Friday, November 18, 2011

Reading Lists, libraries and beautiful books

Somebody asked me recently what books I'd read recently - I had to think about this, which is unusual as I can usually reel off quite a few without thinking at all. I read everyday, but rarely these are books anyone else would want to read - New Perspectives in Historical Writing, Probing the Limits of Representation, Practicing New Historicism, anyone? Thought not.

To add to this I've been stuck in interminable chapter writing hell since sometime in March, which finally came to an end about ten days ago, but which has meant I've not been able to read anything non-chapter related, mostly because I've just been too tired to read anything else at the end of the day.

This term though I've been teaching a course on contemporary writing, so I've been reading a book a week, and this is the reading list:

Marilynne Robinson - Home
Ali Smith - The First Person and Other Stories
Sarah Waters - The Little Stranger
Michelle Paver - Dark Matter
Jackie Kay - The Red Dust Road
Jackie Kay -Fiere
Jeanette Winterson - Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
Jose Saramargo - The Elephant's Journey
Alex Wheatle - Brenton Brown
Bel Mooney - A Small Dog Saved My Life

In the last week of term the students get to choose the book they want to read. A few of my students raised their hands 'What do we do in week 12?' questions abound. Choose a book you like and suggest it to the rest of the class. 'What?' - none of them could think of a book they had read. What did you read in the summer? Silence. You must have read something. One finally mumbled that he spent the rest of the year reading and so didn't read anything over the summer. What is he doing an English degree for if he doesn't like reading? When I finished my undergraduate degree I was so tired I couldn't read any of the books I loved or wanted to read, but I needed to read something so I trundled my way through all my Dad's crime novels. How can these students spend a whole summer not reading?

I would go crazy if I didn't or wasn't able to read - books have been there at the most difficult and terrible times and I've always used books as a way of escaping the terribleness. When I worked as a bank clerk I used to use my lunch hour to go to the library in the town (whatever town, as I was moved about a lot) where I was based and sit in there and read; it was an hour of grace day on day, week on week while I was doing a job which made me very unhappy; it got me out of the bank and effectively made the job bearable until a job I wanted to do came along. In the last month I have learned four out of the seven public libraries I used have been shut down, two have had their hours cut, and one risks closure.

The Kindle advert may be claiming the thing replaces the book (it doesn't because you can't drop in the the bath for a start, not to mention all the other things, which I won't mention otherwise I will be ranting) but I cannot replace the library: the experience of going into a place filled with books, pulling something off the shelf at random and starting the reading journey. Or going into a library with the reading list for your course and looking at the shelves and pulling books off to find which ones you need, which are interesting or helpful, and which are no good and can go back on the shelf. The rejection process in the academic library is as important as the act of discovery. 

I haven't managed to finish AL Kennedy's The Blue Book - I was just too tired and couldn't actually hold the book upright in bed, and decided the book and I would be much happier if we left each other alone for a while. I'll be reading it at Christmas though and I still love looking at it in all its blueness on my shelf. Slight aside - there seems to be a small trend at Vintage/Jonathan Cape at the moment to publish books which have the ends of the pages the same colour as the cover - Julian Barnes' Booker winner has a black hardcover with the ends of the pages also black, and the edges of the dust jacket also black so it sort of melds, the new Vintage edition of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit is very orange in the same way that The Blue Book is blue. I wonder if the rise of the Kindle (how much do I hate that TV advert? More than the actual Kindle I think) and the iPad and other assorted e-reader things, has meant that publishers are trying to make (some) effort to produce hardback editions which look beautiful.

After I escaped chapter hell, I started reading Sara Wheeler's wonderful book Terra Incognita, which is about her travels in Antarctica. This is the first non-work book I've read since sometime in the spring. I've never read much travel writing before - there is so much fiction I haven't read, not to mention the poetry, that non-fiction - unless it is really vital and essential - tends to slightly fall off my radar. But this year I started to give in to my desire to read books about the Arctic and Antarctica, starting safely with a travel book about Norway, where I turned immediately to the bit about the Arctic Circle, and then picked up a copy of a novel called The Still Point whilst traveling to a conference in Exeter which I read in huge gulps on the train there and back, along with an article about the Northern Lights in the Saturday Guardian Magazine someone had left on the seat of the train from Exeter. Chapter hell began, along with some other awful things and my snow and ice filled reading dreams had to wait; I'm back there now and loving it.

I'm off to jump down another chapter black hole - I may be some time.

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