It’s been a long time since I’ve read anything from my personal reading list. So long, in fact, that I have suddenly found myself without one. In all honesty, I have never been the kind of person with a reading list, per say. Not so deep down, I balk at the prospect of a reading list; it evokes the regimentation and planning that I read to avoid, that I have in abundance in my other pastimes. Read: I may or may not over-organize.
Nevertheless, four years ago, I signed up for an English Major in an Arts Degree and was presented with reading lists to my heart’s delight. This can be taken as fact, because every time I told someone—a friend or a stranger or someone at a job interview—that I’d embarked on a degree in English and History, they had nothing to say except ‘Wow, that must be a lot of reading’ or some variation thereof. Actually, I had the exchange down to a commendable consistency.
I’d reply ‘haha yes, but no exams, so that’s a plus. . . ’,
But later I changed this to ‘Yeah, maybe, it’s definitely an option’ because I got quite bored of my own performance and it was a lot easier than explaining why I didn’t want to be a teacher while still retaining the interest of the hapless Uber driver who’d been unfortunate enough to try to get some small talk out of me.
Anyway, I graduated last week, which introduces a fresh era of questioning frustrated at every turn. There’s the oft-cited ‘What do you want to do now?’ or the potentially more daunting ‘What are you doing now?’. And, from my fellow Literature graduates and others who like to sound like they’re in the know, there’s the strangely personal ‘What are you reading now?’, which can be a very scary question because now that I’m qualified I suppose it is also expected that I should have good taste. But what if I answer wrong and am exposed?
So, in preparation for the new line of questioning, I thought I’d better develop a robust MO. In reality, it was more a process of realization than development. That is, as a young woman at the end of a degree with a growing sense not only of her own selfhood but also her relationship to other selves, I realized that I wanted to read books by other young women, probably also about young women. And, I thought, where better to start reading than in Melbourne itself; maybe it’s the flavour of Meanjin lingering long after my internship.
Sure, I want to support the local lit scene, but I think it is also part of trying to put into practice, in small ways that make a whole way, the admiration that I have, over the last four years, gained from and for the young writing women who might live in the same places as me, who I might feasibly encounter on the weekend at a pub or a park in a nearby suburb.
Pause now to notice the difference between the present me and me at the start of my degree, when I wanted to study Literature-with-a-capital-L in really old libraries, reading really old books that everyone knew about. The kind that were lauded and respected and have probably been written about so often that it is impossible to avoid at least a 50% plagiarism rating on Turnitin, although unbeknownst to me.
But now, finally emerging from my studies, what am I actually reading?
I have just finished Hannah Kent’s The Good People, which I read because I also recently finished Burial Rites, which Mum bought me for Christmas last year because her finger was clearly more securely on the pulse than mine. However, sacrificed to the imposed restrictions of a thesis year, it lay dormant on my shelf until recently.
I finished Burial Rites in a day, a domestic flight, and one late night.
It unfolds slowly, maybe frustratingly at times—perhaps a bit lyrically (and I know that’s the unpopular flavour of the moment; things all seem to be about minimalism and bare but meaningful lines). But the frustration that I felt seemed intentional, laid over the top of the book as a fresh intonation in the plot. The slowness allows Kent to build Iceland around you, a country that I have never been to and a history that I didn’t know. In fact, aside from a desire to eventually get there, my only knowledge of Iceland was that they have the Islendiga-App and all the words in Eileen Myles’ The Importance of Being Iceland, which is certainly a different vista but which I nevertheless recommend as well. The scenery melds into Kent’s scenes, and the mountains and the sea and the sky become sites of seasonal ritual and carefully pronounced society.
In closing, in search of more, I turned to the Author’s Note and read that it was inspired by a true story, that this was a retelling, reclaiming some of the characters, restoring Agnes Magnusdottir from executed witch to condemned woman. Pretty cool indeed, and definitely trendier than lyrical description. It will be staying on my shelf—or my floor stack—for a while.
The Good People follows much the same blueprint, taking shape from nineteenth century newspaper clippings about an event of infanticide and the indictment of an old, superstitious woman in the subsequent trial. But, for me, it didn’t carry the same magic as I found in Burial Rites. A sentence I write ironically because, as the title hints at, The Good People revolves around the fairies of Irish folklore.
Perhaps I wasn’t in a state to be gripped, busy as I am in my first 9 to 5 job, or perhaps I simply was too familiar with the collision of countryside and (Christian) modernity for the themes to be surprising. Regardless, The Good People was an endeavour of three weeks, even though I think I knew the whole time how it was going to end.
That said, it wasn’t an unpleasant book to read; only, I think I am ready to dig in to something set now, something that steps along with me and maybe makes me run a bit to keep up.
So it is that I am back in the market for suggestions, hungry for more pages and happy to be reading without an essay at the end. At least, for the next little while.
Martha Swift is a past Meanjin intern and a present reader. She has just graduated from the University of Melbourne with a double major in English and History and an improbable thesis about psychoanalysis and postcolonialism.