January 2022 in Books

This month my theme was ‘On Reading and Writing’. I read the classic reading guide, How to Read a Book. This was my third attempt and I managed to get to the end. I re-read A Swim in a Pond in the Rain which was one of my favourite books of 2021 – I listened to the audiobook this time but for this one, I think I preferred reading it myself. Genius and Ink – Virginia Woolf on How to Read, the title is slightly misleading. I enjoyed the book but it’s not Virginia Woolf teaching how to read. I’ll explain more later. English and Literature is a small collection of C. S. Lewis’ essays. The Wisdom Pyramid is about how to acquire wisdom from a Christian perspective.

When I did the planning last month, I said, given the theme, there were going to be a lot more non-fiction than fiction which was unusual but understandable. The two fictions I read both roughly ‘on theme’, which I was very pleased about, especially I ‘shopped’ them from my shelves rather than buying new books.

The Wisdom Pyramid by Bret McCracken

I picked this up because this was the winner of Christian Living category of the Gospel Coalition Book Award 2021. The book starts with our daily diet of knowledge intake: it’s unhealthy – we’re eating too much, eating too fast and eating only what tastes good to us. Obviously he’s talking about information rather than food, but the principles almost apply in exactly the same way.

In response to this, the book suggests a ‘Wisdom Pyramid’ like the food pyramid – the book cover gives the answers away. The sources of wisdom most nourishing are at the bottom of the pyramid, and those least nourishing are at the top.

I like it says ‘wisdom is not knowledge’. Being able to google the capital of a country you’ve never heard of in seconds doesn’t make you a wise person. It’s obvious when you say it that way, but for example, we often take it for granted that because we’re more advanced in technology, we must be wiser than people from the past. But that’s often not the case.

There’s a chapter about books. I thought he was going to say stop spending so much time reading books and spend more time reading the Bible please. But maybe that’s just my guilty conscience. He didn’t say anything of the sort, but generally encourage people to read more books.

How to Read a Book by Mortimer Jerome Adler & Charles Van Doren

This is a practical book teaching how to read. It gives various rules and principles on how to read intelligently and think critically. A lot of these rules and principles are common sense really – they validate a lot of my vague instincts from university days.

This would be particularly useful for students or someone who’s inexperienced in reading expository books. But it would be equally useful for everyone in terms of general communication, things like, ‘coming to terms with the author before criticising a book fairly’, can be easily transferred to, listening to and understanding what a person says before disagreeing with them.

However if you just want the rules, you can probably get them faster on a webpage or from a video – the book is written like a textbook and quite long and stiff.

I like the last chapter best and it actually echoes ‘The Wisdom Pyramid’ – what’s the whole purpose of reading and your purpose is the driving force of your reading habits and choices. Why do you read at all? During our limited years on earth, we only have time to read a small number of books. How do you choose? Do you put some thoughts in the choosing at all? Or do you just grab what’s most prominent in book shops or order what’s popular on BookTube? What do you want your books to do for you? And it argues that there are higher purposes and therefore more beneficial books.

English and Literature by C. S. Lewis

It includes essays like ‘Christianity and Literature’, ‘High and Low Brows’, ‘On the Reading of Old Books’. Some of them I understood more than others. But most of them I understood just enough to know that I don’t understand all of it. According to ‘How to Read a Book’, this is a good place to be as a reader. If you understand everything and agree with everything in a book, it’s a bit of a waste of time.

Expecting to understand C. S. Lewis fully and accurately by listening to an audiobook is just unrealistic for me. So I bought Selected Literary Essays on Kindle and tackled one essay called ‘High and Low Brows’. It discusses the possible distinctions between highbrow and lowbrow books with many examples. Is the distinction between good and bad? Does one have a more serious subject, the other trivial? Is it about the literary style? Is it that one is popular and bestselling, the other is not? Is the distinction between easy and difficult? Is it about vulgarity?

The most interesting and useful point is, how should we distinguish and place books? He argues we shouldn’t draw a line and place ‘highbrow’ books on top and ‘lowbrow’ books at the bottom. It should be many vertical lines representing different kinds of books and horizontal lines crossing these to represent the different degrees of goodness in each kind. For example, you can have a vertical line for all the adventure stories, with Odyssey at the top, Around the World in 80 Days, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea somewhere lower. And you have another vertical line for something else.

I also like his warning that for some readers, good literature is an accomplishment rather than a delight. I’ll try to remember that. After all, who’s judging?

Genius and Ink by Virginia Woolf

Another book that I understood enough to say that I don’t understand it all. As I said in the introduction, these are not, strictly speaking, essays where Woolf teaches people how to read. These are her literary criticism essays, written specifically for ‘Times Literary Supplement’, which at the time, was an eight-page publication attached to ‘The Times’. She gives her opinions on various books and authors, for example, George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte and Thomas Hardy.

It’s very interesting to read a classic writer’s take on another classic writer, for example, to learn her verdict on Thomas Hardy: in which way he’s the greatest writer of English literature, in which way he has fallen short comparing to Jane Austen and Thackeray.

I really enjoyed reading the introduction written by Francesca Wade. It’s about Virginia Woolf’s relationship with ‘Times Literary Supplement’ and its editor at the time, Bruce Richmond. It talks about how Woolf’s skill and talent and career matured and advanced as she wrote the reviews week in week out for 30 years. Woolf wrote in her diary that Richmond was one of the most influential figures in her life.

‘How pleased I used to be when L. called me “You’re wanted by the Major Journal!” and I ran down to the telephone to take my almost weekly orders at Hogarth House! I learnt a lot of my craft writing for him: how to compress; how to enliven; and also was made to read with a pen and notebook, seriously.’

I love that paragraph. To think there was a time Virginia Woolf had to learn to write, just like any of us, there was a time she started reading with a pen and notebook for the first time, and she polished her craft over three decades for TLS! She kept writing for it even after she became an established writer.

This is her weekly routine, the TLS ‘sends me one novel every week; which has to be read on Sunday, written on Monday, and printed on Friday. In America, as you know, they make sausages like that.’ This little book only includes 14 essays written from 1916 to 1935. Many more were gathered into two volumes of The Common Reader which I would love to read, as well as her diaries.

Miss Buncle’s Book by D. E. Stevenson

Miss Buncle lives in an English village where everyone knows everyone. It’s the 1930s and Miss Buncle is in need of money so she writes and publishes a book. The book is all about her village, apart from people’s names, everyone appears in the book exactly as they are, even the mole on their face, the wig that’s supposed to be real hair and the humble beginning people desperately trying to keep secret of. It’s all in the book. It lands like a bomb in the village and a comical witch hunt starts. But no one suspects the unassuming Miss Buncle to be the author…

There’s a genius moment I especially love, where the author, Stevenson, tries to trick the readers and blur the boundary between reality and fiction. In the commotion of this witch hunt is a kidnap and Miss Buncle puts the kidnap into her second book, which is also all about her village and how her village reacts to her first book. When Miss Buncle’s editor reads this second book and the kidnap, he says kidnapping is improbably in real life you shouldn’t put it in. But it happened, says Miss Buncle.

It happened in Miss Buncle’s universe, which is fiction in our universe. The whole of Miss Buncle’s universe is fiction. But because it happened in Miss Buncle’s universe, it became probable and ‘real’ therefore can be included in her fiction. It’s like a Russian doll one inside another. Completely delightful.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

This is my first five-star book of the year! I heard about the title often, it’s a very catchy title, and thought it was a love story. It is, but it’s much more than a love story. The romantic side of things really only takes up a small proportion of the story. Friendship is a lot more prominent and I loved it.

The story is set straight after the Second World War and it starts with Juliet, a writer, who lives alone in London. She just completes a war-time newspaper column and is seeking out a subject for a new book. One day out of the blue she receives a letter from a stranger from Guernsey Island. This stranger bought a secondhand book that used to belong to Juliet and asks her for a bookshop’s address in London so he can order more Charles Lamb. He writes, “though the Germans are gone now, there aren’t any bookshops left in Guernsey.”

Juliet replies and through letters makes a host of friends from Guernsey, telling her how the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society came into being and their extraordinary life under German Occupation during the War.

I love that the story is set against the background of the Second World War. Like Juliet, I was completely ignorant of what happened there. Thinking about it, I’m ignorant of what happened in most of the world during that time.

The flood of letters from Guernsey remembers how friendship with fellow islanders and friendship with authors and books from the past comforted them and kept them going. Some of the stories about German soldiers’ interaction with the villagers are incredible.

The whole book is a collection of letters. Although limited by the format, it tells the story wonderfully – for me, it even seems to be the perfect format. There are dark and sad moments, there are also some really sweet and comical episodes. The authors have built a perfect rollercoaster ride. Highly recommend!

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders

The author reads through seven Russian short stories and shares what he’s been teaching his students and what he’s been learning himself from these stories over the years. He talks about writing in terms of techniques but also writing as a profession. He shares thought about not just reading and writing but about life and living. I mentioned this one in my Favourite Books of 2021 post not that long ago so I won’t repeat myself too much. Also highly recommend.

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