My reading taste these days is more diverse than ever, but I have been thinking recently about how my taste has evolved and also about the gaps and blind spots that persist.
Growing up, I was not a big reader. I read comics and encyclopaedias, but there was no clue to the bookworm I would become. I can’t even say that I was aware of translated literature, and happily read Asterix books without considering that they had been written in another language. I didn’t get on a plane until I was 21 so there were no foreign holidays to ignite my interest in other cultures either.
My serious reading habit started in secondary school when we were assigned the reading list for the State exams. I read through the list quickly, without taking notes, and primarily motivated by curiosity about what was in the books, almost all of which had been written in English. My brother, who was training for the priesthood at the time, had a box of novels under his bed, which I raided. I read Beckett’s trilogy without knowing what it was – one of my classmates asked me why I was studying triology.
In my twenties, I made a classic mistake. I thought: why not start with the best, and so spend almost a decade reading the classics. It was a rich period and I used to read with a thick dictionary by my side, looking up every new word, of which there were many. Those books were almost all of high quality, but they were also usually by men and seldom from outside Europe.
So what changed?
First, as so often happens in life, I was presented with a model I want to be like. That person was Eileen Battersby, a critic for the Irish Times, who wrote masterfully about international literature. Her reviews thought deeply about books, and matched the artistry of the people she wrote about.
Second, I began to wake up to the chronic gender bias on my shelves. In using reading as a way of understanding myself, I had overlooked its value in helping to understand others and the wider world. Again, I became inspired by other model readers like Helen Vassallo, Meytal Radzinski and Marcia Lynx Qualey, who do so much to promote literature in translation, especially by women. The highlight of my reading year is Women in Translation Month every August, which was founded by Meytal.
Third, I discover the many independent presses who specialise in translated literature, often with a connection to a particular part of the world. In trusting their taste I have been brought on a journey through many interesting books, and have been testing the limits of my debit card and shelf space as I try to catch-up on what I have missed.
There are still gaps: genre fiction and graphic novels, are hardly represented on my shelves. I also need to read more from Africa, and from the Arabic world in particular. And then there is the twentieth century to tackle. I have read lots of classics and new releases, but there are many books that were translated in the past fifty or sixty years that are in danger of going out of print. Needless to say, many of these are published by independent presses, including academic presses.
So, my journey continues, but I often reflect on what a privilege it is to have too many great books left to read.
Rónán Hession is an Irish writer based in Dublin. His debut novel Leonard and Hungry Paul was published by Bluemoose Books in the UK and by Melville House Books in the US. His second Novel Panenka will be published in 2021. Leonard and Hungry Paul has been nominated for a number of prizes, including the Irish Novel of the Year and the British Book Award for Best Debut. His third album Dictionary Crimes was nominated for the Choice Music Prize for Irish album of the year. Rónán has also written articles about books and writing for The Irish Times.