Book Review: The House of Silk

If you’ve been reading my blogs, you’ve probably gathered that I read a fair number of books. I often mean to review them as well, but I seldom get around to actually doing that. Mostly that’s because I leave off reviewing a book until I have time to “do it properly”, with an in-depth and considered review. Well, maybe it’s better to write a short and not-too-deeply-considered review rather than none at all! So I’m going to give that a try with The House of Silk.

The_House_of_Silk

The House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes Novel

I’m a great fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and I enjoy other writers’ attempts at creating new ones. Those attempts vary quite a lot in their style and quality. The House of Silk is a pretty good one in my opinion.

It’s by Anthony Horowitz, who has written a fair number of scripts for the Poirot TV series, and who created the Foyle’s War TV series, so has pretty good credentials with period mysteries. He was also approached and authorized by the Conan Doyle estate to write this novel, for what that’s worth.

The book is longer than the original Conan Doyle novels, and covers two interconnected cases, “The Man in the Flat Cap” and “The House of Silk”. That’s worth mentioning because it turned out that the “Flat Cap” part is very much along the lines of Conan Doyle stories, while the “House of Silk” has more in common with modern day crime stories.

All the usual elements of the Holmes world are present, and pretty nicely done. There’s Holmes and Watson in Baker Street, Lestrade, Mrs Hudson, Mycroft, the Baker Street Irregulars. The Irregulars play a pretty important part too.

For me the book’s biggest strength is how well it does the traditional Conan Doyle tropes. There are a few deductions that are as delightful and surprising as in the orignal stories, the voice of Watson is well captured, and the banter with Holmes is often very good too.

The biggest weakness is that Horowitz lets a lot of modern preoccupations into the book as well. His Watson has a lot more to say on the social conditions of Victorian London than the real Watson ever did, and seems pretty alien in doing it, like an outsider to his own time and place. The House of Silk mystery tries to be darker than the usual Conan Doyle stories, but in the end what is revealed is a pretty well-worn cliche in modern crime dramas, and I saw where that case was going a mile off.

Overall, this is well worth a read. Depending on why you read Holmes you might rate it anything from 3 stars to 5 stars. I like my Holmes traditional, and while I might be interested in social commentary if it had any new insights to offer, that didn’t apply here at all. So I feel I’m being on the generous side in rating it 4 stars. A solid effort, good overall, and excellent in parts.

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Why did Kindle boost my reading?

I used to read a fair number of books all through my life, but that started declining sometime in the last ten or so years. Then I got a Kindle, and that seemed to kick start my reading again. It seems I’m far from alone in either the decline or the Kindle effect.

I’ve been pondering why getting a Kindle might have made such a difference. A couple of theories I’ve heard don’t fit the bill for me personally.

  • The theory put forward by Alan Jacobs that he’s got used to doing things with his thumbs on mobile devices and the Kindle gives him that same thumb-twiddling fix didn’t seem particularly convincing to me. It’s not like I felt an impatience to fiddle with my fingers when I did read a paper book or magazine.

  • Many people attribute their drop in reading to a craving for incessantly checking email, social media etc, and say that the great benefit of Kindle is that you can’t do anything else with it but read. I can see how that could apply to other people, but it doesn’t apply to me very much. I’ve long since had habits of organizing myself to not be continually interrupted. For example my email isn’t set to ding me, I just go check it at certain times of day. And my mobile devices don’t even have Twitter on them. I do now read a lot on an iPad Mini as well as a Kindle, and I don’t find all the apps I have on the iPad to be particularly a distraction from reading.

Nevertheless, my book reading had dropped sharply over the years, and was revived again when I got a Kindle. So why?

Here are my speculations…

  • The new toy effect. It’s a natural thing that when you get a new “toy” you want to play with it to the fullest, put it through its paces, explore what you can do with it. When you get a new Kindle, that means grabbing a lot of diverse reading materials, and reading some of them. If you’d fallen out of the habit of regular reading, getting a Kindle is likely to get you back into the rhythm of it.

  • The snowball effect. We all know that some new toys are played with for a few days and then forgotten, while others become perennial favorites. Kindle gave a kickstart to my reading, and through that I rediscovered how rewarding and enjoyable reading was, so I kept on reading. And that continued reading was not all that dependent on the Kindle itself, because as mentioned I read a lot on iPad now as well.

  • Super-convenience. Hit the power on button, you are right in your book, where you left off. No need to dig out reading glasses, the print is a comfortable size. Everything in sync on multiple devices, so I can use whatever is to hand or in my pocket, Kindle, iPad or Android phone. (Note – this is obviously not specific to Kindle devices themselves, though you only get the syncing with Kindle apps not any other readers I’ve found.) The light weight and small size is also important, making it easier to carry around than even a paperback.

  • The next book effect. Because it’s so quick and easy to get the next volume in the book series, get other books by the author you just enjoyed, or more books on the topic that’s got you intrigued, there is less chance of the out of sight, out of mind phenomenon. Being able to take action when something is on my mind leads to follow through and a steady chain of reading. If I had to remember and wait til I went to a bookshop, or even to order online and wait for delivery, that wouldn’t happen.

  • Talking of which…. whatever happened to bookshops? For one reason and another, wandering into bookshops is a much less frequent part of my life than it used to be.

  • The sunk cost effect. Having spent a chunk of money on a device, we feel like we should get our money’s worth from it. Perhaps we also feel like we need to justify the purchase to ourselves, or others. So we read, rather than whatever else we might have done instead.

  • Commitment and identity. Buying a dedicated reading device is in part making a commitment to reading, and declaring yourself to be a reader. Perhaps it is not that a Kindle magically makes reading easier again, but rather it’s that you’ve reached a point where you have decided you mean business about getting reading again, and buying a Kindle is symbolic of that.

Some of what I’ve said above would apply to all forms of e-reading, whether on tablet or dedicated e-readers. Some would apply to all e-ink readers, but not general purpose mobile devices. And one or two points only to the Kindle and its ecosystem.

So maybe there is no one overriding reason why Kindle or e-readers in general help resuscitate comatose reading habits. But one way and another, they did for me, and I’m glad of it.

Reading in an Age of Distraction

A video well-worth watching, esp if you feel like you don’t read enough or don’t read the right things. Makes a lot of interesting points that will make you feel better about your habits.

The Q&A are fascinating too, and help make sense of the talk.

Some of the topics that come up…

  • Some graduating students have an anxiety about not reading the right things after they leave college

  • Many older people say they can’t concentrate for sustained periods any more in the age of tech

  • He encourages people to read for the pleasure of it, not for some reason of virtue

  • When you think about what great art demands from you… clearly you are not up the challenge of reading that every day… it’s like eating a 7 course French meal every day… too much

  • Most of your reading should not be “great books”

  • A few years ago he found it was becoming difficult getting through books for the first time in his life, having always been a voracious reader before

  • What helped him get out of that was when he got a Kindle

  • That doesn’t work for everyone, but we should all be hopeful that it’s possible one way or another to recover our ability to concentrate and to get back the joy of reading

Points from the Q&A…

  • Writing non-fiction using approach of storytellers

  • Reading novels vs reading non-fiction or textbooks

  • Checking things off lists as a source of distraction

  • Reading for fun is more motivating than reading dutifully

  • Audiobooks vs reading

  • Ideas of what is “serious literature” change. Shakespeare and Dickens were popular entertainment in their own time.

  • People use books to try to signal what kind of person they are. Maybe even to themselves.

Personally I can relate to the part about getting a Kindle giving a big boost to my reading. Though his theory about why that helped him doesn’t apply to me at all.

Unlike him I can also get wrapped up in an audiobook, but it does have to be a great book and a great reader. Great readers are pretty rare, so a lot of them are quite hard to listen to.

The Books Meme – A Compilation

As I mentioned the other day, there’s a popular meme which started on Facebook and has spread well beyond it in which people list books that have stayed with them. I find this meme fascinating, and I’d encourage everyone to take part.

I’m going to use this post to compile together interesting book lists, especially from people in my immediate online circles, together with links to some related articles.

Interpretations of the Meme

Not everyone interprets the meme in the same way. There are subtly different ways of looking at this, which could lead to different lists. For example I didn’t include books which had once meant a lot to me, but have since fallen off the radar. Nor did I list what I thought were the best books or the books that I’d enjoyed the most. My interpretation was more along the lines of “had something about it that means it remained with me over a lifetime”. And I’m old enough that I could have loved something for a decade, and yet it’s had time now to fall off that kind of a list.

Other people have slightly different interpretations, but that doesn’t greatly matter. I’m not interested in rule-lawyering about it, more interested in knowing what books have mattered to people, and how.

The List of Lists

Book Meme Blog Posts

Lists Added as Blog Comments

I’ll keep these lists updated as I find more posts.

Books That Have Stayed With Me

Apparently there is a meme on Facebook where people are listing the books that have stayed with them in some way. I first heard of this from The Tolkienist because predictably enough Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit make the Top 10 of those mentioned. (The data is pored over in a little more detail over at The Atlantic.)

I’m not much of a one for Facebook, but I am one for books. I think lists of this kind are both fun and illuminating, especially when it comes to seeing what your friends say.

Here’s my stab at identifying which books have stayed with me the most. Unlike the Facebook meme I’m not going to confine myself to fiction because plenty of non-fiction jumps out at me when I think about this.

So, in no particular order…

  • B-Flight by Bruce Carter. You’ve probably never heard of this but it was one of the first books I ever bought for myself, circa age nine or ten. It’s a First World War tale and a love story, about a boy who lies about his age and runs away to join the Royal Air Force. I didn’t know at the time but the author was himself an RAF pilot in World War One, which is maybe what made the tale so vivid and compelling.

  • The Lord of the Rings – of course. Probably the book I’ve read the most number of times since I first came across it in my teens. It caught me at an impressionable age, and made a considerable impression, maybe helping to make me the person I became.

  • The Silmarillion, which I read a few years later and found even more haunting. The blurb on the back of my paperback copy has a remark by some reviewer about “How did one man given X number of years work become nearly the creative equivalent of a people?” Good question!

Here I’ll pass over some things I won’t include because perhaps they shouldn’t count as books. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was to me first a radio series, and though I’ve read the books and they’re great, I always think of it with the voices, the effects, the music from the show, which made a hilarious and mind-blowing whole. Likewise I’ll reluctantly pass over The Foundation Trilogy because I first heard it as a radio drama. Very reluctantly because I quite wanted to be Hari Seldon at one time! Who knows, he may have been responsible for my swerves into the social sciences.

Also I’ll pass over plays, even those that I first read before I ever saw them performed. Great ones include a bunch of Shakespeare (Hamlet and Othello especially), as well as Death of a Salesman and Endgame.

  • The mention of Endgame makes for a nice segue, so onto a chess book. Think Like a Grandmaster by Alexander Kotov was a classic, especially in the way that the personality of the author and the players he talked about came through.

  • From Quarks to Quasars is the next non-fiction title. It’s a highly readable shortish book covering the vast sweep of modern physics, and I think the first time I had my mind boggled by coming across quantum mechanics. My mind stayed boggled for quite some time. Ok it’s still boggled but nowadays I don’t have much occasion to think about it. (After some years trying to figure it all out I decided I wasn’t going to be able to make the kind of sense out of it that I would find satisfactory and I better go think about other things instead.) I could also mention Quantum Reality by Nick Herbert, another great book on such things.

  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carre. Probably the book I’ve read the most number of times after Lord of the Rings. Interestingly le Carre has compared himself to Tolkien saying that he has similarly created his own private fictional world. The perplexing thing is that his world seems to actually ring very true to reality, and in his own way he’s got as much to say about society, organizational life, politics and such as something like The Wire.

  • A Perfect Spy by le Carre also makes the list. Powerful to the point of being almost traumatic to re-read, and it seems it has a very large basis in fact.

There are quite a lot of books that stayed with me for a long time, but no more. I was a big fan of Graham Greene at one point, and The End of the Affair for example would definitely have made this list at some times in my life. (It’s tempting to list some things that are more literary so I can appear less of a lowbrow geek, but I will resist that and skip them. Also it was tempting to pass over the science books for fear of seeming a pretentious dork, but there you go.)

  • Thief of Time is my favorite and most read Pratchett. I could chuckle to myself endlessly about codfish. I’m like that.

It occurs to me that there are various categories of books that have been hugely influential on me without it being easy to pin down actual single books that were important and which stayed with me. For example I considered mentioning The Life of Gandhi by Louis Fischer, but while the topic is one I’ve pondered a great deal at various times, it’s hard to say that one book was all that important in itself.

So as I’m at risk of spinning off into an endless list of books and media that were collectively hugely important, perhaps it’s time to wind down and end this list.

I might return to the topic in future. In the meantime, I’d love to read other people’s lists.