He didn’t want a television, he had no need of a radio. He didn’t want the world to come in….He couldn’t stand the false hysteria of soap operas, the forced hilarity of sitcoms, the feigned outrage of commentators and the hosts of current-affairs shows. He didn’t own a computer. He didn’t need its temptations. He preferred the silence, the loneliness that was comfort; he didn’t want uproar and infinite noise. Only books, books were all he wanted, and they were strewn across his flat. Books from the local library, books scavenged from boxes and crates at the Sunday markets. In reading he found solitude. In reading he could dispel the blare of the world.
from ‘Barracuda’ by Christos Tsolkias
Every year is a good one for books. There’s such an abundance of quality material published that one cannot remotely hope to read read everything that is excellent, even in a favourite genre. The quote above from Christos Tsolkias rings true. Even though I succumb to the temptations of social media and ‘the computer’, books are both the ‘escape’ and an explanation of what one is fleeing. In conversation, many friends and colleagues, acquaintances and strangers, relate how they cannot find time for reading. I cannot imagine a day of going without. Back in June I posted about books read so far in 2013 and it seems the right time to wave farewell to the year with my choice of best reads. Many of these books were published in 2013 but there is a balance, as you would expect, of newish and older tomes.
I always read widely about education but find it the rare book that truly engages my imagination beyond mere professional interest or obligation. Much of what is written in the field is just terribly ordinary. There are, thankfully, notable exceptions. James Gee is perennially excellent and The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students Through Digital Learning (2013) is his most political book. I always find Gee’s clear thinking and cogent prose a joy. He manages to make even the most challenging topics enjoyably readably and this latest book should be read by all educators interested in understanding the state of play in the USA and other western countries. Finnish Lessons by Pasi Sahlberg (2012) is wise, essential reading for all educational leaders. Mick Waters, Thinking Allowed: On Schooling (2013) is another inherently political work on education that speaks with authority about reform in the UK over the last few decades. Passages like the following are a good indicator of Waters’ deep understanding of the challenges facing communities and the schools that serve them:
It takes a certain sort of nerve to explain to the school community itself that one of the reasons their children are destined not to succeed is because they have failed to grasp the importance of the agenda that the families on the inside track fully understand. It is hard to explain to families that they need to give their children cultural experiences, especially when the parents themselves have never had this opportunity. It is even more difficult to explain to families that there are different etiquettes that hold in different aspects of life and that, unless their children are prepared to understand them, they will find it hard to exploit the opportunities that life can offer. Adopting these customs may demand that children break away from the social norms of their community and this can be very difficult to address. It is so easy to talk about people. It is less easy to talk with them. As a profession we must do better.
More books about photography – history, exhibitions, technical manuals and theory – have been joyfully held in my hands than any other subject this year. I have certainly been exploring all kinds of photographic genres and a few of these books truly stunned me with their beauty and skill. Solitudes I and II by Vincent Munier (2013) is a limited edition, beautifully bound tome exploring the stunning French photographer’s work, in snow and ice, with a range of animals and birds. Birds and People by Mark Cocker and David Tipling (2013) has been listed quite a few times already this month in favourite books lists. James Bradley’s review alerted me its release earlier in the year and the extraordinary exploration (and photography) of our relationship with birds. It is a magical book that continues to enthral my daughter and I as we turn the pages together. The Masters of Photography: Wildlife Photographer of the Year from The Natural History Museum (2013) contains the absolute best nature photography available. If you wish to have one coffee table book of quality photos, this is that book.
Reading about music and musicians is another long term pleasure and there’s been a host of exceptional releases this year. I am almost finished Tune In by Mark Lewisohn (2013), the first of three volumes, exploring The Beatles, in encyclopaedic detail. How to Make Gravy by Paul Kelly (2012) was an unexpected pleasure as Kelly narrates the audiobook. Listening to his voice made the experience, and it is a lengthy book, something very special indeed. Kelly is more than a musician, he is the whole band. He is a storyteller and deeply part of the cultural landscape in Australia. His support of the political fight for Aboriginal rights is particularly interesting part of his life. Gurrumul: His Life and Music by Robert Hillman (2013) is worth buying (and it is truly and excellent book) for the amazing photographs of the young, joyous Gurrumul. When I lived in Denmark, on an educational leadership exchange, I gave many Danish friends and colleagues Gurrumul’s albums as gifts, telling them, this is the most important and beautiful music ever made in Australia.
Other non fiction
Studies have shown that, indeed, introverts are more likely than extroverts to express intimate facts about themselves online that their family and friends would be surprised to read, to say that they can express the “real me” online, and to spend more time in certain kinds of online discussions. They welcome the chance to communicate digitally. The same person who would never raise his hand in a lecture hall of two hundred people might blog to two thousand, or two million, without thinking twice. The same person who finds it difficult to introduce himself to strangers might establish a presence online and then extend these relationships into the real world.
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain (2013) has been an important book for many, especially those who have felt guilty at there desire to spend Friday night in, curled up with a book and significant other. The quote above is particularly pertinent to our contemporary times for obvious reasons. I think this is a must read book for educators. I also thing every parent and educator should read Raising Girls by Steve Biddulph (2013). The work contains such commendably calm, sensible, even sage advice. I talked about it with Miss 7 & 10, when they noticed me reading it, and asked their opinion about some bits. We particularly enjoyed talking about their Younger Selves, in relation to the early chapters. It was a really nice bonding experience. They laughed when I told them I’ve never raised girls before, I have L Plates on.
Why be Happy When You Could be Normal? By Jeannette Winterson (2011) is a wonderful memoir. I felt it deeply. Winterson’s meditations on the experience of being adopted were particularly interesting:
Adopted children are self-invented because we have to be; there is an absence, a void, a question mark at the very beginning of our lives. A crucial part of our story is gone, and violently, like a bomb in the womb…adoption drops you into the story after it has started. It’s like reading a book with the first few pages missing. It’s like arriving after curtain up. The feeling that something is missing never, ever leaves you – and it can’t, and it shouldn’t, because something is missing.
I wrote about Britain Begins by Barry Cuncliffe (2013) in an earlier blog post. You really should read it f interested in academic works of history. Living in the End of Times by Slavoj Žižek is not really a very good book but I include it here as there are some stunning passages and interestingly enunciated ideas about our times amongst the muddle:
…the school system is less and less a compulsory network elevated above the market and organized directly by the state, the bearer of enlightened values (liberté, égalité, fraternité); on behalf of the sacred formula of “lower costs, higher efficiency,” it is progressively penetrated by different forms of PPP (public-private partnership). In the organization and legitimization of power, the electoral system is more and more conceived on the model of market competition: elections are like a commercial exchange.
Australian fiction is ebullient at the moment with plenty of new and established authors providing quality offerings. Most Australians reading this post look forward to new novels by our best novelists and Eyrie by Tim Winton (2013) is a treat. There are so many quotable quotes, interestingly crafted sentences and insights in his latest novel. Here’s one on ageing:
What it’s like, you mean? What it feels like? Keely scratched his stubble, kneaded his cheeks a moment. The thing is, he said. Thing is, you hardly notice. It happens so slowly. You look different in the mirror, but inside you feel pretty much the same. You’re just a kid with an old man’s body, that’s how it feels. Same for everyone, I guess.
My major criticism of Winton, and I have read all his novels and works of non fiction, is that his resolutions are often poor. Certainly in the context the author’s regular public jibes about how unfashionable ‘story’ is in some literary circles. The Riders stands out as having the the most abysmal ending but Eyrie is a another that disappoints in this respect. Barracuda by Christos Tsolkias (2013) suffers from no such issue. Although I almost stopped reading after 50 pages (it seemed likely to be terribly predictable) then the novel soared and the final third was brilliant and wise. The resolution was deeply satisfying! This post opens with one of the many quotable quotes about books and reading from the novel. Here is another favourite:
Dan had discovered that he had been mistaken, that books did not exist outside of the body and only in mind, but that words were breath, that they were experienced and understood through the inseparability of mind and body, that words were the water and reading was swimming. Just as he had in water, he could lose himself in reading: mind and body became one.
Holocaust fiction by Australian authors is never high on my ‘to read list’ but really, I should have read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2005) years ago. It is easy to understand how well this books still sells, especially in the USA. The upcoming film release will obviously create a another sales spike.
May We Be Forgiven by AM Homes (2012), The Orphan Master’s Apprentice by Adam Johnson (2013) and The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness (2013) were the best novels I read this year. Homes’ satirical offering concludes in an unexpectedly optimistic manner after many scenes that make one laugh aloud and then feel slightly guilty for being so callous. Johnson has created, what one imagines, is an incredible exploration of the state of mind that is created in a totalitarian state where one does not have the freedom to say 2 + 2 = 4. I loved Ness’ magical realism which is beautiful rendered and the characters carefully drawn. These are three extraordinary must read novels.
As you know, audiobooks really allow me to ‘read’ much more than would be otherwise possible. A highlight this year was listening to Granta 123: The Best of British Novelists (2013) as often to the authors narrated their own short stories making the audiobook an exciting experience of some emerging writers. On a completely different tack, I enjoyed the lengthy fantasy novel, The Way of Kings by Brian Sanderson (2010), finding it surprisingly enjoyable with some really creative ideas and noble ideals. It did seem the book needed an editor but I liked the sprawling epic the more I read and forgave that sin. Re-reading Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1985) did not disappoint either. It is a superb sci-fi classic and I have avoided the film thus far, fearing the worst. I had no such worries with the most recent film version of The Great Gatsby (which I have re-read many times before doing so again this year).
Social reading adds a new dimension to making notes and I often clip and share via Twitter and Facebook. It makes it easy, as I’ve just done, to re-read some my highlighted quotes for the year. Similarly, I like the online bookshelf, Shelfari, as a record of reading. All the books I’ve read in 2013 are listed at the site, as is my current reading. Here’s a post about what I read in 2012.
There are number of books that I am sweating on for 2014 but fear 2015 may be a more realistic expectation. Chief amongst these include The Winds of Winter by George RR Martin; The Doors of Stone by Patrick Rothfuss; Francis Fukuyama’s next volume about The Origins of Political Order; and, Hilary Mantel’s, The Mirror and the Light.
What were your best reads in 2013 and what are you looking forward to reading in 2014?