Thursday, 2 September 2010

The Books I Should Have Read, Or, What Exactly Was I Doing In English Literature?

Do you like to read?

I like to read.

What kind of a stupid statement is that, anyway? I like to read? Read what, exactly? Train timetables? Cereal packets? The newspaper? Even when you narrow it down - all the way down - to actual books, that tells you nothing at all. There are as many genres as there are people.

I like to read. Everything. Anything. All of the above. You remember those geeky kids who sat in the library at lunch time, every lunch time, and just read everything they could get their grubby mitts on? That was me. I had preferences, obviously - largely science fiction and fantasy, like a good nerd, but the truth was, if it had text in it and someone I trusted told me it was worth reading, I read it. And fast, too. And I didn't stop when I left school. I started working at a bookshop. I kept working at a bookshop right into university. I kept reading. The bookshelves filled up and then the boxes and then they were stacking up against the wall, knee high, waist high, pyramided to stop them tottering over and burying me only to be found six weeks later crushed to death by the combined complete hardcover works of Terry Pratchett and Brian Jacques, decomposing and semi devoured by cats.

Where was I?

Oh yes. I read. A lot. And all was well.

And then, at the bookshop, I was moved departments. From Fiction, with it's added candy house of Children's, to 'Literature'.

What is this 'Literature' of which you speak?

Oh, you know. Classic fiction. Books of worth. The sort of thing you read in school. You did read books in school, didn't you?

... well, obviously, but not in the context I think we're talking about.

What did I read in school? Hmm. The Machine Gunners. Twice. Of Mice and Men. I don't think we actually finished Far From The Madding Crowd - well, obviously I did, but I'm not sure about the rest of the class. Maybe ten poems, only half of which were written before 1914. Macbeth. Much Ado About Nothing. The Tempest (Although that was primary school so it was heavily abridged and I'm not sure it counts). I also don't think we actually read Romeo and Juliet - just watched the hideously bad film by Baz Luhrmann. I wrote a very long essay ripping that film to shreds, which kickstarted my interest in Film Studies, and now I have a degree in the damn thing, so thank you for that, English.

For the rest of it? Not so much. I mean, names get chucked around - I know when we were doing Of Mice And Men, some of the other classes got to do Frankenstein or Lord of the Flies (Lucky bastards) and so I've heard of all these authors. But read them? Nope.

So there I was, suddenly standing in a room full of books I hadn't read. Hundreds, thousands of books I hadn't read. Why hadn't I read these books?

Because I didn't want to? That's certainly true for a couple of them. After English was through with them, there was no way I was touching Steinbeck or Hardy with a bargepole - but it wasn't that I objected to being asked to read them, it was that I objected to being asked to read them for the fifteenth time. English did manage to kill poetry for me, simply by convincing me that the absolute best going was Carol Ann Duffy, which is a bleak start to any art form if you think about it. The rest of them, however, I refuse to believe I wasn't willing to read them. The few 'classics' I did seek out of my own volition - largely because the few teachers I respected told me they were good - were often challenging, odd, and I'm not entirely sure I liked all of them. But I still read them. And unlike 90% of all students, school couldn't kill Shakespeare for me because I started reading Shakespeare, abridged, at eight years old, and then figured out at about twelve that actually it was all just sex jokes. It'll always be me, Will, and the sex jokes. They can't take that from me.

Did I not know they were there? It's a distinct possibility. Despite living in the library for six years, the librarian never talked to me beyond the cursory 'shhhh!'. As it is, I rarely pick up a new book by an unknown author unless someone - a person, the radio, the internet, a sign in the bookshop - tells me it's worth it. There's too many books to work through as it is to start grabbing things at random, especially when you work in the General Fiction department. I'm pretty sure if I did know where they were in the school library, I've now forgotten, because I never went there.

However it happened, here I am. My coverage of classic fiction - based on only the vaguest notion of what constitutes 'classic fiction' - is limited, more or less exactly, to: Nabokov's Lolita, The Great Gatsby, Dracula, a smattering of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, the collected works of Edgar Allen Poe, Alice in Wonderland, everything Oscar Wilde ever wrote, and the aforementioned books from school. I think I could expand that out a little bit if 'Literature' included some genre stuff and the 'Children's Classics' section, but not by a huge amount.

As an adult with a library a dozen times her own bodyweight, to suddenly find an entire section of the bookshop you have never read is rather embarrassing. Embarrassing and incredibly exciting.

Because do you know what? There's a whole damn section of the bookshop I haven't read! Hundreds, no, thousands of books! That'll keep me going for... well, okay, lets be honest, maybe a couple of years, but by then there'll be a whole fresh crop of stuffs in Fiction. Nobody has spoiled these for me. I have no preconceptions, very few prejudices, and am adult enough not to give up because they're written in a difficult way. I have absolutely no idea what I'm getting myself in for, and I love it.

So where do I start?

I start with 'A', of course.

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