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A Ramble on Reading - dorsetgirl
December 9th, 2015
11:19 pm
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A Ramble on Reading
I've just been looking at one of those posts where people give a list of "100 best novels" and say how many they've read. Typically, people seem to be embarrassed if they've read less than half of them. The list I've just seen is full of books I've heard of as "classics", or even worse "modern classics". I've read about seven of them and I'm happy to say I'm not embarrassed in the slightest.

This is probably because the main legacy of the incredible tedium of English Literature lessons - despite the fact that I had a major crush on the (pretty good) teacher, so the books must have been bad - is that somewhere in the back of my head is a auto-reply that says "Classics? No thanks, they're all boring." That’s possibly got something to do with all that “reading round the class” and getting told off for reading ahead, because it’s impossible to look at the page and not read faster than someone who’s stumblingly reading out loud. And if you don’t look at the page, to stop yourself reading ahead, you get told off for that, too. I never understood that.

Anyway, I can say with confidence that it literally has never crossed my mind to read things like "Brick Lane" or "Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit" - they're hailed as classics so they must be boring and therefore not for me. I did actually try to read Lord of the Rings once; I wasted three weeks ploughing through it and it never got any more interesting. It was the first book I ever said "You know what, I just can not be bothered to finish this." The Wind in the Willows I also found incredibly boring.

Three Men in a Boat, on the other hand, I found hysterically funny, and if I could only find it I'd read it again right now. And of course as a Dorset girl, I've read several of Hardy's books - some more enjoyable than others.

I read on average I suppose 5 or 6 books a week, and as well as whatever I can find in the library (I'm trying to save money and space by not buying too many more) I have many books that I will re-read once a year or so for many years to come - Harry Potter, Swallows and Amazons, Millennium, Sharpe, The Hunger Games, Dalziel & Pascoe, several of Bill Bryson's books. I suspect Outlander may get added to that list, though as I've only read books 1 and 4 so far I can't be sure yet. I think also I like books that make me see the world in a different way, for example The Old Straight Track, or The Making of the English Landscape. Or introduce me to a different way of living, like One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Then there are the books like The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay, and The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson, which I will never get rid of but for some reason only feel like reading every two or three years.

Happily, as I apparently can't tell a bad book from a good one I generally enjoy my reading. I've never understood why people are so sniffy about Dick Francis and Jeffrey Archer, for example. I mean, who cares whether it's a "good" book or not as long as it's an interesting story, the characters are well-differentiated and their thoughts, actions and motivations believable? (And their speech appropriate to the time and place, of course.)

It always puzzles - and annoys - me when people equate "doesn't read great literature, can't see what's wrong with Dan Brown" with "culturally disadvantaged and by implication obviously uneducated". They’re not the same thing at all - it's just that my education possibly contained rather more Maths and Science than that of the people who seem to think having had an arty education makes them in some way more fortunate or more intelligent than me.

I can only think that - in the same way a rich man had a deer park to show he had so much land he didn't need to actually use most of it for crops - the middle-class bias towards "culture" is born of the old idea that poor people had to have a trade to earn a living, while the more comfortably-off could sit around all day reading books, painting, playing music etc, so education in those subjects became - in their imaginations - a key marker of having enough money. That doesn’t hold today, of course, but the idea still appears to linger.

Finally, I've just had a look at a couple of other lists of "100 best books" - because these things are rather more subjective than the compilers might admit - and to my surprise I've found one with several books on it that I actually enjoyed: http://www.modernlibrary.com/top-100/100-best-novels/. Admittedly they're on the "readers' list" rather than the "official" one (and those readers would appear to be slightly older than me), but never mind; I would happily re-read any of these tonight if I knew which box they were in:

A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Trustee From The Toolroom by Nevil Shute
On The Beach by Nevil Shute
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Watership Down by Richard Adams
The Hunt For Red October by Tom Clancy

But as I don’t, I think I’ll read a V.I.Warshawski I’ve just got from the library. (And talking of seeing the world in a different way - remind me never to go to Chicago.)

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(5 comments | Leave a comment)

Date:December 10th, 2015 09:45 am (UTC)
Yes, I think studying books can put one off hugely - I've got a primal loathing for the texts I did for GCSE, Macbeth, Great Expectations and The Lord of Flies, after over-reading and over-studying. That said, I've never found it particularly enjoyable to read Dickens.

I'm glad you like Three Men in a Boat, it is one of my absolute favourites *g* I agree with a lot of your 're-reads' as well. I particularly re-read Swallows and Amazons and Watership Down, and Agatha Christies which were the first 'grown-up' books I read, essentially my first push beyond Enid Blyton and are just as much fun now *g*
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Date:December 10th, 2015 09:28 pm (UTC)
All three of my boys did a book called Holes in about Year 8, and it passed them by completely. I read it when the oldest one brought it home and I was just totally gobsmacked by it. As Jay says below, maturity and life experience.

For me I think part of the appeal of Three Men in a Boat is the inside look at a different society - all those shop boys carrying stuff down to the river for him! - but there's one scene that cracks me up so much that I can scarcely breathe. It's where they're eating and one of them looks away for a second and the other one just disappears completely without a sound.

Speaking of cracking up, I've just started on Outlander (I seem to recall you used to post about that series?) and while I'm enjoying it very much, I totally was not expecting any laugh-out-loud moments. I'm still giggling at the idea of Jamie getting ready to dash out and shoot a hot dog for Brianna just as soon as they tell him what it looks like.
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Date:December 10th, 2015 06:47 pm (UTC)
Do you know what Hoskins had to say about 'The Old Straight Track'?

I think these '100 Best Books' lists (or 100 Best Anything) are so very subjective. They're either one writer's personal taste, or one writer's attempt to sound well read, or if voted for by the public, tend to be heavily weighted towards what was popular in the last five years. LOTR and Harry Potter probably feature as much for the films as the books.

I read an article recently in which the writer queried how many Booker and Nobel Literature prize winners are remembered a few years later, and how many people actually read them.

English Literature in schools is a difficult one. I think the average 16/17 year old just doesn't have the maturity and life experience to appreciate most of the literature that's on offer at school.I did Eng Lit to A Level and I've never wanted to read any more Walter Scott or Thomas Hardy. We all loathed Mansfield Park and didn't think much of the Wordsworth poetry we had to do. (But I do re-read Persuasion regularly.)

OTOH drama and literature are among the things we do well. They are part of our cultural heritage, along with architecture, art, the Church of England, etc. etc. People should have some idea of who Shakespeare, Dickens etc. were and if not at school, when?

Dorothy L. Sayers' books are some I re-read regularly. Haven't re-read Ransome recently, though I have got them all. Of more recent books, the Rivers of London series stands up to re-reading; I tend to re-read all the older ones whenever a new one comes out.

I've got a new Elly Griffiths from the library waiting for me. Central character is a forensic archaeologist.
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Date:December 10th, 2015 09:10 pm (UTC)
Good Lord, no I didn’t. Thank you for putting me onto that! I read bits of The Making of the English Landscape all the time, when I’m waiting for the kettle or whatever, and I love it, but I haven’t actually re-read The Old Straight Track for a long time - it appeared out of a pile of papers I was sorting only yesterday which is probably why I thought to mention it in my post. I haven’t looked inside yet, but the picture of a copse on the front cover of my edition (Abacus 1974) reminds me very strongly of a place in Norfolk that always gives me the slight creeps even in daylight; until a few years ago I used to walk past it late at night by myself, and I couldn’t even look. For some reason I always find it quite unsettling.

I’d never been at all convinced about the magical properties of ley lines, so I found Watkins’ ideas very interesting; iirc he’s saying far from being hocus-pocus they’re actually extremely practical. I remember being pretty convinced by the idea of long-distance routes passing through notches on the skyline and through ponds in the valley that would show up in the starlight. And I pretty much do find it plausible that churches would have been built on previously holy sites. But I hadn’t remembered about the endless squares and parallelograms that Hoskins was apparently complaining about.

Well, that’s my bedtime reading sorted out tonight then.

I agree that Dickens and Shakespeare appear to be world-famous, but I do think English Literature lessons might have been better used in explaining exactly why they are. As is plain from my post I’m pretty much an untutored philistine when it comes to literature, and I actually have very little understanding about what’s so special about Shakespeare. Time to re-read Bill Bryson’s book, obviously; I learnt a lot more about Shakespeare from Bryson than I ever did from school (and without having to re-read the plays - bargain!) I do like some of the sonnets; but again, school lessons just obsessed about rhyme schemes and ticking off the alliterations and similes etc, with nothing at all about what is the point of it all.

I had no idea we had any heritage worth speaking of in architecture; I always think of architecture as being self-obsessed idiots tearing down interesting old buildings to put up whatever the latest grotesque blue-glass fashion is. Although maybe things have moved on from blue glass - I haven’t been to the City for quite a few years now. But if by architecture you mean we’ve got plenty of wonderful old buildings full of character, put up by people who really knew what they were doing, then yes, I’m with you. There’s something very wonderful about old stone churches, and wooden buildings where you can practically feel the hundreds of years of people, and I’ve taken far more photos than anyone needs of dramatic cloud formations backlighting the building in your icon. It just - sits there, being. It feels so right in its place.

And now I shall look up the Rivers of London series and Elly Griffiths.
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Date:December 10th, 2015 10:15 pm (UTC)
If you like creepy Norfolk landscapes, Elly Griffiths is right up your street.

Yes, by architecture I mean the great cathedrals, country houses from yeomen's houses (of which we have many in this county) through gentlemen's residences to places like Knole and Blenheim and Chatsworth. And their landscaped gardens. Plus public buildings such as Wren's churches and his buildings at Greenwich and institutional buildings such as the Oxbridge colleges.

I go walking round the City quite often. I'm afraid it still seems to be obsessed with putting up ever taller buildings. At least it provides opportunities for the archaeologists. But there are still old and interesting corners here and there if you poke about a bit.

Do you know Alec Clifton Taylor? He was an architectural historian who believed strongly in local materials being used for local buildings. He'd probably say that the castle looks right because it's built of Kentish Ragstone. (It looks especially good in low winter afternoon sun.)

He did two or three series on English towns for the BBC. Some or all of the episodes seem to be on YouTube.
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