The Hiatus

My dear friends,

It has been some considerable period of time since I wrote you last, (and it may be some time before I write you again. Forgive me.)

I have been recently battling, and conquering my reading hiatus. The long dry-spell between books – it’s not a matter of being unable to choose. Sometimes my infinite to-read pile is just too long, I can’t bear to finish the chapter I’m on and I can’t sink my teeth into a new book.

…so, the purpose of this post is not necessarily to break your literary dry-spell, but, I aim to shed light, to empower, to challenge. A wall only need lose a single brick to crumble. Wood only needs a crack to splinter. A sheet of glass only needs a chip to shatter.

Right – now the poetry’s over, we can talk business.

To begin, I have a few suggestions.

  • Let it pass, don’t even think about it.

..seems a bit obvious, doesn’t it? But sometimes life can rain on one’s wee reading parade. Day-dream on the bus, listen to relaxing music before you go to sleep, have long cups of tea, draw a bath. Books are patient fellows. You’ll come back to reading, you won’t forget how.

  • Listen to an audiobook.

Chances are your favourite actor has done an audiobook as part of their work. Tom Hiddleston, Stephen Fry, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Burton, Martin Freeman, Meryl Streep, Idris Elba, Javier Bardem, Ryan Gosling have all done audiobooks as part of their respective portfolios – why not go from there?

  • Read an old favourite.

Start at page one, start at page 145, read your favourite part over and over, go through the pages and finally look up all those words you weren’t sure of. Start at the end, jump the boring book in the series. Allow yourself to be flexible with old favourites.

  • Try a new genre.

Start something totally different, let it be strange, get acclimatised, or don’t. Become absorbed in a new author’s prose, frown at plot lines, find a new favourite, figure out why you’re not so keen on Scandinavian crime writers. Dive in headfirst, it’s the best way to get used to swimming.

  • Read a book a level below you.

Roll your eyes at the predictable plots perhaps, be astonished at the smaller chapters, fall in love with a character that’s seven years younger than you, grow fond of a book with pictures, appreciate the lines of an illustrator, finish the book in a day, discover why this book was tricky to read when you were eight. Read, relax, don’t think too hard.

  • Read a magazine – they should have a fiction section, too.

Hey – it counts. It’s reading, on a page, with lines, and prose, and punctuation. Plenty of magazines have fiction sections, some with incredibly famous authors contributing. It’s all the pleasure of reading with half the commitment, enjoying an author with half the pressure.

  • Read one page.

Hey, you read a page! You should be well-chuffed. Don’t let that achievement slide. Tick it off your to-do list, get on with your day. You’ll reach the end of the book eventually, it’s not a race. Who knows – maybe you’ll read more than a page, maybe you’ll grow to set a daily limit. Reading is reading is reading, and shouldn’t be disregarded.

  • Read fanfiction.

Although I’m not a huge fan, fanfiction has once rather aptly been described to me as ‘the punk rock’ of literature. …or something to that effect. There’s plenty of it out there. It varies from the weird and the wonderful, the strange and bizarre, the poorly-written, the well-written, the in-depth, the brief, the…questionable, the not-bads and mediocres, the brilliant and bookmarked-in-your-browsers. Try none, or try them all.

  • Read comic books.

Comic books, graphic novels – I consume them. They’re easy to read if written well and don’t require much concentration to read. I like to flip through the pages and watch the BAM!, THWACK!, CRUNCH! All fly past. They’re bright and simple and often with very little dialogue. So throw away your stereotypes about comic book readers and fanatics, try it while you wander through the Novel’s No Man’s Land.

  • Listen to a podcast

Okay, so it’s not really a book, but a lot of them have chapters, characters, plots, dialogue, jokes, drama.  Pick up something you fancy and give it a listen while you’re making the commute, or cleaning your room, or falling asleep, or waiting. If anything, it might serve to inspire you to read again.

  • Make a fort. — Trust me.

Build a sacred little reading space – somewhere comfortable you can sit and read for a while. Decorate it as you like, make it as big, or as small, as spacious, or as cozy as you like. Construct it out of bedding, out of towels and old linens, out of books, out of boxes, out of spare furniture, out of gingerbread. If you build a place you want to be, chances are, you might like to read there, too.

So, there it is. A rather lengthy post about how to beat one’s reading hiatus. (I only hope, for those who are currently struggling, that I’ve kept you to the end.)

May the road rise to meet you,

Lydia.

…may the wind always be at your back, may the sun shine warm upon your face…

Romance novels, really?

Dear darlings,

My extended absence has been due to an inexcusable and heinous amount of coursework delegated to me by my university. (But I am on break now, and with any luck you should be hearing from me more frequently.)

So, this evening’s theme is the delightfully humble and equally ostentatious romance novel. The cheap-paperback, mass-manufactured, newspaper-grey paper type romance novel. The Mills & Boon that aren’t necessarily organised by alphabetical author names but are categorised by questionable genres. There are the obvious genre choices like, desire, sweet, sexy (all appropriately coloured and coded). Then there are the less obvious genre choices like medical (steamy sprees between various medical staff), intrigue, romantic suspense, cherish, blaze. 

I prefer the historical types with a lengthy and well-tailored family tree where caddish dons and wilful ladies flee the family home to elope, marry and fling themselves into arms of another. Thick, papery, solid little books with fantastical titles and a blurb so exaggerated it nearly always makes me laugh. Heavily embellished prose, aged, dated words to represent certain human anatomy and constant references to hair colour, eye colour and flushing complexions.

Of course, romance novels are an acquired taste. I like them in the same way that many people watch TV for poor-quality soap operas. Endless re-runs, a constant cycle of relationships punctuated with a peculiar teary-eyed stare allow for its audiences to laugh, scoff and sigh without needing to involve themselves in the plot. I like them in the same way that most people have an obscure video game from their early adolescence with retro graphics and special effects and a plot line so sparse it takes the player 45 minutes to finish the game.

That being said, I have certain principles I like to abide by (because there are some terribly written romance novels out there – but I suppose the same could be said for every genre.) I have a few key prolific authors I like to read, I avoid erotica and I never purchase them myself. Although, occasionally, my fines from the library might be equivalent to their recommended retail prices. 

I wouldn’t have read romance novels at all were it not for Captain Jack’s Woman by Stephanie Laurens. It goes something like this: Enter red-haired, tempestuous maiden Kit Cranmer, disguised as a male leader of a British smuggling ring, sword-fighting with a chiseled pirate, Captain Jack, bathed in moonlight and instantly drawn to the mysterious Kit – who is currently shrouded in darkness and apparently a chap. (And I’m all for fluid sexuality, but reading about a masculine man in a power struggle with his own heterosexuality was absolutely delightful to me.) I won’t spoil the ending – but there were pirates, bandits, breeches and swash-buckling savvy lasses, I was sold.

So, take the flowery verse of a romance novel with a grain of salt – but that doesn’t mean you have to enjoy it. Take advantage of its lesser appreciated features – the fact that it has an entire sub genres at its disposal. Westerns, fantasy sagas, modern detective stories, its not without its wide range of choices. Don’t be put off by eroticised covers or the faded heart-shaped stickers applied to the spine by your local library.

A book has many purposes – to open a reader’s mind, to help someone fall asleep, to help pass the time, to soothe, to inspire. Different people read for different reasons, but don’t discount the humble wee romance novel – it might be just what you need.

Talk soon, I promise,

Lydia.

The Restless Reader

My dear friends, I am in a quandary.

I have become a restless reader. I am tossing from book to book, half-turning pages and placing it back in the pile and picking up the other two and half-reading them, too. The books in question are: Uncle Fred in the Springtime by P.G Wodehouse, Elie Wiesel’s Twilight and In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.

I started In Cold Blood some time ago, and was nearly lulled to sleep in its careful prose and sleepy descriptions of Holcomb, Kansas. I was then obliged to read several books for course work, and have picked it up little since. While reading it previously I felt as though I was in a dinghy, floating out in the middle of the ocean. The sun was hot on my face, the hush of a high sun and salt in my hair. With no land in view, I simply lay down in the tiny, rickety boat and waited for the tide to pull me home. When I picked it up again, it was as though my little dinghy had become lodged in the sand, and I could not relax into it as I had once done before.

Capote’s smooth, even prose was not so easy to sink my teeth into. I longed for the comforting rock of my boat on the waves, but I felt I had no choice other than to sweat, push and pull until I would be waterborne again.

Uncle Fred in the Springtime is the obligatory monthly book for a book club I am aspiring to join. The theme, this particular month of September, is Spring. This book was not my first choice – and now it is too late to hunt down Henry Miller’s Black Spring. The reason this book was not my first choice, is this: P.G Wodehouse is my literary hangover cure. His warm, sunny, humorist prose can rid me of my proverbial prose headache in a single chapter. The dusty, heavy drapes of Nathaniel Hawthorne are drawn back, the wine-ringed stream of consciousness of Kerouac is wiped clean. The thin, spidery cobwebs of a new author are swept away and my Hemingway sigh is finally an exhale.

His choice of language is its own distinct vernacular, such that anyone else who reads him for the first time instantly knows him, and feels familiar and at home. I have nothing but sheer admiration for our Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, but I cannot read him all at once. His work is not rich, but perhaps it is buttery and it is for this reason that sometimes I feel I have read too much of him.

Elie Wiesel’s Twilight has a rather grim blurb. Promises of post-Holocaust prose, a mental hospital in upstate New York and years of unsolved psychological trauma in post-war Poland from a 15-year-old boy’s perspective await you, should you choose this book. Normally, I would avoid this type of book quite readily – not only is the writer unknown to me (though apparently nobel peace prize-winning) but the subject matter, if not well-written, promises to seriously threaten my mental well-being. (I have a tendency to become very absorbed in books.) But I picked it up, because it was humble and had a sweet cover and a quiet name and I took the little purple book home.

I loved the book, but as I started to read, I began to feel more and more lost. I am not one for nuances or understanding or grasping metaphors or smoking out subtext. That is not to say I do not enjoy when a book challenges me, but when I find myself wondering if a certain person is a character or a metaphor, I lose track of the plot, and I lose confidence in myself as a reader. It has been translated from French originally – there hovers a shadow of the weight of any word.  Am I asking the right questions while reading it? How much of it is based on reality? Does it have supernatural or fantastical themes? What if I am not clever enough to read and understand this book?

I am lost, dear friend. Groping about in the darkness, with voices going in three different directions and all their echos in between. But I am moving nonetheless, and I know there is a book out there somewhere that can break the spell.

In the mean time, read for me, while I take the long way home.

Marking my spot,

Lydia.

A Reluctant Re-Reader Becomes a Little Sentimental (And Enjoys Re-Reading)

I have always been a reluctant re-reader. I’m not the type to finish a series in chronological order, only to begin again with the first novelI’m not the type to easily pick up an old favourite and wallow in its world again. I’m not the type to re-read and re-read and re-read a passage until I have it memorised.

That’s not to say I don’t admire re-readers. Their commitment to their favourite novel is extraordinary. They firmly grasp the concept of quality over quantity. They have no urge to pick up several books before finding the right one that suits them, because they have already found it.

I’m not a re-reader, because up until a few years ago, I hadn’t belonged to a book. When I found my niche of cult-reads, classics and modern literature, I was compelled to collect as many as possible, with no time to peruse over past favourites. I could only push them to the bottom of a pile or pass them on, and on, and on after I had read them. I became like a strange nomad, books strapped to my back, falling away into proverbial desert sand, to be picked up and dusted off hastily on my journey home.

Recently, however, a university course summoned up the need for me to re-read one of my favourite books, Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip. It was her first published novel and I read it and returned to the library two days. I was a teenager, unsure of my literary tastes and this book was one of the first that satisfied my hunger for modern literature. A hunger I didn’t know I had. I sank my teeth into Nora and her sexual partners, the heat of the house in the 1960’s, her appetite for love, her isolation, her stifled naps and struggled parenting.

I finished the book in a haze, feeling a little drunk with sunshine and sex and orchards and bikes and trips to the baths. So when I saw this book on my required reading list, I smiled with the memory of it. But I did not want to read it again. What would it give me that I had not read in it the first time? The answer, my dear companion, is so very much. I picked up the book again, acknowledged Nora, felt her fragility, saw her struggle with feminism and intimacy, tasted the bitter, metallic taste of the drugs she experimented with and felt her desperate isolation at the hands of her peers. A few weeks ago, though, I had thought about re-reading – but purely as a matter of course and mechanics.

A very dear friend of mine and I are writing to each other, purely for our own enjoyment, with ideas and plot lines based on one of our favourite collection of stories. (If you’ve guessed which collection of stories I’m referring to, then you’re a very clever thing.) I had planned to re-read this collection again to reaffirm myself with details, nuances and little quotes we might be able to use to reference the original work. But now, after re-reading Monkey Grip I’m thinking that perhaps I will re-read the stories anyway, with the added bonus of familiarising myself with the works.

There’s certainly something to be said for sentiment. And maybe I’m just terribly sentimental after all.

Yours until further notice,

Lydia.

A Person Who Prefers Books Advocates the E-Reader

Missed me? I’ve been absent this past month, but I’m back now, and sufficiently humbled by course work. (If anyone noticed I’ve been quiet, you’re very observant and I like you. For the person who was too busy to notice my absence because they were reading, I like you too.)

The theme of this evening’s post is, of course, the raging debate between the book addicts and the e-reader advocates. I am neither and both. I love books, I appreciate the kindle.  I suppose I could say I prefer books, but I think reading will always matter to me more than any medium I choose to do it in.

‘… he also had a device which looked rather like a largish electronic calculator. This had about a hundred tiny flat press buttons and a screen about four inches square on which any one of a million “pages” could be summoned at a moment’s notice…The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy…The reason why it was published in the form of a micro sub meson electronic component is that if it were printed in normal book form, an interstellar hitch hiker would require several inconveniently large buildings to carry it around in.’

I thought I’d use a quote from a book to try and win over the sceptics skimming this. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the masterpiece by Douglas Adams describes the guide itself as an e-reader. I like kindles, they’re convenient, they’re easy to carry about on long trips and they prevent me from feeling guilty if I ever have to leave a book behind. I don’t like that I can’t share a book after I’ve finished it and pass it on to someone who would read it. I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to pressing a button to turn a page, or that I read in percentages instead of page numbers, but I manage.

I used to be a book elitist, nothing could beat a book. The soft sweep of the pages through my fingers and the sweetly printed smell of fresh pages and ink. My favourite covers, leather-bound, hardback, gilded pages, the special editions. The second hand books with inscriptions on the inside cover and the cheap water-damaged paperbacks all sit in a jumbled, jolly heap on my bookshelf. And I love them all, and I always will. The thing about choosing to read a book with an e-reader is this; no one is asking you to replace your love for books with a kindle. 

Not owning a kindle doesn’t make you a more dedicated reader – I thought it did. I was loyal, steadfast and stubborn. Until one family holiday I was so bedridden I got through Lolita, The Adventures and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan of the Apes, Lucky Jim, The Philosophy of the Boudoir, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Tender is the Night and something else that I can’t remember, all on a kindle. My mother had bought it for me a few months before announcing she would not drag my books halfway around Europe.

Having a kindle allows me to purchase books on an impulse, fulfil a craving. Classic books are often free and other books can be significantly cheaper, too. They’re especially handy if you’re reading an incredibly long novel and they have a built-in dictionary that allows you to search the word you don’t understand instantly. Of course, digitalised books mean less profit for authors, but if they don’t they risk not reaching a wider audience or maybe not even getting published. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t. As an aspiring writer, this intimidates me a little.

Shopping on a kindle is difficult, too. Browsing is not as simple and as easy in person – it feels forced. But, if you read enough books I have heard that the recommendations can become quite tailored. Do not feel threatened by an e-reader if you haven’t tried one. And for those who do read on a kindle, don’t worry about being judged by elitist bookworms. (They are but a simple people who like pages and collect bookmarks and have hefty library fines.)

It’s not terribly important how you read, audibook, ebook, book – it only matters why you read. Be brave, be bold, be daring. Try a kindle, it won’t hurt you.

I, for one, intend to dive wholly and completely between the two mediums of reading because I am a rebel without a cause.

Actively idle,

Lydia.

Big Bibliophile & Little Bibliophile

I have taken longer than usual to write another blog post, because I thought the theme of this one would be too similar to the one of its predecessor. And despite having a notebook full of jotted-down ideas to choose from, (blogging is a very serious business) I have decided to take the time this evening to write about someone close to me.

He is someone who has not only inspired my bibliophilic tendencies, but also encouraged them. This person is my father. He moved into a new house a few years ago and has since built a room he has affectionately named The Fortress of Solitude.

Think 221B Baker Street, Victorian and rich, darkly carpeted, an Edwardian bachelor pad with a piano, a thick-legged desk, a typewriter and bookshelves that skirt over the tops of the doorways. A hoard of records, sheet music, almost-organised graphic novels and books in every nook and cranny. The place of solace, a realised childhood dream of his.  (And a few bongo drums, but let’s not talk about that.)

When he was young, he read Enid Blyton, borrowed comic books and a series of books with “something about…a rainbow boy.” He was 12 when he started reading Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale and he never looked back.  He reads so voraciously and consumes books so easily that I am beginning to believe reading is in his nature. It has become a very part of who he is, and I cannot think of a time when he did not read.

Of course, as I grew up, he passed stories and books down to me – something he still does to this day. It was I who read Casino Royale, The Dark Knight Returns and The Magic Faraway Tree. While our reading tastes are quite different – I read the classics, modern literature and he reads thrillers and factual historian sagas – we meet on the common ground of adoring the humble book. I, (a poor, unassuming student) am happy to settle for a cheap paperback or to click through my kindle. But he is a true collector, a hunter of hardbacks and an evader of the e-reader. I have always admired him for that.

You can imagine the look on my face when I stood awe-stuck in his Fortress of Solitude and he explained quite matter-of-factly, that when he died, all of these books would be mine. I would always accept the books that he lent me, but never on that scale, moreover, the idea that he would one day be without his books was a very foreign idea. But, do not despair fair reader, he is not so old yet and the last time I met with him was in a bookstore.

He bought $200 worth of books, my friend, who was with us, was aghast. How could someone spend that much money on books in one trip? I shrugged easily, happily, arms laden with my purchases. He announced to the clerk behind the desk as he left, that he would be back next week. She laughed, but I was fairly certain he was serious.

And our phone conversation, this very evening went as follows:

“I went into the secondhand bookshop today.”

“Did you?”

“Yes. The owner had a new shipment in. So I bought it.”

“Wait – which books?”

“All of them. 350 of them. I have to find a spot to put them now.”

“You bought 350 books. Did you look at all of them?”

“In a couple of boxes, but she explained what was in the rest and I knew it was what I would be interested in.”

“I’m impressed.”

…My father bought 350 books. And my mother thinks I’m a literary hoarder.

But, all that aside – I have wondered what it would be like if I never became passionate about reading, if I had directed my energies elsewhere…I shiver to think. Reading is, of course, often a very solitary and individual experience but I wanted to acknowledge him. I wanted to pay homage to one of the most well-read people I know.

And I hope, too, that my experiences, book reviews and general sentimental musings about literature will stir something in you, too. It is my wish that I can give to someone else what my father gave to me. Before I go, a moral of the story.

There’s no such thing as too many books, only too little shelf space.

Dream well, read well,

Lydia.

Find Your Muse

Muse |myoōz|

noun

(in Greek and Roman mythology) each of nine goddesses, the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, who preside over the arts and sciences.

• ( muse) a woman, or a force personified as a woman, who is the source of inspiration for a creative artist.

This evening I will be touching upon something a little different. I haven’t really addressed the writing  (or, creative, rather) half of my blog, and I thought now was a good a time as any. And I’m starting with a very old idea. The muse.

I personally believed, for a very long time, that muses were reserved for tortured artists and writers and the like. When I think of a muse, I think of a tempestuous woman on the edge of a photograph, cigarette smoke, half-read letters, his and hers paintings and a distinct smell of rain in the dead of night. Annabel Lee, Anais Nin’s June, Edie Sedgwick, Picasso’s Marie-Therese Walter. Not only do they conjure up images of glances over bare shoulders, cities steeped in fog and endless, half-finished cups of coffee, they also have to have spectacular names.

Victorine Meurent, Kiki de Montparnasse, Gala Diakonova, Zelda Mae Fitzgerald, all magnetic, and often inherently tragic women, who lived as though they were pursuing life the way one chases the streak of blue in a rainy sky. But, perhaps I am wrong.

Perhaps a muse is a perfectly ordinary girl, (or boy – George Dyer, let’s not forget) who has…call it an air, an aura, an energy. I don’t know what it is, but it’s something. I didn’t realise I had a muse – certainly not at first.We write to each other in tandem, one after the other. Except, I started to send her pieces of writing when it wasn’t my turn. Late at night, armed with nothing but a cup of tea and ever-increasing yawns – there I would be, yours truly, typing away and looking up suddenly and wondering where the time had gone. Skip forward six months, skim over inside jokes, wade through pages of research, approximately 168,000 words and slide over to me, steeped and sitting in the world we’ve made, which I never particularly want to leave.

This wasn’t meant to be a post where I boasted about how creative I’d been recently, but, rather, a calling. Find your muse. Find what inspires you, a person, a friend, someone who sends you handwritten letters in the mail. A favourite place, a narrow street, curls of steam peeling away from coffee, a song, a poem, a sunrise, a sunset. A book. Something that makes you smile secretly in the corner of your mouth, that makes writing (or painting, or drawing or your own particular art form) easy and comfortable and so very, very lovely.

Gone are my days of wrangling with the first 600 words of a novel, gone are my days of desperately searching for someone to approve my writing, and gone are my days when I drop an idea purely from lack of interest. Now I’ve found someone who knows the power and weight of a word, someone who has a keen eye for subtext, undercurrent and nuance and someone who has the power of an artist’s hands. She knows my knack for poetic rambling, can describe my characters back to me with better adjectives and agrees with all my ideas even when they’re vague and lack any real substance. And perhaps, if I’m good, she’ll let me dedicate this to her.

The Scott to my Zelda, the Bonnie to my Clyde, the Watson to my Holmes.

Find your muse, 

Lydia.

Quiet Reservations About a New Genre

I am an Australian, and I love Australia. But I tend to stay away from its literature. Australia is a sunburnt, scorched country, rising out of the sea like a great turtle, heaving silently against the thrashing sea. Sun-bleached bark on gum trees, a sky that defines blue and a harsh, harmonious horizon on all sides. She shivers and roars with thunder in the summer time, and cracks and splinters into crisp, short winters. When I return home from overseas, the first thing I look forward to is the air hitting my skin, and sinking into the marrow of my bones.

The suspended air of a country so ancient, so unpretentious, unforgiving and fierce. A country with a red centre, a beating heart, a pulse that hums in the early morning to wake the birds so they start to sing. What I am trying to say, in my own particular sentimental way, is that Australia cannot be written about. Like any other country, it has to be felt. I know the feeling so very well. How can a book set in Australia replicate that feeling for me?

But, it’s part of my subject for next semester. So read Australian authors I must. I cringe at their slang and colloquialisms, I smile inwardly if I see a street name I know and raise my eyebrows when I encounter some stereotypes, and butchered nicknames. I must say, I’ve been pleasantly surprised. I am a fussy woman when it comes to authors writing about where I live, and the people. More than ever, I need the right word, the instant vivid recognition of words translated to an image and a phrase so powerful I say it to myself a few times to allow it to resonate. All of those things will earn my humble, silent reader-nod of respect that comes when I acknowledge an author as a wordsmith.

As much as I would rather read about haunting moors, shantytowns by the seaside or isolated parts of Canada in the 1960’s, I have read Australian authors before. Nick Earls, of course, comes to mind. A man with a quirky, witty perspective on the ordinary catastrophes of everyday life. He writes with a melancholy undercurrent of a man who can’t find something he never quite had in the first place. I can’t think of anyone else who comes to mind, or indeed, any Australian authors I would like to read.

But despair not, dear reader. I have perhaps been given a gift, rather than a burden. These set texts chosen for my class were chosen carefully, for a reason, and not picked up haphazardly in a bookstore with a quick glance at the blurb. I will review all the books as I read them, on this very blog for all to see. I feel as though I am an explorer, trekking through lands I have never before seen, getting used to the smell of the sky, the weight of the atmosphere and the image it leaves behind when I close my eyes. I am not as apprehensive as I was, I am now emboldened by all the books I haven’t read. The untouched genre will have my attention now.

Yours, ever truly,

Lydia.

The Predicament of Assigned Reading

Assigned reading. We’ve all read something that was assigned to us. To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, Romeo & Juliet, Animal Farm. Those few titles come to mind when thinking of high school English class. Another term, another text. I always looked to see who had written their name inside the front cover, tried to deduce who they were at sixteen by the slope of their cursive, or the stoutness of their print.

My mother, at 17 (stubborn and opinionated as ever), in Senior English, refused to read Flying Fox and Drifting Sand by Francis Ratcliffe after she realised, it really was about flying foxes and drifting sands. Instead, she read My Life With Martin Luther King written by Coretta Scott King, his wife. Her subsequent essay on the book was being graded by markers outside of her school, this meant her defiance went unnoticed, and she did well.

Assigned reading can conjure up terror in many people, readers and non-readers alike. I’ve read post-apocalyptic high school drama, allegorical tales of warning, bards’ prose, sonnet-scribbles and gothic romance novels with a font size of 9 and single-line spacing all through my education. I’ve recently taken up another literature subject, and with baited breath I checked the reading list…Well, at least it would be an interesting semester? There are some students who take literature subjects purely for the pleasure of reading, even if the book turns out to be mediocre, or not to their taste.

I, regrettably, am not one of them. I have In Cold Blood by Truman Capote to read, and after that, Wodehouse, Jean Rhys, Colette, The Book Thief by Markus Zusack to name a few. It is with a heavy heart that I have added the set texts to my pile. I still have a few more to buy, but I am reluctant to go into a bookstore. Reluctant. To go into. A bookstore. 

However, I will say this: not all assigned reading is bad. In my first year of university I read Plato, Voltaire’s Candide, The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer and Shakespeare’s The Tempest for one subject. And dear reader, I loved them all. Dry philosophical wit, rollicking tales filled with cock jokes, disloyal priests and lusty, gap-toothed widows told me stories. I dreamt of Eldorado and sunned myself on a remote island and looked on in wonder as men turned to coral and pearls, and a storm bleached Prospero’s pages white. I saw references to these great texts everywhere, Gromit, of Wallace and Gromit, reading Plato while he breakfasted. John Fowles’ references to The Tempest in his chilling novel The Collector…and the ever unanswerable question as to whether or not Chaucer’s magnum opus was ever finished, constantly being resurrected.

The most important thing to remember is this: I would not have read those books by choice. Well, perhaps I would have, in time, I might have added them to the pile. And read them. Eventually. But I have read them now, and I am all the better for it. These books were by my side when I was making a key decision in my life: is university for me, can I do well enough? After receiving 98, 86, 90 out of 100 for my first few pieces of assessment I knew the answer was a resounding yes. In that first semester, I learnt to read critically, and I was fearless as a result.

Of course, there is always a danger that you will read too much into the text. A classmate hurried over to me one day, his copy of Candide heavily dog-eared and said: Do you know about the significance of the red sheep? My tutor replied, seamlessly, and flawlessly: They’re llamas. Assigned reading takes a careful eye in order to maintain the balance between enjoyment and study. And I know some of the books will be mediocre, or some won’t be to my taste. But it might just be worth my while in the end.

And failing that, my other books will wait patiently for me, as they will do for you, too.

I am, as always,

Lydia.

A Book to Fall Asleep Beside

Before we begin, I would like to clarify. I am not going to spend this next little while talking about a book that bores me so much, I feel exhausted and go to sleep. This is quite the opposite. This post is about a book to fall asleep beside.

Recently, I started reading Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. I’ve only just started, but already I can tell it’s a book I will relish reading. There is, however, an interesting setback, and it is this: In Cold Blood will take me a long time to read, and an even longer time to finish. I have a ritual of reading a book every night before I go to bed, but that is my minimum. On any given day you might find me curled up in a corner with a pot of tea, deep into a book, only to look up and realise the sun has set, and it’s almost time for dinner.

This book is not like that. I mentioned to my father that I had started to read this book, and he said, ‘Oh, it’s chilling,’ or something to that affect. And I have no doubt he is correct. I too, find it alarming that I am relaxed by a well-told recount of horrifying true crime. Who knew I would find so much comfort in murder most foul? But, it’s not the subject matter. It’s the prose. The hot hush of noon of the tiny town of Holcomb makes my limbs heavy and the sweet, soft life of the Clutters makes my heart ease to a steady thrum. I will, unquestioningly, at some point, be thrown out of my reverie by the crimes committed, but for now, I am blissfully ignorant.

What I admire most about Capote in this work is compassionate, insightful and captivating. In Cold Blood has a undertone of strangeness to it, and I think this is one of the examples where I can comfortably say that truth is stranger than fiction. I have not read much of this book, but the rhythm of the Clutters’ lives rids me of my to-do lists, plans for tomorrow and concerns from today. It is a book I read in an almost meditative state. While that might change as I read on, for now, I have a book that allows me to be mellow. My jaw slackens, I stop frowning, I stop fidgeting.

I hope that, as readers, we can all find a book like this. A book that allows us to inhale and exhale. It whispers, murmurs, purrs, and we respond by treading softly through its pages, unperturbed by unfinished chapters, incomplete character descriptions and plots in progress. No matter what you read after this, I hope it welcomes you as much as Truman’s prose welcomes me.

Yours in undying attention (except when I’m reading),

Lydia.