Tuesday 15 October 2019

A selection box of literary treats

In this final week of Christmas preparations, I have vacillated between ultra-efficiency and failure. I baked two Christmas cakes but missed the last-post deadline for sending greetings cards. I compiled a detailed list of gift books, matched to friends in the way that a restaurant matches wines to dishes, but I failed to locate all of the books. I did, however, manage to stumble across the perfect present for readers as a direct result of this.

Browsing through Dublin's book shops, it was gratifying to see them so busy, considering the lure of the less-crowded Amazon.com. Sure, there are downsides to real-life book shopping, like when the assistant tells you their database says they have three copies of the book you're looking for, but, sadly, they can't locate even one.

It might be in the Humour aisle, or you could try Biography, or most unexpectedly of all, the Mind, Body & Spirit section. Suddenly, Amazon looks most attractive.

However, I persisted and, finding myself in the non-fiction section, facing the periodicals, I was heartened to see Granta, The Paris Review, The Dublin Review, The Stinging Fly, McSweeney's and more lined up neatly beside each other.

And suddenly it struck me that these literary pick'n'mixes are treasure troves of hidden delights -- just the ticket for book lovers.

First of all, periodicals and anthologies suit our times perfectly. It's no secret our attention spans are getting shorter in our world of internet snippets and instant gratification. I sometimes get distracted before I reach the end of 140-character tweets; what better reading material for the modern man or woman than a collection of short stories, memoirs, poems and essays?

Secondly, these periodicals also offer a solution to the dilemma of picking a book for someone and hoping they will like it. It's about as difficult a task as guessing what sort of underwear someone might like. When it comes to it, literary tastes are entirely subjective and even if you know what a person has read and liked in the past, it can leave you none the wiser as to what they may wish to read next.

It is for this very reason that Amazon's suggested reads for me make me howl with laughter. Just because I bought the new-writing anthology Best American Sex Writing does not mean I would like to buy a sex guide, no, thank you very much.

This is where a collection like Granta or The Paris Review or, on home ground, The Stinging Fly or The Dublin Review, really come into their own. They're the adult version of a selection box.

Take the latest edition of Granta, particularly good value for money in my opinion, with offerings from giants of literature like Paul Auster, Stephen King, Don DeLillo and Will Self. Its theme is horror and that spans from real-life horror in Paul Auster's essay on the death of his mother to fictional terror from the master himself, Stephen King.

In this season's Paris Review, you will find two poems from Meghan O'Rourke, which you will read in the same amount of time it would take to read a few tweets but will percolate through your mind for considerably longer; an elegiac poem from our very own Paul Muldoon; and a collection of photobooth photographs taken in the 1930s.

This winter's The Stinging Fly is a particularly lovely collection of writers working on the theme of New York and includes a piece from Irish author Colum McCann and an intriguing handful of poems from fellow Irishman Nick Laird (also known as Mr Zadie Smith).

Meanwhile, in The Dublin Review, David Ralph takes his lead from Barbara Ehrenreich and anchors this winter's edition with a piece on the world of positive thinking. Diverse topics and writers. . . and all for the price (or less) of a novel.

I don't think anyone would be disappointed to receive such an anthology as a Christmas gift. Chances are, between the poetry, prose, essays and interviews, the recipient will find something they love.

Having said that, as with the classic selection box, there will always be the metaphorical finger of Fudge left unwanted in the otherwise pillaged tray, long into January.

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