Do you believe in the idea that there are books that everyone must read?
(As I wrote that sentence I struggled with ‘idea’ – to me it’s an idea but to many it may be a belief depending on the book in question. Thinking here of the canon, of course. I do think that perhaps it depends on the book in terms of whether or not there may be a difference between ‘idea’ and ‘belief’ though it’s also down to culture, the society you live in, and so on.)
For me, it depends on the reason – why, exactly do people say that such and such a book should be read? Does the book contain information you can’t read elsewhere or information that’s available elsewhere but not written as clearly as it is here?
Then again, I’ve never been a fan of those ‘X books about X you absolutely must oh my god read’ posts, likewise any articles that say similarly of different media. Nevertheless I think opinions ought to be considered, even if we believe in the idea that a person shouldn’t have to be a reader.
Mostly, then, I don’t believe in it. I believe in telling people that they ‘should’ read a certain book only if I’m pretty damn certain it would suit them, no matter whether or not it’s canonical. Will they really, truly, benefit from reading it as an individual rather than in the general sense of benefiting? (And I think you’ve got to make enjoyment or appreciation the priority, surely more important than ‘benefit’.)
A lot of this comes down to what I would say is the fact that some all-important must-read books are bad for one reason or another. The example I always use is Wuthering Heights, partly because that’s where my personal decision to separate enjoyment from appreciation of literature stems from. Due to this I could never say, ‘read about Heathcliff, you’ll love it’. But I could say, ‘I reckon you should read about Heathcliff because you’ll appreciate the work’. Enjoyment can be had, I believe, but in the literary sense of the word.
I’d put another Brontë sister in this category: Villette – I find it difficult to recommend Charlotte’s scathing monologue on why Catholicism is hideous, but it has value otherwise.
I think various categories have to match up before a recommendation can be made. Is the person a reader? Do they read this genre? Why do you think they’ll like it? Those last two in particular bear remembering, and whilst ‘genre’ is often broad enough in scope, it’s all too easy to forget to really consider the person’s further tastes when you’re raving about a book. Often inner dialogue is more ‘will they like it? Yes, because this book is great!’ than ‘will they like it and am I certain that I’m not putting my own interests above theirs?’
I sat at my desk. It was the time I’d set aside for writing posts, choosing ideas from my list and writing them up in full. It’s taken me a good several years to get this far, where I’ve got a proper if still basic idea of when I’m best set to write. For me at the moment it’s Monday and Wednesday – I think the fact that Monday is the start of a new week and is a day I see as productive after the week’s end as well as it being the day my blog is visited most, helps me get in the right frame of mind. Wednesday may not be the start of the week, but it’s my second posting day of the week and is the last day when most of the week is still to come – by Wednesday we’re looking at the weekend coming swiftly.
But Monday wasn’t working. It was a dreary day outside; it begun that way and it carried on, and I dislike dark rainy days so I naturally thought it was a weather-induced lethargy. I didn’t feel like writing, none of the ideas on the list were working for me. But I started to realise it wasn’t procrastination either. It was a lack of inspiration.
It got me thinking – feeling ‘off’, for whatever reason, is one thing. Procrastination is another. And a lack of inspiration is something else again. And I think it’s easier to work out when you’re feeling off because it has a more obvious effect – you don’t feel well, or you feel down, or you’re in a slump. Generally noticeable things. Procrastination is also noticeable because it’s that odd thing – the lack of effort which itself takes effort to achieve. But inspiration is different; it can feel like lethargy.
What do you do when you lack inspiration and need it? I think responding to it a little like when you’re in a slump can work – if you’re someone who powers through regardless, that could help and if you’re someone who makes it a time for rest or to do other things, that can help. But then it’s not quite the same as a slump.
During these times I tend to decide to do something mindless, something that’s full of autopilot actions where my mind can wander if it so wants. Depending on the situation I might decide to do something I don’t do much, in my case watch television or a film – things I find unproductive in terms of myself. (Sometimes doing something I like/dislike can remind me how relatively important the activity that I’ve abandoned is, which can help jump start inspiration.) Going out can help but it’s nowhere near the forgone conclusion, I find, that articles would have you believe.
I said Monday wasn’t working – it’s more isn’t. I’m writing this whilst feeling completely uninspired. I suppose not being inspired can be inspiring in a limited way – I’ve now this post but I’m not going to write a slew of similar ones. But I think it pays to reflect on the things you do most. I wonder if perhaps the thought I had at the turn of the year, ‘I may have done it for a few years now, but how on earth am I going to produce a lot of ideas and written content for another year?’ has something to do with it – my fairly empty non-review schedule.
I wonder if I should just go and watch a film or turn the dishwasher on. But here I am or was writing, something, at least. And on a Monday.
What do you do when you’ve everything you need to do the writing/composing/drawing/studying/so forth you planned except inspiration?
Screen shot from Into The Woods, copyright © 2014 Walt Disney Pictures.
It occurred to me after watching Into The Woods that we’ve had a couple of (few?) deviations recently from the meeting-the-prince element of Cinderella – in particular the aforementioned Into The Woods and Malinda Lo’s Ash. It kind of plays around with the idea of being summoned to the ball – what if you don’t want to go or aren’t sure you want the prince? If every eligible lady must attend, what about those who don’t actually want to, who want to marry someone from their home town? In the context of the traditional story and in the context of the audience/reader, the desirable outcome is to have the prince – so romantic!
By placing our modern contexts and the idea of independence into it, you get something different. Maybe Cinderella would like to meet the prince and then have time to think about it. Maybe it shouldn’t just be up to the prince (though admittedly no one says that; though it’s the prince’s opinion and love that’s considered important to this element of the story). Is the whole before-midnight aspect useful in this way, effectively giving Cinderella time by way of a forced ‘out’ to consider what she wants, even if in the end she doesn’t use it? (Arguably this is what Into The Woods does.) Whilst it may not be possible for Cinderella in the Disney versions, the overall darkness of the traditional story… there’s a possibility there perhaps that whoever it was who first told the story thought of all this. Unlikely, but possible.
I liked how in Into The Woods Cinderella decides to leave a shoe for the prince to use to find her if he so wishes, thus making a sort-of decision for herself. It plays with the whole idea and puts a bit more active thinking into the fairly ridged concept of let’s-have-a-ball-and-choose-a-girl. Cinderella made the effort to get there, now it’s the prince’s turn. (Though of course by removing the responsibility of choosing for herself and giving it to the prince she’s just pushing away the decision. If she’d given it more thought at the time she would have realised earlier that she didn’t want to marry him.) The message is there – don’t let others decide your destiny. You’ve likely made a decision, you now have to own it.
Following on from my post on eternally playing catch up, reading Elizabeth Fremantle’s books, with their Tudor characters who are readers, got me thinking of the way it can be easy to apply importance to older books over newer ones. I’d say we do this partly because of the plethora of newer ones and the fact we can’t know for sure which will last the time. (I also wonder if it’s in some way also due to history – there weren’t so many new books. Or were there? The biggest thing Project Gutenberg has taught me so far is that there were a lot more books published in days gone by than you’d realise.)
It kind of puts it into perspective – the Tudors didn’t have any books by, say, Austen, to read so whilst we might ascribe importance to older books there’s a relative newness to many of these older books. And then, of course, where do we stop – if we’re looking at ever-loved works we need to be looking at Plato, Socrates, and no further… is Plato too new?
On some level, there is something to be said for only or mainly reading older books. I know that whilst I myself don’t think reading only older books is a good idea because you’d be missing a lot of present discussion, I nevertheless admire and understand someone who passes by contemporary novels.
Do I feel similarly if someone says they only read newer books? No – whilst I might not think them silly, I do think they’re missing out, and missing out a lot more than the person who is reading only older books misses out. I would say this feeling is ingrained – by school, by society, by the importance and general fame placed on older books – and whereas my feeling that it’s good to read newer books rather than just older books isn’t completely personal either, the idea of newer-books-only being a ‘problem’ is a lot stronger.
I suppose the whole lot of this is cultural. Could I ever write a post on this subject and it be based purely on my own uninfluenced thoughts?
I think I do deem older books more important in that there is a lot more conversation around them, and particularly because the conversation is ongoing. It’s not going to suddenly come to a halt unless perhaps our values change a lot, and even then nowadays we tend to simply start viewing the books in new ways, from different angles.
That said, is there a difference between famous older books and forgotten/merely average older books? The connection between both is that they inform us about the period in which they were written in, but how much relative value is there in a book that has been largely forgotten because it was just average fare? (If a book was forgotten because it served its purpose at the time – 12 Years A Slave, for example, which was written during the abolition – that’s a different ball game.)
Yet to dismiss new books would be to dismiss future classics, and to miss the conversations happening about issues we are having now. You can read a classic that talks about the industrial revolution and there will be much to discuss, but what of current political, social, cultural issues?
How do you balance old and new books?
For the past two years I’ve not paid much attention to the idea of reading goals where it concerns myself. In 2015 I listed all the ways I’d failed the goals I’d set the previous year and threw the whole concept away – I decided reading as much as I comfortably could was best. Last year I hoped to improve my male to female ratio and read more translated fiction.
I was going to do similarly this time but around November I started creating goals without really thinking about it. Shaking my head to myself and thinking ‘I really should read more of X next year’. I’m wondering if that’s a sign of sorts that it’s time I tried goals again. So I’m making some but keeping them vague, a bit wishy-washy. I’m thinking that being non-committal might mean I have more success.
I want to read more books by authors who aren’t white – Having read so much Asian literature pre-blogging I got into the habit of thinking all was well – it’s taken me a spell of looking through my reading lists to see that I’m not reading at all as I used to. And whilst some of that is to be expected, such a complete change of this type doesn’t suit my personality. More on this when I post about my reading statistics.
I want to read more classics – I say this a lot but without considering how I might achieve it, and without any sort of plan those daunting tomes I’m interested in are going to remain on my shelves. So I’m going to try and see if I can read at least one classic every couple of months, starting February. I’m giving myself a pass this month because I’m in a slump and have a lot of books to read. I’m under no illusions – I most likely will not achieve 6 books this year – but as long as I read something classical, that will be good.
I want to read more books published in recent years that I haven’t yet got to – This goal ties in with the first (I’ve a lot of translated fiction – that Murakami I still haven’t read and the Hiromi Kawakami I got for Christmas) as well as the rest of the Man Booker 2015 shortlist and some Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that I’m wanting to read. It seems everyone has read her work and I feel out of the loop.
And one goal that’s not about books but is related to my blogging:
I want to visit some historical sites – I didn’t visit any castles last year except Old Sarum which I’d already visited before.
In typing these out, phrasing them, it’s occurred to me that my goals, sans the last, can be summed up in one bigger goal: I want to read more widely. I’ve been reading fairly widely already, but I want to improve on that.
Have you made any reading goals for this year? What was your reasoning behind choosing to make goals/not make goals?