I love books, absolutely love books. With that truth as constant as my heartbeat, I find it very difficult to conceive of getting rid of books – let alone actually doing so.
I remember, when I was a little girl, my father coming home regularly with boxes of books. At that time, due to the political situation in Egypt, many people were leaving the country, and my father would rescue their abandoned books and give them a home in our own house. Books, he taught me, are treasures.
Of course, we grew up in Alexandria, home of the famous library that was designed to collect all the world’s knowledge, but burned to the ground in 48 BC, destroying forever 400,000 precious books (see my article ‘The roots of a bibliophile: The Ancient Library of Alexandria’). Whenever we passed the site of the Ancient Library of Alexandria, we were sobered by the thought of that great fire consuming so many priceless books.
The destruction of books on a mass scale is distressing for bibliophiles. (The Nazi book burning is the most obvious example.) But even on a book-by-book basis, destroying a book can feel wrong. Say you have spilled tea on a book. Do you throw it away – can you bear to?
Do you remember the days when you took a much-thumbed tome that was falling apart not to the recycling centre but to a book binder to be restored? How far we have come from those times. Nowadays, we live in a culture of consumption in which no object is treasured as it once was. A thick paperback novel can be purchased for the price of a cup of coffee; it is consumed and then, often, disposed of: thrown in the bin, left on a park bench, donated to a charity shop.
The Guardian newspaper in the UK recently reported on ‘the books no one wants any more’. The Da Vinci Code and Fifty Shades of Grey are books donated so frequently to charity shops that they simply can’t sell all the stock. The hotel chain Travelodge provided data on the books left in their hotel rooms over the course of a year; Fifty Shades Freed topped the list, with 1,209 abandoned copies, followed by two other erotic romances, and then Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling. The most hyped books, the books with massive marketing campaigns that attempt to suggest you must read this book or you’re missing out are the ones that are most discarded – not valued, not treasured.
A couple of weeks ago a reader commented on one of my blog posts that advertising a book as a bestseller or by a bestselling author can actually make it less, not more, appealing. I found that really interesting, and it made me look at my bookshelves and consider how many of the books I treasure are books that have been hyped. The answer: very few.
I buy books that I am sure I will love – and therefore will keep. Before purchasing, I carefully read the book blurb; I read the first page or two; I even read the author’s bio, and sometimes I visit their website and learn about them as well. I do this so that I am assured a satisfying reading experience, of course, and to ensure I am not wasting money on a book I won’t enjoy. But I think the deeper-seated reason for my careful approach to book-buying comes down to the fact that I always intend to keep a book that I buy. It’s a thing of beauty, a precious object. I don’t just love the story and the characters and the poetry of the words; I love the smell of the ink, the weight of the work in my hand, the rustle and texture of the pages.
Do you love books in this way too? Does it break your heart to throw away a book? Do you feel an ache when you donate a book to charity? Can you bear to abandon a book? Have you ever bought a book and regretted it, because you didn’t enjoy it but struggled to let it go simply because it was a book? Does the story of unloved books sadden you?
I would love to hear your thoughts.
Have you ever thought about the nationality of the authors whose books you read? Do you read books by writers from all different countries, or do you find you’re often lost in a story dreamt up by a British or North American author?
I was very inspired by a recent story in the news about a thirteen-year-old Pakistani girl who, having realised most of the books on her shelf were published by British or US publishers, has set herself a challenge: to read a book from every country in the world. Aisha Esbhani sent out an appeal on Facebook for recommendations, and she has received them from all corners of the globe.
Just imagine all that Aisha will learn, how these 197 books will educate her and inspire her, how enriching this multicultural journey will be. To quote George R.R. Martin: ‘A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies… The man who never reads lives only one.’
Aisha will have such a broad knowledge of literature; the kind of knowledge, I think, to which we should all aspire. ‘Write about what you know’ is a common adage. But I don’t think it should follow that we read only about what we know. We need to read books that transport us to foreign places and make us think and feel; books that can change us.
I believe that we should read books set in all different countries. Take my own fiction, for example. When you read one of my books, you’ll be whisked away to Kenya (Burning Embers) or Italy (The Echoes of Love) or Spain (the Andalucían Nights trilogy) or, later this year, to Greece (the forthcoming Aphrodite’s Tears).
I also believe that we should read books by writers from all different nationalities. Perspective, depth and writing style are very much rooted in one’s nationality. I grew up in Alexandria, Egypt, speaking Arabic, English and French, and at university there I studied French literature. Certainly, my writing is influenced by my education; by the rhythms and poeticism of the languages in which I think and daydream; by the importance of history and mythology in Egypt; and especially by the beautiful and colourful scenery of that country.
But I no longer live in Egypt. After leaving the country in my early twenties, I travelled widely, before finally settling in Kent, England. My husband and I subsequently bought a mas (farmhouse) in the South of France and renovated it, and for many years that has been our summer home, and then in recent years we have lived part of the year in Ireland as well. So, as you can see, I really do ‘write around the world’, and my books are not only set in different countries, but they are written in them too.
If this article has inspired you to ‘read around the world’, a great starting point for your journey is Goodreads, where you can find groups devoted to recommendations on this theme. I have also found it helpful to use ‘translated fiction’ as a search term – you unearth a veritable treasure trove of books (sadly, often overlooked). In addition, you can support Aisha at https://www.facebook.com/reading197countries, and see which books she has picked to read and her thoughts on them.
Here is a dictionary definition of the word ‘romance’: a feeling of excitement and mystery associated with love; a quality or feeling of mystery, excitement, and remoteness from everyday life. And here is a definition of romance when it is used with relation to a story: a book or film dealing with love in a sentimental or idealised way.
These definitions are essential, I think, when it comes to the categorisation of books. My own books are romance novels. They are characterised by the excitement and mystery associated with love, and they are fantasies, removed from everyday life. They are sentimental, and in a sense they are idealised – but not to the point where they are unrealistic.
The key to romance is that the reader can escape their everyday life into a story world that is beautiful and moving (sentimental, idealised) but also vivid and believable. There is a line to be drawn, however, in true romance when it comes to realism. It is not mysterious and exciting and idealised and remote from everyday life for a romance to end in separation, especially that wrought by death.
Gone with the Wind is popularly regarded as one of the best novels of the last century – and I agree. But is it, as many people class it, a romance novel? I don’t agree that it is characterised by a ‘remoteness from everyday life’; I think much of the power of the book lies in its realism. Margaret Mitchell did not write a happy-ever-after ending for her heroine: Rhett leaves Scarlett. The author herself did not know what would have happened to her characters after the book’s ending; she told Yank magazine in 1945, ‘For all I know, Rhett may have found someone else who was less – difficult.’
There is a tendency to categorise all kinds of books as romances simply because within the overarching story there is a story of two characters falling in love. That love story may be only a small part of the whole; it may be an unhealthy kind of love (obsessive, for example); it may well end badly for one or both parties.
Consider some of ‘the greatest love stories’, those of Heathcliff and Cathy, Romeo and Juliet, Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky, Quasimodo and Esmeralda. Tragedies, all of them. Romantic, absolutely, in places; but romantic overall, in the big picture?
Why categorise so many books as romances when they are entrenched in realism and do not ‘deal with love in a sentimental or idealised way’? Because we lack genres in which to place these books. ‘Women’s literature’ just doesn’t adequately convey the content of many books (and it unfairly matches gender to novel; who is to say a man can’t read a book in which love features?).
Does it even matter? For readers like me, the answer is ‘yes’, because when I read a romance I expect romance – not to have my heartbroken by an unhappy ending. That ending may be clever and gritty and powerful, but it’s not romantic: romance is by definition idealised to some degree.
My own books are romance novels, but because they are mixed in among so many different kinds of books in the genre, I wonder how many readers know what to expect when they choose one of my novels to read: do they expect my heroine to end up having loved and lost?
What we need, I think, is more sub-genres within the romance genre, to provide readers with clear, honest information that will help them determine whether a book is to their taste. No one likes spoilers, of course, but there are romance readers who, when suitably informed, will choose not to read a book with harrowing content and a non-romantic ending. (In the same vein, all readers have their own preference when it comes to sexual content: ‘clean’ romance books may be marketed as such, but there is a vast grey area between that and ‘erotic fiction’.)
What do you think of genre classifications? Do they signpost sufficiently to ensure that you enjoy the books you choose? What new sub-genres would you introduce if you could, to help you and other readers find (and avoid) particular kinds and styles of novels? Do you think genres should be formalised rather than dictated by booksellers? I would love to hear your thoughts.
We all know that reading fiction is a means of escape: from wherever you are reading, you are transported to the fictional world, to another place and time, and that can be as inspiring, relaxing and enjoyable as travelling for real. Have you ever considered, though, that reading is not only an escape into the author’s story world, but also an escape into your own story – your past?
I was fascinated to read of a study conducted by researchers at the University of Liverpool (published in the journal Medical Humanities and described in the Medical News Today) that found shared reading can alleviate chronic pain. Shared reading is defined as ‘an interactive reading experience in which small groups of people gather to read short stories, poetry, and other literature aloud’. The point of this reading is to ‘prompt memories of relationships, family members, work, and other experiences that arise throughout a lifetime’.
The researchers found that the severity of pain and mood in the study participants improved for up to two days following shared reading, and they suggest that shared reading could be as helpful – if not more so – than the cognitive behavioural therapy currently recommended for people suffering from chronic pain. Basically, shared reading – reading that helps trigger pain-free memories for people – can help alleviate real, current pain.
What I found most interesting about this study was that at its core is the fact that reading can quickly and meaningfully create an escape into a person’s past. As William Nicholson wrote for the film Shadowlands, ‘We read to know we’re not alone.’ When we read, we connect to the writer – we take a journey together – and, crucially, we connect with our past self in two ways:
First, the story sparks memories. Say the heroine is described as eating toad-in-the-hole, which makes you remember that your mother used to cook toad-in-the-hole for supper, every Thursday through the winter months, and it was your favourite meal. You have escaped not only into the story world but also into your own past; you are back in the kitchen of your childhood home on a stormy December evening, sitting with your family and talking and laughing together while you tuck into toad-in-the-hole and pass around the gravy – which your mother always made that special way; best you’ve ever tasted. The memory is happy; it’s warm and comforting and uplifting. Reading has given you that feeling.
In addition, reading has connected you to the past in another important way. If you are reading a novel now, no doubt you have long been a reader. You love reading; it’s part of who you are. So today, when you pick up the book and escape into the story world, you are doing as you’ve done so many times. Not only do you read of the character’s supper and remember your own from childhood, but you are aware that you are enjoying the read and that you have done so before; you remember so many times being lost in a book – in a park, on a train, curled up in a chair – and that is a happy memory; it’s warm and comforting and uplifting. Reading has given you that feeling too.
As I write, a single word resonates in my mind: powerful. Reading is powerful! It can lift your mood, it can comfort you, it can inspire you – it can take away pain. As Harvard president Charles William Eliot wrote: ‘Books are the quietest and most constant of friends…’
Quite simply, where would we be without books?!
Many years ago, when I set pen to paper and wrote the first draft of what would become my debut novel, Burning Embers, I thought a lot about the setting and the story and the characters and the mood – and I thought very little about specific categorisation for the book I was writing. Genre was important in the sense that I knew I was writing romance, but I didn’t drill down further and consider what type of romance I was creating; I simply wrote the book.
Fast-forward to the start of this decade, and I discovered, when I came to submit the manuscript to publishers, a whole world of categorisation of which I had been largely unaware. What kind of romance was Burning Embers? publishers wanted to know. It was easy to determine what the novel was not: fantasy or paranormal, for example. But other categorisations required consideration. Burning Embers is set in the 1970s; did that make it historical fiction or contemporary? It contains some descriptions of intimate moments; did that make it erotic?
I recall, back when I was filling in publisher forms, thinking that it would have been far easier had my book fit very neatly into one (and only one) category; that perhaps if my novel did so, my chances of securing a publishing a contract would be greatly improved.
Yet I knew this fundamental truth of writing: you must write the book that wants to be written. Not a book you think a publisher/agent/reader wants; a book that comes from you, from your soul – from the muse. As one of the most respected and influential writers of the 20th century, Franz Kafka, put it:
‘Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.’
Thus writers will always write books without much thought for categorisation. Why, then, need categorisation exist? The general idea is that categorising books into genres, and sub-genres, and sub-sub-genres, is helpful to booksellers, in presenting their wares for sale; and to readers, in browsing for books that fit their preferences. And yet it seems the difficulty of classification spills over to this end of the process as well.
Recently, I read with interest an article entitled ‘A Look Inside America’s First Romance and Erotica-Only Bookstore’, exploring the Ripped Bodice bookshop in LA, which is run by two romance-novel-loving sisters, Bea and Leah. Given that the store specialises in romance novels, organisation of novels is by sub-genre. The main ones are historical, contemporary, paranormal and erotica, along with ‘islands of other specialty sub-genres like LGBTQ, suspense, cowboys…’. But categorisation can lead to confusion, as Leah explained:
‘How do you shelve a book that’s lesbian vampire erotica? Does it go in the lesbian section, the vampire section, or the erotica section? These are real questions we find ourselves asking.’
Interestingly, Leah suggests that ‘the nature of… digital marketplaces makes categorization there intrinsically easier than for a brick-and-mortar shop’. Certainly, I have found through working closely with my publisher, London Wall, that the many categories on the websites of retailers like Amazon allow for all manner of different ways to categorise a book. At the time of writing, for example, my Andalucían Nights series is categorised as follows on Amazon.com:
Indiscretion (Book 1): Books > Romance > Historical > 20th Century
Masquerade (Book 2): Books > Romance > Multicultural
Legacy (Book 3): Books > Romance > Contemporary
I am not sure, however, that the wide range of categories that can be applied to books is always helpful to the reader, because often one category alone does not adequately express the essence of a book. Taking a look at Amazon.com’s sub-categories for romance (which, incidentally, differ from the Amazon.co.uk list), I could argue that the books of my Andalucían Nights series could fit into these categories: Multicultural, Heroes/Rich & Wealthy, Themes/Beaches, Themes/International, Themes/Love Triangle, and Themes/Workplace.
Ultimately, I am happy for my fiction be categorised in any genre that sensibly fits my writing. The Echoes of Love and Burning Embers, for example, are currently ranking in Romance but also in Literature & Fiction (Women’s Fiction > Contemporary Women) on Amazon.com. I don’t worry about categorisation when I write, and when I am asked ‘What kind of books do you write?’, I reply with what one newspaper reviewer said of my debut novel: ‘Romance like Hollywood used to make.’ That would make a wonderful category in itself, don’t you think?