Based on several things that have happened this year, I’ve been focusing my mind on doing more academic stuff in 2018. My psychology research has taken a backseat over the past couple of years, but I’d like to revive it. So currently my reading lists partly reflect that desire; there are several projects I’d love to work on, and I’m doing a bit of reading around each one to see which would be best to work on next.
The Research Companion by Petra M. Boynton
I’m all for books that teach you how to write. My favourite academic writing books are How To Research by Blaxter, Hughes & Tight and How To Write A Thesis by Umberto Eco. I am always on the lookout for new things to read on this subject, so when Boynton shared a free sample chapter from her book I jumped on it enthusiastically.
Unfortunately I didn’t really like it. Most of the tips were very simplistic – the kinds of things that made me wonder why you’d be an academic at all if they weren’t things you’d already thought of or encountered. Perhaps it’s just pitched at a lower level than I’d expected. I imagine if I’d read it while I was doing my A-levels, or as a first year undergraduate, it might have been helpful. But for Master’s, doctorate or post-doc level researchers, the sample chapter at least is full of things they should already know.
However, my experience might be different from yours; if you’d like a very basic introduction to research skills, check it out. There’s also a Facebook group of the same name, run by the author, which is a nice touch.
The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut
Vonnegut was one of those embarrassing holes in my reading record for years. I don’t know why I’d never picked up a book of his; I think it probably has something to do with his books focusing on war and sci-fi, two genres I’m not hugely excited by. The Sirens of Titan is quite short though, and it happened to be on my bookshelf, so I thought I’d pick it up and go through it.
Winston Niles Rumfoord is a space explorer. One day he flies his spaceship into an anomaly that means he becomes pure energy, and only converts back into matter for an hour every fifty-nine days. His materialisations take place inside his old home and are witnessed only by his wife and his dog.
Mixing religion, science, war and human relations into an amalgam of sci-fi goodness, Vonnegut’s novel skims the big questions of the universe using the surreal as a backdrop. Much like Douglas Adams, Vonnegut’s way with words makes The Sirens of Titan an easy read even if you’re not generally into science fiction.
It was very good, and I’ll be looking out for more of Vonnegut’s books in the future. My favourite line:
It was literature in its finest sense, since it made Unk courageous, watchful, and secretly free. It made him his own hero in very trying times.
How To Disappear Completely by Kelsey Osgood
Although it’s described by the author as a book to help anorexics and those around them, How To Disappear Completely was recommended to me by another academic psychologist as a good introduction to the subject. I’d agree: it’s an excellent springboard if you’re new to the literature on eating disorders, particularly anorexia.
Osgood has some interesting things to say about the culture surrounding eating disorders, especially about how anorexia memoirs are viewed by sufferers and the pluses and minuses of some current theories of anorexia.
I didn’t agree 100% with everything Osgood said – there was a little too much application of one person’s experience as a general concept, and perhaps not quite enough self-reflection. But if you’re looking for a book that straddles the genres of memoirs and academic texts, this is a good one. Not quite Wasted material, but on the approach to it. If you’re already quite well-read on the subject, however, this probably won’t give you anything new.
Hungry Hell by Kate Chisholm
Let’s get this out of the way first: the cover will be viewed by many as problematic. Like Kelsey Osgood points out in How To Disappear Completely, when people are in the grip of anorexia it is common for them to seek out memoirs to use as ‘how-to’ guides. An anorexic will often scour the shelves of their local library or bookstore, looking for places where they might be able to find tips to ‘get better’ at the disease. Ideally therefore, anorexia memoirs should probably refrain from showing emaciated bodies on their covers, because while most people might look at the above picture and think “Holy crap, that’s awful”, many anorexics will view the skinny arm, prominent hip bone and protruding rib cage as aspirational and pick up the book not as a healing balm but a way to pick at the scab of anorexia and make it worse.
Having said all that, in content Hungry Hell is exactly what you’d expect from an anorexia memoir: a book detailing the struggles of a person living with the disease and her eventual recovery. It doesn’t go into too much detail about techniques and strategies, so despite its tantalising cover it doesn’t lend itself to being a ‘how-to’ for anorexics. Chisholm focuses on how she felt about her anorexia, which is one of those things that’s often neglected: so many books look at the weights people ended up at, the things they did to get there, and then the processes they went through to recover. Hungry Hell talks about the reasons behind Chisholm’s anorexia and the way she felt about herself throughout:
In an ideal world, an anorexic would like never to eat as proof of her superiority and inner resourcefulness… she perversely attempts to prove that she has no need of any sustenance – either emotional or physical – but can exist entirely without.
Like How To Disappear Completely, Hungry Hell is a bit too generalised in its statements; not every anorexic wants to prove that she’s unemotional (indeed, not every anorexic is a she), and not every anorexic gets an eating disorder from a desire to remain in a childlike state. However, as memoirs go this one is a quick, easy read and may help people whose loved ones are suffering to understand what anorexia can feel like.
Aeneid by Vergil
My Latin is rusty because I haven’t used it in so long, but luckily this version edited by Gould & Whiteley has some excellent notes that help with translation.
As you can tell from the picture, this book was published a while ago – 1964, to be exact – and it’s also an old school library book, so it’s heavily annotated in the margins with schoolchildren’s attempts at translating the text. I quite like that – I enjoy looking through books to see what other people thought of them, and how they’d translate things differently to me. When I read Hobbes’ Leviathan, I actually enjoyed the notes in the margins as much as the text itself – the previous reader had left some insightful comments that provided extra food for thought.
This book smells amazing, which is always a plus for me – if I could bottle the old book smell and make my whole house smell like that all the time, I would. (I know there have been attempts to do so. So far none of them have impressed me, but if you have any tips let me know!)
The introduction is well worth a read in this version, not just for a bit of background to the Aeneid but also for some helpful reminders about the metre of the poem in Latin and English.
The notes make up the majority of the book, from page 41-130, followed by an extensive vocabulary. So if you’re new to reading Latin and you want to start with a well-known text, this is a good one. I do highly recommend this particular version, but since it’s old you may not be able to find it. If you can, grab onto it – it’ll probably be fairly cheap (mine came as part of a job lot from a house clearance).
Candide by Voltaire
I’m now going to contradict everything I just said, because all the things I loved about Aeneid were the things I hated about Candide. This version, the Larousse Texte Intégral, includes extensive footnotes, reading guides, notes, appendices, and an introductory guide to the historical backdrop of the novel.
This disparity springs from the fact that my French is about 1000x better than my Latin, so the things I find helpful when reading a Latin book just annoy me when I’m reading something in French. French is actually my first language, so it’d be the equivalent of reading something in English and having to stop every ten seconds to read a footnote just in case it’s important, when 99% of the time it’s actually just a note about what the word means.
So, if you’re learning French and you want to start reading books in the language, the Larousse guides in general and Candide in particular are good places to start. However, if you’re fluent in a language, maybe don’t read a version that’s meant for students. I should have thought of that before trying, really, so I only have myself to blame for the sub-par reading experience.
The story focuses on Candide, who has lead a very sheltered existence but is suddenly introduced to how shit the world can actually be. Sarcastic, satirical, witty and philosophical, it will appeal if you’re a fan of novels that maintain a gripping storyline while also providing a level of social commentary. If you enjoyed L’Incroyable Histoire de Wheeler Burden by Selden Edwards (review – in French – here), you’ll like this. Plus, it’s much shorter.
A Boy Called Hope by Lara Williamson
A sweet young adult novel, A Boy Called Hope tells the story of eleven-year-old Dan Hope, whose dad left several years ago. Dan hasn’t heard from him since, but when his friend Jo insists that her favourite saint will grant him one of ten wishes, Dan makes a list and leaves it up to the saint to decide:
- A new sister who doesn’t say horrible things
- A dog with a strong stomach
- An email
- A new bike
- A swimming pool full of chocolate cereal
- To go to a school for wizards instead of Our Lady of the Portal
- To live at 221b Baker Street
- My own rocket called Hope 1
- A dad
In places moving, funny, philosophical and quasi-religious, A Boy Called Hope is the kind of thing I would have loved when I was Dan Hope’s age. Even as an adult it was an easy read and an enjoyable book; I’d certainly recommend it for teens and older children, and for adults who like to read a bit of YA fiction from time to time.
What have you read lately that you’d recommend?