Wednesday 13 February 2008

Reading Between The Covers

How much of a review is written before I read the book?

I wonder if that has you leaping for your lorgnettes, keen to inspect my words for heresy against the sacred code of yakking about books? Perhaps you are already deleting Stuck-in-a-Book from your links or your favourites, and rehearsing such lines as "Well, I always knew he was a bad 'un; I only went to his website to watch the evidence accrue."

Fear not, SiaB regulars. This isn't a Middle English tutorial; I have read the books being discussed. I want to talk about a different type of paratextual mind-up-making (no ending on a preposition for me, one notes).

This started because I wanted to write about J. L. Carr's A Month in the Country. I daresay I still will, if you'll bear with me for a while. Carr's novel was my not-so-Secret Santa present from work colleague, friend and hurdy-gurdy enthusiast Clare (along with Vita Sackville-West's All Passion Spent and the DVD of The Go-Between) and was duly read back in December. And, yes, I loved it. But I realised that I'd more or less loved it before the first sentence had been read... and for these reasons:

a) it was a present from a friend

b) the cover was beautiful - just look at it. One of my favourites

c) the title was also beautiful. Rurality was promised

Now, none of these would have helped the novel survive if it had been awful. But they all helped me along the analysis process - and I think this happens whenever we pick up a book. Even if said book is chosen arbitrarily from a secondhand shelf, we must be influenced by the design, the shop, the title, the author's name (even if unknown) - all subtle but certain steps towards making what might be called an Uninformed Decision... personally, if I buy a book arbitrarily, without any prior knowledge of any constituent, then I am quietly determined to enjoy it. Serendipity must be heralded. "Oh, this," must say I, "Just found by accident - and it's wonderful!" Sometimes I'll buy a book simply because I've liked the bookshop, and I want a souvenir of the visit. And I find it makes a huge difference, whether or not I start a book with the steely glint in my eye that refuses to be left unentertained.

So what qualified a book for privileged pre-treatment in my world?

a) a gift or a recommendation from a friend

b) found in a good bookshop, or chosen on a hopeful whim

c) design/cover

d) from 1900-1949

e) I should really be reading something else....

I'm not proud of these prejudices, and I don't suggest that they should be in place, I merely suggest that they are. When I need to, I can turn them off - and that's what I try to do for book reviews on here, and definitely do for the times I've written for (student) newspapers. But I'm sure I'm not the only one open to these foibles. They certainly don't mean my mind can't be changed, but they push it in a certain direction.

A Month in the Country proved to be heading in the right direction from the off. I experienced a certain Uninformed Decision setback when I discovered the book was from 1980, and thus not my period of ease, but this proved immaterial to my enjoyment of the short, largely-autobiographical novel. Tom Birkin arrives by train to a rural community in the north of England, hired by a reluctant Rev. Mr. Keach to uncover and restore a medieval mural on a church wall. Nearby, Charles Moon (like Tom, a war veteran) is digging for the grave of an ancestor of the church's patroness. The process is slow, and the narrative winds along with Tom, exploring his relationships with the other villagers, and Moon, and a gentle passage of discovery. The most interesting scene is that when Tom visits the vicar and his amiable wife, Alice, only to discover their monstrous and secluded vicarage seems to alter both their personalities. Like the rest of the novel, this is shown subtly and calmly, but is a fascinating glimpse into one facet of the village, which could be explored much further. Even without all my preconceptions, this is one to look out for.


  1. Simon, I think that A Month in the Country is pure magic! The atmosphere of the setting places it much earlier in time.

  2. You keep turning up books I want to read again. This one does have a lovely cover, looks so inviting.

  3. I'm going to have to think for a while about what causes this sort of response in general, but the fact that you chose to write like this about 'A Month in the Country' brought all sorts of memories back about this specific book. I remember the novel being short-listed for the Booker and that particular year Penguin (I think) made all the short-list available in paperback before the award was made. I was still at school, I think, anyway I could afford more than one even in paperback, but this was the one I had to have. There was something about the subject matter, the time period, the music of the language on the first page that just insisted that I buy it - and I never regretted it.

  4. Was a film or TV series made of the book because it sounds very familiar?
    I agree with you about the cover and the title. Don't you think the title makes the book sound as if it should have been written by E M Forster?
    And,she says starting her sentence with a conjunction, did I spot the final sentence of your post ending with a preposition? Tut tut.

  5. Hi Simon,

    So glad to see a review of this here. I read A Month in the Country and As I walked out one midsummer morning in high school and the plots merged somewhat in my head. Now I have got it straight again:) so thanks very much!


  6. To be fair,if it's second-hand, hardback and has lost its dust cover, I am also more inclined to want to like it...


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