by Benjamin Kritikos
A year ago, I made a resolution to read only women authors. The thinking behind this act of positive discrimination was that I’d read far fewer books by women than by men, and I felt like I was missing out. While I knew there were shitloads of excellent books written by women, I somehow managed to pass 30 years without reading very many. The year 2010 was my chance to redress the imbalance.
Boy, am I glad I did. I’ve spent a good deal of this past year catching up with the millions of people who read and loved the Harry Potter books — for which I was mercilessly teased by haters. That always happens to great works that happen to garner popularity, though; even Ovid‘s Metamorphoses had its haters.
Of course, most people who actively voice a dislike for Harry Potter have never read the books, but only seen the films (or sometimes not even that). I thought the films were rubbish — but hating on these books means you should pre-book a room in an old people’s home … No, I take that back. Old people are not, generally, as embittered and old-at-heart as you; and we wouldn’t want to upset them. Go read Ivanhoe or Dan Brown or whatever it is you like, and leave the rest of us alone.
I noted a distinct lack of something whilst renouncing male authors all year: it was navel-gazing. Male novelists do navel-gazing — sometimes really well, but often to the exclusion of all else. While some see this as a negative, I derive no greater pleasure than reading and re-reading the panoply of 20th century bildungsroman like The Catcher In The Rye, or novels that weave a mythical web from the raw materials of their authors’ lives, like Tropic Of Cancer or Ulysses. Still – I’m glad I had a break.
In fact, the last book I read in 2010 was Dodie Smith‘s I Capture The Castle, which is easily my new favourite book. It’s like Catcher In The Rye meets Cold Comfort Farm, and certainly the book I’d have on my person were I going to shoot a public figure. I Capture The Castle does all the things my other favourite books do, but has the added bonus of being from a 17 year old girl’s perspective. To tell you the truth, I couldn’t help but fall a bit in love with Cassandra.
Another thing I’ve noticed is that the works I read by women authors tended not to be quite as ambitious in scope as their male counterparts — which is probably a good thing. Didn’t some one call Finnegans Wake a most interesting cul-de-sac on the great road of literature? That said, re-visiting Arundhati Roy‘s The God Of Small Things stands in my mind as one of the finest examples of a healthy use of the English language, and a challenging story of intricate beauty; no doubt thanks to the uniqueness of Roy’s vision, and Asia’s place in the Anglophonic world as something of an outsider.
Barbara Kingsolver‘s The Poisonwood Bible also took the cake and threw it in poplit’s face, as far as I’m concerned. Talk about ambitious — and down to earth at the same time. Also, Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale gave me nightmares for weeks; I was in Greece, white-knuckling my way through slaughterous amounts of red tape to get my passport, and this firecracker of a novel was not exactly a source of rest and relaxation.
Another holiday this year saw me hiding from the sun in order to sink my teeth into Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s searingly brilliant story of the Biafran War, Half Of A Yellow Sun. When I finally put the book down, the pleasure of sitting on a beach or eating a hearty meal, even the (relative) lack of military presence gave me a sense of enormous gratitude to chance. Not letting myself off the hook, I moved on to re-reading To Kill A Mockingbird, which is the first book I can remember reading and being seriously moved by. It was better than I remembered it.
All in all, the books I’ve read this year have thrilled and challenged me as much as any I’ve ever read. The added bonus has been a heightened awareness of women’s issues; I found myself particularly pleased yesterday upon hearing of Miriam O’Reilly’s court victory over the BBC for their blatant sexist and ageist discrimination. Upon hearing that a verdict of sexism wasn’t brought against the Beeb, I issued an unusually brusque snort of derision. Things have changed in the small world of Ben Kritikos.
While I’ve missed Ted Hughes‘ Tales From Ovid, my perennial companion Leaves Of Grass, and the essays of George Orwell, I don’t feel as though I’ve missed much. The Spirit Level was given to me as a birthday present, with the ready-made excuse that it’s co-authored by a woman; but I’ve been adamant. The benefits are clear to me: I feel I’ve achieved a much more balanced view of what is perhaps the most important escape route in my life; a door that affords me respite from the muddled onslaught of everyday life; that is to say, the world of books.
If I hadn’t actively sought out some of these titans of literature, I may have gone through life a much poorer, uninspired and spiritually bereft man for it. That’s a comment on myself, my own lazy narrowness, and the dogged rigidity of a patriarchal society. Let me suggest to anyone who cares to hear it: spend a year reading women authors only. You’ll be doing nobody but yourself a favour.