CurrentlyReading

There are people who want to talk about books, and there are people who want to tell you how many books they’ve read. It is not quite the same thing. A conversation with the first group is usually a joy, whereas the second are not really interested in a conversation at all. They just want to tell you how large their brain is. Generally speaking it’s the same sort of people who are a little too eager to tell you they’ve never actually seen an episode of Game of Thrones.

This particular type of egotist appears, like all other egotists, to have found a perfect home in social media where my timeline, at least, has become increasingly clogged with lists of all the books people have read in the past month or year, usually artfully arranged on a clean coffee table without a mug ring or takeaway menu in sight. Inevitably, these lists are long and impressive – why else would you post one? - meaning on top of seeing that your friends eat in nicer restaurants and go on better holidays than you, you now know that they’re also better read.

At least, that’s how I used to feel about it. Last month, the journalist Andy Miller posted a picture on Twitter of everything he had read in May. There were 26 – twenty six! – books in the photograph, including George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, William Golding’s The Inheritors and three novels by Toni Morrison. Good for you, I muttered to myself, and was pleased when Sky News presenter Adam Boulton waded in. “Well done,” he wrote. “Do you have a job or a family?” Quite.

But Miller’s response to Boulton – and every other weary cynic like me – has forced me to reassess. “The thing that drives me crazy about social media – about life, in fact – is the presumption of bad faith where none exists,” he wrote. “By making one’s reading public, it becomes performative – by default – and that is not to everyone’s taste […] But why keep that enthusiasm bottled up? Why hoard it?”

He’s right, you know. Remove the filter of jaded scepticism most of us use when scrolling thorough social media, and what you start to see is not a bunch of bores boasting about their superior reading habits but a community of people sharing their enthusiasm for books in the most direct way possible. The point, as Miller illustrates, is not to brag but to inspire. 

“It was neither the number of books nor the impact of individual titles that changed my life but rather the cumulative effect of the process itself,” he writes. “If I can do it, anyone can; the trick is to keep reading.”

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The point, as Miller illustrates, is not to brag but to inspire

The benefits of immersing oneself in the trend quickly becomes obvious. When you see what other people are reading, you instinctively compare – and therefore question – your own reading habits. One list that popped up on my Twitter feed consisted only of books written by female authors. My own list would certainly be skewed the other way. It inspired me to pick up my old university copy of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse and I devoured its dream-like, lyrical prose in a single Sunday afternoon. I've since read both The Waves and Mrs Dalloway.  

The breadth of other people’s reading lists are genuinely useful. Another one posted on Twitter recently included novels by Jilly Cooper and Ursula K Le Guin - together at last! Another featured a still-revolutionary feeling short story collection by New Zealand author Katherine Mansfield, first published in 1922, alongside French writer Michel Houellebecq’s superb 2015 political thriller, Submission. Different eras; different sides of the Earth. Confronted by this, I began to realise how limited my own reading tastes had become, so this month I’m going to try and read one novel by a male and a female author from each of the last three centuries. First up is George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. Why? Because it was top of someone else’s list last month.   

Having convinced myself of the virtues of #currentlyreading, #bookworms and the rest, I’ve even resolved to have a go at keeping my own. It’s early days, but one thing has already become clear: keeping a list makes you read more books. I promise you – try it. Where previously I would have happily left a novel half-finished the moment things got a bit sticky, the prospect of adding another title to my list now compels me to keep going. There is something immensely satisfying about writing down another completed title in a notebook. It is as if you have reached the next level on a video game. One Twitter user said that since starting a list, his reading rate had doubled. I’d agree with that. The only thing I need to be careful about now is that I don’t spend so much time looking at other people’s recommendations, I forget to do any actual reading myself.

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