Tom Sutcliffe: Turn over a new leaf

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The Independent Online

Unusually, I already know what I'm going to be doing with my spare time this year – all of it, not to mention alarming stretches of time that couldn't reasonably be described as spare at all. I'm going to be reading novels. I will be reading them while I walk along pavements, at the dinner table and – surreptitiously – during the duller stretches of school concerts. Towards the middle of the year, it seems quite possible that I'll also be reading them in the shower and while driving the children to school. Because this year I'm on the Booker jury. While 2009 lasted I could soothingly file this fact in the "pending" tray. But now 2010 is here and in my mind it already has an ominous title. I think of it as "The Year of Reading... Somethingly". Clearly, this is a work in progress. The allusion (to the Peter Weir film) means that I need to find some kind of adverb to stick on the end, the only problem being that I can't yet decide what it should be.

"Intensively" is a promising candidate, obviously. We've been warned to expect an entry of between 160 to 170 books, with no limit on individual pagination. Indeed, just before Christmas a 660 pager came through the letterbox, with a thud like a chaplain's knock on a death row door. And since the early trickle of books is soon going to turn into a tsunami of the printed page, quite a few of which will have to be read more than once and all of which will have to have been ticked off by the time the long list is due in summer, the mathematics is unnervingly simple. Page consumption rates will have to start at a minimum of 100 p.p.d (pages per day) and mount steadily, until the inner tachometer is trembling in the red. So "intensively" would certainly be accurate – the only problem being that it's a bit obvious too.

"Self-consciously" is a candidate as well – the point about this kind of reading being that you can never entirely forget yourself as a reader. I've already brought the Moleskine notebook in which I'll make notes, and written my address on the fly-leaf, complete with the monetary reward for its safe return in the event that it gets lost. And I've spent enough time reading already to decide that the figure I first wrote in there is hopelessly inadequate. Read one book a year and I guess there's a reasonable chance that six months later you could remember what was in it and why you liked it (or didn't). Read 170 and the odds on that lengthen considerably. Which means that you have to read with a clerkly kind of vigilance about your day-to-day accounts, recording every transaction that that will stand up when the auditors finally convene. This is a good thing I'm sure – replacing the glancing carelessness of ordinary reading habits – but no one could pretend that it's easily compatible with speed.

For the moment though I reckon "apprehensively" is the top contender. This may be beginner's nerves, of course. But the process of judging the comparative quality of one novel from a group of 170 seems to me significantly different from the process of judging whether any one novel is good or not. A glowing review one week does not preclude another one the following week – and neither of these responses need affect the other. With Booker reading though there's always going to be a kind of mental leaderboard – and you're only ever one book a way from changing it substantially. That has its excitements, but I suspect it also means that your concentration on the book is also a kind of distraction. "Is this the one?", you find yourself thinking – and since it's impossible to say for sure until you've read everything your responses are held in a curious suspension. I think perhaps "The Year of Reading Unnaturally" may turn out to be the best formulation.

Wishing you a happy meal Christmas

I got my best Christmas card very belatedly this year – and not by post but through the less discriminating delivery system of the internet. I stumbled late on a site showing the card Grayson Perry had contributed to a display of artists' home-made greetings at Tate Britain. While most of the other artists had produced conventional bits of seasonal prettiness Perry had constructed a kind of anti-festivity, showing a family having a Christmas dinner in a McDonald's. Two of the participants are busy on their mobile phones and the third is feeding chips into her mouth with an expression of bovine indifference. Dress is casual – jeans and football shirts – and the character Perry plays has wedged his Christmas party hat over the top of his baseball cap rather than take the unthinkable step of removing it first. Initially I took it as a satirical gesture – a funny undermining of the Dickensian stereotype of the groaning board. But I think it's much more generous than that. If this dropped through your door before 25 December a great weight of anxiety would lift from your mind. Whatever happens in our house on Christmas Day, you'd think, it must be better than that.

It's gratifying to see that The Road is getting such good advance reviews from the critics, press ads for John Hillcoat's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic novel appearing scattered with gold stars. It is a good adaptation, managing to avoid the obvious Mad Max pitfalls and staying faithful to McCarthy's bleak vision. But I couldn't help feeling that the critical praise and the bleakness were directly connected. The Road is one of those films that you go to knowing that you're performing a kind of cinematic duty – an act of penance for all the thoughtless fun you've had at the movies, glutting yourself on American junk food. It's like climbing a mountain on your knees or walking barefoot to some rural shrine, a purgative act which is thoroughly undermined if you moan while doing it. And the grimmer the subject matter, the better you feel about your stoicism while enduring it. It's important that the film is actually good, though. Suffering through a bad movie just makes you cross. Suffering through a good one makes you a better film-goer. And, given human nature, that means that there are inevitably occasions when suffering itself is taken as proof that the film has merit.