With The Book Lover’s Companion: What to Read Next (Michal O’Mara Books Limited, 2013), deciding what to read will never be a dilemma again. Featuring a diverse selection culled from classics and popular fiction, this handy guide includes non-spoiler synopses, interesting discussion points and potential companion books with similar themes. Diverse selections include The Handmaid’s Tale, Things Fall Apart and We Need to Talk About Kevin. Author Lionel Shriver provides a quick-witted foreword about how loathsome it is to receive a terrible book recommendation and how this guide can save you.
I own a threadbare T-shirt that says, ‘Life’s too short to drink bad wine.’ An even savvier T-shirt would say, ‘Life’s too short to read bad books.’ There really should be a word for that particular resentment you feel after ploughing through hundreds of pages that didn’t pay off. A single reliable book recommendation can spare you hours of annoyance, impatience and disgust.
The Book Lovers’ Companion is like that one trustworthy friend upon whose taste you can pretty much rely. Dozens of my lifetime favorite reads appear in this guide, too many to itemize—although as a test I did check that one of my very, very favorite novels is indeed included (The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton). Usefully, this reference covers a wide range of both classics and popular fiction; you don’t want to read only one or the other, any more than you’d want to dine day after day on steak alone, or on nothing but summer pudding. While about a third of these entries I haven’t read myself, given the high quality of the selections that I have, I’m now putting the unread third on my private ‘to do’ list.
Though this guide is handy for individuals, it’s also aimed at book clubs—about which, among the cultural elite, I sometimes detect a tinge of condescension. Maybe they just feel left out—and, in comparison to regular book club denizens, poorly read. Surely it’s more stimulating to get together and talk about Kazuo Ishiguro’s exquisite paean to servitude and emotional repression, The Remains of the Day, than to discuss kitchen remodelling, football scores or the state of the FTSE 100.
Book clubs often bring disparate people together, of different ages, ethnicities and outlooks. They help members get to know each other—and themselves—with a depth that chit-chat about property prices can’t match. Was Anna Karenina really in love with Vronsky, or merely entranced by a romantic idea? You learn a lot about your own values when you try to reconcile sympathy for Yossarian’s flight from the insanity of air force life with a moral discomfort over any Allied soldier going AWOL in the Second World War. (Catch-22—hilarious, and if you haven’t devoured it already, a must-read.)
I consider the burgeoning popularity of book clubs one of the most encouraging social developments of recent times. Nothing delights me more in signing queues than when a boisterous cluster of readers declares that they had ‘one of the best book club meetings ever’ when discussing one of my novels. The claim consistently decodes: ‘We got into a huge fight.’ So the most fruitful selections for clubs aren’t necessarily books that everyone loves, but especially the ones about which members violently disagree.
True, I spotted three or four selections included here (I won’t say which) that I couldn’t bear. But that just means that, at a book club meeting, I’d go bug-eyed with denunciation, and meanwhile three other folks would rail that it was one of the finest books they’d ever read. Someone tell Tony Bennett—that’s entertainment.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Book Lover’s Companion: What to Read Next, published by Michael O’Mara Books Limited, 2013, and distributed by Trafalgar Square Publishers/IPG.