Bibliodyssey: September

This month has, I have to confess, been rather a failure on the ‘reading a whole book to the end’ front. I’ve spent a lot of it recovering from the flue, which has involved a certain amount of exhaustion and book-skipping. I’ve also been doing something every weekend – a writing course, a teacher training course, a bicycle weekend, a D&D campaign – which has somewhat decimated reading time.

I did, however, buy plenty of books and read parts of several, and also return to research ahead of the new academic year, so I do at least have things to blog about.

Books looked-at-in-a-reading-way: The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory*, The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory*, Pyramids, Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat, H. G. Wells’ The Door in the Wall, Rius’ Introducing Marx and just a little bit of Jane Eyre.


My return to research meant that I spent a lot of time paging through critical theory, because I’m doing the groundwork for a potential PhD. I’m about to begin my master’s, and while I anticipate that being enjoyable, it’s becoming clear to me that I think a PhD is what I really want to do, and so I want to establish the parameters of my research as early as possible. Throughout my undergrad I found The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory (I have the fourth edition, which was written by J. A. Cuddon and revised from the 1991 third edition by C. E. Preston in 1998) an inexpressibly useful resource, full not only of knowledge but also of insight, clearly and concisely expressed. It has been my starting point for many a research mission, and it is probably the one book I would say that an English Literature student absolutely has to own. (E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel comes a very close second.)

In that vein, David Macey’s The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory is similarly lucid, easy to access and knowledgeable. I acquired it from a friend, and it became a constant companion during my dissertation (I took photographs of all the pages I wanted before I finally, and somewhat more permanently, borrowed it from him, because there were always more entries that I wanted to read).

These two books meant I’ve been dipping in and out of theory all month, and reading entries and pondering them, rather than reading actual books.

In this vein, I realised during a theoretical discussion with friends that my knowledge of the history of Marxism is disappointingly scant. I’ve stayed away from political philosophy largely because I had so much to already study, I didn’t find it quite interesting enough to drag me away from, say, structuralism, but I’m much more interested now in the way that politics, philosophy and literature are all bound up together. I need to study political thought and ideology in more depth, so I thought I’d start with Marxism, since the conversation I was sparking off was one in which we were expressing discomfort at the way a group of Socialist students were bullying some Conservatives, tearing up their posters and jumping on their tables, because freedom of speech is not an excuse for being such a shit to other people who are still people, no matter how much you disagree with them.

To that end, because there was a book about Marxism to hand, I started reading it. Introducing Marx was written by Rius, a Mexican intellectual and cartoonist (doesn’t that sound like an appealing career plan?), and originally published in the 70s (apparently, it’s been translated into twelve languages and has sold over a million copies). It’s a witty, incisive introduction to the life and thoughts of Marx, with a little of the history of Western philosophy thrown in, via some very funny illustrations and asides that manage to be both entertaining and thought-provoking. I’m halfway through it at the moment, and I’m enjoying it very much.

I’ve also been reading Terry Pratchett’s Pyramids, a riotous and delightful tour of a culture clash that satirises culture, religion, and focuses on a subject for which I have a great soft spot, Ancient Egypt. It is also witty and incisive, and a fondly ironic exploration of human foibles and fallacies, with gods, more gods, some magnificent humour and a joke on page 243 that I think he was quietly setting up all the rest of the novel, which made me cry with laughter.

H. G. Wells’ The Door in the Wall was part of three books of short stories, Penguin Mini Classics, that I bought on impulse because they were on 3-for-2 in a bookshop in Bristol. I haven’t got very far into it, but I think it deserves an honourable mention because the beginning is absolutely brilliant. I love Wells, I am very much looking forward to reading more of it – and to reading the other books I bought, which hopefully will appear in an update one of these months.

I’ve been dipping into Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat, as well, because it’s the most practical-minded cookery book I think I’ve ever come across, but it’s also cannily and wittily written, with asides between recipes full of ideas and instructions. Her basic premise is that ‘although it’s possible to love eating without being able to cook, I don’t believe you can ever really cook unless you love eating’ – hence the title – and that the reader needs ‘to acquire your own individual sense of what food is about, rather than just [read] a vast collection of recipes’. That is pretty much aligned with my idea of food, what cooking is and should be. What I love most, aside from the fact that it encourages the reader to both try new things and to trust their instincts, is that all of the recipes ‘have been cooked in what television people call Real Time’, so that they’re practical to make, not outlandishly complicated or flashy. Also, her index is incredible: green bullet points against recipes that are vegetarian, pink bullet points against recipes that will take half an hour to make – and over half of the recipes have one or the other next to them. It is an excellent, excellent book, and I look forward to it informing my cooking.

Following a cinema trip to see Jane Eyre, I realised that I’ve never actually really finished it – I’ve read parts, and skimmed over all the rest of it. I started reading it on iBooks, on my phone, but it didn’t really seem the same; I’m currently waiting for my mother to post me my copy from home. I’m re-reading the end, because that was the part where I noticed some changes in the film, but couldn’t remember how much the film did change things for cinematic expediency. But again, I wanted to mention it because it’s on my mind, and I am going back and having thoughts about it, but I probably shouldn’t profess those thoughts until I’ve actually read the whole thing.

This is a much longer post than I expected to get out of September, which I thought was a bit of an anticlimax after how much I read during the summer. With the start of my MA, though, I think I’ll be doing a lot more, and more rigorous, reading from now on. And I have to say I’m looking forward to it very much.


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