Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Katie Ward, Girl Reading (2011)

I have two broader points to make about this excellent novel; one having to do with Ward's writing, and one that has nothing to do with Ward-as-author at all, but which does have a bearing on the question of 21st-century books. Only a small bearing. But a bearing. I'll keep that to the end. The post can exit pursued by a bearing.

First things first: this is a very good novel indeed, a debut of rare promise. Seven sections that seem at first to be seven separate short-stories (though at the end the whole is tied-together fairly neatly). Each of these is a two-inches-wide piece of ivory on which Ward has worked with an admirably fine brush; and each focusses on a woman who is the subject of a painting or photograph, portrayed in the act of reading a book. The first is a fourteenth-century Italian convent girl, the second a seventeenth-century Dutch servant, the third an eighteenth-century lady and so on up to the final scene set in a near-future sort-of sfnal 21st-century. The writing is coolly, beautifully controlled: unflashy but lucid and modulated with genuinely impressive technical deftness, always expressive and lovely to read. The characterisation is a little more variably achieved, I thought; sometimes expertly and efficiently realised, sometimes less so. The idea of putting ekphrasis centre-stage, and using it as a lense to refract some of the varieties of female lived experience, is clever and effective. All in all: very classy.

Anyway, here's the second thing. This is a novel, not a collection of thematically-linked short stories, howevermuch it initially appears to be so. And the quality of the individual section, though inevitably a little variable, is high; I enjoyed reading them all very much. Nevertheless it took me a long time to finish reading this book, and that was for the following reason. I bought it as an e-book, for the Kindle app in my iPhone. I have seen it suggested that since e-books don't actually lie accusingly un- or half-read on our bedside tables, they fall into an out-of-sight-and-mind hole that actual books avoid. (Have a look at this intriguing John C Abell piece in Wired, 'Five Reasons Why E-Books Aren’t There Yet', paying particular attention to reason 1). I must say, I haven't found so: I seem to have no problem keeping going right through, even with quite lengthy books (I read Tim Powers' brand-new-in-2010-honestly Declare on the same app, for instance, and it's hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages long). But for some reason I kept not going back to Ward's novel. This is not because I wasn't enjoying reading it, because I was. But I think it had to do with the fact that as I reached the end of each of the seven sections, some box in my sub-brain got ticked, I subconsciously thought 'done and done!' -- and at next reading opportunity I'd pick up something else. Which is a roundabout way of saying: it may be that reading whole short-story collections, or novels (like this one) that play formal games on the linked-short-story format, may be harder to do in e-book format than in the codex. Not Ward's fault, of course; but an interesting wrinkle in a mode of buying and reading books for which I have hitherto had only praise.

Not to lose my bearings: talking of buying and reading books -- do both.


Tamara said...

Ebooks - I've found the opposite, since i've switched to reading mostly ebooks. I'll put down a physical book and it will get lost in the piles of random junk and superceded by new books. On the Kindle at least, I keep half read books on the front page, so they sit there accusingly all the time and invite a few minutes reading when attention flags on something else, even if I don't particularly enjoy them by that point.

Tyro said...

I had the same problem with Stephen King's new short story collection but then I think this has more to do with the short story than the format. When I finish a novel, I like to do something else for a while to clear my mind, ponder its themes a bit and let it digest. If you have to do that several times in a book, it naturally gets very slow going. Contrast that with a good novel where you can remain immersed in the story for hours or days.

As for ebooks in general, I agree with Tamara that I find it much easier to read super-long books in ebook format. They're easier to hold for a start, but there's less visual "weight". When grinding through a huge book, there's always a strong reminder how how much left there is to get through which you don't get with an ebook. After working through GRRM's Game Of Thrones this spring on my Kindle, I was hooked - I never want to hold a huge hardcover again.

Catherine Hill said...

This post struck a chord with me, a couple of the things mentioned are relevant to me right now.

I have a large, barely-decreasing pile of physical books in my living room that I need to read (peril of working in a library). I find that I have to return a couple each month unread. In fact I'm not reading my own new books, because I know I don't have to give those ones back. Sadly I can't really see this situation changing much if I used e-books.

I am currently reading Declare (the paperback is surprisingly tatty for a book only a year old), which I had planned to finish at the beginning of the week. It is now Friday and the end is just in sight. I blame the tiny print, it doesn't look as long as it actually is. That said, I am enjoying it - I just feel the pressure to return it so others can enjoy it too.

David said...

I find i can often be occupied by how long a book is and how many others i have sitting to be read. I am glad to see I am not the only one. I have found I clip right through e-books on my phone or iPad as though some sort of psycological pressure has been lifted, rgardless if the book is good, bad or indifferent. Odd. I also find that I do not read short story collections from begining to end but rather dip into them, I am reading The Years Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2 & 5 as well as The Mammoth Book Of SF 23, Rewired and The New Weird all at once.