Ever since I was a child I have always been an avid reader and lover of books. I was born into a family that owned a bookshop and even though it is no longer open, both of my parents still work in the book trade. I grew up enchanted by ideas of kingdoms above the treetops, secret camps on distant islands, wild gardens beyond locked gates and limitless dreams leading to endless possibilities. Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, Noel Streatfeild, Francis Hodgson-Burnett, Arthur Ransome, Michelle Magorian; how could I not have fallen in love?
My biggest problem when it comes to reading is that there is just so much choice. In the past year this has unfortunately led to me being notoriously bad at doing one of the most crucial things you should do with a book: finish it. I might be half way through a book when suddenly I come across something that sounds immediately more exciting, all too hastily abandoning my work-in-progress for the delights of something new. Of course if you never finish books, you never truly take from them everything that they were written to give and you most certainly cannot claim that you have read them.
I hereby declare that the dawn of 2013 has brought with it ‘the new me’. My one and only New Year’s resolution this year was to read at least 50 books. Now you may say, “50 books? That’s easy.” However for a reader as distracted as I, to read approximately one book a week (and FINISH it) is going to be quite a challenge. Nevertheless I am extremely excited to take on this resolution and have already read three books (cover-to-cover) this year. I am writing this article on the 14th January so I am currently ahead of schedule!
I started off the year with a book by one of my favourite young adult authors; Paper Towns by John Green. Many of you may have read his bestseller, Looking for Alaska, which I absolutely adored for its sharp wit and strong female lead. Paper Towns tells the story of Quentin Jacobsen, a fairly normal American teenager. Everything in his life is routine – unexceptional; his friends, his family, his school. Everything that is, except for Margo Roth Spiegelman, the secret love of his life. Once close childhood friends, Margo and Q grew apart, when, at senior school her wicked sense of humour and magnificent looks rapidly led to the entire school following in Q’s footsteps and falling in love with her. For the proceeding years Q watches and loves the wondrous Margo from afar, him getting on with his life and she getting on with hers. Time passes and memories begin to fade until one night, as he sits by his computer, Margo Roth Spiegelman opens his bedroom window; summoning him to join her on an all-night campaign of revenge – a night that Quentin Jacobsen will never forget. The blurb of Paper Towns reads:
“After their all-nighter ends and a new day breaks, Q arrives at school to find that Margo has not. Always an enigma, she now becomes a mystery and Q soon learns that there re clues to be followed in search for Margo.”
I enjoyed Looking for Alaska so much that I was concerned Paper Towns might let me down however I could not have been more wrong. A book full of intrigue, mystery and young love, the world of Quentin Jacobsen and Margo Roth Spiegelman is worlds away from your average teen romance. John Green’s writing style allows you, as a reader, not just to be introduced to his characters by name but to very quickly feel as if you had spoken to them for every day of your life. There is no such thing as a dull character in his books; each has something bizarrely and wonderfully idiosyncratic about them that instantly makes them more than a name on a piece of paper; something that gives them depth and a history.
If you, like I was, are beginning to get annoyed by the lack of strong, show-stealing female leads in YA fiction then John Green is for you. The classics are filled with bolshie head-strong women: Elizabeth Bennett, Jane Eyre, the sisters in Little Women however teen fiction has become awash with ditsy girls falling in love too easily and being portrayed as indecisive and frankly stupid. I have found few authors who have broken this stereotype. My number one favourite: the fabulous J.K. Rowling; who pioneered through with her incredibly intelligent, witty Hermione Granger. Now, finally, comes John Green with Alaska Young, Margo Roth Spiegelman and Hazel Grace Lancaster and it’s amazing – read them all – read them now!
On a final note, if you are a fan of the immensely popular ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ by Stephen Chbosky then I think you would definitely enjoy John Green – after finding no sequel by Chbosky to continue my love and admiration of Perks I found John Green more than adequately filled this literary hole in my bookshelf.
My second book of the month was in fact January’s read for my book club and was the sinister ‘Heart-shaped Bruise’ by Tanya Byrne. Awaiting trial at Archway Young Offenders Institution, Emily Koll tells her side of the story for the first time. ‘Heart-shaped Bruise’ is a compulsive and moving novel about infamy, identity and how far a person might go to seek revenge. Byrne, through Emily’s diary, slowly reveals the emotive and distressing events that led to Emily Koll, daughter of murderer, looking out at the world from behind iron bars.
As an avid reader of crime fiction this book appealed to me for many reasons. Firstly the desire to discover exactly what it was that Emily Koll was locked away for, but also to attempt to understand why. I became increasingly interested by the psychological aspects of the book; the detachment in the mind-set of a criminal and Emily’s cunning methods of revenge which draw a clear parallel with the techniques of the German Stasi regime.
‘Heart-shaped Bruise’ was extremely popular at my book club, amongst both boys and girls and in fact leant itself well to discussion due to the reading group questions at the back. I would recommend this to anyone looking for something that does not follow the path that you might expect a teen crime fiction novel to take. At my book club there was large debate over whether we actually liked the protagonist, Emily, as a character or not. Polly Philp summed up our eventual consensus when she said of her, “I spent a lot of the book pitying Emily before I eventually realised that she was quite the bitch.” So there you are. If you are looking for something a little different, a bit intriguing and a lot sinister then Tanya Byrne’s debut novel is for you.
My final book for this issue proves my aim for this column – that there might be something for everyone to read as it is quite different to the previous two. ‘Morality Without God’ by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong is a 160-page polemic arguing the case that society does not need religion to be moral and just. Having heard Sinnott-Armstrong talk about this very subject on Philosophy bites I was more than eager to read his book. As an atheist myself, I find the notion that I am probably an immoral person due to my not following a religion, firstly ridiculous and not least, insulting.
Throughout the book Sinnott-Armstrong tackles the idea that ‘if God does not exist – everything is permitted’ which raises many interesting questions. Firstly it forces us to question why, then, do secular people perform acts of moral kindness and avoid acts which are considered immoral? Secondly we must ask, if a theist’s desire to behave in a morally correct way is a direct result of a want to go to Heaven or a fear of going to Hell – is this truly as good and selfless as a person simply behaving well to avoid causing harm to other people?
Walter Sinnott-Armstrong argues that in order to be moral in any given circumstance, a person need not look to God for advice. In fact in many cases this might be dangerously immoral as religious texts such as the Bible have been known to give some questionable words of wisdom. These include women being banned from speaking in churches, a man who curses his parents being instantly put to death and slaves being commanded to obey their master in everything – never mind their human rights. So how, you might ask, can I remain a morally good person without the guidelines set down for me by God? It is simple, answers Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, you must live by what he refers to as harm-based morality. Are you causing anyone harm, in any way by your action? If you are then this is morally wrong because harm is pain and causing someone pain is wrong – we don’t need someone to tell us that.
Take the phrase ‘if God does not exist – everything is permitted’. Sinnott-Armstrong disproves this theory by arguing that rape, for instance, is wrong whether God exists or not. Rape is morally wrong, not just because a supreme being said it was, but because it causes harm to the victim. Clearly, as he explains, there are exceptions to this moral code. Take for example a doctor cutting open a patient. However in circumstances such as these the short term pain is often created in an attempt to achieve a greater good and this must, of course, be taken into account.
I have given a remarkably one-sided opinion of the subject and have spoken only of the conclusion to Sinnott-Armstrong’s musings however ‘Morality Without God’ considers both theistic and secular angles fairly whilst continually drawing concise conclusions. In America, a nation where 53% of people would not vote for an atheist President, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong boldly addresses an issue which is dividing his country in half. This book is an accessible text with astounding clarity which I would whole-heartedly recommend to both atheists and theists.
I hope, during the course of this article you have perhaps seen something that entices you and gives you that desire to read. It seemed fitting that for my first article in this series, I would finish with my favourite quote about reading, written by Alan Bennett in The History Boys:
“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”