“What’s your favourite book?” can be a divisive question. Well, we all have different tastes. Yet, despite this, people often ask complete strangers what to read next. Admittedly, they don’t randomly accost someone in the street with their enquiry. But posting the question on a Facebook group can be much the same thing, and the ensuing discussion can light the blue touchpaper.
If you’ve been to real live book clubs, you know that conversation can get overheated there too, and the arrival of wine bottles and a cheeseboard only goes so far in calming the proceedings. That’s why one book club I know has more or less abandoned literary talk in favour of spending the evening enjoying refreshments.
The book world is rife with snobbishness. Last November, the Sunday Times published a roundup of the Best Books of 2021. It claimed to cover every genre, but romance books were conspicuously absent – this despite the fact the romantic fiction regularly features in the Sunday Times top 10 bestsellers chart. The piece was incendiary to the many people who love romantic novels, and those who write it too. The Romantic Novelists’ Association, among others, rose to defend the genre.
There are some who speak of their “guilty pleasures” in enjoying particular books, usually titles not considered highbrow. But shouldn’t we all read what we like, and not bother with what isn’t to our tastes? When your time is, like mine, more than halfway up on the great big parking meter of life, you realise there’s little point in sticking with a book just so you can brag that you’ve read it.
For the record, I haven’t finished A la recherche du temps perdu. Proust can seem rather a lot of temps perdu to me.
Book talk tends to happen most among bookworms, authors, librarians, and publishing folk. However, there was a time when it was a mainstream conversation topic. According to my mother, ‘nice girls’ were encouraged to use books as an ice-breaker at parties.
Sparkling conversation usually begins with “Have you read any good books lately?”
Just then, a US Marine with a baby face and tight trousers came over and said, “Dance?” and instead of running away, I said, “Why yeees … I’d love to.”
I needn’t have worried about not knowing the right steps. There weren’t any. We could have been dancing on a three-cent stamp. The only thing that moved were his jaws and his hips. I wondered what Father would say if he saw me now. I really must try to make conversation.
“Have you read any good books lately?” I asked. “Really good books, I mean?”
This was the magic phrase. With an Englishman, it would have worked like a charm and we would have stood in the middle of the floor, not dancing but discussing books, and then we would have been exchanging books for years. But the Marine answered something which sounded suspiciously like, “Naw, I can’t read.”
This passage comes from the first book my mother wrote. Called Cocktails and Camels, it was published in 1960 and it’s a fictionalised memoir. It’s often regarded as the first of a genre referred to as “literature of nostalgia” that became particularly Alexandrian. I adore Cocktails and Camels and still find it funny, no matter how many times I reread it. But it’s out of print, just like another book I love, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies by Jean Kerr.
Very soon, I’ll be talking about some of my favourite books, fiction and non-fiction, choosing only those still in print. On Monday January 31, Tim Lewis (of Stoneham Press) and I will be talking on Book Chat Live. Even if you disagree with some of my choices, I hope you’ll be inspired to dip into some books outside your usual reading genres. You can catch the show on Amazon Live at 11am Eastern time, or 4pm UK time on this link: Amazon Book Chat Live.
In addition to chatting about favourite books, I’ll be revealing what I’d buy if money were no object. Think you know me? You might guess some of the books on my list, but my choice of luxury may be more surprising.
I’d love to hear about you and your favourite books, so do let me know.