Man Booker Prize Progress

There are twenty-six days left before the Man Booker Prize winner is announced. Twenty-six days remaining for me to complete reading all six shortlisted finalists.

I’ve got halfway through my first book. I am way behind schedule.

I’m not daunted by what remains – fortunate given that according to my Kindle I’ve got another 26 hours of reading time to get through.

The process so far has been enjoyable and enlightening. I made the tactical decision to read up on the best strategies for reading novels quickly.

How To Read A Book has been invaluable. It’s reminded me of the need to not get too bogged down in the detail, to maintain a ‘light touch’ when reading, and to strive to answer a few questions as I read.

Those questions are, put simply: what is the book about as a whole; what is said in detail in the book; is the book ‘true’, accurate or ‘authentic’; and my favourite question because it’s so pompous and potentially dismissive, what of it?

How To Read A Book advocates a similar approach to reading – be active in your attentiveness and immerse yourself totally – as I’ve taken to listening to classical music over the past couple of years. It’s not that reading a book will relax you and improve your focus. What’s vital to reading a book effectively is making sure you’re reasonably relaxed first and you’re focussed on the goal.

On the one hand that seems like a really obvious thing to say. But, like the book points out, reading is something that we just assume we can do. Once we’re taught one of level reading – recognition and comprehension – we assume that’s as far as we need to go. But what if we need a spot of guidance on how to read at a deeper level, just in the same way listening more attentively in the concert hall can yield a deeper emotional attachment with the music being played?

The overriding advice in How To Read A Book has been to trust yourself as you cast your eye over the text. The stuff that’s important will stick in your mind. The detail will probably be lost, but sufficient data necessary for comprehension will remain. Approaching a book in a slightly more trusting way makes for an entirely different reading experience. It has maintained attention, increased stamina and, ultimately, increased words per minute.

But perhaps the most surprising piece of advice was the idea of writing notes as you read. I’ve always done this for non-fiction and, of course, written notes during coaching sessions, lectures, press conferences and the like. The process is less about creating an extant record of proceedings, more about committing key points into my memory via the tactile experience of scribbling on the page.

How To Read A Book goes further, suggesting that the process of writing notes about key points, thoughts, reflections and reactions as you read is an important part of forming a relationship with the book you’re reading. I’ve never thought of doing that with fiction before now. My assumption had always been that if it’s fiction and it’s well-enough written, I’ll remember everything simply by virtue of the fact that I can’t put the book down.

Some thoughts emerge about reading as a pastime which I hadn’t considered before:

• Reading doesn’t take as long as I sometimes think it might do
• There’s an element of procrastination at work when I approach
• The key to successful reading is being able to get in deep as quickly as possible
• There needs to be little or no distractions to get focussed
• Reading creates ties between reader and author which are quite creepy
• Books make television drama look like child’s play
• Television crushes imagination
• Just because something is written on the page doesn’t mean it’s easy to understand
• It’s OK not to like something, so long as you can explain why

I’ll be posting about the first book I’ve read as part of the Man Booker Prize Challenge – Do Not Say We Have Nothing – in the next few days.

Man Booker Preparation

I’ve listened to a little Boulez today – last night’s Radio 3 broadcast of an Edinburgh International Festival recorded in August. Boulez used to seem incomprehensible. Now his language feels like a destination – an escape.

I’m hoping for the same with the Man Booker Shortlist. I wanted to feel enriched. I’m poised. Ready. Hungry.

I might be on leave, but for various reasons (let’s put it down to procrastination) I’ve let household chores and general pottering get in the way of getting some heavy-duty reading done. I might have an appetite for this, but I seem to be struggling to get started.

The heat didn’t help. I don’t think it’s possible to get into your reading groove if the air temperature is nudging 32 degrees. I’ve never successfully read on the beach, preferring instead sitting underneath a tree in the shade. There’s needs to be a cool breeze too. Late afternoon/early evening ideally.

That’s not a digression. One of the reasons for embarking on this was to understand what some of the blocks are to reading. Once you’ve identified those blocks and worked around them, how long does it take to read a book? How does reading fit in with the the rest of your day? How can you maintain stamina and maximise comprehension? And once you’ve answered all of those questions, is there any enjoyment left in reading the Man Booker List shortlist in under six weeks?

I want to see if there’s anything I can learn from reading intensively for six weeks that might provide some insights into how new audiences approach classical music. Are the distractions the same? Is there a similar level of impatience? How is it that books appear to remain a vital force? I don’t hear people bleating on about how there aren’t enough readers buying books. Is that because no-one’s worried about the state of reading?

At the same time as learning something about writing, I want to document how I respond to the reading process. I’ve spent most of my adult life thinking that I should be reading more but I’ve never felt I’ve had the time; never thought I was an effective reader either.

So, I’ve taken a very pragmatic approach to all of this. I’ve used my Kindle to work out how many pages I have to read in total and how long it will take me to complete the process.

According to my maths that’s a total of 3.5K pages in 38hrs and 14 mins.

I estimate I can read for 10hrs from today until I go back to work on Tuesday. After that it’s an hour and a half every day during the week and 8hrs at the weekend. I should have the whole lot done in two and a half weeks.

Sampling the Man Booker Prize 2016 Longlist 

New books. New term. The Man Booker Prize 2016 Shortlist will be revealed tomorrow.

I wanted to challenge myself to speed-reading the long-list, pick out my shortlist and see how they compare.

The process isn’t especially thorough and is borne out of pragmatism. I only had the idea last week when I saw the end of the Proms coming to an end. There are thirteen novels on the long-list. Available time and little money dictated I base my judgment on Kindle samples.

This pragmatic solution may appear a little brutal. But, regardless of the prestige of the Man Booker Prize, these are books after all. If the author can’t hook you in the first few pages doesn’t that suggest it’s not a winner?

So, deploying all of the skills I’ve honed reviewing endless Eurovision songs over the years, here’s my gut reactions to the thirteen novels in the Man Booker Longlist.
Don’t think for a moment that I consider myself an expert, please.

The Many / Wyl Menmuir

Two words put me off this in the first two pages: wheelman and gunwale. I don’t like things set on boats in olden times. I’ve had to be brutal. And I’m going on gut instincts, you understand.

All That Man Is / David Szalay

I assumed from the synopsis that this novel was anti-men. I felt defensive before I’d even read the first line. I pressed on. I liked the punchiness of the language and the immediacy of the setting.Enticing.

Serious Sweet / A.L. Kennedy

I adore the opening page. It describes things so swiftly. I feel like I’m there. This is the first of a handful of present-day settings which not only puts me at ease but makes the prospect of what follows somehow more relevant.

Work Like Any Other / Virginia Reeves

I thought I would be interested in this. Early days of electricity. Twentieth century American history. That kind of thing. But by page three it all felt so distant, so yellow and dusty, so Sunday afternoon, that my attention sagged.

Hot Milk / Deborah Levy – Shortlist

I found this sharp, arresting, and funny in places. This is one book I want to read regardless of whether or not it gets shortlisted. Pretty sure it will get shortlisted.

Eileen / Ottessa Moshfegh – Shortlist

The opening of this arresting. It takes time to get accustomed to the voice of the narrator, the perspective and the judgment. I like the way that makes the opening of this novel jar. An intriguing start. Shortlist.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing / Madeleine Thien – Shortlist

I’m fascinated by the setting. Want it to be shortlisted on that basis, but fear it may not.

Hystopia/ David Means – Shortlist

Enthralling from the first sentence. I love it.

His Bloody Project / Graeme Macrae Burnet

Have always had a weakness for stories within stories. Definitely want to read this.

The North Water / Ian McGuire

Another novel seemingly set on a boat. I don’t like boats. I don’t feel at home there. Reading this feels like a struggle for me. Can’t engage.

My Name Is Lucy Barton / Elizabeth Strout – Shortlist

The prospect is tantalising: one visit – unexpected. Rich. Seemingly straightforward, but alluring. Evocative prose, almost journalistic. There’s a sense of panic to her writing. Gives off a whiff of an easy read. What am I missing?

The Schooldays of Jesus / J M Cotzee – Shortlist

I am fascinated by the premise. Arresting and eye-catching title. The prospect of an allegory scares me a little but the introduction helps reassure. Punchy, arresting and attention-grabbing opening. Dark, complex, and three-dimensional opening.

The Sellout / Paul Beatty*

Like the premise, but I’m nervous by the prospect of ‘absurdist’. Sounds like it could be hard work – my issue, not the author’s. Beatty’s prose has an urgency to it. An exhilerating read. It makes me laugh. But at the same as realising why I’m laughing I realise I’m going to need to have some stamina to get to the end of it.

* I missed off The Sellout when I first published this post. But, I had read the sample. What you read here are the notes after reading the sample before the shortlist was announced. 

New term. New books. 

I love this time of year. The leaves have turned golden brown, air temperature has dropped, and a breeze has whipped up. We’re all succumbing to the turn of the season and resigning ourselves to the start of a new term.
Unlike spring, I experience a sense of renewal in the Autumn. And after a summer of classical music, I always look to books to fill the void.

This is partly fuelled by the prospect of the Man Booker Prize. The long list has been out for a couple of months; the shortlist will soon be released. The Man Booker Prize is a reading list of the kind I failed to complete when I started reading English at university.

Twenty-five years later, I relish the challenge of reading ten books in six weeks, to reflect on them and on the reading process.

This isn’t some kind of vain marathon-reading challenge, well not entirely. I have a hunch there are some insights to be discovered about the challenge of reading and whether there are any parallels to be drawn with the perceptions around and accessibly of classical music as an art form.

That’s all to come – from Tuesday 13 September. Before then, I need to read about how to read effectively I think.