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  • Robyn

ONE HUNDRED BOOKS

Another list?

A list of a 100 brilliant books by women has just been published for this year's Hay Literary Festival. I had a look through it and as always when I come across a list of books, without actually intending to do so, I started counting how many of them I had read. The answer is 32 books/authors, (I have given myself a point for having read a couple of Virginia Woolf’s books, even if I hadn’t read Orlando etc,) so almost a third - and like most book lists, it has set off the damning internal monologue that critiques my supposed literariness. It never takes that much, there are always too many books to read and I work in a world where knowing books is somewhat of a big deal, but it is annoying, because it is just a list and who says they mean anything at all anyway?

As an English teacher, there is always a niggling feeling that I ought to have a English literature degree - the Classics degrees are all well and good, I did read quite a bit of literature at uni and did a couple of years of English lit courses, but there are gaping holes in my knowledge that appear every so often in conversation with other teachers in the department. I probably know more about Sophocles than anyone else in the school, but that isn’t always useful when choosing which era of poetry to teach from the new A level spec.

It is a weird thing that whilst my masters thesis focused on modern interpretations of Greek tragedy and thus I ought to know quite a lot about dramatic conventions, I have never taught Shakespeare at A level and only recently taught a drama text for anything other than coursework. Next year will be the first time I teach a novel as an exam text - so what you ask do I teach all those A level students? Poetry. Poetry which I tried to avoid at university and never had any clue of how to analyse. Poetry which I always rated as an area I needed to improve my knowledge on in all the PCGE self evaluation forms. Now I actually love teaching it - I’ve spent this year teaching Christina Rossetti and she’s amazing. I really hope I’m convincing the student of this too - I think I am.


To return from my segue; how many books is enough? When I'm being slightly less ridiculous I know that actually I have read quite a lot of books - just a lot of them don't happen to be on this list! But there are some on the list that I really should have read - I say the things that pitch me to my students as a feminist that vaguely knows what she is talking about - so how come I've never read The Female Eunuch, or The Feminine Mystique, The Second Sex? But also, when the hell will I ever have time to read them?


I have kept a list of books I've read since I was a teenager, they used to be tucked into my diaries and I started a new one with each diary, but at some point they graduated onto annual ones which prompted a self appointed challenge to average out at a book a week over the year. This I managed up until the point I was pregnant with Pip. Admittedly the quality and length fluctuated significantly - while I was breastfeeding Sally and up half the night I went through a faze of reading endless Mills&Boon type things, many set in a bizarre town called Fools Gold where there was an unlimited supply of men and women that needed setting up in an almost infinite permuation of exactly the same story. I'd prop my ipad up on my knees and flick through the pages that only required half reading and thus the book count for the year stayed on track as I bumbled through two or three of these a week. I'd never really been one for such trashy nonsensical romance, if I wanted lighter weight I normally went back to re-read favourites that are more YA than actual A. Ok, so there's Jilly Cooper, but compared to the antics that went on in Fools Gold, the events in Riders and Polo are quite credible! So perhaps I can cite that that as my reason for the number of chic lit romances I devoured that year, I think it was like a binge on junk food for the usually heathy eater - it was easy, predictable; empty calories that I could consume mindlessly at midnight but magically never stuck to the sides.


Fortunately Sally learnt to sleep through the night fairly quickly and I decided to enroll myself of a Oxford University Continuing Education course on the poetry of the First World War to sort of re-boot my brain. It worked - to some extent anyway!


Since falling pregnant with Pip though - my reading seems to have taken a nose-dive. Working + toddler + pregnant = asleep at 9.30, and this time when I had a tiny baby curled up feeding in the night, I just didn't want to go back to Fools Gold and I couldn't find anywhere else I really wanted to go either. Obviously I've read quite a few books since, but I don't feel like I've managed to get my reading groove back. I'm always just a bit too tired to get lost in a novel and find myself stopping after just a chapter at a sensible hour rather than rushing in another couple knowing that the clock is slipping later than it ought.


The summer holidays are coming up and life should start to cool down a little, perhaps a little more sleep and a little less coercing year nine into doing some work will make my brain more receptive to taking in the words again. But - but, the thing I'm less sure about is this: this year for the first time in ages I've started creating again - putting words back into the world rather than only breathing them in - and I'm just not sure whether my brain can do both at the same time; consume and create. I guess we shall just have to see, maybe this summer I'll finally read the The Seond Sex rather than only the Gruffallo again.



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