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Regaining My Reading Mojo

Booker Talk is welcoming two additional members of the team this year. 

In her first post for Booker Talk, publishing student Cerian Fishlock bemoans the effect doing a literature degree had on her enthusiasm for reading


 

rorygilmoreblogpostGrowing up, I was the avid reader stereotype. I would arrive at school every day with at least one non-syllabus book in my bag. My tutor encouraged my passion, asking for recommendations, and marvelling at the (ridiculous) number of texts I consumed in the holidays.

I was the real-life Rory Gilmore.

 

Yet, at some point something changed.

I went to university to study English and History. And to be perfectly honest, I would be slightly ashamed to reveal the number of books that I’ve managed to read in the past 2 years.

Don’t misunderstand, I genuinely loved university. But I’ve only recently realised the damaging effect that it had upon my relationship with the books that I once loved.

I can’t possibly speak for all subjects, but I can say the amount of reading English and History departments require is, frankly, ludicrous. At least one book per week for English (often two, and more for single honours), and probably five or more accompanying chapters. For History it was ten to twenty academic texts a week. These were upwards of 60 pages, and incisive notes were expected – plus your other work. I only had 5-10 weekly contact hours, but I was still in the library daily between 9am-6pm, pouring over the pages and pages spread over all surrounding desks.

As I said, I loved university, so I’m genuinely not trying to complain. But when your time is spent reading for work, it’s difficult to read for pleasure.

You can no longer just be absorbed by a text. Now you subconsciously consider all possible meanings behind every syntactic choice. Books I used to adore I haven’t touched in years. I’m unable to detach them from the indecipherable notes scrawled down whilst my tutor shared his wisdom whilst going a million miles a minute.

There are the books I didn’t like, those I had no say in reading. In my first year I had no influence at all over the English modules taken, and they were often not my taste. I enjoyed them at the time, but that’s a year spent on texts I will never revisit, never look back on in fondness.

Although I hate to admit it, the lack of reading for pleasure whilst studying may have had something to do with the fact that it was around the time I went to university that Netflix really took off. When the options are either struggling through a translation of Middle English or watching the newest season of Orange is the New Black, I think I’ll go for the latter. The thought of reading too much else outside of these hours was just fairly exhausting.

So how am I trying to move on?

Firstly, I’m only reading the books I truly want to. If it’s recommended and sounds like my cup of tea, great. If not, I won’t pretend it’s going on my ‘To Be Read’ list.

Secondly, I’m making a note of all the titles I find interesting, so that when the mood strikes, I’ll be able to take my pick – rather than aimlessly wandering Waterstones, slightly overwhelmed by all the options. (Please don’t say I’m the only one this happens to?)

Finally, I am setting myself personal targets. These are just for me, and will be adjustable to reflect the realities of the rest of my life. Don’t worry I won’t be popping these on GoodReads, I’d probably end up feeling inferior!

I still love books, I’ve never stopped. I think I just had to take a break for a while, to regain my senses. As I’ve said, I really did love university. I just hate that it temporarily ruined my relationship with literature, without me really being aware it was happening.

 

The Edible Woman: Review

AtwoodMargaret Atwood‘s first novel, The Edible Woman, was considered a landmark novel when it was published in 1969.  Although Atwood later described her work as protofeminist rather than feminist, her themes of gender stereotyping and objectification of women, reflected some of the central concerns of the burgeoning women’s movement.

Her protagonist is Marian McAlpin, a young single woman on the verge of marriage who feels torn between the role that society expects her to enact and her desire to be her self. Her body’s rejection of food becomes the manifestation of her rejection of the female normative behaviour. First she discovers that meat – anything with “bone or tendon or fiber” – revolts her, then the same thing happens with eggs, carrots and rice pudding.  By the end of the book she seems to exist on little more than a few salad leaves.

Her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. At one point she hides from her fiance under a sofa bed; in another science she runs away from him, triggering a bizarre night-time car chase through the streets of a snowbound Canadian city.  As the wedding date gets closer, her sense of her individuality have declined to the point where she no longer recognises herself. Looking into the mirror all she sees is a “tiny, two-dimensional small figure in a red dress, posed like a paper woman in a mail order catalogue turning and smiling, fluttering.”

Will she or won’t she wed is a question that gets resolved in a truly imaginative way right in the final pages. It’s about the only part of the book that I enjoyed. The rest was a plod to the extent I wouldn’t have bothered reading beyond about page 70 if this hadn’t been the monthly book club choice.  Accepting that the issues with which it deals have moved on significantly since the late 60s so didn’t have as much resonance as it did for contemporary readers, my main issues were that  I didn’t feel any empathy with Marian – in fact I found her passivity tiresome – and I was lacking the sparkle that I’ve experienced in Atwood’s other works.

Here is a woman who knows that her fiance Peter treats her with little respect, almost like a child. He constantly tells her what to wear and how to act,  and she is uncomfortable that his love-making gives her the feeling “she was on  doctor’s examination table” or that he regularly rests his ashtray on her back as though she were a  a table.  Yet she doesn’t say anything or do anything to change the situation, just drifts along with the status quo.

The other characters are even less likeable; actually I found them distasteful. There’s her flatmate, Ainsley, who decides she wants to have a baby without having a husband because she thinks they ruin families. So she seduces someone, gets pregnant by him, doesn’t understand why he should be so angry about being used by her and simply tells him she wants nothing more to do with him  But when she reads that children raised without fathers are liable to be homosexual, she  changes her mind and begins insisting he marries her.

Another friend is married to someone who thinks the answer to the problem that educated women lose their sense of individual personality when they get married, is for her to produce lots of babies and attend the occasional evening class.

The Edible Woman launched Margaret Atwood’s as a prose writer of major significance. I’m so glad that it wasn’t the first I read by her because I would have been highly unlikely to read another. And that would have meant I missed out on  gems like The Handmaiden’s Tale and Blind Assassin.

Armchair Bea: on literary genres

BEAToday’s topic for BEA Armchair is where I nail my colours to the literary mast. The question is: What fictional genre do you most love – or hate?

The answer for me is quite simple: I’m a realist fan to the core. In a bookstore or library, I steer well clear of shelves categorised as ‘romance’ or ‘ science fiction’. I know they have a huge fan following but they leave me completely cold.

I read some romance stuff when I was younger, usually because it was lying around in a friend’s house and there was nothing else to read or because someone in school said “you must read this’.  But it all feels like the same story just with different character names and locations. Any book that has a cover like this has me running in the opposite direction.

romance 2

Even worse would be anything in this vein

romance

It’s not that I have an aversion to good looking men but those rippling muscles didn’t get there by accident. He’s going to be spending so many hours at the gym he’s hardly likely to have time to spare for me is he? And if you’ve watched any of these guys in the gym, you’ll know that they like nothing more than standing in front of the mirror admiring their muscles.

I want to read about real people, the kind that I could conceivably meet in the street. They have real sounding names (ones that authors have spent considerable time agonising over so they sound authentic) and do ordinary things – they are not always flying off to some exotic destination to fix world hunger or solve the Middle East crisis but instead have to do the supermarket run or worry about their ageing mum and the cost of healthcare. They have real problems, and real concerns.

The kind of books I want to read are ones I can relate to, not because I know that part of the world where they are located, or because I have experience of the culture of the central characters. But because they engage my interest in things which are common to us all as humans – to use a phrase from one of my favourite films Shadowlands: “We read to know we’re not alone”.

That doesn’t mean my favourite kind of reading is always about portentous issues or the style is sombre. One of the best reads for me this year so far has been Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou – a very funny novel about a bunch of characters in a dilapidated Congolese bar. They’re no hopers who have an exaggerated sense of their own importance but as much as we laugh at them, there is a part of their story which makes us realise that their own experience might easily have been ours.

Discover literature Eagleton style

sheepAnyone with more than a passing interest in studying literature will not get too far into the subject without encountering Terry Eagleton. Former professor of literature at Oxford university, currently at Lancaster University and Notre Dame, he’s the author of some forty books on literary theory and criticism.

So what is a man considered by many to be the UK’s most influential living literary critic and theorist, doing writing an extended analysis and interpretation of  the eighteenth century nursery rhyme Ba Ba Blacksheep in his latest book How to Read Literature?

Might there be some hitherto unknown political significance to this rhyme revealed by Eagleton’s Marxian view of literature? Or a social comment about racial tensions uncovered by a post colonial reinterpretation?  The simple answer is no. Eagleton’s analysis is far more entertaining than either of these approaches. In his analysis, the rhyme becomes a hilarious encounter between a rude man and a sheep with a chip on his shoulder when he (or maybe she) isn’t afforded the normal courtesy of being addressed by name.

LiteratureDeeply entertaining yes. But Professor Eagleton does have a more serious point to make — that literary works lend themselves to multiple interpretations with the ‘meaning’ depending on the reader’s own perspectives. Nor is the ‘meaning’ fixed in time and. Rather …….

Literary works may best be seen not as texts with a fixed sense, but as matrices capable of generating a whole range of possible meanings. They do not so much contain meaning as produce it.

In How to Read Literature, Eagleton shows how readers can get a deeper understanding of literary works by closely examining aspects such as tone, ambiguity, syntax as well as the formal aspects of character and narrative voice in  five sections  “Openings”, “Character”, “Narrative”, “Interpretation” and “Value”. He ranges far and wide across different texts, taking in poetry, drama as well as novels, providing insights into a large range of authors as diverse as Shakespeare, E M Forster and J K Rowling.

The introduction describes How to Read Literature as a text  for students new to the study of literature as well as people who want to deepen and enrich their reading experience. To fully appreciate it, does require a fair knowledge of different works of literature but Eagleton never gets so far into dissecting a particular text that you feel overwhelmed. It would be a great companion read to that other classic, David Lodge‘s Art of Fiction. 

About this book

My copy of How to Read Literature, published earlier this week , was provided by NetGalley.

Sunday Salon: Becoming better readers

sundaysalonLast week’s Sunday Salon was about the experience of acquiring books to read – and the merits of browsing randomly for interesting novels versus searching for ones to tick off our TBR lists. This week, an email from the Writers and Artists Team at Bloomsbury Publishing got me thinking about the experience of actually reading .

A  quick trawl through the blogosphere shows how practices and habits differ. Some people seem to be serial readers, actively seeking out the next title from their favourite author or the next that features the same central character. Some read according to categories (historical fiction, classics, fantasy etc). Then there are those who read multiple texts in parallel and those who  prefer to read only one at a time.

According to the Writers and Artists Team, whichever approach we choose to take, if we want to be serious readers then we have to engage actively with the text. In other words we have to:

read with focus, read with awareness and read effectively.

By that they mean looking beyond the basic plot and storyline and being attentive more to the construction of the text. They recommend five steps that anyone who wants to hone their skills as readers, should consider when reading a novel:

  1. Setting – where and when is it set? How does the author convey the setting? Which senses are being used?
  2. Perspective – who is telling the story? Are they a reliable narrator? How does their relationship to the story affect the way it is presented to the reader?
  3. Character – who are the key characters? What are we explicitly told about each character and what are we subtly shown? Focusing on the key characters, what are their motivations? What obstacles do they face?
  4. Structure – does the story unfold linearly or does it jump about in time? How does this affect our understanding of the events? Mark the points of crises, tension, climax and the final dénouement.
  5. Style – how are the sentences constructed? Are they short and punchy or long and carefully embellished? How does this impact on the pace?

None of these are particularly earth shattering pieces of advice. They likely appear in all good school text books on literary analysis. But they are useful starting points. I’ve found David Lodge’s  The Art of Fiction
to be a more detailed guide , particularly the sections dealing with techniques such as showing and telling, point of view, and time-shifting.

Having said that, I’ve come to realise this week that I never consciously think about any of this when I am reading. Most likely  I have missed a lot of the richness of meaning as a result. So I’m making a mental note to think more about what I’m reading – it might mean slowing down the pace at which I read but that’s ok. I’m not in a race…..

The magic of second-hand bookshops – part two

My recent post about the delights of antiquarian and second-hand bookshops, seems to have struck a chord with many of my blog followers. By coincidence I found this interesting article from Sam Sacks, who writes on fiction for the Wall Street Journal, about his experience of working in bookstores. While he loves the portability that ereaders and other devices offer, the feeling of going into a store and of building your own library is irreplacable in his view. What he loves most is spending time  as a volunteer at the Housing Works charity bookstore in downtown Manhattan.

We browsers might think on walking into the store that there is little rhyme or reason to how the shelves are organised.But Sam explains that the selection isn’t as whimsically random as it looks at first glance.  In fact, the decision of what goes next to what is the product of considerable thought, the trick of which however, is to make the result look almost accidental.

“The chance of discovery is vital to the act of book-browsing, so I always tried to fill the categories that attract different kinds of truth-seekers—religion, new age, and philosophy. The habitués of these sections (along with those of classics, children’s books, and cookbooks) compose a bookstore’s most enthusiastic patrons, and they add to its sense of magic,” he reveals.

Next time I come across something in one of the second hand stores or charity shops that I think is a real find, I’m going to have to remember that this was probably part of a plan by someone like Sam who says: ” I always sprinkled the dollar- and fifty-cent-book shelves with gems of higher value to cultivate the feeling of treasure hunting that draws so many people to bookstores in the first place.that I think is a hidden treasure.”

 

Sunday Salon: Literary Podcasts

I seem to have spent a fair amount of time this week listening to podcasts from a variety of universities and radio stations. They’re perfect for lightening the deeply boring experience of ironing but I also enjoy listening them while on the cross trainer in the gym. What I’ve found however is that the quality can vary enormously, particularly those which are real-time recordings of university lectures.

Here are a few examples of ones I’ve enjoyed this week:

The Guardian Books podcast

This is a rich mixture of interviews with leading authors and commentary on developments in the publishing world. Of those I’ve listened to so far, the most memorable have been a walking tour of Oliver Twist’s London – you can listen to this while actually walking through the streets in which the novel is set. The two presenters reflect on how the area has changed and give fascinating background about some of the buildings – in one section we are given an explanation of how prisoners were made to walk up to eight hours a day on a treadmill which served no useful function but was there merely to keep them occupied. The commentary is intersposed with readings from the book. Highly recommended.

The second I enjoyed was an episode with Michael Frayn who talks about the background to his book Spies  which features two young boys who play at hunting down spies in their London neighbourhood and take to following the mother of one of them. But what they think they discover and what is actually happening are two very different things. Frayn is an excellent raconteur and talks with good humour about his own childhood and how that informed the book.

Available on ITunes podcasts

BBC Radio 4: Foreign Bodies

A series which examines the tradition of crime fiction across Europe. Each episode takes  an  example from one of the European countries and examines how they how they reflected the particular period of their country’s history and – often – how they subverted the political regime. The first episode focused on Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret (one of my favourites); but since then we’ve had the Inspector Montelbano series from Sicily and PD James and Ruth Rendell from England . The series has introduced me to writers I now nothing about yet who are household names in their own countries ( like Friedrich Durrenmatt who wrote the highly successful Inspector Barlach mysteries).  Available on ITunes podcasts

Oxford University: George Eliot 

This is a series of first year undergraduate lectures designed to introduce us to Eliot’s view of the world and how this was reflected in her novels. Eliot had a huge intellect and was keenly interested in science, especially Darwinism, and humanism. The lectures look at Eliot’s view of the intellect and consciousness.

Available on ITunes university podcasts

Cambridge University: Key terms and Concepts in Literary Criticism

Nine podcasts which dive into topic such as ‘The nature of the reader’; ‘Nature and the Imagination’  and ‘The Pastoral’. Each lecture is delivered by a different specialist and is designed to help undergraduates acquire the skills needed for literary criticism. Ive only got as far as the first one about The Reader so far – the quality is excellent though many of the ideas are quite hard to grasp.

 

 

 

Life after the Booker – postscript

Apparently my knowledge of Booker prize winners is somewhat unreliable. In my last post I commented that no-one has won the prize twice.  Fortunately Laura at http://completebooker.blogspot.co.uk/ is considerably more clued up and tells me that in fact two people have achieved that honour.

Peter Carey won in 1988 (Oscar and Lucinda) and 2001 (True History of the Kelly Gang)

J M Coetzee  won in 1983 (Life and Times of Michael K) and again in 1999 (Disgrace).

Glad that someone could help me set the record straight.

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