I am one of those people who gets their kicks from looking at other people’s bookshelves when they’ve left the room. There is no thrill quite like the one that comes from these rare opportunities for psychological espionage. You can tell a lot about a person by the books they read. That’s why I love tracking the books I read and taking a yearly review. If only all time could be measured in books!
I am very gratified that I exceeded my target of reading 30 books in 2017. It may be a meagre figure, but it’s definitely more than I would have read without the challenge. So thanks, Goodreads (are you there too? Be my friend!).
Another reason I love to measure time in books: books become markers of moments, not minutes.
I never cease to be amazed and moved by the way books can attach themselves to memories in our everyday lives. From 2017 onwards, if someone mentions A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride, my mind will immediately be transported to a Caribbean beach where I read it (I know, I hate me too), via a blissful afternoon charity-shopping with my friend Rachel, when I originally picked up my copy. I won’t hear The Ronnettes from hereon out without thinking of Be My Baby by Amanda Whittington. I read this play several times, armed with notebook and highlighter, as I desperately tried to memorise Queenie’s lines (see embarrassing “pregnant” photos of the production I was in below). Even the memory of an unpleasant night of painsomnia is rendered palatable, as it also became the night I listened to the whole of Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s in one sitting. This is not to forget, of course, the emotional resonance of reading Jo Weldon’s Burlesque Handbook, which I gingerly ordered from Amazon and then pored over with widened eyes, as I prepared to embark on a new creative venture. In short: all of this year’s books have some sort of memory attached to them, and for me that is one of the great joys of reading.
One’s changing tastes can also be measured by one’s choice of reading material. I’ve been contemplating recently that, in life, a fundamental aspect of growing up is realising how to articulate what you like. For some, it’s an Australian chardonnay; for others, it’s swinging; for me, it’s dystopian fiction. The genre seems to hit the sweet spot in my Venn diagram between literature and philosophy. What can I say? I dig how the world-building in these stories can show us contingent truths about our perceptions of reality. As such, one of my 2018 reading goals is to read more dystopian fiction (even if only to distract myself from current affairs as they evoke more and more disturbing works of the genre…).
I made a start in 2017 by reading The Man in The High Castle by Philip K. Dick (before it was a TV series, I hasten to add – this is very important to me, as you will glean later). I did my A level coursework on Dick’s seminal Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, so I was familiar with his style. It still took me a while to read though, mainly because I had to stop every two pages to Google what actually took place in the events he was referencing; someone clearly needs to brush up on her World War Two battle knowledge. Egregious time spent on Wikipedia aside, I’m not sure I can say I totally enjoyed the read, but I felt enriched by it. I have also derived a great deal of entertainment from discussing the book since. Not least because I love making Dick jokes. Like the ‘seminal’ I snuck in there earlier. You’re welcome.
And now the moment
we’ve all both of you have been waiting for: my Top Five of 2017!
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
I actually listened to this via Audible (blessed be! – wait, wrong feminist classic). I was completely enchanted by Maggie Gyllenhaal’s reading. I made a point of seeking out some Sylvia Plath this year; I’d been feeling oddly drawn to her, due to our shared experiences of depression and life as a Cambridge student (no, those two aren’t necessarily linked, but believe me, there are definitely connections). It felt like a gap in my knowledge that was in urgent need of filling.
At first, the problems The Bell Jar‘s protagonist outlines seemed almost absurdly trivial, like I was listening to some weird 1960s prefiguring of The OC. But as the novel progressed, I felt a hand reaching out to grab mine as the narrator so perfectly encapsulates the struggles of being a young woman in the working world, dealing with romantic trysts gone awry, and the overriding immense battle against depression when your life is pretty great from the outside (#firstworldproblems). I particularly resonated with her metaphor of the Fig Tree to depict the feeling of Decision Fatigue:
‘I saw myself in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.’
All told, I found the book a little too relatable, but the tragedy of this is outweighed by the comfort of a metaphysical companion walking alongside through the depths of depression and mental strain. I personally would advocate this book being prescribed to all teenage and twenty-something women, and maybe the men too.
White Teeth – Zadie Smith
I read this on holiday in Barbados, having picked it up in a charity shop (yes, I really do love this combo). Again, Zadie Smith was another author I decided I wanted to read before 2017 was up. I must admit, on sight, I found the length daunting; it’s been a while since I read a tome of such volume, and I was worried that watching too many cat video playlists on YouTube had irrevocably stunted my ability to focus…
However, I am pleased to report I made it to the other side, and I am so glad I persisted. This novel is a joy. The way Smith delightingly plays with language, forming new idioms and evocative descriptions to mould such resonant characters is just mesmerising.
This book also did what good books should do: it challenged me. Whilst falling in love with these diverse characters from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds, I was confronted by the realisation that this is unusual for me. The majority of characters in books I read are typically white, middle class folk of privilege, and this is largely down to the fact that these are the characters to whom I am gravitating. As such, this book was a wake-up call: after all, the existence of books is nothing short of a summons to greater knowledge, surely! This leads me to another reading goal I have set for 2018: read more books by non-white authors/ centred around non-white characters. I may be female and partially disabled, but I still need to check the sweet heck out of my privilege. Thank goodness Zadie can be one to educate me. Swing Time is high on my TBR list for this year.
Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness: Essays, A Play, Two Poems, and a Prayer – Tony Kushner
Oh God, if this book were a human, I’d want to make sweet sweet love to it, then have a long chat to it about whether it was okay and interrogate it about its stance on common morality.
Though I was not fortunate enough to get tickets for the National Theatre production of Kushner’s Angels in America, I was fortunate enough to secure tickets to see the National Theatre LIVE production at our local Arts Picturehouse. In some ways, I actually think the cinema experience was preferable; the view was guaranteed to be wonderful, there wasn’t the schlep to get to London, and the atmosphere was just as electrifying as if we had been in the theatre, with the packed-out room hushing into anticipatory silence as the lights went down.
As I mentioned earlier, I love a book that treads the line between fiction and philosophy. Thinking about the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness does exactly that. It also proves to be a stimulating companion to Angels, as I found myself Sherlocking my way around Kushner’s ideas, looking for links and foundations that might prove instructive in interpreting his hugely ambitious theatrical work (I told you I was a nerd). That being said, the collection thoroughly stands up in its own right as being utterly rad, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys thinking about the deep stuff, especially when the treatise is augmented by lacerating prose and generous dollops of camp humour.
Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban – FOR THE FIRST TIME
I know, I know, I’m a terrible Potterhead. In my defence, I was a very impressionable young child, and even the idea of the Dementors scared me senseless. Little did I know that by skipping Prisoner and going straight to Goblet, I was essentially hurtling straight into the darker storyline with no Marauder’s Map to guide me. But, at age 24, bigger and braver than Little Ros, I had the unparalleled joy of picking up a Harry Potter book I’d never read before – and a fan favourite at that. Even though I heard all the dialogue in the voices of the movie franchise, I still loved being whisked to Hogwarts for a wee while (especially when everything else in my life at the time was decidedly un-magical). Thanks, JK. .. No really, Ms Rowling, I was being quite serious. (WHEYYYYY.)
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
I hate that I don’t get to be smug about this, because reading The Handmaid’s Tale in 2017 is now about as basic as a Starbucks frappucino, and it should be a classy choice for connoisseurs of feminist and dystopian literature. BUT as I mentioned above, I really want to make it clear that I read this before I even knew the TV series was being made. Got it? Good.
My ego notwithstanding, I concede that its popularity can only be a good thing; given the political climate to world is enduring, this book is a must-read. Especially when you consider that Atwood herself has said that everything that happens to the women in the book is based on how women have been treated in different cultures at different points in history; their oppression is anything but fictitious.
For the record, I also really enjoyed the TV series, though I was really pleased I’d read the book first, and could therefore enjoy the way the series departed from the text. I found it fascinating how other characters, such as Nick and the Commander’s Wife, were fleshed out. Though for me, nothing will replace the specific constraints of the first person narrative, and the subsequent astonishment with which I listened to the Epilogue. (Again, good old Audible; weeding has never been rendered so exciting.)
Though not in my 2017 Top Five, I would like to end with a quote from Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor E. Frankl. Its absence from the Top Five is not an implied judgement on the book, but rather reflects my belief that I cannot stand in any position to judge it, it being a product of an inconceivably horrific moment in history, and its contents being so full of unparalleled wisdom and strength:
‘One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfilment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.’
Here’s hoping for a 2018 in which I exceed my reading target, gain knowledge and wisdom, and continue a love affair with the written word. And get to make more Dick jokes. That’s the dream.