Off-duty Reading

Now is the time that my quest for all-the-book-reading reaches its epic zenith. My educator readers might allow me this self-indulgence; I wanted to share my thoughts on what I have been reading while on holiday. This is partly to combat my previously noted tendency to race through books without pause, in using this public forum to school myself in reflection on what I have read. Partly, of course, this is written because, as much as I love school, students and teaching, my brain doesn’t want to do as much thinking on these subjects during the summer months as it does on novels, and other such “fun books.”

In an attempt to justify my words below, this blog is not overtly about education: it is, rather, about books. Only incidentally do I hope to offer any musings on the former.

So – to the vacation! Let me paint a picture: friends, sunshine, plenty to do and see, and me, in a corner, on my own, with my Kindle. This might give you an idea of why you should never, ever agree to go on holiday with me, and allow you to understand why my friends ostracise me at the poolside.  Here were my favourite reads, read in idyllic surroundings with the greatest of hosts and the greatest of friends.
Hearts and minds, Amanda Craig

I began with a paperback by one of my new favourite authors, recommended to me by one of the most impressively well-read, deeply intuitive and eminently qualified teachers I know, Mrs. Clayton. Anything Mrs. Clayton tells me to read, I know I will love. I am indebted to her for this authorial recommendation. I had previously read “A Vicious Circle”, which explores the sordid world of London publishing, with deep delight, and found “Hearts and Minds” similarly enjoyable for wholly different reasons.

Firstly, I love a book set in a place I have lived. The familiarity of London here brought the author’s reality to life all the more perfectly for me. Craig’s characters are a mix of very real, and very stock, yet this is a mix which works. Her interweaving storylines are always an enjoyable puzzle, and in this novel she takes on different ideas about immigration, by focusing her perspective on a variety of classes and cultures. For a more focused awareness of migrants and a storyline at times as outrageous as any BBC thriller, I would recommend this book.

Dark Lies the Island, Kevin Barry

As noted in an earlier post, here, I am trying to increase my reading of short stories. Barry’s stories had been recommended to me by scores of almost universally Irish friends, and I began with this tome purely as it was the most recent I had heard of. I was not to be disappointed.

These beautiful vignettes of Irish life span the island in its modernity, and veer from SoCo (South County Dublin; Londoners, think of purest West London) kitchen drama with a light tone reminiscent of Ross O’Carroll-Kelly to a Joyce-esque devastating portrait of a man trapped in a routine. Language is used in an enjoyably creative way; Barry describes a clean-cut type with an “orthodontic beam” early on; a man aware of the familiarity of his quest for originality notes that: “every last crooked rock of the place had at some point seated the bony arse of some hypochondrical epiphany-seeker.” A short read, but one I took my time over.
Transatlantic, Colum McCann

Have you read “Let the Great World Spin”? It ranks in my all time top ten books, possibly even top five. I trusted in McCann and took a gamble on his new novel.

While I didn’t feel “Transatlantic” reached the mountainous heights of “Great World…”, McCann’s construction of narrative and meticulous research cannot be faulted. His Irish roots have come to fruition at last, as he turns his attention to the “Irish Question”, as always, in an inventive manner. The way in which he interweaves his stories is not as clear as Craig’s, and yet his work seems all the more literary for that intentional blur.

The especially superb parts of this text are, in my view, McCann’s reimagining of Frederick Douglass’ voyage to Ireland, and George Mitchell’s chronologically later appearance as an unnamed senator detailing the intricate narrative of life and negotiations at that time.

McCann’s language is always succinct: in depicting life in Dublin’s slums of yore he writes: “women walked in rags, less than rags: as rags”, for example. His summary of the British feeling on the Northern Ireland issue, though perhaps coloured, is excellent: “embarrassed by what they have done for centuries in Ireland. Ready to leave. To hightail it out of there. They would wipe their hands clean in an instant, if only they didn’t have to do it in front of the world.”

Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates

In a moment of weakness, I watched this film on iPlayer about a year ago and thus consigned myself to never reading the novel – that’s how it works, right? Then, in a second hand book shop, I came across it for only £2 and couldn’t resist.

I am extremely glad I gave into temptation, for if the film is unremittingly depressing (don’t watch it if you’re even a little bit sad) the book is far, far less so. There is an abundance of humour, both in terms of irony and also in Yates’ playful use of language. One example I was so particularly fond of as to bore those around me in its recital is this: the central character, Frank, justifies his decision to take on an unexciting career by saying:

“Look at it this way. I need a job; okay. Is that any reason why the job I get has to louse me up? Look. All I want is to get enough dough coming in to keep us solvent for the next year or so, till I can figure things out; meanwhile I want to retain my own identity. Therefore the thing I’m most anxious to avoid is any kind of work that can be considered ‘interesting’ in its own right. I want something that can’t possibly touch me. I want some big, swollen old corporation that’s been bumbling along making money in its sleep for a hundred years, where they have to hire eight guys for every one job because none of them can be expected to care about whatever boring thing it is they’re supposed to be doing. I want to go into that kind of place and say, Look. You can have my body and my nice college-boy smile for so many hours a day, in exchange for so many dollars, and beyond that we’ll leave each other strictly alone.”

The crisp narrative appears to fly on apace, although ironically this is a book which turns on inaction.

The tragedy with which the novel ends is surprisingly muted. There is a lack of feeling or emotion in the text, which serves to emphasise the ideas Yates seems to be putting forward in the narrative.
David Copperfield, Charles Dickens

After my recent diet of extremely fun, and universally modern books, I felt like I’d committed the reading equivalent of eating one too many McDonalds. Indeed, I have for a long time felt the English graduate’s smugness of having read pretty much all of the Oxford Classics (when I say read, you might substitute “skimmed” or even “read a series of critical essays plus selected skimming”) at University. But it is time to face facts: there are innumerable “classics” I did not read, or did not read properly, and it is time to put this to rights.

Now, I’m cheating here because I haven’t actually finished this book. But I really wanted to write something about “David Copperfield” because I have rarely enjoyed Dickens. The promise of “Oliver Twist” was not fulfilled for me in “Bleak House” or “Little Dorrit” or “Dombey and Son”, possibly one of my least favourite tomes (shortly followed by “The Faerie Queene” – if you have read and enjoyed it, I bow in your literary honour).

Following university, it occurred to me that Dickens is not best read skimmed. His way with words is the essence of his work; the plot, surprisingly, is not enough. I went on to read “The Old Curiosity Shop” and “Great Expectations” about five years ago, but slowly, and with some surprised enjoyment. Yet “David Copperfield”, at least until page 724, supersedes all the previous Dickens of my acquaintance. It is really, really funny, for starters. The characters in this novel have multiple dimensions and conflicting passions and prejudices in a realistic and natural way unachieved in the texts named above. The use of first person is delightfully employed, and in my year 7 Scheme of Work for Autumn 1 on Dickens, we will certainly be revisiting parts of this novel.

My only wish with Dickens is that the latterday publishers would divide his novels into installments as they were initially published for his reading public. In fact, I feel there is an opportunity for a service which delivers weekly or monthly installments to your inbox, to prevent us slaving away unnaturally at a thousand pages a time.

So endeth the self-indulgent survey of my holiday reading. Lest you non-teachers think I slack, I will assure you I have also read more study guides, Cambridge Companions, literary essays, critical biographies and pedagogy guides than you can shake a large stick at in preparation for the new academic year – do not entirely begrudge me the rest.

Creating a community of readers

I have written before here about the importance of loving reading, and this post builds on what I’m trying to do with young readers.

When I was in school, I remember the sad day I told my friends: “there are no more books. I have read them all.” Child genius, you may think. In fact, what had happened was that I had no idea what to read. I had read the books which looked like I should read them, and then had no inkling where to go from there.

All that changed in year 10, with Dr Byrne. I will write about Dr Byrne at length another time, because he truly deserves all credit for anything I have thought or written about anything ever.

One day, for no reason that was clear to me at the time, he put a copy of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot on my desk. This play changed everything for me: it broke all the conventions of what I thought about drama at the time, in terms of character, unity and realism. It challenged my thinking in a way no other book had.

And the great books kept coming. When I was stuck, I only had to go to Dr Byrne and I would have a giant list of books I could be getting on with.

Due to this personal experience, from the start of my teaching career I endeavoured to make book lists for my students, usually of twenty to thirty titles, and often with a brief explanation as to why I thought that book was great.

To make this more visible for my students, I picked my favourite four books every term and made a poster of the front cover and something I had said about it, like this:

Gatsby poster

Pretty soon, I ran out of space. Here’s the corridor outside my classroom:

recommended wall

These posters prompted conversations, and, I hope, these conversations prompted reading.

On a visit to a school for a Debate Mate round, I noticed a teacher seemed to have lots of Philip Roth posters in his classroom. Loving Philip Roth, I had to investigate more. On closer inspection, it seemed these were hand-made posters, with a simple black background, which had the words “Mr… is currently reading.” I loved this idea and immediately stole it as my own. My apologies, sir.

Other teachers at my school loved it too. We put these up outside our doors, and changing them took all of two minutes. If a student or another teacher had recommended the book to read, we stuck their name on it too. This had the great side-effect of even more students recommending books for me to read.

ms is currently reading

One of the best interview tasks I have ever been given was a room of 5 delightful students who I had to consult in creating a whole-school “Reading for Enjoyment” policy. I could barely contain my excitement on being given such a task – my keenness was frankly embarrassing. These young people had some fantastic ideas, pointing out that reading sitting up wasn’t how they liked to do it – they suggested we give them an area which is comfortable, and filled with great books. They were also fond of the idea of eating and reading – they brought up the idea of giving dedicated readers free muffins when they came to read together, or even a standard school breakfast or lunch depending on the time of day. Open to abuse they might be, but both of these suggestions seem like small concessions to the reading community they could open up.

Yet the aspect these eloquent youngsters talked most about was recommendations: they wanted their teachers to recommend books to them. And I would guess that nearly all teachers, no matter what they teach, read. Making students aware of the fact that we are a community of readers can only encourage them. And if their students then want to read some Darwin or Dawkins? I’m sure that will be fine too.

i heart english

Reading Lists

I thought I would share some of my favourite reading lists with any teacher readers before the onset of the summer holidays.

I wish I could say I had a firm system for these lists. I always try to do one before a long holiday, or even a short one, and definitely one at the start of the year. My students are amazing, though; a small number will start asking me for recommendations and that is how I know it is time to wheel out another one.

I liked the “20 books you should read” format because I thought it seemed manageable. The first was originally made for a very high-achieving year 10/11 class who needed to be stretched and prepared for the rigours of A-level. I also included any books I loved at their age, or that I remember my friends loving. The sixth form list goes further, and has non-fiction texts which are critical but I think accessible.

KS4: 20 books you should definitely read:

  1. Erin Morgenstern: The Night Circus
  2. Truman Capote: Breakfast at Tiffany’s
  3. Tracy Chevalier: The Girl with a Pearl Earring
  4. Stephen Kelman: Pigeon English
  5. George Grossmith: Diary of a Nobody
  6. Vladimir Nabakov: Laughter in the Dark
  7. Emma Donaghue, Room
  8. David Nicholls, One Day
  9. Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X
  10. Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns
  11. John Irving, The World According to Garp
  12. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
  13. Bill Bryson, Shakespeare
  14. Daphne du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel
  15. Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind
  16. Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
  17. Vikram Seth, An Equal Music
  18. Richard Llewellyn, How Green was my Valley
  19. Steve Tolz, A Fraction of the Whole
  20. Richard Russo, Empire Falls

Sixth form:

20 books you should definitely read:

  1. Sebastian Faulks: Faulks on Fiction: The History of the Novel in 28 Characters
  2. Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
  3. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night
  4. Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin
  5. Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
  6. Truman Capote, In Cold Blood
  7. Victor Hugo, Les Miserables
  8. Bill Bryson, Shakespeare
  9. Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
  10. Jay McInernay, Bright Lights, Big City
  11. Andrew Marr, A History of Modern Britain
  12. Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood
  13. Strunk and White, The Elements of Style
  14. Jane Austen, Emma
  15. Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
  16. Sebastian Faulks, Human Traces
  17. Sophocles, Antigone
  18. Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie
  19. Virginia Woolf, Orlando
  20. George Eliot, Middlemarch