Judge James McConnachie on being a (book) lover
In the morning, and sometimes in the night as well, I burrow in my cardboard box again and surface, usually, with not just one book but two or three – if I can bear to limit it to that. This, the most intensive reading phase of the Samuel Johnson Prize, feels like a certain kind of holiday. Choice becomes almost oppressive. Where to next? Do I want to loll sensitively by the banks of some nature writing this morning, or stroll through the wunderkammer of a refined cultural history? Should I take my seat at Cabinet with the cast of a political biography or roll my tanks across the massive landscape of military history?
Like holidays, there is also the sense, from the very beginning, of an approaching end: if I’m going to see it all, before it’s time to go home, I’m going to have to work at it. So my choice of book becomes doubly important. I might feel like eighteenth-century cultural history now, before breakfast, but will I be able to stick at it right through until lunchtime? I can’t simply follow my desires, I have to read pragmatically.
Speaking of desires, I am finding that the danger is falling in love.
Maybe the judging process at this stage – while we’re drawing up a longlist – is less like a grand tour and more like dating. Or simply living. When you meet someone who you just know is going to be a friend (or a lover), you want to slow things down so you can relish the evolving relationship – and maybe lay it down to memory better too. You want to give them the time they deserve, not rush into the unconsciousness of intimacy.
It’s the same with a really good book. As soon as it reveals itself – which is usually very quickly – you treat it differently. You pause to reflect. You reread. You flick back to compare. You lay it down at moments when it really moves you. And you certainly want to roll the prose around in the mouth, not shovel it down for the brute nutrition it contains. (I’m deliberately avoiding the obvious lovemaking metaphor here).
My problem is that I have too many genuinely loveable books in my cardboard box, and I cannot afford to dwell on them – or not yet. There isn’t time. I have to somehow hold off that emotion, until we’ve got a longlist, at least. To extend the love analogy, I have to behave like some kind of Casanova, tasting and relishing but never yet committing. I don't mean acting like the common, narcissistic type of Casanova, who’s only really making love to endless versions of himself, but like the rarer, better kind: the one who just seems to have a bottomless delight in people.
At this stage of the judging process, just before we draw up a longlist, I need to be that kind of lover. I need to take each book for what it is in itself, not for what it offers me. (Sometimes, that’s hard: I find the more sensitive and sensuous type of nature writing utterly indigestible, like being forcefed oysters by a madman who keeps pointing out imaginary pearls. But if it’s done well…) For now, I need to find what is beautiful, admirable and, to use an unfairly slighted word, worthy about every book in my box. When it comes to the shortlist, I’ll start letting myself fall in love.