I’ve never managed to complete A Century in Books. For a start, I have gluts of books for certain years (post 2010 is particularly strong, perhaps something to do with the fact I’ve only been in well-ish paying jobs since then), but hardly anything from between 1850 and 1950, Hardy and Dickens excepted. I am also dreadful at sticking to things – or remembering to stick to them at least!
So perhaps it is a fool’s errand to try something like this again, but The List’s list of 100 Best Scottish Books has caught my eye. I am partly persuaded by the fact my job requires me to know about Scottish literature, and I don’t. Well, I know a bit about Burns and the Blackwood’s group, and a smattering about Scott and Stevenson, but that’s about it. Everyone else in my office (both of them) is hugely well-versed in Scotland’s literary output, particularly that of the last 50 years, and I just ain’t. So I think it’s probably time I donned my reading specs (who am I kidding, I need these bad boys for everything from walking across the room to knitting) and began to address my gaps in knowledge.
Of the 100 on the list, I have aleady read the following:
The Citadel, A.J. Cronin (1937) – I seem to remember that this was set in Wales, though Google informs me the protagonist and the author were both Scots. Apparently the book helped secure the landslide Labour victory of 1945: no small achievement on anyone’s part.
Confessions of An English Opium Easter, Thomas De Quincey (1822) – a very familiar friend, Thomas De Quincey has been an almost daily part of my life since I first came to work at Dove Cottage in 2009. The manuscript of Confessions is kept in the Wordsworth Museum, heavily dewed with mysterious brown stains. Scholars had long hoped that these drops were of laudanum, but following tests they were found to be nothing more than coffee, no doubt spilled when De Quincey was writing in that most fashionable of Regency dives, the coffee house.
Electric Brae, Andrew Greig (1997) – I adored this book, the first of Greig’s novels I encountered. I read it whilst living in Ayrshire, and sought out the eponymous brae, just south of Ayr – which does indeed do strange things to ones perceptions of where roads should go. Greig does likewise with his writing.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling (1997) – I remember when this book came out: I was 11 and I was given a copy as part of our middle school book group. I hated the first couple of chapters, and gave it up as a bad job. Then, as the series became stratospherically popular, I returned to them and fell in love, reading each one in pretty much one sitting as they came out. Deathly Hallows was published just after I finished my undergraduate English degree, so I was very much of that generation growing up alongside Harry, Hermione and Ron.
Imagined Corners, Willa Muir (1931) – a friend who moved to Scotland a few years before I did recommended this book to me when I was struggling to fit in to life in a small Ayrshire town – and boy did it resonate with me, even 80 years after it was written.
1984, George Orwell (1949) – I first read this in my second term at university, struggling to write a coherent essay on dystopian fiction. It made me feel uneasy but it is quite amazing to think that it was written over 60 years ago, making its prophecies all the more remarkable.
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith (1998) – my mum and grandma are huge Sandy fans, and I galloped through the series (eight books strong as it was at the time) in a few angsty summer weeks whilst living back at home after university. Funny, buoyant, jolly – just the tonic after an Oxford education.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark (1961) – I live about 200 metres from Muriel Spark’s old house (well, flat), and walk past the inspiration for Marcia Blane’s every day. I loved this book, and also adored Spark’s recent biography by Martin Stannard.
The Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, James Hogg (1824) – ahhh Confessions, the book which first drew me to the Blackwood’s group and upon which I based my undergraduate thesis. I’m currently planning a pilgrimage out to Tibbie Shiel’s…
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson (1886) – I’ve just read this book twice, once in preparation for my recent job interview, and then again on the suggestion of my boss once I had started. Suffice to say there was plenty I had skimmed over on first reading!
Sunset Song, Lewis Grassic Gibbon (1932) – I adore everything about this book, and indeed the whole trilogy. I found the Scots surprisingly easy to read – in fact it really made the book more beautiful. Now I just need to own a copy which hasn’t been printed on something like lavatory paper in a size 8 font.
Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh (1993) – a friend from Ayrshire lent me this, and it made my stomach churn in ways both good and bad. Like Sunset Song, the Scots is such an intrinsic part of the book that it would be unimagineable in standard English.
12 down, 88 to go… I’ll keep you posted!