Jasper Fforde writing flash
The memory of an elephant

Applying the Bus Test

Mooching along my bookshelves while I was writing the previous post Jasper Fforde writing flash, I realised that I have read quite a lot of books in the last twenty-odd years, and that's not counting a whole TV-less childhood's worth of reading still at my parents' house. And I know the world is crammed full of books I'll never read, including many of the greats, because when so many of my fellow-novelists were at university swallowing quantities of Richardson and Joyce, I was at university pretending to be a tree. But also, there are a salutary number of books on my shelves that I haven't read. Some are presents, and giving them away says too loudly that they're not my cup of tea. Some are waiting for my next novel: buying books is one way of muffling the clamour in the back of my head (see Practical Parenting). But some I've started or not even that, but I certainly won't finish.

By default I'm a fast reader so giving up on a book isn't a matter of it taking too long. If I gave up on a book I used to feel that either the book was a failure and a Bad Book, and trying to read it had been a waste of my time, or I was a failure, lacking moral fibre to go on with a Good Book that I Ought to Read.

And then I was doing my MPhil, and having to find a novel to study for the critical paper element. My brief was quite narrow. I wanted a book that was doing the same as The Mathematics of Love: a parallel narrative, where the two narratives took place in different times, and had completely different casts. Someone said Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman but that had no real modern story that I could discern, plus I find fiction where women are irredeemably Other uncongenial. And someone else said Atwood's The Blind Assasin. I got about a third of the way through that, and then happened to pick up the third suggestion in passing: Possession. Hurrah! Byatt was perfect, and she even, obligingly, writes with great clarity and intelligence about her own and others' fiction.

So I gave up on Atwood, and suddenly realised that for the first time ever I didn't feel guilty a bit. It's a terrific book - no failure on her part - and I had been enjoying it, though I'm missing the sf/f gene so have trouble getting the point of speculative worlds, which is one of its layers. But there was no failure on my part either, because most of what there was for me to get, I'd got in that first third. Not by any means all that's in the book, of course, but most of what there was for me. Maybe I'll get a fleet of comments here telling me what I'm missing. But life is short, and libraries are large, and you can't read everything. Why should I spend time reading something after I've got what I need from it, unless I'm emotionally compelled to?

It's wonderful to have been freed for ever from the guilt of abandoning books. Noel Streatfeild had a bus test for her characters: if one of her readers saw the family on a bus, she used to ask herself, would they recognise them? My bus test is different: if I left this book on a bus, would I a) rush to the bookshop to buy another one, b) buy one next time I was there anyway, c) borrow it from the library just to finish it, d) only pick one up if I saw it secondhand for 50p, d) not bother, e) not notice. No 'ought', no 'should', no Good or Bad, no moral judgement necessary.