The Reading Room

A Time and A Place for Books?

Can reading time and location make a difference?…

I was recently wondering why my favourite novel by John Le Carré is The Honourable Schoolboy (Hodder 1977) For many, including the late Christopher Hitchens, it is not his best and I would probably agree with that,  but what this book represents to me is the idea that a ‘great’ book can be one without being ‘great’.

Much of Le Carré’s book is set in Hong Kong, it was the author’s chance to break convention with Cold War Europe and set the scenes in an all together more exotic location and escape the drabness of 1970s Britain and the Eastern Bloc. Given the location, I made it my holiday read for a trip to Singapore some fifteen or more years ago and I was immediately taken with it. For me, there is something, when it is written well about the Far East and the endless possibilities it offers both author and reader in a sense of wondrous escapism.

Obviously a holiday allows us to relax and sink deeper into a book than perhaps our everyday lives would usually allow us but can location make a difference? Reading Le Carré or more especially Anthony Burgess and his epic Malayan Trilogy in its relative location can lend a different perspective, and for me that was almost certainly the case. It is has to be easier to relate to the place when in situ and more especially considering the time of a books original publication.

Opposite is the artwork for Playboy magazine’s original serialisation of The Honourable Schoolboy and for most of us living in Britain in 1977 the island of Hong Kong was the stuff of exotic fantasy. Now one can travel there relatively cheaply but back then it was a distant dream. It is certainly true that a book can offer the reader a real sense of escape but can location make a book better than it actually is?

Perhaps the reason so many standard thrillers in airport shops sell so well is that, like a Greek wine, they offer us a quick and easy thrill with the change of scenery acting as a mood enhancer. I know from previous holidays when I have run out of books to read and bought such a book to fill the void that whilst I enjoyed it to a degree it wouldn’t be something I would usually buy in the UK.  Having reread The Honourable  Schoolboy twice or more in England I still enjoyed it but in hindsight was it because my brain was recalling a happy time when I first read it?

I find it an interesting theory but I am also a firm believer in anti-book snobbery, I have never bought into the ‘bubble’ which tells us that because it is a Salman Rushdie novel, for example, it is therefore brilliant and be dammed anyone who likes a Vatican mystery. I like to judge a book on two levels, if it merits such a dissection that is. Did I enjoy it? and was it well written? I enjoyed reading The Honourable Schoolboy and will doubtless do so again but was it well written? In comparison to his earlier books in the Smiley/Karla series, not  especially.

Whatever your choice of forthcoming holiday read, I hope you enjoy it!

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