What is Robby MacPhail Reading?
I usually have several books in progress at any given time. The result is a pile of half-finished paperbacks on my bedside table. My wife periodically removes this pile, places the books into a drawer. She hates clutter. Afterwards, I come behind her and take them back out. I also hate clutter, but we disagree on the word’s definition. She bought me a Kobo once, but I couldn’t adjust to it. I missed my pile.
This has been a year of revisiting old favourites. I recently picked up a new copy of Great Expectations to replace the tattered and yellowed copy I’d owned since I was a teenager. It’s my favourite Dickens’ novel, probably my favourite novel ever, and I reread it every ten years or so. The characters are wonderfully grotesque – caricatures, really – as so many of Dickens’s characters are. And yet, they are infused with an undeniable humanity. The story is filled with humour and pathos and scenes that stay with you forever – a young, terrified Pip encountering Magwitch for the first time on the moors; the heartbroken Miss Havisham forever reliving her worst day; the beautiful but cruel Estella making Pip cry over his own commonness. It’s just all so good. Sure, the theme may be simple – that money can’t buy happiness – but sometimes the simplest truths are the most profound.
Right now, my son is reading To Kill a Mockingbird for his grade ten English class. I was so excited for him – much more excited than he was, I’m afraid – that I picked up a new copy for myself to read along with him. I’ve spent subsequent evenings getting reacquainted with Scout and Jem and Dill and their schemes to make Boo Radley come out. I recently read a quote from Flannery O’Connor in which she disparages the novel, calling it a “children’s book.” Maybe she’s right. But then again, simple truths . . .
I’ve also been reading some short story anthologies. I just finished the 2018 Journey Prize collection, which I thoroughly enjoyed, especially Liz Harmer’s “Never Prosper.” I recently read The Dead are More Visible, a Stephen Heighton collection, after attending a reading by the author at U.P.E.I. I’m also in the middle of The October Country, a collection of early Ray Bradbury stories. For me, Bradbury is a master of the short form and belongs in the same company as Hemmingway and O’Connor in that regard.
As for non-fiction, First Man, the Neil Armstrong biography by James R. Hansen, is a good, no-nonsense history of Armstrong and the Apollo program. Unlike the movie it inspired, Hansen’s biography doesn’t try to find or invent emotional depth in its phlegmatic subject. Keith Law’s Smart Baseball demystifies many of the new statistics emerging from major league baseball’s Big Data movement. Finally, I’m slowly working through a single-volume biography of FDR by Jean Edward Smith. I’m not sure what drew me to it. Perhaps I’m nostalgic for a time when leaders asked us to overcome our fears, instead of fomenting them for their own advantage.
Photo by Jan Mellström on Unsplash