I think I’m a bit of a completist on the quiet. Over the past few years I’ve had seasonal obsessions with Arnold Bennett, Rosamond Lehmann, Anne Tyler, Carol Shields, H.G. Wells, Philip Roth, Patrick Hamilton, James Ellroy, Iain M. Banks and George Pelecanos. Looking back at my diary, I see that 2003 was my Dickens year, 2005 was Hardy and 2006 was Zola. (Every year is a Trollope year.) The summer of 2013 was the entire Game of Thrones series.
Right now, I can feel a Barbara Pym phase coming on. It started with Some Tame Gazelle at Christmas. Then one of my oldest friends gave me Excellent Women for my birthday, I’ve just polished off Jane and Prudence, and now I’m staring at a pile of Pyms I’ve picked up for a penny each on Amazon.
There’s a problem with this binge reading though. Sure, it’s intensely pleasurable, and you really end up inhabiting the author’s world – in Barbara Pym’s case the ebbs and flows of parish life and the vanities of the clergy, or in Anne Tyler’s the subterranean tensions and longings in middle-aged relationships – but after a while I start not to be able to distinguish the novels from one another. All that remains of my minor Tyler obsession a decade ago is a tangled sense of blended families in Baltimore. At this distance, only Breathing Lessons now stands out as something distinctive.
So I ought to do the sensible thing and take a break between Barbara Pym novels. This punch-drunk feeling is not helped by the fact that all the jacket covers look so damn similar and frankly a bit chick-lit-y, which rather does her writing a disservice (see picture). I think I might be more reliant on visual triggers than I thought; certainly, it’s much harder to recall what I’ve read if I’ve consumed it on the Kindle, which is one of the reasons I’ve returned to the enjoyment of print again. Thank God for Penguin Classics covers. I have strong physical recollections of where I was when I read Ann Veronica and the War of the Worlds, to take a random example, and that in turn allows me to call to mind both plot and texture. Reading on a screen flattens out the fading memory.