Chris's Books Page

Chris Harris's Books Page

Reading stuff? On paper? People still do that?

Oh yes, people still do that.

I read a lot of books, and this page is an attempt to share the sheer joy that doing so gives me with you. Enjoy—and please understand that I'm just expressing my personal tastes here. You're quite welcome to disagree!

To reiterate what I just wrote in the header: I do lot of reading. On average, I'll read more than sixty books each year and rather than taking them to the charity shop or putting them on eBay after I've finished reading them, I tend to hang on to them. I like living in a house where I am surrounded by books. I view my books as old friends that I've got to know well over the years, and it's nice to be able to turn to them whenever I feel like I need their company once again. In fact, it's fair to say that things have got a teensy bit out of control with regard to the number of books I have here in the house. How bad has it got? I have sets of shelves dedicated to specific subjects, that's how bad.

But I keep hold of them because I love re-reading books I thought I knew. As I get older, I have discovered that when I return to a book it will often speak to my experience in different ways. The first time I read anything by the late, great American writer P. J. O'Rourke, for example, I hated it. I'm ashamed to admit now that I didn't read anything else of his for another fifteen years. But when I finally got round to reading him again, I enjoyed the experience so much that I immediately set about tracking down as much of his writing as I could find. This is a typical reaction for me. I get enthused by writers; I like the insights that good writing can provide into another person's mind.

And if at this point you find yourself wondering whether I am the sort of person who will leaf through a dictionary for fun, then please rest assured that I am. It's so much more enjoyable looking things up in reference books (and I have an awful lot of those, too) than it is using the Internet, because the opportunity is always there to discover something unexpected just by turning to a random page. Serendipity is an important part of the reading experience for me.

Where do I find time to do any reading?

Simple: in the bath. I can get a good hour's worth of quality reading in, relax, and get clean all at the same time. All right, there's the occasional hazard of ending up with a rather crinkly book (I'm now on my second copy of Arthur Koestler's The Act of Creation) but it's a great way of recovering after a stressful day, apart from anything else.

Where do I get books from?

The library was a regular haunt when I was younger. As a teenager in West Wickham I remember the head librarian being rather mystified when he noticed that my library card had exactly the same name on it as his did. I'd borrow the maximum number of books that I could and I'd change them once a fortnight (by which time I would have read them all). I highly recommend joining your local library, if where you live is still fortunate enough to have one. When I first moved to where I live now, there used to be a mobile library that visited the village once a week, but the council axed the service many years ago. These days, I buy an awful lot of books second-hand, at the aforementioned charity shops or from World of Books, who are simultaneously a considerable source of temptation and a great help in tracking down the more obscure publications I've read about or heard someone mention that I suddenly decide I absolutely need to read. If I'm buying a new book, my first choice is to go to independent booksellers such as The Cotswold Book Room up the road from me in Wotton-Under-Edge. Having said that, I'm also a great fan of Hive for buying new books (and CDs and movies, too) whilst supporting local businesses into the bargain.

As the number of books in this house grew and grew, I finally caved in and bought myself an Amazon Kindle in the mistaken belief that this would rein in my physical book-buying habit. It did no such thing, of course. I am still working my way through a stockpile of e-books that I bought for 99p as Kindle Daily Deals. However, Amazon's behaviour towards their staff (which has resulted in several fatalities in recent years) and their brutal resistance to allowing their staff to unionise has completely put me off using the company for anything at all these days. If I do add anything to my still-half-empty Kindle, I do so by sourcing eBooks from independent suppliers such as Hive and then using a useful app called Calibre to transfer them to it as well as managing and backing up my library.

I no longer use Amazon's subsidiary Goodreads to track my reading progress, either. After the Illinois incident I linked to above, I deleted my account (and—sadly—all the book reviews I'd written there). Instead, I decided that I would create content for my own website rather than Amazon's and since the beginning of 2023 I've been reviewing every book I read. I ended up reading a grand total of seventy-six books in 2023 and you can see my progress in 2024 here.

I'm convinced that reading so many books (and the fact that I started reading when I was very young) has been one of the main shaping factors in my life. Yes, I probably should have spent more time going out and socialising with friends when I was a kid, but I can't imagine living in a house that doesn't have large quantities of books—preferably on a wide range of subjects. And if I walk into a house and see books like Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable on the bookshelf, I know I've found somewhere interesting...

Some of the books I've accumulated

Until I hit my forties, I hadn't read that much generic fiction—not to put too fine a point on it, if I was reading stuff that was "made up," so to speak, I tended to go the whole hog and read science fiction. I've read so much SF that I've dealt with it as a separate subject below, so more on that in a minute.

What changed in my late thirties was that I switched jobs, and suddenly I was flying across the Atlantic at least once a month. I fell into the habit of buying at least one of those brick-sized blockbusters that you always see on sale at airport bookshops before each flight, and I would usually have finished one of them by the time the aircraft landed. But I would probably have been half-watching the in-flight movie as well; if you asked me what the plot of either of them was a couple of weeks later, I wouldn't always have been able to tell you. Many of those best-sellers turned out to be less than memorable, particularly once I started to notice the craft involved in writing (and its absence). So I started to investigate work by "serious" writers and developed a love of literary fiction.

The older I get, the broader my tastes become. I've realised that I can find something to entertain me in almost any book I start reading. I've encountered very few published works which were so awful that I gave up on them (and I won't embarrass the authors of those works here by naming them). I've learned the value of paying attention to what people I know are reading. Through recommendations by friends, I've discovered the work of Angela Carter, Thomas Pynchon, Dorothy Porter, Jorge Luis Borges, and many others and I've enjoyed their work every bit as much as any of the hefty "blockbuster" works by Michael Crichton, Thomas Harris, or Stephen King with which they share a shelf. I've read Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, Conan Doyle and H. G. Wells; I've developed a taste for Hemingway and I've even made it all the way through Joyce's Finnegans Wake (although I had to rope in Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson for help). I prefer Craig Thomas to Tom Clancy, but as Craig Thomas used to be my English teacher when I was at school in Stafford, I'm probably biased. I got into the work of Len Deighton through the Harry Palmer movies; I've read enough of Haruki Murakami's work to have become picky about who translated it into English. I am a bibliophile, and proud of it.

What is it about a book that I enjoy? For me, the memorable works are those that completely immerse me in the experience. The books I love are the ones where I suddenly realise I've been soaking in the bath for three hours and the water has gone cold, but I need to read one more chapter before I do anything else, because things are just beginning to get exciting...

A brief diversion, at this point: The Old Grey Whistle Test's David Hepworth tells a story about Don van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart. The Captain, down on his luck many years ago, was reduced to going door to door in California selling vacuum cleaners. One day, so the story goes, he knocked on a door and when it opened, the good Captain was amazed to find himself standing face to face with none other than the aforementioned Aldous Huxley. Too ashamed to go through with his sales patter when faced with such a literary legend, the great Captain fixed Huxley firmly in the eye, indicated his merchandise, and proclaimed: "Sir, this sucks!"

Where were we? Oh yes. Mere blockbuster status isn't enough to convince me that a work of fiction is necessarily art. There has to be more than "just" a good story for me to really enjoy a novel. For instance, I read all of the Harry Potter books, and while J. K. Rowling spins a good yarn, the way it's presented doesn't catch my imagination alight in the same way that Terry Pratchett does. In the same way, I don't like things to be too predictable. If I can figure out which way a plot will turn and it does just that, I get disappointed. So, I like books in which the writer surprises me, or out-thinks me. I like being dropped into a story where I have no idea what is going on, and where the author doesn't throw huge slabs of exposition at me to make me feel comfortable. I am not a fan of Dan Brown's writing but absolutely adore the craft of writers like Nick Harkaway (who has completely outfoxed me on many occasions) or the late, great Diana Wynn Jones, or William Gibson. Which brings me on to our next subject...

I am a huge, huge fan of science fiction.

I have come to acknowledge my geekdom, and fully realise that when it comes to SF I could easily be mistaken for a major nerd.

Blame it all on the artist Chris Foss, if you like. Back in the 1970's he painted a series of amazing airbrush covers for the Panther Books reissue of Edward Elmer "Doc" Smith's great (if profoundly dated) Lensman series of novels. "Aha," I thought, "This looks like it might be interesting..." In case you haven't read them, let's just say that they are 1930's space opera at its very best. Spaceships leap across entire galaxies in a single bound while they fire ravening space rays of awesome destructive power, and they are all crewed by two-fisted heroes of unstoppable machismo. Now, the author's white-bread views on gender are more than a little cringey but when you're barely in your teens, this was irresistible stuff. I was hooked instantly.

I've been reading SF ever since. After "Doc" Smith I went on to the standards—Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and then Frank Herbert—and branched out from there. A friend of mine in Stafford gave me a copy of Larry Niven's classic novel Ringworld which was not only high-powered, "hard" SF (which doesn't mean it's difficult to read; it means that the author tried very hard to obey most, if not all, of the known laws of physics) and I realised that this was a genre I really needed to explore deeply. Again, seventies views on gender in Ringworld are more than a little cringe-inducing for modern readers, and the author's views on several subjects will have you raising your eyebrows, but I lapped up the spectacular levels of invention and as an early example of the Big Dumb Object (BDO) trope in science fiction, it's a difficult book to beat.

As I mentioned just now, I'm the sort of person who will go back and read a book again—as I get older and accumulate more experiences of my own, I find that this profoundly affects my reading of the text. Try revisiting an old favourite from your childhood again (preferably something you haven't gone back to in 20 years or so) and see whether your perception of the story stays the same. I bet you it doesn't. A case in point is Ringworld; when I read it for about the dozenth time recently, I found myself examining the ways in which the main characters interact with each other much more critically and as a result I really noticed how thin the writing is when it comes to this sort of thing. Niven wrote it when he was in his very early thirties; he was roughly half the age that I am now, so perhaps it's unfair to call him out on issues regarding plausible relationships or believable characters but if Ringworld's hero Louis Wu isn't entirely one-dimensional, it's primarily because his three principal traits seem to be being bored, being smug, and being horny (you get the distinct impression he'd shag anything that moves). He's supposed to be two hundred years old, but he's written like an immature teenager. Most of the book's supporting cast are painted with even broader brush strokes. Despite this, I loved the Known Space books. I still do.

As another aside, I've tried my hand at writing a novel more than once (I used to regularly participate in National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo every November) and it's a great way to develop a better appreciation of the mechanics of the Novel with a capital N (and, indeed, the Screenplay with a capital S). The advice to "write what you know" is an excellent starting point. The older I get, the more adept I get in spotting when a writer is bullshitting me. I still find myself sighing in exasperation at the appearance of the Architect in the third of the Matrix movies, because you only have two real options when you're writing a superintelligent character like him: you either pick a real person with the highest IQ that you can and try to create a pastiche of them, or you make the character utterly impenetrable in both word and deed—which can be done most effectively by reducing his or her speeches and interactions with other characters to the absolute minimum (Joe Straczynski's memorable creation Ambassador Kosh in Babylon 5 is a perfect example of this second approach done right). What you should never, ever do is give the character lines that make them sound like they just swallowed a thesaurus whole. Sadly, this is what the Wachowskis did.

When we moved to London, I used to go to book signings at Forbidden Planet. This was back in the days when they only had the single shop at 23 Denmark Street. I still have signed copies of work by Larry Niven, Frank Herbert, A. E. Van Vogt, Michael Moorcock, Douglas Adams, and James Herbert, amongst others. Genre bookshops like Forbidden Planet and its competitor Dark They Were and Golden-Eyed over in Soho were the motherlode for me. I couldn't enter either shop without buying at least one new paperback. Slave to marketing that I was, whether or not I selected an untried author depended strongly on the cover art. Apart from Chris Foss, those were the halcyon days of (amongst others) Jim Burns, Frank Frazetta, Boris Vallejo, Michael Whelan, Tim White, and Rowena Morrill (and wasn't everyone surprised to find out that Saddam Hussein was a collector of Morrill's paintings). As a result, I bought more than one howlingly bad hack novel, but I also discovered more and more top-flight work. When I started my first full time job, a lot of my income was spent on books. Pretty soon my shelves were groaning under the weight of books by Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Disch, Samuel (Chip) Delaney, Harry Harrison, Alfred Bester, and (joy of joys) Philip K. Dick. It's all wonderful, wonderful stuff.

Since the mid-1980s my go-to author for showing me the world in a way that makes it refreshingly weird is William Gibson. If you haven't read Neuromancer, Mona Lisa Overdrive, or Count Zero, then you've missed one of the turning points in western literature in the last half century, I believe. And his later novels, moving towards a more mainstream setting, are even better. His most recent work, Agency is highly recommended. It's a prequel of sorts to his previous novel The Peripheral which has recently been serialised on Prime; it's an angry, terrifying look at the world's present day problems, framed by extrapolating late-stage capitalism into a truly monstrous vision of its future. The best science fiction is always about the circumstances of the present in which it is written; Agency presents a slightly more optimistic view of our reality in which Trump lost the 2016 election and Brexit never happened. I'm sure that the third book in the current trilogy, Jackpot (which Bill is writing at the moment) will find an entertainingly different perspective to examine the Covid pandemic. It will be weird, and I will love it.

In the 90's, the Americans (and Canadians) more or less took over the field, with folks like Greg Bear and Kim Stanley Robinson producing memorable mainstream SF works. These days, British SF is undergoing a bit of a renaissance, with Nick Harkaway as well as Alistair Reynolds, Jeff Noon, Ian McDonald, Dave Hutchinson, M John Harrison, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Emma Newman, Paul Cornell, Paul McAuley and Gareth Powell (to name a few) all producing stunning work. And, of course, there was the late, great Iain M Banks. You have to read his novels if you have any interest in SF at all. In my next life, I'd like to work for The Culture.

If my ramblings here have whetted your appetite and you want a proper history of science fiction rather than all this drivel, may I point you in the direction of the late, great Brian Aldiss's excellent work Trillion Year Spree?

If you'd asked me thirty years ago what proportion of non-fiction books I'd be buying as a grown-up, I'd probably have suggested a figure less than five per cent. In fact, probably one in five books I buy these days is non-fiction. Good lord, I even buy text books in a recreational context...

With all the SF I get through, perhaps non-fiction is a way of keeping my feet on the ground. One of my heroes was the physicist Richard P. Feynman. I still have a 3-volume set of his Lectures on Physics from my days at university. His autobiographical essays, Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman and What do you care what other people think? give a tantalisingly brief insight into a huge and somewhat eccentric intellect. I also have Ralph Leighton's biography of Feynman. Heck, I even have a CD of folk songs from Tuva that Ralph Leighton curated. Feynman worked at Los Alamos during the Second World War and, famously, demonstrated the frozen O-ring problem at the Challenger inquiry press conference.

Thinking about it, a lot of my non-fiction reading is science-related. I've even seen arguments conducted through books: try reading Godel, Escher Bach by Douglas Hofstadter and then read The Emperor's New Mind by Roger Penrose to see what I mean.

On the other hand, I also collect books about the paranormal, flying saucers, lake monsters, bigfoot and so on. Classifying most of these works as non-fiction can be a bit of a stretch. I'm fascinated by Colin Wilson's work, and have copies of every book of his I've been able to track down. I've been a subscriber to the Fortean Times for years, and have copies of Charles Fort's books. Like Fort, I don't necessarily believe everything I read; in fact, as I get older and more cynical I am growing more and more skeptical. The idea that we share our planet with visiting aliens and spooks is unlikely to say the least, but because of this I find the way people react to tales about such things absolutely fascinating. In fact, that's where the fun in reading about such stuff lies—so long as you can view the decline of critical thinking skills as being amusing and not just downright depressing.

Having spent many years surfing the net before it metastised into the web and having lived in America around the time that Gulf Breeze in Florida became a magnet for flying saucer enthusiasts, I have concluded that a sizeable proportion of the world's population cannot distinguish fiction from reality. Television channels like The History Channel or Blaze encourage all sorts of fantastical beliefs which are never challenged or critiqued. Given the sort of programmes shown on these channels, I suspect that it won't come as much of a surprise to you when I say that I once followed an exchange on an Internet forum where someone vehemently insisted that they had witnessed what they described as "documentary footage" of an experiment performed at the tail end of World War Two which allegedly involved sending a US Navy vessel into another dimension and I immediately realised that what they had actually seen was a dodgy 1980's science fiction B-movie called The Philadelphia Experiment (and don't get me started on the chequered career of Carl Meredith Allen, who made the whole thing up in the first place...) I'd read the books of George Adamski before I was ten years old, and I didn't believe them, even then. I have an early edition of Truman Bethurum's legendarily inept account of meeting sexy female extraterrestrials, Aboard a Flying Saucer, which proudly proclaims on its frontispiece,

(Non-fiction. A true story of personal experience..)

Of course it is, Truman. And what's with the two full stops?

I read a lot of biographies and autobiographies, and not just those about (or by) scientists. Musicians feature heavily—to the extent that I now have a separate set of shelves just for books in that category. I've been working my way through a lot of gems in the genre including Mark E Smith's Renegade, Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace, David Byrne's Why Music Works, Brian Eno's A Year With Swollen Appendices and Devin Townsend's Only Half There. I enjoyed them all immensely.

One thing that I did not see coming, however, was that in 2022 I would end up making an appearance of my own in a mainstream work of non-fiction. Look on page 52 of Robin Ince's glorious account of speaking at more than 100 independent booksellers throughout the UK, Bibliomaniac, and you'll find me there. In the process of buying even more books, of course.