The power of words in an age of anxiety by @AliyaMughal1

Cross-posted from: Aliya Mughal
Originally published: 19.02.16

“The magic of escapist fiction is that it can actually offer you a genuine escape from a bad place and, in the process of escaping, it can furnish you with armour, with knowledge, with weapons, with tools you can take back into your life to help make it better. It’s a real escape — and when you come back, you come back better armed than when you left.”

Neil Gaiman beautifully articulates the essence of why reading is such an indispensable pastime in those moments when reality lets us down.

Gaiman was referring to how his 97-year-old cousin, a Polish Holocaust survivor and teacher, had escaped into the world of books during the Nazi occupation. For her and the pupils she secretly read stories to, books, forbidden at the time, provided a soul-saving gateway into a place that for a few precious moments, freed their minds from the shackles of their daily existence.

Liberating the mind can be both a vital and yet seemingly impossible task in the worst moments of mental anguish. Depression, for instance, has the overwhelming capacity to trap people in a vicious cycle of interminable horror.

The question of whether books can provide relief in the context of mental health is one that’s usefully being explored in Future Learn’s latest course, Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing, a surprisingly rare offering that combines a traditionally academic field with the psychological element of the health sciences.

One of the questions posed in the opening survey for learners is that of why and where they read, “to pass the time” being one of the multiple choice answers.

It’s interesting to explore what is meant by this. The act of reading as means of passing the time sounds at first like a passive one, pursued for the sake of just getting through the day.

But for many people who suffer under the “daily rain” of depression, simply getting through the day can be a major victory.

Pause for thought

The social and psychological value of books isn’t a new idea. It was raised in Aristotle’s Poetics, where the concept of catharsis was explored in terms of the impact of tragedy to purge us of emotions, specifically pity and fear. The definition of catharsis is still debated but the essential idea of using the words of others to reveal something of ourselves to ourselves is one that has prevailed through the ages.

Jack Lankester, an English teacher for whom the sonnets of Philip Sidney provided a sense of fellowship and solace when he experienced heartbreak, describes the restorative power of poetry in a way that reflects this idea of a cathartic experience:

“I believed in my naivety that no one had ever been as heartbroken as I was. No one understood… When I started reading him, the penny dropped in that instant, I felt wildly less alone. And the fact that he had been writing these poems 500 years ago, really did make me realise that being heartbroken or sad or lost is in many ways inevitable. And it’s a part of the human condition.”

Far from being a passive experience then, reading poetry is a means by which we can intimately and consciously engage with the essence of what it means to be human. It’s a precious counterpoint to the modern day fixation on lives that ought to be in continual motion, racing from one day, one achievement, one love, one, one feeling, one thing, one experience to the next.

One of the poems I find myself going back to again and again for this very reason, and for its own wonderfully lyrical sake, is Dew Light, by WS Merwin:

Now in the blessed days of more and less
when the news about time is that each day
there is less of it I know none of that
as I walk out through the early garden
only the day and I are here with no
before or after and the dew looks up
without a number or a present age

As Stephen Fry, who also features in the Future Learn course, says: “There is so much nutrition inside the best poems.”

 

Aliya Mughal : I’m a dedicated follower of wordsmithery and wisdom in its many guises. Reader, writer, storyteller – if there’s a thread to follow and people involved, I’m interested. I’ve built my life around words, digging out the stories that matter and need to be told – about science, feminism, art, philosophy, covering everything from human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, to famine and the aid game in Rwanda, to how the intersection of art and science has the power to connect the disparate forces of humanity with the nanoscopic forces of our sacred Earth. Find me @AliyaMughal1

A Lady & Her Husband – Amber Reeves by Madam J Mo

Cross-posted from: Madam J Mo
Originally published: 19.06.16

There are few greater literary treats than the bi-annual publication of a few new books from the wonderful Persephone Books in London. And this re-issue of the 1914 novel A Lady And Her Husband by Amber Reeves is, of course, no disappointment.

Amber Reeves had a fascinating life story, not least of all because she was the muse for the character Ann Veronica in HG Wells’ 1909 suffragette novel of the same name. (I wrote about Ann Veronica here back in February 2012.) Reeves and Wells had had an affair in which both seemed to inspire the other in equal measure, and many say that A Lady And Her Husband is Reeves’ response to Ann Veronica. Having read both, it is interesting to be able to compare them. 
Read more A Lady & Her Husband – Amber Reeves by Madam J Mo

‘There Seems To Be Some Queer Mistake’: The Film of Anne of Green Gables by @LucyAllenFWR

Cross-posted from: Reading Medieval Books
Originally published: 14.01.16

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When you’re feeling a bit down, what you really, really need is a coven of feminists with an encyclopaedic knowledge of YA fiction through the ages. Luckily, I have such a thing, and last year, on one of those days when I was moping in bed with a cold, they put me onto the film versions of Anne of Green Gables. Weirdly, although I read the books years ago (and they’re free on Project Gutenberg, by the way, which is a lovely perk you get for reading stuff written in 1908), I’d never seen the films. I think I’d probably assumed they’d be travesties, a bit like the godawful TV adaptation of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books (note to anyone interested in adaptations: Pa is not a hunk. He does not have a square jaw and faraway gaze. We want no sex here. HTH). Plus, a cursory glance at the cover art of the Anne books through the decades shows just how bad things can get.

Obviously, you probably know I was wrong: the film of Anne is absolutely pitch-perfect and endearing and funny and just exactly what you need to curl up with for a couple of hours with a nice cup of tea and a warm blanket. And it’s also completely feminist-friendly. So, when I heard, yesterday, that there was going to be a new, updated version, I was quite pleased. Then I heard doom-laden pronouncements from said cultured feminist YA-reading friends. And I read that there were to be ‘new elements’ that would reflect “timeless issues, including themes of identity, sexism, bullying, prejudice, and trusting one’s self”. Oh, new version. No. Let me explain this to you. You do not need new elements. All the fun of the old version was introducing these ‘new elements’ yourself, through the time-honoured medium of cackling and sniggering at unintended innuendos. Allow me to explain. I present, for your critical assessment, ten moments of pure, unadulterated, queer-theory-is-my-bitch, gold dust:
Read more ‘There Seems To Be Some Queer Mistake’: The Film of Anne of Green Gables by @LucyAllenFWR

My History by Antonia Fraser – Book Review

Cross-posted from: Adventures in Biography
Originally published: 25.01.16

Antonia FraserPrivilege is relative, isn’t it.  As long as there is someone wealthier, smarter or better-off than you, then it’s hard to consider yourself privileged.  Even when you most certainly are.

English biographer Antonia Fraser DBE is something of a paragon.  Her biographies are best sellers (Mary Queen of Scots) that get made into movies by the hollywood elite (Marie Antoinette).  The several I have read are engaging, impeccably researched and – on occasion and appropriately – laugh out loud funny (Warrior Queens).

In her ‘Memoir of Growing Up’ Fraser, now in her eighties, is at pains to describe what an ordinary girl she was, and how middle-class her upbringing.  This despite being the granddaughter of an Earl and, on her mother’s side, a wealthy Harley Street medico.  She grew up in North Oxford (not as well-to-do, Fraser assures us, as South Oxford) where her father was a don and, later, a Labour minister in England’s post-WWII government.
Read more My History by Antonia Fraser – Book Review

Ali Smith, Public Library and what libraries mean to me

Cross-posted from: Sian and Crooked Rib
Originally published: 23.11.15

I’m lucky enough to be reviewing Ali Smith’s new short story collection, Public Library, for Open Democracy 50:50. So watch this space, I’ll post the link once it’s filed and live.

However, the process of reading and reviewing the book made me think about my own relationship with libraries. And so I thought I would post here something I wrote earlier in the year for Bristol 24/7 because as far as I can tell, they deleted all the articles I wrote for them…

So, here you go:

The Power of Libraries
Read more Ali Smith, Public Library and what libraries mean to me

Acacia trees and nostalgia by Eleanor Higgs

Cross-posted from: Eleanor Higgs
Originally published: 22.07.15
This post is a footnote to the point already made by Columbia PhD student @SimonMStevens (which I saw via Africa is a Country), about the ubiquity of the acacia tree silhouetted against an orange sky on the covers of works of African literature.I had my interest piqued by the collage Simon put together, and I wondered about what might be revealed by further comparison with non-fiction books on the topic of ‘Africa’. Because of my research interests, I narrowed my search to include books only about Kenya. Here is what I found:

1.


Read more Acacia trees and nostalgia by Eleanor Higgs