“Eric is in the country finishing a novel.
He’s not a writer, he’s just a very slow reader.”
Ancient Barry Cryer joke.
Why do I keep my Reader’s Diary so assiduously when I eschew all other tasks?
Good question. But who’s asking? I am. Aha! Who are you? I am me.
Who are we talking to when we talk to ourselves?
I think all writers talk to themselves. That is why they write. That is why I write anyway: to find out what I think. To discover that hidden voice inside yourself is the great joy of writing. Oh look what I think! Writing is a search for the undiscovered self. But writers also write because they read. Would it be possible to find a writer who did not? Someone who hadn’t come to writing first through the joy of reading? I doubt it. They wouldn’t be much of a writer. Reading opens up the realm of the mind, reading connects you intimately with the voices of hundreds of great thinkers, and reading keeps you honest.
I love books and I love reading and a long time ago on my first computer I began to list the books in my London library for a game we were working on. So I have an incomplete list of books from before 1992, and then from 1993 I listed books as I read them. Even in those days I was getting to the age when I would be half way through an Elmore Leonard and have a sudden feeling that I knew what was about to happen. Keeping a list was a simple and efficient aide memoir, made possible by the computer age. I began to add brief comments for myself, so I could recall what I thought about a particular book and often I included notes on where I was when I was reading something. (Hence this summer’s sub heading: Reading Jane Austen in Venice.) Occasionally I would rant at some poor author, or the title would be followed by a cryptic “Chucked it!” I am an intolerant reader, forgiving in public but ruthless in the study.
Barchester Towers. Anthony Trollope March 1993
So memorable I have forgotten the title. (Irony marks needed) Something to do with becoming Dean of somewhere. I find him effete and I’m afraid dull. John Major’s favourite. Figures. I left the book in Mustique….
May Week Was In June. Clive James April 1993
Clive and I! The ego has landed. More tales of the man who took Cambridge by storm. It was love at first sight. Clive James fell in love with himself at first sight. Curiously touching, funny and pretentious at the same time. Just like Clive.
Discreet references to friends would creep in. Mike Nichols invariably introduced me to some new writer I would enjoy, and since the list was only for myself there was no reason not to mention this. So, bit by bit, it became a kind of intellectual journal, a map of where my mind had been and what it had been thinking while reading.
Why did I begin to share my reading list online?
That is harder to explain. Did I want to say “Look at clever me, look at all these books I’ve read?” Partly I suppose. Ego is extremely hard to deny.
I first published my reading list after I moved to California in the Nineties, when I was still running PythOnline, a quotidian task which eventually became promethean. My ambition had been to create an amusing web site to which the Pythons could contribute and where I could vent my occasional spleen and unfold my propensity for satire. But as the Python contributions soon dried up and I was left to deal with it solo, the task became increasingly frustrating. Each day there would be an ever growing mountain of Python questions to answer, and when I did attempt to answer them:
“You’re not Eric Idle” they would say.
“Yes I am” I would reply.
“No you’re not” they would insist.
“Then fuck off” I would add.
“Oh. You are him.”
So I shared my reading list initially out of desperation to keep it real, and to provide fresh material, for soon I found I had a highly unpaid job, a monster that daily demanded new food.
There were a couple of unexpected bonuses from publishing. First there was a small but grateful feedback from lonely readers round the world who were happy I had shared with them. This was an encouraging step forward from fielding endless Python questions, (“Which one were you?”) and secondly, the splendid Dave Eggers, whom I had got to know when he wrote a very amusing profile for The New Yorker about the chair I wrote Spamalot on (which, yes, I have carefully preserved in plastic wrap for The Rainy Day Sale) emailed me to ask if Michael Chabon could be in touch. What a lovely gift that was. And yes Dave, I will always do your Reading Benefits despite being rather tired of performing. We must encourage reading. It is the great escape for the young. It opens doors into the mind of ourselves and others. It permits the solitary to communicate, even when they feel most isolated. What possible use is it? Every single possible use. It defines us. It creates us. It involves us.
So I have been assiduously keeping my summer reading list, it’s been a good one with new books by Martin Amis, William Boyd, Jake Arnott, and (my tip for The Booker) John Banville.
I’ll publish it shortly. Meanwhile if you check out Reading you’ll see where I got to so far this year before I set off on my travels…