By Siobhan Pipa, on 6 June 2014
Everybody has a favourite book, something that you return to time and time again. It might be a dog-eared copy of Lord of the Rings, a well-thumbed version of Pride and Prejudice or my personal favourite, To Kill a Mockingbird.
This was the question posed on Wednesday night in the UCL Festival of the Arts event ‘You Must Read This Book!’.
Chaired by UCL President & Provost, Professor Michael Arthur, seven UCL academics were given five minutes each to pitch the book they believed we should read.
Here’s a quick summary of their choices and why they think their book should have won:
Dr Butterwick-Pawlikowski introduces Pan Tadeusz with the opening verse read in Polish. The poem is a 10,000 line epic in Polish, about Lithuania, written by a Belarusian.
Set over six days in 1811 & 1812, Dr Butterwick-Pawlikowski describes Pan Tadeusz as a poem about a land of lost childhood, a lost homeland torn apart by invasion and deportation.
Following the traditional Polish themes of sin and redemption, the poem is a gently satirical account of patriotism, love and nobility, with none of its shimmering beauty lost in the translation from Polish to English.
Starting with a rather dynamic rendition of ‘Anything You Can Do’, Dr Coleman argues that this is exactly the point made by Cugoano in his book – emancipation, explanation and education, all things he can do better.
Although abolition is often associated with William Wilberforce and other politicians, Dr Coleman points out that Cugoano argued first for total abolition, explained that slavery “robbed him of himself” and proposed to open a school for those of his own colour.
Dr Coleman finished his talk with some statistics on UCL’s intake and how they compare to national and local ethnicity demographics, which don’t always match up.
When asked, most of us would say that we are familiar with most of the fairy tales recorded by the Brothers Grimm.
However, as Dr Davies points out, it’s usually the watered-down Disney-esque renditions that we know – how can something be so famous and so influential, and yet so unknown? For example in The Frog Prince, the curse isn’t broken by a sweet kiss from a Princess but rather by the Princess smashing the Frog’s head against a wall.
These are not just tales of sugar and spice and all things nice, but rather fascinating, haunting and complex stories that show us a world not just as it is but how it could be.
Set in 19th Century Hague the story tells a fictional confession of murder.
On the very first page of A Posthumous Confession we learn that the narrator has killed his wife and is deeply, deeply unattractive, so you may just wonder why this was the book selected by Professor Fenoulhet.
Professor Fenoulhet says that although the narrator, Termeer, may not exactly be the most handsome, he is incredibly complex.
Professor Fenoulhet describes the work as a chilling, unnerving and even forensic tale, open to our own interpretation – and with the added bonus of two authors (Emants and Termeer) rather than one.
The Seventh Well is a semi-fictionalised holocaust memoir, exploring “life at the mind’s limit”. Dr Fischer describes the book as being carefully and consciously crafted, in fact the book even starts with a section on the limitations of storytelling.
Rather hauntingly, Dr Fischer reminds us that as strong as storytelling is, it does not change fate – a point brought quite strongly across in the book.
Dr Fischer explains that the story follows a Levite philosophy; it is just as important to understand and as it is to empathise. Subtle, understated and very thought provoking – The Seventh Well is a jewel in the Levite crown.
Short stories can often fall a bit short, but Mrs Bathurst is the perfect length, at least according to Professor Horne.
Although the titular character only appears for the first time half way through the book, her effect on the other character’s is visible from the start. And why? Because she has “it” – sex-appeal.
A tale of desertion, Mrs Bathurst is one of the first stories to describe cinema technology. Mrs Bathurst herself, unexpectedly appears in a newsreel watched by the characters, kick-starting a tragic infatuation.
Professor Horne explains that Kipling saw the potential for cinema as a literary metaphor for magic, erotic mystery and obsessive repetition, the characters are drawn in to watching the film – just as we are into reading the book.
Considering José Saramago was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998, you’re probably not going to be alone in picking one of his book as a ‘Must Read’.
Professor Matthews explains the book is full of long and rambling sentences taking you in all directions, written in the voice of a retired lawyer or teacher – pompous but liberal and human. And opinionated.
Telling the story of a family hit with grief and who are struggling to survive, it weaves in themes of class solidarity vs economic inacessability.
So why should we read this book? As Professor Matthews reminds us, in times of global conflict we need a bit of poetry to help us understand what lies ahead of us and what is beyond our reach.
Unfortunately due to travel issues Pip Stephenson couldn’t reach UCL in time to present her choice. We did, however, get to hear which book Professor Michael Arthur would have chosen if he was presenting – Untold Stories by Alan Bennett.
After all these impassioned presentations, it was ultimately up to the audience to decide which book would be named the most popular ‘Must Read’. After a tense count, the crown was awarded to Dr Mererid Puw Davies with Children’s and Household Tales.
So what would you pick as your must read, little known book?