Now that I am no longer teaching, and thus not having to read in preparation for the classes I am teaching, my reading has reverted to the genre I enjoy most – Twentieth Century British novels. My current project is to read all of Iris Murdoch’s novels in order of publication. For those who are not familiar with Murdoch, she was an Irish novelist and philosopher who wrote 26 novels between 1954 and 1995.
I was introduced to Murdoch by Elizabeth Dipple, a witty and outspoken Murdoch scholar and my favorite English professor when I was in graduate school at Northwestern. In 2008, The Times of London ranked Murdoch twelfth on their list of the top 50 British writers since 1945. Personally, I would put her higher.
At the moment, I am midway through Murdoch’s sixth novel, An Unofficial Rose. Unlike some of my friends, I do not race through novels. I prefer to read slowly, savoring, digesting, and making friends with the characters. As I approach the end of a novel, I often read slower, caught between wanting to know what will happen and not wanting to say goodbye to the characters.
I tend to buy most of my books from abebooks.com, a consortium of used booksellers, and rarely pay more than three or four dollars for a book, including shipping. It is not as much fun as browsing through the stacks of an old bookstore, but such places are becoming rare.
The copy of An Unofficial Rose that I am currently reading is an old hardback published by Viking in 1962, the year the novel was released. This particular copy spend most of its existence in the Caroline County Public Library on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, until someone there decided it was no longer needed, stamped “discarded” on the inside cover and sent it off to a bookseller who sold it to me.
While many prefer e-books, I do not. There is something comforting about curling up with an old book – the soft, well-worn feel of the pages, the dusty smell, and the underlined passages and margin notes from previous readers all provide a connection that the e-book screen does not. Maybe this is the historian in me. I also love spending hours in old archives.
Another especially nice aspect of reading British novels while living outside of the United States is that they often add to the expatriate experience. The Brits had an empire that spanned the globe and provided citizens of all classes the opportunity to explore the world and its enormously diverse cultures. In An Unofficial Rose for example, there is talk of Singapore and Delhi, of beautiful young French women and Italian artists.
Mexico was a part of the old Spanish Empire, although control of Florida and other parts of the Caribbean shifted between Britain and Spain more than once. Here, while the influence of the United States continues to grow, one stills find a remarkable blend of the old Spanish Empire and the pre-European world of Native Americans.
Personally, I do not travel to take American culture with me. I travel because I want to escape the oppression of American culture, something which is getting more difficult. I want to see more of the world, understand the perspective of those who live outside the U.S., and perhaps have the opportunity to share my experience with those who want to travel but cannot.
For me, old books make comfortable traveling companions because they offer perspectives from different times and places that simply add to the experience.
©2016 David Lee McMullen