by Henry Ling and Kelvin Shiu
Our school librarian, Ms Godfree, and School Archivist, Mr Sadden, are both tireless advocates for books and reading. Here, they share their own favourite reading, past and present.
This is Ms Godfree's response:
1. What books are you currently reading? An Abundance of Katherines by John Green, The Gutenberg Elegies by Sven Birkerts (a reflection on e-books and printed books and why/how we read) and The Red House by Mark Haddon (who wrote Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time).
2. Who is your favourite author? Why? I don't have a favourite author -- the cliched reply is: whoever I read last . . . Often that is the case. There are writers I go back to with great pleasure: T.S. Eliot, T.H. White's The Once and Future King (the full-blooded, full-volume set, not the Disneyfied and emasculated Sword in the Stone!), George Eliot's Middlemarch --- these (all stuff I read when young) and many more continue to surprise me.
3. What is the least interesting novel that you have read? Why? I couldn't get beyond the opening pages of Captain Corelli's Mandolin --- but, on the whole, I will not press on with a novel that doesn't engage me in the first fifty pages. Life is too short now . . .
4. If you were stranded on a desert island, what novel would you take? Poetry or short stories, rather than a novel --- brief, intense bursts of thought and feeling that will continue to resonate. Norman MacCaig or Andrew Young (poets) or Raymond Carver (short story writer) maybe . . .
5. What features do you expect to see in a good book? Fantastic mastery of language --- I sort of hear words in my head as I read and I don't want to trip over a clunky phrase, that's like someone's phone going off during a concert. An emotional journey.
6. What do you believe makes a book so special? Books show you other ways of being. They show you that your world, your experience, is not all there is. That is a heady, thrilling feeling for a young person and a consoling one when you're a bit older!
7. As a teenager, what kind of books did you like? Two teen favourites: T.H. White (as above) --- fantastical, hilarious, profound, passionate, desolate. The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone, a fictionalised biography of Michelangelo --- vivid, revelatory, with some swoony, rude bits. The first two paperbacks I bought for myself and invested myself in heart and soul. Later in my teens: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and Almost Human by Theodore Sturgeon. Stunning science fiction/fantasy, earthed in a recognisable world. All of these were books that I discovered for myself, which I think was an important part of their appeal. I can't remember getting any fiction out of my (boarding) school library, but I do recall the excitement of combing the shelves of the public library on the rare occasions we were let out and coming back with armfuls of headily grown-up books.
8. What is your favourite genre of novel? I am partial to a bit of Stephen King (psychological horror), though, having read one, I go right off him for a while --- but I don't have a favourite genre really. I hate Jilly Cooper-type books.
9. What is your favourite non-fiction book? Essays --- of any century. A currently rather neglected art form, but a wonderful one, the distillation of deep thought and often biting wit. Multum in parvo!
10. Have you ever thought about writing a book? If so, what style of book would you write? Often thought, never tried. If I were to, it would have to be essays (as above). The more I read, the more I am in awe of those who do write.
Mr Sadden responded in this way:
1. What books are you currently reading? I'm currently reading a children's novel written by Michelle Magorian called Just Henry, set in Portsmouth just after the Second World War (prompted by meeting her recently at the unveiling of a plaque celebrating Old Portmuthian Percy Westerman, who wrote over 170 "ripping yarn" novels), a five year old copy of The Idler, the autobiography of Bryan Forbes, Notes for a Life (prompted by the British film director's death last month) and a book on the German artist Otto Dix (prompted by seeing a collection of his First World War prints in a very odd exhibition about death, at the Wellcome Foundation). I like to have several books on the go at any one time.
2. Who is your favourite author? My favourite author varies, which suggests I don't really have one yet.
3. What is the least interesting novel that you have read? I tried to read the first Harry Potter but didn't get very far.
4. What book would you want with you if you were stranded on a desert island? The answer to this would depend on how long I am likely to be stranded for. If it was for a day or two, I would take the fattest Harry Potter so that I could use it as kindling. If it was for a long time, then I'd be a fool not to take something very long and challenging that I hadn't read before.
5. What features do you expect to see in a good book? Good writing, strong characterisation and an interesting plot, probably in that order.
6. What makes a book so special? That's a mystery to me. Judging by its success, the Harry Potter series is "special", so success must be an important ingredient of it.
7. What did you enjoy reading as a teenager? As a young teenager, I read Sherlock Holmes, the Doctor series by Richard Gordon, novels about the legal system by Henry Cecil, loads of science fiction. In my mid teens, I was reading Orwell, Raymond Chandler, Catch 22, Crime and Punishment, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, Tom Sharpe, A Clockwork Orange, anything dystopian. I was into the "kitchen sink", British stuff of the 50s and 60s, which, in the mid-70s, had become unfashionable. Oppositional stuff. Alan Sillitoe's short stories and novels. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner was a big favourite as it reflected my view of life at the time. In some ways, it anticipated punk philosophy. I have a signed, dedicated copy of it on my bookshelves and would grab that book if the house caught fire.
8. What is your favourite genre of book? No favourite genre, just anything that demonstrates a humanity, a social consciousness and political awareness without being clunky and preachy or overtly ideological; anything that explores the tensions between individualism and collectivism. Also, humour and a celebration of the absurdity of life.
9. What is your favourite non-fiction book? The full Oxford English Dictionary, Encyclopedia Britannica or the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, or possibly well-illustrated art books.
10. Have you ever written a book or are you tempted to write one? I often think about writing books. I had a novel, Mudlark, published under a pseudonym by Puffin a few years ago, which was well reviewed. It's a historical murder mystery, which perversely sets out to disappoint but failed in Scotland where it proved popular. My Portsmouth Book of Days is currently ranked number 276, 409 in the Amazon Best Sellers.
Also, read What Do English Teachers Read?, What Do English Teachers Read: 2 and What Do English Teachers Read: 3