Monday, 17 May 2010

Why I won't read Wolf Hall - Anne Rooney



I have nothing against Hilary Mantel or Wolf Hall. But the time has come to be more discerning than just reading something because everyone else has read it, it's piled high in Waterstones and I'm mildly curious.

How many books can I read in my whole life? Or, more usefully, my remaining life? Of course, that depends how long is left. Looking at my family's record, I might have another 50 years. If I read a book a week, that's about 2,500 books to go. Some of those books haven't been published yet.

I can probably list many hundreds of books I know I want to read, or re-read. Wolf Hall is long, so I might have to swap out a couple of short James Joyce books and a volume of poetry to give it a slot. Or never re-read the Moomintroll books or Alan Garner. Worth it? I don't know without reading WH, but I'm guessing that, for me, it's not. If I have to choose between Tolstoy and Wolf Hall, Tolstoy will get the gig.

Some things I have to read for work, or to keep up. On the list for work at the moment are re-reading Plato's Timaeus and Critias, CP Snow's Two Cultures, IA Richards' Practical Criticism, maybe a quick refresher on Empsom and Leavis, and finishing (for the first time) Francine Prose's Reading like a Writer. Actually, I wasn't counting the work reading in the book a week, so these don't need to take any of the 2,500 slots. But these books are relevant as I'm (re)reading them in preparation for my new role as Royal Literary Fund Lector (title may change), which starts in September. And that's also why I'm thinking about which books are worth reading.

Lectorships are a new departure for the RLF. All professional writers, the lectors will run reading-aloud groups in the community. Initially, there will be groups in Cambridge, London, Sussex, Somerset, Yorkshire and Glasgow. The idea is to encourage the development of critical reading skills. The groups may target specific groups - elderly people, single parents, dentists, accountants, ex-convicts, people with ginger hair - it can be any kind of group. Or they may be open to anyone. How the group is advertised and made up is left to the discretion of each lector. All lectors have previously been (or currently are) RLF fellows. That means we've all done at least one stint in a university, and this is a chance to work with people outside an education setting.

The model for the sessions is Socratic dialogue, with a good deal borrowed from the tradition of Cambridge practical criticism. Each session (one and a half to two hours long) starts with participants reading aloud the selected text – a short story, a poem, or a piece of non-fiction - and then discussing it: what effect does it have? how does it work? does it work? It means reading slowly, savouring the choice of words, pausing to see how the punctuation works, following the thread of each sentence and unpicking it, learning how writing works at a detailed level. We hope it will help people with their own writing, and enjoy literature more fully. Becoming a critical reader will also mean they are better equipped to read all texts with an eye on how their response is constructed and how they might be being manipulated. A country filled with critical readers would give our political leaders and large corporations a much tougher time.

But that’s not all. It’s likely that many people who come to the groups will already be readers. The groups will – we hope – introduce them to a wider range of literature than they might have found on their own. If someone comes to a group after reading Wolf Hall, maybe they’ll read Raleigh’s letter to his wife on the eve of his execution, or some of Wyatt’s poetry, or something else from Tudor England that will enrich their earlier reading. One of the larger aims of the scheme is to give literature back to the people – you don’t need a degree to read John Donne or James Joyce, you just need time and to know it’s there. The key to the success of the sessions depends in large part on picking texts that are sufficiently accessible to the group, sufficiently rewarding to keep people engaged and sufficiently varied, week on week, to win the hearts of the readers. It’s an exciting challenge.

So apart from which 2,500 books should I read before I die, I also need to think about which 50 or so texts I want to share with my Cambridge reading group (demographic undecided so far). Any suggestions?

www.annerooney.co.uk
http://stroppyauthor.blogspot.com

20 comments:

dan powell said...

Crime and Punishment - great example of a Russian classic and accessible as early thriller/detective fiction.

Nicola Morgan said...

Daniel Tammet's Born on a Blue Day - autobiographical insight into an autistic savant's mind. This book humanises, frankly, and is the only book about which I've ever said, "Everyone should read this book."

Great post, Anne.

Stroppy Author said...

Thank you, Nicola - I'll look that one out :-)

Dan - thanks :-) Crime and Punishment, great though it is, is too long for a reading-aloud group and I don't want to do excerpts (or not often). This may change... we might do a (short) novel over several weeks.

I should have said - self-contained texts that we can work with in a 2-hour slot. Oh, and preferably not work in translation as we are talking about close reading so I'd rather deal with the author's real words (or the real author's words).

Thank you :-)

bookwitch said...

Finally! Someone who says exactly what I feel.

Mary Hoffman's Newsletter said...

Interesting. I have a lot less time for reading left than you do (indeed if I took my parents' lifespan as a guide, only three years) and I'm spending some of it reading 60 titles as a judge for the Booktrust Teenage Prize.

I have a toothsome pile waiting for when I finish, including Wolf Hall. I think if I took your approach, I'd be absolutely paralysed.

My only criterion, apart from when I have a judging or reviewing job is "Do I want to read it?" and I do with WH.

By the way, I'd ditch Francise Prose. I found it disappointing and utterly unmemorable so if you ARE anxiious about not "wasting" reading time, don't bother with it.

hilary said...

It would be a pity to miss Wolf Hall, I think, because it is very good. You could keep it in the car- that's a good place to keep books you never plan to read. I find I always read them sooner or later.

Catherine Johnson said...

In the car!
I have In the castle of My Skin, which I have never finished
and another about the Ottoman Empire.
I LOVED Wolf Hall, but I also loved even even more a book out this year which is both edifying and revealing and sad and beuatiful, The Long Song, by Andrea Levy.

Shelley Mira Souza said...

self-contained literature ... Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet.

Lucy Coats said...

I've been putting off Wolf Hall--I'm not a great one for 'should-reads' either. Maybe I will come to it one day, maybe I won't. Hmmn--books for the lector. Some books are just not suited to reading aloud--others cry out for it. If you could only tell them to ignore the overlong and quite boring political Coodle and Doodle bits, I'd recommend Bleak House--though maybe leaving them in would be a topic about how much politics doesn't change!

Penny Dolan said...

Think a Dickens should be in your list somewhere because his writing has some awful passages as well as the stronger & inspiring parts. Often the televised version is the one that sits in people's minds, not the text.

adele said...

I absolutely loved Wolf Hall and I'm like Mary. Unless I'm reading for a judging of a prize, then PLEASURE is my only criterion. Do I fancy it? And WH was ace all the way through and I can't wait for part two. However, if you don't fancy it, then give it a miss. No one says you ought to read it. Or they shouldn't! As for a book to read with the group, how about the Great Gatsby? Very short and brilliant I reckon.

Katherine Langrish said...

Short book to read aloud in a group? How about 'Youth' by Conrad? Always loved it. EVERYTHING goes wrong on this young man's first voyage as mate, and he manages to enjoy it - becasue of his youth...

I liked Wolf Hall, and would read the sequel, but am not sure I would re-read, so will probably borrow from library rather than buy, next time. Re-reading it my yardstick.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Kidnapped. And then Catriona. I love both, for different reasons, and also for the same reason that he was such a fine writer, early and late! And the scene between Davie and Alan Breck, just after they have had the big dust-up and then Alan realises Davie is genuinely ill, always makes me cry - but then in the later novel, the scenes between Catriona and Davie are so sensual and so beautiful - and the perspective so much more mature...And - speaking as a playwright - the dialogue is wonderful!

Miriam Halahmy said...

I buried myself in huge books this winter, for the first time in years. I read Wolf Hall, The Children's Book and Pillars of the Earth. It was wonderful to fall so deeply into a book again as so many books today I read through quite quickly. But it does take a big chunk out of your life. Maybe it'll snow a lot again next winter! My suggestion it to get the audio version and listen to it in the car. All three of these books are worth it.

Stroppy Author said...

Thank you for all these wonderful suggestions :-) I shall certainly them up - including the suggestion of keeping Wolf Hall in the car! I have to wait at the level crossing for a few minutes most days, so I can read a page or two then... Audio in the car doesn't work for me, though, Miriam - I only use the car when ferrying daughter around and she insists on listening radio Bint (or, on a good day, R4).

Nick Green said...

I tend to be resistant to reading books that people tell me I ought to read. This is doubly true when it is my wife who tells me I ought.

I'm not sure why this is, because generally we share very similar tastes; I love what she loves (not always vice versa) but usually, I like her recommendations. But still I resist, perhaps because I resent being steered.

Recently, I had finished a book and picked a new one off the shelf. My wife said, 'I thought you were going to read Wolf Hall next.' I replied, 'Um... it's big and heavy. Won't fit in my bag on the train.' My wife said, 'In that case, you'll never read it.'

When she said this, she looked so sad. Really, she looked very sad. She hadn't done that before. So I went back to the shelf and I got Wolf Hall.

It's not as good as everyone says. It's better.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

I think in terms of really delcious meals I can still enjoy, rather than books, Anne, which rather turns me into a glutton! Like Mary given my parents longevity, I've only three years to go! That's terrifying! Loved WH. Now reading HM's memoir -'Giving up the Ghost'.

Leila said...

Your Cambridge reading group NEEDS to read the Moomin books if it hasn't already! Moominland Midwinter, especially.

madwippitt said...

When working out how many years of reading are left, there's a depressing and niggling worry that the last part of a much looked forward to trilogy might not appear in time ... I think there should be some kind of law that trilogies and series of books should only be published when they've all been written, so that readers don't have to wait years between each, fretfully worrying about when the next part will appear. Especially when you've been left on a cliffhanger. So when CAN we expect Sterkarm 3?

Andrew Strong said...

Here's my tip: buy or borrow the audio book as a download. Put it on an ipod, then use a docking station to run it continuously as you're sleeping. ("Wolf Hall" lasts 24 hours, so will take at least three nights). You may not remember much, but at least it's in there somewhere. I did this with "Crime and Punishment". I had nightmares.