Karen blogs at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, and it was as ‘Kaggsy’ that I first met her (I believe) in a LibraryThing group which celebrates Virago Modern Classics.
I remember being a wide-ranging and omnivorous reader, and taking pride and comfort in my own bookcase filled with books in my bedroom, and finding various small spaces to become book-reading dens. I remember that I read Alice Adventures in Wonderland at the age of seven and became deeply attached to it despite not understanding most of it! What were these ‘conversations’ that Alice couldn’t find in her sister’s book? Not a clue. But, importantly, this didn’t seem to matter at all. So much of the pleasure of Alice is in the sounds of the words, and I think those that I didn’t understand were still enjoyable (and many of them are, of course, made up by Carroll). I find the conventional wisdom that children’s books must not contain vocabulary considered to be beyond the level of the readership rather frustrating. How else do you learn new words?
Through the Looking-Glass always had a different feeling to me than Alice; somehow it was more resonant, and more disturbing. I imagined myself going through the mist of the looking-glass into that world which seemed rather nightmarish to me.
Karen: Yes I did – both parents were always readers: my dad liked factual books (Chariots of the Gods and the like when I was growing up) plus thrillers and sci fi, whereas my mum reads more traditional ‘women’s books’ (Santa Montefiore being her current favourite). They always read to me from an early age – in fact, my parents tell me that they thought I had learned to read particularly early as a young child, until they realised that I had simply memorised the stories and was reciting them back to people and pretending to read!
It’s hard to pick out just one book that I loved from my childhood as I tended to read in series – Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers, ‘Mystery‘ and Five Find-Outers were particular favourites, and once I started to get pocket money, it would go on a new Enid every week. I was also keen on the Narnia books though I came to them a little later. Trying to pick out one, I keep oddly enough coming back to a book I kept getting out of our local library (and I can still visualise the inside of the building where I would get it checked out) – Dr. Seuss’s I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew. It was the strange, surreal, alien imagery that appealed to me, so unlike my real life – I guess books have always been something of an escape for me!
One of the first adult books I really enjoyed was Wuthering Heights, an A level set text. But unfortunately, and surprisingly given my current profession, I hated being made to analyse it – or ‘pick it apart’ as I considered it then. I wanted to be transported, to enjoy that narrative hypnosis which I thought was the point of novels. In retrospect this may be related to the fact my life was difficult at this point – more family breakdown – but I also suspect that 16 year old girls are suckers for a doomed love story and do not wish to made to relinquish that surrendered reading!
I did not do an English degree because I thought it would ruin reading for me!
Karen: Again, this is really hard to pick out just one, but I guess I would plump for The Hobbit. Some relatives heard that I loved the Narnia books (I would probably have been about 11 or so) and sent a copy of The Hobbit which both me and my dad devoured, and then followed up by raiding the library for the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy and reading the lot. After that I really never looked back – I borrowed my mum’s romances (Victoria Holt, Mary Stewart etc al) and the Agatha Christies that were lying around the house, plus other crime authors like Ed McBain, and then followed this up by discovering Solzhenitsyn and the Russians when we studied the Russian Revolution at school. I was a fairly troubled teenager, as my favourite grandmother died when I was 11 and it took me a long time to deal with it – like I said, books were an escape, my coping mechanism.
The book that changed my life was A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor (1951). We had a seminar with the brilliant Nicola Humble who explained that this novel, and others like it were regarded as ‘middlebrow’ and as light, comforting reads for women, bless their feather-brained heads.
I couldn’t believe it. The novel I had read was funny, yes, but also incisive, acute and downright cruel in its dissection of the disappointments of life. A Game of Hide and Seek tells the story of Harriet and Vesey. As the novel begins they are eighteen and in love. At the end of the summer they will part, Harriet will marry someone else, and they will not enter each other’s lives again for another twenty years. Harriet and Vesey never protest and declare their love, yet it is omnipresent, and entirely credible. I thought it was one of the best novels I had ever read, and so well-written it almost hurt.
It formed part of my MA dissertation, which I called ‘The Reassurance of Cruelty’ – for the only reassurance I could see in it was that Taylor was saying yes, domestic life is as difficult and cruel as you thought. A reality is reflected back: yes, life is like that. A Game of Hide and Seek, my sense of outrage that it wasn’t recognised for the exceptional novel I considered it, and trying to understand why that was, started me on the road to an academic career.
Karen: Well, my early 20s were a pivotal time with my reading – this was when I discovered so many of the writers whose work I still love and return to. So that makes it really difficult to pick a favourite. But I think I will go for a slightly unlikely book, Literary Women by Ellen Moers. It was published by The Women’s Press and I was a recent convert to feminism at the time, having recently discovered Virago too. Literary Women was a revelation, opening my eyes to an amazing amount of women writers I’d never heard of, let alone read. I finished up with a huge list of authors I wanted to discover which led me onto another pivotal book, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. I’d never read anything like it and it set me off on a whole new lifetime of reading, mainly because I was no longer intimidated by literature, and felt I could read anything I wanted to, from de Beavoir, Sartre, Camus et al to Italo Calvino (whose “If on a winter’s night a traveler” almost got picked here as it caused me a major obsession with the author which still continues to this day!)
Erica: I started blogging as part of my work on the collection of popular fiction published between 1900 and 1950 at Sheffield Hallam University. I don’t think I would have started a personal blog, but I’ve found I love being part of the conversation about books that happens in blogs.
Blogging has definitely changed my reading habits, because the reviews are of books in the collection. I very rarely find time to read books that fall outside this 1900-1950 time period. Now, hang on… this is just the same as when I was writing my PhD! I better face it. Contemporary fiction is a bit of a closed book to me. (Actually I did just read Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate (2013), borrowed from my Mum. It was HORRIBLE. I am mentally scarred. There was a clue in that it is publisher by Hammer, of Hammer horror fame, but I didn’t clock that….)
One of my favourite books of the last few years is Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman (2011). I read it on a long train journey and I snorted and wept with laughter for several happy hours. So much of what she said resonated with me, and she said it all so well. A good rant is an underappreciated genre! And it is part of the splendid resurgence of feminism in recent years.
Karen: I’ve been blogging for a year now, and really enjoyed it – and probably discovered a lot books because of it! I enjoyed so much reading other blogs and the pleasure it gave me that I wanted to get involved and give something back. I really enjoy interacting with other bloggers and being part of a community, particularly as I don’t actually know many people in real life that read the same sort of thing as I do! Blogging *has* changed my reading habits, for the better I think – I read more thoroughly and analytically now, and think much more about what I’ve read because I have to try and communicate what I feel about the book to any readers!
A favourite book? Again, it seems cruel to only pick one – but Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita stands out as having totally engrossed me and changed the way I look at things a lot – I see the absurd everywhere nowadays! But I think honourable mentions should go to the wonderful Persephone Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day which I couldn’t put down and had me grinning from ear to ear; and Miss Hargreaves, which I heard about from your blog and really must read again!
Karen: Cookbooks! I have a weakness for reading them and have three shelves in my kitchen…. It probably stems from when I went vegetarian when I was 18 and had to read up on it a bit – this was a *loooong* time ago without all the veggie conveniences we have now. Some of my oldest are from the 1970s and though I probably wouldn’t cook much from the older books, they read almost like a kind of social history – it’s amazing how our culinary habits have changed!!
Karen, on Erica’s choices: Well, the first thing that springs to mind here is that this person obviously likes reading about feisty heroines – starting with Alice and ending with Buffy, both of whom are strong and individual, though in different ways. Alice is contrary from the point she runs off after the White Rabbit to her defiance of the Court and is definitely a good role model for young people! And Buffy is a character who takes no nonsense either.
This reader also seems to have a taste for the dramatic and passionate, as Wuthering Heights is certainly that, and also features another feisty woman in the form of Cathy, refusing to let death get in the way of her love. Although A Game of Hide and Seek might seem like a quieter proposition, it also features a heroine who marries for money, not love, but never stops caring for the man in her heart, so both of these books show a reader who likes to examine the motivations of people’s passions.
As for Caitlin Moran – well, there’s another feisty one! She’s pithy and funny and so although this reader isn’t necessarily female (plenty of men I know like spiky, in control females!), he/she certainly has a fondness for dominant women – I could foresee interesting time spent in their company discussing books!