2018 Reading

Nobody ever asks me what I’m reading. Instead, people tell me what they’re reading and assume not just that I’ve already read it but that I’ve read everything. There was a time when I spent the better part of a year reading “everything” in order to prepare for comprehensive exams, “everything” meaning the Norton Anthology of English Literature, vols. 1 and 2, plus a set list of texts. But, no, I haven’t read everything. In fact, the neighbours on my street have likely read far more contemporary literature than I have. The sad truth is that, for many years after taking up my first tenure-track position, I didn’t read at all — not for pleasure, at least. Having become an English professor because I spent my childhood either lost in a book or looking for new books in the local library, I found myself with no time to read!

What do English professors read? In my case, the answer was: student essays and theses, texts I was teaching, plays I went to see, journal articles under review/copyediting/proofing, journal issues, documentation, parts of new books in my field (rarely an entire monograph), The Guardian (for news), and a smattering of children’s books. The latter I read aloud, which is an enjoyable but slow way to read.

In 2018, I made a resolution to begin reading again, without a pencil in hand and with my literary critical faculties turned to “low.” I would read for the diversion of plot, for the sheer pleasure of language, and for the low-carbon-footprint imaginary journeys. The resolution was inspired partly by a planned surgery in early January, which would require a good five to six weeks of post-surgical distraction. I’d also never forgotten a statement by a graduate student colleague, Laura Moss (now at UBC), who once said that she couldn’t imagine living without an imaginary book world to dip into. And finally, Sarah Werner’s annual published reading list reminded me that I too used to keep lengthy lists of books read each year.

The 2018 list is not long. It’s also incomplete; the local library is surprisingly good at buying collections of new poetry, and I know that several dozen came home. The low point was Elena Ferrante, highly rated but deathly dull (in my opinion). The high points were Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave is Forgiven, and Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life, both of which deal with personal redemption and pivot on the accidents and choices of war. Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach was The Book I’d Been Meaning To Read for a long time; my students always talk about it because half my colleagues seem to teach it. Let’s just say it was a long-overdue and sobering read. Silas Marner is an old favourite, well deserving of a third or possibly fourth reading. Louise Penny was a delicious discovery and year-long indulgence; I began in medias res, with the only book in the Three Pines series that doesn’t visit Three Pines. I doubt Penny will ever again achieve the poetic heights of The Beautiful Mystery, but I remain an admirer of what she can do with the detective novel form.

The Bookwurms still like to have books read aloud to them. We read three classics (my choice) and the first four Harry Potter books (their choice, but I like them too). Halfway through 2019, we finally finished our third complete reading of the series.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven


Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend. 2012. 

Alexander McCall Smith, Chance Developments. 2015.

Chris Cleave, Everyone Brave is Forgiven. 2016.

Kate Atkinson, Life after Life. 2013.

Jane Urquhart, The Whirlpool. 1986.

Eden Robinson, Monkey Beach. 2000.

Willa Cather, My Antonia. 1918.

Louise Penny, The Beautiful Mystery. 2012.

David Guterson, Snow Falling on Cedars. 1994.

Louise Penny, Still Life. 2005.

Louise Penny, The Brutal Telling. 2009.

Louise Penny, Bury Your Dead. 2010.

George Eliot, Silas Marner. 1861.

Phoebe Wang, Admission Requirements. 2017. 9780771005572

Maeve Binchy, Whitehorn Woods. 2006.

Rachel Kadish, The Weight of Ink. 2017.

Louise Penny, Glass Houses. 2017.

Louise Penny, A Fatal Grace. 2007.

Annabel Lyon, The Golden Mean. 2009.

Reading with/to the Young Readers

Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden. 1910.

J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. 1997.

J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. 1998.

J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. 1999.

J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. 2000.

Michael Morpurgo, War Horse. 1982.

E. B. White. Charlotte’s Web. 1952.

Fifty Special Books at UVic

[This post was first published on the Fifty Special Books blog created by the Department of English to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the University of Victoria. Contributors were asked to name a book that had special significance to them, provide a photo of the book or a photo of themselves reading the book, quote a passage from the book, and explain why it was meaningful to them.]

Image from Amazon.ca

Janelle Jenstad

Associate Professor, English

Affiliation with UVic English: Faculty; Alumni, B.A. Hons. 1992

Special Book: Possession, A. S. Byatt

When did you first read this book: July 1993

Which sentence from this book has special significance for you?

“There are things which happen and leave no discernible trace, are not spoken or written of, though it would be very wrong to say that subsequent events go on indifferently, all the same, as though such things had never been.”

What does the sentence mean to you?

I first read Possession in the summer between my M.A. and Ph.D. degrees at Queen’s University. I loved the way this literary detective story unfolded through archival discoveries, semi-autobiographical Victorian poetry, transcriptions of letters and journals, and historical fiction. I became an early modernist, not a Victorianist, but, in retrospect, I can see that the story of a number of modern-day scholars competing and collaborating to discover the truth about nineteenth-century literary figures had a profound influence on my research practices. My training did not cover archival research or paleography … but I was determined to study records and letters. Eventually, I set off for England armed with a basic knowledge of Elizabethan Secretary and a romantic notion that I would change literary history by digging in the archives, just as Roland Michell and Maud Bailey did in Possession. Of course, I discovered very quickly that the records of early modern England are richer than I’d ever dreamed, and partial in ways that are both fascinating and frustrating. Finding out why people and institutions record certain things in certain ways became an obsession. It was the very partiality of literary history that ultimately interested me. Every record seemed haunted by “the things which happen and leave no discernible trace.” I wondered constantly about the unrecorded lives and events that changed the course of history, the books that have disappeared from our cultural history, the irretrievable responses of readers and playgoers, the complex lives of individuals whose dreams and desperation survive only in a line recorded by a clerk. These lines from _Possession_ came back to me as I worked; they reminded me that the past humbles the scholar, but they also legitimated a certain conjecture and imagination. Without an omniscient narrator to tell us of that profound encounter, we have to dream it ourselves even if we can never prove it. And perhaps it’s that desire for an omniscient narrator that makes me a literary critic rather than a historian.