Whenever you move schools, you are inevitably bombarded with new policies, cultures, norms, habits and calendar events. At my last school, one such event was the DEAR day: drop everything and read. Someone from the English faculty picked a short book and split it up into six sections, one for every period of the day. Throughout the day, teachers would do a “relay,” whereby at the start of each lesson they would read the section corresponding to that period. I’ll be honest, I thought it was a bit daft at the time. I thought that
- most students wouldn’t pay attention
- the ones that did would forget what happened
- some teachers wouldn’t even bother
- messing with teachers’ lessons starts could result in poor behaviour
- why am I reading in science?
I’m not going to elaborate on any of those concerns. If you want to do a DEAR day like we had, you need to think about them. They aren’t going to be mitigated by the MAGIC OF STORYTELLING or whatever. I don’t really know what effect it had on the students or if they enjoyed it or hated it; I never asked and they didn’t tell. But I do want to write about an effect it had on me.
That first year, the chosen text was called The Milk of a Lioness by Isaac Bashevis Singer, one of the great Jewish writers of the 20th century. It was a story I had sort of heard before at some point, but couldn’t quite remember it. Anyway, I loved it. It had this really lovely fairytale quality about it that really grabbed me. I hadn’t read any Singer, so I went on to Amazon to see if I could find anything else by him. I saw a book called The Magician of Lublin, thought it looked cool and ordered it, planning to read it in the summer holiday. It turned up as a very attractive pink volume as part of a 40 book Penguin series called “Pocket Penguins.” It wasn’t really a “pocket” book, as it was still the length of a regular novel, but I absolutely loved it. It told the story of the roguish magician and trickster Yasha as he toured the carnivals of Eastern Europe, leaving a trail of heartbreak and misery in his wake, ironically overlaid with the superficial pleasure and excitement of his audiences.
The back of the book held the full list of “Pocket Penguins” and I decided to have a crack at the full list of 40 titles. There were some authors I recognised like Zola and Tolstoy, some that I didn’t recognise but probably should have like Nabokov, Ford and Cather, and some who I doubt even the keenest of literati would be familiar with: authors like Emilia Pardo Bazan, Henri Alain-Fournier and Wu-Cheng-En.
It’s about two years since then, and I’m now on the 40th book. There have been a couple that I couldn’t find copies on, but I have at least started the other 38. I say started, because some I had to give up on. I tried really hard, but when you’ve been reading something for three weeks and have only made it to page 7, you just have to stop (Virginia Woolf I’m looking at you).
Whether or not 38ish books in two years is a lot depends on your perspective I suppose. It’s more than I’ve ever read before, so I’m pretty happy. I’m not a slow reader, but I’m constantly sleep deprived so ordinarily only make it a few pages before wiping out on the couch. I also don’t naturally “read for pleasure.” Even the books that I really liked were hard to pick up. That’s both because none of them are “easy reads” – the kind of page turners you might take on holiday – but also because I’d much rather go on Twitter, check out some blogs or play video games instead. On the flip side, looking back I have really enjoyed working my way through the set, and there’s a great feeling of accomplishment at having done so. Some of the books have been utterly incredible and without a doubt have changed the way I think about art, literature and the world.
I doubt anyone much cares about this science teacher’s gallivant through weird and wonderful world literature, but in case you are I’ve written some very short reflections on my favourite ones from the series below. My main point in writing this semi-blog-semi-self-indulgent-reminisce was in response to this:
You just don’t really know what reading can do. For you, for your students, for whoever: the effects can be wonderfully unpredictable. Below the line I’ve put my book reflections, but I’ll finish with this:
The best (and worst) books from the “pocket” penguin series:
WARNING: CONTAINS IRREVERENCE
Carson McCullers: The heart is a lonely hunter
This book is flipping outstanding. She wrote it at a ridiculous 21 years old, and it’s like a grittier version of To Kill a Mocking Bird, weaving deep, dark and dream-like scenes and characters together masterfully. Also contains an incredible Marxist anti-slavery speech that runs for about a dozen pages and holds you as rapt as the audience in the page.
Virginia Woolf: Mrs Dalloway
Wtf is this. What is even happening. Why is there no punctuation. I can’t understand a damn thing that’s going on here.
Willa Cather: O Pioneers!
Agrarian, nostalgic, and just generally lovely. Ending is really sad. A lot of the books in this series are nice, low-key stories that build realistic and compelling characters living normal lives, but finish with some kind of tragedy that leaves you feeling sad and melancholy. I don’t know if that’s a literary “thing,” but it seemed to happen a lot.
Henri Alain-Fournier: The Lost Estate
This book is the king of that type of literature. The book feels like a fairytale as it follows the story of “The Great Meaulnes:” a charismatic youth who is always the center of attention, but from the perspective of a friend who is caught up in all the weirdness. The ending is gut-wrenchingly sad, and is one of the only books that has brought me to tears. Maybe the only one.
Franz Kafka: Metamorphosis (and other stories)
Kafka was smoking some seriously good stuff.
Karen Blixen: Out of Africa
Loved this little autobiography thing featuring the escapades of Blixen in Kenya (I think). Her writing is really lovely, and constant references to the classics give it a really full-bodied feel.
Suetonius: The Twelve Caesars
You might need a pen and paper for this one. Or a wax stylus. Or just to not bother. An unreadable mess of characters and stilted narrative. Just go read some Roman historical fiction instead.
Ernst Junger: Storm of Steel
This remarkable work documents Junger’s time in the German trenches as a frontliner right the way through the Great War. Injured 20 times, including 11 bullet wounds, it’s jut staggering in its stark and nonchalant description of the brutality of war. By the end of it, it’s hard not to empathise with Junger, and I was glad to learn that following the war he became a prominent public intellectual and ended up as a vocal critic of Hitler. If you’re interested in war literature or WWI, read this book.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery: Wind, Sand and Stars
As well as being the author of Little Prince, Antoine was an aviator in the inter-war period. The stories of daring and discovery are completely insane, and his transcendentalist writing can be tough to follow at times. Contains a mind-bending description of North African slavery that borders on glorification. So weird, but so good.
Vladimir Nabokov: Laughter in the Dark
Starts off normal, goes COMPLETELY CRAZY by the end. Seriously. I was in shock. I just sort of sat there, struggling to process the helter-skelter madness of the last fifty pages or so. If you’ve watched or read Gone Girl then you’ll know that feeling of everything being totally mad and flipped on its head and bleak and sad and more mad and just mad again – that’s what this book is like.