Thursday, 23 September 2021

In praise of books! By Sue Purkiss

 Books are the most fantastic things, aren't they? I don't particularly mean books as objects, though I could happily write  a good deal on that topic too - I mean what's in them.

I've just finished a book by Elif Shafak, a British-Turkish writer whom I came across last year when listening to a talk from the Hay Festival online. She was talking to Philippe Sands, whose books I had read, and who is another enormously impressive author, though of non-fiction rather than fiction.

I finally got to read one of her books a couple of weeks ago - I've written about it here. It's called The Island of Missing Trees, and I love it. It's about memory, belonging, identity, relationships, love, trees - all sorts of things. Then this morning I just finished Three Daughters of Eve.

This is a spikier, in some ways more challenging book, for me at any rate. It concerns a woman from Istanbul, Peri, and takes place over one - very dramatic - night, when Peri goes to a dinner party, is attacked on the way there, and then - well - something else happens. During the course of the long evening, she finds herself reflecting on events from sixteen years before (and earlier) when she was at Oxford University, which was for her a seminal and intensely disruptive experience with which she has never really come to terms. During her time there she came to know a charismatic philosophy lecturer named Azur, and hoped that he would help her to understand not only herself, but also the nature of God.

Many years ago, when I was a fresher doing English at Durham University, we had an introductory talk by the head of department, Professor Dorsch. At one point, (after informing us that the three greatest writers in the English language were Wordsworth, Shakespeare, and, I think, Milton) he moved on to discuss what subsidiary subjects we might be thinking of taking. It was a long time ago, and I'm paraphrasing, but what he said was along these lines: "Some of you might be thinking of taking philosophy. I would advise you to think very carefully about doing so. It is a very... difficult subject."

Well, going by this book, I think he was right. Elif Shafak certainly doesn't shy away from it, but I can't pretend to have understood much of the philosophical discussion in the book. And there's a lot more that I know I haven't yet grasped - what was the significance of the attack, in particular the bandaged hand? Why does Peri have visions of a baby in the mist? (Actually, I think I do have a clue about that one.) Why... and so on. It's a book I'd love to discuss in a book group - I need to tap into the wisdom of others!

But notwithstanding all that I didn't understand, I found the book brilliant, stimulating, absorbing. When I'd finished it I felt that I'd been in another place. I felt refreshed, challenged, invigorated. Isn't it marvellous that a book can do that for you?

And of course, different books can do different things. I have books I return to when I need comfort reading - the assurance that once I open the book, I will be absorbed. A great favourite of this kind in recent years has been Elly Griffith's series of books about a forensic archaeologist, Ruth Galloway, set in Norfolk.  (For more, see here.) The delight in these books is the cast of characters, their relationships, their affection for each other, the way they change and grow over time. Or there are Colin Cotterill's Dr Siri books set in Laos - similarly, the mystery element is almost incidental: it's the characters whose worlds you want to enter. And if things are really bad, I go in search of Heidi, and toasted cheese in the attic of the Alm Uncle.

There are so many different kinds of books, aren't there? Books about nature, which help to further our knowledge of the environment and also can bring a sense of peace and astonishment.

Biographies, which again take us into other lives.

Books on history and politics, which challenge and make us think.

And of course, there are children's books, which enchant and which bring hope and a sense of what is possible.

I know it's an obvious thing to say on a blog that celebrates writing - but thank heaven for books, especially in these interesting times!


Susan Price said...

Oh lord, yes! One of the best realisations of my life was that, whatever I wanted to know about, there would be several books about it.

And has comfort reading ever been more important? Mine is probably Terry Pratchett: an escape into the Discworld... In fact, I'm tempted to head off to Lancre now. No Covid passport required.

Lynne Benton said...

Thank you, Sue, and I entirely agree! Where would we be without books? I cannot imagine life without them. (And thanks to your recommendation I've just started on Elly Griffiths' books!)

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks, Sue and Lynne - I'm sure you'll enjoy Elly Griffiths, Lynne!

Jane said...

I hadn't heard of Elly Griffiths but my dad lives in Norfolk so I may have to put her on the list!