Reading Goals for 2015

2014 was a pretty good year for my reading life. Despite being my first year of PhD life, I found that I had more time for leisure reading than I’d had in my five years of undergraduate studies. Unbelievably, what they say about doing a PhD is quite true – it really is easier than undergrad and honours! Whether this is due to the lack of course work, the single project focus, or the fact that after so many years of study it now comes to naturally to you that it ceases to seem overwhelmingly difficult, I do not know. Probably a combination of the three. Anyhoo, my point is that last year in between PhD-ing and working and getting used to life in a new city, I managed to read 14 books for leisure (I do not want to think about how many I read in relation to my studies). As someone who reads painfully slowly, and has a particularly strong penchant for bludging out in front of the television, this number of books in the span of a year was quite an achievement for me. There were so many wonderful reading experiences over the year that I struggle to pin down which one was my favourite for 2014.

The books I managed to get through last year were (in order, thanks to the ever-helpful Goodreads):

  1. Dust, Patricia Cornwell
  2. Tampa, Alissa Nutting
  3. Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys
  4. Pardon Me for Mentioning…: Unpublished Letters to The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, eds. Kaplan, Lewis, & Munro
  5. The Light Between Oceans, M. L. Stedman
  6. The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion
  7. The Innocence of Father Brown, G. K. Chesterton
  8. Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, Alissa Nutting
  9. Lost: Illegal Abortion Stories, ed. Jo Wainer
  10. 1984, George Orwell
  11. Twilight, Stephenie Meyer
  12. New Moon, Stephenie Meyer
  13. Eclipse, Stephenie Meyer
  14. Breaking Dawn, Stephenie Meyer

As you can see, I did a pretty good job of attempting diversity in my reading selections. I threw myself into contemporary fiction for the first time (after spending much of my undergrad years attempting to ‘catch up’ on the classics), threw in some classics and some non-fiction, a mixture of novels and short story collections. I also backed down after years of resistance and read the Twilight series after a recommendation from my thesis supervisor, which I have blogged about previously. You might also notice that Alissa Nutting got a double mention…. this is because she’s a friggin’ genius. No arguments. I love how her mind works, she is a fantastic and engaging speaker, if you’re lucky enough to meet her in person as I was she is lovely, and reading her work is truly the most amazing, challenging, and entertaining experience. Go read her stuff. Now. Do it.

For this year I’ve decided, for the first time, to make a to-read list based on a reading challenge brought to my attention through the wonderful Book of Face. The challenge featured a list of categories from which to select books to read in 2015, such as ‘a book with a red cover’, ‘a book you read as a teenager’, and ‘a book from a best of 2014 list’. Based on these categories, my selections will largely see me reading books from 2014 rather than anything that is published this year. Alas, ‘catching up’ seems to be a theme in my reading life, so why mess with what works. The books I’m going to aim to read (or re-read) over the next twelve months are (in no particular order) *drumroll*… :

  1. Yes Please, Amy Poehler
  2. Strangers on a Train, Patricia Highsmith
  3. The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, Hilary Mantel
  4. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
  5. All the Birds, Singing, Evie Wyld
  6. The Fictional Woman, Tara Moss
  7. Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
  8. Rosemary’s Baby, Ira Levin
  9. Revolution, Russell Brand
  10. This House of Grief, Helen Garner
  11. Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn (giving this another go after last year’s failed attempt)
  12. My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, ed. Kate Bernheimer
  13. The Enchanted, Rene Denfeld
  14. The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan
  15. Burial Rites, Hannah Kent
  16. A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, Eimear McBride
  17. Zealot, Reza Aslan
  18. The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger

I have no idea how many of these I will be able to achieve, but I’m happy with this list as a goal. I’m also pleased to see how many of these are written by women – unintentional but pleasing! First up is Wuthering Heights, which has been sitting in my to-read pile for 6 years now (I know, book buying is a problematic addiction of mine…). Let’s see how this goes!

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Re-reading Traditions

I was talking with my sister last night when she casually mentioned that if she was going to get The Chronicles of Narnia read by the end of the year this year, she had better start reading it soon. I thought “this year?” … and my sister informed me that she has a tradition of reading these books every year at Christmas time. This got me thinking: I like this idea, why have I never thought to do something similar? Am I too busy reading books for the first time to enjoy revisiting old favourites? (yes, I really am. Sad face). If I were to start a tradition of my own of this kind, which book or series would I choose? (No idea, book decisions are hard bro!)

I did spend a few months in the middle of this year doing a re-read of Harry Potter but, alas, life took over and I failed to complete the mission. Would they be a contender for the title of Books I Commit to Revisit Every Year? Mmm… probs… but there are seven of them and the last few are pretty dang long! So maybe not…

My next series of thoughts on this conundrum were along the lines of “perhaps instead of revisitng a certain book or series each year, I could revisit a certain author once a year?” and “perhaps I should give up on this whole idea before I even begin, because really, will you actually be bothered to follow through on this?” (the ‘can’t be bothered’ level in my life is HIGH, my friends).

I have managed to become so distracted while writing this post that I’ve forgotten what the point of it was in the first place. I guess I’m looking for opinions. If there is anyone who actually reads this thing, do you have a re-reading tradition of any kind? If yes (hell, even if no, whatevs) would you suggest that I pick a single book, an author, or a whole series as my sister who reads way faster than I do (totes jelly) does?

Okay, back to work now.

Doing a PhD in your early 20s

Ah, the dreaded imposter syndrome. I know it well. I still can’t believe how much younger I am than the ‘average’ PhD candidate in Australia…. I like the idea of thinking of myself as ‘remarkable’ rather than ‘abnormal’ though 😉

The Thesis Whisperer

This post is by Ben Wilkie who is a (nearly finished!) PhD candidate at Monash University in Melbourne. His research has been focused on Scottish migrants in Australia during the 19th and 20th centuries. He also lectures in Australian Studies at Deakin University in Warrnambool. Ben blogs occasionally at The Scottish Australian and you can find him on Twitter as @historyben.

Ben was kind enough to offer to write this post after a conversation on Twitter after a discussion about average PhD student in Australia. You might be surprised to hear it is around 34 years of age, but the age profile in the sciences is younger and those in the humanities. Ben tells us what it is like to do a PhD in your early 20’s in an area where there are not many younger students – I think you might find it interesting even if you are…

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Witch Hunt

Might have to get myself a copy of this one. Witchcraft and witch hunts are a fascinating part of the history of socio-cultural demonising of femaleness and femininity.

The Bookshelf of Emily J.

Original documents and manuscripts fascinate me, and much of my research as a Ph.D. student over the last few years has focused on historical sources and archival materials. That is why when I heard on NPR about Katherine Howe’s The Penguin Book of Witches (2014), a compilation of original sources about witches dating from 1582 to 1813, I determined to get my hands on it.

penguin book of witches cover

The book did not disappoint.  It is a chronological edited collection of original documents about witch trials (including the most infamous in Salem, Massachusetts), confessions, and defenses.  I think my favorite document was Robert Calef’s More Wonders of the Invisible World (1700), in which he calls into question the validity of witch trials and hunting, noting that people have been “accusing their innocent neighbors . . . to let loose the devils of envy, hatred, pride, cruelty, and malice against each other; yet still disguised…

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Breaking Up with a Book

I have a bit of a problem with too much commitment. When I’ve decided to read a book I struggle to abandon the pursuit, for a number of reasons – although, if I’m honest, the biggest reason is probably that I’ve already paid for it so I feel obligated to myself to go through with it. So I’ll start a book, get a few chapters in and think ‘I’m not really liking this’. Happens to everyone, right?

At what point do we end the relationship? Do we adopt an ‘immediate quit’ approach, where we drop the book as soon as it becomes clear that we might not actually enjoy it? Or do we, like I tend to do, refuse to quit, either out of some bizarre sense of reading obligation or perhaps in the (possibly vain) hope that it’s going to get better?

I’m having this argument with myself over Gone Girl. I started reading it at the same time as two of my friends. Both of my friends LOVE this book. Couldn’t put it down. Fangirling all over the place. Addiction, excitement, all that good stuff. Meanwhile, I’m over in my corner trying to commit to it and finding myself surprised and disappointed because I just feel a bit bored. Because everyone around me seems to love this book so much, naturally I assumed that I would love it, too. Am I simply not “getting into it” because I’m too busy and distracted by life at the moment? Should I try it again when life is less hectic? Am I disliking it because the characters are so notoriously unlikeable? Will I like it eventually if I just keep pushing through it? And, the biggest question of all for me, should I keep pushing??

At what point do you end it? Give up, quit, admit defeat, whatever you wish to call the scenario? And why do I see this is such a negative thing? Maybe it should be more of a case of me just saying ‘so this book isn’t my deal, oh well. I’ll just move on to something else’…? How many chances do you give a book before you decide the story is just not for you?

How I’m falling in love with a series I thought I hated.

Answer: I’m reading it.

So, okay. We probably need a bit more of an explanation than that… here goes. Bear with me. And if you are someone who knows me well, forgive me for shocking you this way (happy halloween? haha) 😉

We seem to have this thing we do as people, called hating. A lot of the time it seems we’re quite content to partake in this activity without really bothering to understand for ourselves what it is we’re getting our hate on about. We also love to throw the word ‘hate’ around like witty banter, ignoring the full weight of its meaning – I know I do. It’s a good word, right? Especially when you’re raging with a hardcore case of the crankies. Cathartic. It just comes flying out of that hole in our face that seems to have a mind of its own. Anyway, this hating thing  we do can be a pretty polarising thing. In the world of books, tv shows, movies, and other doodads we ‘consume’, when something is especially popular we tend to be either a lover or a hater, right? Occasionally, I’ll find myself somewhere in the middle of the two, in camp “meh, can’t even be bothered to read/watch that, let alone expend energy forming an unfounded opinion” (Game of Thrones, for example. Don’t love it, don’t hate it. Just plain not interested. Alas, I digress.) This love vs. hate issue brings me to revealing exactly what books I’m going to talk about here. One of the most polarising series I can think of: the Twilight Saga.

*ducks for cover*

There are probably a few of you who are already feeling that anger/hate-feels/wish to stop reading this post already just from reading that ‘T’ word. Just hear me out, peeps. I used to be one of you. Until very recently – about three weeks ago – I was a passionate Twi-hater. I attribute this to a few things: first, I grew up with the Harry Potter series. I’ve been a HP fangirl for as long as I can remember. Perhaps I was too busy loving Neville and being inspired by Hermione’s and Luna’s badassery to ‘get into’ Twilight when it first appeared? Perhaps I bought into the idea that you can only love Harry Potter OR Twilight, but not both? Second, for a long time I just flat out refused to read it, because I’d heard from others (including that almighty teacher that is the Interwebs) that these books were HORRIBLE. I was told Bella Swan was an idiot. I was told the relationships in these books were abusive, and I was hesitant to read them in case they triggered memories of my own history of unhealthy relationships. I was told all of these things by numerous sources, and I assumed everything I was told about these books was correct. I positioned myself as a hater, without ever picking up one of these books for myself. You know that saying about assuming things, something to do with an ass…

Three weeks ago I went to a talk given by my thesis supervisor, who was arguing that Bella Swan in a feminist icon and Twilight is fantastic. I’ll admit, I went in feeling extremely cynical (if you know me, you’ll know that cynicism is one of my natural states of being – other natural states include sitting and procrastinating). I thought I’d get a good laugh out of it. When I left that talk, I was filled with that righteous indignation feeling you get when you want to do something just to prove yourself right. I thought ‘okay, I’ll go and try to read the first book and see if I can agree with anything in that talk at all’, while also thinking ‘pfft, as if! It’s going to be shit’. Well, it turns out the joke was on me. For days I couldn’t put that book down. Before too long I was onto the second book, and now the third. I felt almost dirty, thinking ‘what is going on here? I hate these books, don’t I? Why can’t I stop reading? Why is this book giving me so many intense feelings? OH FOR THE LOVE OF CHEESE TOAST WHY AM I CRYING?!’ I didn’t want anyone to know I was reading them, let alone that I was LOVING it. That’s how hardcore the Twilight hating is in our culture, or so it seemed to me. I didn’t want people to know I was even touching these books, lest they should judge me as a mindless blonde twerp who wouldn’t know good literature if it smacked her upside the head. The fact that I’m doing a PhD in literature made the idea of that sort of judgement even more horrifying to me. I was all caught up in the concept of what I “should” read, what others would expect “someone like me” to pick up off of a shelf. But let this be my confession: ….. I kinda love these books.

Now I said I wasn’t going to get preachy, and I really am trying to avoid that. If you have read these books and you’re still Team Hate, more power to you! I can appreciate a good dose of cynicism in a person, it makes for a stellar sense of humour. But for me personally, actually picking up these books and reading them has completely disolved my hatred for them. I still don’t completely understand why or how this has happened, but I have a pretty good idea. I’m going to get a bit personal and mushy here for a bit, so fair warning. I’m finding these books surprisingly therapeutic. I mentioned before that my relationship history has been less than ideal, and that this is part of why I avoided Twilight in the past. I was still nervous when I picked up the first book of what I might find inside, and whether the relationships between the characters would upset me or remind me of difficult memories. I’ve come a long way over the past few years in the healing process, but reading these books has made me realise a) that I still had some healing to do that I hadn’t realised, and b) that these books might just be the key to that process getting started. These books have brought up old memories for me, but not in the way I was expecting. Instead of being harmful, for me (I want to stress that, only talking about my individual experience here) they’re allowing me to connect with memories I have had blocked for a long time – and to deal with them. I’m remembering my 17/18/19 year old self through these novels: not only what was happening to me in relationships at that point in my life, but also all of the raw, real feelings I thought I had forgotten. I’m remembering what it’s like to fall so head over heels for a boy that you forget which way is up; what it feels like to know something is probably a stupid thing to do but doing it anyway; how it feels to have someone see you as perfect despite all imperfections. I’m rediscovering what it is to allow myself to feel. Most importantly, I’m realising for the first time that I’m not alone in my painful experiences and memories. Bella’s catatonic state after the boy she loves tells her he doesn’t want her anymore and leaves her behind, for example… three years ago, that was me. For a reader who hasn’t lived it, I can definitely see how Bella’s reaction may seem unrealistic, stupid, even ridiculous. But if, like me, you have lived that, if you have been crushed out of the blue and left to wonder what went wrong and if any of it was real at all, this point of Bella’s story is both incredibly cathartic and amazingly comforting. The memory  seems a lot less awful now that I know someone else has understood it…

I could go on for days with all of the other things I want to say about this series, and I might do another post when I’ve finished the last book. But this is the crux of what I wanted to say about it for now: what I’ve just talked about is really why I love literature. Books bear witness. They are simultaneously filled with new experiences and filled with echoes of experiences you’ve already had. They allow us to engage with our own stories, and to empathise with the lives of others …. if we let them. That’s the gem of thought I’d like to leave off with. We have to let them. We have to stop professing judgement on things we have no experience or knowledge of. Let books increase your empathy volume. And, essentially, READ WHAT YOU WANT TO READ, regardless of the opinions of others – whether they’re real or merely what you think they will think. If you shape your choices and your opinions on those of others, who knows what sorts of wonder you might miss.

E. xo