Degrees of separation

Do you find that, mysteriously, the books you have recently been reading are somehow linked, one to another? I’ve noted this before, but was reminded of it by Helen of She Reads Novels when she drew attention to the Six Degrees of Separation Meme hosted by https://booksaremyfavoriteandbest.wordpress.com

How does this meme work when applied to books?

Books can be linked in obvious ways – for example, books by the same authors, from the same era or genre, or books with similar themes or settings. Or, you may choose to link them in more personal or esoteric ways: books you read on the same holiday, books given to you by a particular friend, books that remind you of a particular time in your life, or books you read for an online challenge.

The great thing about this meme is that each participant can make their own rules. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the ones next to them in the chain.

Well, without officially signing up to this exercise I thought it would be interesting to see how that might apply to books I’ve read and reviewed in the past few months, and then see where that got me. So here goes.

The first group of books consists of the last three I’ve reviewed. These are Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, Sarah Singleton’s The Poison Garden and Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines. What links them all? Easy — London! Conrad’s novel is set almost entirely in the metropolis of a century ago while Singleton’s fantasy, set a little earlier in time, has a good half of it focused on a London chemist’s shop where the protagonist is apprenticed. The third is a YA dystopian piece where London is rather incredibly a traction city wandering the wastes of what was formerly Europe.

What links this trio to the next is that 19th-century setting which characterised Singleton’s YA fantasy. Jane Austen’s final novel, Persuasion, was published two hundred years ago last December, and its theme of love plagued by misunderstandings, setbacks and adversity was echoed by Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey. Juliet Gardiner’s The World Within: the Brontës at Haworth put Anne’s novel in context as well as alluding to Charlotte’s assessment of Jane’s work.

The 19th century — but not as we know it — was also a theme that underscored Joan Aiken’s The Whispering Mountain, one of a group of fantasy novels that featured in my reading. Others included Philip Pullman’s Gothick-tinged children’s book Clockwork with its Grimm-like fairytale quality allied to a Frankenstein motif. Pullman also wrote the much-anticipated The Book of Dust, an alternative world fantasy which served as a kind of prequel to Pullman’s His Dark Materials sequence. On the other hand Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant is virtually uncategorisable — although there is a strong fantasy element (giants, dragons) it also hints at historical fiction (the Dark Ages of Arthurian Britain), allegory (a pilgrim’s progress of sorts) and literary fiction (its rank seriousness).

Fantasy takes us to the next group of books, this time leaning towards a Young Adult or children‘s audience. Terry Pratchett’s fiction of course appeals to a readership with a wide range in age, with The Wee Free Men having a young protagonist in a novel with knowing nods towards an adult audience in its allusions and jokes. Joan Aiken’s Arabel, Mortimer and the Escaped Black Mamba is more obviously a children’s book, but this adult enjoyed it too! Horatio Clare’s Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot is packaged for children, but its theme of the protagonist’s father suffering from depression is, despite its subject, one that is both uplifting and optimistic. I can’t say the same for Bruno Vincent’s promo Five Go Bookselling with its crass parody and humourless approach taking the mickey out of classic series for children.

The final group I’m going to consider leads us back, via urban landscapes, to London, which is where we started. F Scott Fitzgerald’s short stories feature in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Other Stories, set predominantly in towns and cities of eastern and midwestern America, while the historic French city of Aix en Provence was the subject of a booklet entitled Les Architectes et la Ville. Lastly we come to Dodie Smith’s It Ends with Revelations, a bittersweet romance which ends up in London’s theatre land just as the Swinging Sixties are about to rock a cosy postwar Britain.


Urban landscapes — London — the 19th century — fantasy — children’s and young adult fiction: all themes which have dominated my reading for the last three months. How has it been with you? Has your choice of reading been subconsciously linked to themes, motifs or memes, either as groups or one to another?

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29 thoughts on “Degrees of separation

  1. inkbiotic

    A very interesting idea, you could get totally lost in the connections – characters, names and places, small quirks of plot, even phrases used. You have such a detailed understanding of the the books you read, I doubt there’s many books you couldn’t connect somehow 🙂

    1. Well, it’s very kind of you to say so, Petra, but I’m afraid it’s more about inherent nerdiness than understanding, and even that nerdiness (part of my autistic temperament) is not of a very deep nature… To me it’s just a fun idea and a way of engaging with what I read whilst also revealing a bit of myself. And isn’t that all a good enough excuse for all of us? ☺

  2. I love doing this meme most months. It’s great fun to try and link books with lateral thinking rather than just more obvious links. This month I linked LIncoln in the Bardo to Nice Work – Biscuits in the title! 🙂

    1. Yes, I knew this meme somehow felt familiar — I must have spotted it among your posts, Annabel! And what a link, to go from Linkon, er, Lincoln to Nice, I’m now racking my brain to come up with other biscuit-themed towns and titles! Brilliant.

  3. The last three books I’ve read have all insisted that each of us has just one story to tell. Two of them haven’t tried to dictate what type of story that will be, but Julian Barnes insists that it will be a love story. I’m not certain I agree with either proposition but it is certainly something of a coincidence.

    1. We’re primed, like all organisms I suppose, to seek patterns, because that’s how we learn, make sense of the world, hopefully avoid similar mistakes in the future. As well as a survival instinct it luckily also happens to be pleasurable! At one extreme is the conspiracy theorist who sees intentions within patterns where there are none; at the other end are people like us who note coincidences as causes for wonder and innocent enjoyment.

      And with that lengthy preamble I just want to say your experience — in your case books insisting we have just one story to tell — is so familiar: I had no idea that three books on the trot would be set in London, but that’s how it turned out. Coincidence or subconscious intent? No idea, but interesting nevertheless!

        1. I had look up ‘tagmemics’, so that’s my intellectual fix of the day, thanks! Don’t know if I independently came up with Pike’s insight through some form of morphic resonance (if only!) or if I’d imbibed it through random reading (the latter more likely) but it perfectly sums up my character as well as explaining my delight when I come across others who share the same enthusiasm in shed loads. 🙂

  4. I really enjoy the new view of a book you can get when you place it in a new context. I like to place books that I feel belong together adjacent to each other in my bookshelves but there are often multiple interesting groupings that can reasonably be chosen. So every time I reorganize my bookshelves I get to see some of my books in a new light.

    1. There’s nothing like moving home or house decorating for encouraging a radical reorganisation of one’s books! And then that recontextualising you mention comes willy-nilly of course. 🙂

      As it happens a lot of my books are non-fiction so placing related titles next to each other comes naturally, but because we inherited a lot of fitted shelves when we recently moved that policy often didn’t work as books come in different shapes and sizes! Ditto for novels by the same author.

      1. Moving is of course the major reason for recontextualising. After one move I placed all my “books I find brilliant by woman authors” in age order on the same shelf and could suddenly see the line of great authors stretching back to Sei Shonagon. Rather than individual authors they became part of a great history which was really interesting. But even with non-fiction there are some room for interesting literary meetings. My Lewis Carroll books give a different impression next to my books about the history of mathematics than they would have if I had placed them among my children’s books.

        It may be be that I spend to much time musing in front of my bookshelves rather than actually reading my books…

        1. Bookshelves can be things of beauty, works of art indeed. All those spines, even front covers, on display in their glorious diversity, encouraging one’s eyes to engage as with a painting or sculpture. Hence all those visual memes about bookshops, libraries, reading spaces which are perennially popular. But then, I’m probably foolishly preaching to the converted!

          And I loved that moment you had a vision of a line of great female authors stretching back in time!

          1. They really can! And as I’ve moved a few times the last few years I’ve spent quite some time considering various ways to organize my books.

            It was a really great moment! I’ve kept that shelf roughly the same although it will soon get too crowded as I keep finding more brilliant authors to add to it.

      2. piotrek

        So true! I’ve designed my own bookshelves, but I included many low ones, to fit more of them, and now I have Le Guin in three different sections… I try to find some connection between various books that end up together. How did Nabokov end up next to Forester, though? Colour and size, purely 😉

        The idea of applying the six degrees of separation rule to books is intriguing, but I went through my recent history and it’s slightly unsettling: heroic war story for young readers, serious non-fiction about war’s effects on individual and collective psyche, war in space, anti-Semitism in WWII era, ex-soldier applying his skills to police work, epic mythical war and myth-inspired fantasy war. Maybe it’s time for something on horticulture?

        1. Or flower-arranging? Something Zen? 😀

          There’s nothing wrong in having a prolonged bout of obsessive reading about one topic — after all, that’s what academics do all the time — but a bit of a break from that, especially if it’s about man’s inhumanity to man, can’t be bad.

          I’m intrigued by all these descriptions of bookshelves, Piotrek. Maybe I should do a post inviting bloggers to add a photo of their own shelves in the comments section: you can tell a lot about people from such little aspects of their lives …

          1. piotrek

            There’s a real risk I’d get violent halfway through a flower arranging book 😉

            Should we judge people by their bookshelves… we shouldn’t, but I always do. And I love watching photos of other people’s libraries.

            Hmm, maybe I’ll add a gallery to Re-enchantment.

  5. I like the way you’ve chosen to approach this meme. Your reading does seem to have been following some themes recently – it’s interesting to see how neatly the books fit into different groups.

    1. Yes, I approached the brief in a rather oblique way, Helen, didn’t I? That’s the rebel in me! But then rules are made not particularly to be broken but because they reflect some sort of status quo that is deemed to be being sabotaged by freethinkers, quite apart from whether their actions inherently good or bad.

      Or it could merely be that I rather wilful in my choices,!

  6. My goodness, so many connections! There is also a nice variety in what you have read–which is always a good thing. This seems like it was a fun way to look back on your recent reads.

    1. It’s always good to have a retrospective look at what you’ve done, in my case a sort of review of reviews I’ve posted!

      And what strikes me often much more than the connections, BJ, is the ‘variety’ you spotted — different genres, tones, periods, subjects, authors — and also areas I’ve yet to expand into, such as writers from other cultures, non-fiction on a wider range of topics than I usually consider, and even books in other languages (it’s been a while since I read anything in French, and I ought to tackle some Italian, maybe even summon up my schoolboy Latin).

        1. I spent a couple of years going to Italian evening classes but sadly most of my faltering fluency in it has lapsed.

          And I spent two years in secondary school learning classical Latin and Greek: just passed the former but had a miserable and epic fail in the latter. 😔 Mea culpa!

  7. This is really interesting and I like your links – both obvious and more obscure.

    My last two books were Margaret Attwood’s Blind Assassin and a Medieval mystery called Company of Liars. One is set largely in the 1930s, one in 1348. One is set in America around a group of wealthy socialites, one in England among the poorest wandering ragtag group, trying to outrun the Black Death. I was struggliing to make a connection until I considered the themes – both deal with characters who are hiding earth shattering secrets – secrets that will change how others view them, that could damage their relationships forever. And both sets of characters receive their punishment.
    Perhaps we could find links between any two books if we look hard enough. Great post Chris

    1. I’m almost certain I read Company of Liars soon after it was published, but apart from what you’ve summarised remember little of its details. Tempted now to track it down again. Atwood is unfortunately yet another writer I’ve stalled on, having only got a quarter through Offred’s story: I think I’ll let the fuss over the TV series end before I tackle it again. But what you say about hidden links is true — maybe it’s down to those Seven Basic Plots that there are essentially only a few storylines that all narratives rely on. (Now, that’s an addendum to my notes on The Restless Dead … No, dammit, I’m going to post them off now.)

      1. I did enjoy a Company of Liars – liars, the plague, thieves, relic sellers – what’s not to like? And Karen Maitland had some fascinating scenes and ideas in there. I’d read more of her books. I do love Atwood – one of my favourite writers. And yes, interesting to see these links, however tenuous!

  8. Pingback: A selection of brilliant books | I read that in a book

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