Archive for the ‘literature’ category

Breaking away?

July 26, 2016

Academics are well used to being asked some time in early June at the latest whether the are now off until September. As I have mentioned a number of times, this is never the case now (and anyway never was the case in most universities) – few manage to take more than 2-3 weeks away.

However, I can report that I am now on a two-week break, and right now am travelling between the United States and Canada (tomorrow I shall be in Halifax, Nova Scotia).

As I travel I get a chance to read things I don’t normally have the time to tackle. This time it has been Pnin by Nabokov; Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens; and The Silent People by Walter Macken. Alongside that, and for real entertainment, a book on monetary economics.

I hope some of my readers are also enjoying a break. Back to normal service for me next week.



May 2, 2016

Let’s not personalise this, so no names. But a few years ago I read about a group of academics protesting at their university about some restructuring or other then taking place. Their ire was particularly directed at one of the university’s senior management team, an academic who, they claimed, didn’t have a single book in his office. More recently at another university, or so it is claimed, another member of the senior team stated openly that he didn’t see the need for a university library any more.

But it’s not just university heads and their teams. The Independent newspaper recently reported that at an English university some academics are finding it hard to persuade their students to read books. One professor suggested:

‘Students struggle with set texts, saying the language or concepts are too hard.’

Others have reported that Victorian literature is disappearing from the curricula of English degree courses because the novels are simply too long – nobody could be expected to read them cover to cover.

Of course it’s not just universities. A couple of years ago in America the Pew Research Center found that 23 per cent of adults had not read a single book (in whatever form, including digital and audio) in the preceding year. Some 35 years earlier that figure would have been 8 per cent.

So what is happening? Are books dead? I doubt that: in recent years there has been a drop in book sales in some countries, but more than off-set by significant increases in others. Nevertheless, people’s engagement with them is changing, and because you can read things in unusual ways and take them from unusual sources it is hard to gauge changes in reading patterns. And of course a ‘book’ is a more complex item now, as it is not necessarily something printed on paper between covers.

I would be more concerned if the choice of books we might read were all about volume and length. There is of course an important place in literature for the short story or the novella. But it is important that we take the time and make the effort to engage with ideas that occupy more than 60 pages. There may be all sorts of reasons for including or not including Charles Dickens on a university curriculum: but the fact that his books tend to be longer than 500 pages should not be one of them.

Animal farms in global politics

June 25, 2011

Today, June 25, is the birthday of the English writer and journalist Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell. Known everywhere and chiefly for his books Nineteen-Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, Orwell in fact was a prolific writer of novels, documentary books, pamphlets and poems. A democratic socialist by conviction, he was also a strong opponent of totalitarianism, and this latter pre-occupation – worked out in the two works referred to above – has immortalised him in the term ‘Orwellian’.

Those who may believe that Orwell’s work is of historical interest but no longer addresses issues of current significance should think again. Orwellian conditions exist in many countries, and with the capacity that now exists for technology to be used to extend state controls and intrusions no country can be declared with confidence to be immune.

It is entirely desirable that every new generation should read Orwell’s work.

Liberal arts, and being literate

December 3, 2010

Some readers may have heard me tell this story before, but it’s worth a repeat. In the mid 1990s I was a Faculty Dean in the University of Hull in England, and on one occasion I was chairing an interview panel. One of the candidates had listed in her curriculum vitae that she had been a student at ‘Winifred Holtby School’. I asked her about it, and then paused to ask my fellow interviewers who Winifred Holtby was. Of the seven people on the panel, only one knew the answer, and even he didn’t know much more than that she was a novelist and that one of her novels (which he hadn’t read) was called South Riding.

You might think I was being something of a patronising git. Well, what was bugging me was that Holtby was a famous writer who was raised in the Hull area. I felt that a group of reasonably cultured academics should be more familiar with her and her work. So if you think I was behaving in a rude and pretentious manner, you wouldn’t have liked me any better in the weeks that followed. In casual conversations I began to ask colleagues about Dickens, and Shakespeare, and Mrs Gaskell, and Wilkie Collins; and then about Herman Hesse, Siegfried Lenz, Camus, Sartre, Goethe. And I formed the view that the English intelligentsia had become remarkably illiterate. When anyone knew anything at all, it tended to be because they had seen the BBC dramatisation.

Universities must of course consist of academics with quite specific expertise and skills; but I feel they should also be places of art and culture, and that this should not be confined to people working in the humanities. Furthermore, this should also apply to students, who should see higher education not simply as a path to specialisation. Perhaps we need to look again at how we structure our education system, and how we can ensure that those who graduate from it have a good level of general knowledge and an understanding of literature and the arts, as well as science and technology, before they proceed to something more specific.

In praise of the essay

September 13, 2009

Today, September 13, is the anniversary of the death in 1592 of Michel de Montaigne, statesman and writer of the French Renaissance.  Perhaps chief amongst his achievements is the development of the essay as a literary genre – he was the first to use the term, deriving it from the French verb ‘essayer‘, to try or attempt. While his style was not always well received during his lifetime, through his work the essay quickly became a popular device of academic and intellectual discourse. It was quickly picked up by other writers, the first to use the genre in English being Francis Bacon.

Essays have remained a popular educational and academic tool, though it is arguable that the original use to which they were put by Montaigne and Bacon was somewhat different from the normal modern fare. In academic life, there may be some scope for re-discovering the collection of essays as a format for scholarly books. At any rate we owe a debt to Montaigne. I would suggest that all academics, particularly those in the humanities and social sciences, should at some point read his essays; they will find that many of his ideas and thoughts still resonate today.

Book recommendation

August 2, 2009

Readers of this blog may know that I am, not necessarily fashionably, a fan of the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope. I enjoy his books in part because, unlike many other writers of that era, he made some effort to portray and understand the dilemmas facing women, particularly those who wanted to maintain an independent life and their own ideas and thoughts.

Over the past few weeks I have been, on and off, reading Sue Miller’s most recent novel, The Senator’s Wife. In this she considers the lives of two very different women whose lives intersect at a crucial point for both of them, and who are facing some of the same issued and problems that often affected Trollope’s characters. I won’t say any more, because to do so might spoil the story for anyone who might care to read the book – but I can say that I very much enjoyed it. The book tries to show how small decisions can lead to unexpected consequences that change lives forever. I recommend it to you.

The Irish short story

June 10, 2009

When I was in my final year at school in Germany a long, long time ago, our English teacher took us on a journey through the Irish short story. His personal view was that only the Americans and the Irish knew how to write a short story, and moreover he believed that only the short story could claim to be a true literary device; novels, he felt, were for lazy writers who could not express their ideas succinctly. Having already previously spent many of my formative years in Ireland, this was a cultural paradise for me.

And now, more recently, I was transported back to this wonderful age. For the past two or three years, my wife (Heather Ingman) has been working on the definitive history of the Irish short story. The book, which is being published by Cambridge University Press, will I believe appeal to all those with an interest in Irish culture and literature; I guess I’m biased.

But reading her book has prompted a question for me. What has happened to all those canonical Irish short story writers of  the mid twentieth century? Frank O’Connor is still in print, but as Julia O’Faolain highlighted in an interview in the Irish Times on June 6, most of Sean O’Faolain‘s short stories are currently out of print and the same goes for those of Mary Lavin. This is astounding, given that, as Heather’s History of the Irish Short Story also shows, Ireland has always been seen as the home of the short story form and that both these writers had their greatest literary successes in that form. The short stories of Lavin and O’Faolain are regularly taught in the universities, but there must surely be a wider market for their work. Lavin’s work gives a faithful rendering of Irish domestic life in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Sean O’Faolain’s influence on the literary and cultural life of the nation, through his editorship of The Bell (1940-46) among other things, was enormous. His stories too chart a changing Ireland from his stories of fighting during the civil war, through the stagnation and disillusionments of post-revolutionary Ireland, to the gradual encroachment of modern life and loosening of the old pieties  in a masterpiece like ‘Lovers of the Lake’.

It is time for the Irish short story to be restored to its place in published literature, and for these great writers to be recognised again in this way.