A trick to reading only 5-star books
Of the 17 books I’ve read in 2015 so far, I scored seven with 5 stars. Of the past seven, six. Only Ashlee Vance’s thorough biography of Elon Musk missed a few eloquent eye-openers to reach the level of 5-star biographies. Lawrence in Arabia, Scott Anderson’s biography of T.E. Lawrence, did score 5 stars. H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald’s profound autobiography, deserved 6. Perhaps slightly biased, I also gave my friend Pepijn Reeser’s original biography of Desi Bouterse 5 stars.
An interesting fact I like to talk about in my future audiences sessions is how people in the past few years generally seem to read less books. Generally, there is a decline, apart from the cohort of avid readers (21+ books annually), which is growing. Binge-reading is on the rise; a literary divide in the making. And, as reading is attributed with positive side-effects ranging from increased empathy to having more to talk about with the strangers you now care about, lots of other divides as well.
I think there is a trick to reading more 5-star books, and the trick is twofold.
Part one of the trick echoes through Mark Vanhoenacker’s magnificent Skyfaring (5 stars): we appreciate what we recognise. If you read more, you recognise more, and will appreciate what you read more. Skyfaring is a case in point. A wonderfully written homage to air travel, it doesn’t worry about spending a chapter on the poetry of way finding in the air. The book is not elitist – not at all! – but such a chapter needs more practice than, say, the latest vampire novel.
Part two of the trick is context. Although I would go to the end of the world to defend H is for Hawk as a modern classic, before I started reading the book I wondered ‘why?’. I’m not interested in hawking, usually don’t care about autobiographies and am currently not particularly interested in books from the old, developed world. For me, the book lacked context. The book was saved by being utterly brilliant. Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land, a history of Israel that I can only compare in scale and emotion to Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness, for me was the exact opposite. Of course I had to read this book to prepare for my upcoming journey. The context was super clear.
A while back I spent some time at an airport bookshop with a friend. We recommended books to each other. Have you read this? What do you recommend while we wait for The Mirror and the Light? What’s your favourite political biography? We were creating context.
I’ve been toying with the idea of this trick for a while. If books get better when you read more books, and when you read them in context, wouldn’t it be wonderful to develop a context creating machine that encourages people to read, like books better, read more, etc.?
For now this machine is called Book Play Club, and I hope to launch near the end of this year. Until then, you’ll have to do with the trick to read only 5-star books.