The more things change, the more they stay the same. The Canterbury Tales is likely to be on my reading list for quite some time, although I have made it as far as ‘Sir Thopas’. Why does no-one ever think to mention the amount of rape, murder, and general mayhem contained within Chaucer’s stories? Honestly, I’m sure a lot more teenagers would battle their way through it if you told them it contains such twisted tales as the story of a little boy who keeps singing after he’s dead, even though his throat has been slit wide open. Seriously, by modern standards this is a surprisingly messed-up book.
Even more messed up, for the record, than the Bible, which at least doesn’t pretend that rape and murder are fun family entertainment. I’ve finished Job, the last chapters of which are some of my favourite in the Bible for their portrayal of the sheer, sweeping grandeur of God’s glory, as well as being the longest continuous passages of speech assigned to God the Father. I’m back in the early chapters of Genesis, still working on the Psalms, and have knocked off a couple of the epistles, which means I’m a little behind if I want to finish by the end of the year (there are 66 books in the Bible, some only a page or two long, others stretching to well over a hundred pages, so I need to average around six a month to be sure of completing the whole thing by December 31st).
For poetry, I’m reading The Works of Matthew Arnold, one of the lesser-known of the second generation of the Romantic poets, but at the time a widely-recognised contemporary of Tennyson, Browning and Hopkins. He was a well-read man and his poems are rich with literary allusions which largely escape me, but they’re also very beautiful. The best known today is probably ‘Dover Beach’ (‘The sea is calm tonight/The tide is full, the moon lies fair…’).
In an effort to stay abreast of at least some popular contemporary writing (and because I picked it up for a couple of dollars second-hand) I’m reading – and very much enjoying – Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, in which I’ve just reached the ‘Pray’ section, about her time at an Indian Ashram. It’s been a while since I read any biography or autobiography, and while Gilbert’s book is hardly on a level with Mandela’s ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ it’s a wonderfully easy and engaging account of one woman’s efforts to discover who she is or, perhaps, who she wants to become.
Finally, and for no particular reason, I’m reading T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, which manages to be both a faithful and a romantic and wonderfully anachronistic retelling of the legends of King Arthur, rich with evocative scenes of Merrie Olde England and a cameo by Robin Hood. First published in 1939 it reads like a book intended for children but, as a faithful retelling, cannot ignore (even if it is hardly explicit in portraying) the rape, incest and adultery which set the tragic course of the story. This may, perhaps, explain why such an enjoyable and well-written story has never achieved a place alongside Lewis’ ‘Chronicles of Narnia’, even though it creates just as vivid and exciting a world as that portrayed by Lewis (although the first book, ‘The Sword in the Stone’ was adapted, with remarkable fidelity, into a Disney movie many years ago).
That’s my current reading list. What about yours?