The books that make my life

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‘Everything that happened is not in my stories; how could it be? Memory is selective, storytelling insists on itself. But there is nothing in my stories that did not happen. In their essence they are true.’ Dorothy Gallagher 

Childhood

I’m standing at the front of the class reading to the teacher. I’m five or six years old. The book is Bangers and Mash – a collection of stories charting the exploits of two mischievous chimpanzees in a series of increasingly unlikely scenarios. My request to use the toilet (which is just outside the door) has been denied and I’m now moving around uncomfortably as I read. It is not long before a large puddle starts to form on the classroom floor and my trousers start to warm. My humiliation is complete. This is my first real memory of reading.

Another early memory is more of an impression. The book is Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. It is not so much the story I remember most, but more the illustrations – those terrifying monsters, Max and his tea going cold in his absence. The pictures and words say so little but communicate so much. This book means even more to me now I am encountering it again when reading it with my children. I am aware that is only partly for their enjoyment that we keep coming back to the story, and mostly for mine. There is also the strange experience of the adult self encountering the child self – a fleeting moment of great joy and aching loss.

Friendship

If you are anything like me you dream about writing a sentence like Clive James, only to realise that the reason why Clive James’s sentences are so good is because he doesn’t spending his time dreaming about things but doing them. James and I share a special relationship – not one he is aware of, but one that means a great deal to me. The relationship is more a ménage a tois, featuring Clive, me and my closest friend, Simon. The three of us go back a long way, in particular to the early nineties and a two-week stay in Hong Kong where Simon lived with his parents. During the afternoons we read James’s memoirs, laughing out loud at his caustic wit whilst eating tangerines together. The tangerines were superfluous and have been recalled for comic purposes; James’s beautifully crafted anecdotes were essential and are to this day irreplaceable.

The roots of my friendship with Simon are also bound up in another ‘book’, Bonds’ 101 Uses for a Dead Cat. Normally, this is precisely the kind of wacky drivel I loathe, and for which I have to hide my contempt at birthdays and Christmas when many a well-intentioned relative misinterprets my love of books. Bonds’ genuinely humorous suggestions for what to do with feline corpses have long since been forgotten, with the possible exception of the cover illustration of an old lady taking advantage of the onset of rigamortis to make a cat’s cradle. As is often the case, though, what lies between the pages is secondary. What lives on is the memory of a friend who came over to cheer me up after a bout of illness. This was the book he chose to lighten my spirits. It worked then, and its effect is still felt today.

Working life

Some books mean a lot, even though you have never actually read them. It is often more about the memories they conjure or what they come to mean in the story of your life. This is certainly true for me. One such book was a gift from a former student, probably the brightest, most sensitive reader and writer I have ever taught. After teaching her A Level for two years – she got an A, but her writing was never really reducible to the coldness of a grade – she presented me with Steinbeck’s East of Eden along with the words, ‘It is the best book I have ever read and I think you will really enjoy it too. It is exactly the kind of thing you read!’ The book remains unread, but the memory of someone’s gratitude for the tiny role I played in their development, and the knowledge they had thought carefully about what I would like will stay with me for many a year to come. It is these moments that make teaching so worthwhile.

One of the other unbridled joys of being an English teacher is getting to teach great books. Some you love already; others you grow to love. Teaching can make the relationship to some books even more special because of the re-reading: each year uncovering incidents and incidentals you have previously missed. In nearly 11 years there have been a lot of intimate relationships with characters from different time periods and different backgrounds. But perhaps the story that means the most is the simplest and shortest of them all, Man from the South by Roald Dahl. This odd little tale (does Dahl write any different?) of an old man, a young American sailor, some nails and a butcher’s knife is testament to the captivating and timeless power of wonderful storytelling. I have read this story well over 30 times and each occasion has produced the same effect: mesmerised silence with a class full of children eagerly awaiting the outcome of the gruesome bet between the sailor and the old man.

Love

In my opinion Hemingway’s ‘A Farewell to Arms’ is the best love story ever told. It is all about the ending, though. I wont spoil it here, other than to say that I think Henry’s understated reaction at the close reveals a truth about the power and weight of love that is too often overwritten, becoming overly sentimental and subsequently lost. But, of course, there are times when words are exactly what are required, and the challenge is choosing the right ones. For me, that moment came on my wedding day and the speech I made at the reception. Once again, stories helped me find a way to openly express what lay beneath the surface. I retold Aristophanes’s speech from Plato’s Symposium, namely his account of how human beings originally had twice the number of arms and legs, only to be cut in half by Zeus who saw them as a threat to his divine rule. In Aristophanes’s words (and in my intentions) our desire in life is to find our original other half and to become whole again. With my wife, my search for completion was over.

Loss

For some reason I have always been drawn to books about loss. I am not entirely sure what this says about me: whether I am essentially a morose person, or whether that an understanding of loss (namely death) is what helps me to understand and appreciate life. I don’t think I am alone in this, since death is essentially what frames the genre that is literary fiction. Some books that have helped me to interrogate death from a myriad of different angles include What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt, The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion and Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow. More recently, I was particularly moved by John Williams’s Stoner, a lost classic that seems to have spoken to a great many people about the great sadness of the human condition – the passing of time and of regret.

One writer I have grown to love, even though what he writes about is essentially opposed to everything I cherish, is David Shields. What Shields believes in is the death of fiction, and his 2010 book Reality Hunger is one of the most thought-provoking, but also deeply terrifying, reads for anyone of a literary persuasion. Organised into a patchwork of hundreds of statements, aphorism and observations – some his own, but most the words of others – the book is a manifesto for the hybrid genre. Shields believes that truth can only really be captured in works that blur the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction, and that the literary novel can no loner pretend to give us valid insights into what it means to be human. For a long while after reading Reality Hunger, I did not read another novel. I had lost my belief in its beguiling powers and its truth claims. When I did return to fiction early last year, I think I had a much greater appreciation of the form – its flaws, its limitations, but also, in the right hands, its abiding insight into the human spirit and the way it helps us make sense of who we are.

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4 thoughts on “The books that make my life

  1. Loved this, Phil – but DO read ‘East of Eden’, without delay! It’s just fab! (And plenty of ‘loss’ in it….)

  2. Great post! Your books about loss are the ones that I am really intrigued by. I think you would like my current read, it’s called Finding Vern by Darcy Mascarro. Her site for it is findingvern.com. Her story is so inspirational. I took so much from her honest tale of loss and her journey from it. Great post again!

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