I often go to bed with the cheery voice of Harriet Gilbert by the bedside.
“Thanks for downloading A Good Read.”
I’ve been listening to A Good Read for over twenty five years. At the time I started listening it had already been running for over a decade. During my time as a listener it has enlightened, infuriated, and provoked, and (of course) year on year incrementally increased the size of my library
The format is simple. An avuncular host and two guests talk about some books recommended by those on the show. The books recommended are generally in print and available in paperback (in recent years kindle availability seems acceptable – but for old school A Good Read listeners the loss of the recap at the end of show detailing book, publisher, and price is still hard to come to terms with). When I first started listening each guest selected two books for the host and the fellow guest to read; now each guest recommends one book while the host recommends a third.
Guests who appear on the show fall into various categories: there are the enthusiasts – who choose something they love and want other people to love it too; there are the show offs – who select a book to showcase their erudition and superior literary taste; there are the sentimental selectors – choosing a book that reminds them of a relative or a time they loved (and into this category there are those revisiting their younger years – selecting a book they loved as a teenager and who seem, as the programme develops (and for reasons that are all too familiar), to be attempting to recapture their lost youth); and there are non-readers – invited on the show because of a certain level of fame, too polite (or egocentric) to turn the show down, who struggle to nominate a book, and seem not to engage with the other books selected. The simplicity of the format, and the warmth of the host have made it an essential listen.
I have heard Kingsley Amis rail against pretension as his own choices of a Flashman and a Dick Francis novel met his carefully delimited requirements of a good read; Charles Moore enthuse over Jane Austen; and comedians choose a variety of short bleak novels of childhood trauma and tragedy; while Michael Grade came over all Harry Enfield being Barry Cryer in the Story of the Twos. And I’ve heard a writer admit he didn’t reread any books and simply choose the book he’d read most recently so he didn’t have to re-engage with a text.
I have often pondered what I would recommend if the call came. “We have run out of celebrities and worthwhile public figures We want some random punter to choose a book for another random punter. What’s it to be?”
There are some guidelines I think the decent guest should follow:
Keep it relatively short. You are forcing a book on two other people, one of whom has a taste in reading you know nothing about. It would therefore be impolite to choose something that was too long. 250 pages or less seems an ideal length. A few hours to read – so if the other person hates it you’re not forcing them to persevere for days on end infuriating them more and more.
No poetry. I love poetry. I read a little poetry most days, but there are many people – voracious readers some of them – scared of poetry. They worry about hunting for messages, looking for symbols, and are reminded of school. You may be paired with someone who loves poems too, but you may be making the reading feel like homework.
Choose something that is relatively unknown. Is it worth going on the show and giving a publicity boost to the latest paperback by a regular top ten bestseller? So why not choose something that might be a discovery for people.
So bearing my three guidelines in mind what to choose?
Over the years there are some books I have given as presents more than any others. There was Dan Rhodes’s Anthropology, a wise and witty book of short short stories (101 words long) that I gave to seven or eight friends one Christmas as a student. And there is one book that I have enthusiastically handed over to friends over twenty years, hoping that it meets with approval: Pfitz by Andrew Crumey, a novel published by Dedalus. I have bought fifteen copies of Pfitz during the past twenty or so years. It was one of the first books I gave to the woman who (naively, without full knowledge of my Doctor Who obsession) agreed to marry me. It is a book I’ve given to friends from a variety of occupations – lawyer, social worker, writer, journalist, lecturer, researcher. So, how did I come to encounter Pfitz?
As a student when I visited bookshops I would visit the Scottish books section. There I first encountered Alan Warner, Irvine Welsh, Gordon Legge, AL Kennedy, and more bizarrely Ian McEwan (of course, he’s a Mc, all “Mc”s are Scottish: Larry McMurtry, and those lads) and (later) Magnus Mills’s Restraint of Beasts. And so in my final year as a student, while taking time off from exam revision, in Waterstones in Edinburgh I encountered a writer new to me, Andrew Crumey, and his first novel Music in a Foreign Language (which subsequently won the Saltire first book prize). I bought it, and enjoyed it – an alternative history novel where a post communist Britain emerges after the fall of communism around Europe. I was looking forward to his next novel.
And Pfitz appeared in 1995. It was a novel that reminded me of Calvino, or Borges, or Lem. But most of all, at that time, it was a novel that set me thinking of the first novel by Dennis Potter, Hide and Seek, which I had borrowed from the library in Carlisle in 1989 and became slightly obsessed with. Pfitz was a historical novel flirting with fantasy, dealing with serious philosophical topics. Set in the eighteenth century in a land ruled by a prince who creates imaginary cities. And the prince’s subjects work on the development of these cities, culminating in Rreinnstadt – a city as encyclopaedia: a museum and library at its centre. And every one of the prince’s subjects was set to work on the design of the city – preparing maps, designing buildings, and creating the biographies of all the inhabitants. The maps prepared are incredibly detailed – with not just the overview of the streets, but every building, and with every room in every building, and with the location of every person in the city. And these maps are not static but change over time, so what every subject of prince is creating is an entire city, and its populace – each of whom is the subject of a biography with their background, and why they are there. And Pfitz is about one of those working on Rreinnstadt, Schenck, a cartographer, who falls in love with a woman working in the biography section, and who finds on a map an indication of a figure, Pfitz, who appears to be the servant of a count. And Schenck, at night, creates a biography of Pfitz to enable him to spend more time with the object of his desire in the biography department. And from there Crumey fashions a murder story, a romance, a tale of rivalry and jealousy, and an examination of what reality and what fiction is. And while it deals with weighty themes it is light, delicately constructed, and witty. It is fun. It’s good fun – where else in modern fiction would you encounter a travelling man at the fair with his performing bumble bees in the self told biography of a character? It’s light, but not froth. It’s witty, but serious. It’s a good read. I will not say more but I would unhesitatingly recommend it.
So, if you were on A Good Read what would you recommend?