Caroline Davidson's reflections on her reading
Reading review at the end of 2016
My reading day begins when I scan The Financial Times and The Guardian over breakfast, carefully cutting out any stories that might be useful for my authors and/or to preserve in my own personal paper archive. I particularly like the days when Private Eye and The Week appear as extras to the papers.
This reading up on the news continues on-line when I reach my computer and start work. I turn to the BBC, Financial Times and The New York Times websites several times a day. I like to keep up.
I also read the emails sent by The Bookseller. I need to keep track of what the different editors and publishers are buying and commissioning. Also who has stepped up and who has stepped down, along with profits and losses and the issues of the day.
Dezeen is my favourite specialist news source. It is a fantastic treat to read about new architecture, interiors and design from around the world and to admire the superb photography and drawings.
Turning to print, my favourite periodical in the world is The New York Review of Books. It is my main source of intellectual sustenance and joy. The editor, Robert B. Silvers, is my hero. I am also a fervent fan of the regular contributors and I am always eager to discover their thoughts and read their articles. I have been reading The New York Review of Books since I was eighteen. For me this publication always provides new thinking, impeccable argumentation, and inspired prose.
Turning to book reading, I am slowly working my way through a humane and psychologically profound work that sheds light on why President Trump came to power. It is by the American journalist George Packer who is a staff writer of The New Yorker magazine. It has an apt title: ‘The Unwinding: Thirty Years of American Decline.’ As a series of portraits of individuals it encourages rumination and resting between each person: I pick it up, read a chapter, and then put it down again, to rest myself from all the intensity and richness of detail.
I like to follow book reading recommendations from trusted friends. So when Francesca Calvocoressi from Edinburgh recommended three books as ‘must reads’, I dropped everything to read the two novels and the memoire consecutively. These marvels are:
Graham Swift: Mothering Sunday
Evelyn de St Aubyn: Mother’s Milk
Rebecca Meade: My Life in Middlemarch
What an incredible pleasure this was.
I would like to say that I read them by the fireside in the evening, but in fact if I'm enjoying a book I will be taking advantage of any spare moment.
I like to surprise people with books they never knew existed. For example, a Polish friend has just had an operation to remove a cataract from her eye. A second operation to remove a second cataract on the other eye will soon follow.
For our enlightenment I ordered two copies of John Berger’s slim book ‘Cataract. Some Notes after having a cataract removed’. It is illustrated with drawings by the enchanting Turkish illustrator Selcuk Demirel. The subject of vision regained is very emotional: we will enjoy discussing it.
I also enjoy reading books by people I know. Anne Sebba has recently published ‘Les Parisiennes How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s’. This is a wide ranging account of what these valiant women got up to. Superbly researched and written, what has strikes me most about Les Parisiennes is their determination to look beautiful and fashionably dressed whatever the odds. I find this completely admirable. What better way to maintain morale and make a statement? Unlike John Berger’s book which I read in a gulp, I am pacing myself through Les Parisiennes. There’s so much to it.
Another friend, the historian Philip Mansel, has also written a book about a war torn city. In this case 'Aleppo: The Rise and Fall of Syria's Great Merchant City'. This is part anthology of visitors' writings and part historical overview provided by the author.
The overall impact of the publication is to make you marvel at how a wonderful ancient city with such diverse peoples living in harmony together could have been so quickly destroyed in the 21st century. Inevitably this book is a tragic read.
I often read books that are related to my own authors’ books, to educate myself. Two cases in
point, ‘Capability Brown in Kent’ by the Kent Gardens Trust (a very specialised local publication) and Emma Smith’s ‘Shakespeare’s First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book’.
Local history is one of my many enthusiasms, especially if the author can present it well and set it in a larger national context. So when some relations living near Oxford introduced me to the work of Charles F. Foster, and then introduced me to the man himself, I was most excited. He is a talented researcher, thinker, and writer on Cheshire. I determined to read all four of his self-published books. I loved the first: ‘Cheshire Cheese and Farming in the North West in the 17th and 18th century’. The balance of micro and macro history is simply perfect here.
I also adored reading the English Heritage survey 'Alston Moor, Cumbria: Buildings in a North Pennines Landscape' by Lucy Jessop, and Matthew Whitfield. This is a exemplary blend of historical analysis of buildings with exquisite landscape photographs. This area of the country is extraordinarily beautiful and historically interesting, but still hardly visited. This is my favourite book of the year so far.
Looking ahead for Christmas, I'm planning to read Ta-Nehisi Coates's memoir 'The Beautiful Struggle' because I am very interested in Baltimore as a city. Also in the pile is Carl Safina's very highly praised and well reviewed 'Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel'.
One excitement in book publishing is to sample examples of new forms. I am completely intrigued by my latest biography of a comics artist in Singapore. His graphics evoke an extraordinary consciousness in which the individual and his stereotype are battling it out. This book is 'The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye' by Sonny Liew. Epigram, the name of the publisher, is new to me, so a double discovery is always pleasant.
I have always wondered what an Amazon self-published book would be like if initiated by someone with a great sense of design. With 'Secret Diaries Past and Present' by Helena Whitbread and Natasha Holme I have an exemplar in my hands. Both authors have a fascination with secret diaries, written in code. This thought-provoking publication looks at the psychological paradox of self-revelation and concealment going on at the same time. This short book focuses on two examples of coded diaries: Anne Lister in the early 19th century and Natasha Holme (the designer) herself in the 21st century. Both diarists had/have a complex sexuality to guard.
As I read this account of my recent reading I realise that I may be conveying a very strange impression of my personal interests and tastes. But do not be misled. I am not a current affairs maniac, although it might appear to be the case.
I mention these points in the hope that you will not take these books I have praised as evidence of any specific or niche interests. I am attracted to each book for its own distinctive character and how it will probably links into one of my many preoccupations. I can become interested in almost any new subject very quickly when it fires my imagination. My new reading list is likely to reveal a different set of concerns from those captured here.
Please see the CDLA blog for further reading updates.