The Reading List...

By Lucy Harbron - 13:57

When you finished an English degree, the last thing you want to do is read a book. I don’t know how many books I’ve read over the past three years, meaning that the answer is too many with the majority coming and going within a week then sitting on your bookshelf leaving you with that unfulfilling feeling of knowing you’ve read something but feeling 0 connection to it, I’m looking at you The Good Soldier. But others attach themselves to you as you try to shoehorn your new favourite book into any essay you possibly can, for me it was Slaughterhouse-Five. You finish your degree with a strange knowledge base, having spent the last three years consuming everything from ancient mythology to modernist rambles and Dasa nonsense, and for a while you hope to literally never see a book ever again.

That lasts a while then the love that pushed you to do the whole thing floods back the second you remember you can read for pleasure now. The classic joke returns; what does an English student do on their uni holidays? Read. And when you graduate it’s almost overwhelming stepping into an infinite holiday with no teacher telling you what to read and no pressure to pick up on hidden themes. When you can read whatever you want, where do you start?

It took me a couple of months but that love is well and truly back. After a slow burn, I capped off 2019 flying through books again, and vowed in 2020 to read at least one book a month. So far I’ve been overachieving, finishing 2 books in January thanks to my commute.

Way back in the early days of this blog I used to talk about books a lot, and in the absence of seminars I’ve been missing it, so this is the first of a new series. The Reading List is going to be a bi-monthly series chatting through the books I’ve read and what’s next on the list, feel free to read along! For the first, here are the books I read at the end of 2019 and January.

The Beautiful and The Damned – F.Scott Fitzgerald

This book plagued me, in that I just could. Not. Get. Through. It. I started it after handing in all my essays back in May, and finished it around September/October time. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to, in fact towards the end I literally couldn’t get enough of it, it’s just a slow burner. It’s a chunk of a book written in Fitzgerald’s classic flowy, silky narrative style that it beautiful but Jesus Christ it gets long. My relationship with Fitzgerald is a love/hate one, as The Great Gatsby is one of my favourite books and films of all time and I’ll defend it to the end of time, but everything I’ve read since hasn’t matched up. While Tender Is The Night holds the same kind of subtle heartbreak that groans in the background throughout, The Beautiful and The Damned is much more on and off, giving you moments of sharp magic that makes you stop and exhale, but then padding it out while long sections of not much, as if Fitzgerald needed to bubble wrap these points.

One thing I did love in this was the character development, being a longer read you see these figures change greatly. The character of Gloria especially is great, very Daisy-esque being both wildly dislikeable but strangely endearing as you see this socialite go from glory to a happy nothing to a heartbroken nothing. All of her dreams seem just out of reach even with a hand covered in jewels. Her character becomes a million times better with a little research as this novel is deeply autobiographical about F.Scott and Zelda’s toxic relationship, with much of the book actually being stolen from Zelda. I’d highly recommend pausing either before or after to read their letters to one another, piece of literature that may be their best work. If you like 1920s American literature filled with glossy riches, corruption and couples that should just break up, this ones for you. Or really, if you’re more of a classic literature fan than I am, this would be an easy read for you. Read it in the bath with red wine and jazz playing and the experience becomes a whole lot better.

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

One thing I did realise from my degree was that I really love American post-WW2 fiction. There’s a really interesting sub-genre of these strangely humorous but deeply traumatic action novels, all coming at a time before PTSD was recognised and soldiers were crying out for some understanding or acknowledgement of their trauma. They’re full of huge scenes of violence but told with a snigger, it’s strange but means the whole thing is so much easier to read.

Catch 22 was one that’s been on my list for a long time, and I committed the sin of watching the new TV series before reading the book. I loved the series a lot, it was funny and cinematic and shocking so I highly recommend that. But the book was different. The crux of it all falls on intention. While the series held up these moments of violence or character deaths as big climactic moments to hang the episode off, Heller brushes over them. In the novel you can blink and miss the death of a main character, sometimes leaving a huge event almost entirely up to subtext. For a while I really didn’t like it, wondering where these massive dramatic moments I’d seen in the series were, but that’s exactly the point. In its essence Catch-22 is about sanity, the catch that keeps Yossarian at war is the idea that his fear of death and longing to go home proves his sanity and is the thing that prevents him from being sent home. While the writing remains strangely light-hearted, you still feel the kind of torment that Yossarian feels as a novel of small inconveniences and brushed over events culminate in moments of total darkness where even Heller himself can’t seem to keep up the act. Heller himself went to war and there’s the feeling that some of the memories must be his as certain images and figures feel too real and returning to not be. Though written in such simple English, Catch-22 manages to be funny, heart-warming, traumatic and heart-breaking all at once. Definitely glad I ticked this one off my list.

The Year of The Monkey – Patti Smith

No surprise that this was the best book I’ve read in a while. Patti Smith has yet to write anything that hasn’t glued itself to me. Her novel Just Kids is the single most important books to me, and each one since has fed me in different ways offering different insights into her life.

I bombed through this in two days curled up in my armchair with a coffee and a doughnut as she would’ve wanted. The book follows a year of her life in her signature dreamy style that merges autobiography with elusive fantasy sequences like her writing drifts in and out of sleep. It has her was of being both completely shattering and totally renewing as you feel her strength emulate off page after page even though she suffers so much loss in this book as with the others.

There’s not much I can say without writing page after page gushing about my love for Patti and her work. But I will say, read Just Kids before you read this. So much in The Year of The Monkey relies on the knowledge of friendships and relationships you see form in Just Kids, so I think there’s definitely a sequence necessary to give it the reading experience it deserves. Read her work, regardless of whether you know her music, read her books because they truly are glorious.

Piers of The Homeless Night – Jack Kerouac

The second Kerouac book I’ve tried and probably the last. I’ve never got on with his narrative style that feels like a whole lot of nothing once you’ve read Ginsberg and other beats writers that work with and tackle such bold topics. Nah, not for me, next.

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept – Elizabeth Smart

I knew nothing of this book before I read it, I just saw someone recommend it in Vogue so decided to give it a go as a toe back in the water of poetry to try and inspire me. I didn’t expect the power and impact it would have as I found myself choking up on the train. Confessional poetry-prose like this is my bread and butter, use of personal pronouns is a sure-fire way of getting me on board and I was sucked in immediately.

Written in 1945, this is an autobiographical account of Elizabeth Smart’s tumultuous relationship. It feels like it’s written in the moment, as if you’re reading the diary she wrote every night right as the heartbreak was happening, it feels so immediate and desperate that is hasn’t aged a day. Her writing feels right there, you can feel the pain around you as her words are so desperate and begging but remain eloquent. Her use of such rich imagery to portray a pain that was so clearly real and personal is a masterpiece in of itself and lends to this final product that feels so epic and operatic while the central figure is so small and broken down. I needed to read something like this, if you’re looking for something to bring back your creative energy and fill you with new imagery and phrasings, pick up a copy of this.

Sex, Art and American Culture – Camille Paglia

My final book of January 2020 was one that’s sat on my shelf for years. This books of essays covers everything from Madonna to modern art to kink, giving an analysis of the less talked about 80s and 90s. I read it messily, picking whatever subject I felt like that day rather than tackling it from start to finish, but it was a nice change from the poetic/dramatic pieces I’d been reading. I’ve found myself really missing analysis and critical essays since leaving uni, so this filled the academic void for a short while as I decided what to pick up next…

…and up next is:

Les Enfants Terribles by Jean Cocteau
Hollywood by Charles Bukowski
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Manifesting that I’ll finished Cocteau and Bukowski as long as I can resist the morning twitter scroll on the train. As I'm writing this I'm only 10 pages off finishing Cocteau so it's looking good

Send me your recommendations and reviews. Read more, it’s good for your brain.

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  1. I have the exact same relationship with The Beautiful and The Damned, I started it months ago but every time I try to go back to it, I can't remember what's happening so I start from the beggining, but I now basically know that bit off by heart! I really want to read Just Kids by Patti Smith, I'm not sure why I haven't yet as I've only ever heard good things about it, but this post has inspired me to get it for my next read (at long last!). If you're looking for more book recs, I recently read Women Talking (can't remember authors name) but is a really good n quick read!


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