My life has been inundated with books. Books for uni, books for pleasure, books for ideas, books to read because they ‘should’ be read, books to make, books for escapism, books for procrastination. It’s absolute bliss!
I’ve always been a big reader, but in the past two weeks I’ve achieved levels of reading almost unparalled in my experience. In fact, the only other time I’ve read this much was the year I quit work in my mid-30s to ‘write my novel’ and then promptly spent six months not writing it, but instead reading voraciously anything I could lay my hands on. I concluded at that time that I wanted to learn, not write, and took myself off to uni to do my Masters in Public Policy which launched me on a happy eighteen-year career in international development.
Again it is a departure from the world of work and the commencement of a Masters that has triggered my reading frenzy but this time I’m actually compelled, required and enforced to read in sweeping swathes well beyond my usual literary menu.
First cab off the rank (after polishing off Madame Bovary) was Julia Baird’s wonderful Phosphorescence, my copy of which was signed by the author at Writers’ Week (as previously reported). This was a uni mission. My task, was to write a Readers’ Report on the book, imagining that the manuscript had arrived unsolicited at my publishing house and I was writing a recommendation review for the powers that be on whether or not they should publish it. For a chronic optimist like me, this luminous book was pure pleasure from start to finish. I strongly recommended publication in my report – my first formal assessment submission for this Masters.
Then I started in on George Saunder’s Lincoln in the Bardo, mandatory reading for the Postmodern Literary Techniques segment of my Theory and Creative Writing subject. Let me tell you, that in my normal life I’d rather chew my way through 5 kg of bran than read a book like this. Showered with prizes, acclaimed by every literary pundit on the planet and noted for its radical innovations of literary form (which I generally translate as meaning that it’s totally incomprehensible and written by someone mesmerised by their own brilliance) I was prepared to throw it down in disgust after five pages. Which I did.
I then embarked on an extended and highly dedicated path of procrastination and avoidance in which I reached for anything readable that might delay the moment when I would have to turn back to the Bardo. First to hand, on the grandchildren’s bookshelf at my friend Rachel’s house was this little gem:
Would you believe I had never, ever read any of the Famous Five books as a kid? Reams of other children’s books, inlcuding other Enid Blyton titles, but never the Famous Five. I laughed myself into stitches! This book was a wonderful adventure romp, but also the most singularly politically incorrect text I’ve come across in decades. It made my Saturday morning. That Saturday just got better and better and culminated in a teeny, tiny book-making marathon. Rachel is the immodestly-proud owner of a palatial Edwardian dolls’ house and there are terrifyng numbers of empty bookshelves in the gent’s library. Three and a half hours later we had managed to produce 62 incey books, enough to fill just one shelf. Who knew you could have so much fun with scissors, balsa wood, textas and glue?
Staying at my mum’s place, there was no shortage of emergency reading material at hand. In fact, she had just procured the latest adventure of Venetian detective Commissario Guido Brunetti, by the fabulous Donna Leon. Picking up one of Donna’s books makes me smack my lips in anticipation, wriggle my hips down into a comfy cushion and let out a sigh of absolute bliss. Mum and I discovered that we both read these books as slowly as possible in order to prolong the pleasure they inevitably provide.
While not on my uni reading lists, Laura Esquivel (Like Water for Chocolate) routinely appears on lists of ‘the 100/1000 books you must read before you die’ and I never have. So when I unearthed Malinche in mum’s bookshelf I thought why not? Mystical, lyrical and moving, this account of Conquistador Hernán Cortés and his Aztec interpreter Malinalli was unputdownable.
My final discursion was another offering from Rachel, a short text book on writing micro stories. I was on a mission to produce micro-fiction of my own for Narrative Writing last week, so I felt spending my Sunday whizzing through this one was a good investment. And it was too! Who knew you could pack so much brilliance into 100 words? Take this example, entitled ‘Faithful’, from Dan Rhodes’ Anthropology – I laughed so much I fell of my chair at the punchline.
Finally, I was forced to return to the Bardo. And to my very great surprise once I’d pushed my way to about page 20 I found I was getting into it. By the end, I had to admit that good old George really was a bit of a clever clogs. Lincoln in the Bardo, brilliant as it is, is still not the type of book I would read for pleasure, but it is just the type of book that I hoped this Masters would compell me to explore.
So, what’s next on the reading list? Well, the haul I brought away from Writers’ Week (below) is mighty tempting, but beyond Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe (another uni read) these pleasures will need to be deferred. The weekly reading requirements for this course are pretty stupendous and I reckon I’ll probably be limited to the essentials until my mid-year break.
The exception will be a bunch of books (thanks again Rachel and Mum!) which in various ways provide background reading for a couple of nascent writing ideas that I’m percolating. Happily, as well as analysing realism, post-modernism, poetics, and other esoteric branches of authorship, my Masters requires me to deliver substantial chunks of creative writing. Watch this space …