I was going to write a post about the new GCSE syllabus – but I got caught up thinking about my own reading history so, instead, that’s what this is. Having written it, I’d like to read others like it. You can probably tell a lot about someone from the books they’ve read.
I grew up in a house of readers. Everyone was always reading and we had a house full of books. Compared to everyone else I was the non-reader. My mum used to refer to me as ‘illiterate’ – a vain attempt to cajole me into joining the family gang. I can’t explain why but I’ve always had a difficult relationship with books. For one, I need very precise conditions to sustain reading for any length of time – usually holidays when there’s nothing to distract me and I can spend time sitting up. Reading in bed doesn’t work for me. I can’t read in the slightest reclining position – I just fall asleep. It’s a major handicap. When I go to bed I know I’ll be asleep within 30 seconds. That can be quite a blessing but it doesn’t give a book much hope. The feeling of drowsily re-reading the same page or paragraph over and over is all too familiar.
However, the main reason is that I’ve been a fussy reader. I’m not prepared to waste time on a mediocre read – some contrived and convoluted story with exaggerated plots and characters or endless descriptions of the scenery. When I was at school this was a chronic condition. Every book I picked up seemed either too heavy, too long, too dull or impenetrable. I spent hours looking across the book shelves searching for inspiration but it rarely came. If I held a copy of Great Expectations in my hand, a heavy torpor would descend. No Way! I preferred reading the encyclopedia, the Guinness Book of Records and all the Tintin and Asterix books. I also dipped into plays – punchy and short! We had a collection of Z-Cars TV scripts that I enjoyed. It’s sad to say that I can’t really remember any of the books I read during my school years – except the ones we did for O Level and James and the Giant Peach.
For me – and I won’t be alone -reading at school was really very important. It meant that I did actually have to read. I remember reading The Ancient Mariner in the 2nd Year (Year 8) and we studied Twelfth Night in the 3rd Year. We also read from The Odyssey. The teacher played an important role in making them seem both exciting and important in some way. The selection at O Level seems pretty bizarre to me – it did then and it does now: My Family and Other Animals and The Woman in White (gosh that was long) were a real drag. We’d have killed for a bit of Steinbeck! Thankfully we did Henry IV Part 1 which we all loved. My friends and I would learn all the in-between lines as quotes for fun. ‘Good Sire, we shall sup tonight at Eastcheap’. All of that bawdy bardiness was very appealing. Best of all, by far, was the Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus edited by Brian Aldiss. About half-way through the year the teacher confessed to us that she’d mis-read the syllabus. We were only meant to read 10 of the stories but by this point we’d nearly done them all. For me, this was perfect. Short stories. Science Fiction. Punchy and potent. This was me.
I can still remember the stories now – each with a surprising twist, human dilemma or moral message of some kind: Lot, Skirmish, Half a Pair, Grandpa, Track Twelve. We even named our Sixth Form band after that story (adding a Germanic twang: Tract Nein – oh how clever!).
During the Sixth Form, by which time I was doing sciences and maths and nothing else, I did force myself to read more. The huge barrier I’d erected slowly came down mainly as I recognised that not reading much fueled a stereotype of the nerdy scientist that I was keen to avoid. It was becoming socially awkward! I dipped into my brother’s Graham Greene collection: Brighton Rock and The Quiet American. I read Slaughterhouse Five and The Clockwork Orange because they were cool at school. I even forced myself to read Pride and Prejudice and enjoyed it far more than I imagined. Inspired by Kate Bush, I read Wuthering Heights (which took months) and after The Cure’s ‘Killing an Arab’ I read L’Étranger by Albert Camus. Love a short read! But I still had this sense that I had a massive backlog of unread classics that I should have read and simply would never find the time or inclination to read. It’s a guilty feeling I still have.
From university onwards, I’ve taken inspiration from the recommendations of siblings, friends and partners. I rely on others to weed out the chaff and feed me the jewels. In that way I’ve kept ticking over reading enough books to talk about and to keep my brain enriched. Currently my wife buys all the books and devours them – (although sometimes she cheats and reads the last pages first! ) – and I wait for the holidays to catch up.
Amongst all the half-finished, barely begun rejects, lots of books have had a significant impact on me over the years include: Sophie’s Choice, A Hundred Years of Solitude, Birdsong, The Cloud Atlas, – complex, epic books that I couldn’t put down. I’ve enjoyed books like The Song Lines, Wild Swans, Restoration, The Buddha of Suburbia, The Secret History and London Fields. To Kill A Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye and Animal Farm all left a mark when I finally got round to reading them, years after leaving school. But sadly, although I’ve read a few, I’ve given up on so many ‘classics’ – despite many attempts. I won’t list them, but you name it, I probably tried it and didn’t get very far, with the book tumbling to the floor as I dozed off.
The lighter reads of modern fiction have helped along the way; the joys of Roddy Doyle’s The Van series or the infectious honesty and passion of Fever Pitch have added to the mix of my highly selective reading. By some fluke I’ve even read Anita and Me – which helps me to understand why people are debating its inclusion in the new GCSEs. I zipped through the full Hunger Games series last year. Teenage fiction? You bet. (Although I can’t get into Harry Potter; enjoyed the films but can’t read the books.)
Two books I often cite as my all-time favourites are Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Both books kicked me in the guts as I’m sure they do to many readers. I remember sitting in a room for half an hour trying to pull myself together before I could face my family after finishing The Road. There were times reading Angela’s Ashes where I couldn’t bare to read any more; it was just too sad and painful; I don’t think any other art form can have that power.
In all honesty, probably above all of these books, my favourite reading experiences have come from reading non-fiction. In 2009 I read every Richard Dawkins book about evolution – I just love them all. Add to that Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, Quantum by Manjit Kumar or Why does E=mc2 by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw – these are the books I feel happiest reading. Enlightening, profound and gripping. Ultimately, perhaps I find the wonders of nature and tales of intellectual human endeavour more meaningful than all of those fictional stories. And books like John Pilger’s A Secret Country got me more fired up about politics and injustice than most novels ever could.
Looking back, it’s hard to re-write history, but I do feel that the right books were there all along and I just didn’t find them. I did too much uneducated browsing and worried too much about reading the ‘right books’ or ‘proper books’. This is no-one’s fault but maybe Of Mice and Men would have done the trick – when Huckleberry Finn was too thick and off-putting. I was never going to read Dickens at that time but I wasted so much time trying. Maybe Animal Farm or some Pinter plays or even modern poems would have worked earlier on. I read T S Eliot for the first time about five years ago. How did that happen? Or maybe a greater recognition for non-fiction reading might have helped. It was definitely the poor relation back then. Perhaps I needed a Charlie Higson series rather than struggling to enjoy Swallows and Amazons – but The Enemy hadn’t been written then. Perhaps it was always going to be that way – a guilty struggle, finding my way through the immense and overwhelming world of literature, feeling like every book was a drop in the vast undiscovered ocean and never feeling well-read.
Perhaps I needed a Mr Strathdene: (My daughter’s fabulous English teacher)
Schools are full of kids like I was. Inspiring children to read for pleasure is one of the Holy Grails of education and of parenting. Do the new GCSE specifications help in that regard? I’m not sure. But I’m no expert.