Sunday, 12 May 2013

What Do English Teachers Read?

by Henry Ling and Kelvin Shiu

A book is a whole number of different things. Everyone sees different things in books, some see a golden treasure lost in a sea of words, were as others only see bleak pages, riddled with black squiggles. Everyone has a favourite author, a favourite genre. So we decided to take a look into what some of the English teachers' views of literature are, as, of course, they are the ones who are educating us and teaching us the secret techniques and literary devices used to lure a reader into enjoying a book. Therefore they are the ones likely to have the most intriguing tastes in books. We asked Ms Burden, Mrs Kirby and Mr Burkinshaw the same questions and these were the answers that we received.  

Miss Burden answered the questions as follows:

1.     What book are you currently reading? - I’m reading a graphic novel – Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi. It is a memoir about her childhood growing up in Iran and was originally written in French.

2.     Who is your favourite author? Why? -That is a very tough question. I’m going to select George Eliot. As you may know, George Eliot was a “she” – Mary Ann Evans, writing in Victorian times. She was a land agent’s daughter who lived an unconventional life. She lost her religious faith and her father threatened to throw her out of the family home. She compromised by continuing to attend church until her father died when she was thirty. Later in life she lived for years with a man she was not married to and so was disowned by her own brother as this was so controversial. I love her books because they are full of small images that strike me as being perfectly true.

3.  What is the least interesting novel that you have read? Why? -The least interesting novel that comes to mind is Fifty Shades of Grey and the other two books in the trilogy. I read them because I believe one should never criticise a book without actually reading it and it was a marathon of boredom. The trilogy is repetitive, clich├ęd and dull. The novel’s fame rests on its sex scenes but you have to read an awful lot of tedious rubbish before the main characters are anywhere near a bed. I also find the novel’s presentation of male and female roles quite irritating.

4.     If you were stranded on a desert island, what novel would you take (supposing you got a choice)? Why? - I’m assuming that, Desert Island Discs style, I’m allowed The Complete Works of Shakespeare and the Bible. The novel I would take in addition to that is George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Its descriptions of England would console me whilst sitting on an alien shore. Middlemarch is a moral novel: its assertive narrator and the behaviour of its characters provide lessons on  how to treat others.

5.     What features do you expect to see in a good book? - Can there be set features in a good book? Sometimes what makes a novel interesting is that it defies convention. One good example of this is Patrick Ness’s trilogy for teenagers,Chaos Walking (the first book is The Knife of Never Letting Go) which is the most zany, idiosyncratic, imaginative and fast-paced fiction I’ve ever read. It is set in a world where the thoughts of all male characters are as audible as their words. Essentially, a good book should be absorbing and able to convince you to accept the world it describes.

6.   What do you believe makes a book special? - Following on from that, books can be special in many different ways. The two books for adults that have made me cry are Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers. Any book that can move one as deeply as real life can must be special in some way. The three children’s books that made me cry when I was younger are Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian,The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Bridge to Terebithia, by Katherine Patterson.

7.   As a teenager, what kind of books did you like? Why did you find them appealing? -I pushed "book boundaries" as a child and teenager. When I was in Year 5 my teacher sent home a novel I’d brought in called The Thorn Birds and telephoned my parents because she didn’t think it suitable for primary school (the heroine has a love affair with a Catholic priest). I devoured Jane Eyre and Tess of the D’Urbervilles before I’d finished Year 7. My teenaged reading was very mixed – on one hand I read most of Dickens and on the other hand I happily read plenty of trash, including a novel called Flowers in the Attic that was passed around every girl in the year group. At one point I was obsessed with Daphne du Maurier’s books and at other point George Orwell’s. Teenagers should read anything that interests them – reading can be a lovely, private way of finding out about the adult world as well as a shared experience through reading books that have interested friends or family. Teenagers today are very lucky – there is a definite market for you now and authors such as Robert Muchamore, Siobhan Dowd, Patrick Ness and Darren Shan have produced some gripping novels over the past few years.The Hunger Games is a defining trilogy for the first decade of this century – the novels are in so many ways a product of reality TV being embedded in our lives.

8.   What is your favourite genre of novel? - I don’t have a favourite genre as such as I enjoy most literary fiction. When I want an easier read I turn to crime fiction – Scandinavian/Scottish noir or PD James. I think it is very hard to write a good, original crime novel.

9.    What is your favourite non-fiction book? - That is a difficult question. It depends how you define non-fiction novel. Travel writing wise, I enjoy Colin Thubron’s works such as In Siberia. That has the most wonderful opening sentence. I find Joe Simpson’s books, such asTouching the Void and The Beckoning Silence, compelling but I have the feeling that if I met the author we wouldn’t get on as he is utterly single-minded. A wonderful book that is part travelogue and part memoir is The Snow Tourist by Charlie English. The author is fascinated by snow and travels the world looking for "the purest, deepest snowfall". The most raw and honest memoir I've ever read is William Leith's The Hungry Years.

10.  Have you ever thought about/written a book? What sort of style book would it be? -Yes. I’ve written most of a children’s novel (with a piracy theme) that I’ve set aside to return to with a critical eye at a later point. I’ve started writing an adult one but, as I’m in my first year at PGS, it’s been pretty slow going. I’ve written some short stories this year – they’re easier when life is busy – and one was shortlisted for a ghost story competition. The summer holiday should be a good time to write.

    Mrs Kirby answered the questions like this:

1. 1. What book are you currently reading? - Sue Miller’s While I was Gone

2. Who is your favourite author? Why? - Not sure where to begin... I'd say that Ishiguro, Austen, Hardy and Atwood are all contenders

3. What is the least interesting novel that you have read? Why? - Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight  - it was just so dull. I read it because so many of my pupils were reading it and I approached it (in all honesty) with an open mind. I ploughed on, but have to admit that it’s one of the few novels I never finished.

4. If you were stranded on a desert island, what novel would you take (supposing you got a choice)? Why? - Either Hardy’sThe Return of the Native or Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier. The latter in particular I continue to find fascinating and revelatory no matter how many times I re-read it.

5. What features do you expect to see in a good book? - I’m not sure I expect features as such and I don’t think that literature, great or not, can be defined quite so easily. However, for the sake of simplicity I would say that I look for a damned good story, high-quality use of language (I know that this in itself requires definition – that’s for another blog) and something essentially thought-provoking.

6. What do you believe makes a book so special? - For me, the greatest novels tap into a universality. No matter when they’re set, how exactly they’re written or what the essential story may be, if a special book will have shifted something in me.

7. As a teenager, what kind of books did you like? Why did you find them appealing? - Anything fantastical gripped me in my teens, probably because I wanted to escape from myself and my world. It was then that I fell in love with C.S Lewis and Tolkien.

8. What is your favorite genre of novel? - Gothic. No question.

9. What is your favourite non-fiction book? - The one that’s made the biggest impact on me is Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror. The world made a little more sense after that. For sheer enjoyment and historical insight, I would say Kate Summerscale’s Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace.

10. Have you ever thought about writing a book? If so what style of book would you write? - I’ve planned and tentatively written snippets of several (again, Gothic stories tend to spark my imagination). I’m yet to find the courage (or talent) to see any through. 

This is how Mr Burkinshaw responded to these questions:

1. What book are you currently reading? - I'm reading the journals of John Cheever, whose short stories and novels explore the suppressed frustrations and fears of life in American suburbia, in a style that manages to be at once lyrical and bleak. His own personal life was troubled and he mined his considerable flaws and insecurities for material that he reshaped into fiction. His journals are not only brutally honest but beautifully written. The entries have the extra advantage of being quite short, which, as we have a new baby in the family, is an essential requirement of any reading material at present.  

2. Who is your favourite author?  Why? -  Probably Joseph Conrad, whose novels include Heart of Darkness, The Secret Agent, Lord Jim and Nostromo. They are adventure stories and spy thrillers, set against a  vivid backdrop of colonial depredation and ideological fanaticism, but they also explore what it means to make difficult, sometimes impossible, moral choices in a seemingly Godless universe. He captures the complexities of the human psyche with extraordinary subtlety and stylistic originality particularly impressive because he wrote in English, a language he did not learn until he was in his twenties (he was Polish, born Jozef Konrad Korzeniowski). 

3. What is the least interesting novel that you have read? Why? - The popularity of Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code mystified me. I love murder mysteries and thrillers; they don't have to be deep and meaningful, but they can still be written with a bit of style and flair (there's a great parody of Brown's writing style here). Life of Pi is the most over-rated novel I have read recently.

4. If you were stranded on a desert island, what novel would you take (supposing you got a choice)? Why? - Herman Melville's novel, Moby-Dick, is an absorbing tale of obsession, narrated in a memorably eccentric and experimental style, in which Captain Ahab's insanely vengeful pursuit of the mysterious White Whale becomes a symbol of our own pursuit of meaning in a world that often seems to evade it.

5. What features do you expect to see in a good book? - I guess that a good work of fiction should present a world that is convincing and engaging, one that stays with you afterwards. A great book should be one that deepens with each re-reading. This is why Moby-Dick would make a great desert island read.

6. What do you believe makes a book so special? - I think that novels and poetry are uniquely equipped to navigate the complexities of people's inner lives. I think that is why great novels so often make lousy movies (e.g. every adaptation of The Great Gatsby), with lots of dull shots of people looking moodily out of windows.

7. As a teenager, what kind of books did you like? Why did you find them appealing? - In my pre- and early teens, The Once and Future King by T.H. White, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams and Tolkien's The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy were favourites. However, I don't think there was as impressive a selection of books for older teenagers as there is now. As a result, I ended up reading a lot of the books my Dad had around the house, among which I have fond memories of the pulp-thrillers of the now-forgotten Desmond Bagley and the bizarre novels of Dennis Wheatley whose plots invariably featured apparently harmless communities that turned out to harbour sinister Satanist covens. My Dad also introduced me to the comic genius of P.G. Wodehouse (perhaps my first exposure to an unreliable narrator, in the form of Bertie Wooster) and to Raymond Chandler's brilliant creation, Philip Marlowe, who was not only a dab hand at solving murders but came out with great similes ("I felt as conspicuous as a tarantula on an angel cake"). I also remember being completely absorbed by Robert Graves' I, Claudius because of its revelatorily clear-eyed view of what some people will do in the pursuit of power; in many ways, it was the precursor of Game of Thrones.

8. What is your favorite genre of novel? - Most of the best writing defies easy categorisation, but I enjoy crime fiction, which (like its literary parent, the Gothic) offers writers the opportunity to explore the most transgressive questions about the relationship between the individual and society, one of the best examples being Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. Genre novels don't get the respect accorded literary fiction, often with good reason. However, I think that (just to take two particularly impressive examples) the Berlin Noir trilogy by Philip Kerr, set in 1930s Germany during the rise of Nazism, and Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski novels, set in Chicago during the industrial decline and financial boom of the 1980s and '90s, explore important social and moral issues --- as well as being cracking murder mysteries. 
9. What is your favourite non-fiction book? - I like the work of Robert Hughes and Gore Vidal, both of whom could write about any topic beautifully and insightfully, whether literature, art, history, politics or boiling an egg. Sadly, both died within a few days of each other last summer. I read everything Peter Guralnick writes about American music and I believe Pauline Kael has never been surpassed as a writer about film.

10. Have you ever thought about writing a book? If so what style of book would you write? When I worked in publishing, I consumed large numbers of trashy blockbusters, hoping to discover an essential formula for commercial success that would enable me to make a fortune by writing bestsellers. However, I didn't get very far with that. Like many English teachers (I suspect), I have written fragments of novels and loose plans for novels; in my case, these have primarily been murder mysteries harbouring pretentious literary subtexts, owing rather too much to Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose (one of my favourite novels). I think that to be a successful writer you need discipline and singleness of purpose. 

So, having asked a range of English teachers, we now have a range of answers. These results tell us that a book does mean different things to different people. Having been to certain people’s houses, it is clear that some people believe a book to be just another dusty ornament whereas other people live in a river of fine literature, which engrosses them and pleases their minds like the last drop of icing pleases one's taste buds.

Read about what Mrs Mitchell and Mr Richardson enjoy reading here.

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