Wednesday, 30 July 2014

8 Books for Every Bookworm to Have in Their (Miniature) Library

The Creative Habit as a must-have bookMy book collection has invaded every room of my house and continues to grow at an alarming rate. This, I reassure myself, is all part of a bookworm's life.

As a dedicated bookworm, here are 8 of the books from my 'library' which I'm most protective over. They travel with me to and from university, and they're always being picked up and recommended to others. For me, they're the must-own books for every booklover.

As a fellow booklover, which books would you add or remove from the list?

1. The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp

This is my go-to provider of inspiration and creative wisdom. It's a superb guide to turn to for all sorts of projects, dreams and budding ideas.

2. A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul by Leo Tolstoy

If you want to learn from Leo Tolstoy, both in following his wisdom and avoiding his (many) mistakes, you simply must have this book. It's full of philosophy and brilliant quotes to help you get through the day and improve your wider life.

3. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare

This one is self-explanatory, really. I haven't read all of Shakespeare's work, but I'm certainly planning on it. One of my favourite aspects of doing an English degree is all the exposure to Shakespeare, but I'm looking forward to some exploration of my own too.

A Calendar of Wisdom by Leo Tolstoy as a book we all should own

The Elements of Style, illustrated

4. The Elements of Style by Shrunk and White

This is a bible for writers, and I love the illustrated edition by Penguin.

5. On Writing by Stephen King 

Stephen King must be one of the most respected writers of our time. As readers (and perhaps writers) we're so lucky to have this book of literary guidance from the man himself.

6. The Collected Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 

When I'm on a roll with my writing and work, I think about Sherlock Holmes's brilliant deductions. Everything is going smoothly and I'm feeling so productive. The next day, when I'm too burnt out to do anything but watch Prison Break, I think of Holmes's days spent in his armchair (and then remind myself about mania and how I really must prevent it).

For me, there's a lot to learn from Holmes and Watson. And, of course, it's also one of the best collections in fiction.

7. Penguin's Poems for Life by Laura Barber 

I think we should all have a great poetry anthology to console us on dreary days and help us remember the good times. The Penguin Poems for Life is one of my favourites, but I also like The 20th Century in Poetry by Ebury Press.

8. The Penguin New Dictionary of Quotations

I received this anthology of quotations a few years ago for Christmas from my grandmother, and I've mentioned it several times on the blog. There's something magical about having so much wisdom, humour and inspiration in one book.

Do you think I've missed anything? Alternatively, do you share my appreciation for any of these books? Let me know in the comments!

The New Penguin Dictionary of Quotations for all of our libraries

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Thursday, 24 July 2014

Books or Marriage? The Dilemma of Charles Darwin in 1838

 My God, it is intolerable to think of spending one's whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working and nothing after all.—
Darwin in 1854, aged 45, then working towards 
publishing On the Origin of Species

It's July 1838, and Charles Darwin has just returned from a break in Scotland to remedy his overwork. Upon opening one his trademark notebooks, we might think he's about to jot down some thoughts on animal breeding or geological variation. However, he instead divides a piece of paper into two, before writing the following headings: "Marry" and "Not Marry".

Choosing whether or not to marry Emma Wedgwood, granddaughter of potter Josiah Wedgwood, turns out to be a serious business. However, Emma's personal qualities seem to be the least of Darwin's worries (except that she's "better than a dog anyhow"), especially when the prospect of "less money for books" must be considered.

Charles Darwin's list of the pros and cons of marriage


Children—(if it please God)— constant companion, (friend in old age) who will feel interested in one, object to be beloved and played with—better than a dog anyhow—Home, and someone to take care of house—Charms of music and female chit-chat. These things good for one's health. Forced to visit and receive relations but terrible loss of time.

My God, it is intolerable to think of spending one's whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working and nothing after all.—
No, no won't do.—
Imagine living all one's day solitarily in smoky dirty London House.—Only picture to yourself a nice soft wife on a sofa with good fire, and books and music perhaps—compare this vision with the dingy reality of Grt Marlboro' St.

Not Marry

What is the use of working without sympathy from near and dear friends—who are near and dear friends to the old except relatives.
Freedom to go where one liked
—Choice of Society and little of it. Conversation of clever men at clubs.—
Not forced to visit relatives, and to bend in every trifle—to have the expense and anxiety of children—perhaps quarrelling.
Loss of time—cannot read in the evenings—fatness and idleness —anxiety and responsibility—
less money for books etc—if many children forced to gain one's bread.—(But then it is very bad for one's health to work too much)
Perhaps my wife won't like London; then the sentence is banishment and degradation with indolent idle fool—

Marry—Marry—Marry Q.E.D.

HMS Beagle, by Conrad Martens

So, books or marriage?

On the advice of his father, Darwin went to visit Emma on 29 July. He did not get around to proposing, but mentioned his ideas on transmutation (against his wise father's advice).

With marriage now on hold, at least for the moment, Darwin immersed himself in reading. This, it turns out, had a favourable outcome, as Darwin soon came across Thomas Malthus's An Essay on the Principle of Population. 

Shortly afterwards came his theory of natural selection. However, in January 1839, so too did marriage. In the end, it seemed that Darwin could enjoy both books and marriage, although in this case maybe books did come first - by a very small margin.

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Saturday, 19 July 2014

'Give War and Peace a Chance' This Summer with Andrew D. Kaufman

My copy of Give War and Peace a Chance,
before it was covered in Post-it notes.
If there were any book I'd be desperate to read,  it would involve the life lessons we can gain from Leo Tolstoy and War and Peace. This explains why I was so excited to receive a copy of Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times by likeminded Andrew D. Kaufman in the post this week.

My goal of reading Tolstoy every August is coming round fast, and I have to say this has made for some ideal pre-reading.

Kaufman, a Russian scholar, successfully makes War and Peace appear what to many seems impossible: fun. In an early chapter Kaufman recalls one of his friends exclaiming "Tolstoy's funny!", and this anecdote seems to have had a central role in the crafting of Give War and Peace a Chance.

For instance, here's Kaufman's account of one of Tolstoy's most complex moments, with the deep depression of losing his childhood home through gambling followed by a moment of sublime enlightenment:

There he is, in the middle of a nondescript gravel pathway deep in some godforsaken village in the Crimea, and instead of cutting his own throat, as he knows he deserves, Tolstoy contemplates starting his own religion. Of course, founding a new faith takes a while, and in the meantime he continued gambling, sleeping with random Asiatic beauties, and waking up with hangovers at noon.

It's a light, refreshing take on classic Russian literature, and Kaufman isn't afraid to laugh at himself and his less fortunate experiences. As a result, the book has a welcome personal side to it too. Overall, I have to say that this is the book I've been waiting for on Tolstoy's War and Peace.

Kaufman has done a marvellous job of conveying the sense of life, wonder and beauty of War and Peace, and I think both Tolstoy fans and unfamiliar readers would do well to give it a go. It's also given me so many ideas for articles here on the blog, so keep tuned for those!

Like Cézanne, who is said to have painted an apple in such a way that it seemed as though you were looking at it for the very first time, Tolstoy portrays life with an almost disconcerting truthfulness. Indeed, War and Peace thrusts readers raised on more polished literary fare out of their familiar paradigms and into a brave new fictional world, which, for all its strangeness, somehow starts to feel more "real" than reality itself.

Give War and Peace a Chance, Andrew D. Kaufman

Click here to see some of the posts I've enjoyed writing on Tolstoy and the influence he's had on my own life, especially when it comes to my perfectionism, shyness and anxiety.

Recently I also wrote on the main life lessons I've gained from reading Tolstoy's major works.

Has Tolstoy affected your life too? Don't hesitate to share your story in the comments or send me a message!

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Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Idea of 'Flow' & How We Can Create it by Reading Great Fiction

Flow: The Psychology of Optimum Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Flow: a brilliant book which reminds
us to get reading great fiction.
I've noticed that Flow: The Psychology of Optimum Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has been mentioned in so many books I've been reading lately. Lisa Zunshine's Why We Read Fiction is the first example which comes to mind, but I know there are many other instances. Flow has become a landmark text as well as a bestseller, and I think it's deserved.

If you haven't read Flow, it outlines Csikszentmihalyi's theory that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow— a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. Essentially it's mindfulness, but it's also a bit like 'being in the zone', or being so engrossed in an activity that you seem oblivious to what's going on around you.

Doing something 'just because' - rather than for external reasons of money or prestige, for example - is classed by Csikszentmihalyi as an 'autotelic' experience. I get this feeling when I'm writing or doing something creative, such as when I'm making handmade cards or designing something like the graph below.

The graph tries to convey Csikszentmihalyi's idea of flow in the simplest way possible. You can see that on one side of the diagram there's panic and anxiety: we want to avoid these when seeking flow. Alternatively, we don't want to creep onto the other side of the spectrum and experience boredom.

Right in the centre is where we want to be, enjoying a degree of challenge that just about stretches our existing skills but doesn't leave us feeling overwhelmed or under-qualified for the task.

Defining flow visually: finding a degree of challenge which runs parallel to our skills and confidence

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi flow diagram graph
A diagram of Csikszentmihalyi's concept of flow, showing how we should find the optimum balance
 between our skills and confidence and the task's degree of challenge.

When do you feel 'flow'? What about when reading a good book?

As you're reading my blog, perhaps you also experience flow when reading a good book. After a bit of consideration, maybe reading fiction is a great source of flow because:

How can you create 'flow' in your own life this week? What about picking up a great book that you've been waiting to read?

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Thursday, 10 July 2014

18 of The Best Feel-Good Classic Novels (Mood-Boosting Summer Reading, Part II)

I really enjoyed compiling my list of feel-good novels to enjoy reading this summer, and it got me thinking about mood-boosting classic literature.

Perhaps 'classic literature' is a little hard to define, but hopefully these suggestions will help prove that mood-boosting books don't need to be modern and recently published. Even those books that frequently feature on school syllabuses can bring a smile, I believe!

Some novels in my original feel-good list fit this category of classic novels - the brilliant Three Men in a Boat as one, another being All Creatures Great and Small  - but here are a few more favourites.

1. The Importance of Being Earnest - Oscar Wilde

2. Robinson Crusoe - Daniel Defoe

3. Lucky Jim - Kingsley Amis

4. The Chronicles of Narnia - C.S. Lewis

5. A Midsummer Night's Dream - William Shakespeare

6. Cider with Rosie - Laurie Lee

7. Agnes Grey - Anne Brontë

8. The Enchanted April - Elizabeth von Arnim

9. Franny and Zooey - J.D. Salinger

10. The Giving Tree - Shel Silverstein

11. I Capture the Castle - Dodie Smith

12. Pnin - Vladimir Nabokov

13. Right Ho, Jeeves - P.G. Wodehouse

14. To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee

15. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - F. Scott Fitzgerald

16. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain

17. The Pickwick Papers - Charles Dickens

18. Anne of Green Gables - L.M. Montgomery

Finally, 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff is another brilliant book to add - thank you to Eleanor, one of the wonderful readers of the blog, for reminding me of it in the first feel-good books post!

Which books do you think are missing?

The prospect Smiler was a manic farmer. Few men I think can have been as unfortunate as he; for on the one hand he was a melancholic with a loathing for mankind, on the other, some paralysis had twisted his mouth into a permanent and radiant smile. So everyone he met, being warmed by his smile, would shout him a happy greeting. And beaming upon them with his sunny face he would curse them all to hell.

― Cider With Rosie, Laurie Lee

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Friday, 4 July 2014

James Joyce's Daughter and the Possible Influence of Her Schizophrenia on Finnegans Wake

Paris, 1929: Lucia Joyce dances at Bullier Ball.
Lucia Joyce, born 1907 to James Joyce and Nora Barnacle, learned Italian as her first language, studied ballet as a teenager, and was believed to have casually dated Samuel Beckett. However, after being diagnosed with schizophrenia in Zurich, Lucia was sent to an institute in Ivry-sur-Seine, France, in 1935 and in 1951 to St Andrew's Hospital in Northampton, where she died at the age of 75.

In Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake (2003), Carol Schloss demonstrates her opinion that Lucia had been her father's muse for Finnegans Wake, the sprawling, experimental work which may well be classed equally as masterpiece and ridiculously challenging.

Lucia's health deteriorated during the seventeen years which Joyce spent writing Finnegans Wake, and for this reason I find it difficult to believe that it didn't affect his writing style in some way.  To what extent, however, is something I'm nowhere near sure of.

The question of Lucia as muse also appears in the Poems That Make Grown Men Cry anthology which I've so enjoyed, as part of one of my most favourite selections (in this case by James McManus). Perhaps what makes the extract in this collection so personal and moving is McManus's own tale of his son's mental health, placed alongside Joyce's own family background. 

However, the extract also does a fine job at showing the expansive beauty of Finnegans Wake, as when McManus leads our attention to the final part of the book, in which the speaker is the River Liffey itself on a drizzly morning, speaking of her own 'father':

and weary I go back to you, my cold father, my cold mad father, my cold mad feary father, till the near sight of the mere size of him, the moyles and moyles of it, moananoaning, makes me seasilt saltsick and I rush, my only, into your arms. I see them rising! Save me from those therrble prongs!

A drawing of Joyce from 1922, the year in which Joyce began
 the 17-year task of writing Finnegans Wake, by Djuna Barnes 
Next in McManus's commentary is what he calls 'the eternal-return seam' of Finnegans Wake, which reminds him of Joyce's 'doomed, saltsick efforts' to understand and stay close to his daughter, alongside his own overwhelming desire to 'begin again' with his son. 

We can perhaps consider this while reading the final few lines of the book:

We pass through grass behush the bush to. Whish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thous-endsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given ! A way a lone a last a loved a long the

And all of a sudden the book comes to a close, incomplete until we turn back to the start and the sentence is resumed, causing the full-circle theme of Finnegans Wake, alongside life itself, to become truly clear to us:

riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay...

So, can we call Lucia the muse of Finnegans Wake? I'm not yet sure, but McManus and Schloss are two writers who think so. Moreover, how far does the book narrate Lucia's struggles with mental health?

Over the summer I'd like to fully immerse myself in Finnegans Wake, a classic I've never read from start to finish, and consider this context of Joyce's daughter a little further. I've also been meaning to read the graphic novel Dotter of Her Father's Eyes for the last two years, ever since the hype around its publication in 2012, as a book which partly uses Lucia's life as subject.

Have you read Finnegans Wake? How convinced are you of the link between Lucia Joyce's mental health and the content - and perhaps also style - of the book?

Related material

"Madness and James Joyce", Robert Kaplan (2002)

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Wednesday, 2 July 2014

A List of Books Mentioned in The Secret History by Donna Tartt

In my first article on The Secret History by Donna Tartt, I mentioned how the book not only cultivates a love of learning, but is also full of intertextuality; in other words, mentions of other books and authors. 

Some of my favourite books are in fact 'books about books' - The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Goldfinch, The Silver Linings Playbook - and I thought it could be interesting to explore the books mentioned in a bit more detail. 

When I could no longer concentrate on Greek and the alphabet began to transmute itself into incoherent triangles and pitchforks, I read The Great Gatsby. It is one of my favourite books and I had taken it out of the library in hopes that it would cheer me up; of course, it only made me feel worse, since in my own humorless state I failed to see anything except what I construed as certain tragic similarities between Gatsby and myself.

- Richard on insomnia and The Great Gatsby

Books Mentioned in The Secret History

Poetics by Aristotle
Agamemnon by Aeschylus
Inferno by Dante
The Iliad by Homer
The Bacchae by Euripedes
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot
Paradise Lost by John Milton
The Final Problem by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (alongside other mentions of Sherlock Holmes)
Memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
The Divine Comedy by Dante
The Greeks and the Irrational by E.R. Dodds
The Republic by Plato
The Aeneid by Virgil
The Superman comic
The Upanishads
"With Rue My Heart is Laden" by A.E. Housman
"Lycidas" by John Milton
"The Charge of the Light Brigade" by Lord Alfred Tennyson
"In Flanders Fields" by John McCrae
The New Testament
Anthony Janson's History of Art
"Why so pale and wan fond lover?" by Sir John Suckling
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Treasure Island by Robert Lewis Stevenson
The Revenger's Tragedy by Cyril Tourneur (now attributed to Thomas Middleton)
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
Terence - Andria ("Hinc illae lacrimae, hence those tears)
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

It was I killed the old pawnbroker woman and her sister Lizaveta with an axe and robbed them.

- A random quotation from Crime and Punishment, without citation, in The Secret History

Other Authors Mentioned

John Donne
John Ford
Marcel Proust
Christopher Marlowe
George Orwell
P.G. Wodehouse 
Philip K. Dick
Raymond Chandler
Charles Dickens
Leo Tolstoy

He was pleased, however obscurely, with the aesthetics of the thing..."Like something from Tolstoy, isn't it?" he remarked.

- Henry making a strange, perhaps not entirely accurate, comparison to Tolstoy

Have you read and enjoyed The Secret History by Donna Tartt? Alternatively, what other 'books about books' are favourites of yours?

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