Friday, January 01, 2010

20 publications that left their indelible mark on me during the Noughties...

(Have meant to make this list for quite some time now. Will update with proper details and pictures later (some notes are left in re: other books to refer to). But allow me to just get this down for the time being...)

This list is meant to be about books that have most influenced me over the Noughties (2000-2009)*. It is not meant to be a definitive list of the "best" books of the last decade, however one may define "best". Indeed, some of the publications I have selected are not what one would normally think of as "proper books" at all, but nevertheless they influenced me deeply at different points in my life over the past ten years, and so they serve as a bibliographic record of sorts of one of the most important decades of my life (not that I have had that many decades under my belt so far!).

Because I'm only selecting on the basis of the titles' influence on me rather than their publication dates, some of these works are published before 2000 (in fact, some were originally published loooong before that), which is another reason not to see this list as some kind of "best of noughties" list. (I would be especially embarrassed if people thought that I believe Bridget Jones's Diary to be one of the decade's finest!!)

The above being said, I would also argue that many of the books on my list are real gems that should be read by many more people than they seem to be at present. I know that some of these titles may not be familiar or easily available to everyone, but I hope that some of you may be tempted by the descriptions here to seek out these works, as they are all worthy publications in their own right (yes, even the home catalogue!).

As should be obvious from the list also, these are all publications I read strictly for leisure rather than for work, as it seems much more appropriate to have the latter as the subject for a whole other separate list called "academic texts that influenced me the most over the past decade" (which is perhaps not an appropriate subject for here as I'm resolving to cut down on work-related posts on my blog in future).

And of course, I picked Top 20 rather than Top 10 as it is impossible for me to reduce my list down to just 10, there were simply too many wonderful books that I have had the great good fortune to read in the last decade. (And I shall confess also that I allow myself even more wriggle room to expand the list by offering substitution choices for those works that are not considered "proper books" in my initial list).

Finally, this list is confined to English titles. I find it extremely difficult as it is to narrow the list down to 20 in English; it would have been impossible if works in Chinese are also included. More importantly, English was the predominant language in which I have been reading for the last ten years, including leisure reading. Now that I have managed to amass a whole tranche of Chinese books last summer by those authors whom I have always wanted to read, my leisure reading for the new decade should see a much more significant representation of Chinese titles, and it may be appropriate then in 2020 to do a Chinese titles list when it comes to reviewing this decade.

Without further ado therefore, here's my list of 20 publications that have left their indelible mark on me in the Noughties (in no particular order, but they are numbered just to ensure that I counted them properly):


1. The Glass Bead Game, by Herman Hesse (1969)

One of the my favourite novels of all time. It is a book that I will take with me to a desert island if I am only allowed one book (actually, either this or "A Suitable Boy" by Vikram Seth, but then I read the latter in the 90's and so does not qualify for a formal place on this list). This is truly a masterpiece. I was also extremely fortunate in my timing of coming upon this book: I was just starting my PhD career, and was not quite sure if I had really made the right decision to give up my professional job and go into academia. This book -- written by Hesse who in real life dropped out of formal academic studies in his twenties but who nevertheless rigorously persevered with his intellectual pursuits until old age and ultimate death -- convinced me that it is the life of the mind that I most want to pursue for the rest of my days. Its description of an ideal academic world -- Castellia, an intellectual utopia peopled by earnest scholars carefully guided and supported by wise mentors -- may not be realistic and a far cry from the actual academic environment that I inhabited then and still inhabiting now. Nevertheless, it is a compelling vision that sustains me in continuing my work in my darkest hours. The struggle between the Castellian and the material worlds as vividly imagined in the novel also reflects the unrelenting and unhealthy marketisation of ideas witnessed in higher seats of learning around the world today, and reading an author who accurately and eloquently described your own frustrations and worries on the written page was a great catharsis. It is what makes this book a genuine source of comfort to me over the past years.

But it is Hesse's vision of how the arts and the sciences could be seamlessly joined together into a common scholarly pursuit (the titular "Glass Bead Game") played by scholars well-versed across both realms of intellectual endeavours that I most hanker after. It is what I hope to be able to work towards in my own academic career, step by tiny step. The book does not have a good ending for the protagonist Magister Ludi, but this is known from the outset, and it is from following his intellectual journey through the novel despite this knowledge that makes the experience of reading this engrossing tome similar to embarking on a vocation -- a pursuit taken for its own sake rather than as a means to an end -- which mirrors what scholarly life is all about.

2. A Room of One's Own, by Virginia Woolf (1929)

As any Tom, Dick or Harry (or shall I say, Mary, Jane or Alice) would know, Virginia Woolf is famous for her dictum, "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write" (often the quote includes the word "fiction" at the end of the sentence, but those who read her seminal work of literary criticism as listed here, from which the quote was originated, would realise that her injunction is not restricted to fiction but applies to all literary forms, including poetry and critical essays).

Perhaps what is generally lesser known about Woolf, but is amply evident in this famous work of hers, is just how much a consummate literary critic she really was. Her writing had that sharp, unflinching and unerring confidence that immediately put readers at ease and made them trust her judgement implicitly, without reservation or prejudice, even when she was making claims that were wildly contradictory to the accepted wisdom of her time, and even though she was a woman who was clearly not of her time.

A Room of One's Own was an eye-opener to me because finally here was a woman who could articulate all the niggling worries and heart-felt frustrations a female writer feels while struggling against the sheer (dead)weight of a literary canon hitherto defined exclusively by white, middle-aged males of privilege, but she did so with the kind of steely coolness and a lightness of touch that made the rage on behalf of her gender all the more perceptive and all the more justified. She built her case regarding the necessities of money and a private situation for women writers by looking at historical examples of women's writing, and none more devastating an example as that of Lady Winchilsea, a poet born in 1666, of whom Woolf commented thus:
... she wrote poetry, and one has only to open her poetry to find her bursting out in indignation against the position of women:

How we are fallen! fallen by mistaken rules,
And Education's more than Nature's fools;
Debarred from all improvements of the mind,
And to be dulled, expected and designed;
And if someone would soar above the rest,
With warmer fancy, and ambition pressed,
So strong the opposition faction still appears.
The hopes to thrive can ne'er outweigh the fears.

Clearly her mind has by no means "consumed all impediments and become incandescent". On the contrary, it is harassed and distracted with hates and grievances... Yet it is clear that could she have freed her mind from hate and fear and not heaped it with bitterness and resentment, the fire was hot within her. Now and again words issue of pure poetry:

Nor will in fading silks compose,
Faintly the inimitable rose.

... It was a thousand pities that the woman who could write like that, whose mind was tuned to nature and reflection, should have been forced to anger and bitterness. But how could she have helped herself? I asked, imagining the sneers and the laughter, the adulation of the toadies, the scepticism of the professional poet. She must have shut herself up in the country to write, and been torn asunder by bitterness and scruples perhaps, though her husband was of the kindest, and their married life perfection... Her gift was all grown about with weeds and bound with briars. It had no chance of showing itself for the fine distinguished gift it was... one can measure the opposition that was in the air to a woman writing when one finds that even a woman with a great turn for writing has brought herself to believe that to write a book was to be ridiculous, even to show oneself distracted.

... [Comparing Lady Winchilsea to Aphra Behn] Mrs. Behn was a middle-class woman... She had to work on equal terms with men. She made, by working very hard, enough to live on. The importance of that fact outweighs anything that she actually wrote... for here begins the freedom of the mind, or rather the possibility that in the course of time the mind will be free to write what it likes... The extreme activity of mind which showed itself in the later eighteenth-century among women... was founded on the solid fact that women could make money by writing. Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for.

... Without those forerunners, Jane Austen and the Brontes and George Eliot could no more have written than Shakespeare could have written without Marlowe, or Marlowe without Chaucer, or Chaucer without those forgotten poets who paved the ways and tamed the natural savagery of the tongue. For masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice. (Emphases added)

Woolf was also one of those rare critics whose criticisms added immensely to the appreciation of original authors' works. I am especially grateful for her take on Jane Austen, that most misunderstood of popular 19th century English female authors precisely because she is so famous. Woolf wrote of Austen's literary achievement as consisting not merely in her razor-sharp observations of the social relations and mores of 19th century upper-class Britain in her novels; and not only in her ability to construct a sentence (though Woolf gave extremely instructive examples of these); but in her being a totally unaffected writer free from the poison of tortuous emotions that commonly afflicted lesser writers of her time, including the Bronte sisters:
... I could not find any signs that her [Austen's] circumstances had harmed her work in the slightest. That, perhaps, was the chief miracle about it. Here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching. That was how Shakespeare wrote, I thought, looking at Anthony and Cleopatra, and when people compare Shakespeare and Jane Austen, they may mean that the minds of both had consumed all impediments; and for that reason we do not know Jane Austen and we do not know Shakespeare, and for that reason Jane Austen pervades every word that she wrote, and so does Shakespeare. (Emphasis added).
Oh, I could go on quoting page after page of Virginia Woolf and would never get to fully express just how brilliant she was as a writer and how inspirational a thinker she is to me. When I got my hands on her Selected Essays (2008) recently, which I read on my flight to Hong Kong last summer, I couldn't help dog-earring almost every page of my copy (until I realised how futile an exercise that was and stopped destroying my book). Her words and her views on literary craftsmanship and the position of women in society and as writers heavily informed -- nay, actually moulded -- my perspectives on same. She, more than any other writer, is the reason I am a feminist.

3. White Teeth, by Zadie Smith (2000)

4. No Logo, by Naomi Klein (2000)

The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007)

5. Ghostwritten, by David Mitchell (1999)

number9dream (2001), Cloud Atlas (2004), Black Swan Green (2006)

6. Mao: The Unknown Story, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday (2005)

Wild Swans (1991)

7. Granta 105: Lost and Found, Granta Magazine (Spring, 2009)

8. The Autobiography of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. by Clayborne Carson (1998)

9. The Golden Treasury of the Best Songs and Lyrical Poems in the English Language, Selected and Arranged with Notes by Francis Turner Palgrave (aka "Palgrave's Golden Treasury")(1875)

Soundings: Leaving Certificate Poetry / Interim Antology, ed. by Augustine Martin (1969)

10. Two Cures for Love: Selected Poems 1979-2006, by Wendy Cope (2008)

Poetry Book: English in Units, ed. by John G. Faby (1991)

The Mist over Clonaghadoo, by Maureen Lowndes (2001)

11. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: The Shooting Script, by Charles Kaufman and Michel Gondry (2004)

The Sixth Sense, by M. Night Shyamalan (1999)

12. Life of Pi, by Yann Martel (2002)

13. An Inconvenient Truth, by Al Gore (2006)

14. Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, by Margaret Atwood (2003)

15. Speaking with an Angel: An Anthology, ed. by Nick Hornby (2000)

16. Bridget Jones's Diary, by Helen Fielding (2001)

17. Nigella Express, by Nigella Lawson (2007)

18. Laura Ashley Home Catalogue, by Laura Ashley Holdings, Plc. (Spring, 2007)

19. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, by Azar Nafisi (2003)

20. Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi (2008)

A Chance of Sunshine (aka Turn Left, Turn Right), by Jimmy Liao (2000)

* * *

And if one leaves out the cookbook, the catalogue, the literary magazine, the graphic novel and the shooting script from my list above, there are five more slots for me to include honorary mentions for the below:

21. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich (2001)

22. The Kindness of Strangers: The Autobiography, by Kate Adie (2003)

23. Arthur and George, by Julian Barnes (2005)

24. Youth, by J.M. Coetzee (2002)

25. The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within, by Stephen Fry (2005)

The Golden Gate, by Vikram Seth (1986)

*Yes, contrary to much online confusion caused by misguided pedants, the Noughties (2000-2009) IS a proper decade. Other alternatives I have seen promulgated online include 1999-2009, but this is laughably inaccurate as it would result in counting 11 years rather than 10 years for the first decade of the millenium. Another suggestion I have seen is to count the decade from 2001-2010, which not only would mean that 2000 was not included as part of the new decade of the new millenium, but it would also have contravened the standard convention of counting the decades, whereby the first year always ends with the digit 0 and the last year always ends with the digit 9 (e.g. the 90's being 1990-1999, the 60's being 1960-1969, and so on). Anyway, after the Noughties, the present new decade (2010-2019) would probably be called the Teenies, as the proper term the Teens doesn't gel with the usual "-ies" ending of decade names. Whatever its name, I do hope that the new decade would be much less "interesting" a time than the one we just survived by the skin of our teeth.

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At Thu Jan 07, 06:38:00 p.m. GMT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

oh, I've only read 16 Ja...

At Thu Jan 07, 10:51:00 p.m. GMT, Blogger Snowdrops said...

Thanks for commenting :) As this isn't a race I'm just glad that somebody else has already read some of the books highlighted here! I wanted only to blog about the books that influenced me in the last decade (which is the reason why I put in Bridget Jones's Diary even though by all accounts it really isn't a good book and especially a weird choice for a self-proclaimed feminist like myself, but I put it in anyway as my friends and I did fall madly in love with it at one stage even though it's embarrassing to admit now that we even read it in the first place!)

I still have to finish writing up this post properly though. Am wondering if you have any favourites from the 16 that you've read?

At Mon Jan 11, 03:02:00 p.m. GMT, Blogger laichungleung said...

I would be quite happy if I manage to read one or two books that you mentioned here. Alas, I read none. I wonder where the hell I spent my time.

At Tue Jan 12, 05:35:00 a.m. GMT, Blogger Snowdrops said...

Oh LCL, you shouldn't say that at all. You've been busy raising a family and perfecting your photography skills, among a million other things :)

I really don't expect other people to have read and appreciate the same kind of books as I did in the last ten years. We all have different tastes in reading after all :) I'm just glad though that you might be interested in checking out a few of the titles here. But that said I really, REALLY need to finish writing this post, hopefully before the month's out.


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