It’s World Book Day, and I couldn’t bear the idea of letting it go by unremarked. In doing so I am taking up a position quite contrary to the schools I went to, who did not do anything to mark the occasion. True, every so often you would be handed out a bookmark, but this would inevitably (for me at least) be lost before the day was out and hardly constitutes a celebration of the great and the good of literature.
Schools now seem to make a hullabaloo of having children dress up and taking part in quizzes, the value of which in promoting reading I suspect is debatable. More importantly, they give them vouchers for money off books (only £1 admittedly), and this seems to me to be one the best thing they can do.
Now, I am not such a curmudgeon as to completely deride these celebrations. However, I can’t help but think that all these festivities may engender is a continued celebration of the same children’s books – Harry Potters, Roald Dahl and David Walliams; Good these may be, but not for all. For years I was put off reading by continually being advised to read certain books that were deemed appropriate for me (usually Jacqueline Wilson, who I will never like), but failed to capture my interest. What I think (and hope it does do) World Book Day is expose children to a greater variety of literature than they ever have before, even to books that are seen as ‘being for grown-ups’, and I mean that in the most innocent way.
I’ve seen so many well-intentioned, but predictable, lists of ‘the best books’ that I’ve had to change what I was going to write. I’ve decided to write about the books I wish I had known about, and been recommended to read earlier in life. The flavour of all of these seems to be ‘coming of age’, and perhaps that is not surprising. I think literature is at its best when it is both an escape and a reflection of the messiness of life.
I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith
‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.’ One of the most famous opening lines in fiction, but I was miserably unaware of this until I picked the book up in my late teens. The said writer is Cassandra Mortmain, a seventeen-year old aspiring author, who lives in increasing un-genteel poverty in a ramshackle castle with her eccentric and penniless family. As a means to hone her writing skills, Cassandra duly notes down in sharp and hilarious detail the eccentricities of her family and home. By the time she pens her last entry, six months and three diaries later, she has both captured the castle and the agonies of first love in gut-wrenching detail.
A Testament of Youth – Vera Brittain
I had heard of Vera Brittian, but it took me awhile to get around to her seminal work because I’d been confusing her with Vera Lynn. Fortunately, this misunderstanding with remedied by the time I actually bought the book, which may otherwise have come as rather a shock. A Testament of Youth recounts the experiences of Vera Brittian (tireless pacifism campaigner, not the forces’ sweetheart) during the First World War. The narrative begins with her working to gain entry to the University of Oxford, and her unfurling romance with Roland Leighton. The war comes, and brings nothing but tragedy for both these endeavours, leading her to become a VAD nurse.
A Room of One’s Own – Virginia Woolf
Formed within the courts and quads of Oxbridge and all the rooms in between, A Room of One’s Own is often described as a mere essay, or something that emerged from a series of lectures at Newnham and Girton. A Room of One’s Own – with its empathetic assertion that ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’ – is much more than this: it is an empathetic cry for the vindication of women and writing. This essay captures Woolf at the height of her skills as a writer. Her clear evocation of her observations and arguments has the rare effect of making the extortion of placing pen to paper liberating. While Smith and Brittain may guide you through your youthful agonies, Virginia Woolf provides you with something more precious: the right to your own individual and equal voice.
Image: Stewart Butterfield/Flickr (all creative commons)
Originally published 3rd March, 2016