My mother has always been a reader. Whenever she gets a break or a holiday then there is nothing she likes more than to read in bed. When we visit my brother’s place in the country, we hardly ever see her during the day.
She started reading when she was a child & her mother, my grandmother would tell people that ‘Vivienne was in her glory’ in a slightly critical appraisal of her passion.
When I was a child growing up my mother would always tell me & my brother to read & she would give us books. I loved the children’s picture books, in particular Dr Seuss, Tintin & Asterix (she would use Dr Seuss books to teach her pupils to read at the schools she taught at, at the time) but she also gave us books like Jane Eyre & Sherlock Holmes which I enjoyed.
Some books were a bit harder for me & I remember that I never did read the copy of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens that she gave me. The book was really long (about 600 pages) & it daunted me a bit, however another book ‘Burmese Days’ by George Orwell, I started & then left until about 5 years later when I read the whole thing & enjoyed it very much. I also loved ‘Huckleberry Finn’ by Mark Twain.
I remember when I was really young that my mother read me ‘The Hobbit’ by Tolkien, ‘The Red Pony’ by John Steinbeck & also ‘Alice in Wonderland’.
My mother does not read novels very often. The majority of her reading matter is to do with analyses of the world condition through history, politics & art. This has all been a vital part of her world view & has more than anything been responsible for her self-education & for the development of her ideas & sense of culture. She would like to have the time to read more novels but she thinks most novels today are cheap writing-no ideas.
She has always gravitated towards people who read & who can introduce her to further directions for reading.
It was her friend Gary Ness who was the biggest influence on her thinking.
I remember her really enjoying reading ‘Proust’ & the unabridged ‘Memoirs of Casanova’ in six volumes (I read the first two volumes of this & It is really great. You really feel day to day life 250 years ago & what a man. His escape from ‘The Leads’ is one of history’s ‘great escapes’).
There are three authors that I think my mother holds above all the rest & these are, George Orwell, Bertrand Russell & Aldous Huxley.
Orwell’s ‘1984’ & Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ are two of the most insightful books ever written about human psychology & about mankind’s probable direction in the future extrapolated from human trends now. Orwell’s view is incredibly dark whereas Huxley’s seems to be lighter (it isn’t), but both books seem well on their way to becoming true & this is the warning that they give to us to act upon.
Orwell’s other most important books are ‘Animal Farm’, ‘Voyage to Catalonia’ & ‘Down & Out in Paris & London’.
The majority of Russell’s & a half of Huxley’s books are collections of essays. Easy to read & filled with a wealth of insight & information about both specific & random subjects, they both again talk about the human condition & about the paradox’s of life.
Russell who was both a mathematician & a philosopher wrote a host of titles on subjects such as ‘The ABC of Atoms’, ‘Why Men Fight’, ‘The Analysis of Mind’, ‘In Praise of Idleness’, ‘Why I am not a Christian’ & ‘A History of Western Philosophy’, whereas Huxley wrote ‘Adonis & the Alphabet’, ‘Heaven & Hell’, ‘The Art of Seeing’ & most famously ‘The Doors of Perception’ (famous as it was the inspiration for the name of the 1960’s band ‘The Doors’).
Huxley also wrote a travel diary of his circumnavigation of the world called ‘Jesting Pilate’ & also a novel called ‘Grey Eminence’, a historical account of a French monk who was pivotal in the proliferation of the Thirty Years War in Europe between 1618 & 1648 (another paradox here about how a ‘Man of God’ could be responsible for so many deaths).
A more contemporary writer that my mother is very fond of is the author, documentary maker & journalist John Pilger. His book ‘The New Rulers of the World’ (2002) documents the secrets, lies & propaganda behind modern imperialism & the West’s goal of a new ‘world order’.
Of particular importance is Pilger’s book ‘Heroes’. If you really want to know how the modern world works then read this & specifically the chapters on the Vietnam War.
Another contemporary writer recommended is James Lovelock. His coining of ‘Gaia Theory’ as the explanation for the way the Earth’s ecosystem works has been instrumental in warning of the dangers of global warming.
To finish off for now I will mention three French authors from the 19th century, Gustave Flaubert, Guy de Maupassant & Anatole France.
Flaubert is one of the first ‘Realist’ writers. His style is a scrupulously truthful portraiture of life with no frills. Good & bad are judged neutrally & the purpose of his work is to seek out the truth, even if it repels us.
His first novel ‘Madame Bovary’, published in 1856, tells the story of a country girl who has a highly romanticised view of the world & who craves beauty, wealth, passion & high society.
The world is not romantic in the way she supposes though & her efforts to live this life result in disappointing love affairs, debt & eventual suicide.
His last published book before his death was a collection of short novellas entitled ‘Three Tales’.
A couple of quotes by Flaubert are:
‘To be stupid, selfish & have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking all is lost’
& ‘One can be the master of what one does, but never of what one feels’.
Guy de Maupassant was a protégé of Flaubert & he was known mainly for his short stories. His first published story was ‘Boule de Suif’ (ball of fat, 1880) & is the story of a coach load of travellers fleeing from Rouen to Le Havre in France during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). The main character ‘Boule de Suif’ as she is known due to her fatness is a French prostitute. The other travellers on the coach are all very self-righteous & snobby but on the long voyage they find that they are very happy to share the lovely food in Boule de Suif’s picnic basket which she freely shares with them. Later on at a German checkpoint the travellers are all held up in their journey by a German officer who will not let them move on until Boule de Suif sleeps with him. Being a French patriot Boule refuses & the other travellers agree with her but as time goes on they all change their minds & press her to pleasure the officer which Boule finally does. Finally on their way in the coach again the snobby prejudices of the other travellers surface for their own protection (as Boule has demonstrated that she is more of a patriot than any of them) & they ignore Boule de Suif & refuse to share their food with her treating her with disgust & contempt. Boule de Suif seethes with rage about them & finally weeps for her lost dignity.
‘The Horla’ is another short story by Maupassant & it is quite a different kind of story, being in the horror genre. A man writes his journal over the course of four days as he becomes more & more aware of an oppressive invisible entity in his house. He questions his sanity & in the end he is ready to kill either ‘The Horla’ or himself.
A couple of quotes by Maupassant are:
‘Patriotism is a kind of religion, it is the egg from which wars are fought’
& ‘It is the lives we encounter that make life worth living’.
Anatole France (1844-1924) was a Parisian novelist. His book ‘The Gods Must Have Blood’ written in 1912 is set during the Reign of Terror (1793-4), the period during The French Revolution (1789) when rival revolutionary political factions were in conflict with each other & wherein tens of thousands of people were executed by the guillotine for being ‘enemies of the revolution’.
The book tells the story of a young idealist who becomes a juror on the Revolutionary Tribunal. Through the process of conducting these endless trials & the power that it gives, the young idealist becomes corrupted & he uses his power to satisfy his own vengeance & his hatred for those who do not think like him. Also during the story the idealist has a love affair which illustrates how people can be murdering one minute & then quite normal the next.
The book also illustrates how in an autocratic (ruled by one person) system of government the emphasis is always on using the energy of young people, as young people are more fanatical.
A couple of quotes by France are:
‘It is better to understand little than to misunderstand a lot’
& ‘If a million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing’.