Recommended Reads: ‘Adlestrop’, by Edward Thomas

By Julie-ann Rowell. Julie-ann is a poet whose first pamphlet collection, Convergence, was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. Her new collection is due to be published by Brodie Press in 2008.

Edit: Julie-ann’s collection Letters North is available from July 2008.

Adlestrop
by Edward Thomas, first published 1917

‘Adlestrop’ is not what may be thought of as a typical World War One poem, yet it is the one I return to most often. It was published posthumously after Thomas was killed by a shell blast on Easter Monday 1917 and describes a train journey he undertook three years previously between Oxford and Worcester. The journey appears on the surface uneventful, but Thomas conveys his beloved England in this one small moment when the train stops at a Gloucestershire village, an England that is under threat, the stop is ‘unwontedly’–uncustomary, and ‘No one left and no one came/On the bare platform. What I saw/Was Adlestrop – only the name’. Entire villages were recruited into the same regiment and sent off to war, and hence a complete population of young men could be wiped out. The willows, willow-herb, grass, meadowsweet, and haycocks are ‘No whit less still and lonely’.

Thomas was highly knowledgeable about natural history, earning a precarious living as a free-lance writer. He is associated with the Dymock Poets, a group of writers that included Robert Frost, who lived near the village of Dymock in Gloucestershire between 1911 and 1914. They represented a movement away from the traditional, more florid style of the Romantics, seeking a modern sensibility, which included gaining inspiration from their natural surroundings and everyday experiences. Robert Frost was a huge influence on Thomas, encouraging him to take up poetry.

It is notable that Thomas wrote all of his poetry during World War One. In ‘Adlestrop’, as in so much of his work, he celebrates the English countryside he revered, writing about it from somewhere unspeakable. England was ‘not an idea, not even a nation but a very specific place, a place that for the poet is home’.

‘Adlestrop’ is a continuation of the pastoral tradition–with his direct, yet understated style, Thomas reconnects the reader with Wordsworth, as well as standing on the threshold of the ’new’, and preparing the ground for Heaney and Hughes. The opening is so simple and takes us straight to the heart of it–‘Yes I remember Adlestrop –‘ it is as if he is beginning a conversation with us. The poem is in part a reflection of the passage of time, the beauty of England, and what is replete in a blackbird’s song, a typical encompassing English bird–all of England is here, in the sounds of the ‘mistier’ birds too.

I find Adlestrop especially poignant because Thomas had only written a part of what he would surely have contributed to the English pantheon–143 poems–before his untimely death. More has been lost since the writing of the poem, with the closure of the railway station itself, but that’s another story.

Adlestrop (1917)

Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

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Recommended Reads: Megan Abbott’s Die A Little

Megan Abbott. Die A Little Simon and Schuster, 2005.

Nineteen-fifties Hollywood has a seedy glamour that, half a century later, has acquired the status of myth. Like Dickens’s London, Joyce’s Dublin, and the Paris of Marcel Proust, the cultural landscape of Southern California is inscribed on the psyche of anyone who ever watched Humphrey Bogart cracking wise with Lauren Bacall, or read a novel by Raymond Chandler, or James M. Cain. The books, after all, fed off an atmosphere of ambition, ruthless greed, extravagant wealth and desperation. Grifters, aspiring actors, moguls and movie stars: myth making rarely comes with a backdrop as gaudy as this.

Whether they are set in Hollywood or not, hard-boiled novels and the shadowy films they inspired are rarely sympathetic to women, or even allow them a voice. Men control the narrative and the action, for the most part. When they don’t it is usually because they have been deceived by a woman, tempted by a flash of thigh, encouraged with sexual promises never fulfilled. This was the aftermath of World War Two. Men back from battle found women in their jobs and other men in their beds. In Fritz Lang’s movie The Big Heat, the all-American gingham-frocked wife of detective Dave Bannion is blown up in a car. That kind of woman was history.

Megan Abbott’s 2005 debut novel Die A Little takes a different view of the femme fatale. She is not a spider at the centre of a web but just a woman trying to make a living, like everyone else. In this novel ambitious women compete and conspire. They use what they have to get what they want and mean nothing by it but looking after themselves. When Lora King’s brother hooks up with Alice Steele, a glamorous studio wardrobe assistant, Lora’s ordinary life as a school teacher is transformed by her association with powerful press agent Mike Standish and a whirl of restaurants, nightclubs and parties. In an effort to protect her brother she is soon drawn into a world of drug deals, double lives, prostitution and murder.

The novel reads in many ways as if it might have been written in 1954, but for the fact that its point of view is very modern and very female. Here is Lora describing an acquaintance, Lois, whose chaotic behaviour fascinates her:

Alice’s friend Lois Slattery has a kind of crooked face, one perpetually bloodshot eye just higher than the other, and that Pan-Cake makeup you often see on what Alice calls “girls on the make.” She begins periodically appearing at Bill and Alice’s, each time without warning. Somehow, I end up, over and over again, having conversations with her. Each time thinking, Poor Lois, in a few years, she’ll have a slattern look to match her name. (p. 50)

This is a woman’s-eye-view of another woman and a world away from the usual dismissive masculine tone. Much of the detail in the novel is of the domestic sort. Baking ingredients, housekeeping and household objects are as central to this book as hats, coats, and guns in more traditional hard-boiled fiction.

In contrast with the 1940s and 1950s originals Abbott’s female characters are fully developed. They have hopes and fears, they are jealous, angry, but also concerned and loving. Lora sees Alice as a threat to her brother’s career in the district attorney’s office and to her relationship with him. But she also wants at some level to make the new family work, at least until she knows the truth. What she doesn’t bargain for is the extent of Alice’s corruption, or the lengths to which she must go to root it out.

Abbott’s novel is a compelling story of one woman’s quest to save her brother, but it is also striking for the way its authentic noir style is combined with a modern, archly knowing approach. This is a stylish book that eases its perfectly made-up face right in close and whispers “Read me: I’m good.”

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By Chris Routledge

Recommended Reads Round-Up

The Reader magazine has always prided itself on being the magazine to turn to when you don’t know what to read next and we’re following in that tradition here. Here’s a round-up of the ‘Recommended Reads’ we’ve featured over the last few months:

Casino Royale, recommended by Anna Maddison.

Stuart … A Life Backwards, recommended by Sara Pendergast.

Black Swan Green, recommended by Jen Tomkins.

Einstein: His Life and Universe, recommended by Siobhan Chapman.

Poppy Shakespeare, recommended by Katie Peters.

Posted by Chris Routledge

Recommended Reads: Casino Royale

This recommendation of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale was posted by Anna Maddison. Anna is currently researching a PhD on Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and lectures on both nineteenth century literature and Victorian painting. She also writes poetry and short stories inspired by her Victorian studies.

Ian Fleming: Casino Royale

After seeing Daniel Craig emerge Andress-like from the sea in the latest Bond film Casino Royale, I felt inspired to discover, as the filmmakers had, the first of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels. Luckily Casino Royale (1953) came up as last month’s choice at my book club and the opportunity to explore new reading territory presented itself. Previously uninitiated into the world of Bond literature, I took the plunge and found I enjoyed it.

The novel is well worth a read, not least to revel, as the book jacket designer has (check out the retro cover of the recent Penguin edition above), in its glory as a period piece. The product placement in the novel is overt to which Bond’s Ronson lighter (p.91) and Vesper’s Dior dresses (p.68) testify. However, the superficiality is undercut by the tension of the gambling scenes and the stark violence that peppers the book: rather surprisingly the torture scene is as graphic as that portrayed in the recent film.

Fleming’s skill as a travel writer shows itself in the atmospheric sense of place. Indeed it seems at times part thriller, part travelogue. There is a strange mix of the colourful and the spare in the prose, which is both sensual in its descriptions of food, drink and decor, and economic in its cold, business like tone. The warm and the cool therefore jostle for position within the novel as they do within Bond’s character:

Then he slept, and with the warmth and humour of his eyes extinguished, his features relapsed into a taciturn mask, ironical, brutal and cold. (p.8)

The misogynistic aspects are unpalatable to the modern reader but dare I say amusing also for the same reason that makes the book enjoyable: its occasional period kitschness:

Bond was not amused. ‘What the hell do they want to send me a woman for?’ he said bitterly. ‘Do they think this is a bloody picnic?’ (pp.30-31)

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By Anna Maddison

All page numbers refer to the recent edition published by Penguin Books in 2006. Penguin has recently reissued all 14 Bond novels with striking retro covers.

Read our previous Recommended Reads here.

Recommended Reads: Stuart … A Life backwards

This recommendation is posted by Sara Pendergast, writer, painter, working in Washington State.

Stuart … A Life Backwards: Alexander Masters’ Portrait of the Important Man on Level D

The underclass—occasionally homeless—roaming through streets, huddling in corners, or sprawling on park benches, don’t scare me. I used to work in Detroit, the city that T-shirts proclaimed was “no place for wimps.” Pregnant with my first child, I’d make my way from the bowels of the Joe Louis parking garage, along a nearly abandoned underpass, toward the financial district. The journey took me daily from one extreme of society to another, from bums to business. I’d see the same people sleeping on beds of crumpled boxes near the concrete pillars of the underpass, the same folks asked me for money retelling the same story one day to the next. Mornings would offer remnants of an active underworld, syringes littering the sidewalks, the occasional cast off shoe, a torched van still smoldering on the curb. Alarmed at first by the contrast between the lives of the homeless and the bustling executives and feeling vulnerable because of my physical state, I grew to understand as the months passed and my bulging belly forced my purposeful walk to slow to a waddle that there was a sort of rhythm to life on the streets, just as there was a rhythm in business. It was a rhythm I didn’t quite understand, but did not fear. The homeless I passed daily recognized me, and we’d nod our hellos. We too had a comfortable rhythm, one that kept me walking briskly by without asking questions.

The notion of how street people live, and more, why they live on the street left me personally when I moved from Detroit to a place where homeless rarely pause. Thankfully, across the pond in London, Alexander Masters took the time to stop and ask questions. In his brilliant biography Stuart … A Life Backwards cast light on the bowels of street life in a way that brought the cardboard huddled masses from the Detroit underpass screeching back to the forefront of my mind. Any one of them could have been Stuart Shorter, Masters’ subject.

Shorter is a glue-sniffing, self-destructive, occasionally violent, chaotic homeless man with a fascination for knives from London’s streets. While these details don’t normally bode well for a compassionate tale of humanity, Masters’ book is. Masters doesn’t cast Shorter as a shadowy figure collapsed by the door of the pharmacy, but as an opinionated, busy fellow who commands attention. The detail comes from Masters’ own developing friendship with Shorter. Shorter and Masters work together to win the freedom of two imprisoned social workers, share dinner, loan each other money, and never shy away from telling each other exactly what they think. Masters made me feel like I was right there with them, slumped on the couch listening to Shorter rant about Masters’ poor writing and offering genuinely helpful editorial advice.

The deference and compassion Masters afforded Shorter enabled him to enjoy his friend’s humanity, his wit, and his charm. Contrasting those qualities with Shorter’s life of suffering, Masters’ reveals the true horror Shorter struggled with his entire life. The rhythm I had detected on the streets in Detroit was a rhythm of survival brought into vivid detail in Masters’ book. Rewritten after Shorter’s critique that it was “bollocks boring,” the final manuscript sheds light on “a man with an important life,” as Masters put it. Moreover, it offers a compelling reason why we should all care.

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By Sara Pendergast

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Recommended Reads: Black Swan Green

David Mitchell is surely one of the best British novelists writing today and his latest novel Black Swan Green strengthens his claim to that title. The novel’s predecessor, the highly acclaimed Cloud Atlas – an intricately woven tale spanning multiple time periods and different narrative voices – was a truly captivating read, a unique balance of the real and the fantastic. Black Swan Green displays the same intricacy, allowing a truly human and heartfelt story to be told through a conventional artifice. In this novel, the balance is not between reality and fantasy but a carefully explicated portait of a young boy’s struggle between social conformity and individual expression, set underneath the glassy archetypal nostalgia of the early 1980s. The struggle and the setting, the factual and the poetic are written with such a sense of stablility that Mitchell’s prose is simultaneously radiant, amusing and resolute.

A painful minute went by. Green is made of yellow and blue, nothing else, but when you look at green, where’ve the yellow and the blue gone? Somehow this is to do with Moran’s dad. Somehow this is to do with everyone and everything. But too many things’d’ve’ gone wrong if I’d tried to say this to Moran.

Life is not easy for Jason Taylor: it’s hard enough turning thirteen – threatening bullies, those mysterious things called girls, family discord – it’s even harder when that comes with a stammer and you’re a reluctant poet. As Jason attempts to conceal his stammer, it leads to other problems: use of ‘over-elaborate’ replacement words, untold anxieties and low self-esteem. Jason’s stammer becomes fictionalised as the director of missing letters: Hangman. This imaginary character has his own codes of behaviour and has an incredible power over Jason’s life.

The only way to outfox Hangman is to think one sentence ahead, and if you see a stammer word coming up, alter your sentence so you won’t need to use it. Of course, you have to do this without the other person you’re talking to catching on. Reading dictionaries like I do helps you do these ducks and dives, but you do have to remember who you’re talking to. (If I was speaking to another thirteen-year-old and said the word ‘melancholy’ to avoid stammering on ‘sad’, for example, I’d be a laughing stock, ’cause kids aren’t s’posed to use adult words like ‘melancholy’. Not at Upton upon Severn Comprehensive, anyway.)

There is a sincere nature to the book and it is not surprising to learn that a large amount of Mitchell’s own adolescent tribulations are recorded here. Like Jason, he too grew up in a small village in Worcestershire and was a stammerer (not a stutterer, an important distinction), adopting his own rules of speech to manage his problem. It is this skill with words that has enabled Mitchell to develop such proficiency interweaving different registers for his narrators within his novels. His forthcoming novel will demonstrate this skill further, opening up issues about the perceptions and misperceptions in the encounter of cultures. Black Swan Green is an acutely observed account of the transition between childhood and adolescence set against a vibrant nostalgic background, with a sharp injection of humour and a vivid evocation of life in a backwater village in the 1980s. Mitchell’s beautiful poetic and powerful prose exposes this transitionary period for its strains and difficulties, asserting the importance of the individual and in making your own rules.

Posted by Jen Tomkins

Recommended Reads: Einstein, His Life and Universe

By Siobhan Chapman.

Walter Isaacson. Einstein, His Life and Universe. Simon & Schuster, 2007.

Einstein

Albert Einstein was an engaging and much loved but an aloof and at times emotionally withdrawn individual. His work is a byword for intellectual rigour and, for most people, incomprehensibility. Isaacson’s new biography manages both to describe the complex personality and to offer accessible accounts of the theoretical physics. Most readers will not come away from this book having understood the theory of relativity, light quanta or unified field theory. But they will have the intellectual smugness of understanding a bit more about these scientific landmarks, having been exposed to some remarkable ways of thinking about the universe, and having had the chance to try out some fascinating thought experiments, Einstein’s stock-in-trade.

Einstein certainly lived in interesting times, and he cared passionately about them. Because of his historical and personal circumstances, and because also of his growing political involvement, his biography encompasses many of the major events of the twentieth century. He lived through and reacted to the First World War and its aftermath, the rise of anti-semitism in Germany and the ascent of Hitler, the development of the atom bomb, the creation of the State of Israel and the extremes of McCarthyism. Isaacson handles all these events with aplomb, bringing out both their global significance and their impact on Einstein, and in the process producing a genuine page-turner.

There are flaws, and since these are largely of the kind that would have been obviated by rigorous copy editing it does look suspiciously as if the quality of the book may have been compromised by the rush from the release of numerous new Einstein papers in 2006 to publication in 2007. For instance, the caption on a picture at the start of chapter fifteen places it in 1927, while the description later in the text insists that it was taken in 1930. There are too many sentences as clumsy as the following (describing one stage in Einstein’s troubled and complex relationship with his elder son): ‘Together he and Hans Albert went sailing, played music, and built a model airplane together’. And several favoured anecdotes turn up repeatedly.

Nevertheless, the anecdotes are one of the many joys of this book. Einstein’s wit, charisma and cautious enthusiasm for fame meant that stories and bon mots are associated with him almost as closely as his theories. Asked by a star-struck reporter during his first visit to America in 1921 for a one-sentence definition of relativity, he retorted: ‘All my life I have been trying to get it into one book, and he wants me to get it into one sentence!’. One book cannot of course tell us everything about such an individual any more than one sentence can capture such a theory. But Isaacson has given us an engaging and highly readable portrait of his formidable subject.

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Siobhan Chapman has just finished writing Language and Empiricism, After the Vienna Circle. Her other books include Philosophy for Linguists, Paul Grice: Philosopher and Linguist and Thinking about Language.

Recommended Reads: Poppy Shakespeare

Poppy Shakespeare bookI have just finished reading Poppy Shakespeare by Clare Allen. Set in a North London day hospital, Allen draws on her own experience as a patient in the psychiatric system. It focuses on the lives of two characters, N, who has been a patient at the hospital for thirteen years and Poppy Shakespeare, a newcomer who is certain she isn’t mentally ill and is desperate to return to the outside world. Clare Allen explains:

‘What interested me in writing Poppy Shakespeare was the idea of taking a ‘normal’ person and landing her bang in the middle of this ‘upside-down’ world.’

The ‘upside down’ world which Allen describes is a place where the attempt to get better becomes overshadowed by the need to conform.

‘In the common room to be ‘abnormal’ was normal. Which is to say our normality was more or less the opposite of what might be considered normal in the world outside…so long as conforming meant being mentally ill, it made it a very difficult place to get better.’

Allen’s frustration with the system that surrounds her characters is felt throughout the story. It reasserts itself at every point, effectively causing the reader to share in this emotion. The helplessness and desperation can draw you in and drag you down, but Allen is also interested in exploring the way in which words cope with extremes of emotion and experience.

Through my work reading with dementia patients as a project worker for Get Into Reading I have become particularly interested in the way in which words and stories connect on a deep level, even when individuals have lost sense of their own personal story. Allen echoes this notion in speaking of her own experience.

‘When I arrived at the day hospital… My life had shrunk to a series of seconds, each to be somehow survived. I got through by walking, constantly walking, reciting poetry over and over to keep the thoughts from my head.’

In reading this book I was struck by the resilience of individuals, whose experiences seem unimaginable and impossible to survive. That they do survive and keep going despite this is a stark reminder of human strength, our ability to endure. That it stands so close to the contrasting frailty of a system which threatens to destroy this resilience once and for all is strangely paradoxical. And this in itself helps create the sense of claustrophobia which dominates the novel.

Recommended Reads for World Book Day

Angela Macmillan recommends Bleak House by Charles Dickens.

I always hum and hah whenever someone asks me to name my favourite book. The simple answer is that I don’t have just one. I have rehearsed my reply first to Roy Plumley, then Sue Lawley and now Kirsty Wark, and like my desert island record choices, my book choice has not stayed constant. One thing, however, is certain. It must be a nineteenth-century novel. George Eliot or Dickens or Mrs Gaskell? It is not a question of preferring one to another. I need them all and not just one of their books but all of them. But I am being asked for one book, so under duress, I have selected Bleak House. Of all Dickens’ novels, this one seems to me to be the most satisfying and I urge everyone to read it not just once but at least twice.

Once the mysteries of the plot are discovered and the outcome revealed, one can begin, in the second reading, to see something of the complexity of the overall design and of the parts that make up the whole. Fitting these parts together or separating them becomes completely fascinating. It is like looking into Dickens’ mind. In terms of the novel’s form, it has a neat beginning and end, but in terms of Dickens’ idea or vision, the whole concept becomes much bigger. The strength of the book is that it is just that – a whole concept. Dickens lends his point of view to Inspector Bucket: ‘There he mounts a high tower in his mind, and looks out’ (Ch. 56).

Connections form the framework of Bleak House. Dickens demands that we look for and make connections and having found them that we look again, for this will not be the end:

What connection can there be between the place in Lincolnshire, the house in town, the Mercury in powder, and the whereabouts of Jo the outlaw with the broom, who had the distant ray of light upon him when he swept up the churchyard step? What connection can there have been between the many people of the innumerable histories of this world, who, from the opposite sides of the great gulfs, have, nevertheless, been very curiously brought together! (Ch. 16).

Two questions here: the first asks us to look into the mysteries of the plot, the second demands that we look into the mysteries of life itself. But the one is connected to the other. It is as if Dickens draws a ring around his world and inside ‘everything’ leads to something else: ‘And thus, through years and years and lives and lives, everything goes on, constantly beginning over and over again, and nothing ever ends.’ (Ch. eight)

It is not easy to get at what lies at the heart of the novel because each time you pick up a thread, you are not sure whether it is taking you back to the beginning or on to the end. But what you finally discover is that there is no such distinction. Everything takes you deeper in to the heart of the individual characters even though, intriguingly, they are not always at the heart of their own selves. A second reading of this demanding book about the terrible failure of individual and collective responsibility will not allow you a fictional escape but rather a confrontation with reality.

Marion Leibl recommends Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.

Of all the books that I have read and that have stayed in my memory, Catch-22 is probably the one that is most present still. Joseph Heller’s story about the very reluctant air force captain Yossarian, who clearly perceives that anybody who sends him to places where people shoot at him obviously wants to kill him, is unsentimental, vulgar in parts and honest. Yossarian’s only aim is to escape, but he is trapped by catch-22, the rule that in order to be excused from flying one has to be certified insane, but ‘a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind’, and so the wish not to go on fighting means that he has to go on because of it.

Yossarian’s daily experience is the surreal normality of war, and the irreverence with which he insists on pointing out that the emperor is wearing no clothes and that war has no pathos comes back to me as a reassuring counterweight, at times, in the reporting of current wars. Heller’s characters, some of whose names mercilessly reflect how he sees them (Lieutenant Scheisskopf, Chief White Halfoat) are stereotypical and therefore clearly recognisable in civilian surroundings as they are in the military setting of the story. Although inextricably linked with the insanities of war, Catch-22, I believe, goes further than that. It instils encouragement for looking at the world around with one’s own eyes, for reaching one’s own conclusions, and for holding one’s own life dearer than any ideologies.

Helen Tookey recommends Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer, and the poetry of Edward Thomas.

I don’t think I could nominate just one book as my all-time favourite, because different books feel essential to different states of mind or different times of life. One of my favourite books is Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick: I love its sweep, its extremes, its language (or perhaps languages), its comedy and its tragedy. Another of my favourite books is Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer: a children’s book (about a girl who travels back in time from the 1950s to 1918 and finds herself trapped there) which I first read when I was about nine or ten and which can still move me to tears. At the moment, perhaps my favourite writer is one I’m still in the process of discovering: the poet Edward Thomas, who died at Arras in 1917. Thomas spent most of his life working as a hack writer to support his family, and only began to write poetry, encouraged by Robert Frost, two years before his death. I love his poems for their honesty, the sense they convey of someone always fully engaged with what seemed to him to matter most–the beauty of the natural world, the difficulties of human life and love. His work often seems simple but is at the same time incredibly powerful. I love his poem ‘Words’, in which he invokes ‘you English words’, ‘older far/ Than oldest yew, – / As our hills are, old, – / Worn new / Again and again; / Young as our streams / After rain’. His Collected Poems (which includes his 1917 war diary) is available from Faber.

Katie Peters recommends Middlemarch by George Eliot.

I always hate it when people ask me to name my favourite book. It seems impossible to pick one single story that is by itself enough, and I always find myself shiftily throwing in a few titles as quickly as possible in the hope that no one will pull me up on not choosing one final book.

Having said that, there is one book which always stands out in my mind as the one I keep returning to, that I never tire of and that brings up new things every time I read it. Middlemarch by George Eliot is often proclaimed to be ‘the greatest novel ever written’. With such a description preceding it, it may seem strange to discover that much of the novel’s brilliance is in its concern with life’s disappointments – the heartbreaking comparison between the hopes and ideals we set up for ourselves, and the reality in which these dreams are diminished.

Eliot focuses on the individual stories of friends and acquaintances living in a small provincial English town in the 1830s. One of my favourite characters is Tertius Lydgate–the young doctor who moves to the town with hopes of making great advancements in medicine through his research. He is determined to make a difference in the world in which he lives and not to become like those who seem to have given up and taken an easy route, which he finds contemptible:

For in the multitude of middle-aged men who go about their vocations in a daily course determined for them much in the same way as the tie of their cravats, there is always a good number who once meant to shape their own deeds and alter the world a little… Lydgate did not mean to be one of those failures.

The words ‘once meant’ here seem to hold some foreboding, but I won’t ruin the story for you because this is such a great book that I recommend you read the whole thing yourself.
 

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