would a more “acceptable” or “literary” read.
5. How do you organise your personal library?
I have cube shelves. Now, for anyone who also owns cube shelves you will fully appreciate the struggle that, yes they’re aesthetically interesting but, logistically? Nightmare. Books never fit properly and you end up having to hide half of your collection and splitting up the rest between different cubes because all of an author’s books won’t fit in one neat cube. So it’s mostly by genre, then by author. Then by sheer frustration of ‘THAT BOOK IS TOO LONG TO FIT THERE BUT THIS ONE WILL, IT’LL HAVE TO DO’. I dream of a neatly ordered personal library.
6. What book have you always meant to read and haven’t got round to yet? Anything you feel embarrassed never to have read?
I’ve meant to read lots of books – Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte, Anna Karenina and War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Mansfield Park by Jane Austen, Moby Dick by Herman Melville, the list goes on and on… and on. I don’t particularly feel embarrassed not to have read anything but if I had to pick one I suppose it would have to be Shakespeare related because I did an early modern literature MA, did a dissertation on Shakespeare, and yet still haven’t read some of his most famous works – i.e. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Taming of the Shrew and The Merchant of Venice. What can I say? I’m more of a tragedies sort of gal!
7. Disappointing, over-rated, just not good: what book did you feel you were supposed to like but didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
I feel like I was supposed to like Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen. Given what genre I seem to be getting comfy in at the moment, I ought to have loved it, but I read 10 pages and laughed at the trope-laden nature of every single word. If we’re talking more “literary” fiction though then I’d have to say I’ve never really got along with Sylvia Plath. I’ve tried, I have, but I just don’t understand The Bell-Jar.
The last book I recall as a major DNF was Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind and yes, yes, I know it’s meant to be a masterpiece but I just was not feeling it at the time. I got a good hundred or two hundred pages in and just wasn’t gripped. I’m sure I was just not in the mood for it. I’m sure if I tried it again I would understand the love for it. I’m just scared to try it again.
8. What kinds of stories are you drawn to? Any you stay clear of?
I’m on a fantasy kick right now. I could say it’s research because I have a very tentative story idea plaguing my mind lately, but mostly it’s just because YA fantasy in particular is easy to get through, compelling, and a hell of a lot of fun along the way. Despite this, I wouldn’t say I’m a person who privileges action or plot over characters; I have been known to enjoy novels where seemingly not much happens except some really clever characterisation, such as Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, a look into marriage and the dangers of only seeing one side of any story.
I’m not a huge fan of just straight up romance/erotica novels. If they’ve got another genre involved (i.e. erotic thriller) then maybe but only at a push. I think You by Caroline Kepnes is the book that springs to mind, I read it but that’s an outlier as it’s normally not something I reach for. Likewise any story line that’s just marketed as a dark or edgy romance (when you know there’s probably going to be problematic elements) isn’t really my jam.
9. If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
I really struggle with this question since I wouldn’t require anyone to read anything, let alone the president. Though, if I’m adapting this for my own circumstances (and, hey, why not?) then I rather wish any Tory politician (and yes I am showing my own personal political bias here) might take the time to read Harry Leslie Smith’s Harry’s Last Stand. Look, regardless of whether you’re particularly left-leaning in your politics, you need to understand that the generation Harry was born into saw the amazing construction of a safety net, a welfare state that could support those who, perhaps through no fault of their own, found themselves on the bottom rung of the ladder.
It’s not about equality (though that would be nice, if hopelessly idealistic), it’s about social responsibility. Even if you come from a family of hardship and you now have a cushy job or living situation, please help where you can, be compassionate, and to the lawmakers in the country – maybe just remember that next time you want to shut down a welfare service in some part of the North East (because let’s face it, no one in power gives a shit about the North other than Manchester). As Smith argues: “Ultimately, we ordinary people want the right to a decent, safe and healthy life. We want to be protected from the uncertainties that are produced in a market-driven economy. We want to be able to live in affordable housing and have jobs that pay us a decent salary. We want purpose to our lives and we want our children to have the same opportunities as we had to make a go of it.” Is that really too much to ask? I don’t think so.
10. What do you plan to read next?
Assuming I actually do finish my re-read of V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic then I’ll finally be getting onto the sequel A Gathering of Shadows. There are a few books I’m hoping to read before YALC because I plan on going to a fantasy panel and I don’t want to sit there having not read the authors’ books! So I need to get to Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London and Melinda Salisbury’s The Sin-Eater’s Daughter. If I have time I’d also love to re-read Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season and The Mime Order because she is also on the panel and I love her and her books so it’d be nice to have them fresh in my mind ready for YALC.
And that’s all we have time for today, folks… except one last parting sigh: if you’ve been around on my blog before you will know I hate the part where you’re asked to tag people – that’s so much pressure! – so I will just make a short pitch instead for why I think you, yes you, should answer this tag. You should answer this tag because it’s relatively short, it’s interesting, and it might surprise you when you realise what your initial knee-jerk response is.