These books will change your life

This was written at the request of my American publishers, who stipulated “About 700 words on a topic of your choosing.” To which, when I sent them this, they added: “So long as it’s about your new book.”

It’s not a strapline you see so much these days, but it’s still out there. “This book will change your life.” The kind of claim issued by professional hucksters and amateur critics; the former generally promising to make you rich, thin and happy; the latter imagining it a useful criterion for assessing a book. “It won’t change your life or anything, but it’s quite good,” went an online review I read recently. I took this as further evidence that the blogosphere is maintained by and for 12-year-olds.

But there’s change and then there’s change. I was preparing some leeks the other day – sweating them in butter, with a pinch of nutmeg – when it struck me that this was a recent development in my kitchen skills. Left to my own devices I’d use olive oil, with maybe a little wine vinegar. Nutmeg wouldn’t have occurred to me. But last year I read a story by Patrick Gale – “Cookery”, from his brilliant collection
Gentleman’s Relish – in which the narrator adopts just that method, and almost without noticing it, that’s how I’ve been cooking leeks since.

Okay, so this isn’t a major remodelling of my lifestyle, but it got me thinking: what else have I picked up from books recently – what am I doing that I wouldn’t be, if I hadn’t read about it first? And it wasn’t difficult to find examples because, like most writers, I don’t actually do very much. The following’s from Michael Connelly’s
Nine Dragons, which I read in January: LA cop Harry Bosch is in his car, keeping tabs on a suspect’s house, and staying awake thanks to his CD system, loaded with his latest musical discovery:

“Tomasz Stanko was a Polish trumpeter who sounded like the ghost of Miles Davis. His horn was sharp and soulful. It was good surveillance music. It kept Bosch alert.”

Now, I don’t listen to music to stay alert, but I’m always grateful for a heads-up. And once an internet search had revealed that Stanko’s on the ECM label, home to Bobo Stenson, EST, Keith Jarrett and other notables, Bosch’s – sorry, Connelly’s – recommendation was a no-brainer:
Lontano is playing as I key this, and I’m guessing the Miles comparison is to later Miles, because it’s from a different planet to Kind of Blue, but Stanko plays trumpet the way Stenson plays piano – his music’s subtle and melodic, with moments of captivating beauty – and that works for me.

But the degree to which I am, frankly, a puppet in the hands of whoever I happen to be reading at any given moment only really hit me halfway through Sue Grafton’s
T is for Trespass, in which a character Kinsey Milhone is interviewing is busy mending a toaster. Conversation ensues:

“Most of the time, the problem’s as simple as people not bothering to empty the crumb tray.”
“What, the sliding thing underneath?” Kinsey asks.
“Yes, ma’am.”

And reading this I thought, sliding thing underneath? What sliding thing underneath? For years, I’ve adopted the traditional means of rebooting a toaster: I turn it upside down and rattle it until the crumbs fall out. And now I’m told there’s a sliding thing underneath? Not on my toaster, lady.

It’s a good job I was at home, or the suspense might have killed me. As it is, I marched straight into the kitchen, morally certain
my toaster boasted no so-called “crumb tray”, because that, well, that would make a mockery of my established toaster-maintenance protocols. But guess what? My toaster has a sliding thing underneath … It’s disguised as a decorative embellishment – if we were talking architecture rather than toasters, I’d reach for a word like “valance” – but it does indeed slide out, carrying all the crumbs with it. So effectively, in fact, it might have been designed for the purpose.

Well, I’m not too proud to admit I’ve been using the crumb tray ever since. Sometimes without making toast first (it’s the novelty). And while the above are only small changes – a new taste, a new sound; a less abusive relationship with a kitchen appliance – they’re changes nonetheless, and writing this has made me wonder if I should be doing more to wield a benign influence over my own readers. I’ve never expected a book of mine to change anyone’s life, my own excepted, but perhaps I’ve been setting the bar too low. Maybe I should be doling out lifestyle suggestions, or plotting readers’ holiday itineraries. Or offering fashion tips – now there’s a thought. Fashion tips …

You’ve been warned.

2010