Philippa Thomas Online

Occasional thoughts about life, books and news.


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Our Virtual Bookclub

The headlines are gloomy.  The newspaper industry is contracting; print publishing is suffering at the hands of Amazon’s low prices and the e-book alternative.  There is a justified pessimism about the traditional mechanisms of delivery.

And it’s thrown up very big questions.  What about the appetite for news and the appetite for reading?  What’s the impact of our expectation, in the early 21st century,  that it’s not just comment but content that comes free?

The gloomy wisdom, again, is that serious Reithian news provision is suffering. It costs money to staff foreign bureaux, to cover town halls, to mount a lengthy investigation. It’s easier to offer news-lite, news you can use, news that shades into light entertainment. And as for reading, some of the most remarkable growth is in the softer options, like teen reads for adults,  and guilty pleasures, like Fifty Shades of Grey on your Kindle on the tube.

But what do we make of the silver lining? These comments are purely anecdotal, no science.  I’m just enjoying the new enthusiasm about reading that seems to have been sparked by our new ability to share.

All the world’s a virtual bookclub. And anyone can start a conversation.

A blogpost book review gets an echo – whether it’s picked up by algorithm or another blogger with a human face.

Hashtags on twitter can create a global bookclub that forms and disperses within hours, like a literary flashmob.

A recommendation brings rewards: if at the end of a Kindle read, I post an appreciative tweet, a fellow-reader’s find often bounces right back – “if you liked that, you’ll love this” – or “try this one, it’s much better!”

Here are just three of my  online discoveries; I’d like to know yours.

A hashtag – #Fridayreads. 

A website – Brainpickings. 

And a weekly email from The Browser. 

They’ve made my reading broader, more prolific, more fun. And so far, they’re all free. Though I’ve enjoyed The Browser’s eclectic offerings of long reads so much, I’ve just responded to their polite invitation to become a subscriber for more.

It’s as if we’re all wandering within an enormous virtual bookshop, not as strangers wrapped up inside our own heads, but neighbours immersed in a hum of civilised conversation.

If you love to read – and like to make connections – this is one way in which you’ll never be lonely again.

I’m not ignoring the hard part – the harnessing of that enthusiasm to a willingness to pay the price which keeps authors (and journalists) in business.  I’m trying to see the bigger picture.

Could the rise of apps like The Browser lead to the end of my local library, or make it more likely that my child will get the library habit?  Does a rising tide float all boats? Or am I failing to see what’s struggling to survive : not waving, but drowning?


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A novel I can’t get out of my mind.

“The gun jammed on the last shot and the baby stood holding the crib rail, eyes wild, bawling. The man sat down in an upholstered chair and began taking his gun apart to see why it wouldn’t fire”.

“Nothing that happens, nothing, is not connected here by blood”.

“Old love, middle love, the kind of love that knows itself and knows that nothing lasts, is a desperate shared wilderness”.

Louise Erdrich published “The Plague of Doves” in 2008, and I’ve just come to it by way of the excellent “Shadowtag” – but it feels different and it feels deeper. Continue reading


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American reading – any recommendations?

My favourite thing about the holidays is the chance to sink deep down into fiction. I’ve just turned the final page of a big, emotional, multilayered historical novel by author Ethan Canin about American politics and family, and I really feel I’ve been inhabiting that world. A work called “America, America” was always going to be ambitious wasn’t it! It’s great reading for a political junkie like me, as it weaves together a fictional community with all the real events of the presidential primary campaign of 1972. It also reminds me of another novel that kept me thinking long after I put it aside – “American Wife” by Curtis Sittenfeld. I’ve just realised they were published within months of each other in 2008; intriguing to have a male and female narrator to compare. Anyone else with recommendations for big novels about American politics, let me know!