Drink tea and read books

My daughter sent me this image earlier today:


Annie drink tea

She sent it to me because it mentions two of my favourite things in life, tea and books, but it got me thinking about two aspects of our lives as literature enthusiasts. The first is the way we read books. I read them on my kindle when I am settling down to sleep each night, but I use hard copy versions when I am going to teach from them. When I want to make a handout for a class I will often find a text online and then cut and paste it into hard copy: I am sure that students prefer nicely presented, neat bits of text on a handout. When I cannot recall where a few scraps of text come from I will google them and experience the satisfaction of elusive words springing up in their correct context – what a lovely feeling that is.

The second thought I had was about just how entwined my life is with the books I encounter. This is not always entirely a good thing, when I give myself an hour to prepare some material for a seminar and then I find myself so engrossed in the text that two hours have drifted by, with me stuck in a fictive world, the time ticking by and my deadlines crumbling all around me.

My days are punctuated by books – the ones in my office which remind me that I am at home here, the ones I see my students reading all around me (and who can resist taking a peek to see what someone else is reading?), the books I have read to my children that still make me smile when I glimpse their covers and the books I have yet to read: the long ‘wish list’ on Amazon that will keep me happy for years to come. Books are how I learn more about my world and, as importantly, how I learn more about who I am and what I hope to become.

It doesn’t matter whether I am lost in them, dashing though them, pulling them apart to teach them or snuggling up with them and a huge cup of tea – they always make me happy.


You don’t have to love every piece of literature

Today I have been writing a lecture on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I should confess that this is not one of my all-time favourite play texts. It would come about eighth in my list of all-time favourite Shakespeare texts (yes, academics do have all-time favourite lists of all sorts of things: plays, novels, poems – which is a really tricky one – and even authors, although I am quite fickle about that category).  Working on the lecture I have reminded myself of a piece of advice I often give to students: you don’t have to love something to write about it, or present on it, or discuss it.

 tick list

It is often the case that students will choose an all-time favourite piece of literature for an assessed essay, for example, and then are confused to find that they don’t have very much to say about it. It is as if the elusive quality which draws you to the work is difficult to capture, as if your love of the piece gets in the way of your critical faculty. When they do manage to analyse it, they can end up disappointed: in analysing it effectively, they have somehow wrecked it. Grasping the mechanics of its composition can mean the essence of its beauty sliding away. Luckily this is only temporary and I can always assure these students (who are sometimes very upset by this) that, in a year or so, they will return to the piece with a new pleasure, made even greater by their more profound understanding.

broken heart

Working through The Tempest I think I know what our second year students will want. I will offer them some background to the play to help contextualise it, then I will walk them through the plot and the characters (this lecture is in the last week of term, so there is a chance that some may have read it over Christmas and will have forgotten some of it by now). Once we are squarely in the midst of the play together I will take them across a series of stepping stones. Each stepping stone will be an interesting point in the play, either thematically, critically or linguistically.


This last is, in my view, the most important aspect of the play for them to grasp. Of course the characters and their motivation are important, and the themes will help to link this work to other literature they have experienced, and knowing some context will settle them in the work, but the language, for me, is the crux of the experience.

Just one of Caliban’s speeches is enough to prove the point:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

 I may never place The Tempest higher than eighth in my all-time favourites list, but a speech like this? It’s right up there.


Amsterdam and the life of the intellect

Many of my students are in Amsterdam this weekend. I know this because several have told me excitedly about their plans, but I might have suspected anyway, given the increasingly frantic emails I received last week. Queries which were sent to me one day in a calm and measured way became desperate pleas for help by the next day. Plans had to be finalised to the last detail at a moment’s notice; advice must be proffered instantly; deadlines had to be met early. As Sherlock is claimed to have said (although I think it is a quote from Shakespeare’s King Henry IV Part I) the game was afoot.


So now they are all happily wandering around Amsterdam, enjoying themselves very much I hope. They are, I expect, savouring the moment, relieved that there is no work for them this weekend and indulging in every possible way to relax. What they do not realise, I expect, is that they are actually working quite hard. If they do not destroy too many of their brain cells over the weekend as they have fun, they will, quite unconsciously, be giving their brains the chance to assimilate the information I put in there last week. They will be making connections, developing ideas and maturing their intellects. This is what happens when we give ourselves the chance – it is why factoring breaks into a revision timetable is so important.


I fully expect them to be brimming with excellent ideas next week, and making connections they could not see last week. Mind you, I have a nine o’clock seminar with some of them on Monday morning, and they won’t have slept much since last week. Maybe I’ll  give them a coffee break before we get started…


The persistence of my ignorance

Did you know that there was a gold rush in New Zealand in the nineteenth century? I had no idea – absolutely none at all. In fact, I did not even know that there was gold in New Zealand!

For those of you who have read it, you will probably already have guessed that I am reading The Luminaries, the 800-page Man Booker Prize winning novel, written by 28-year-old Eleanor Catton. Now, I do appreciate that, in the grand scheme of things, it means nothing at all that an English Literature lecturer in Reading in the twenty-first century knows nothing about the exploitation of gold mines in New Zealand in 1866, but it matters to me.

The Luminaries cover

You see when I was at school we were taught that New Zealand had a climate very similar in places to the UK’s climate and so had some similar farming techniques (mainly sheep farming, I recall) and that, like England at the time, coal mining was an important feature in the economic landscape. Despite seeing The Lord of the Rings movies so many years later, I still thought of New Zealand as a sort of big Great Britain, just spread out a bit more. Ridiculous, I know, but that was the sort of geography I was taught (I have very little idea where anything actually is, but I am a real whizz at bronze-age settlements and the names of capital cities).


So, learning that there was (and presumably still is) gold in the strata beneath New Zealand should be a great leap forward for me, if only I could make it, but I have spent the first half of the book (my kindle assures me that I am 49% through) thinking that I am reading about an American gold town. Every time I notice a New Zealand reference I am surprised, and then hugely irritated with myself because it had slipped my mind, yet again.

Illustration by Clifford Harper/Agraphia.co.uk

I am learning two things from this experience. The first is the persistent power of literature. By the end of the book my view of New Zealand will have changed for ever. This will happen to you too, time and time again. The world and all its people, with all of their vices, virtues and vagaries, will settle in your mind and then you will read a piece of literature and up in the air it will all go, yet again, and settle into a new pattern. You are going to experience this for the rest of your life.

The second thing I am learning is that ignorance is also terribly persistent. It can take a surprisingly long time for your mind to assimilate new information fully and then to add this to your world view. It may have happened to you from time to time, when it takes you seemingly forever to learn a new fact or to master a new skill. Then, suddenly, one day it is just there. So if whatever you were doing before you broke off to read this post is driving you mad because it is so difficult, there’s no need to worry: there is gold in New Zealand, there are hobbits in the movies and there is capacity in your brain to be amazing.


I love my kindle

It’s true – I adore my kindle, and this adoration has come as a complete, and not altogether welcome, surprise. I resisted the temptation…for years, I resisted. I love books, and the thought of an e-reading device was completely alien to my idea of reading.

Then a friend bought me a kindle (I suspect because I had been moaning about them for years and she wanted to see what would happen). At first I couldn’t understand how it could be a ‘proper book’ when I couldn’t see the cover properly (my kindle is too old to show nice covers in colour). When I first read it I felt claustrophobic because there were no page numbers. How on earth could I work out where I was? What did 16% of the way through a book mean? I dreaded losing my place, couldn’t look back easily to check on names of characters or what they had done and couldn’t get any proper sense of how much book was left.


Two things happened which began to change my mind. The first was awful – I lost my place by pressing the wrong button. I tried to go to ‘last page read’ but it wouldn’t work. In a rising panic I worked out that I could recall an unusual word I had just read and so I could use the ‘find’ function to get back to my page. It wasn’t a perfect way to do it, but it did allay some of my fears.

The second was delightful – I ran out of book. Some of you bookworms will know this feeling. You are engrossed in a good read and as you come to the end of it and you need the next book lined up ready to get you over the loss of the one that is about to finish. This is usually no problem, except that it happened to me when I was staying in a hotel in Barrow-in-Furness, at midnight. Ping! I turned on the 3G and bought a book. A moment later I was happily reassured that all was well – I had the next book to read. Of course the flood of relief this caused was soporific and I fell fast asleep, so the whole exercise was a bit pointless, but it was good nevertheless.


Since then, whenever I can, I have read books on my kindle. So now, several years a kindle lover, I have to admit that I am committed to my kindle and I have to wonder why. I love the Barbie pink cover – it makes me smile when I notice it peeping out from under a cushion. I love the ability to change font size, which eliminates the risk of reading glasses falling off my nose as I fall asleep and being crushed under my ear (yes, this really did happen). I love the cloud on which my books sit (despite the fact that I was too scared to put any books on there for months in case they were somehow lost or Amazon stole them back).

I miss things too, though. The feel of a book in my hand, the pristine look of the unread pages in a new book, the worn feel of a much loved book passed down from a parent, the intoxicating smell of a book. How I miss that smell. I have to confess now to a guilty secret. A couple of years ago I moved house and packed up all of my books (hundreds and hundreds of them) and they are still all there, in boxes, waiting for me to decide what to do with them. Sometimes, when I miss them too much, I open up a random box. I breathe in the unmistakable book smell and glance through them. Happy memories restored, I shut them away again.

book love

So there are reasons to love my books and reasons to love my kindle, but what clinches the deal for me whenever I look at my old books, is the number of bookmarks resting in pages where I fully intended to look up an interesting or unusual word, and never quite got around to it. With the kindle the cursor lets me do this instantly: not only to look up new words, but also to check on the precise meaning and derivation of a more familiar word. It even warns me about confusables, so that never again will I use the word ‘quarrel’ when really I meant ‘squabble’ (that is one of last night’s look-ups).

I never knew how many words I didn’t quite know how to use, or I didn’t know at all, and my kindle opens up a whole new set of words each time I read (which does rather ruin the flow of reading but never mind). I am left with the feeling that many students experience when they are trying to craft their essays, carefully using the best word for the job, or when they are scanning the lines of a play or poem to glean some meaning…there are just so many words!

pile of words


Walking and tutorials – both good for you.

At this time of the term lecturers tend to see many of their students individually, either because they are seeing their personal tutees or because they are holding essay tutorials, offering individual feedback on a student’s essay or other coursework. For both of these types of session we usually have a fairly standard approach that we know in advance will work: for an essay tutorial we will expect the student to want to work through some of the comments on the coursework; for a personal tutorial we will be discussing landmarks in a student’s career, or simply asking how the term has gone. Students also seem to have a typical way to approach the situation, so the communication level is fairly high and both parties can be confident that everything has gone well. Except for one thing.

I have noticed over the years that, as students leave my office and I offer them an encouraging word and a smile, they often look wistful, and sometimes they will come and sit back down. ‘There is just one more little question…’ they say, and then they tell me what is really worrying them, or they talk about the paragraph of the essay they cut out at the last minute but wish they had been brave enough to include, asking whether I think it would have worked.

Last week I saw a student who did just this. I was about to leave my office alongside him, as I was going to a meeting across campus and he happened to be going to a lecture in the same direction. We spent a delightful ten minutes talking about the critical terms he had not quite grasped, and puzzling together over how best to present a theory in relation to a piece of literature he was studying.

The serendipity of learning, and of teaching, is one of the pleasures of this job. I had no expectation that I would be cramming an additional ten minutes of tuition into that day, neither did the student expect that we would be talking in such depth about his intellectual challenge, but I know that we both tackled the next task of the day with greater enthusiasm.

I am now busily counting the number of calories I might consume weekly if I were to hold all of my tutorials on the move…more cream cakes for me I think…






Who owns literature?

I surprised myself recently during a seminar with the realisation that I had no idea who wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (it is an author called L. Frank Baum, in case you don’t know either). I was watching an excellent presentation being given by one of our visiting students, Chris Doehrmann, in a seminar for the Packaging Literature module. Amongst other things, Chris had been considering the work in various guises, and its adaptation and interpretation in various filmic versions.

This was all interesting stuff, but I remained a little distracted by my woeful ignorance of even the author of the book (which, it transpired, was actually a series of 14 books, with 19 sequels written by yet another author of whom I had never heard – who knew?!). As I looked around the room, searching for reassurance that I was not alone, I noted that students were frantically scribbling down this information, so I called the presentation to a halt and we talked for a while about this strange situation. I know the Wizard of Oz, it was part of my childhood, I feel some sense of emotional investment in the work, yet I have never read the book, not even to my children. So can I really say that I ‘know’ the work?

wizard of oz

It turns out that many of the students in the seminar had no idea who wrote it either, and several of them, like me, had only seen a film version or some literary adaptation, so could any of us claim to really know the ‘true’ work of literature? And is there just one authentic text, or series of texts? Does the writer who took over the series and added to it (actually, with more titles to her name than the original series) have any claim to authenticity as a producer of some part of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz?

Would further research help me to make up for my perceived lost ground? I learned from Chris that the author’s full name is Lyman Frank Baum, so for a moment I felt more in command of the material, or at least the history of the material, until the next point he made. He explained that the author who wrote the introduction to the Puffin Classics edition of the text is Cornelia Funke, a much loved German writer of children’s literature. We were assured that every German child would know her name, so I felt a distance opening up again between my experience and the text itself – this time a cultural as well as a literary gap.

wizard of oz puffin classic

Luckily, as so often happens to us lecturers, I was saved from my reverie by a student asserting firmly that she would read and enjoy anything related to Oz, and watches every film or TV version she can find, because she loves the original book so much, having had it read to her as a child. In this situation, she cares not a jot for authenticity, however we judge it, she just enjoys the story. Another student piped up in agreement: she is a particular fan of Wicked, both the novel by Gregory Maguire and the musical. Despite this enthusiasm, some students still had reservations about authenticity: shouldn’t the only ‘true’ version be that which is owned by the author, based on the fact that, after all, he actually wrote it? But then cannot we claim some ownership, if we read it, or see it on film, and buy into the ideas? What about if it has formed some treasured childhood memory of a parent reading a bedtime story?


Whist this debate was in full swing Chris had to wait patiently, hoping that we would let him resume his presentation before we took a coffee break. We did, and he continued with an information packed ten minutes before we took a break. As a student visiting our department I hope that he will remember our time talking about OZ when he returns home. The students in the room all felt the benefit of another perspective on a classic piece of literature and I, as so often happens, left the seminar with as many new questions in my head as I had answers to offer.

…and then messing it up altogether

Rarely does anyone get the chance to see some spectacular entertainment, for free, during your working day, but that was exactly what happened to me last week. A well-known and much respected Shakespearean actor and scholar, Ben Crystal, came along to give a talk on the way in which Shakespeare’s plays would have been spoken to the original audience.

Ben Crystal

The work that Ben and his father, David Crystal, have done in the area of original pronunciation is startling. To hear familiar lines of Shakespeare delivered in a way I had never heard before was beguiling, and to have them delivered by such a consummate actor was sublime: the absolute silence in the hall as every audience member leaned forward to hear was testimony to the power of the acting, the brilliance of the language and the strangeness of the original pronunciation. A remarkable experience.

shakespeare on toast

For me, it was bittersweet. Ben delivered two speeches that I had taught this term and his new exposition of them revealed to me several rhymes which it is easy to miss in modern pronunciation, and a subtle shift of power and meaning in the opening sonnet of Romeo and Juliet. That is one of the frustrations of the life of a lecturer. Now I will have to wait a whole year to pass this exciting new knowledge onto my students. Or maybe I could just email them now….


Scrambling the order in my brain….

It is not often that anyone gets to sit and listen to a medical doctor, a scientific advisor to the government and two academics in the same conference, let alone on the same panel talking to one another, but that is what happened to me this week. They were there to celebrate the launch of a new, university-wide research centre called ‘The Centre for Interdisciplinary Research into the Humanities and Science’ (www.reading.ac.uk/irhs) with a public roundtable discussion held at the university, based on short talks given by each invited speaker.

Interdisciplinary Research into the Humanities and Science

Even the name might put you off at first. What, you might reasonably think, does science have in common with the humanities? Then you begin to think about it and realise that the title of the event ‘Science and Storytelling’ is not so bizarre after all. Most of us know the story of Dr Frankenstein and his monster, and that was certainly a link between science and storytelling and, as the event progressed, I realised that there are plenty of ways in which we have used storytelling to explain science (many myths are rooted in science, apothecaries wrote in literary forms, science fiction is ever popular). Then I thought about our recent fascination with forensic science in our literature and on our screens: that is certainly linking science and literature.


I started to feel on more comfortable ground until I realised that the speakers had been asked not to talk just about science influencing literature, but they had also been given the dastardly task of talking about how literature had influenced science. Surely, I thought, that is not likely? Literature is the vehicle we use to explain all sorts of things and it is the product of our imagination, whilst science is about fact and reality, so the former could not influence the latter – it would have to be the other way around. Then I learned that early practitioners in psychology and even in physical medicine would use accounts from literature to explore and diagnose diseases of the mind and body. I also found out that our understanding of many scientific phenomena has been influence by literary creations. The link is sometimes fleeting, but it is there: it does seem that storytelling can influence science.

Science and books

So, I started the week with two nicely divided compartments in my brain: literature sat on one side and science sat on the other. I was quite good at science at school and so have a fondness for the subject, but even so I was happy to have them divided. By the end of the week I sit here having had that nice order scrambled up. There is now a mental channel in my mind between literature and science. That is what happens when you work or study at a university: you cannot guarantee that anything will stay the same from one week to the next. Thank goodness.

We are learning too…

I went to a Teaching and Learning Conference on Technology Enhanced Learning run by my faculty last week and soon found myself caught up in a welter of newly coined words and an array of freshly minted acronyms. I learned how my colleagues were using our VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) and video to create a ‘flipped classroom’ where students engage with new information in a new and exciting way. I heard about blogs and websites being an increasingly popular way for students to produce material for assessment, and how podcasts are being used to provide better feedback and support for students. Finally, I discovered that, with the power of MOOCS (massive open online courses) and SPOCS (small private online courses) we could aim to educate well beyond the boundaries of our campus.


At times it would have been easy to wonder how this could apply to English Literature as a subject for study, given that it all felt very instant and spontaneous and our subject relies on contemplation and gradual exploration. Indeed, there were moments when all of the new words and acronyms made it seem almost anti-literary, even anti-language. That is nonsense, of course. We regularly cajole our students into trying new words. I run an entire seminar on text/techno language and its impact on our lives. We tell our students to be precise and effective in their use of language, but to remain open to new textual and linguistic options. What was happening to me was what I encourage in my students.


It might have seemed unfamiliar to some colleagues to be asked to consider how they could facilitate learning using these methods, but then that is the whole point. These new ways to teach and to learn are ripping up some of our comfortable old assumptions and challenge us, quite rightly, to justify how we teach and to articulate more precisely what we anticipate that our students can learn.

new ideas

Although I call these ‘new’ ways to teach and to learn, many of them have been around for some time now and they are working. They do not require us as lecturers to abandon all of the ways in which we know we can teach well, but they do give us invigorating news ways in which to work with our students. That is perhaps the most striking thing about teaching methods which employ technology in one way or another: they all rely on students as active, and enthusiastic, participants who are prepared to take a leading role in their learning. Once that facet of technology enhanced learning is grasped, it all becomes simple: that is what we have been encouraging our students in English Literature to do for many years.


It occurred to me as I sat in the conference that, more often than you might expect, being a lecturer is not that different from being a student. When you first come to university you are faced with words which you might not understand and abbreviations that you have never heard before. You are asked to respond to our teaching, and this will sometimes require you to learn in a wholly new way. It can be bewildering at first but the aim is still the simple one I mentioned a moment ago. We want to help you to learn in a way that allows you to be your own person, fuelled by your own imagination and desire to grow. We will provide the tools that you need, we will encourage and direct you and if sometimes the whole process seems muddly or daunting, think of me at the conference, having to remember all of those new terms. We really are all learning together.