What’s a Book Worth?
‘What’s A Book Worth’ a brainchild of Mathew Lyons is a campaign attempting to re-realisation the worth of books. The team at HTTP (History to the Public) decided to get involved as well because everyone on the team loves books. A discussion of what is a book worth occurred in our team members from the UK, Ireland, Canada, and Germany. Take a look at individual team member’s thoughts on the worth of a book:
My chosen book is The Crusades: 1095-1197 by Jonathan Phillips. I was introduced to this book at college and, while I didn’t realise it at the time, it would change my entire career path. My teacher was adamant that this book would serve as the basis of my own and other students’ understanding of the crusades. It was a period of history that Jonathan Phillips brought to life in a way that had me completely engrossed . He traced it from the beginning, Pope Urban II’s speech at Clermont, to the aftermath of the Third Crusade (the second edition was released in 2015 covering the Fourth Crusade).
Today I’m studying for a Master of Arts in Crusader Studies with plans to pursue a PhD in the subject. I had no clear career path in 2009; now, six years later, I’m training to be a historian.
Animal Farm by George Orwell came quickly to mind along with my favourite book series ever, Harry Potter (Or–or–others, as Uncle Tom’s Cabin,Tess of the d’Urberville,Wuthering Heights…this list is endless, believe me!). When I first read Animal Farm, it made me realize how complicated societies, ideologies, and cultural differences really are. What makes Orwell’s writing so brilliant is his style of narration; readers of any age will always get something different out of it. When I first read it, I was about twelve years old, sitting in my bed with my head bent down, engrossed. The hours just flew by! I remember closing the book, and the biggest grin spreading over my face. What a book!
Whenever I watch the news or listen to political debates, I am reminded of the silliness of it all. We are so caught up in our own ideologies and trying to topple others, that we often miss the bigger issues. I think that is why my other favourite works, listed in brackets, all centre on social problems and the unfairness of society.
From what I had read of its premise, I didn’t expect to become half as enraptured as I did by Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife.
One of the reasons I’ve developed such a strong attachment to the study of history (or so I like to imagine; the reality is probably far more disappointingly mundane) is my longstanding fascination with questions of continuity. I relish almost any kind of writing in which the past and the present collide and interact, and in which the personal consequences of this intermingling are explored. While this is part and parcel of history, the most compelling writing of this sort is usually to be found in science fiction, particularly stories involving time travel. I love science fiction that makes the effort to explore the full implications of travelling in time, and its effects on both the world (or the universe) and the time traveller themselves.
This, for me, is the abiding appeal of Niffenegger’s book. It is of course also a love story—and one written with beautiful delicacy and, thankfully, minimal schmaltz. For me, however, the author’s triumph is in the imagination with which she approaches her concept of time travel, and the way in which she places its personal impact on her protagonist at the core of the story.
Time travel isn’t simply an expedient plot device here, a vehicle used to shift Henry from one self-contained adventure to the next. It is a distortion at the very centre of his life, which forces him into frequent, and often traumatic, contact with his past and future selves, and which robs him of the luxury of defining himself, as we do, in a straightforward linear way. His morality, his free will, his likes and loves, all these are cast into doubt by the role that his time travelling has played in shaping his life. His personal continuity—his sense of who he is and where he’s going—has been twisted into a sort of reflective prison, within which he strives, nonetheless, to live a normal life.
It was, in short, an exhilarating and supremely meaningful read.
Oh, and if you’re only really familiar with The Time Traveler’s Wife from the insipid and emotionally flat film adaptation that emerged a couple of years ago, forget everything you think you know about the story. The novel is far more cleverly constructed, thought-provoking and heartfelt, and its characters both more intelligent and more vivacious. If you enjoyed the film, you’ll love it. If the film left you cold, it will redeem the story for you.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: I first read this classic after watching the famous BBC adaptation, which introduced me to the joys of Austen. The messages and morals around first impressions, judgements, relationships, friendship and family are just as relevant today as they were during the Regency era. Reading is a chance to escape, and for me escaping to a different period and embracing a different world. The society, houses and social etiquette are there to be enjoyed but questioned – and Austen encourages such questioning throughout the novel. We all make our own judgements and are so set in our own ways, but Austen, in her witty, yet meaningful prose, hints at the dangers of such stubbornness. Austen herself was an inspirational and remarkable woman —she penned ‘First Impressions’ (later to be renamed Pride and Prejudice) when she was just twenty-one years old! We are still as absorbed today by Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy’s quest to discover themselves and each other. This book makes readers laugh, cry and fall in love with a story whose morals remain pertinent today. And of course, Austen perfectly encapsulates our love of books; “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book!”
When I look back, I realise I have read many, many books. As an academic that’s sort of what you do for a living and if you don’t like it, there’s really no point. Once, at a party, an acquaintance who had given up on academia turned to me and said, “so, writing a PhD eh?! That involves reading around 400 books and then sitting down to write your own!” I did not know what to answer… indeed, my bibliography at that point was around 300 and counting… but this sounded so quantitative, so mechanical. Was it really that simple? I realised books are so much more to me. They are not something you collect but that you engage with. They can change you and your relationships. With fiction you get insight into potential lives you will never have. Even with factual writing, you get privileged insight into someone else’s mind – their way of thinking. Books matter to me because they remind me of the significance of being human and how much we share with others, in ways we struggle to express. In this sense, if I have to name just one book it would have to be Naive. Super by Erlend Loe. This is not only because I laughed from cover to cover and recognised myself in nearly 100% of the thoughts of the main character — a Norwegian in his mid-20s who was so confused about life that he would spend most of his time playing ball against a wall and making random lists — but because it is a book that I have shared with others and has brought me closer not just to its author (and many unknown readers), but to my friends too.
Perhaps it’s unusual to choose a book that I have yet to finish but with fifty pages left to go in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at NoonI’m quite certain that its words will stay with me for years. Asking ‘What’s a Book Worth?’ only serves to highlight the fact that reading is a subjective experience. In this sense, I think the moment in which you read a book contributes hugely to how much it influences you. At the moment I’m trying to figure out the structure of a thesis that examines how intellectuals and has-been revolutionaries in Western Europe perceived Soviet Communism during the interwar period. Somehow I think I’ve found a compass for my research in Koestler’s fictionalised account of an old guard Bolshevik caught up in the maelstrom of the Stalinist show trials.
Koestler’s book underscores the ways in which language influences our perception of the world. The book led me to perceive a kind of ‘Communist vernacular’ implicit in the writings of the protagonists of my thesis. For instance, Koestler’s quasi-nihilistic style contends with the view of his fellow traveller contemporaries, who lauded the Soviet experiment. At the time of his writing, the death of millions was rationalised by the somewhat fallacious argument that the ‘end justified the means.’ As his protagonist Rubashov notes, this ‘ultimate truth is penultimately a falsehood.’ Rubashov’s prison cell recollections take place in a Western Europe populated by utopian idealists–blind to the grim realities of the nascent totalitarian regime, as they remain fixated on the industrial sector of the society ‘Over There.’
Darkness at Noon was exactly what I needed to read as I apprehensively plunge into the beginning of my research. Let’s hope the next fifty pages don’t derail my perception of the book, though with the brilliance of Koestler’s writing so far, I’m surely in good hands.
I second Tiia in saying it is nearly impossible to choose a single, most influential book. As I mentioned in my last post, even the concept of a ‘book’ is nebulous nowadays–with academics referring to books as ‘books-as-objects.’ Moreover, books resonate with us differently as we age. Perhaps this is why we reread old favourites. After all, the best literature is that which speaks to our own experience. And so, it goes without saying that the more we experience, the more we can appreciate good literature, which is none other than a faithful representation of life. One cannot know the world exclusively through books, without comparable real-world experience. How does a reader understand, let alone assess the quality of the art, if she cannot critique the artist’s ability to imitate the subject?
What is a book? A book is many things for me. It is, first and foremost, a beautifully textured and scented object, marked by use and time. Occasionally it is the handwritten shopping list, stuck between pages 274-275, that intrigues me; at other times it is the binding, an embossed green and gold cover, or an etching of nymphs and shepherds on a frontispiece. Though the word ‘book’ is used synonymously with ‘novel,’ the above excerpts suggest a multiplicity of meanings. For Muzaffar, it’s a nonfictional account of the Crusades; for Simon, it’s a fictional interpretation of the concept of time. While all of these books are different, their worth is in the same thing: their ability to shape the perspective and life of a reader.
So, which books have shaped me? Primarily poetry collections, though I have fascinations with biography, short-form essays, and artist’s novels. Rumi, Shakespeare, John Donne, and T.S. Eliot are a few favourites, as well as Lewis’Surprised by Joy, Emerson’s essays, Thoreau’s A Writer’s Journal, Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist and Woolf’s’ A Writer’s Diary’. There is nothing more terrifying yet simultaneously mesmerizing than reading Woolf’s account of her own madness, as she forecasts drowning herself in a river with a dressful of rocks. Autobiography is the combustion of fiction and history.
Poetry collections are perhaps most conducive to rereading; metaphors and inversions facilitate new interpretations with each encounter. This is especially true of “Little Gidding,” a poem within T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartetscollection. Ruminating on history and time, Eliot writes that “the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” This I think, perfectly describes the reading process. Reading simultaneously replicates and ruptures our view of reality, giving us a new perspective. We value books because they are reliquaries that contain our ever-changing histories, where “every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning / Every poem an epitaph” (Eliot, “Little Gidding”).
By using the hashtag #WhatsABookWorth (and @WhatsABookWorth) on twitter, you can explore other peoples chosen books! Get involved, and lets re-realise the worth of books.
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