Studying for an English degree – and in my case teaching and researching in an English department – means that we are reading huge amounts of material at a rapid pace. Some of this material is complex, unfamiliar and requires deep reserves of attention and patience. This is hard but ultimately rewarding labour; the ability to read across periods and cultures is what defines an English graduate. But – and, you are going to have to forgive a very laboured sporting analogy here – we can’t always run the hard miles. In order to go fast you also have to go easy. When training for a marathon 70% of your runs should be steady, allowing your body to recover and to build a base for the tough sessions where you go fast and long (I told you it was laboured!). So what does this mean for reading? I’ve come to learn that the equivalent to those training sessions is to always have a book on the go that isn’t part of our day to day – that we need to a little bit of regular work to maintain the pleasures and benefits of reading above and beyond ‘work’, to keep those ‘muscles’ of empathy, analysis, and concentration alive.
About 18 months ago, I realised that I wasn’t making enough time for this kind of reading. Work was intense and I was finding that were fewer opportunities to read outside of my job. So, I had a chat with a few friends and we set up a book group. The rules are simple: one book a month, published in the last two years, with hosting duties and book choices rotated each time. Not only does this mean that I am reading more regularly, but I also have the benefit of encountering texts that are sometimes outside my direct interests, and I get to indulge in the pleasures of shared discussion. The other members of the group are some of my best and oldest friends, but the conversations we’ve had have been intimate, surprising, and moving in what they’ve revealed; and time and time again I’ve been reminded of the deep value of literature as a stimulus to emotional connection.
And in immersing myself in contemporary literature my inspiration has been revived at work – books that we’ve read have gone straight on to my reading lists, and conversations that we’ve shared have provoked much needed reflections on the questions I ask in my research.
Now, on to the actual books! Here are some of my recent favourites:
Saltwater by Jessica Andrews – A stunning debut about class, the North, education, parents, and the idea of home.
Rainbow Milk by Paul Menez – another debut formed from personal experience; this is a coming of age story about a gay black man from Wolverhampton making his way in 00s London. Touching on Windrush, Brexit, Black Lives Matter, this is a powerful state of the nation novel.
Motherwell by Deobrah Orr – The late Deborah Orr left us with this intimate memoir about the way our parents – good and bad – live on through us.
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid – Another novel about race and class that speaks to the challenges of the present moment; the alienating effects of social media, the precariousness of modern work, and much more.