Life constantly serves to remind me that I’m nowhere near as clever as I’d like to be. Or, if I’m more frank, I’m nowhere near as clever as other people. And this gets to me.
Because of this, when selecting books to read, I try to avoid ‘pop-fiction’ at all costs. In fact, when I think back to the most recent item of ‘pop-fiction’ I did read (Gone Girl), I do so with an acute sense of self-loathing.
I totally accept that my approach to reading is not for everybody; for some people, like when I watch cartoons or football or people, reading is a way to switch off. That’s fine. For me however, as an English teacher plagued with self-doubt, it’s absolutely imperative that I read books which make me feel smarter. It’s vanity in its purest sense but as far as I’m concerned, the upshot is that I may become a better teacher because of it. For me, the reading I do in my spare time is the greatest form of CPD.
I don’t know who tweeted it this summer, but someone wrote something along the lines of, ‘Okay, so you’ve had your amazing CPD session. Now what?’ With this in mind, I thought I’d tell you what I do with my CPD. That is, I want to tell you how I ensure that I glean something from the high-piled books that, alongside the coffee-rings and the coppers, adorn my bedside table like frayed skyscrapers.
Since the last day of the Summer term I have read the following, in this order:
- How Fiction Works, James Wood
- Other Voices, Other Rooms, Truman Capote
- Rabbit, Run John Updike
- East of Eden, John Steinbeck
- Stoner, John Edward Williams
And this is what, once the last page has been turned and the book consigned to the shelf, I do with these books, in an effort to make me a better man and a better teacher.
How Fiction Works, James Wood
As I read this book, I took an iPhone note on two things that really struck me. These were:
- Free Indirect Style
- Metaphors that separate but then connect.
The free indirect style, for those who don’t know, is that subtle blending of authorial voice with that of the character. So the reader is at once, both reassured by the author’s presence, but also allowed insight into the protagonist’s perception of the world as they see it. Wood’s examples will help to elucidate this concept:
An author may write, ‘Ted watched the Orchestra through tears.’ Or, an author may write, ‘Ted watched the Orchestra through stupid tears.’ As Wood states:
The addition of the word ‘stupid’ raises the question: whose word is this? It’s unlikely that I would want to call my character stupid merely for listening to some music in a concert hall. No, in a marvellously alchemical transfer, the word now partly belongs to Ted…What is so useful about free indirect style is that in our example a word like ‘stupid’ somehow belongs both to the author and the character…Thanks to free indirect style we can see things through the character’s eyes and language, but also through the author’s eyes and language too.
This was revolutionary for me. As soon as I’d finished the book, without referring back to Wood’s explanation, I got on Twitter and discussed Free Indirect Style, as I remembered it, with other people. I gave examples and I tried my damnedest to explain it to people who knew nothing about it, in just 140 characters. Also, in every book I’ve read since How Fiction Works I’ve searched for-and underlined- examples of this style. And now, I want to lead some CPD on it, with a view that my department and I can discuss how to teach this complex but effective style to students for use in their own writing. I finished this book 6 weeks ago and it’s still with me. I’m still using it.
Other Voices, Other Rooms, Truman Capote.
A student bought me this book as a leaving present and I’ve wanted to thank him for it since I finished it 5 weeks ago. However, I made a conscious decision to let it lie and mull it over. I want to think about the book, let it linger, toss it over in my mind and then put my jumbled thoughts down onto paper (screen). I’ve decided I’m going to email the giver of this book and, because the student is very bright, I’m going to write him a particularly florid email that examines the book in some depth. I can deal with the florid style (thanks to many years spent reading Keats’ letters) but discussing the book intelligently, in a way that doesn’t simply resort to base opinions will be slightly more difficult. So, to achieve this, I’m going to have to think about the book. I’m going to have to revisit certain passages, and I’m going to have to form an opinion or an evaluation that is based on sound evidence from the text and also my awareness of American Literature-and Capote’s work- more widely. As a teacher, I should be practicing this skill anyway. Reading this book and sending this email enables me to do so in a way that benefits the student who gave me the book as well as myself: I’ll enjoy the task I’ve outlined above, and, hopefully, the student-who is far brighter than most his age- will enjoy the discourse.
Rabbit, Run, John Updike.
Rabbit, Run will henceforth provide the benchmark for how sentences should be written: with absolute beauty and with absolute precision. It’s remarkable. As I focus, more deeply, on ‘Constructing Beautiful Sentences’ with students, it is this book, alongside very few others, that will provide me with the perfect sentences students need exposure to in order to create their own. Look at this:
The flowerbeds, bordered with bricks buried diagonally, are pierced by dull red spikes that will be peonies. and the earth itself, scumbled, stone-flecked, horny, raggedly patched with damp and dry, looks like the oldest and smells like the newest thing under heaven.
This is one of the greatest sentences ever written. Never mind, the expert use of plosive alliteration to convey a sense of nature’s robust strength; never mind the use of the adjective ‘scumbled’, so evocative, in spite of its lack of any meaning that I can discern. It’s that last bit. ‘The earth…looks like the oldest and smells like the newest thing under heaven.’ Has anything so true ever been written, so succinctly and so beautifully? It’s Updike’s ability to convey that which we all know, but have never thought of that is so compelling here. Wood, author of How Fiction Works refers to this phenomena (as I understand it) as ‘thisness’. There’s so much ‘thisness’ in this sentence and students need to see it.
East of Eden, John Steinbeck.
All of a sudden, Steinbeck became three-dimensional.Whilst I think Of Mice and Men is brilliant, as I’ve got older, I’ve resented its simplicity. Reading East of Eden, Of Mice and Men’s biggest strength has made itself blindingly clear: its simplicity. East of Eden is, at times, clumsy in its convolution; distracting in its depth. Analysing Of Mice and Men from a narrative and structural viewpoint will be all the more easier now I have something to compare it to, from the same author. I think that’s important.
I must also say that up to this point, in spite of my Church of England primary education, the Cain and Abel story has passed me by. I know it now, and I will make reference to it in the future. Just to sound clever.
Stoner, John Edward Williams.
Whilst many have championed this book, having recently finished Rabbit, Run I was struck by the total lack of lyricism in this novel. There is a beauty in its bleakness but it lacks the poetry I love in Updike’s prose. And yet. That’s not to say I’ve not gained anything from this CPD. Edward Williams uses the word ‘perfunctory’ seven times in this novel. Which, although annoying, has been useful. I now know what it means and I will teach it to kids. They can use it and so will I.
So, you’ve read it. Now what?