Book Diary: The Oxford Reading List

I normally take the summer off from blogging, as I like to think of myself as an adopted Madrileña.  Which means, even if I’m not spending the whole month of August at the beach like everyone else in the city, I like to pretend I am by generally hanging out and not doing much, except napping and going to the pool.

This summer, I knew that I would be starting my MSt at Oxford University the coming September, which would be the beginning of two intense years.  Therefore I was even more determined to spend as much time as possible being as lazy as possible.   Two weeks or so before the start of August, I got an email from the course administrator, giving us our preparatory reading list.  I read it.  I shut down my laptop and went to the pool.  I thought about it the whole time.  I went home, I read it again.  I shut down the laptop again and went for a walk.  The third time, I was able to read it more calmly and by the fourth read I felt ready to tackle it (when I returned from my first residence at the end of September, it was with the knowledge that the percentage of reading I had done (otherwise known as: reading that I had spent every spare moment (when I wasn’t working) doing) was woefully below the level expected.  If I had known that then, I probably would have given up.  Happily, I have now found a rhythm).

Once the panic subsided, I actually began to get excited.  As this course is half-creative and half-critical (analytical), there were a lot of great poets and scriptwriters I had never sat down to take the time to get to know, and now here was my opportunity.  In fact, the biggest surprise I gave myself, was that I inverted my normal order of preference in what I like to read.  My favourite part of the preparatory reading were the scripts, followed by the poetry with my beloved prose coming in third.

For this Book Diary post, here are my three favourites:

Alan Bennett – Talking Heads

I learnt from the Course Director that the reason I didn’t get through enough of the reading list as I should have was because I should have been speed-reading.  Ie. reading more books, less, rather than fewer books, thoroughly.  I think quite a lot of that deficit could be down to Alan Bennett.  I read all 12 of these plays, and then watched all of them online as well.  That was about two weeks down the drain.  But they were SO good.  In some ways – being monologues – they read like short stories (which might be why I enjoyed them particularly), but then at the same time, writing something that is purely dialogue is clearly unlike writing prose (for my money, more difficult) and also reads very differently.  They were so finely drawn; some were funny, some were sad, some were sad and funny.  It made me wonder what the North Americans on my course would make of these so very English portraits.

Lee Hall – Spoonface Steinburg and Other Plays

When I sat down to read Spoonface Steinburg I was already in a shitty mood.  I had had a bad day, I was tired, it was boiling hot, my hair looked awful and it was a colleagues’ last day at work, so I had two hours to read this play, alone in a bar, before everyone arrived for the goodbye drinks.  I looked the blurb, and I when I read that it was narrated by: “A seven year old autistic girl who is dying from cancer” I again nearly thought about quitting this Masters and burning the sadistic reading list.  However, when my colleagues all arrived and wondered why I was looking strange and altered, it wasn’t due to stress and desperation, it was because I was profoundly moved.  This was also a monologue, and so joyous and beautifully written that it turned my bad mood around totally.

Kevin Jackson – Constellation of Genius, 1922: Modernism and All That Jazz

This was actually part of the fiction reading list, but the critical part, not the creative.  It was also the biggest book in the whole reading list.  Again, it so totally hooked me in that I had to read it all (another few weeks lost).  I’m not even really all that interested in Modernist writers, some writers, by dint of being around at the same time (ish) as the big names, I like, but I couldn’t finish Mrs Dalloway when I was doing my undergraduate degree, similarly The Dubliners, so well… This book, however, I couldn’t get enough of.  It was a portrait of a moment and so well drawn that you felt part of that moment.

I’ve just submitted my first two assignments for this course, so until I get my marks, I’m suspending judgment as to whether I’ve fully found my flow, and what course-correcting (as my boss call its) needs to be done.  For now, however, I feel part of a moment, a special and unique one in my life so far and I hope that I can – like that reading list – really make the most of it.




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