I am taking up the challenge posed by one of my readers, Andy, a couple of weeks ago. I quite like the idea of writing a blog from a prompt from one of my readers. So don’t hesitate to set me a topic and, if I think I can do it. I will try. This topic took me back to the days I first got into literature. I was at school (fifth into sixth form, so around 15/16) and we had an inspirational English teacher, John Gibson. He would often leave behind the curricula books, so much so I never read, Edwin Muir, An Autobiography, yet answered an exam question on it! He introduced us to poetry, many classical, but also people like Philip Larkin, Brian Patten and Roger McGough and my favourite, Wilfred Owen. He took us to the theatre in Stratford where we saw Measure for Measure and Hamlet and London where we saw Eric Porter’s King Lear and still the most powerful play I have ever seen, ‘the irresistible rise of Arturo Ui’ with Leonard Rossiter in the lead role. This live, exciting way literature was brought to me through theatre and poetry reading just started me reading, a love of novels which has never left me. I cannot thank him enough. Sadly, he lost his job, I think in the late 1970s, when he tried to teach Peace Studies but fell foul of a reactionary school. He became a poet but I lost the trail on him then. My choice of degree study could have been English but I was good at history and the school had not heard of social sciences so I took history, often wished I had chosen differently.
I remember though one of my favourite courses was literature and history when we looked at how history was conveyed through novels such as Hemingway’s ‘A Farewell to Arms’ or Orwell’s ‘Homage to Catalonia’. In fact this introduction to Orwell also brought a reading plan which stayed with me for many years. One summer I worked for York Council cleaning the Crown Courts. I could only do this before 10 when the courts opened and after 4pm when they had finished so sat in a cubbyhole all day. I decided to read the collected works of Orwell. I loved coming to work, settled into my little, cramped but private space with a cup of tea and I just read. I fell in love not only with the quality of Orwell’s writing but his espousal of democratic socialism against totalitarianism, I found his ideas fitting my own developing philosophy of life.
I have continued to find an author and then read all their works as a strategy in choosing books so amongst others, Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell (though not the Wexford stories), William Boyd, John Le Carrie, Julian Barnes, John Grisham and Ian McEwan spring to mind. So if I read a novel and liked it I would look out for novels by the same individual. Over the years though two other methods have evolved for choosing books, particularly since I abandoned the lists approach (100 best ever novels or best books of the year etc etc). I read an article that calculated the amount of books you could read before you die and even at a fast pace you can touch but a fraction of the total outlay. So I stopped chasing lists as I could never ever get through them. Instead I did two things.
I took note of what my friends were reading, trusted their judgments and picked up books which I then enjoyed, discovered Graham Swift and William Boyd this way. Alongside this I started to read the Man Booker winners circa 2004, starting with the enjoyable ‘The Line of Beauty’ by Alan Hollingsworth, though David Mitchell’s ‘Cloud Atlas’ was my favourite that year and one of my best ever. Not unsurprisingly, having been selected for the major book prize it was an endorsement of quality and I started to read the short lists and then the long lists. From 2009 have met with friends on the evening of the announcement of the prize to chew over the shortlist and select our winner. That year saw ‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel as a nailed-on winner but I went for Simon Mawer ‘The Glass room’ which remains one of my favourite books. It was hard work reading them all in advance but the deadline produced a commitment to complete which meant we got there. This has brought a mixture of some truly great books and some difficult and incomprehensible ones. A recent article inThe Times criticised the Booker prize for producing incomprehensibility; arduousness; obscurity and neophilia (novelty seeking?). I can identify books in all these categories but come October the satisfaction of reading a range of new books outweighs the occasional Tom McCarthy or Will Self aberration.
I have also dabbled in two other book competitions, the women’s prize for fiction (now the Bailey’s prize) which I have done twice, loving it in year one when ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ by Tea Otreht was a deserved winner and the following year when the shortlist was disappointing.
In 2010-11 I found myself on sabbatical in Hong Kong. I had time at last to focus on novels. So much of my working life has been taken up with reading – academic books, articles, student essays, Doctoral theses, reviewing articles, blogs, official reports etc etc etc. This has always squeezed the time for novels. I found myself in HK with time. So I followed the Man Booker Asian Literary Prize. Read books I simply would not have come across before and found a richness about south Asian culture I had been unaware of. During the seven months I read 35 books captured in the collage below, an output I have rarely achieved before or since.
I still do the Man Booker but will choose books which are winners of other prizes, as I said above too many books and not enough time. I have also experimented with the form in which I read. I bought a kindle when I was travelling a lot and this eased the burden of dragging books around. I have gone back to hard copy books more recently. I love the smell and feel of books and love them on my shelves. In two different times I have also audio read books, a very different experience where the reader brings the novel alive with their own interpretation. Last year’s Booker winner, `A brief history of Seven Killings’ by Marlon James was written in several voices and the audio attempted to deliver those very distinctive voices. If I had read it the experience would have been very different. So I still return to hard copy.
So I have tried to highlight why and how I read novels but I am going to finish with my own highly quirky list of my favourite books. I have not listed them in order of merit but more chronologically to reflect books that have had impact over my life as it has progressed. I am sure I have missed some out but it’s just a bit of fun.
Brighton Rock by Graham Green (1938) – I read this in school and was gripped and terrified in equal measure. I had never, in my sheltered life, met such a villain as Pinkie, and his personal struggles to deal with what he did entranced me. I had a nightmare after reading this, the only time this has ever happened.
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1866) – I was enthralled by this book which explored the inner punishment which a crime engenders, even if you have not been discovered. I think this book took me towards probation work and I always encouraged my students to read it.
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949) – my marathon reading sessions at York Crown Court meant Orwell has stayed with me forever. I pick this one but could have picked one or two others. Recently I saw it in the theatre and it reminded me just how relevant the themes remain.
Curious incident of the dog in the nighttime by Mark Haddon (2003) – probably my favourite book of all time. For the first time I understood a little the experience of the world by someone on the autistic spectrum. It was such a well written and powerful novel. More recently I saw it produced as a play and again it had an emotional experience on me I have rarely appreciated. Love it.
The Millennium Trilogy Collection: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2005); The Girl Who Played With Fire (2006); The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2007) by Stig Larsson. – What a total and wonderful surprise these novels were introducing Scandinavian crime fiction in a magnificent and page turning way. Despite their length I read them quickly and thoroughly enjoyed them. A wonderful central character in Elsbeth Salander. Such a shame Larson had died in 2004 so we will see no more of his talents.
To kill a mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960) – I came to this book very late, only a few years ago. I had read all about it many times but never read it. When I did I realised what every review had said, this Pulitzer Prize winner exemplified racial prejudice in a small time American town, still relevant today. I immediately watched the film and it just furthered my admiration.
The colour purple by Alice Walker (1982) – was another Pulitzer Prize winner and also a Spielberg film. It’s a novel about women, about abuse, about children. It is story telling at its best drawn from the horrendous position of women of colour in 1930s America and the author’s own experiences.
The glass room by Simon Mawer (2009) – unlucky to be a short listed book during a Hilary Mantel year this book was an absolute delight. Well written, the fascination of this glass house, made for new lovers. It is based on a real story but set in Czechoslovakia as nazism grew and took over. As the world spins into chaos, the Glass House remains a constant. Lots of twists in the plot but I loved it.
The narrow road to the deep north by Richard Flanagan (2014) – my second Booker choice which won in 2014. For once we all agreed this was our winner. It tells the story of Australian prisoners-of-war in Burma building a railway. It is a harrowing account of their treatment by the Japanese but for me the novel seeks to explore the Japanese mentality making it a much more nuanced account of why individuals act as they do to each other. One of the most disturbing yet mesmerising books I have read.
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (2012) – I have read more and more from Asian authors and this, by a Malaysian author, is one of my absolute favourites. It was shortlisted in 2012 for the Man Booker and won the Man Booker Asian Literary Prize. Amid “the stillness of the mountains” and “the depth of the silence”, a story slowly unfolds. Very, very slowly. It is so well written and really worth time reading it.
So I have tried to answer the question posed and must have missed out as many novels as I have included which deserve a place. I have never re-read a novel so some novels I retain a feel for their quality but not the detail. Amongst these Wuthering Heights, Anna Karenina, Amsterdam, The Sense of an Ending spring to mind. I have plenty of time to read novels now but fatigue and tiredness does impact on my concentration. But come July every year when the Man Booker long list is announced, I get butterflies in the stomach and start the process once again. But this has been a long blog, I must stop.