Home > Books, Commentary, Family > A Life in Books

A Life in Books

Today I read this phenomenal post by Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher) about books he has read over the course of his life. He mentioned in his post he hoped others would follow. I then read this incredibly moving piece by Chris Waugh (@edutronic_net) who spoke about the literature that had a massive influence on him over his life. This made me think about reading, and the things I’ve read. I love reading, both fiction and non-fiction, but I don’t find as much time as I would like to engage in it.

When I was very small I apparently used to insist that “the three billy goats gruff” was read to me every night, I reckon I still know it by heart! At primary school I read Asterix books, and very little else. The teachers I had at primary school didn’t appreciate the genius of Goscincy and Underzo so made me read other things. Most of which I’ve forgotten, but I do recall a series of factual books I loved. It included the story of Edward Jenner and James Phipps, and the story of tightrope walker Paul Bondin. These two stories stuck with me more than any other from my primary school days. Thinking on it now, I don’t think my reading repertoire actually was that limited, and that was thanks to my mum. She took us on regular trips to the local library to take books out, and bought us a veritable library of our own. I remember loving the Railway Cat series by Phylis Arkle, the Professor Brainstorm books by Norman Hunter and the complete works of Betsy Byars (The only one of hers I didn’t like was “The Animal, The Vegetable and John D Jones” which bored me), Ruth Thomas and Nina Bawden (Carrie’s war is amazing). Blimey, that’s actually quite a lot! There were many more too, so clearly my earlier claim was clear nonsense.

When I reached high school I had lost the buzz for children’s stories, and for a time read nothing but autobiographies. Musicians, Sports stars and actors. I remember reading Eric Cantona’s in its entirety in one sitting on Christmas day. Then one day my friend Matthew handed me a book and told me: “You need to read this, it’s phenomenal.” The book in question was “The carpet people” by Terry Pratchett and it was, indeed, phenomenal. This was the first of two books Matthew did this with. This one was when we were in Y7. The next would be two years later. After reading the carpet people I was hooked on the writing of Terry Pratchett, and I spent the next couple of years reading his back catalogue and nothing else. The only none Pratchett book I remember reading during this period was “The Cuckoo Sister”, which we studied at school. I quite enjoyed it, but it didn’t leave a lasting impression. I assume we read other stuff during this time, but I don’t remember it!

Then Matthew handed me another book, “Of Mice and Men”, with a similar line. He gave me it on the bus home, I missed my stop because I had become engrossed in it. I thought it was brilliant, and have read it many times since. This sparked an interest in other books. My mum has a collection of classics which included “Grapes of wrath”, another fine book. I read “Tom Sawyer” (a great book) and “Huckleberry Finn” (a truly amazing book). My reading had widened but I was still reading Pratchett, Gaiman and the such and was enjoying the contrast.

There were also many texts to study at school, some I’ve forgotten entirely, but some stuck with me as I thought they were brilliant. I loved MacBeth, The importance of being Earnest, The Speckled Band, Examination Day and Lamb to the Slaughter. I loved the poetry of Healey, Armitage, Owen, Byron and Hughes.

About this time a modern day retelling if Great Expectations, starring Ethan Hawke, was released. I loved this film and so read the book and was totally blown away (not quite as blown away as my English teacher, Mr Gibbons, was when I appeared at his room to tell him I’d read it, loved it, wanted to discuss it and wanted his advice on which of Dickens work to read next!). I read A Christmas Carol, Bleak House and The Pickwick Papers and loved them all. I then read a tale of two cities, and was disappointed. I had heard it was his finest work, but I didn’t think it was a patch on the others I’d read.

These books helped me understand the world, and the people in it. As I grew up I read many books and plays from many genres. I had a classics phase, where I read Metamorphises, Aeneid, Illiad and Odyssey, truly living them all, but preferring Homer to Virgil and Ovid. I had a real Gothic phase, reading Daphne du Maurier and Mary Shelley, I read a lot of Marx, Swift, Orwell, Huxley, Miller and Foot. I continued to read Sci Fi and fantasy, really enjoying Douglas Adams and Hg Wells. Its not only classics and Sci Fi though, I also love thrillers, particularly the work of Dan Brown, Lee Child and Stephen Coonts.

I love to read science and maths books too. Simon Singh’s, Ian Steward’s, Stephen Hawking’s and Richard Dawkins’s especially. I thoroughly enjoy “The science of the discworld” series, where Pratchett weaves a novella around some real hard science from Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, combining two of my favourite genres!

These days I also read a lot about education, blogs, articles and books, all of which I find interesting, fascinating and enjoyable.

I thought I’d end this post with a top 5. My favourite books:

At 5: The Carpet People, Terry Pratchett : A phenomenal and funny book that got me back into reading fiction and opened my eyes to a whole new world.

At 4: Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck: A phenomenal book that entertained and moved me. I have often said this is my favourite book, but in writing this post I have realised there are a few I prefer. Again, this book opened my eyes to q whole branch of fiction I was unaware of.

At 3: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain: This book is amazing. It is a dark satire on all that Twain viewed to be wrong with the world. It is hilarious, thought-provoking and entertaining. When I finished reading it, I read it again, straight away.

At 2: Great Expectations, Charles Dickens: this book is immense. It made me realise that even though the world has changed so much since then, the relationships and interactions still have relevance in our world. It made me thirst to know more about the time, and it made me seek out my English teacher to discuss it at a higher level. What more could you ask for in a book?!

At 1: Fermats Last Theorem, Simon Singh: Maths, that’s what! But seriously, this book is amazing. It isn’t just about the maths, it’s also about the mathematicians and the time. It follows the progress of mathematics from its inception and the stories the emanate around it are thrilling, funny entertaining and at times stranger than fiction. A truly brilliant book. (Read my fuller review here.)

While writing this list I’ve changed my mind numerous times, on the order and what should be included. I’ve settled on these because I think they are brilliant, and some of them led me to whole new genres. Some of the ones that nearly made it: Death of a Salesman, Hitchhikers Guide, Odyssey, Demons and Angels, Wages of Sin, Good Omens, Rebecca, MacBeth, The Time Machine, Henry V and there are many, many more.

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Categories: Books, Commentary, Family Tags: , ,
  1. May 31, 2014 at 10:36 am

    In one of my earliest English classes, in about 1985, I taught a young man called Matthew. A keen though idiosyncratic reader, when asked to write about his private reading he recorded the following.
    “ ‘Of Mice and Men’ is quite an interesting book and I mainly enjoyed it. But I feel it would have been much improved were Steinbeck to have had the benefit of the superior style and depth of Dean R Koontz.”
    (A horror writer of whom I had never heard at the time, despite being keen on popular fiction of every brow. He was a bit niche)
    Matthew remained adamant in his critical perspective despite every blandishment and pedagogical stratagem deployed. And as you can see, he made an impression on me equal to any I may have managed to leave on him. I promise the quote is pretty much word for word, including the everso slightly patronising use of the subjunctive.
    You can lead a horse to the canon (even the US canon) and it will still spit in your eye. Not sure how much that matters in the cosmic scale of things.
    Thanks for posting. It’s great that reading has also been so important for you and I enjoyed reading your post very much. Think the collaborative doobrey idea an excellent one too.
    ps apologies if this posts twice. WordPress apparently ate my first attempt and I wasn’t sure if it was still digesting it or not.

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