Actually, this title’s a sprat to catch a mackerel: my reading progress appears to have been minimal this month, as you may have noticed from my February posts. I’ve read a couple of kids’ books (one of which was a reread and actually completed in January), a non-fiction history (granted, it’s over 500 pages of smallish print) and a modern take on the Alice books; and I’ve started a couple of classics. That’s still barely one a week.
True, I’ve been involved in other matters, mostly musical — choral singing (a scratch Mozart Requiem as well as a scratch Mahler Resurrection Symphony for example) and piano accompanying — but that shouldn’t really have impinged much on reading time, though it did reduce the time I might’ve dedicated to composing posts.
But, really, what I should be considering is less progress than process.
Because I haven’t just been pondering books I’ve actually completed. The state of the world we’re in and the prevailing mindsets that have been exposed have exercised my mind as much as it has that of fellow bloggers. So, I’ve asked What is Truth? and praised political correctness as a corrective to the open season that seems to have been declared on
hunting victimising. I’ve noted the prescience of Nikola Tesla where technology was concerned but also pointed out where he was over-optimistic when predicting political and sociological change.
But we must nevertheless cultivate optimism if we’re not to fall easy prey to institutionally-sanctioned bullying. Children’s literature often focuses on righting wrongs, as we saw with Erich Kästner’s Emil and the Detectives, written at around the same time as Tesla was peering into the future. And of course Joan Aiken’s The Stolen Lake, on which — in case you hadn’t noticed — I’ve posted at inordinate length, the equally resourceful Dido Twite manages to elude the machinations of a delusional autocrat in their tower and helps effect regime change of a benign kind. If only real life could parallel fiction.
But I should be talking about process. While I have yet to publish many reviews this month (and February’s not over yet) that doesn’t mean I’m not immersed in half-finished books: at present I’m simultaneously reading two classics. One is Jane Austen’s Emma, the last of her novels to be published in her lifetime, at the end of 1815; she died two hundred years ago, and — if perchance you’d missed the fact — the world is gearing up for valedictory celebrations in a few months. Ironic that Emma appeared when Europe had come together to defeat a French dictator when two centuries later that same Europe, if reports are to be believed, is experiencing shocks that may well tear it apart after a half-century of closer co-operation. The other modern classic I’ve started is Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, about a fascist President of the United States. Sound familiar? (Penguin Books have cunningly republished this in paperback this very year, no doubt anticipating commercial reward at a time when fact seems to proving stranger than fiction.)
Then there’s Gregory Maguire’s After Alice, which I’ve just completed and about which I’m still ruminating. I can’t decide if it’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’; it’s definitely not ‘wicked’* but it’s certainly curious. The more I consider it the more it insinuates itself into the wormholes (or should that be rabbit holes?) of my mind. A fully considered opinion will doubtless suggest itself in due course, but I note that he includes aspects of emancipation — of blacks and females — in his novel. Again, all strangely relevant to current events.
Finally, I should mention two items that also appear to be in part following a similar theme. I’m composing a review of Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes, a review of the recent history of autism. You may know that, being on the spectrum myself, I have a personal interest in how this condition has been diagnosed; so I was particularly interested in how authorities in Europe and America regarded and subsequently treated those with autism over the years. I can tell you it has not, on the whole, been a happy story, rather one with institutionalised victimisation.
The other area I’ve been examining is local claims that Tolkien’s Shire was based on an area on the Welsh Marches, as described in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Whether it was or not is perhaps less important than that some commentators should actually lay claim to it, as though some of the magic of these fantasies would by association rub off on the Black Mountains and the Vale of Usk. What we mustn’t lose sight of though is that — like the children’s novels I mentioned earlier — Tolkien’s fictions focus on the power of the lowly individual to make a positive difference in countering oppressive regimes, to the extent that they are decisively overcome.
There we have it, then. Synchronicity of a sort in action, where much of what I’ve read has a bearing directly or indirectly on contemporary events. Let’s fervently hope that this month’s musical experiences — of Mozart’s Requiem and Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony — are only temporary commentaries on the nadir that precedes our ascent from the present Slough of Despond.
* Yes, Maguire is also the author of Wicked, though I haven’t read it. Yet.