I love bookshops, but they also stir a feeling in me which (to my knowledge) there is no word for: a sadness that however many books I read, there will always be good ones which I miss. I’m not much given to biblical quotation, but I’m inclined to agree with Solomon’s observation that ‘of the making of many books there is no end’, and there doesn’t seem to have been any let up in the intervening 3 millennia. And if I’m determined to add to their number, I know that I should be reading as widely as possible.
This is where the problem lies. The modern bookshop presents such tyranny of choice that it’s too easy to give up and stick to familiar names (meaning that you never discover anything new – less established authors are deprived of new readers and you end up with a narrow experience of the literary world). Worse, sometimes I am so overwhelmed that I give up, and leave empty handed.
With this in mind, I decided it was time for a solution – something to push me out of my comfortable reading nook. Turning to the twenty sided die, that universal symbol of geekdom, I devised the D20 reading challenge. It’s simple, just roll the dice and pick a book in that category. Roll, Read, Review and Repeat. The categories are not mutually exclusive, but nor are they meant to be. My version is below, but if you want to try it, feel free to substitute any of the categories with ones better suit you.
1. The canonical novel.
Probably not a controversial choice this, but despite my three years (*embarrassed cough*) of literature A-level, three year English degree, and my current role as an English teacher, feel that I’ve still only scratched the surface of the great corpus of English novels. More controversial is the concept of the canon itself. Not wishing to fall into that debate, for my purposed the canon is defined simply as ‘the novels any serious reader is ‘supposed to’ have read’.
2. 21st Century novel
In pursuing the classics, it is easy to neglect the many novels that are being published here and now. Serious reader (particularly those who want to be writers) should be aware of what is going on around them. ‘Nuff said.
3. A novel which is an old favourite
One of the great pleasures of reading is in re-reading. It is always interesting to return to a favourite book after a number of years to see how your attitude to it has changed. As you reach new stages in your life, different aspects of the novel can seem more important – you may find that you interpret the ideas in the novel differently, or find yourself relating more to characters who didn’t interest you in the past. In the clamour for new and exciting reading experiences, it is important not to forget where you have come from. However, I would have been disappointed if this had come up first.
4. A new novel by a familiar author
‘New’ here meaning ‘one I haven’t read before’. Like anybody, I have my favourites, but there are not many writers who have more than one or two books on my bookshelf. This is a chance to further explore those authors who are under-represented, or to expand my collection of those writers I like the most.
5. A small press, local, or self-published novel
Because I know enough writers and publishers that deserve support, particularly in the Birmingham area. And because easy self-publishing is probably one of the most important developments in modern literature – it would be silly to ignore it.
6. Poetry – A new book by a familiar poet
My reasoning here is, unsurprisingly, similar to number four. This seems like a good place to mention that I am more interested in individual collections rather than anthologies or ‘selected works’ – a stance which probably goes back to being introduced to bands like Pink Floyd at a young age. Poetry collections, like albums, should be seen as one coherent unit.
7. A small press, local, or self-published poetry collection
This is perhaps more important here than it is with novels; independent publisher are the life-blood of poetry, seeming to make up the vast bulk of poetry publishing in the UK.
8. A poetry collection which is an old favourite.
All the things I said about ‘old favourite’ novels apply doubly here. The complexity of how language is used in poetry make changing interpretations even more likely, and its roots in the oral tradition mean poetry is designed to be repeated.
9. Poetry in translation
I used to avoid translated literature out of an immature snobbishness about it not being in its ‘original form’. I only read in English though, so if I kept up this attitude I would be missing out on entire cultures worth of literature. The issues surrounding the translation of poetry are interesting, and it could be argued that translated poems are more like new works which are intrinsically connected to their sources.
10. Poetry by ‘important’ poets
The idea here is similar to the ‘canonical novel’, but I have substituted ‘canon’ with ‘big name’ as many of the poets I am interested in for this category worked in the 20th and 21st centuries. This is the category for bigger publishers and the more famous poets, alive or dead.
11. A ‘genre’ novel
My relationship with genre novels could probably make up a blog post in their own right. For a long time they were all I read, and then there was a (thankfully brief) period of snobbishness around the beginning of my degree. Later, I came to my senses and realised that good writing is good writing whatever it is about, and that science fiction or fantasy writers take their craft as seriously as ‘lit. fic.’ writers. I still don’t read many genre novels though, purely because there are so many books of all different types that I want to read (which is one of the reasons I’m making this list). Genre in the sense that I am using it includes fantasy, science fiction, horror and crime. I accept the argument that ‘literary fiction’ is really another genre, but as that makes up most of my reading, I feel I should include a category to move me into other areas.
12. Non-fiction – History, legend and myth
As great as fiction and poetry are, I feel that it is important to also be well read and well informed about the real world. This is where my reading habits really let me down. Faced by so many exciting novels, I rarely browse in non-fiction for long. This is strange, because I do love learning interesting things, and I’ve always been interested in history in particular. The ‘legend and myth’ part of this category is designed to allow for older texts which include things which people once believed to be true and are there for written as non-fiction (for example, Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, which was written after Iceland had already been Christianised, but which was intended to keep record of the older beliefs which had shaped that nation’s culture). It should be noted that in all of the non-fiction categories, I’ll be looking primarily at books which are ‘writerly’ as well as informative.
13. Non-fiction – Memoir and travel writing
Around the same time that I had snobbishness about genre fiction, I also misguidedly thought that non-fiction is not really literature. This category is dedicated to Ian Marchant, whose ‘life writing’ module in the second year of my degree taught me that I was wrong.
14. Non-fiction – Philosophy, science and the social sciences
If the ‘history’ category is designed to keep me well informed on what has happened, this one is designed to keep me thinking about how things work, or at least how we think they do. That’s the logic behind putting philosophy and science together. Again though, I’ll be looking for books which are writerly as well as informative, so expect more pop-science and less text books.
15. A graphic novel
This is a means of storytelling which I have long thought of as interesting art form in its own right, with a format which is similar to prose, but has an entirely different set of tools to use. However, as there are so many books I want to read, it’s a format which I am still yet to really discover for myself.
16. A short-story collection
I love short stories. I love the brevity and the craft of them. Unfortunately for them, I love novels a little more, so this is an area of my bookshelf that has been a little neglected.
17. A novel in translation
Language and culture are intertwined, and as with poetry, I’m currently missing out on some of the best prose that other cultures have to offer. This category is designed to remedy that.
18. A book I never finished
I’m a fairly diligent reader, so there aren’t too many of these. But there some hangovers from university (The Monk and Waverley, for example) to polish off, and there are also books that have suffered from my habit of having two or three books on the go at once and my tendency to get distracted. It’s time to give them the attention they deserve.
19. Literary criticism, language and writing
These are the ‘how stuff works’ books that I would gravitate towards most naturally. I’ve given them their own category to push me into wider and more far-ranging topics for category fourteen. Their inclusion also reflects the importance of staying up-to-date and well informed in one’s own field.
20. Wild Card
I love the idea behind this category, and it could become the basis of a future reading challenge all on its own. The idea is that when I roll a twenty I will ask somebody whose opinion I trust (a friend or family member, a co-worker, a bookseller) what they think my next book should be, and read that.
I’m calling this a reading challenge because this year I intend to select all of my books like this (with the exception of books I need to read for work or books that I want to read as research for my own writing projects). To ensure breadth of coverage, the first time round I will eliminate categories as they have been selected, meaning that I will cover every category at some point this year. After that all the categories will be restored and repetitions will be allowed. The challenge will last for this year, or until I’ve covered every category. After that it will just be a way of selecting new books if I don’t have a specific one in mind. I haven’t included any drama categories because plays should be seen rather than read.
I’ve started already, throwing a 12 and selecting The Northmen’s Fury: A History of the Viking World by Philip Parker as my first book. If you’d like to join me, with my categories or with your own, leave a comment below. If you don’t own a twenty sided dice (doesn’t everybody?) you can use this website to generate your rolls.