Two Memes

I think I am doomed at the moment. Just as I was beginning to feel the stirrings of a recovery from the latest ME relapse, so I go and strain the muscles in my lower back! I’m not even quite sure how I did it. Oh and, like Mirkwood, I am resigning from the 9rules network now that they are making it compulsory to join in member discussions. I don’t have the energy to get round my entire blogroll at present, so I can hardly commit to more involvement. Even if I were fully fit, I cannot help but feel that once something has been made compulsory all the fun goes out of it. So, feeling slightly out of sorts, I’m going to do two memes from Charlotte’s blog, as I think memes are calming to the soul.

A Reading Meme

How many books do you own?

A great many and, at the same time, not enough. Putting an actual number on it sounds like a good way to incur the legislating incredulity of one’s spouse.

Last book you bought?

Just before I fell ill I have to confess I succumbed to an amazon-fest. The parcel that came contained the following: Adam Phillips, Side Effects; Siri Hustvedt, A Plea for Eros; Janet Todd, Death and the Maidens: Fanny Wollstonecraft and the Shelley Circle; Mavis Gallant, Paris Stories; Claire Tomalin, Several Strangers (a book of literary essays). And very lovely they looked in a pile, I can assure you. Since then I’ve been very good.

Last book someone bought you?

Ummm, that would be a while back and I can’t remember. However, the last book I was sent was a review copy of Romance and Readership in Twentieth-Century France: Love Stories by the excellent academic critic, Diana Holmes. I’m looking forward to it.

Last book read?

Party of the Century: The Fabulous Story of Truman Capote and His Black and White Ball by Deborah Davis. This was a frothy little confection of a book, lightweight and yet intriguing. I’ll post on it soon.

Five books that mean a lot to me

Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory

When I first arrived in Cambridge as an undergraduate I had a severe crisis of confidence over my abilities as a literary critic. The atmosphere of the place and the way literature was taught undermined me completely. It seemed like understanding a book was simply a knack you either possessed or you didn’t. Well, over the summer vacation I read this book and found a way back to the light. Literary criticism is not a knack; it’s a structured process that can be easily undertaken by anyone with a bit of practice, and theory helped me to understand this. I will forever be grateful to Eagleton.

The Harry Potter books

I shouldn’t really pick a series, I know, but with the exception of the last volume, I read all these out loud to my son, and we had just the most wonderful time together with them. Books bond, yes they do, and I felt that through them I could pass my own passion for reading onto my child, who up until then had been far more engaged by screen culture.

Albert Camus, The Outsider

I’ve spoken about this book elsewhere, and often, on this blog. It was my 17-year-old epiphany, the revelation of what a work of literature could do, the wealth of implications it could hold, the fascination of studying it and teasing its meanings out. I’m not tired of it yet.


Colette – Chéri and Le fin de Chéri, Marguerite Duras – The Lover and Le Ravissement de Lol. V. Stein

I know, I’m cheating again citing all four, but these were the books on which I wrote my Mphil dissertation. Probably the most enjoyable 15,000 words I’ve ever put together and it won me three year’s funding for a PhD. My whole life would have been different without them.

Julian Barnes – Flaubert’s Parrot

Just because I love it so. It’s one of my all-time favourite books and it shows how literary studies can be entertaining and amusing and full of creativity.


Five Writing Strengths Meme

This is every bit as hard as everyone says it is.

When I’m boring myself, I stop. If I’m finding myself dull then heaven alone knows what an audience would think. Years ago I made the decision to only talk about ‘the good bits’ in literature and I’ve always stuck to it. If I don’t feel enthused or passionate or irresistibly intrigued by something, I leave it alone.


I can’t stop analyzing. The urge to excavate is a primordial drive, I find. There’s the surface of things, and I’m sure it’s very pretty, but my interest is all in the layers and layers that lie underneath and that inevitably contain surprising, paradoxical and disturbing material. Just pass me the scalpel and give me some elbow room.

I’m a form freak. A neat structure is a thing of beauty. You’ll not recognize this one so much from my blogging, where I give myself permission to ramble, but generally when I’m writing I do like to arrange my ideas with logic and precision. I am fond of telling the students that when you have your structure in place, the piece pretty much writes itself, and it’s true.

I do like the quirky and the humorous. Somewhere in my head, Julie Andrews is forever singing ‘A spoonful of sugar’ (and isn’t that a scary thought?). The more difficult an idea or concept is, the more I think it needs to be leavened with metaphor, similes, anecdotal material or other little examples. Give a reader a picture hook and they will understand far quicker than if they are required to plough through a paragraph of dense prose.

I think of the reader at all times. When I want to explain something, I think long and hard about what the reader really needs to know, and whether he or she will already be in possession of this information. I think about the reader’s stamina, and patience for the new, and boredom threshold. I think I probably make a lot of mistakes and miscalculations, but it’s something I am constantly bearing in mind.


19 thoughts on “Two Memes

  1. ‘I’m a form freak’ – Oh thank goodness I’m not alone. If you’ve planned a piece out and worked out the structure at level after level of thinking the writing just happens. I get the students to put ever point they want to make on a separate file card so that we can then throw them all over the floor and try pattern after pattern after pattern, until we find the one that tells the truth about what needs saying. It can look a bit peculiar if you walk into my office and find two of us on hands and knees playing with little pieces of cardboard, but it really works.

  2. Julie Andrews sings that song in my head sometimes too! Sometimes she mixes it up with Supercalifragilisticexpialdocious but usually when she starts up it’s spoonful of sugar. Glad to know she visits other people’s heads too! 🙂

  3. I’m sorry to hear about the back strain.

    I did a variation on the first of your memes today as well. I gather it’s been floating around the blogosphere for a while and shifting form slightly in its travels.

    I’m not sure I dare to do the writing strengths one though. My self-esteem is quite solid but the idea of engaging in public self-praise makes me feel a bit queasy. At the same time, I’m finding other people’s answers to it very illuminating, so perhaps I ought to be brave enough to give it a go…

  4. Two memes I’ll be getting to myself during my meme-obsessed week, but I so much like reading everyone else’s answers better. Yours are terrific (most especially your answer to how many books you own).

  5. Oh, I hope your back feels better soon! I enjoyed reading this post; that Janet Todd book looks wonderful — right up my alley! And I share your love of Flaubert’s Parrot — what a wonderful book. I’m not entirely happy, though, that I’ve had “A spoonful of sugar” in my head all evening … 🙂

  6. Sorry to hear about the bad back, litlove. Hope you get some more rest (and a little stretching, maybe 🙂 ).

    Kate, here is a reason to not feel queasy. You see, everyone says that one’s greatest strengths are also one’s greatest weaknesses, and vice versa. Just ramble on about your weaknesses, and the meme will take care of itself!

  7. I can’t wait to hear what you think of the Mavis Gallant stories – I think she is wonderful. You mentioned so many of my favorites, we really should have a French lit reading fest one of these days, it would be great fun!

  8. Please take care of that back – speaking from painful experience, after coming good it could recur at the slightest provocation.

    It is interesting how differently we read books. Some have a need to analyse motives and themes while others simply read for the experience. I wonder if there is a relationship between the way we read and the way we write? I know I am the experiential type of reader and I also write as an experience. Without analysis I tweak my writing until it sounds right in my ear. Until the writing gives me a satisfying reading experience. Or do I wait to write until I have a subconscious plan?

    Once again, Litlove, you have given me much to think about. I’m glad you’re back.

  9. Oh, I am sorry to hear about your bad back. I hope the soothing memes went a little way to comfort you. I know, as one of your regular readers, that you really do bear your reader in mind. I always feel gently eased towards comprehension and elucidation rather than driven or whipped!

  10. Sorry this fall has been so difficult for you as far as your health goes. I enjoyed reading your meme answers, though. And The Outsider, which is usually tranlated in U.S. editions as The Stranger, is a favorite of mine, too, for similar reasons.

  11. I see a lot of myself in all of these answers, Litlove. Sorry to hear you haven’t been well. I send you my best wishes and look forward to popping in more often now the holidays are well and truly over for me.

  12. Ann – you and I agree on so many things, I’m not at all surprised that form is one of them! I’d love to see you on your hands and knees with your patchwork of file cards! Stefanie – the curse of Julie Andrews! I get a nasty feeling she has exercised squatter’s rights in Dorothy’s head, too – we book bloggers should beware! Kate – I loved your book meme and you should try the writing one. I thought of it less as my strengths than as the strategies I most like to deploy simply to get through the pain of writing! Emily – nice to see you back after your move, and I’ll be looking forward to your meme answers when you get there! Dorothy – I’m really sorry about Julie Andrews (though you made me laugh a lot). I did think of you, though, when I got the Janet Todd book. It’s a beautiful looking book as well, with a gorgeous cover, so I doubt it will be long before I read it. Polaris – thank you for the kind words. I promise you I am stretching with caution! Verbivore – at the very least we really ought to compare our list of favourites in French lit. I’d love to know yours. And I’m excited about the Mavis Gallant. I’ve heard so many good things about her. Harriet – I love your answers, and must leave a comment with you to that effect! I considered altering your typo here but your comeback made me laugh so much I kept it in! Archie – opposites attract, right? Every way of reading (and writing too) has its own advantages, and I’m sure they must be related. All that really matters is the gaining of pleasure. Thank you for the kind wishes and I am taking care! Charlotte – what a nice thing to say! thank you! And yes, the memes were very soothing, and just what I needed. Dew – it hasn’t been my finest hour of late! Let’s hope that means it can only get better. I’m so pleased to know you like the Camus too – isn’t he a wonderful writer? Shameless – it’s lovely to have you back and thank you for the kind wishes. I do appreciate them!

  13. Litlove, why not just admit you were hauling yet another amazon shipment of new titles in from the post and know precisely at which moment you hurt your back! Do be careful with your health and stamina, please, Litlove. I don’t know what we’d do if you didn’t find your way back from ME to regular postings on whatever topics intrigue you, so long as they pop up every day or so!

  14. I’m so tickled to see that you ordered A Plea for Eros!!! I think you’ll love it. I need to re-read it as a matter of fact.

    Also, I’m a form freak, too. I just can’t shake it.

  15. Dear David – Ssshhh! Shall we keep that incident with the books a secret?? You may have caught up now to know that health-wise, I’m having a bit of a disaster at the moment, but I’ll find my way back to posting eventually! Andi – it looks wonderful and I’m really looking forward to reading more of Hustvedt.

  16. Ha! – you too with the Eagleton! I hadn’t realised when I left my own comment. I’m envious you found it after your first year instead of towards the end of your second, as I did.

    I remember now he did a guest lecture when I was at York – he lectures as accessibly as he writes and it was really interesting.

    • Yes, when you mentioned what happened to you with Eagleton, I smiled in recognition! It was sheer chance he came into my life when he did, but I was always extremely grateful for him! I’d love to have heard him lecture. I can imagine he would be fascinating.

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