From Henry David Thoreau to Paul Theroux - the art of random reading

I admit I can be something of a random reader. I pick up books from the shelf, it doesn't matter if I've read them before ot nor, read a few passages and move on to the next.

Although once I get hooked into a book I often finish it, this cannot be said of certain novels such as James Joyce's Ulysses and The French Revolution by JM Thompson. There's usually a casual connection between the extent of random reading and the thickness of the book, although I did successfully complete War and Peace.

The good news is I have finally got hooked on Ghost Train to the Eastern Star by Paul Theroux and am at least on the same journey as the writer. Unfortunately I have a bad habit of mislaying a book I am finally hooked on and it's back to random reading ADD-style.

In the last few weeks my random exploits have included the Canterbury Tales. "The day came for Constance's departure; I repeat that woeful, fatal day beyond which there could be no further postponement arrived," which is from the Man of Law's Tale: one, but could be a reference to a Monday when I have to go back to work.

On to the next. If anyone tells you they have read the Canterbury Tales beyond the Prologue and the Pardoner's Tale, give them a long searching look, because they are probably telling porkie pies.

The Van by Roddy Doyle is a lot more randomly rewarding.

"The day after the Holland game Maggie bought home T-shirts she'd got made for them in town. They had Niall Quinn's head on the front with His Mommy Fed Him on Bimbo's Burgers under it. They were smashing but after two washes Niall Quinn's head had disappeared and the T-shirts didn't make any sense anymore."

I suppose it's a mark of genius that you can open a great book anywhere and find a gem. Or are novels like Joyce's Ulysses, simply overwritten?

"But wait till I tell you, he said. We had a midnight lunch too after all the jolification and when we sailed forth it was blue o'clock the morning after the night before. Coming home it was a gorgeous winter's night on the Featherbed mountain."

A snippet of lines from Tennyson's poem of the same name are more rewarding. "Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough/Gleams that untravled world whose margin fades/Forever and forever when I move. How dull it is to pause, to make an end."

But my random soul has moved on to The Intellectual Devotional American History and the Panic of 1837.

"The panic of 1837 was a devastating economic crisis triggered  by a sudden shortage of gold and silver at American  banks. The panic cast the banking system into disarray, and the resulting turmoil soon rippled across the national economy. Thousands of businesses were destroyed during the panic."

So no change there, then.

One morning when I was clearly feeling out of sorts I retreated to the rest room clutching The Courage to be Rich by Suze Orman.

"How could it have been different? Amy could have communicated with Bob, at least enough to make him aware of her fierce need to provide for her child. She could have shared her hope..."

Which is enough of that thank you very much. I'd be more interested in reading about how someone as annoying as Orman became so successful.

On to Waterland, the excellent novel by Graham Swift that I have lent to friends, not to mention family members, in blissful unawareness of the graphic nature of some of its sex scenes.

"Why this seeking for omens? This superstition? Why must the zenith be fixed? Because to fix the zenith is to contemplate decline. Because if you construct a stage then the show must go on. Because there always must be - don't deny it - a future."

The Inheritance of Loss by another Booker prize winner, Kiran Desai, is also a rewarding random read.

"Do you cook with beef," he asked a prospective employer.
"We have a Philly steak sandwich."
"Sorry. I can't work here."
"They worship the cow," he heard the owner of the establishment tell someone in the kitchen, and he felt tribal and astonishing.

I'm interested in the French revolution, but Thompson's account can certainly dry my appetite on occasions.

"The Girondins owed their defeat as much to their friends as to their foes. The Committee of Public Safety had suggested the appointment of the Commission of Twelve, and had then failed to support it. The Paris department, the traditional enemy of the commune, antagonized by Roland, and influenced by the Cordelier Dufourny, had given a show of legality to the revolt by consenting to the formation of the Insurrectional Committee."

All of which makes me want to reach for Bill Bryson's Walk in the Woods more often.

"I found  Katz in the dining room and he was looking laudibly perky. This was because he had made a friend - a waitress called Rayette, who was attending to his dining requirements in a distinctively coquettish way. Rayette had was six feet tall and had a face that would frighten a baby, but she seemed good natured and was dilligent with the coffee. She could not have signalled her availability to Katz more clearly if she had thrown her skirt over her head and lain across his Hungry Man Breakfast Platter."

I assume most of us have met a waitress like Rayette. It's one of the perils of living in the south.


  1. My husband reads the snob books, the ones you describe, I read the trash. I do however get husband to tell me all about the snob books so that at dinner parties I am not talking about "The Man in Room 32" (a Harlequin favorite), but about the plight of the Nez Pierce Indian Tribe.


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