“An entire life spent reading would have fulfilled my every desire; I already knew that at the age of seven. The texture of the world is painful, inadequate; unalterable, or so it seems to me. Really, I believe that an entire life spent reading would have suited me best.” Michel Houellebecq
“I sink down in the sofa and into the world of The Arabian Nights. Slowly, like a movie fadeout, the real world evaporates. I’m alone, inside the world of the story. My favourite feeling in the world.” Haruki Murakami
Winter holidays are the best holidays for the hedonism of reading while consuming gallons of quality green tea. I have an unusually large number of great books on the go at the moment with many more that need to be loved (with one week remaining of the break). I’d like to share my reading with you and hope you have time to post about yours.
As usual, during the course of the year, I frequented our excellent local library, spent too much money via booko.com.au and Audible, as well as procuring ebooks from a variety of sources. Audiobooks are one of the major reasons I can read anywhere remotely as much as I wish with the business of work and life. Not driving a car also helps as I can read on the train. I have written about this previously.
This a relatively brief post (with little reviewing of the books) about the best of what I’ve read so far in 2014 (and here’s the complete list for the genuine enthusiast***).
I recommend The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt to everyone. I loved the characters, loved the philosophic insights and think it thoroughly deserving of any prize awarded. Tartt has many passages that explore the sublime:
And just as music is the space between notes, just as the stars are beautiful because of the space between them, just as the sun strikes raindrops at a certain angle and throws a prism of color across the sky – so the space where I exist, and want to keep existing, and to be quite frank I hope I die in, is exactly this middle distance: where despair struck pure otherness and created something sublime.
Tartt did win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction although some felt it a controversial and ‘lowbrow’ choice. I would have thought there were enough clever passages exploring 21st century ennui for even the most ‘highbrow’ critic. Oddly, strangely but truly, reading about a character’s ennui always cheers me up:
(humans)…travelled and distracted themselves with all kinds of gadgets and devices, flooding themselves incessantly with information and texts and communication and entertainment from every direction to try to make themselves forget it: where we were, what we were. But in a strong light there was no good spin you could put on it. It was rotten top to bottom. Putting your time in at the office; dutifully spawning your two point five; smiling politely at your retirement party; then chewing on your bedsheet and choking on your canned peaches at the nursing home. It was better never to have been born – never to have wanted anything, never to have hoped for anything.
Chris Flynn and Ned Beauman are relatively new novelists and I read them for the first time this year (although came across Beauman in a Granta anthology in 2013). I have just started Flynn’s, The Glass Kingdom and am looking forward to finishing Beauman’s, The Teleportation Accident (both read on the strength of their first novels, A Tiger in Eden and Boxer, Beetle). Both authors create (and feel like) very authentic voices. One suspects their best work is in front of them.
I am uncertain if I recommend the most recent Man Booker winning novel, The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, to you or not. It is cleverly structured and transported me to mid-nineteenth century New Zealand but somehow I felt cheated by the end. The promise of it all is never realised and it lacks the gravitas I suspected it was going to convey. Anyone else read it and feel the same? Victorian pastiche should have been more amusing…or something.
There are other novels that I would not have usually read that I can wholeheartedly recommend, insist even, that you read. The only reason Burial Rites by Hannah Kent graced my bedside table was that I am travelling to Iceland in September and I felt obliged to read it. The novel is truly a moody joy and deservedly on any ‘must-read’ list. It is an amazing debut novel by any standard and one suspects it should be read by more men.
“(Knausgaard) broke the sound barrier of the autobiographical novel”. Jeffrey Eugenides
Karl Ove Knausgaard has been a sensation in Norway for some time and one can see why after reading the first three of his six autobiographical novels, My Struggle (as in Hitler’s, Mein Kampf). I wonder what the next three hold in store but one assumes more ennui about the “banalities and humiliations of his life”. You really need to check him out. I will be able to join the national conversation when I spend a week in Bergen, Norway, where the controversial author used to live.
I truly struggle with knowing what to read next, there’s so many essential books in the areas that interest me at the moment. History continues to be an abiding passion and my reading is taking some new paths in recent months. I have read a great deal about genealogy and DNA this year and highly recommend Genetic Genealogy: The Basics and Beyond by Emily Aulicino to anyone grappling with comprehending how DNA analysis can assist the family historian. Colin Renfrew, Francis Pryor, Jean Manco, Bryan Skyes, Spencer Wells and Barry Cunliffe are all teaching me about prehistory generally and how analysis of DNA (including aDNA) is furthering our understanding of the distant past. It is such an exciting intellectual adventure I could spend all day every day thinking and learning about it all.
If you want a treat, find out some more about paleoart, that wonderful blend of the creative and the scientific for anyone trying to learn more about prehistory. Paleo-artist John Gurche‘s wonderful, Shaping Humanity: How Science, Art, and Imagination Help Us Understand Our Origins is a book I wish to spend more hours savouring. The scope of his work can be best appreciated by this video trailer:
“The further a society drifts from truth the more it will hate those who speak it.” George Orwell
There have been a number of excellent non fiction books published by Australian authors that examine some long-running contemporary issues of absolutely critical importance for our society. Taking God to School by Marion Maddox should be read by all parents, educators and politicians. Maddox uses hard data to explore the growing inequity in education policy and funding that has developed in Australia over the last three decades. Another essential read is Anzac’s Long Shadow by James Brown which has the advantage of being topical, as ‘celebrations’ of military centenaries abound, brave and particularly well-written. This is a passage to admire:
Up close, Quilty’s paintings are strong yet discombobulated shards of paint. They make no sense. In the thronging crowd no one can quite get theperspective they need to admire what he has done. So too in war, perspective is elusive. Most Australian soldiers fighting in Afghanistan have such a limited view. A valley here, a village there. Death or worse is close at hand – in your face and at your feet. A moment’s inattention can be your, and your mates’, last. The close-up intensity of survival removes the luxury of perspective, the step back to make sense of so much chaos and noise.
Brown not only explores Australia’s relationship with military tradition and challenges political policy, he takes on many sacred cows. Only an ex-officer could get away with calling Anzac Day a ‘military halloween’. You must read his book, particularly the chapters that examine what kinds of savvy, well-educated men and women are needed to fill the officer cadre of a contemporary 21st century nation and how the ‘ANZAC legend’ conspires to make this difficult.
I have not finished Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty (yet) but can see why it has excited so many people who are thinking about inequity in our nations. Piketty has assembled more data than one could imagine possible in his quest to examine economic orthodoxies. This recent post shows my thinking on the matter.
Embedded Formative Assessment by Dylan William is one for teachers. If you read one book about assessment, and of course we all should read many, this would be it.
I am re-reading Cultural Amnesia by Clive James (actually, I am enjoying listening to the author read the book). It is an odd pleasure knowing that the man is so ill. I will be re-visiting more of my favourite books, especially his memoirs in coming months.
Last but not least of my fav reads this year was Brian Epstein’s, A Cellarful of Noise (1964). It is a delightful memoir for any Beatles fan. It was a great follow-up to all the other books I read in a Beatles binge over Christmas.
What have you read so far this year?
***Here’s my reading from the last couple of years.