Wednesday, 25 March 2015

We read to know we're not alone...

‘We read to know we’re not alone’ – William Nicholson, Shadowlands

I spent a couple of months last year volunteering with a drama group of 15 and 16 year olds. The aim was to devise a piece of theatre in 10 weeks, based on the idea of storytelling and including elements from the students’ favourite novels. This all seemed like a very good idea, until we discovered the consensus: ‘I don’t read’.

I understand this and I don’t. At school and at home, I was encouraged to read. We had an excellent English department who were always full of suggestions and happy to loan books, and at home, my house has always been full of books. It always made sense to read. And once you start reading, I don’t think you stop. But, chatting to these teenagers, I came to fully understand why they’re not interested. The school library is rubbish; and no teenager uses the public library. The books they’re reading as part of their GCSEs are uninspiring and analysed to death. Reading is associated with academia; a chore, not a privilege. There’s a virtually unlimited access to tv programmes, films, computer games, social media, instant messaging…so why make the effort to read?

For me, reading a book is an experience I can’t recreate with any other activity. It makes me enjoy spending time by myself; I learn new things; I learn new words; I develop my imagination; and I’m encouraged to see the world from someone else’s perspective. All in a way that can’t quite be replicated by a film, a tv programme or a game. From reading, I’ve learned how to write, both creatively and academically; to absorb information and improved my spoken English. These skills, aside from the imaginative, enchanting experience of reading, are invaluable.

This got me thinking: what books have I read that have changed me? What books have made me love to read? What books would I, and do I, consistently recommend? What books would I encourage a non-reader to read – to inspire them? What books can I read and reread?

And this is the list I developed:

‘In spite of everything, I still believe that people are good at heart’

This is the first book I remember reading and loving. And have since read on numerous occasions. I rarely read non-fiction, but this was different. Written from a child’s perspective, on a very complex and seemingly adult issue, The Diary of Anne Frank offers a unique and truthful insight into the horrors of the holocaust. It’s a page turner, in all the wrong ways. We know what happens to Anne, but we never want to reach that point in the book.

‘You’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it – whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, he is trash’

And this is the second book that I remember reading and loving. This novel provoked my interest in racism, particularly in the USA, and gave me my first insight into the extreme inequality. Similarly, the childish perspective presents a very honest and sincere narrative – free of the restrictive outlook of adulthood. A story about childhood and growing up, with challenging undertones of discrimination and powerlessness. With Harper Lee’s sequel, Go Set a Watchman, about to be released, there’s no better time to read it!

‘A man’s heart is a wretched, wretched thing. It isn’t like a mother’s womb. It won’t bleed. It won’t stretch to make room for you’

This novel is the most harrowing book I’ve ever read. It follows the story of Mariam, a 15 year girl sold to a much older man for marriage.  It explores the emotional traumas of miscarriage, an abusive relationship, polygamy and the emotional strength of two marginalised women in a war-torn and aggressively patriarchal society. It’s an incredible cultural insight into the struggles faced by women in troubled Islamic nations, and one of the most heart-wrenching stories ever created.

‘In his blue gardens, men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars’

The main reason I love this book is because I have a fictional love affair with Gatsby. I am in awe of Fitzgerald’s ability to create such a multifaceted and realistic character with whom I have a strange capacity to relate to. It’s a really short, fast-paced novel for those who struggle to commit to more than 200 pages, and a beautiful tale of unrequited and unrealistic love. It is full of 1920s glamour and extravagance, making it one of the most imaginatively provocative novels I’ve read.

‘If a Negro got legs he ought to use them. Sit down too long, somebody will figure out a way to tie them up’

Beloved is not a novel to be taken lightly; by which I mean, you have to commit to it, and you have to be ready for it – thematically and practically. It is not an easy read, but it’s an extraordinary one. It’s rhythmic and poetic and aggressive, all at the same time. Morrison explores the slave trade from the perspective of identity, of loss and of devastation. Haunting, sickening and spine-tingling: Beloved is the most powerful and most bizarre novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading.

‘He’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same’

I should have hated this story. I didn’t like any of the characters, and the entire plot is destructive and unhealthy. But I didn’t. The relative lack of plot is made up for in the extensive development of interesting and psychologically convoluted characters and a beautifully desolate setting. I’m a sucker for love stories, and this is the most dysfunctional one you’ll ever read.

‘I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me’

NW is a great novel about modern, urban life. I reread this shortly after moving to London, and it seemed much more meaningful when I could relate the places Zadie Smith references. I loved that it followed the lives of four different characters, drawing attention to the anonymous nature of city living – that everyone has very separate lives whilst living in such dense communities. It’s realistic, and it’s optimistic. It’s an enjoyable, relatable read.

‘We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories’

There’s something simultaneously curious and uncomfortable about dystopian novels. And this is a very good one. Margaret Attwood creates a post-revolution world in which women are removed of virtually all their rights, becoming numbers and labels. This society is militarised and strangely Christian, and largely adopts women for reproductive purposes. We follow the life of Offred, a handmaid, who encounters a difficult life, dominated by rape, forbidden relationships, female comradery and suicidal contemplations. Not very cheery, but a must-read.

‘If this book has a lesson, it is that we are awfully lucky to be here – and by ‘we’ I mean every living thing. To attain any kind of life in this universe of ours appears to be quite an achievement. As humans we are doubly lucky, of course: we enjoy not only the privilege of existence but also the singular ability to appreciate it and even, in a multitude of ways, to make it better. It is a talent we have only barely begun to grasp’

I really like learning things from books. I have an abysmal knowledge of history, and basically everything I know is because of fiction I’ve read. Bill Bryson’s book rouses this curiosity. It explains all the science that I struggle to understand accessibly, so that it’s comprehensible and relevant to the general public. Never before did I think I’d find myself reading about the Big Bang, particle physics and quantum mechanics.

“Think how you love me,” she whispered. “I don’t ask you to love me always like this, but I ask you to remember: somewhere inside me there’ll always be the person I am tonight’.

Saving the best until last. This is my favourite book in the world. In the case of F. Scott Fitzgerald, it’s definitely true that authors do get better with age since this is his final finished novel. Set in the South of France, we meet our protagonists Dick and Nicole. We see their troubled relationship deteriorate and result in Dick’s affair with a much younger woman, Rosemary. Fitzgerald transports us into his own world, his life a parallel of Dick and Nicole’s tale, and carefully explores the peaks and troughs of marriage and affairs – and how this difficult circle of deceit comes back to bite in the form of poor mental health and, eventually, murder.

This is just a condensed list of some incredible books I’ve read in the last few years (be it for the first or twenty-first time). They’re a mixture of great routes into reading, ways to catch the reading bug, and suggestions for self-confessed readers.

In the wise words of Stephen King, ‘books are a uniquely portable magic’.

Enjoy. X


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