Literary Challenges

Louise – Senior Librarian Manager – Local & Family History

Lou WutheringWhen I found the BBC list of 100 books you should read before you die I must admit to feeling quite smug.  Here I am a graduate with an English degree, 17 years’ experience of working in libraries and reading as a favourite pass time, surely I can score highly on this list.  However it was not to be, I was brought back down to earth with a score barely in the twenties, and while my English course had covered some of the lists authors, they were not the right books to allow me to tick them off the list.  And so began my literary challenge, my aim to complete at least two thirds of the list, why not the full thing? Because I know there are some on it I have no interest in reading and I fully believe that life is too short to read a book that doesn’t grip you.  I started with Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and found to my surprise it was not at all the story I thought it would be, thanks to overly romanticised TV adaptations and one Kate Bush song I really thought this was an epic romantic tale, instead I found a book full a characters I really couldn’t like, spoiled, abused, abusive and cruel these were lives to be endured not rooted for, but it did grip me, and so I look forward to continuing on and finding more from this list of classic and contemporary books to keep me invested.

lou AnimalSo far I’ve discovered that ‘Animal Farm’ is as relevant to today’s political landscape as the time it was written, that the minor characters of Dickens ‘Great Expectations’ are as fascinating as the main ones (I mean you Mr Wemmick), and that Roald Dahl is as enjoyable now as he was when I was young.  So far this challenge has allowed me to focus my reading, and I’ve read more in the last 6 months than in the year leading up to it adding another 12 to my running total. I’ve begun to read outside my comfort zone, enjoying books I never thought I’d been interested in.  The challenge has also reinvigorated my reading and I’m spending less time in front of the TV and internet and more time curled up with a book, it also sparked conversations with colleagues who I found out have a number of literary challenges of their own.

Antony – Deputy Manager – Local & Family History

My reading challenge – started ten-years ago, and still ongoing – is to read one book for each entry in the Dewey sequence (e.g. 172, 389, 505, etc). That’s a lot of books – and I’ve only managed around forty in that time. That’s OK, though, because the challenge was really only designed as a way to focus my reading when I had nothing specific in mind to pick-up next: confronted with the myriad of possible options presented in any public library, all equally valid and thus impossible to choose between, I needed a system that would help me work my way through that maze – and so the Dewey Sequence challenge was born. A secondary purpose: the challenge would oblige me to read books that I wouldn’t normally choose (so no ticking off as complete just because I knew I’d previously read a book for that sequence number).

What have been the most and least interesting books? Well, I don’t really want to single anything out as being dull, because I firmly believe that no amount of learning about the world is ever wasted (another motivation for the challenge) – but I do have to admit that titles such as Teach Yourself: Windows Vista (005) and  Skywriting: The Best of Air Jamaica’s In-Flight Magazine (052) were, let’s say, a bit niche (albeit that reading the latter did mean I’ll never forget the name of Jamaica’s first Premier, Norman Manley).

Lou NaturalAs for the best reads – Roger Clarke’s A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting For Proof (133) stands out in a relatively crowded field, just above books such as Phillip Blom’s Encyclopédie : the Triumph of Reason in an Unreasonable Age (034), Phillip Knightley’s The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Vietnam (070), and Melissa Katsoulis’ Telling Tales: A History of Literary Hoaxes (098). Most recently I’ve read Niall Ferguson’s The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die (300), which in some ways perfectly sums up the challenge: I’m not sure I completely agree with every argument made in the book – but I’ve at least opened myself up to the kinds of perspectives that I wouldn’t usually be confronted with; a core purpose, surely, for any public library service.

Helen – Librarian – Local & Family History

I set myself a literary challenge many years ago and I am still slowly working my way through it. In my youth I was a big fan of the band The Divine Comedy. If you’re not familiar with the name then you may remember the theme tune to Father Ted as well as the (fictional) Eurovision entry ‘My Lovely Horse’ – both written and performed by the band. In 1994 the Divine Comedy released their third album Promenade and track 3 features an unusual song entitled The Booklovers. The song itself is little more than a list of authors followed by a greeting or reference to a piece of their work. For example, we hear singer and songwriter, Neil Hannon, recite ‘Graham Greene’ followed by the words ‘Call me ‘pinky’, lovely’ (a reference to Greene’s Brighton Rock)’.  The song clocks in at nearly 6 minutes long and over 70 authors are mentioned in total.

Lou MobyLong ago I decided that I would read something by each of these authors. Luckily the list is of fairly well known writers so getting hold of works by each has not been a problem so far, especially working in a library… I’ve managed to read 33 of  the authors so far, possibly more, but if I cannot recall the storyline of a particular work then I’ve discounted it and will have to read it again sometime for it to properly ‘count’. Through this song I’ve discovered many of the classics of literature including Melville’s Moby Dick, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and one of my all-time favourites Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

Ross – Librarian Manager – Local & Family History

I’ve set myself a reading challenge based on the traditional Japanese parlour game of Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, usually translated as ‘A Gathering of One Hundred Supernatural Tales’. The game became popular in the 17th Century and often an entire village would play. After sunset, villagers would gather in a darkened house and light a hundred candles. Each would then relate a strange or supernatural tale, finishing by blowing out one of the flames. The game would continue long into the night, and it would be up to those present whether or not they dared extinguish the last remaining candle. (As well as being a frightening prospect in itself, doing so was also believed to summon a demon!) In my version of the game, I plan to read a hundred ghost stories, blogging about each as I go. I’ll try anything from Victorian classics to modern creepypasta, but I definitely intend to include some works by the Japanese author Ryunosuke Akutagawa, who’s written some brilliantly spooky-sounding short stories but is better-known for Rashomon. I probably won’t get going until December (that being perfect ghost story season) but, if you want to follow my progress, you can do so at:

Sally – Deputy Manager – Local & Family History

Lou HarryTo coincide with our latest exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic I set my self the challenge to read the Harry Potter book series. To everyone’s dismay I have never given the books a proper chance, and even more embarrassingly I was the perfect age to read them when they came out, being ten years old when The Philosopher’s Stone was released – somehow they managed to pass me by and I never got past the second book…

Whilst still not quite finished, I’m ploughing through with a new found, and growing appreciation for the series.  I’ve been lucky enough to visit the Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition in London whilst working on our own here in Leeds Libraries along with watching live panel discussions on the books and their effect on the world – working with and understanding our special collections which are on display in our exhibition has enabled me to put clear links between legendary literature and the hard work and real magic Jk Rowling put into the series. I’m excited to finish and become a fully-fledged fan!

So those are our literary challenges, I think a common theme appears to be that these challenges will take time, in some case decades to complete and while reading off list is fine in some ways it’s nice to have something to come back to.  Do you have a literary challenge of your own?  If so please let us know in the comments box below.

‘Must Reads’ for A-Level Students

This blog comes from Lauren, a student who was with us recently for work experience.

A-Levels are hard. On top of the abundance of essays, exams and coursework deadlines, there is also the expectation that one is well read. This can sometimes feel like a heavy weight to hold on your shoulders. However, reading for pleasure is easy if reading is made pleasurable. This short list of modern classics is aimed to enrich you with intellectual ideas that will hopefully compliment your studies and entertain all those looking for a good read throughout the summer.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Lauren A ThousandCalling all fans of The Kite Runner! Khaled Hosseini’s second novel provides the perfect counterpart to his debut, again focusing in on the social and ethnic rivalries within a modern war-torn country. The story follows two Afghan women, Laila and Mariam, whose lives are thrust together by conflict, loss and fate. The two soon form an unbreakable bond likening to that of sisters, enduring the hardship of Taliban rule together as a team. There is something undeniable about Hosseini’s narrative style throughout his work which makes even the most unbearable of events readable and I could honestly not put this book down. Although utterly heart-breaking, the political relevance of this novel helps further an understanding into the context surrounding fiction set in contemporary Afghanistan, providing invaluable insight into the complexities of modern Afghan society; this is especially useful to those studying The Kite Runner at A-Level. A Thousand Splendid Suns is a novel perhaps even more profound than The Kite Runner, one that will stay with you forever and a definite must read for all.

The Perks Of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Lauren PerksThis brilliant book is a coming of age tale based around the challenges of the teenage years. Written as an epistolary entirely in the format of letters, the novella is set in early 1990s America and explores the themes of mental health, first love and self-discovery through the perspective of protagonist, Charlie, a socially awkward introvert. When faced with the world of first dates, mix tapes, school dances and adulthood, Charlie initially hates high school, but the story follows him on his journey of self-acceptance as he embraces his status as a ‘wallflower’ whilst himself through the help of fun-loving best friends Patrick and Sam. The film adaptation is equally as wonderful; the soundtrack features many of my all-time favourite songs, including music from The Smiths and David Bowie. This novel is beautifully written and deceivingly deep. I think it is important that young people take on board the messages within it and are encouraged to be brave, daring and sometimes a little wild.
“There comes a time when you have to see what life looks like from the dancefloor”

1984 by George Orwell

1984Written in 1949, Orwell creates a nightmarish dystopian future whereby everyone and everything is watched over by ‘Big Brother’ and controlled by its tyranny (clearly channel 4 were particularly inspired by this). This novel has had a profound effect and 1984 has now become shorthand for totalitarianism. It encapsulates the power of mass media and its ability to manipulate public opinion, the truth and even history. Great for writing about in exams and an even better conversation starter, this political thriller is truly unforgettable. Arguably one of the most thought provoking texts in modern literature, 1984 is an undeniable ‘must read’.

Matilda by Roald Dahl

Lauren MatildaRoald Dahl is one of the unconditional loves in my life. His body of work is legendary and I could go on all day about how he inspired me throughout childhood etc etc… and I really don’t think we should forget this as ‘adult learners’. It’s important to take some time away from academic reading and indulge in some of Dahl’s delightfulness from time to time. Regress back to childhood with this wonderful piece of fiction about a six year old girl that we all secretly wish we could be. I certainly wish I was storming through double multiplication problems and blitz-reading Dickens! And I’m seventeen! The horrid Ms Trunchbull is contrasted wonderfully with the lovely Miss Honey and it is impossible not to become overly emotionally invested in Matilda’s crazy life. I encourage everyone to pour some excitement back into their lives with this magical classic.

Books That Predicted the Future

This blog is from Rhian, the Collections Manager at Central Library.

On the 6 June we will be taking part in the UK’s first ever start-to-finish reading of George Orwell’s 1984 by screening it live from Senate House, London (the inspiration behind Orwell’s Ministry of Truth) into Central Library. And if that wasn’t quite enough dystopia for one week, we will also be showing the film adaptation starring Richard Burton and John Hurt on the 7 June, alongside our own ‘Room 101 experience’.

Orwell’s nightmarish totalitarian future seems in many ways completely different from the society we live in now but in other ways the novel, with its telescreens and doublespeak seems scarily prescient.

Writers of futuristic fiction are not really aiming to try and prophesise what might happen in the future but are always trying to comment on their own society, like Orwell’s critique of Stalinist communism in 1984, but this doesn’t stop us looking out for what things may actually have come true.

19841984 by George Orwell

1984 hit the bestseller list again in January 2017 a week after Trump was elected American president when his advisor Kellyanne Conway used the phrase ‘alternative facts’ in a CNN interview.  Many people commented that this phrase reminded them of Orwell’s 1984 world where history is continuously being rewritten and language and thoughts are controlled through ‘Newspeak’ and ‘Doublethink’. In a world of fast moving social media and information online that can be deleted or edited as quickly as it is published, alternative facts can be spread quicker via the internet than Orwell could have ever imagined.

Facts MatterThis is where libraries can really shout about their amazing role as champions of facts and accurate, verified information. The Library and Information Association CILIP is running a Facts Matter campaign for the General Election, have a look at their webpage for more info and to see how you can support.

Orwell imagined a world full of telescreens, that could watch your every move but could he have imagined that we would carry our very own telescreens in our pockets? Although we can’t be watched through our smartphones yet our every moves are being tracked by various apps, designed to make our lives easier but it is not too far-fetched to see how this could be used for more sinister purposes. And of course, our computers can easily be hacked and our actions traced online, it might not be Big Brother yet but we can certainly feel like we are being watched!

NeuromancerNeuromancer by William Gibson

William Gibson is regularly called a prophetic writer, he coined the term ‘cyberspace’ when the concept of the internet barely existed and he didn’t even own a computer himself. His novel Neuromancer, written in 1984, defined the cyperpunk genre and has had such a massive influence on popular culture, inspiring film such as The Matrix. Even Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo can be seen as a doppelganger of Molly Millions the female techno-assassin in Gibson’s novel. I loved this book when I first read it, over 20 years after it was published, and I would recommend all his other works, especially his most recent book The Peripheral that again takes the reader into a dystopic future.

Although always asked how he makes his predictions he says,

‘What I think I do is not predict what’s going to happen, but allow people momentarily to see how totally weird the present is. And I think that’s what people actually get from my work. To look up and see how the world really is and go, agh! But then they’ll duck back into where they live, which is where I live, too. It’s like I’m trying to expose our unthinkable present.

But the cultural assumption about what I do is that I’m predicting things. So I go through the motions. And sometimes I get it right. But really, often I don’t get it right.’

So although it is amazing how much of the tech stuff has come true, there are a few things that are missing. For example, you won’t find a mention of mobile phones and even though virtual reality is often hailed as the next big thing (facebook recently paid $2.3 billion for the Oculus Rift headset system) it has yet to reach the immersive, sensory experience envisioned in Gibson’s novels. However, with every new hacking scam, global corporate takeover, new social media network or online game we are coming one step closer to the exhilarating yet terrifying world described in Neuromancer.

oryx and crakeOryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

One of Margaret Atwood’s other dystopian novels The Handmaid’s Tale has finally arrived on our TV screens, hooray! Lots of people have drawn comparisons between the book and modern events. The Guardian wrote an interesting article about how feminist science fiction has predicted the future which talks about Handmaid’s Tale amongst other important books.

signed oryx and crakeHowever, I am going to talk about my favourite Margaret Atwood book, Oryx and Crake. I am always re-reading this novel and I was lucky to get my copy signed when she visited the Ilkley Literature Festival a few years ago.

It describes a world, where humanity has become nearly extinct due to a mysterious plague, before which powerful corporations have performed increasingly extreme genetic experiments, the rich barricade themselves within gated communities, business is conducted through hacking and espionage and the environment remains an afterthought which has disastrous consequences.

Atwood has said that ‘For MaddAddam, [the series which Oryx and Crake is part of] I relied on initiatives that were already under way or contemplated, or that–given the other breakthroughs being made–could actually be done. Biotech is not only a game changer, but potentially a planet changer as well.’

And since the publication of the trilogy some of the stranger ideas have become a reality. The highly intelligent genetically engineered pigs called ‘pigoons’ who roam the post-apocalyptic earth were originally designed to grow bespoke organs for humans. Although this sounds far-fetched scientists in the US announced in June last year that they were attempting to grow human organs in pigs with the intention to transplant them into people (initial trials looking to do this were halted in the 1990s amidst fears of pig viruses infecting humans but modern science has eliminated this possibility).

Of course other topics covered in the book like species extinction and fears around the environment are increasingly relevant today and Atwood’s book serves as a warning about possible threats to the planet.

As a final note, I thought it was more than a coincidence that this article about Margaret Atwood’s call to defend libraries, popped up on my twitter feed, whilst I was writing this post. In it Atwood says

‘There are an infinite variety of tyrannies and dystopias, but they all share one trait: the ferocious opposition to free thought, open minds and access to information…This is why the library matters so much. It is a democratizing and liberating force like none other…It is a place for minds to meet minds and hearts to move hearts’.

I thought this was a fantastic statement and amazing to think that every time we go to a library, learn something new or do something creative and individual we are doing our bit to ensure the horrible futures depicted in some futuristic fiction don’t ever come true.