All the books I've read and don't remember
Plus, god bless America(ns) – news about the In Writing Creative Hour.
Paying subscribers can hear me read this newsletter aloud, here or via any podcast app.
This weekend I’m hosting another In Writing Creative Hour for paying subscribers. Some news on that: last week I looked at the statistics on where my readers come from, and was surprised to find that 42 percent of you are in the United States (thank you, George Saunders!), which is more than are in the UK, where I live. Out of fairness/democracy then, from now on I’m going to organise most of my Creative Hours later in the day here in London, so that those in timezones across the States can join in, if you’d like to.
Wherever you are, I hope to see you for an hour of writing this Sunday 12 February at 5pm GMT (that’s 9am PST). Here’s the blurb for those who are new around here:
The Creative Hour is a Google Meet get-together that I usually hold a couple of Sundays a month. We meet online, have a chat, and then write for the best part of an hour in companionable silence; think of it as a virtual library environment, just with a bit more moral support from your In Writing community. It’s a very nice way to get some work done at the weekend.
It’s for paying subscribers only, so if you’d like to join us, do upgrade your membership and look out for an email first thing on Sunday, when I’ll send out the link.
While doing research for an upcoming interview, I recently listened to a podcast from 2020 – about two and a half years ago. [Side note: how can it be that the first COVID lockdown started less than three years ago – but also, how can it have been that long? In the memory it feels not so much like a moment in recent history, as it does like a trip to a parallel dimension on a whole different timeline.]
I know I listened to the episode when it first came out, because I listen to every episode of that particular show, and I was very under-occupied at that point in the pandemic. ‘As soon as I press play,’ I thought when I came across it, ‘it will all come flooding back to me.’ It did not. Not at all.
This doesn’t matter too much, because it was only an hour long, and on both occasions (presumably) I was listening to it while doing other things. But what about books, which take so much more time and concentration to consume?
In 2020 (when I was under-occupied), I also started keeping a list of every new book I read; looking at the early entries now, my memory is already patchy. I remember a general feeling about the experience of each book, but not necessarily many key points from the non-fiction titles, or particular scenes from the fiction. One is a book of short stories by a favourite author, and without picking it up to jog my memory, I can only remember two of them.
And that’s less than three years ago. What about the novels I read as a teenager? Many of them are entirely lost to me; it’s like I left a window open in my brain and thousands of loose pages blew out of it. I’m sure I could read some of them again and remember absolutely nothing, or not even realise that I’d already done so. So was it an enormous waste of time? Is everything, ultimately, an enormous waste of time if you don’t remember it?
I was relieved when I got Oliver Burkeman’s last newsletter, which touched on this. This is the part that I particularly liked:
The point of reading, much of the time, isn’t to vacuum up data, but to shape your sensibility. … Each work you encounter changes you, at least a little, and thus the way you see the world; and that change occurs regardless of how much of a given book’s contents you happen to consciously retain. And in the final analysis, it’s the way you see the world – your unique angle, applied to the people and things around you – that results in good ideas and original work.
I think that’s true. And different works chime with different people, and have more of an impact on some than others, which is part of the reason why we’re such fabulous individuals (or awful individuals). We’ve all had that experience where somebody recommends a movie or song or exhibition that has profoundly changed their perspective, and so we dutifully try it ourselves and don’t understand what the fuss was about. It’s memorable for them, and that piece of art will become important in the quilt of who they are and how they think; for us it might be more like a forgotten thread used in one corner.
This highly complex collection of inputs also shapes our unique voice as writers. My influences might include some authors who you could guess at, just by reading my work – but they might also include pinches of Anastasia Krupnik, Martin Parr, Married At First Sight Australia, Radiohead or my Aunty Lyn’s general vibe (sadly she died when I was a teenager, but she was born in 1899 so fair enough).
This is important in itself – because we all have dark nights of the soul where we wonder what we can possibly create that would be different to what’s already out there. You have your own thing, and it becomes more unique the older you get because nobody else is living your life with its peculiar and random complications. And that’s why it still matters that nobody has read the same combination of books, articles and poems as you – even if you don’t remember reading all of them.
If you’ve recently subscribed to In Writing, I’d love you to tell us where you are, what brought you here and whether you’re working on some writing yourself. You can do that here, as well as learning about lots of other subscribers and their interesting projects:
If you’re a paying subscriber, you also have access to the In Writers Write-In, a community thread where you can talk to others about writing problems, resources or successes. Here are some snippets left recently: ‘Has anyone here done any of The Novelry writing courses?’; ‘What do you all think is the optimal length for a Substack post?’; ‘I'd love to know what pain points you all are struggling with as you write/wrote your book…’ Head over here to respond or start your own conversation:
I’m really looking forward to seeing you on Sunday. Good luck with your writing this week!
Love today's newsletter. I'm fascinated by this subject and that's a brilliant quote from Oliver. It took me a long time to understand the nature of subjectivity.
Remember being fanatical about a certain band as a teen and not understand why other people didn't 'get' the things you loved? Or thinking other people were 'wrong' about whatever they liked? Ha!
I think of cultural input like our own personal compost heap. After a while, it's hard to tell what the constituents were – but each compost heap is 100% unique.
P.S. The last In Writing Creative Hour was my first – and it worked surprisingly well! Unfortunately for me, I haven't been able to write creatively since then, so I'm looking forward to another session.
Brilliant! I thought it was just me who tends to remember the 'feeling' of a book, its atmosphere and its characters' personalities rather than what they actually did or what happened in the book! Relieved to hear you do that too!