I suppose it is only logical that to be a good writer you first have to be a good reader. It would be a very rare bloom indeed that flourished without at least some roots in the nourishing humus of those that had reached for the sky before.
So what does it take to be a good reader? Variety? Loyalty? A critical eye? As with most things in life, enjoyment is key but, I would argue, not at the expense of a challenge, an occasional push at the boundaries. This is not always easy to do. We quickly develop very set ideas about what we like or to be more precise, what we do not like and I am as guilty of these prejudices and preconceptions as anyone. In bookshops I will gravitate towards the authors I know, the themes I am comfortable with, the packaging that attracts or intrigues. Yes, despite sage advice not to, I do judge a book by its cover. That is not to say that what lures my magpie’s eye will necessarily make it to the till, next it must survive the first page test. Usually this involves the rejection of anything in the first person, anything overly heavy on dialogue, anything that hints at unfolding tragedy, crime or violence, anything I may have seen as a costume drama, anything too closely linked to the present day.
This partly sub-conscious, partly intentional selection process has been honed over time and could put me in danger of becoming a bad reader but, fortunately, I have been supplied with a remedy, one that comes armed with wine and food and differing opinions. I am a member of two book groups and this monthly exposure to uncharted territory is my inoculation against the status quo.
The two groups vary quite significantly from each other. One has a membership that hovers around 14, though averages 7 to 10 at most meetings. When I joined, shortly after its inception three years ago, I knew one other member and together we were the only ones who had studied literature in any formal capacity. I felt awkward, not just because I was the new kid on the block in a group of established colleagues and friends, but because I didn’t want to been seen as pretentious, to give off any suggestion that, because I sat in a lecture hall for four years, I now had a piece of paper at home that proved, definitively, that I was a good reader. And so, at first, I shied away from contributing my thoughts, from participating in the selection of the next book, from being honest with my views and, like Alice down the rabbit hole, this self-enforced observation and reflection, opened up a whole new world of writers and genres that I would never have considered alone. I won’t pretend that I have liked everything that I have read but I have enjoyed explaining why I didn’t and hearing why others did.
The other perhaps does not really deserve the designation ‘group’ as there are only two of us. In contrast to the first, I have known my fellow member for over ten years and our tastes are broadly similar. This familiarity has allowed us to experiment, to suggest books that our outside our comfort zones, that we are not sure that we, let alone the other person will like or are by a writer neither of us has read before. A running joke is that we hope the next book is one we don’t enjoy, or has a character with whom we cannot empathise, as these seem to generate the most discussion.
It has been, and continues to be, an exhilerating journey. A world where everyone agrees, where everyone likes the same things, where we only experience what is safe, only give time to our favourites, would be a dull world indeed, and full of bad readers.