Projects · Reading

On reading every Booker Prize winner

Last night, around 10.30pm, I finished reading “A Brief History of Seven Killings”, Marlon James’s 2015 Booker Prize-winning novel. This means that I have read every Booker Prize winner. As I have written elsewhere, the words “I have read” mean that my eyes were open and they passed across every word on every line on every page, or in this case every word on every line on every screen. I do have a “vinyl” copy of the book, in paperback, but the print is tiny and instead read most of it on my Kindle and on the Kindle App on my Mac Book Pro and netbook, depending on what was to hand. What I remember about this book, and all of its predecessors, will be different from the things that you, or other people, might remember.

Over the last month I have also read the two previous winners, “The Luminaries” by Eleanor Catton (all 832 pages of it) and “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” by Richard Flanagan. All three books are set in countries that I have never visited (Jamaica, Australia, Burma and New Zealand) and involve characters doing things that I have never done (murder, drugs, gay sex, working on the Burma Death Railway as a prisoner of war, prospecting for gold).

Back in the 1990s I looked at the list of Booker winners and realized that I had never read any of them. One summer, when I made time to read a few books, I worked my way through a few of them: “Paddy Clarke Ha-ha-ha”, “Schindler’s Ark”, “Remains of the Day”, “Rites of Passage”. That autumn I accompanied my mother on a coach trip to Rome. I have never suffered from travel sickness and was able to read most of the time we were on the road, including “Midnight’s Children” in two or three days, on the road in France and Italy.

Over the last two decades catching up on Booker Prize winners has been like catching up on Oscar winners. It’s something I have done every few years, but only in the last five years have I ever “completed the set”. Both “projects” were harder to complete in the days before online retailers could supply almost everything. My copy of “Something to answer for” by PH Newby (the first Booker winner) appears to be “print-on-demand” rather than the kind of thing you’ll find in a bookshop, and I wrote on my Oscars page about tracking down DVDs of now-obscure movies that won Best Supporting Actor and Actress Oscars.

The first time I was up-to-date with all the Booker winners was in 2011, a year when I read hard-to-find books like Stanley Middleton’s “Holiday” (1974, joint winner with Nadine Gordimer’s “The Conservationist”), John Berger’s “G” (1972) and David Storey’s “Saville” (1976). I also read that year’s winner (Julian Barnes’s “The Sense of an Ending”) the night after it won the prize (between 9pm and midnight; you can read this one in 3 hours).

The following year Barnes’s book was selected for the Book Club organized by school mums at my children’s school. I was invited along, after a chat with one of them revealed that I had actually read it. It was the first and only time that a school dad attended the Book Club. I imagined that they would discuss the book but the hostess hadn’t finished it, and didn’t want us to spoil the ending. There was an element of 20 Questions about it, while she tried to guess what the twist in the last 20 pages might have been. I suggested that she just take 20 minutes to go and finish the book so she wouldn’t have to guess, but she didn’t, and before long conversation turned to electrolysis and other forms of hair removal. I had nothing to contribute to the discussion.

During the evening I mentioned to one of the other Book Clubbers that I didn’t read as much as I would like to, but at least tried to keep up with Booker winners. She asked which was my favourite and I couldn’t answer immediately. I don’t have one. I do have a least favourite, and although I usually try to “accentuate the positive”, will share that one with you: “The Gathering” by Anne Enright (2007). It was the least enjoyable reading experience of my life, and if the book hadn’t won the prize I would have given up in the first 50 pages. My wife’s sister felt the same way about Howard Jacobson’s “The Finkler Question” (2010).

In the interests of finishing with something positive, here are five that I would recommend most strongly: “Wolf Hall” (2009) and “Bring up the Bodies” (2012), “Moon Tiger” (1987), “The Ghost Road” (1995) and “Schindler’s Ark” (1982).

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