I am almost at the end of my first year as a PhD student, and yet I feel like my main gain over the last 12 months is a reoccurring revelation of just how little I know, how much I want to know, and how unlikely I am ever to get the upper hand in it all. And every time I get to my conclusion it feels a little surprising, and in all honesty, disappointing. But there we go.
I already know that one highlight of 2015 will be commencing supervision by Francis Spufford, the author of Unapologetic and The Child That Books Built. The first title is the reason I decided to take the offer of acceptance by Goldsmiths University, the second is the reason I’m feeling the need to read as much as I can this year. I fear I am The Adult That Needs Some Bookish Renovation Work.
Ever the optimist, I have made a list of resolutions for 2015, and on that list is the challenge of embarking on a TEN YEAR reading list. I will never understand everything I want to understand, but that is no reason not to try.
One of my tentative goals for this year was going to be, “get published as much as possible”. As a writer who would love to teach at university level again one day a PhD is helpful, but a decent publishing record is non-negotiable. So far my record consists mostly of journalism and children’s books – nothing to turn my nose up at, but I’ve yet to crack the Creative Writing world as such. I will get to that one day, maybe in 2016, but the point is I’ve decided not to pursue publishing this year. This year I just want to read and write. That will be more than enough. Well, that and kids and job.
On with the Challenge:
I have never considered myself well read. When people drop quotes or references from books, even the classics, I rarely know what they are talking about. This became very clear to me when I did my Masters – a room full of writers is inevitably a room full of readers. Avid readers. The kind who devour books in single sittings. The kind who turn to books rather than alcohol, drugs, exercise, food or any of the other usual vices. The kind to which my supervisor belongs.
I myself have never claimed to be a book worm. In school when we would embark on Read-a-thons for charity I always set myself modest goals that I never managed to reach. I am a slow reader. A test I took via Facebook, the ever-reliable source of truth, tells me I read at the pace of a third-grader. As a brit I don’t actually know how old that is, but I assume it is a primary school-aged child rather than a close-to-completing-post-graduated-education adult. There’s a reason for this – I’m dyslexic. I was tested by a university professor friend of my university professor Dad when I was a child and found to be legitimately dyslexic. My Dad chose not to tell me until after I graduated with my Undergrad. His reasoning was that I seemed to be doing fine without the extra time-allotment in exams, and he believed I was likely to use my dyslexia to excuse myself from trying my best in certain areas. He was right and I thank him for his wisdom.
The upside of my slow reading pace is that I read deeply. I remember a lot of what I read. As I continue to pursue life with a make-lemonade attitude I have decided that it is probably more helpful to read fewer books and retain some of the ideas than to read large quantities and forget it all. All power to the readers who read lots and retain lots. I aspire to be you.
I write because it helps me get closer to understanding things. I also write because I want to take part in the Great Conversation that is Literature – art of words. I know that Literature is known as “The Great Conversation”, an exchange between history’s authors, but man oh man did I struggle to find a decent reference for this term of phrase when it was time to write about it in my Masters thesis. I wrote on regardless, and was happy with the end product, but it wasn’t until mid-2014, when I moved into my family’s house in Oxford that I came across the treasure trove I didn’t even realise I was looking for.
My Dad past away six years ago. He had a colossal collection of books. Most of these were given to Hong Kong University – there is an Anthony Sweeting Collection in one of their libraries. But some of his books, the ones he had moved to/bought in Oxford are still here. They were safely tucked away until recently. They are mostly non-academic reads – stunningly beautiful Folio Society hardback collectors items, and…drum roll… a set called Great Books. This is a 60-volume collection of what a group of highly-qualified experts has deemed the most important books in history, western history that is. The set comes with an introductory book entitled The Great Conversation. It took me about two months to read this.
So, right here in the home of my childhood summers, left by my seemingly all-knowing, all-loving and providing father is a copy of every important book in western history. All I need to do is crack them open.
So that’s what I’m doing. I have completed my first read in Jacinta record time – Plato’s Apology in two sittings. My new year’s resolutions are off to a strong start (I’ve also gone to bed at 10pm and exercised two days in a row – give it up people).
I intend to write reflections on each completed piece, but I’m still deciding whether or not to inflict them on my blog readers. I will say of Apology though, the wisdom of Socrates is all about knowing he doesn’t know, and having no desire to join the ranks of those who kid themselves into thinking they do know something about lots of things when really, they may, at best, only know something about one or two things.
So, there we are. I’m humbled and encouraged and ready to roll!