The past month has been packed. In fact, my life has literally been packed up into boxes, as the first thing I did this month was leave Israel and move back to England, where I am starting a postdoc at Oxford. It has been seven years since I last lived in England, but I haven’t had much time to really take it all in because no sooner had I arrived, set up all my new passwords and bought a bike, I was flying off again to Montreal, Utah, and Chicago to give talks and finish a paper. Most of my life is still packed up in those boxes, but hopefully not for too much longer.
I was in Utah two weekends, so we managed to spend one of those weekends down in the south of the state, visiting the national parks and hiking around Bryce Canyon — a “natural amphitheater” carved into the valley by millions of years worth of rain and wind. These natural forces have sculpted a landscape of striking red rock formations featuring stone spires known as Hoodoos. The Paiute native Americans who lived and roamed these valleys, before the arrival of Europeans, were as taken by the Hoodoos as the camera-toting tourists pulling up in their cars today. The Paiute had a mythology that these formations were the magically petrified remains of “Legend People”, victims of a trickster Coyote god. Who exactly such Legend People might have been remains unclear, but European settlers managed to identify one rock formation as having an uncanny resemblance to Queen Victoria:
The Canyon today takes its name from the Mormon homesteaders who settled in the area in 1874. Ebenezer Bryce was a Scottish ship’s carpenter born in 1830, who converted into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and, after being disowned by his father, moved out across the Atlantic to Utah. At the age of 17. After marrying a Mary Park in Salt Lake City he did what many of the Church’s faithful were encouraged to do: homestead. And homestead they did — not only in multiple locations in Utah, but also then in Arizona as well. All while having a fantastic number of children.
Before we made the trip I found I had to supplement my limited supply of clothing (most of my clothes being boxed away at some unknown location) if I was going to survive the weekend. So off we went to the Deseret Industries (an LDS equivalent of the Salvation Army thrift store), where aside from picking up some suitable synthetic fabrics, I found a book that took me back to high-school.
Back in 2017 my AS English Literature teacher, Alan Currie, passed away. He had covered Hamlet and Keats — if only I had such lessons to guide me through all of the English canon. But perhaps more interesting and formative for me than the examined syllabus, was the month or so we had after the AS exams had been completed. In principal, we were supposed to use that time to start preparing for the second year — which I had dropped out of (unfortunately and completely unnecessarily). In practice it seemed like the teachers took the opportunity to expose us to the breadth and variety of all English literature offered. Although these classes were redundant in terms of my final grade, I was engrossed enough to go to every one of them.
I remember one class Mr Currie came in with large A3 photocopies from the Times Literary supplement. It contained the shortlist for the TLS/Foyles (2007) poetry competition. Held every year, and now called the Mick Imlah prize, this is was an open competition and all the poems were featured anonymously; readers were provided with a coupon they could cut out and submit a vote on the winner. We spent the class poring over the poems like they were the football pools, trying to work out which was the best, and which ones could possibly be the work of a celebrated poet. Not that I think any of us aside from Mr Currie could have named a contemporary poet outside of those featured in the GCSE anthology. I remember being excited by the sense that literature was a thing going on right now, and not only was I invited to judge, but it was clear that I could also have been submitting poems (were I so inclined).
Now thanks to the Oxford libraries online archive access I’ve been able to go back and find out who actually won (The Mauve Tam-o’-Shanter by Paul Groves).
It was around this time that I set myself the challenge of reading the 1001 Book to Read Before You Die. I can’t remember exactly when I gave up on this. I think it was the moment I decided it was OK to read at a book that was not on the list. At that point the challenge took a far less definite form.
Possibly picking up on my sudden inclination to read as much of the canon as quickly as possible, Mr Currie began suggesting books to me. Usually these books were taken from the dog-eared copies of former set texts that had been retired to a supply cupboard. I remember Mr Currie showing me one classic of American literature, told from multiple viewpoints. It stuck in my mind because Mr Currie was amused to show me one unusual chapter in the middle of the text:
I was unable to recall which book this had been. Until I found myself lying in a tent within Dixie national forest, flipping through the copy of As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner I’d bought the day before from Deseret Industries, and discovered that this was in fact the book Mr Currie had suggested to me. Two chapters into the book I discovered that I remembered reading it — or at least those initial chapters. I hadn’t read any further than those first chapters, but had set it aside for some unknown reason — possibly I simply hadn’t known what to make of it.
It is strange to try and imagine what you might have made of a book when you were a decade younger. It would be nice to imagine my capacity as a reader has improved — although there is a thriving industry of commentators reporting that our attention spans have been dramatically reduced. I found myself having to reread the first sixty pages to get my head around what was going on. I’m not sure I would have been up for that in high school. Mr Currie would certainly have approved of my perseverence. I imagine he would have laughed and admitted he had done likewise. And trouble understanding half of the characters were saying.