“How Well He’s Read, To Reason Against Reading!”

…Or, My Ideal Bookshelf

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I recently read a great post by adoptingjames, where, inspired by the book ‘My Ideal Bookshelf’ [ed. Thessaly La Force], he decided to put his own selection together. And I liked this idea so much that I decided I would do the same. It’s a bit like ‘Desert Island Discs’ for your books, I suppose. You choose the tomes that are significant to your life and provide a short explanation why.

I have chosen ten books that have/had a lasting impact on my life, and categorised each one to make clear why I chose it.

Here is my selection, and I would love to hear what others would choose, if you’d like to share in the comments!

1) The book where it all began/The sentimental choice

milne

Winnie-the-Pooh was my favourite book when I was younger. It is funny, engaging, incredibly sweet, and always beautifully illustrated, not to mention wonderfully written. The characters are vivid and embody the childish dream that toys can talk and have their own lives. I think there are a lot of lessons to be learnt from Pooh et al. about friendship and acceptance.

                                                         “Weeds are flowers, too, once you get to know them”

2) The book that made me laugh

brysonIt’s not often that you come across a book that makes you laugh out loud. Bill Bryson is a very funny guy, and out of the broad range of his novels that I’ve read, this one is my favourite. The ‘Notes from a Small Island’ section frequently had me crying with laughter; each description of the less tourist-friendly spots in Britain so well-described and recognisable. The chapter on Milton Keynes was a particular highlight for me, living not too far and sympathising all too well with Bill’s struggle in the multi-storey car park. 

I read this while I was living in Halls at uni. The girl in the next room asked to borrow it after having put up with my snorts and cackles through the very thin dividing wall each night. I suppose that’s as good a recommendation as a book can get.

3) The book that encouraged me

frayn

‘Spies’ by Michael Frayn was the first book we studied on my English Lit A-Level course, and is the book that convinced me to apply for an English degree, rather than History as I’d been planning. I had always loved reading and writing, but was uninspired during the GCSE years when it was all about ticking boxes and making sure everyone came away with a passing grade. The A-Level was different, though: the texts were more interesting, there was more opportunity to find your ‘own’ reading, and we got to spend weeks and weeks with one novel or play, learning it inside-out.

‘Spies’ is an incredibly clever story, and very carefully constructed. I have since read a couple more of Michael Frayn’s works and thoroughly enjoyed each one.

4) The book I read again and again

mcewan ‘Atonement’ is one of my favourite novels, and my current re-reading count is three. I don’t re-read books that often because I always seem to have a never-ending pile to get through. But I am willing to make space for Ian McEwan’s story of school girl jealousy and a fatal misunderstanding.

This book is so well-written that often I forget it is fiction. By the time I reach the last section, where Briony says that she cannot publish what has preceded until her cousin Lola and Paul Marshall are dead, I often take the words as truth before remembering, of course, that it is Ian McEwan’s name on the front of the novel and not Briony Tallis’.

5) The book that I love most

rowling

I will always champion the ‘Harry Potter’ series because it made kids excited about reading. The first installment came out when I was seven, and I couldn’t be happier that I was able to “grow up” with the characters as the novels came out.

I will always remember when the final book was published: a couple of my friends had arranged to meet up to celebrate the end of our GCSE exams. Half of us were seriously into the wizarding world, and the other half weren’t so bothered. Those of us who were spent most of the day sweating and panicking in case we inadvertently came across a spoiler anywhere. And one of the girls who had brought the book along with her kept trying to read out the last page. Good friends.

I love that each publication was such an event. And it makes me quite sad if the children I’m babysitting tell me they love the films but have never read the books!

6) The book that opened my eyes

achebe

My knowledge of Postcolonialism was woefully slender before the final year of my degree, but ended up being the subject I specialised in. It was fascinating; brutal; unimaginable; and the literature so vivid. There were so many great texts on this subject to choose from. Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’ acknowledges the wider clash between traditional culture and colonialism by focusing on one man’s struggle to protect his village by the only means he knows. Unfortunately his strengths are also his weaknesses. It makes a story about widespread exploitation into a deeply tragic personal account.

7) The controversial book

rushdie

This is another novel I read during my degree and, after three years averaging three novels a week, this is my standout favourite. It’s not like many other books. It’s difficult to explain, occasionally difficult to follow, but that’s why I liked it. There was only a scattered concept of linear time, interspersed with flashbacks, subplots, and dream sequences, and during the chapters when it was supposed to be ‘real life’, well, that’s when it often got stranger than ever.

It got Mr Rushdie into an awful lot of trouble (to put it lightly), but I’m sure glad he wrote it.

 

8) The book that changed my life

faulks

For years this was my favourite book. I love literature about the World Wars because they are written with so much intensity and, I feel, use language to its greatest effect. ‘Birdsong’ is so wonderfully written from beginning to end. Faulks does not always make his war-time protagonist easy to sympathise with, which is, I think, a brave thing for a novel to do. It is a great study of human nature and relationships, in the most unnatural and isolating environment imaginable.

 

9) My favourite book

orwell

‘1984’ by George Orwell has been my reigning favourite for over four years now. I had picked it as my holiday reading before going away with some friends. I know – solid choice for a girly beach holiday. I wasn’t expecting to be blown away, it was just one of those novels I thought I should tick off the list. I ended up spending the majority of that holiday sitting under a shaded rock on the beach reading page after page while my friends splashed about in the sea. They teased me mercilessly (still do), and I came home as pale as when I left, but really it was a perfect opportunity to sit and read everyday without any other distractions. And I’m so glad it was this book. I love it.

10) Special acknowledgement

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I couldn’t decide which Shakespeare play to pick for this list, so I thought I’d cheat and include all of them. I’ll concede that my favourite is probably ‘Hamlet’ – it embodies most of what I love about Shakespeare’s work. I often find the tragedies have some greater comic moments than the comedies themselves, as a result of ingenious wordplay. I would probably sell my entire house for a fraction of Shakespeare’s talent and writing ability.

 

 

“Literature is Strewn with the Wreckage of Those Who Have Minded Beyond Reason the Opinion of Others”

How do you write?

howdoyouwriteThere’s a lot of it going on at the moment, with NaNoWriMo and NaBloPoMo currently taking place. (Both acronyms sound like a weird kind of digi-pet project to me.) I admire the people doing NaNoWriMo in particular, because I’m not sure it’s a challenge I’d be able to tackle while maintaining either my sanity or an acceptable level of personal hygiene. I don’t want to say outright, “there’s no way on earth I could ever write 50,000 words in a month,” as I’m currently going through the job application process and therefore having to exude confidence in my own abilities. This ain’t an easy task, given that this week I gave myself food poisoning for the second time in five months. I’m a VEGETARIAN. Which root vegetable or lentil could I have possibly cooked so ineptly that it left me lying in bed for a day groaning ‘woe is me’…?

I appear to have digressed. The main reason for my unwillingness to take part in something like NaNoWriMo is that I know, too well, how I write. I am so envious of those of my friends able to splurge onto a blank page and then go back and fix what they’ve written. I have tried, but more often than not I spend ages agonising over what word or turn of phrase to use in each sentence before I can move on. It makes editing a much quicker process, but it doesn’t half make life difficult when you are sitting with a blank document and a looming deadline.

I am currently writing a short story (with a much more manageable word count of 3,000) for a magazine competition. I don’t expect to win; I am doing it simply to take the excuse to write. I am finding it more enjoyable than if I was trying to get out that many words in a single day, every day this month. But with an interest in publishing/journalism I realise that I have to stop being so precious about what I am doing, and get into the habit of writing regularly and at a speed that doesn’t leave me with grey hairs by the time I’m finished. For this reason I have loved getting back into blogging and reading other’s posts, and wondering how long it takes people to put together their uploads. Most of mine have taken longer than I’d like to admit, as I tend to sit on them for a few days and keep tinkering with structure, wording, etc. (It also keeps them warm in these cold winter months – sitting on them.)

I’m currently reading a collection of Christopher Hitchen’s essays, which are often so dense and complex that it is taking me far longer to finish than a book would normally. Though despite the intense mind-workout that each essay gives (for this reason, perhaps not the wisest choice of bedtime reading), Hitchens writes in a way that seems almost effortless. This is impressive, given that it is also apparent just how much personal reading and research must go in to each of these well-formed and -argued opinions on a whole range of subjects. I believe this is the trait of a great writer – one who can spend hours, days, weeks, months, and longer agonising over a piece of work, yet for the finished piece to read as though it was no bother to produce at all.

“The Rest is Silence”

I completed my secondary schooling at a local comprehensive, which had a wide catchment area and  accepted students from all backgrounds. Like every kid going through the education funnel there were parts of school life that I detested (growing up can be quite rubbish, can’t it?), but I speak for my inner nerd when I say that I loved school itself. In comparison to the separate grammar school experiences of my sister and best friend, I consider myself extremely lucky to have gone to an institution that placed value on the individual rather than the grade. This may have had a lot to do with the school’s Christian philosophy, but I think it was mainly down to many of the teachers wanting pupils to find their niche and develop as well-functioning members of society.

I have loved writing since I was at primary school, and it was an easy choice to pick predominantly Humanities-based subjects that had plenty of essay writing involved. I loved my English A-Level course: I was introduced to Michael Frayn and Arthur Miller, developed an undying love for Chaucer’s Tales, and got to re-read Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, one of my favourite novels, while taking a luxurious amount of time to analyse nearly every page. During the final year of my English degree I was reading up to three novels a week, and remember being told by people to savour the opportunity as it would prove difficult to achieve even half that amount in the same time once away from the bright lights and red bricks of campus.

I am therefore lost for an appropriate reaction to the news that the “Rt Hon” Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, is pretty much annihilating English literature from the core English GCSE. “English” will instead revolve around grammatical correctness and right or wrong answers. This scenario destroys what it was/is that I loved about English as a subject: for me, it provided a relief during the relentless grind of examination from the age of 14/15. I found I was able to write much less rigidly than in my other subjects, as there wasn’t the requirement to relentlessly check fact and accuracy. English is subjective, fluid, and encourages imaginative thought. Take away the literary aspect of the course and you are taking away the whole point of the subject, not to mention a generation’s engagement with the likes of Orwell, Austen, and Sassoon. It denies pupils freedom of thought and the chance to have an individual reading that can’t be declared utterly, one hundred per-cent wrong. But this is precisely why Gove cannot understand the value of studying literature: it does not fit in with his desire to reduce everything to a final mark and a table of results. Imagination cannot be measured in numbers.

The official party line is somewhat different, of course. Gove claims that it will be schools’ choice; English Literature is still being offered as an optional extra. What he does not publicly acknowledge is that it is unlikely to be a viable option for schools struggling to meet the requirements of Gove’s league tables. It will be these schools that most rigidly adhere to his prescribed curriculum of sciences and language, and it is these schools in which inspiration and engagement is so crucial. Yet students will be denied the opportunity to study so-called ‘soft’ subjects – drama, art, and now literature – and will be straitjacketed by an education of facts and figures. This can only serve to better demonstrate this country’s social difference, if not widen the gap further.

Applications for the 2012 university intake were in sharp decline after the rise of tuition fees to £9,000, with Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences the hardest hit subjects. There is an increased desire to choose a vocational subject or one that will lead to a well-paid job after university, which I can understand – I studied English and am still looking for a ‘graduate’ job eighteen months down the line. What’s more, the rate for my limited sessions with a subject tutor work out at roughly at £50/hour under the new fees (I paid around £17/hour). But despite my difficulties and comparatively worse (with science students) value-for-money when it came to contact time, I wouldn’t change my choice. The many books that I read, a large proportion of which I would probably not have otherwise come across, have stayed and will continue to stay with me for much longer than the time it took to get in and out of the exam hall.

One of Gove’s ministers spoke of these changes as “rebalancing the curriculum towards high-value subjects” (my italics). This snobbery – to what I suppose would be referred to as “low-value subjects”, then, minister? – suggests anything outside maths, science, computing and language is a waste of time. Something that always sticks with me is the story of a boy from my school, who wasn’t especially academic and didn’t particularly enjoy being in the classroom. He unexpectedly joined in with the vaguely uncool school eco-club set up by one of the teachers, which included giving up weekends to build a wildlife habitat on the school’s grounds. He left school at 16, but was awarded at our GCSE prize-giving for his contribution to the club and, we were told, had since begun training as a landscape gardener. My school allowed and encouraged people to find what interested and excited them. I’m not saying that it succeeded every time; some students are likely to have a very different perspective to mine. What cannot be denied is that there was plenty of room for individuality, and it is this that Gove, with his rote-learning and no second chances, appears desperate to stamp out.