52 books in a year challenge
“There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.”
– Joseph Brodsky
Having taught the wonderful subject of English for five years, I realised with a cold shudder at the start of this year that my own reading was hopelessly under nourished. Yes I had devoured the set texts (repeatedly!) but lost in a maze of red pen and accountability I was not prioritising time for one of the main reasons I entered teaching: to share a love for literature. How could I endlessly berate and cajole innocent teenagers into reading when I was not doing it myself?
Reading ‘The Year of Reading Dangerously’ by Andy Miller in the first week of January this year jolted me into action and set in stone a mission: read 52 books in 2016. The aim (while also avoiding divorce from my conversation starved wife) would also be to share with as many students as possible, to try to encourage more reading for pleasure. The books have been chosen utterly sporadically as I pick them up on a whim (who knows what psychological insights this list might reveal about me, please try to reserve judgement!) So far I have read the following:
Week one: ‘The Year of Reading Dangerously’ by Andy Miller. An entertaining non-fiction account of an ambition to complete a ‘List of Betterment’, fifty books in one year. Being of the competitive type I decided to go two better.
Week two: ‘Waterloo’ by Bernard Cornwell. A detailed and engaging depiction of the battle of Waterloo on the 18th June 1815, the rivalry between Napoleon and Wellington is particularly interesting.
Week three: ‘A Pale view of the Hills’ by Kazoo Ishiguro. A tense and dramatic novel about a widow who is seeking to come to terms with her daughter’s suicide and the impact of the war on Japan.
Week four: ‘The Children Act’ by Ian McEwan. A taunt psychological thriller exploring the blurring of a high court judge’s private and professional existence, McEwan on top form.
Week five: ‘The Virgin Suicides’ by Jeffrey Eugenides. An absorbing and dramatic account about the five Lisbon sisters who enter into a violent suicide pact. Disturbing!
Week six: ‘To Move the World: JFK’s quest for peace’ by Jeffrey D Sachs. An account of the tense and pivotal years of the Cold War between 1961-1963 and the power of the charismatic figure of John F Kennedy.
Week seven: ‘The Mind Management’ by Steve Peters. Interesting non-fiction text about the functioning of the mind and emotions. Apparently the mind is split into two halves: the human and the chimp. Apparently.
Week eight: ‘The Woman in Black’ Stephen Mallatratt. Might be a slightly sneaky entry, a play that is all presented on stage by two actors, entertaining stuff!
Week nine: ‘Funny Girl’ by Nick Hornby. Another addictive comedy from Hornby, exploring the life of Barbara who moves to London with the aim of becoming a star. Entertaining!
Week ten: ‘Election Notebook’ by Nick Robinson. Fascinating account of a year in the life of the BBC political correspondent as he seeks to cover the general election and overcome his own battle with throat cancer.
Week eleven: ‘Emotional Intelligence’ by Daniel Goleman. Interesting focus on the importance of emotional intelligence and its significance over IQ. Very interesting reading for teachers.
Week twelve: ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens. Dickens in smashing form in this classic morality tale. Just need to work out now how best to teach it!
Week thirteen: ‘More Notes on a Small Island’ by Bill Bryson. Bryson sounding a little weary and belligerent in his latest trot around Britain, a tad disappointing!
Week fourteen: ‘Centuries of change’ by Ian Mortimer. A whirlwind tour of the progress of humanity from the tenth century to the present, an enlightening but challenging read.
Week fifteen: ‘Men from the Boys’ by Tony Parsons. Classic Parsons: a light-hearted exploration of relationships and the many foibles of masculinity!
Week sixteen: ‘Jack’ by A.A. Holmes. An impressive novel given that Holmes was only nineteen when it was published, a ‘Catcher in the Rye’ style exploration of adolescence.
Week seventeen: ‘Deep South’ by Paul Theroux. First Theroux text I have read, a hugely informative account of a two year obsession with discovering the reality of the southern states of America.
Week eighteen: ‘A room of One’s Own’ by Virginia Woolf. Woolf’s classic essay on the role of women both as writers and of characters in fiction.
Week nineteen: ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ by Muriel Spark. One of Scotland’s most famous literary creations. This is Spark at her very best: a profound meditation on education, memory and truth.
Week twenty: ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ by Carlos Ruiz Zafron. A hugely addictive thriller that revolves around the life of Daniel, who picks up a book that opens a world of mystery for him (a good one to share with students, lots about the value of reading).
Week twenty one: ‘A spool of Blue Thread’ by Anne Tyler. A hugely absorbing and humorous narrative that beautifully captures the trials and tribulations of family life through the eccentric eyes of the Whitshanks.
Week twenty two: ‘The Great Gatsby’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald. A novel I have re-read many, many times but never looses its emotional intensity, an absolute masterpiece.
Week twenty three: ‘The Consolations of Philosophy’ by Alain de Botton. Traces the lives of some of the most famous philosophers and what we can apply and learn from them, much more light-hearted and engaging than it sounds!
Week twenty four: ‘Stoner’ by John Williams. Another re-read and another reminder why this is my favourite novel: a beautiful, poignant masterpiece about the life of William Stoner and what it means to be human.
Week twenty five: ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ by R.L Stevenson. Ashamed to admit I had never read this, an enthralling and mysterious account of the dangers of science.
Week twenty six: ‘This much I know about Love over Fear’ by John Tomsett. Tomsett’s blog provides me with much needed nourishment of the soul regularly; always witty, generous and humane and this inspirational focus on what happens in the classroom managed to somehow further increase my respect for him!
Week twenty seven: ‘Gratitude’ by Oliver Sacks’. It will be impossible to find anything as beautiful or uplifting as this this year, profoundly moving meditations about his life as he faces cancer.
Week twenty eight: ‘High Challenge, Low Threat, by Mary Myatt. Another teaching book that does not have quite the style or aplomb of Tomsett but is a beacon of wisdom and guidance nevertheless.
Week twenty nine: ‘Grief is the Thing with Feathers’ by Max Porter. Utterly bizarre yet captivating novel, involving a father, Ted Hughes, a giant speaking crow and the grieving process.
Week thirty: ‘No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’ by Doris Kearns Goodwin. One of my favourite historians, author of the masterful ‘Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Lincoln’, strikes again with this fascinating account of the political and private lives of the Roosevelts during World War Two.
Week thirty one: ‘Olive Kitteridge’ Elizabeth Strout. Utterly wonderful, extraordinary empathetic collection of short stories centred around the forceful figure of retired school teacher Olive Kitteridge, please read it!
Week thirty two: ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ by Arthur Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle at his very best with the enigmatic Holmes seeking to solve the mystery of the death of Sir Charles Baskerville.
Week thirty three: ‘Invictus’ by John Carlin. A fascinating account of how one of my heroes, Nelson Mandela, used the 1995 South African Rugby World cup to inspire unity and change. Remarkable insight into the power of leadership and the power of sport.
Week thirty four: ‘Brave New World’ by Aldous Huxley. Dark depiction of a dystopian world in which the ‘World Controllers’ suppress the population through conditioning and soma. Written in 1932 and resonates powerfully on numerous levels today.
Week thirty five: ‘The Crack up and other Pieces’ by F.Scott Fitzgerald. The first half of this is autobiographical work, fascinating and nostalgic essays on the impact of the jazz age. The second half is some of Fitzgerald’s short stories, with love and materialism again dominating.
Week thirty six: ‘The Sense of an Ending’ Julian Barnes. Fascinating novel about the nature of memory and the impact of the choices we make. Tony Webster is a intriguing narrative voice, this builds to a series of dark revelations.
Week thirty seven: ‘Symposium’ by Muriel Spark. Dark exploration of the upper classes, enjoyed the second Spark novel of the year!
Week thirty eight: ‘A Single Man’ by Christopher Isherwood. Beautiful novel, explores the nature of grief and coping with loss.
Week thirty nine: ‘Turn of the Screw’ by Henry James. Very dark, creepy and unsettling! Not to be read deep into the night!
Week forty: ‘The Last Act of Love’ by Cathy Retzenbrink: Without doubt the most poignant and emotional of the year so far. Retzenbrink’s brother was hit by a car at the age of sixteen and the novel documents the eight years he spent in a coma and what was left behind after his death. Profoundly moving.
Week forty one: ‘The Sweetness of Life’ by Francoise Heritor: A lovely and life affirming novel about the things that should be recognised and appreciated in life. All one long list!
Week forty two: ‘Daring Greatly’ by Brene Brown: All about the power and importance of vulnerability; this certainly made me reflect on both the professional aspects and the personal.
Week forty three: ‘Why be happy when you could be normal?’ by Jeanette Winterson: Wonderful memoir, deeply moving. So much of it is about the value of reading; how it offers hope and salvation in despair.
Week forty four: ‘Pies and Prejudice’ by Stuart Maconie: Without doubt the funniest read of the year: a tour around the North of England with the hilarious Maconie as a delightful tour guide!
Week forty five: ‘A Winter’s Bone’ by Daniel Woodrell: A violent and gripping novel about a young girl trying to find her father in crime ridden . Very dark and atmospheric.
Week forty six: ‘1984’ by George Orwell. A terrifying , shocking and captivating read on a terrifying week politically: Trump elected as the American president. Essential reading.
Week forty seven: ‘Dreams from my father’ by Barack Obama. Inspiring stuff, has suitably fed the Obama obsession and the Trump depression! Powerful tale of Obama discovering his identity.
Week forty eight: ‘Mortality’ by Christopher Hitchens. Fascinating collection of essays from this wonderful writer as he struggles with the cancer diagnosis that took his life.
Week forty nine: ‘Letters from a Stoic’ by Seneca: First of a binge on Stoical philosophy, fascinating collection of letters. Full of wisdom!
Week fifty: ‘Meditations’ by Marcus Aurelius. Always a pleasure to come back to this and read again! Lots of inspirational nuggets for a tired mind.
Week fifty one: ‘Discourses, fragments, handbook’ by Epictetus. The final Stoic collection, fascinating reading!
Week fifty two: ‘Hopeful Schools’ by Mary Myatt. Such an inspiring place to end: humane, thoughtful and full of wisdom. If you need motivation at the end of the school year this will certainly provide it!
Week fifty three: ‘Born to Run’ by Bruce Springsteen. A rollicking account of the the career of the Boss, dramatic, intense and well worth reading!
Week fifty four: ‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell. A fascinating read about some of the unspoken reasons why people are successful: it is not just chance!
Week fifty five: ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ by J.D Vance. A brilliant memoir to end the year of reading with: presents the reality of white working class America and why Trump has managed to win over the American people. Very much recommended.