Archive for August, 2010

Am I cultured?

Are we book snobs? Prejudiced against certain books?  Think they’re not literary or good enough to class as a serious read?  Do we class certain books or genres as non-cultural reading?

A friend of mine recently commented, on seeing the list of books I’d read in the last year, that she’d read hardly any of them and felt very uncultured.  My automatic reaction was to correct her, just because she hadn’t read certain books didn’t make her uncultured.  Plus can we call someone cultured if all they do is read books?  What do we mean by cultured?

I called this blog ‘culture and cake’ but I’m really only focusing on books rather than any other form of culture.  Surely to be truly cultured a person must experience a variety of literature, music, theatre, cinema, foods, people and places.  It’s easier to have an opinion on a variety of topics if you’ve had a variety of experiences.  People often have something to say about a book or a film and can provide an opinion but that doesn’t make you cultured, just opinionated.  Just because you’ve read Chaucer or Proust doesn’t mean you’re more cultured than the person who’s read Harry Potter or spends 8 hours in front of the telly every day.  It’s just a different side of culture.  If everyone read the same books and listened to the same music the world would be a very boring place.  What would we have to debate about?  The great thing about cultural diversity is just that – culture is diverse and everyone’s opinion is worth something.  Just like everyone’s choice of reading material is worth something.  I may not be a fan of Salman Rushdie novels, that doesn’t make me uncultured.

I don’t believe we should pressure people into reading certain books.  Embrace the variety and make your own choices.  There are days when I love reading Harry Potter and days when I can’t get enough of George Orwell, doesn’t make one day better or more cultural than the other, just different.  And that’s great.

There may be an argument that reading literary prize winners provides people with an introduction to a variety of styles of writing and language and therefore can enhance a person’s own language skills.  But that’s more about a broad vocabulary and grammatical skills than culture.  I’m sure people reading this blog will find plenty of grammatical errors to comment on, and I believe I’m pretty well read, so obviously reading doesn’t guarantee a perfect level of grammar!

But I also regularly read up on current affairs, visit the theatre, watch films, travel, and listen to an eclectic enough range of music!  So am I cultured?  Perhaps to an extent but there’s still a few million books to read and plays to watch, so I don’t think it’s even nearly time for me to stop experiencing new things just yet!   And thank goodness for that; wouldn’t it be awful to think there was nothing left to experience, that you were as cultured as you could get?  My friend may think she’s uncultured but she’s most definitely not, she has children, goes on holiday, reads, listens to the radio and has many experiences I don’t.  So I reckon we’ve just had different contacts with culture and that makes catching up and chatting even more fun as we get to share what we’ve done and learnt with each other.  So choose a cultural experience of your own and get stuck in.


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It’s been a while since I wrote a blog so I thought it was about time, especially as I’ve just updated my ‘Books read in 2010’ page and I realised just quite how many books I’ve read over the last month!  I know that quite a few of them only took a few hours but it’s still quite a long list.

So, what have I been reading and what can we surmise from this list.  Well, there’s been quite a lot of escapism; I was a little unwell so I took solace in quite a few detective/thriller novels.  As I’ve said in a previous post these books are one of my favourite ways of clearing my head and escaping from everyday realities and stresses.  My favourite?  I’d say probably Linda Fairstein’s Hell Gate.  It featured the familiar protagonists and made excellent use, as usual, of the New York setting.  One of the features of this series that I particularly love is learning more about New York and its history, it’s evident that Fairstein is extremely knowledgeable and a fan of this great city.  This really brings an atmosphere and sense of location to the novels and captures the reader, bringing them into the story.  I won’t go into any further detail about the book, other than to say fans of this series won’t be disappointed.

I must say that before I started reading I assumed that Tess Gerritsen’s The Killing Place would be my favourite and it was pretty good but I just didn’t think it matched some of her earlier work.  Although it featured many of the same characters it was based in a new setting and felt a little disjointed.  I didn’t get carried along with the story or caught up in the struggle for survival and rescue that it seemed I was supposed to!  I was particularly disappointed by a lack of emotion in the writing.  Without wanting to give anything away, there were some deaths that seemed almost to be mentioned in passing and had little impact on any of the characters and were barely referred to again.  I’ll keep my fingers crossed that the next in this series is a huge improvement.  Though it does remind me of how Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta series went downhill as she focused on the characters and their stories as opposed to the genre itself.  I just want to shake these authors and say, the reason we love these books is because of what the characters do and how they react to grisly murders and risky situations, I don’t really care as much about their emotional entanglements, certainly not enough for that to be the primary focus of the book!

Anyway, onto more enjoyable reads.  I’ve previously read Ben MacIntyre’s Agent Zigzag and I thought it was excellent; brilliantly researched with evocative and emotional language that really captured a sense of time and place.  So not long ago I purchased Operation Mincemeat but then I put it on my TBR pile and it’s been sitting there ever since!  Then I happened across a second hand copy of A Foreign Field and I started reading it.  This is another of MacIntyre’s books focusing on a little known piece of war history.  The story starts with MacIntyre working for The Times in Paris and being invited to the unveiling of a memorial to British soldiers killed during the First World War.  There he meets the daughter of one of these soldiers, born following a war-time romance in this remote little village situated near the front line.  MacIntyre takes us on a journey of discovery as he tells us how soldiers separated from their regiments took refuge amongst the villagers and how in turn the villagers coped with the stress of hiding fugitives, the lack of food and the strict regime imposed by the Germans.  In some ways this is a detective novel, with MacIntyre acting as the detective.  He uses a number of historical sources to build up his story as well as speaking with the remaining villagers who remember that time and the relatives of those who have since passed away.  One thing is clear; everyone believed that someone betrayed the soldiers to the Germans.  MacIntyre feels a compulsion to find the culprit, though the villagers seem keen to let the past lie.  Throughout the book there is a clear sense of how the villagers and soldiers lived and the difficulties they face and it is an excellent read.  One of the great things is that MacIntyre’s writing doesn’t diminish as he brings the story up to date and reaches his conclusion as to who the guilty party may be.  The reader is captured from the beginning and can’t resist staying for the rest of the ride.  I’d highly recommend this as an example of how a historical novel about a true story can be just as gripping and intriguing as any fictional detective story or thriller.

Anyway I think that’s enough for one post.  Though I do think it’s worth pointing out that Chasing Shakespeare by Sarah Smith was really not that great a read, more infuriating than anything.  Especially when she got such basic facts such as the location of a tube station wrong!  But on the other hand George Orwell’s collection of essays, Books v Cigarettes, was a fantastic commentary and insight on a specific time and society and well worth the read.

Generally I would say that the books I’ve read over the past month are pretty typical of my reading habits, a good mix of escapism, fantasy and real life adventure to keep me interested, amused and intrigued.

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