Tag Archives: literature

What to read in 2015?

Having listed out the books I read last year it seemed appropriate to look ahead at 2015. I’ve had a look at all the books that I have on my living room floor (in several piles) and in my desk drawer at work to see what I could read this year. Below, I’ve split the books out into my normal 4 categories. They aren’t necessarily in the order that I will read them but a rule of thumb would be that those nearer the top of each category are more likely to be read before those near the bottom of the same category.

As you can see, there are imbalances all round. For example, I’ve got far more christianity books than fiction books and far more books by men than by women. So I have a few questions for you that will help shape my reading for the forthcoming 12 months.

  1. Can you suggest some science and fiction books to even up the categories?
  2. Can you suggest some more books by women to even up the gender imbalance?
  3. Of the books listed, are there any that you particularly recommend (i.e. that I read them sooner rather than later)

The fourth question is a bit more convoluted. While I aim to read books that I think I will enjoy, I also want to stretch myself by reading things that I may well disagree with. In 2014, I read several works by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, where I didn’t expect to agree wholly with them, though I sit towards the same end of the political spectrum as they do. As a complete opposite, you will spot Friedrich Hayek’s most famous work, The Road to Serfdom, on my list. So the 4th question is this: What book would you recommend as something to challenge my views, something you think I will disagree with? This comes with a couple of caveats: first, no extremist literature; I have no intention of reading Mein Kampf or anything like that. Secondly, if you make a suggestion that I take up, you must take up a reciprocal suggestion from me. Thirdly, it must be a reasonable price and length; I would be hesitant to take up a book that is 500+ pages long or costs in excess of £25.

Christianity (24)

  • The History of the Church – Eusebius (already started)
  • The Making of the Creeds – Frances Young
  • Jesus the Jew – Geza Vermes
  • Quaker Writings – various authors
  • How Jesus Became God – Bart Ehrman
  • Cranky, Beautiful Faith – Nadia Bolz-Weber
  • How God Became Jesus – various authors
  • Baptism in the Holy Spirit – James Dunn
  • Imitating Jesus – Richard Burridge
  • Dazzling Darkness – Rachel Mann
  • Zealot – Reza Aslan
  • Theology of Hope – Jürgen Moltmann
  • Letters to London – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  • God’s Smuggler – Brother Andrew
  • Simply Jesus – Tom Wright
  • The Return of the Prodigal Son – Henri Nouwen
  • The Inner Life – Thomas a Kempis
  • Life Together – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  • Why Did Jesus, Moses, The Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road? – Brian McLaren
  • A New Monastic Handbook – Ian Mobsby & Mark Berry
  • The Go-Between God – John Taylor
  • The Bible: A Very Short Introduction – John Riches
  • Thomas Aquinas: A Very Short Introduction – Fergus Kerr
  • Protestantism: A Very Short Introduction – Mark Noll
  • Pentecostalism: A Very Short Introduction – William Kay

Science (10)

Fiction (8)

  • Slaughterhouse 5 – Kurt Vonnegut
  • The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
  • Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • Dear Life – Alice Munro
  • The House on the Strand – Daphne du Maurier
  • The Black Prince – Iris Murdoch
  • War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

Other non-fiction (20)

Total                      (62)

You may also place a wager as to how many of these I will get through.

Book Review: Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan Culler

When I read the Very Short Introductions (VSIs) they can fall into a few categories. They might be on subjects I know well, where I am seeking a refresher and may wish to critique how well the subject has been communicated (as was the case with Mathematics) or they may be on subjects that I know little to nothing about (as was the case with The Roman Republic). Literary theory falls very firmly in the latter of these two categories.

If someone had asked me beforehand to give either a one line synopsis of what I thought literary theory was about, or write a paragraph or an essay, I would have been wholly unable to do so. I read it because I wanted to find out what it was all about, to continue my daily battle against ignorance by means of self-education. It was also noticeable for the fact that it was one of the very early VSIs to be published, this being number 4 in the series. For contrast, one of the more recent ones I read, on Robotics, is number 330. So this seems to be some way foundational to many later VSIs, as indeed I recongised the titles of others in both the names and the topics covered here.

As with many VSIs, this is not necessarily a simple introduction. As I started reading it, it dawned on me just how alien literary theory is to me. Indeed, it was, and remains, difficult to define. The author tries to be more general and talks just of “theory” as a subject in itself. Now this is very far removed from either the common notion of theory as conjecture or hypothesis as well as being different from the more scientific view of theory (see here for more detail).

Having attempted to define “theory” Culler moves on to the question of “what is literature”. Here, the answer, to a non-expert in the field such as me, seems obvious, but wary of a kind of hubris of ignorance, I gave it a go. That said, Culler does seem to unduly pedantic, though the link between literature and language is interesting enough.

There follows a short chapter on the relation between literature and cultural studies. Here, we really get to see that what Culler is doing is presenting topics that are covered by literary theory rather than examining in any depth various schools of thought. There is a list of schools of thought listed in the appendix and these are referred to at various points throughout the text.

Of these topics, probably the most interesting was on ‘poetics v hermeneutics’ as hermeneutics is a topic I’ve encountered in theological readings. This serves a gateway to the rest of the book (which rumbles on in a similar tone) about how we read things.  For example, if we read Midnight’s Children, is it a book about a group of children born at the same time or is it a story about the history of India? A close reading will render the former while a more metaphorical stance will lead to the latter. So if we ask “what is it really about?” then we have no single answer.

One thing that I gained a lot from was a discussion near the start of the book about the wide-ranging nature of literary theory and how it just doesn’t seem to end. He puts forward a hypothetical situation where one friend says to another, “how can you claim to know about x if you haven’t read y?” when another pipes up, “ah, but you can’t possibly consider y without having read the rebuttal by z.” And so on. I have, from time to time, been part of such conversations (see the comments below this blog piece from last year) and I frequently find them frustrating.

Similarly, some of the schools of thought seem to indicate the opposite of a close reading, but more of a ‘reading through’ a text. For example, I recall a discussion with one atheist (I forget who it was, sorry) who said they loved reading the epistles of Paul because they liked to read into them Paul’s personal psychology. It was a comment that stayed with me, but which made little to no sense. While I would disagree with their view that Paul’s writings are “nothing more” than a way of reconciling his own personal guilt at the murder of Stephen, Culler’s work here has allowed me to see why some might think that a legitimate way of reading a text – in other words, by basically ignoring what is being written and imposing upon a text one’s own worldview.

So, while I may disagree with many of the views that are elucidated in this work, Culler’s own thoughts are well-hidden behind his citation of the thoughts and works of others. So it is really with them that I disagree (and I unwittingly have already done this with my take on a Marxist view of history) rather than with Culler. It is not at all the clearest book I’ve read in the VSI series, but it seems that that may be because of the muddy waters of the subject, rather than any obfuscation on the part of the writer. It’s a tough read, but for an outsider to the subject, it is a window to a whole new world. One that may be explored, all in good time.

How to choose a book

The other day, a list came appeared in the news about books that teachers liked. It was commented by some that teachers seemed to stick fairly closely to the national curriculum. You will notice that I tend a read a lot, but I wasn’t always like this. During my time at university I read very little. I think I went through some Douglas Adams and wasted far too long on Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. I only really picked up my reading after I left university and started spending significant amounts of time on trains, commuting around the south-east of England.

So even though this blog contains reviews of over 100 books I’ve read in the last two and a half years, I don’t really consider myself well-read. In many ways I think I’m catching up on lost reading. Whenever I talk to others about books, people often seem flabbergasted by what I haven’t read. When this list of teachers’ favourite books was issued, I realised I had only read 29 of them in full (some are series, of which I have only read a few). This got me thinking; do I read what I want to read or do I read what I want to have read?

It’s quite an interesting thought. For the most part I read what I think will interest me, though when I scan down such lists as these I do catch myself thinking, “I really ought to read that”.  But this seems borne out of curiosity about what a book might be like rather than what I actually know of it. For example, before I read it, I was of the opinion, based on the high opinion of other people, that Midnight’s Children was one of the great works of 20th century fiction. When I eventually read it, however, I was very disappointed. For some time, I’ve been pondering reading Hilary Mantell’s Wolf Hall, though I’ve not yet bought it. Given how highly praised it has been, I just fear a terrible let-down.

Some time ago, I posted on this blog a list of books that were on my reading list. You can read it here. I’ve now added links for all those that I have subsequently read. I was thinking about making another such list, though some of the books would still be there. Some, even though I haven’t read them, will have dropped off. For example, I had two books by David Mitchell on there, but having been let down by Cloud Atlas I decided not to bother with the other one.

However, there are some problems with my reading, both that which I have done and that which I wish to do, which need addressing. Or at least I think it needs addressing. This is where I am tempted to read books in order to have read them. If you look through the list of books and authors, notice how many of them fall into the same ‘ethnic and social grouping’ (for want of a better phrase) as myself. How many are men? How many are white? How many are British? How many are middle class? It seems like a disproportionately high number. I think I choose my reading based on the subject matter, hoping that it will either entertain, inform or make me think afresh about something. Have I been subconsciously prejudiced?