Visit to the John Rylands and some Shakespeare appreciation

Last week a friend and I went to an exhibition at the John Rylands library, owned by The University of Manchester. The exhibit was on witchcraft and the supernatural, and they had some fantastic documents on display. It is definitely the most beautiful library I have EVER been in, here are some pictures, for anyone who might be interested. Would recommend a visit as a must to anyone in or near Manchester, if they haven’t already been!

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Although we mainly went for my friend, who specialises in Italian Renaissance history, I also found a few things on display which were of particular interest to my degree. They had Shakespeare’s first folio on display, as well as a first edition of the sonnets (obviously open on Sonnet 18). Which got me thinking, which Shakespeare play is my favourite?

Don’t get me wrong, I am more of a Marlowe person, but unfortunately he never had the chance to produce as many plays as Shakespeare. I get that the language can make his work seem inaccessible, at first, but I think with a good edition and after reading a few of his plays, it gets much easier to get to grips with. Some people argue with me that he’s dated- I could not disagree more on this point, he is just as relevant (probably more so) now as he was in the 1600’s. His plays represent human nature, in all of its forms. I really can’t think of a personality which he has not covered, in some way. He also doesn’t get credit for his sense of humour, a lot of his plays are hilarious!

My favourite play by Shakespeare, however, is not very generously supplied with humour. I first read King Lear three years ago, and I absolutely hated it. I know all plays require a certain amount of suspending your disbelief, but this? From the first scene it hit me as being so blatantly ridiculous; he’s cast aside his loyal daughter and split his kingdom between the two evil ones instead, and it doesn’t necessarily get much more convincing after that.

But then I, for college, had to read it a few times, and it struck me that perhaps it wasn’t all so black and white. The play didn’t get more believable the more often I read it, I just stopped seeing the play as a plot that had to make sense, and started seeing it as a depiction of human nature. Take Goneril and Regan; they do bad things, but how would you feel if your father had declared in front of a room full of people that you were only getting a decent share of his will because his favourite child had displeased him, and the terms of this was that he was going to stay with you for six months every year, along with 100 of his friends? I thought so. Lear is a difficult man, and he shows himself to be rash. Or Edmund, he is a bastard and very much a product of his time. I was born out of wedlock, and I can safely say I have never even been asked about it, but back then it was considered a pretty horrendous social stigma. Plus, he is a lot more intelligent than Edgar, and ALWAYS cast as being the better looking brother. These characters are what makes King Lear so amazing- good and evil characters are ENTIRELY subjective.

I think the play took longer to grow on me, because tragedies are a genre I just find harder to like. Some do contain comic elements, like Romeo and Juliet (which was my close second favourite), which I think helps me to warm to them a bit more. After the second reading of King Lear I could appreciate the literary merit and significance. Then I began to see, it is just so incredibly relevant. There is no person who can be completely good all of the time, even the saintly (wet flannel, if you ask me) character of Cordelia shows herself to be very proud. Likewise, although Lear is rash and often cruel he is not an inherently evil character who can’t be sympathised with.

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In defence of the literary classics


I’m now at the stage where I have almost finished my Literature degree; alongside this I’m gaining some experience by working in a publishing house. I keep up to date with the trends in book market; although I doubt I’d ever be able to predict them or guess how long they may last. So I really pay close attention to EVERY opinion which I hear relating to literature and the book market. In my personal experience, I’ve noticed a growing feeling of disapproval of “the classics” in literature.

Before I give my opinion on their validity, I’ll run through a couple which spring to my mind as being particularly important; Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, Moby Dick, Wuthering Heights, 1984, Vanity Fair and The Catcher in the Rye. I know it’s a relatively abstract concept, but this at least gives an idea of my own personal opinion. There are hundreds of books which fall into the category- but there are also millions that do not. Also, I don’t just have a preference for the Anglo-American literature, I also adore; War and Peace, The Aeneid, Lolita, Madame Bovray, The Iliad and The Divine Comedy.  (Side note, I would love to hear what texts other people consider to be particularly important classics, I’m making a list of highly recommended ones which I want to get around to reading).

Now that I’ve mentioned some texts, I can move on to the specifics of what I’ve been noticing. I’ve encountered a lot of people studying literature, who say that they simply don’t like the classics. I don’t pretend to get that viewpoint; I know not every classic speaks to everyone, but I think there must be one out there that appeals on a level to every one? If people aren’t giving the classics a chance, I was once hugely guilty of doing the opposite, if it was published after 1955 I probably didn’t want to know. Although, after much persuasion, I gave Irvine Welsh a chance, and realised that actually I should be giving modern literature a lot more credit than I had been.

So I’ve changed my attitude towards modern literature; after all, an editor who can’t stomach new authors would not survive very long in the publishing industry. Despite that, my pet hate will always be the association many lit students make between those who love the classics and snobs. Having an appreciation for the great writers of the past, without whom many of the popular books of our time would not have been possible, is not synonymous with literary snobbery. Without the Marquis Du Sade, Fifty Shades of Grey could never have been published- the content would have been deemed too shocking if the Marquis had not been determined to write erotic and sadistic literature all those years ago. Without  Jane Austen, Bridget Jones’ Diary could have ended up as a very different story. Even the film industry has been influenced by the classics; without Shakespeare, we could not have had She’s the Man, and that is not the world I want to live in. I could go on, but I’m sure you get the picture.

The classics have an influence which is impossible to measure; take T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land; keeping track of the literary allusions in that is nearly impossible without the help of several study guides and Wikipedia- and that is just one man’s poem. Without them, literature would not be the same as it is today. I don’t think appreciating this is something which should be frowned upon. Even in university, when the electives start being decided upon, it is always those with a heavier percentage of classic titles on the reading list with the smallest number of students enrolled. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s important to study more modern work too, but classic literature seems to be dying a death unless it is forced upon students in compulsory modules. I know there is the popular argument, ‘the classics have dominated universities for hundreds of years, is it not time to give other authors a chance?’. Yes, give them a chance, but this shouldn’t mean that the writers who prefigured their work should be ignored either.

People often cite their reason for studying history to be this, that it is only by understanding the past, that you can begin to make sense of the present- so is literature any different? Appreciation for Austen and Nabakov does not mean that I consider Person A’s love for Harry Potter or Person B’s obsession with The Hunger Games to be inferior to my own taste; these might be books that I have read and disliked, but the world would be an incredibly boring place if we all liked the same things.





Byron and the decline of poetry

So today I finally finished reading Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage by Lord Byron, needless to say I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself because it is long. This is the only Byron that I’ve ever read, and it’s in preparation for a course unit that I will be doing on him this year at University. I do feel somewhat guilty that it has taken me so long to get around to reading him, he’s been on my to read list for a long time now. I thought some of it was really beautiful, particularly the opening sections; although it was only my first reading so a fair amount of it went way over my head. I’ve studied classics, so the descriptions of Greece and Italy and the mentions of the pagan Gods were also aspects I found interesting.

I’ve always adored poetry, but predominantly the more modern authors; Plath, Lowell and Eliot have always been my firm favourites. However, I do always try to keep an open mind and give all poets a chance. I’m not a major fan of the Romantic movement, but I’ve only really encountered Blake and Wordsworth, and the movement is so much bigger than those two figures. So that’s a large part of the reason that I opted to study Byron, I wanted to give the movement a bit more of a chance.

Although University has taught me that most of the people on my English Lit course don’t share my enthusiasm for poetry. I can’t pretend it didn’t confuse me- a lot. I know it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and many people prefer books (totally understandable), but I am talking about a borderline vehement dislike from nearly everyone who I’ve spoken to about it. I can see why some people don’t adore it; I’ve heard a lot of people talking about how it’s too veiled etc, but I favour the Confessional movement so that’s not totally applicable to my personal taste.

There’s a total of fourteen people taking the Byron course unit, out of nearly 150 English students, and a few have already mentioned to me that it’s only because there’s less reading involved in what is going to be a content heavy year. I really did think that such seminal figure in poetry would have attracted a lot more enthusiasm, and that the sole appeal wouldn’t be the thought of an easier workload. I took a look at the other course units that were on offer, and Byron was the only unit that solely focused on poetry. Which got me thinking, I actually have not had the option throughout my degree to do a unit which is entirely focused on poetry. If course units are renewed based on popularity, then Lord Byron certainly won’t be making a triumphant return for next year’s English students.

I wonder if this is part of a wider trend across universities, is poetry just being viewed as slightly out of fashion now? I do hope not, because I think there is poetry out there to suit everyone, just like books, you just have to be open minded when trying to find it. file

If anyone reading this has any experience with reading Byron, or the wider Romantic movement in general, I’d love to hear your views as I am relatively new to it from an academic perspective 🙂



What does your favourite book look like?

This is a subject which a friend and I have been debating for as long as I have known him. I am not referring to the look in terms of the artwork on the cover; what I mean is, what sort of state is your favourite book in?

For well over ten years, The Picture of Dorian Gray has been a favourite of mine (as of yet, I have been unable to ever truly decide upon one definitive favourite book). As can be seen in the picture I own two editions; one is just about clinging on to life with the aid of a roll of sticky tape (with a spine that is now more crooked than Dorian Gray’s morals), the other has only been read once. Having multiple of the same book is not an unusual thing for me; I have two copies of Machiavelli’s The Prince, two copies of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil and four copies of Pride and Prejudice, and several other too  numerous to list.

Many of the books for which I have multiple copies can be neatly separated into three categories; old and in need of binning, new pretty hardbacks and sentimental gifts. Yet for some reason, when I go to re-read Dorian Gray, I will always go immediately to the older edition. This is not even because of a sense of vanity in not wanting the newer one to worsen in appearance, it just does not feel the same. The older copy has accompanied me to four countries, journeyed with me on more trains than I could begin to count and survived three home changes. This edition will also be the one that I use for my dissertation which I will begin drafting in a few weeks. I have a strong sense of attachment to the older book, not just because I love the story so much, but because it has been with me for so long.

The newer edition looks lovely on my bookshelf, and I will freely admit to being a book lover who takes pride in the appearance of her collection. Yet all of the books which I love the most are now barely in a fit state to be read. Perhaps the edition does not matter greatly; in a logical sense anyway, the paradoxes of Lord Henry will jump off the page just as vividly in either book- they are the same words spoken by the same character. Despite this I know that whenever I re-read my favourite stories, they will be the ones with my own thoughts scrawled in the margin, coffee stained pages and half attached covers.