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The Power of Books

It feels as if a wonderful time of year is approaching when books loom larger than usual in people’s minds…

The lure of warmer weather often means we start to feel that we might have more time for the sheer pleasure of reading, whether on a sunny holiday or simply lying in the garden. Every year I look forward to a trip to the bookshop to choose my summer reading with a sense of exquisite delight and I savour the anticipation of what I might choose. My husband despairs at my refusal to use a kindle for holiday reading (I did try but it just wasn’t the same as the feel of turning the pages…) and my determination to fill our suitcase with books rather than anything else.

I have spoken to many of you about the fact that I think the books I love say a lot about my personal values. So I dedicate this blog post to an insight into what I have been reading lately and what is on my summer reading list, as a way of giving you a further glimpse into why reading is – and always will be – such a central part of my life.

I will start with a recent recommendation by a former parent: Caledonian Road by Andrew O’Hagan. I think this was suggested to me due to the vast narratives which explore all facets of society simultaneously. Caledonian Road has certainly lived up to this promise. It is a sweeping and often satirical examination of social structures, with a particular focus on London and all its extremes of wealth and poverty. It combines some deeply moving scenes connected to humanity’s many failings with some laugh-out-loud mockery of tokenistic and superficial behaviours which every part of society is guilty of. It is thought-provoking, self-questioning and deeply entertaining all at the same time… do not be deterred by its length!

On my recent trip to the US with my family, my suitcase actually came home much heavier than it started, thanks to all my literary purchases. I loved the vast bookshops there with floors dedicated to an astonishing array of genres. Of course, I could not write this post without a reference to George Eliot, but this time it is to mention the latest biographical book about her I recently purchased: The Marriage Question. Clare Carlisle brings a deeply illuminating and feminist angle to her examination of Eliot’s personal choices and the way in which she depicts marriage in her novels; Carlisle’s perspective on what might be misconstrued as the rather conventional topic of marriage is powerful. This beautiful hardback heavy-weight was packed away next to the much slimmer, but no less impactful, book which I chose during my visit to Washington’s Supreme Court: The Decisions and Dissents of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. This collection is part of the Penguin publisher’s Liberty series, the intent of which is to encourage us as readers to engage with modern-day issues connected to principles of freedom and constitutional rights.

Although I find myself increasingly drawn to non-fiction, there is no doubt that fiction is where my love of reading began. When I was small, my brother and I would be taken to the library every week during the holidays and I would always take out fourteen books at a time, the maximum you were allowed. My brother would cringe with embarrassment as we walked home, me pulling a wheelie suitcase behind me carrying all my books. I don’t think I read all fourteen every week, but just seeing the pile of books by my bed would fill me with a sense of contentment and anticipation about the joy of reading them. Since I had my daughters I have been on a mission to instil in them a love of reading too. I have an ardent wish to pass this on to them, and indeed to my students. So, these days my reading also encompasses the books I am reading with my children – Noel Streatfield’s Ballet Shoes (soon to be performed at the National Theatre) with my older daughter, and the Brambly Hedge series with my younger daughter. But it isn’t just the classics which dominate in my house… my six month old niece is shortly to be the recipient of the best book my children were given as toddlers – This Little Trailblazer: A Girl Power Primer. A fellow parent recently read my mind by giving my youngest daughter the biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the Little People, Big Dreams series.

Literature in translation has long been an interest of mine and some of my most memorable teaching moments have involved introducing students to books from cultures around the world. Haruki Murakami’s new novel, The City and Its Uncertain Walls, will be top of my list when it is released in November. This summer I may return to one of my favourite books by Isabel Allende, The Long Petal of the Sea – the evocative lyricism of the title alone is hard to beat. And if you haven’t read it, maybe add Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead to your summer list this year. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2023, it is an innovative re-working of David Copperfield which manages to combine searing examination of the causes of social and economic deprivation with an undercurrent of optimism and hopefulness for the future. It reminds all of us what a gift the next generation is – something which I am grateful for every day at South Hampstead.

So, please fill your homes with books this summer. Take your daughters to the bookshop, to the library, to any place where they can lay their hands on print and experience the wonder that is a book you fall in love with. As outlined in our latest Pastoral Spotlight, we are foregrounding a new approach to smartphones in school; tuning into reading is a powerful antidote to the lure of screentime. I look forward to hearing more about the books that you and your daughters enjoy over the half term break. In the meantime, I will leave you with some words from the inestimable Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

Never underestimate the power of a girl with a book.

Blog post by Mrs Paul, Head since September 2023.   

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