Looking for a good book to read? Brace yourself. You may soon have more than you bargained for.
It was recently reported in The Guardian that on September 6, there are going to be close to 600 new books published, an increase of a third from last year. In the rest of 2020, too, there appears to be a staggering number of books in the pipeline.
The titles span the spectrum, from Philip Pullman to J.K. Rowling; from Don DeLillo to Martin Amis; from Bernard Cornwell to Ken Follett; from Yaa Gyasi to Ngugi wa Thiong'o and lots more. Many of these books had been held back because of coronavirus constraints and temporary bookstore closures. Now, the floodgates are being opened.
I’m not sure whether this all-together-now attitude is a good idea. To begin with, many writers who have spent so much time and energy on their work now risk being part of an enormous crowd, or even rendered invisible. Further, diminished mainstream space for book reviews and coverage means many volumes will undeservedly slip through the cracks.
Bookstores with limited room for displays and storage will have to decide which ones to showcase and which to ignore. As the social media team of Waterstones Piccadilly, the chain’s flagship London store, recently tweeted: “We are big and I doubt we’ll stock them all. No one has enough space for this.” (Having said that, a US report found that bookstore sales declined by 33.4 percent in March compared to last year, so if the new releases reverse this, it would be welcome.)
In her sceptical Making Literature Now, Amy Hungerford, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Yale, points out that a degree of overproduction has been a feature of literary history since at least the 18th century. Since the invention of desktop publishing software in the mid-1980s, she writes, “production has reached a new scale: to date, over 60,000 new novels a year are published in the US alone (by way of contrast, between 1940 and 1999 new fiction titles in the US ranged between 5,000 and 10,000; by 2010 the number was 55,000).”
Perhaps people have always thought there were too many books. As the Duke of Gloucester allegedly remarked to the man who wrote the multi-volume Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “Another damned thick, square book! Always, scribble, scribble, scribble, eh, Mr Gibbon?”
Those of us facing a torrent of words nowadays have an unenviable task. Already, concentration levels are flagging because of lockdowns and pandemic precautions. Now, even more books run the risk of lying unread on shelves and unopened on e-readers.
There are plenty of speed-reading apps that promise to help you get through books at double or even triple the pace. Such tactics sacrifice pleasure for efficiency. Why cut down on the joys of being immersed in a good book simply to reach the end?
In his audaciously-titled How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, French academic Pierre Bayard addresses the issue from another angle. He questions the obligation to read by maintaining that “it’s totally possible to carry on an engaging conversation about a book you haven’t read — including, and perhaps especially, with someone else who hasn’t read it either.”
His book isn’t meant to be just a send-up of reading habits. Bayard writes that there are many ways of not reading. There are books you haven’t heard of, books you have skimmed, books you have heard of often enough to know what they contain, and books that you’re read but entirely forgotten.
However, each book exists in relation to others, he explains, and therefore, learning about as many books as possible instead of reading as many as possible makes sense. It’s enough to get a general sense of them to partake in a shared literary milieu.
Amy Hungerford seems to agree with Bayard’s argument. In such a scenario, she says, reviews of newly published work are interesting not merely to those making choices about what to read, but to many others who want to simply keep up with cultural events.
This leaves the shrinking tribe of those who still think that actually reading books is a good idea. For them, there are the typical listicles on how to read more: carry books with you wherever you go, try audiobooks during your commute, assign dedicated reading times, switch off the Wi-fi, and so on.
There’s a larger aspect to this, as Nicholas Carr pointed out in The Shallows, on what the Internet is doing to our brains. “We want to be interrupted because each interruption brings us a valuable piece of information,” he asserts. “To turn off these alerts is to risk feeling out of touch, or even socially isolated.” During a pandemic, such risks are even greater.
As for me, until I get hold of the new book by Tana French which is also appearing later this year, I’ve been trying to rewire my frontal lobe by re-reading thrillers of all stripes. These range from the 17th-century conundrums of Iain Pears to the contemporary spy novels of Charles Cumming.
It helps that I’ve quite forgotten what they were about. Turns out there’s something to be said for a poor memory, after all.Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.