The year’s spookiest month is upon us, with pumpkins and inconveniently adhesive cobwebs a-plenty. My love for October has grown exponentially since I moved to the US. Where my childhood memories of the month have little in the way of costumes and candy, my husband’s experience of pumpkin carving and the annual terrorising of neighbourhood introverts have gone a long way to increasing my own love for Halloween. Add to this the drop in temperatures, Missouri’s vibrant autumnal colours, and my own penchant for blankets and tea, and it is unsurprising that October has become one of my favourite months of the year. In true preparation for the most cosy and reclusive of winters, October has been a bumper literary month – both globally and in my own life – and there is plenty to discuss in this edition of The Monthly Reader. So grab your biggest mug, a biscuit or two, and peruse the best in October’s bibliophilic offerings.
‘Before the internet broke my attention span I read books compulsively. Now, it takes willpower‘ by Josephine Tovey (The Guardian)
Aside from the fact that I fail to believe anyone truly uttered the statement ‘What about a club where we talk about our favourite TikTok memes and viral dances instead?’ when presented with the possibility of starting a bookclub, Josephine Tovey offers a probing reflection on one of the most troubling literary trends – the eradication of our attention spans by increasingly instantaneous entertainment. We live in a culture almost entirely structured around the principal of instant gratification. From our diets to our fashion and the media that we consume, we look for the biggest pay off in the least amount of time. While there is nothing wrong with wanting to feel good, the sense of fulfilment that comes with work and dedication is almost entirely absent from the part of our lives that we spend at leisure. And it is in these moments, I would argue, that we stand to benefit most from putting in a little effort. Josephine Tovey explains how fundamentally her reading habits have changed in favour of time spent scrolling endlessly online. It is a trend familiar to many of us and Tovey offers some valuable advice to those looking to overhaul their reading habits with a return to books from the rabbit hole of social media.
‘Sex, nudity, and satanism are why parents believe in school book censorship‘ by Kelly Jensen (Book Riot)
In this fascinating article, Kelly Jensen dissects trends surrounding the censorship of books in schools. Based largely on the findings of a 1000+ survey of parents conducted on the subject of banned books across the US, this article examines the opinions highlighted in what is the deepest dive into thoughts on literary censorship to-date. In addition to the finding that 37% of parents feel descriptions of nudity and explicit sex are adequate reasons for a book to be banned from school libraries, the survey indicated majority support (62% of survey participants) for a rating/certification system on book content. Data included in the survey indicates that attempts to ban specific books from schools are once again on the increase – following a dip between 2010 and 2016 – and Jensen points to LGBTQ+ and transgender content as the most significantly challenged. Although this article gives us much about which to be concerned, there are positive trends. When asked who should be empowered to ban books in schools, the most significant response group (42.6% of survey participants) indicated that they believed no one should have that power. The survey’s findings are enlightening and, in places, contradictory. This article makes for a worthy read on one of the most contentious topics facing the literary world.
‘“It’s an escape”: the Americans who want to live like Jane Austen‘ by Anne McCarthy (The Guardian)
In a slightly more light-hearted piece of literary journalism, Anne McCarthy investigates the ‘Janeites’ – the world’s most devoted Jane Austen fans. Although I’ve yet to garb myself in period costume, I would consider myself as placed firmly in the category of indefatigable admirer of Austen’s work – a fact testified to by my lengthy walk through muddy fields to find the lake of ‘wet Colin Firth’ fame (although perhaps that’s more indicative of my love for Colin Firth than anything else). In her article, McCarthy describes weekends held at a Jane Austen retreat in Vermont, where attendees are encouraged to leave behind all things contemporary and give themselves over to an authentic Austenian experience. It’s a good time to be English in America – from the Netflix-fascination with the cakey fantasies of The Great British Bake-Off to a love for every word that we pronounce, it’s easy to feel the love on this side of the Atlantic. We certainly owe much to our nation’s greatest talents – including Jane Austen – for carving our path as a country of enviable cultural influence.
‘Booker winners Bernadine Evaristo and Margaret Atwood on breaking the rules‘ by Claire Armitstead (The Guardian)
The Booker Prize turned our expectations on end with a decision to violate their own rules and announce two winners for 2019’s award. The product of a decision deadlock – the judging panel had yet to make a decision 30 minutes before invitees began to arrive for the Prize announcement – this year’s Booker Prize stands as a nod to both the world’s most prodigious and celebrated literary talent, as well as those works deserving greater recognition. Where Margaret Atwood’s second Booker win – for her follow-up to The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments – attests to an insight already well-respected by both popular and critical opinion, Bernandine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other explores a tangle of female voices in a novel previously receiving far less attention. Granted, it would be difficult to rival the buzz surrounding Atwood in an age that conforms so closely, both socially and politically, to her dystopian visions of a totalitarian future. Yet this year ‘s Booker decision certainly casts a keen spotlight on the disparate popular treatment of books that examine traditional notions of female identity – a fact that works perfectly well for Atwood’s political focus – versus Evaristo’s dive into the voice of black, British women of diverse sexuality. Although it has not been without its controversy, I was delighted by this year’s Booker decision. Not only in the recognition of Atwood’s stunning – and, in some respects, unexpectedly meritous – sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale but also in its willingness to celebrate two sides of the literary coin. The Guardian’s interview with this year’s winners is a wonderful examination of the shared traits in the authors’ examinations of female identity and a perfect testament (no pun intended) to the power of the female voice.
The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman (pub. Knopf)
While unashamedly enamoured with the magic of Harry Potter, my young heart undoubtedly belonged to the fantastical world created by Philip Pullman in the His Dark Materials trilogy. One of my most vivid memories from childhood is my first ever literary event, when my very patient dad took me to the local theatre for an evening with Philip Pullman. My signed copy of The Amber Spyglass remains one of my most treasured possessions. As a relative youngster attending a Catholic secondary school, the depths of Pullman’s world were both utterly convincing and profoundly thought-provoking. When the books were removed from my school library, I knew that I had struck upon fictional gold Dust (pun intended). I was already well-acquainted with Lyra, Will, and their battle against the Authority by this point but my school’s decision was certainly an inadvertent sign that Pullman’s insights on fear and censorship held more truth that I’d previously considered possible. When it was announced that Pullman would be returning to the world of His Dark Materials, I was understandably thrilled. The Secret Commonwealth is the second book in this most recent series and I am currently on a re-read of his bibliography as something of a palette-cleanse before I throw myself into this newest instalment.
What I’ve Been Reading
As I mentioned at the start of this post, October has been a bumper month for me. Where my life has been given over primarily to navigating the most recent troughs in my mental health, books have provided a necessary refuge from the tumult of therapy sessions and medication switches. This is in addition to the extra reading time that typically accompanies October and sticks around through the autumn and winter months. Darkening days and cold weather serve as the perfect ingredients for additional time spent with a head in the books and I have certainly taken advantage of everything that this month has had to offer. So here’s a look at everything I’ve read in October!
– The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman by Angela Carter
– The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
– The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova
– The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht
– Heroes and Villians by Angela Carter
– The Familiars by Stacey Halls
– The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
– Northern Lights by Philip Pullman
– The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman
– The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman (currently reading)