Where do I find time to do my reading?
Simple: In the bath. I can get a good half an hour's reading in, relax, and get clean all at the same time! OK, there's the occasional hazard of ending up with a rather crinkly book (my copy of Arthur Koestler's The Act of Creation will never fully recover, I'm afraid) but it's a great way of recovering after a hard day's work, apart from anything else!
In the ten years since I last updated this page, I've done a lot of reading. In fact, it's fair to say that things have got a teensy bit out of control with regard to the number of books I have. I get through an awfully large number of books every year and I tend to habg on to them.
Where do I get books from? Well, I buy an awful lot of mine second hand, either at charity shops or in specialist booksellers. Having said that, I'm also a great fan of Amazon. I dread to think how much money I've spent with them over the years. I've even ordered one or two of their books recommendations, and have been pleasantly surprised to find that I did actually quite enjoy the books that they said I'd like... As the number of books in the house grew and grew, I finally caved in and bought myself an Amazon Kindle. I've not used it as much as I thought I would, but it's been useful in picking up stuff quickly. I tend to limit what I buy on it to bagains and daily deals, and I've picked up some really interesting works that way as well as collecting some of my old favourites in a form that I can carry around in my pocket. Useful when I'm travelling.
I've also been a member of several book clubs. They were good fun, and I've found a couple of great books that I wouldn't otherwise have read. These days book clubs exist online and you can find me at one of the largest, Goodreads. I've removed the categorised lists of books I've read from this page because (a) they were rather dull to maintain and (b) things were getting rather out of hand, but you can see what I've been up to there.
I'm convinced that reading so many books (and the fact that I started reading when I was very young) has been one of the main shaping factors in my life. Yes, I probably should have spent more time going out and socialising with friends when I was a kid, but I can't imagine living in a house that doesn't have large quantities of books - preferably on a wide range of subjects. And if I walk into a house and see books like Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable on the bookshelf I know I've found somewhere interesting...
Until recently I hadn't read that much generic fiction - not to put too fine a point on it, if I was reading stuff that was "made up," so to speak, I tended to go the whole hog and read science fiction. I've read so much SF that I've dealt with it as a separate subject below, so more on that in a minute.
In recent years I've developed a taste for more mainstream fiction. What is it about a novel that I enjoy? For me, the memorable works are those that completely immerse me in the experience. I've bought lots of those brick-sized blockbusters at airport bookshops, and if I'm flying to the US, I've usually finished them by the time we've landed. But I've probably been half-watching the in-flight movie as well, and if you asked me what the plot was a couple of weeks later, I wouldn't always be able to tell you. Still, I've read Angela Carter, Thomas Pynchon, and Borges and enjoyed them every bit as much as "blockbuster" works by Michael Crichton, Thomas Harris, and Stephen King. I've read Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, Conan Doyle and H. G. Wells, and I prefer Craig Thomas to Tom Clancy, but as Craig Thomas used to be my English teacher at school in Stafford, I'm probably biased.
A brief diversion, at this point: The Old Grey Whistle Test's David Hepworth tells a story about Don van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart. The Captain, down on his luck many years ago, was reduced to selling vacuum cleaners door to door in California. One day, so the story goes, he knocked on a door and was amazed to find himself standing face to face with none other than the aformentioned Aldous Huxley. Too ashamed to go through with his sales patter when faced with such a literary legend, the great Captain fixed Huxley firmly in the eye, indicated his merchandise, and proclaimed: "Sir, this... sucks!"
If you don't know who any of those people are, shame on you.
Where were we? Oh yes. Mere blockbuster status isn't enough to convince me that a work of fiction is necessarily art. There has to be more than "just" a good story for me to really enjoy a novel. For instance, I've got all the Harry Potter books, and while J. K. Rowling spins a good yarn, the way it's presented doesn't catch my imagination alight in the same way that Terry Pratchett does. In the same way, I don't like things to be too predictable. If I can figure out which way a plot will turn and it does just that, I get disappointed. So, I like books in which the writer surprises me, or out-thinks me. I like being dropped into a story where I have no idea what is going on, and where the author doesn't throw huge slabs of exposition at me to make me feel comfortable. I loathe Dan Brown's writing but absolutely adore the craft of William Gibson. Which brings me on to our next subject...
I am a huge, huge fan of science fiction. I have come to acknowledge my geekdom, and fully realise that when it comes to SF I could easily be mistaken for a major nerd.
Blame it all on the artist Chris Foss, if you like. Back in the 1970's he painted a series of amazing airbrush covers for the Panther Books reissue of Edward Elmer "Doc" Smith's great Lensman series of novels. "Aha," I thought, "This looks like it might be interesting..." In case you haven't read them, let's just say that they are 1930's space opera at its very best. Spaceships leap across entire galaxies in a single bound, fire ravening space rays of awesome destructive power, and are crewed by two-fisted heroes of unstoppable machismo. When you're barely in your teens, this is irresistable stuff, and I was hooked instantly.
I've been reading SF ever since. After "Doc" Smith I went on to the standards - Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and then Frank Herbert - and branched out from there. A friend of mine in Stafford gave me a copy of Larry Niven's Ringworld which was not only high-powered, hard SF (in other words it tried very hard to obey most, if not all, of the known laws of physics - and usually has a passable stab at figuring out the engineering behind the paraphernalia) but also had cool aliens, and what must have been pretty much the first hints of, er...well, more adult behaviour I'd ever read in a book. I loved it. Still do. Reading it again recently I was struck by how much more I noticed about character interactions and suchlike. I'm the sort of person who will read a book again - as I get older and accumulate more experiences, I find that this profoundly affects what I get out of a book. Try reading an old favourite from your childhood again - preferably something you haven't gone back to in 20 years or so - and see whether your perception of the story stays the same. Bet you it doesn't.
When we moved to London, I used to go to book signings at Forbidden Planet. This was back in the days when they only had the single shop in Denmark Street. I still have signed copies of work by Frank Herbert, A. E. Van Vogt, Michael Moorcock, Douglas Adams, and James Herbert, amongst others. SF bookshops like Forbidden Planet were the motherlode for me. I couldn't enter the place without buying at least one new paperback. Slave to marketing that I was, whether or not I selected an untried author depended strongly on the cover art. Apart from Chris Foss, those were the halcyon days of (amongst others) Jim Burns, Frank Frazetta, Boris Vallejo, Michael Whelan, Tim White, and Rowena Morrill (and wasn't everyone surprised recently to find out that Saddam Hussein was a collector of Morrill's paintings!) As a result, I bought more than one howlingly bad hack novel, but I also discovered more and more top-flight work. When I started my first full time job, a lot of my income went on books. Pretty soon my shelves were groaning under the weight of books by Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Disch, Harry Harrison, and (joy of joys) Philip K. Dick. Wonderful, wonderful stuff.
In the 90's, the Americans (and Canadians) more or less took over the field, with folks like Greg Bear and Kim Stanley Robinson producing great mainstream SF works. Bow down and pay tribute, too, to the great William Gibson. If you haven't read Neuromancer, Mona Lisa Overdrive, or Count Zero, then you've missed one of the turning points in western literature in the last half century, I believe. And his later novels, moving towards a more mainstream setting, are even better. His most recent work, The Peripheral is a return to SF and it's highly recommended. It's an angry, terrifying look at the world's present day problems, framed by extrapolating things into the future (which is what the best science fiction frequently does.)
These days, British SF is undergoing a bit of a renaissance, with writers like Alistair Reynolds, Jeff Noon and Ian McDonald in particular producing some stunning work. And, of course, there's the late, great Iain M Banks. You have to read his novels if you have any interest in SF at all. In my next life, I want to work for The Culture.
If my ramblings here have whetted your appetite and you want a proper history of science fiction rather than all this drivel, may I point you in the direction of Brian Aldiss's excellent work Trillion Year Spree?
If you'd asked me thirty years ago what proportion of non-fiction books I'd be buying as a grown-up, I'd probably have suggested a figure less than five per cent. In fact, probably one in five books I buy these days is non-fiction. Good lord, I even buy text books! With all the SF I get through, perhaps it's a way of keeping my feet on the ground.
One of my heroes was the physicist Richard P. Feynman. I still have a 3-volume set of his Lectures on Physics from my days at university. His autobiographical essays, Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman and What do you care what other people think? give a tantalisingly brief insight into a huge and somewhat eccentric intellect. I also have Ralph Leighton's biography of Feynman. Heck, I even have a CD of folk songs from Tuva. This was the Professor who worked at Los Alamos during the war and who, famously, demonstrated the frozen O-ring problem at the Challenger inquiry press conference.
Thinking about it, a lot of my non-fiction reading is science related. I'm reading books by Richard Dawkins and Francis Fukuyama at the moment. I've even seen arguments conducted through books: try reading Godel, Escher Bach by Douglas Hofstadter and then read The Emperor's New Mind by Roger Penrose to see what I mean.
On the other hand, I also collect books about the paranormal, flying saucers, lake monsters, bigfoot and so on. I'm fascinated by Colin Wilson's work, and have copies of every book of his I've been able to track down. I've been a subscriber to the Fortean Times for years, and have copies of Charles Fort's books. Like Fort, I don't necessarily believe any of the books I read; in fact, as I get older and more cynical I am also becoming more and more skeptical, but I do find the way people react to these things very interesting. Having lived in America and spent many years surfing the net, I have come to the conclusion that a sizeable proportion of the world's population cannot distinguish fiction from reality. Given the sort of programmes shown on American television these days, I suspect that this won't come as much of a surprise, but I've watched someone adamantly describing "documentary footage" from a world war two experiment they claimed to have witnessed, and realised that they were actually describing scenes from a dodgy 1980's science fiction B-movie called "the Philadelphia Experiment!"
I read a lot of biographies and autobiographies, and not just those about (or by) scientists. I've been working my way through a stack of books on musicians recently, from Mark E Smith's Renegade to Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace and I enjoyed them all immensely.