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Posts Tagged ‘lists of books’

…but I haven’t forgotten this blog! Life kind of got on top of me; I’ve been reading a lot and working a lot and doing a lot in general so I let the blogging slide.  But I find as I’ve been reading I’ve been coming up with more topics that I want to blog about, so hopefully over the next few weeks you’ll hear more from me.

So what have I been reading recently? Well, I’ve just updated my ‘Books read in 2011’ page so you can see exactly what I’ve been reading. But I think there are some in the list that deserve a special mention.

Moab Is My Washpot & The Fry Chronicles, both by Stephen Fry: The first 2 books in Fry’s biography are nothing short of fantastic. He’s honest, self-depreciating, critical, humorous, and passionate and throughout it all his language and vocabulary keep you grabbing for the dictionary (in a good way).  His love of words resonates across the pages and you can’t help but smile at the loquacious style and wealth of word play.  I loved these books and heartily recommend them.

Travelling with Che Guevara by Alberto Grenada:  I think I’m safe in making the assumption that everyone has heard of Che Guevara.  Many will have heard of or watched the film based on Guevara’s book, The Motorcycle Diaries.  I’d heard of Guevara and the film, I knew a little about his politics but my knowledge was vague.  This book is the diary of Guevara’s travelling companion when they took off on an old motorcycle to cross South America and explore their own continent and how the locals live, work and survive under a variety of different regimes.  They meet a variety of characters along the way and Grenada’s descriptions carry you along with them.  You can smell and envision their surroundings; you can hear their conversations with locals.  You can sense their frustration at the lack of democracy and the influence of American capitalism on the impoverished locals and indigenous peoples.  It’s a great book and an excellent insight into the early formation of Guevara’s politics.  It’s so good, I went straight out and bought Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries.

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Is it the choice of subject matter?  The genre?  The number of pages?  The use of big words?  Is a Margaret Atwood or Salman Rushdie book considered to be of a higher literary quality than Dan Brown or Stephanie Myer?  If so, why?

I heard an interview on the radio a few months ago with Jeffrey Archer and he described himself as a storyteller.  There’s an interview with Archer on The Browser website where he talks about 5 famous books.  It’s really interesting because in this article, as with the radio interview, he makes the point that Dickens isn’t considered a great writer, but a great storyteller, the same goes for Dumas.  It’s taken the French 200 years to recognise how good a novelist Dumas was.

So the question is this, in 100 years what books written from this current period will we consider classics?   What will they be reading in school?  Great Expectations, Pride & Prejudice or Harry Potter?  Will students be studying Ian McEwan, Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Sebastian Faulks?  What makes these authors more worth studying than Sarah Waters, Philip Pullman or John Grisham?  The latter 3 authors have all won literary awards so aren’t they as good as the others?

I wrote an earlier post asking if we’re aver embarrassed by what we read and I concluded that we shouldn’t ever be embarrassed, as everyone likes something different.  But I do notice that if people ask me what I’ve been reading recently I sometimes will say ‘just some crime novels’ in a dismissive way.  But if I’ve been reading something that’s considered literature I’ll make a point of naming the author.  Is that really pretentious?  I don’t do it all the time – now I sound defensive!

It’s an interesting thought as I personally much prefer a good story to an award winning literary novel.  The Booker Prize long-list was released on 26 July and, not surprisingly, when I looked at the list I had read none of the books.  In fact, I haven’t read any from last year’s list either!  But I have read a huge number of works that are classified as literary classics.  I’ve read every Charles Dickens novel and they are considered classic works of literature – but when they were first published they were the Victorian equivalent of Eastenders!

So what’s the key difference between a literary effort and popular fiction?  Personally, I don’t know how to describe the difference other than in many cases a good story is easier to read.  People criticise Harry Potter and dismiss adults reading these books, but I would much rather see anyone of any age reading Harry Potter or Dan Brown than reading nothing at all.  As I mentioned earlier, I’ve read every Dickens, I’m a huge fan and I’ll highly recommend Dickens to anyone. But why should you read Dickens rather than James Patterson?  There’s no reason.  They’re both great story tellers, though one does take a few hours longer to read than the other!

Maybe one difference between literature and popular fiction is that literature is what we’re told we should read, like it’s good for us!  Who says so, some critic in the Guardian?  Why should they advise us on what we should read?  I think I’m pretty capable of deciding what I will and won’t read.  I enjoy reading reviews, they provide me with ideas of books I might be interested in reading.  But I certainly don’t choose the books I read based solely on reviews or award lists.  At the end of the day surely the sign of a good book is how enjoyable it is.  That’s the key point of reading, isn’t it?  I wouldn’t read over 100 books a year if I didn’t enjoy reading and I wouldn’t enjoy reading if there weren’t so many darn good stories out there!  So I say, stuff the critics and the awards lists stick with what’s enjoyable.  100 years from now, that’s what we’ll still be reading!

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As I mentioned in an earlier blogpost, I set myself the challenge to read all 100 books in the BBC’s list of the Nation’s Favourite books.  When I first saw the list I’d read approximately 33 of the books, so I figured it wouldn’t be too difficult a challenge.  There were a few books on the list that I was not looking forward to reading; namely War and Peace, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Midnight’s Children, and the Jacqueline Wilson books!  There were other books that I had never heard of and had no opinion on whatsoever; such as Dune and Magician.  To my surprise I found that I enjoyed War and Peace, Captain Corelli, Dune, Magician, The Shell Seekers, The Thorn Birds and many, many more.

I didn’t enjoy reading Midnight’s Children, One Hundred Years of Solitude, The God of Small Things or Crime and Punishment.

But I found a love for Terry Pratchett!  Who knew I would enjoy sci-fi so much.

Generally, it wasn’t a difficult list to complete, I struggled to get through some of the books I’ve mentioned, but I also wasn’t going to give up on any of them and they didn’t feel insurmountable. And the number of books I liked and the new found loves kept me interested and ready to try anything.

However, there has been one book that stopped me from completing this challenge a year ago!  That book was Ulysses by James Joyce.  I picked it up in October 2009 prepared to read it and complete the challenge by Christmas.  But I just couldn’t do it; I’ve never put down a book so much in my life before!  I was so fed up with it I put it down in November and didn’t pick it up again until March 2010.  But I soon put it down again.  Then in late October I decided I’d had enough, I wanted to finish the damn thing and be done with it.  So picked it up and set myself rules; I was only allowed to read Ulysses and nothing else during the week but I could read other books at weekends.  I found myself actually hoping that I wouldn’t get a seat on the tube, because the book was too heavy to hold with one hand whilst standing!  Ridiculous, I know!

But I persevered and on Friday 17 December I finally finished Ulysses, the challenge was over!

I was so relieved.  You may have guessed that this was one of the less enjoyable books on the list.  It was a strange book; it certainly wouldn’t be in my top 100 of favourite books and I couldn’t recommend it as a good book to read.  But it is interesting in its own way.  It’s intellectually stimulating and it explores a multitude of literary and grammatical styles which challenge the reader throughout.  I want to call it an indulgence on Joyce’s part; a book he wanted to write without really caring what anyone else thought.  The sort of book a well-renowned author might produce and get published because his publishers have made enough money to lose some on their author’s whim!  But that doesn’t feel fair.  Joyce struggled to complete this book, struggled to find someone willing to publish it, and struggled to get it accepted by general society.  It only exists because of his pure determination and the generosity and courage of his friends.  It had to be smuggled into the United States and the publisher lost a lot of money producing the first edition.

Now that I’ve completed the book I think I have a better insight into why Joyce wanted to create such a work.  He wanted to challenge our perceptions of how books should be written and what they should be written about.  And he does that.  Ulysses does challenge and stimulate, no matter how infuriating it might be!  And although the novel is a day in the life of Leopold Bloom my favourite section was the last, when it’s written from the point of view of his wife Molly and Leo’s asleep.  Many parts of the book are dull and tedious, other parts are amusing or barely decipherable, but the last section feels the most human and realistic.

Overall, this is a book that I will probably never read again but it’s also one I’m not likely to forget!  Try it if you dare.

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In 2003 the BBC launched the Big Read, which aimed to discover the nation’s favourite books by getting members of the public to vote. You can see the list here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/bigread/top100.shtml

When the list was first released I’d read about 33 of the top 100, so I decided to read the rest. But I didn’t really put much effort into it, mainly cause there seemed to be a lot of books on the list that I ddn’t want to read! But last year I decided that I’d complete the list and by December 2009 I had read 99 of the books. I was well chuffed with myself. So I only had 1 to go – not a problem I figured. Except that the book I’d left till last was Ulysses by James Joyce.

I started it in December, I read a 100 pages or so and then I got distracted by other books. I put Ulysses down in mid-December and I didn’t pick it up again until March, when I read another 70 pages or so.  But I’ve decided it’s time to finally finish the list. So as much as I may not want to, I am going to finish this book!

I must say that whilst reading the list I came across a number of books I would never have picked up normally but that I really enjoyed. This includes the Terry Prachett Discworld series which I’ve loved. The humor, sarcasm and satire is brilliantly written. I also finally read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. I tried reading this 2 or 3 times previously but I just couldn’t get into it, this time round – no problem at all. Maybe I’d forced myself to read such rubbish that I realised it really wasn’t that bad and actually quite enjoyed it.

Some of the books I struggled with included Love in a Time of Cholera, Crime and Punishment and Midnight’s Children. But I’ve now read them so I’m allowed to slate them as much as I like! Whereas previously when people asked why I’d never read these books I didn’t have a suitable answer, I’d just say they didn’t seem like my type of book and I was right!

But I can’t use that argument to not read a book again as I was often proved wrong. So if anyone is looking to expand their literary horizons, you could do worse than taking a book or two from the list.

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