‘This book has changed the way I read forever’. Image: Edward Tuckwell
When we come to choose the Big Issue Book of the Year, there a number of factors we take into consideration. As every book lover knows, there are countless terrific, potentially life-changing books published every year and naming the ‘best’ is a fool’s errand.
Unlike a few high-profile bestowers of book awards we don’t impose rules which give big ticket publishers superior access to our shortlist, or limit smaller publishers to ‘entering’ only one or two titles (thus reducing the amount of books to arbitrate).
In fact we do quite the contrary. The increasing media focus on celebrity authors and a handful of famous, sponsored book awards has inspired us, for the second year, to draw attention to lesser-spotted gems published by independents, most kept afloat through a mixture of passion, determination and a deep love for, and faith in, great writing.
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So, bearing in mind the overwhelming mountain of worthy works to weigh up, how does one go about picking the stand-out?
As the Big Issue books editor I struggle with this for weeks every year. I look for a book which includes but goes beyond the qualities which make for a memorable reading experience – entertainment, insight, wisdom, courage, intelligence, poetry – and does something groundbreaking and game changing.
I think of the books which I finished, then read again, because I felt something shift in me, but wasn’t sure quite what it was. That is how I finally came to land on George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain.
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It’s no secret that Saunders is a brilliant writer – he’s won a tonne of prestigious awards and plaudits for his novel Lincoln in the Bardo and short story collections (if you haven’t read Tenth of December, treat yourself).
But A Swim in a Pond is something different. It’s a series of ‘lessons’ on how to read stories in order to get everything out of them that might be there. Via seven of Prof Saunders of Syracuse University’s favourite 19th-century Russian short stories (by Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gogol and Turgenev, and all reproduced in full), we are alerted to the magical effects of repeated words, metaphors, patterns, genre-defying mood changes, and expectation blasters.
As we begin to grasp what Saunders is letting us in on (like a wizard gifting the powers of enchantment), we realise what we’ve been missing in all the years we’ve read but not asked questions or paid close attention.
It’s a difficult book to boil down because in summary it sounds horribly dry, joyless even; a kind of de-mystifying lecture.
The experience of reading it is exactly the opposite. Saunders is a congenial host – funny, self-effacing, and unpretentious. His exuberant fan-boy love for the writers he showcases is contagious, thrillingly so. This is not an exercise in exposing the tricks of fiction writing, rather an encouragement to enhance the reader’s awe in the power of words. To create wonder, excavate a deeper level of emotional response and increase the chances of a joyful epiphany through reading.
Like many others who read it – slowly, and with increasing excitement – I felt at the end that I had been handed the key to a hidden room full of gold. It has changed the way I read forever, and for that I am truly grateful. Open this book, open your mind real wide, and prepare to be blown away.
George Saunders says: “I am so delighted to have my book honoured by The Big Issue – it feels like the equivalent of being liked by the most virtuous, big-hearted person one knows.
“I admire, so much, what The Big Issue does and would like to think that A Swim in a Pond in the Rain aspires to do a version of the same – that, like The Big Issue, it fosters a sense of connection between people and offers a similar reassurance that none of us is alone in this mad, sometimes scary adventure called life.
“Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for (truly) making my year with this honour.”
You can buy A Swim in a Pond in the Rain and other selected books from The Big Issue page on bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.