Saturday, 2 January 2016

Be More Book

I love books, have done ever since I can remember - which stretches back to a time before I was able to read for myself. I can still remember (aged 3+) looking at books with pictures (of tigers probably) and rows of black symbols and being intrigued by the latter, for they meant something to people who could decipher them and the ability to read them would unlock a whole world of information and intrigue. It was fun to be read to, but how much more convenient to be able to do it for oneself without having to ensnare a grown-up or wait until bedtime! Pretty soon I was devouring Janet And John; (if you don't know what I mean, don't worry, it's nothing perverse). They were smug little beggars but it was not their fault. They were the victims of their creators and at least they imparted the gift of reading to me.

Although I regularly borrowed books from the local library, as a kid and up until my early teens I also spent most of my pocket-money on books (and plastic aircraft kits).  This was before I discovered girls, football and rock & roll. I treasured my little library, often re-reading favourite titles several times over. When I was about ten and on holiday with my parents, they realised they hadn't brought enough holiday reading with them - and I assume the place we were staying didn't have a bookshop - so when my father was partway through a lengthy thriller, he tore it in half down the spine and gave my mother the first half to read while he powered through the second. You know there's a time when you first want to disown your parents? That was the moment for me - I thought ripping a book in two was a sacrilegious act!

I studied English A-level at school, read English at University and became an English teacher (for a few years, anyway). Reading is a life skill and literature is lifeblood. I always have two or three books on the go (a mixture of fact and fiction) and a long list of titles waiting to be read. One day I may even finish writing a novel of my own. It's a debt of honour I owe to the kids I taught.

However, I must come to the point: literary merit is the theme of this week's blog. Hmm. I didn't choose the subject and I don't want to get bogged down in some dry rhetorical debate about what constitutes literary merit; it's a critical exercise with limited appeal, so I'll tackle it this way, with a mountaineering analogy. At a minimum, a piece of writing has some literary merit if it makes people want to read it in the first place and commend it to other people. Enid Blyton in a former age and J.K. Rowling in this one have both performed the magic act of making children want to read. That at least gets them to base camp and eager to explore higher slopes, where fantasies, thrillers and crime-fiction abound - many of them well-written and vastly entertaining (more literary merit). Somewhere, of course, there is the slippery scree of Mills & Boon and Fifty Shades - best skirted around. Up above the pulp fiction there is a wealth of truly wonderful life-enhancing and world-changing literature on the upper reaches of the literary mountain just waiting to be discovered. It's best arrived at by personal recommendation, word-of-mouth and general acclaim. It is not a hard climb and the rewards are incalculable.

So can literary merit be defined and bestowed by consensus? Probably yes: defined as something that shows us aspects of the world and ourselves in new or more completely realised ways; bestowed in reviews and awards such as the Carnegie Medal, Pulitzer Prize, Mann-Booker et cetera.

Alfred Nobel
The Nobel Prize for Literature (bestowed yearly with the occasional hiatus since 1901) is probably the pinnacle of literary awards and differs from the afore-mentioned in that it is for an author's impact or a body of writing rather than a specific work. Of course, there are many more authors of undoubted literary merit than can ever hope to claim the Nobel Prize - and many deserving giants of the literary world who have never won it. Kipling, Shaw, Eliot, Hemingway, Golding, Pinter have all been honoured down the decades but the likes of Zola, Lawrence, Joyce, Auden, Orwell, Greene and Nabokov have been overlooked. It's a bit of a lottery.

Given that this is the season of lists and callow fickleness, I'll conclude by recommending my own current all-time 20 favourite novels (in chronological order). Five of them are by Nobel Prize winning authors. Some years ago, a colleague, knowing I'd both read and taught English, asked me for a list of 50 great books he should read. (You can have the other 30 on request!)

Emma  -  Jane Austen (1815)
Great Expectations  -  Charles Dickens (1861)
Crime And Punishment  -  Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1866)
L'Assomoir  -  Emile Zola (1877)
The Return Of The Native  -  Thomas Hardy (1878)
Nostromo  -  Joseph Conrad (1904)
The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists  -  Robert Tressell (1914)
The Rainbow  -  D.H. Lawrence (1915)
The Waves  -  Virginia Woolf (1931)
Tender Is The Night  -  F Scott Fitzgerald (1934)
The Grapes Of Wrath  -  John Steinbeck (1939)
The Glass Bead Game  -  Hermann Hesse (1943)
Doctor Faustus  -  Thomas Mann (1947)
The Town And The City  -  Jack Kerouac (1950)
Riders In The Chariot  -  Patrick White (1961)
One Hundred Years Of Solitude  -  Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967)
Ada: A Family Chronicle  -  Vladimir Nabokov (1969)
October Ferry To Gabriola  -  Malcolm Lowry (1970)
Stone Junction  -  Jim Dodge (1990)
Kensington Gardens  -  Rodrigo Fresan (2003)

Thanks for reading. Wishing you a very Happy New Year, S ;-)



Lady Curt said...

When my son attended Infant school I was called in because he was not ' reading ' adequately. I duly attended and asked to see the reading materials stipulated by the curriculum. Janet and John ! I explained that Kenneth read avidly at home, but that these books were beneath him and therefore of no interest to him. However, they had to be completed to gain a 'tick' on the appropriate form. So I returned home, explained to my son that he would be best to just get through them and move on. The constraints of education !

Steve Rowland said...

Janet & John books were shipped out to darkest Africa for me by well-meaning relatives. This was all pre-school stuff. I sympathise with your kicking against the box-ticking mentality of Kenneth's primary school. I was luckier with mine - never had to look at a Janet & John book at Beech Avenue Infants.

Adele said...

The first book that I read in Infant School was The Cat in The Hat. I have been thinking in rhyming couplets ever since!!!

Anonymous said...

No mention of James Joyce, Ian McEwan or Leo Tolstoy then?

Steve Rowland said...

Tolstoy is on my extended favourite 50 list :-)
I admire Joyce but he's not a favourite author.
Of 'contemporary' British novelists I'd probably rate Julian Barnes and Ali Smith...but it's all just personal preference.