Navigating the labyrinth to find highest quality ebooks
Alexi app invites well-known authors and critics to choose favourite digital books
Kevin Barry recommended “iBird Cloud”, the 2011 memoir by American novelist Annie Proulx, on Alexi. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
The algorithms that offer you suggestions on most of the ebook buying sites can be obvious at the best of times, but also curiously random. I am not quite sure I understand the relationship between Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, the Enid Blyton satire Five On Brexit Island and the Lonely Planet Guide to Great Britain, which my ebook provider seems to think is a good fit for my interest in contemporary British fiction.
I declined those recent recommendations in favour of a more obscure one, The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla (Unbound/Cornerstone, Kindle edition £9.99), an independent crowdfunded publication that offers a forum to 21 non-white British artists to “document . . . what it means to be a person of colour now”.
The contributors are wide-ranging, including actors Daniel York Loh and Riz Ahmed, NME writer Kieran Yates and poet Salena Godden. They are an emerging rather than established bunch, but thanks to social media their opinions have a wide reach, and their approach to ethnic diversity ranges from experiences of active discrimination (Ahmed turns his encounters at Heathrow airport after 9/11 into a comic anecdote that draws on the cultural complexity of immigrant families) to the dissolution of cultural identity that comes as a result of trying to fit in, and the invisibility of role models from within their own culture.
Indeed, this is where The Good Immigrant is at its best: in providing a glimpse of the diversity of cultural backgrounds, interests and media that might inspire younger generations of multi-ethnic English youngsters for the future. The elision of European voices, however, is slightly disappointing, particularly in the post-Brexit environment where it is the invisible (white) immigrants who feel most at threat. Perhaps Shukla might consider starting another crowdfunding campaign that demonstrates the inclusivity that he seeks.
A more reliable, or certainly more refreshing, selection of potential digital tomes is being offered by Alexi, a new book choice app co-founded by former Picador publisher Andrew Kidd. A literary subscription service backed by Bloomsbury, House of Zeus, Pan Macmillan and Europa, among others, Alexi invites well-known authors and critics to choose their favourite books, which readers can then download through the App for free. Who better to suggest a book for your bedside table than your favourite writer?
Authors who have participated so far include Kevin Barry, Lisa McInerney, Kamila Shamsie and Bret Easton Ellis, but the list is regularly refreshed with new authors from both popular and literary culture, who have hand-picked a selection of novels, short stories, history, politics, poetry and reportage. The books on Alexi come from a classic as well as contemporary canon.
In an unexpected selection, for example, popular writer David Nicholls offers his fans Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. Despite the vast stylistic difference of Dickens’s formal Victorian idiom and Nicholls’s recognisable dialogic argot, the focus on the minutiae of ordinary contemporary life surely draws a line of influence from one to the next.
Other choices are less easily connected. My first attempts at browsing were dictated by personal taste, so I followed Kevin Barry’s suggestion of Bird Cloud, the 2011 memoir by American novelist Annie Proulx, which charts the creation of her home on 640 acres of Wyoming farmland. I never would have put the two writers together, and the obsessive attention to domestic detail and material vanity displayed in Bird Cloud is as far from Barry’s mythic west of Ireland as you can imagine.
I would love to hear Barry’s own take on the book, but alas Alexi doesn’t offer introductory essays by the writers; a missed opportunity that they will hopefully accommodate in future versions of the app.
Alexi charges a monthly subscription fee of £1.98, with a free four-week trial. It can lead you down rabbit holes, surely, but these are labyrinths of the highest literary quality, and there isn’t a single title yet that I encountered that I would have come across without it and that wasn’t worth exploring. A highly recommended investment for the coming year.
One of the authors featured on Alexi is Chris Krause, who recommends literary anthropologist John Berger’s first novel. Krause’s own first novel, the autobiographical work I Love Dick (Serpent’s Tail, Kindle Edition, £3.49), was published in 1997 amid much controversy. Although it became a an instant cult classic and surprise bestseller, it was only released for the first time on this side of the Atlantic last year.
The epistolary novel charts the relationship between Chris, a failed film-maker, her semiotician husband Sylvere, and their colleague, a cultural theorist, who they become obsessed and erotically involved with. Krause drew the material for the novel from her own life. (Indeed the characters are called after their real life counterparts; the “Dick” of the novel attempted to block the book’s publication).
But Krause creates a sort of campus farce that releases Chris from the typical role of romantic heroine. The world that her characters inhabit allows her to interrogate a wide range of intellectual positions, from academic feminism to cultural criticism to performance art, an irony that the book’s very form plays with, Was its publication, and the subsequent criticism that Krause drew, not the greatest performance of all? Admittedly, I Love Dick will appeal to a very particular type of reader, one literate in the theories that Krause deconstructs so poetically in this unclassifiable blend of fiction and memoir. I Love Dick was the first of a trio of novels that explored similar subject matter. Guess what just popped up on my recommended reading list?