The pride and prejudice of reading

 

 

I recently read a non-fiction book called The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller. The author felt embarrassed about not having read enough “Great Literature” – especially as he’d claimed to his friends to have read many books that he actually hadn’t. So, to make amends, he set about drawing up a “list of betterment” which then became the premise for his book.

It was an entertaining read, but as he struggled through Middlemarch, War and Peace, Moby Dick and 47 other challenging tomes, I found myself thinking, why do this to yourself? (Unless, of course, you plan to write a humorous book about the experience and/or want to impress people.)

At university I struggled through a long list of “Great Literature”, namely French classics – only a handful of which I actually enjoyed. When I finished my degree, I almost felt like never reading anything again. But then I decided to celebrate my liberation from imposed reading by going out and buying Jilly Cooper’s Rivals. It was like downing a Gin & Tonic after years of being restricted to green smoothies. However, when reading this doorstop of frivolousness in public, I’d shield the cover from view – I didn’t want people to look down on me.

How ridiculous that some books should carry shame while others carry kudos. At a time when reading stories is not the go-to choice of entertainment for so many young people, literary snobbery is something we should be stamping out. And yet we continue to perpetuate it by keeping schtum about the books we’re too ashamed to admit we enjoyed – if not vocally damning them. (I’ve lost count of how many authors and critics have enjoyed publicly bashing Dan Brown. So what if The Da Vinci Code isn’t Pulitzer Prize material? Good on him for making a story accessible for thousands of people who struggle with reading.)

There’s a growing understanding among schools and libraries that in order to encourage kids to read more, we should encourage them to read anything – comics, graphic novels, non-fiction books, picture books, magazines, newspapers, ebooks, poems, blogs – to keep their appetite for reading on a positive trajectory. Perhaps it’s time we extended that ethos to adult reading habits, too.

We should be vocally celebrating the books we love – regardless of how uncool they may be in other people’s opinions. And we shouldn’t feel ashamed if we’ve never read any Jane Austen and can’t be arsed to either. It’s not a competition. You only lose if you deny yourself the pleasure of reading what you truly want to.

Sun, sea and my desert island books

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I love listening to Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, and have often thought about which books and pieces of music I would choose to be marooned with. You could argue that, stuck on a desert island, it would make sense to choose a book that you haven’t read yet. But we all know the rules! In a twist on the radio show format, I’m choosing eight books, rather than discs, that I’ve never forgotten – books that made a real impact on me at different stages in my life, books that I’d love to read again one day. The kind of books that, when you finish them, make you go ‘into the zone’ for at least three days until you feel the fog has lifted enough to start something new.

So, in no particular order…

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

I was probably 10 years old when I read this, and I was engrossed. I can’t remember much about it other than there were two groups of kids, a lot of sailing, swimming, camping and rivalry. So I’d love to read it again to rediscover the magic escapism this book gave me the first time around.

Stranger With My Face by Lois Duncan

I was about 12 when I discovered this author, and what a find! It wasn’t long before my friends and I were spending our school lunch hours discussing all her books, plots and characters. Stranger With My Face was the first one I read and it was unputdownable: a girl’s life starts to spin out of control when her boyfriend claims he’s seen her with another guy and strange things start happening to her friends. The supernatural element – there’s a bit of astral projection going on – had me hooked, and night after night I felt compelled to try projecting my soul out of my body.
“Any joy?” I would ask my friends at school each day.
“Nope. You?”
“Not yet…”

Terms of Endearment by Larry McMurtry

I must’ve been about 13 when I read this. I took it on a family holiday and boy did it stop me from getting bored! It was the first grown-up novel I’d read and I think I borrowed it from my mum – or I’m not sure how else I would’ve come across it. It was full of emotional drama, swearing and scenes of a sexual nature. I was transfixed! I suppose my mum thought it would be educational for me, and might make me look at our mother-daughter relationship from a more mature perspective. It certainly did raise a few questions…not all of which I felt comfortable putting to my mum though.

Germinal by Emile Zola

I didn’t read this by choice. It was on my reading list for 19th Century French literature, part of my French degree. I can’t say I felt that switched on by any of the other books in that module, but Germinal had me gripped – I couldn’t put it down. A mining town community living in extreme poverty. A young couple falling in love for the first time amidst a climate of starvation, anger and violence. It got made into a film with Gerard Depardieu, but trust me – the film doesn’t compare to the book. A nail-biting read that made up for some of the other duller tomes I had to get through. (And no I didn’t read them in French or else I’d never have made it to le fin.)

Wild Swans by Jung Chang

When I was in my early twenties, my elderly French great aunt pressed a £10 note into my hand and urged me to go and buy Wild Swans. Having fallen out of love with reading at university, it was tempting to spend the tenner on a bottle of wine and a Marie Claire. However, knowing that I’d eventually have to report back what I thought of the book, I reluctantly went and bought it. Holy Cow. What an epic read! Not one dull moment. A lesson in history, culture, and how the other half lived, all rolled into one. It’s the true story of three generations of women in one family in China, from the turn of the last century, through the revolution and beyond. A jaw-dropping read. Major respect to my late great aunt for that recommendation. (And for making it to 92 years old as a chain-smoking carnivore – she sure had some gene genies going on there.)

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

I read this while backpacking around Asia with my now husband and devouring books on a speedier-than-usual turnover. For some reason I didn’t read the blurb properly and assumed Arthur Golden was the person the geisha told her story to – a ghostwriter or translator. I was about two thirds of the way through before I realised it was a novel rather than a true story. I couldn’t believe how the drama in this woman’s life was so timely – just like an epic novel! Oh. Hang on… it is an epic novel. Right. That’ll teach me not to dive in without studying the back cover and acknowledgements first! Anyway, bloody brilliant. Left me desperate to visit Japan and name my first child Chiyo. (Husband refused.)

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

I read this about four or five years ago after another hiatus in my reading life (children, this time – hence no energy to read more than the ingredients on the back of a jar of pasta sauce). A twisty-turny tale set in Victorian England. An orphan grows up with a family of thieves, and ends up becoming a maid at a mansion where she meets another orphan who lives a mysterious life with a wealthy but sinister uncle. The plot of this story didn’t let up the pace at any point. You get so sucked in to the world that Sarah Waters has painted, you feel like you’re living inside a Victorian snow globe. Great storytelling.

The Right To Write by Julia Cameron

I don’t read a lot of non-fiction. But back in my twenties, I went through a phase of reading a lot of it – mainly because I was finding life hard and so I sought out guidance. So I read a lot of self-help books, with a fair few that focused on writing and creativity. This book in particular helped me to believe that I was a writer, that writers weren’t some exclusive group I wasn’t qualified to join. Every page is littered with nuggets of wisdom that I’ve underlined in order to programme them into my brain. I owe a lot to this book and its insightful author, and every now and again I skim through it, reminding myself of truths I’ve forgotten.

Music and a luxury item?

As with the Radio 4 show, I also get to take a piece of music and a luxury item. So I would choose Say Hello, Wave Goodbye by Soft Cell, which I would sing passionately from the top of my lungs into a twig and an imaginary camera. And for my luxury item, it’s got to be an enormous note book and pen. Wait – does that count as two items? Ok, well it’s one of those notebooks that comes with a pen attached. Sorted. Bon voyage!

Are you feeling shelf-conscious?

A work in progress

A work in progress

Since I got sucked into the trend of writers posting their #shelfies on Twitter, I’ve been forced to take a closer look at my bookshelves. They are sadly lacking and don’t reflect my reading habits at all. But that’s just it: I haven’t paid much attention to my bookshelves in years – not since a male friend put the revolutionary suggestion to me of having a damn good clear-out, followed by a new policy – only keeping the occasional book you really, really loved reading.

I had, until that suggestion was made, pretty much kept every book I’d ever read since the age of about 18. But as I was rapidly running out of shelf space at the time, had a partner whose art book collection seemed to take an unspoken prominence in our living room, and with a baby on the way, I thought this was sensible advice.…until more recently.

When I wanted to thrust a book at my husband to read the other day (not that he was likely to read it but every now and again I like to thrust some fiction at him as a dare) I was galled to find it was no longer on my shelves. I’d loved it so much I’d forced it upon an unsuspecting friend almost immediately after reading it. Damn! Now I had to go and buy it again, because whether the husband read it or not, I suddenly regretted giving it away. (The book in question was Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns.)

My piddly little collection of most beloved books had shrunk over the years as I’d been too quick to give books away to friends and charity shops. I’d quite liked the idea that I was recycling books and passing on the joy of reading them, and yet at the same time, I’d diddled myself out of a collection of much-loved reads.

Instead, ten years after I’d introduced my new policy, our shelves were heaving with the husband’s art, design and photography books, the husband’s business books, the husband’s autobiography and travel memoir collection and the kids’ books. Whereas I had been SQUEEZED OUT! All I had was a handful of classics from my degree course, a couple of chick lit reads from my early twenties and Wild Swans by Jung Chang (which my late, great aunt forced me to buy and for which I’m eternally grateful.)

So, over the last year or so, I’ve been trying to re-grow my Greatest Reads collection and resist giving books away. Is this because I’d like to one day produce a really impressive #shelfie that speaks volumes about the well-read unsnobbish fiction consumer I am? Not really. (Oh go on, then.) Or is it because it’s high time I claimed back some shelf-territory from the husband and kids? Nope. (I’ve already cleared out a crap-stack of his business books and he hasn’t even noticed.)

I just want to hoard the books that made me laugh, cry, or drew me into a world I didn’t want to leave. Because books that make you feel something are works of art. And treasure is for keeping.

In short, I intend to be more shelfish. (Sorry.)

Five Beg For Mercy

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Whenever I try to read a book that I loved as a child to my own children, I’m often met with cries of protest. Never more so than when I force-read Enid Blyton’s Five Go to Smuggler’s Top to them.

‘You’re gonna LOVE it!’ I told them.

‘No we’re not!’ they cried.

But I was certain they’d change their minds once we’d got a few pages in. I was wrong. The moaning – or rather outright begging for mercy – continued for a good five chapters. And perhaps not surprisingly: some of the language was so old-fashioned, I found myself adopting an Enid Blytonesque accent to read it. (Or at least how I imagined she must have sounded when reading out lines such as: “It will be nice to see your mother again, George, she’s an awfully good sort.” )

After chapter 5, my eldest (who was 8 at the time of reading it last year) started to get into it. Victory! But not for long. Towards the end, her interest waned. We made it to the finish line after about three weeks, with my eldest grumbling, ‘Thank God that’s over.’ Since then I’ve avoided forcing my old favourites upon them, although they both love Roald Dahl. (Well, who doesn’t?)

Today, as my eldest is off school with a sore throat, I decided to compare some of her favourite books with some of my childhood favourite books. (Scroll down for our Top Tens.) I also interviewed her to find out why she liked what she did.

Me: Which is your favourite book out of the ones you’ve listed?’

Her: Ottoline Goes to Sea.

Me: Why?

Her: Just is.

Me: But why?

Her: It’s really cool.

Me: And it’s cool because…?

Her: It’s just great.

Me: Would you still love it as much without the illustrations?

Her: No.

Me: I’m just going to make a cup of tea. When I get back, I’m going to extract some real answers out of you, so get thinking!

Me: Right, why do you love Ottoline so much?

Her: Because it came with a pair of bog-goggles that helps you see the hidden things that only Mr Munroe can see.

Me: I see. I think what you really love about Ottoline is the illustrations.

Her: Yes.

Me: So which book on your list is the one you kept thinking about the most after you’d finished reading it?

Her: Esio Trot.

Me: Why?

Her: (She proceeds to give me a long explanation of the story because she read this one to herself and I’ve never read it.)

Me: So why did you keep thinking about it?

Her: I was thinking about the fact that Mr Hoppy lied to get someone to like him.

Me: Was he wrong to do that?

Her: Sort of.

Me: But did he do anyone any harm?

Her: No.

Her: Now ask me why I’ve chosen two David Walliams books.

Me: Why have you chosen two David Walliams books?

Her: He’s my favourite author and some of his books make me laugh and some of them make me sad. I really like Raj who runs the newsagents. He’s really funny and he’s in all the David Walliams books.

Me: And why do you like Mr Stink the best?

Her: Because you wouldn’t know what a tramp’s past was just by looking at them.

Me: Why didn’t you like The Famous Five?

Her: Cos I didn’t understand the language.

Me: But I explained the language as we went along.

Her: It was still boring. I don’t like old-fashioned books. I like new comedy books.

Me: I’m not holding out much hope for The Wind in the Willows then.

Her: Well I might like it.

Me: Good, stay open-minded.

Her: Can I play on your computer now?

Me: No, I’m using it. Thank you for your time. Go and do some reading.

Her: Do I get extra pocket money for helping you write your blogpost?

Me: Only if you pay me next time I help you with your homework.

Ten of my favourite books from when I was a child:

  1. Grinny by Nicholas Fisk
  2. The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford
  3. Five Go to Smuggler’s Top by Enid Blyton
  4. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
  5. Stig of the Dump by Clive King
  6. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
  7. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis
  8. Sleeping Beauty (Ladybird version 1965. I loved the illustrations by Eric Winter.)
  9. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
  10. Father Christmas goes on Holiday by Raymond Briggs

Ten of my 9-year-old daughter’s favourite books:

  1. Mr Stink by David Walliams
  2. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever by Jeff Kinney
  3. Ottoline Goes to Sea by Chris Riddell
  4. Kensuke’s Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo
  5. Esio Trot by Roald Dahl
  6. I will not ever Never eat a Tomato by Lauren Child
  7. My Brother’s Famous Hot Cross Bottom by Jeremy Strong
  8. Judy Moody gets Famous by Megan McDonald
  9. Billionaire Boy by David Walliams
  10. Totally Winnie by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul