You reach the end of the book you’re reading, you close the cover. For the last few chapters, you were racing to the end, wanting, needing to know what happened to the characters you’ve come to care for. Yet, a still small voice niggling in a dark corner of your brain told you to hold back, slow down, that this was a truly great book and you might not read anything as good for years in the future – perhaps ever.
But all things end and so does the book. And you’re devastated. Because it was so good, so powerful, you know it’s changed you a little, and the world doesn’t look quite the same anymore. The book haunts you for days, weeks, the characters returning time and again, demanding to be remembered and it takes a while until you’re able to read another book again with the same enthusiasm, because nothing – nothing – can compare. Everything is a pale shell, a hollow, fruitless waste of paper compared to that book.
Ever felt this way? Oh, please tell me you have, because this is what reading and literature are all about.
Now, we know not all books can be like this. If they were, none of us would ever go to work or cook dinner, or eat because we’d all be huddled under our duvets, curled up on the sofa or tucked up in the airing cupboard (look, you gotta get your peace and quiet where you can), devouring yarn after yarn until we starved, became bankrupt and had our houses repossessed, until mankind wasted away into its own imagination and left the earth for the next dominant race – probably telepathic ants. Riding cockroaches. Who keep aphids as pets.
Anyhow, be grateful there aren’t too many brilliant books out there, that shops contain their fair share of mediocrity or humanity would come to an end much sooner than its current expiry date, whenever that is. Yes, a rare reason to thank Jeffrey Archer.
So in your life you’ll read your fair share of stinkers. After a few years of independent reading, and learning from early mistakes, we all become a little more cautious, a bit selective in our habits. Hopefully when you’re a few decades into your lifetime of readership, you’ll have narrowed down what you like, what you don’t and you’ll get better at filtering out most of the thoroughly dreadful. Many books you read will be ‘good’ – many more will be ‘okay’.
But you won’t read too many that fulfil the criteria at the start of this post. How many do you reckon? Maybe five? A handful more? Tell me you’ve had that feeling more than ten times, and I know you’re pulling my leg. Or deluded. Or really easily pleased, and if you fall into the latter category, do stay in touch for when I publish my own books.*
One of the few novels that hit me in this way was this week’s Book in the Blood,
1984 by George Orwell.
Now, it may be that I read it just at the right age. I was about twenty I think, not long hooked up with my old man – still very smitten. We were living in one of the many unsavoury flats we rented as a young couple, though I’m not sure if it was ‘the one some numpty tried to burn down’, or ‘the one with the bipolar neighbour upstairs who was convinced gates had electric currents flowing through them and accused my dear father-in-law of murdering his best friend’.**
I was young, in love and despite our neighbour’s best efforts, hopeful for the future. I think I still thought ‘everything will be alright in the end’ and shook my head at the news wondering why all the people of the Middle East and Ireland just couldn’t just share a pot of tea, have a jolly good chat and put their differences behind them.
Then I read this book and finished it feeling totally devastated.
According to Orwell, I’d been misled all my life – love could not conquer all. In fact, love could bring you nothing but pain and horror and Room 101. Governments could warp and crush the individual at a whim, could destroy the strongest love as easily as putting a rat in a cage.
I don’t blame the book for disabusing me of my romantic ideals – I think life does a pretty good job of doing that to us all in the end anyway. But it shook me for a while and in its way was more of a rite of passage for me than my first drink in a pub or my first kiss.
Orwell set me on my real journey from being a child to becoming an adult, with the heavy weight of knowledge that entails.
Which book made you feel this way? Did 1984 leave you cold or shake your world?
*Clearly a huge joke. I’m “marvellous – a must read every time” Lynn’s Mum.
** These, of course, being the episodes of Friends written by an overworked script writer suffering from a very nasty caffeine overdose.