Monday, July 2, 2012

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

            I have been posting the weekly comments that make up Reid’s Reader for exactly one year now. The first posting was on 29 June 2011.

            As I write, the counter [which you can see at the foot of the blog] has just topped 20,000 hits. We took a three-week break over the 2011 Christmas season, so dividing 20,000 by 49 we get an average weekly hit rate of 408. But this is a little misleading. It took us a couple of initial months to rise above an average weekly hit rate of about 300, and now the site is usually enjoying a hit rate of between 500 and 600 weekly. And rising. Much to my own surprise, some postings have proven more popular than this. So far, the posting that stirred the greatest interest was the one featuring detailed comment on Mary Edmond-Paul’s edition of Robin Hyde’s autobiographical writings. Over 900 people accessed it in one week.

            Still, I assume that now a minimum of about 500 people look at this site each week.

            What does this mean in terms of actual readers?

            I know that a hit can mean no more than a passing squizz at something. Curiosity will check a site for a matter of moments just to see what it is like, and then move on. So I’m assuming there’s a core of about 300 serious readers of the site each week, as opposed to momentary tourists.

            This is, of course, quite a respectable readership when compared with the average readership of, say, a newspaper’s books pages. While tens of thousands of readers might buy a New Zealand newspaper each week, there’s no guarantee that any more than a fraction of them look at the books pages (or any other feature section). And there’s no guarantee that even they read all the book reviews on display. So about 300 serious, and 200 casual, readers per week is pretty good going, especially when a number of the books featured are fairly highbrow. Let’s say it’s the same as a crowded lecture theatre – and considerably more than those who would read a book review in a learned refereed journal.

            At least that is what I tell myself.

            So I regard myself as editor and chief writer of a small-circulation magazine.

            The purpose of Reid’s Reader was, and still is, to provide more detailed comment on new books than will appear in the average newspaper or magazine. (I am aware that NZ Books, Landfall and sometimes the NZ Listener still provide book reviews of sufficient length to be truly analytical.) I am unrestrained by an editor. I can burble on for as long as I wish. I particularly enjoy the freedom to quote at length from new books if it proves a point. And I never run the author interviews or cut-and-pastes of publishers’ publicity material which pose as reviews in some publications.

            But I do respect readers enough to know that I cannot burble on forever.

            I am still a regular contributor to newspaper and magazine review sections, and I know there is a place for the brief, pithy review that gives an impression of a book without detailed analysis. That is what the press generally provides. However, I am also aware that the brevity of the average book review in the press can make for glibness and superficiality. There should be a place for reviews that provide more detail and more analysis without drifting into the esoteric critic-speak of the academic publish-or-perish journal. I hope this is what I am supplying, although naturally there are some new books which do not strike me as calling for really extensive review.

            I do not always burble on.

            You might have noticed that well over 50% of the new books dealt with here are New Zealand books. This is by intention. Reid’s Reader promotes New Zealand literature, but also accepts that New Zealand readers spend much of their time with American, British and other English-language material. That makes up the other 30% of books featured on Reid’s Reader.

            The second self-imposed task of Reid’s Reader is to remind readers that not everything worth reading is necessarily new. Hence the “Something Old” section. This I usually find quite fun to write, as I genuinely do have over twenty years worth of notebooks with comment and quotation from everything I’ve read (including cuttings of my old reviews).

            These I can cannibalise at need.

            Most often I try to relate “Something Old” to the general subject matter of the week’s book reviewed in “Something New”. If, for example, I give an account of a crime thriller with a sordid setting among street people and down-and-outs, it gives me the opportunity to consider Jack London’s People of the Abyss, an account of urban degradation written a century ago. If I consider in “Something New” the letters of the dyspeptic Evangelical William Colenso, I have fun by considering in “Something Old” Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean, which represents exactly the sort of religious feeling Colenso would have hated. Frank Sargeson’s letters lead me to consider Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Pamela. The personal writings of Robin Hyde, when she was under psychiatric care, connect with Kay Redfield Jamison’s book on the relationship between artistic creativity and mental illness. And so on and so on.

            However, sometimes I am not able to find such ready links and connections. Sometimes “Something Old” simply says “Here is something worth reading, regardless of how it connects with anything else.” And sometimes it says “Here is something that is not worth reading, but it does reveal the popular attitudes at the times it was written.” That’s the historian in me speaking. There is fun in seeing what old best-selling trash says about the tastes of people in 1950  or 1850. [Look up the reference to “John Buchan” on the index at right.] There is also fun in taking on and challenging books that have often been considered classics. [Look up the references to Conrad’s Victory and Thoreau’s Walden.]

            Without doubt, the most difficult part of producing Reid’s Reader is keeping up with my own self-imposed deadlines. I do actually read the books I review for “Something New”, you know. (The devil in me points out that the same can’t always be said of all book reviewers.) Having read them, I then have to produce a full and coherent analysis. It can be quite an ask every week. “Something Old” is less of a chore, but then we come to “Something Thoughtful”. I still do sometimes produce longer essays that ruminate on historical or literary matters, but as often now I like to take a quick jab at things or quote a poem in full. I hope readers find this acceptable.

            Highpoints of producing Reid’s Reader so far have been when authors of works considered have responded to what I have written with on-line comments. I was chuffed that the historian Paul Preston added a largely approving comment to my detailed consideration of his The Spanish Holocaust [see index]. Likewise I enjoyed it when Tony Ballantyne mildly disagreed with my interpretation of a lecture he had given [see “Bards Bound by Their Time and Pace”.] There was also the interest of an on-line comment made by a relative of the thwarted genius William James Sidis, as considered in the book The Prodigy.

            However, while the site causes a number of people to push the “Like” button, I’d be happier if more people left comments. Feedback is important to me and Reid’s Reader sometimes aims to provoke debate. I wrote about the British monarchy as I did last week partly with the aim of putting bees in bonnets.

            It remains for me to thank the publishers who entrust me with their newest wares. I also have to thank my niece Sophia Egan-Reid, who compensates for my ignorance of technical matters by actually posting on this site the material I write each week. I may be able to read and write a lot, but when it comes to how cyberspace actually operates, I come very much into the category of Under-informed Old Fart.

            Comments please.

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