Ages ago my colleague and friend Sanna challenged me on facebook to post a book I love a day for ten days without explanations. I didn’t like the no explanations thing but eventually decided to play anyway and use the blog to add explanations – short ones, not full book reviews. I posted the books in random order, not ranked in any way. The first one I posted was Footnotes by Vybarr Cregan-Reid. Now I don’t really need to explain this one – I reviewed it here. I loved the writing and it all instinctively made sense to me. What is interesting is that I keep coming back to passages and it often pops into my head. It’s one of the few books that I have read relatively recently that is actually staying with me.
Book two was House of the Spirits by Isabelle Allende. It probably wasn’t but it feels like it was the first ‘grown up’ book I read, certainly in English. I read it not long after the film came out (which I saw after) so I was 15 ish. I remember laughing and crying and being captivated by the story telling. I remember the affinity I felt with the strong but complicated women and the slightly unsettled feeling much of the story left me with. I also remember seeing the film and not really liking it that much. The characters weren’t what I had in my head. Clara in particular just wasn’t quite right in the film and Blanca wasn’t as complex as I wanted her to be. This book might well have been my first ‘stick to the book’ moment. I also realise now that I probably didn’t know anywhere near enough about Latin American and in particular Chilean history so some of the context will have been lost on me. I might re-read it. Although part of me wants to just remember how I felt reading it the first time round. This was also one of the first books that left me with that empty and not ready to re-join the world or start another book feeling that often leaves me aimlessly wandering the house trying to work out what to do with myself when I have finished a novel.
Book three: Affinity by Sarah Waters. I can’t remember whether I saw or read Water’s Tipping the Velvet first. I was vaguely fascinated by a lesbian story line and impressed with the way Sarah Waters builds characters but I wasn’t gripped. Then I read Affinity and I couldn’t shake that novel off for weeks. I read it in one on a grey, cold, gloomy afternoon which probably helped it along nicely. I remember being transported into the novel, like I was there, watching. I remember holding my breath, biting my lower lip wanting desperately to know how the story unfolds but not wanting it to end. The sense of fear, desperation, darkness and other-worldliness was real. As I write this, I realise that I couldn’t tell you the story line in any detail, what I remember from reading Affinity is foreboding, a feeling of powerlessness and a sense of darkness that took a while to lift.
So book 4 – and now for something to completely different. Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. I’ve really only just finished this. I like it because it’s readable science. I’ve never really had problems sleeping and I have always known sleeping is good for me. I often sleep myself better and I really enjoyed reading more about what happens, scientifically, when we sleep. Intuitively the science described makes sense to me although I really don’t know enough to evaluate whether the studies cited to support the arguments are robust. Occasionally I had questions about methodology and how the things that were supposedly controlled for could have been but overall I thought the case for sleep was compelling – I knew that really but I enjoyed reading some of the evidence.
And finally for this post, book 5. Ah this book. The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law by Albie Sachs. It is as close to perfect as a book can get. I read this book in a lovely little hotel in Capetown in January 2012 and I couldn’t put it down. It’s a special piece of judicial writing that is so very different from any other legal writing or judicial memoir. It is open and honest and doesn’t shy away from the difficulties of making the big (legal) decisions. It’s a stunning insight into how one of the best and most emotionally intelligent legal minds of our times thinks and worries about law and its application. It made me laugh and cry and it made me think. I love re-reading bits and I find new things to think about every time and I love using it in teaching because it’s accessible and readable and yet so intelligent and full of meaning. I think maybe I love this because it encapsulates everything I love about thinking about law.
More books in round two!
Footnotes is a remarkable book. Let’s start with that. As I plodded along at my slower than ‘politicians run marathons’ pace (see later in the post) last night I was thinking about the review I wanted to write. I didn’t really know whether it should go on my running blog or my academic blog so I’m putting it on both. As I turned left to avoid yet another uphill (and because it felt like a lovely random thing to do in the rain – getting lost on an estate just down the road from me) it struck me that the book has made such an impression on me because it’s about everything that makes me who I am. It’s about nature and running and literature and it’s about being an academic. Maybe not explicitly so but I think many academics, maybe particularly in the humanities and social sciences, will recognise so much of the emotion of this book. I now understand why Kath has been urging me to read the book ever since she picked it up some time ago.
My left turn was a mistake, or rather the almost immediate right turn I took after it was because I zigzagged down the hill and cut off the opportunity to zigzag back up without running the same road twice (Vybarr Cregan-Reid doesn’t like retracing steps either! I’m going with first name only for the rest of this post – hope he doesn’t mind – but surname just felt so academic and formal) so my legs stopped working and I had to walk. As I puffed up the hill I thought back to the beginning of the book. I am cautious about running books. I am sensitive about my running. I am so keenly aware that I am a rubbish runner and only slowly getting my head around the idea that it doesn’t matter. ‘I am lost on Peckham Rye’ is the opening sentence and from there I’m in. It’s a book about running and it starts with being lost. That means it can’t be a book about road running and races and going as fast as you can from A to B because people who do that sort of thing don’t get lost (maybe they do but I don’t think of them as the sort of people that go anywhere one could get lost). The book is full of the sort or running that instinctively makes sense to me – outdoors, connecting with nature, evoking landscape and literature, tapping into something that isn’t quite explainable.
There is a fair amount of explaining though and Vybarr explores the science of running in the book and I like that. I like to understand what is going on as I run, what individual bits of my body are doing and how that fits together, what I could (should?) be doing to help, how and why some runs are awesome but many just are. Why the first couple of miles often feel so hard, and why taking my shoes off on the beach and running barefoot was one of the hardest runs ever physically yet one of the best. Some of the answers are in the book but it’s not sports science book. It doesn’t spoil the magic of running by over- analysing or over explaining. Vybarr, I think, accepts and knows that running is more than science, it’s also magic.
The sections on runners’ highs are fascinating and I agree that all the science on this still doesn’t really capture it. I’m also slightly envious that Vybarr seems to get to that runner’s high far more often than I do – mostly I don’t go far enough to get the full hit but I do think I sort of get a mini version of a runner’s high that kicks in immediately after running. Kath calls it my ‘she won’t stop talking’ phase when we run together. I don’t think I talk out loud when she’s not there but I wouldn’t bet on it. I do know that it is often the only time I really feel positive about my running, it’s where I feel strong and capable.
I’ve got up the hill and my legs don’t really want to get going again but on I go. I’m on an odd run for me. I didn’t really want to go and realised it was because Kath had been out at Bolton Abbey earlier in the day and I think I was envious of her running there and grumpy about having to run at home. So instead of going a usual route towards track, wood and eventually canal, I stayed on the roads and had a nosey round the local area. It was quite fun looking at gardens and little streets and alleys I don’t normally see but as I started a stretch of long straight road I thought about the importance of running in nature and how Vybarr captures the difference between running indoors or even in cities and running in green spaces so perfectly. I ran on the road and kept having to hop back onto the pavement to avoid cars. That’s what it felt like. How can a little residential estate be so busy? (Ok so there were maybe 6 cars in that 20 minute stretch but it felt like an assault on my running calm). Footnotes captures how important outside is and how treadmills have very little to do with real running! I may have got a little over excited at the mention of Foucault in the book – as I did with Bleak House and the other surprising number of law related references. I shall leave you to find the connections between treadmills and Foucault for yourself but I smiled as I thought about that on my run, quickened my step and turned off to cross the canal bridge and run at least a short section along the canal. I could feel the stress leaving me as I turned to run alongside ducks, one with what might be a third brood of tiny little ducklings, further along there were a couple of swans and I desperately looked around for a heron but couldn’t see one. I crossed at the next bridge still thinking about how wildlife and what I see or don’t see can sometimes have a huge impact on my run and am reminded of one of one of my favourite sections in the book – the razorbill on Lundy. I won’t spoil it for you – read it in the context of the chapter it’s in but think about this:
‘Sometimes they fly because they need to hunt, or migrate; sometimes it is only to enjoy the sensual excitement of flight. This is where the joy is to be found: in using ones’s body and its expressive impulse for its own sake, for no other outcome but itself.’
I plodded on still smiling from the memory of that passage mixed with my own memories of puffins on the Farne Islands and the graceful flight of gannets at Bempton Cliffs and pushed up a little slope and turned right – again unusual. Normally I’d walk up the big hill towards home now but I wasn’t quite done running yet. I glanced at my watch and chuckled at my pace. And as the pace sort of registered in my brain my stomach plummeted. There are two tiny little sections in the book that nearly ruined the entire thing for me. This is not really about the book, it says far more about me than anything else. On page 220 (obviously I don’t remember this while running!) there is one sentence that floored me. Vybarr describes what sounds like a stunning run from St Juliots in North Cornwall. I loved reading the description of the run, the links to literature (Hardy), the fact that it was a tough run and he needed a lift back to his car (this would happen to me all the time except that usually I just have to walk back because there’s nobody to come get me, or I have to get a bus or whatever) – all this resonates. Then the following line stopped me in my tracks ‘I later work out that I have been running 12-minute-miles – these are the sorts of times politicians manage in marathons’. I stared at the page for a bit. And then I stared a bit longer. Then I carefully put the postcard I’d been using as a bookmark into the book, closed it, put the book down and walked away. ‘Right, ok then’ I remember thinking ‘so this isn’t a book for me after all’. In my mind I have put it on the ‘books for proper runners and not me’ shelf, right alongside Run Fat Bitch Run (which you might recall I hated). Everything in the book had been speaking directly to me – almost as if the book had been written for me to remind me that how I think and feel about running is ok, it’s better than ok. That line shattered that. I nearly put it back on the shelf and didn’t finish it. I didn’t really quite understand how someone who could articulate so much of how I feel about running could be so utterly dismissive of 12-minute-miles. I tried to explain this through tears to Kath who simply said ‘yes I wondered when you’d get to that bit. I knew you wouldn’t like that’.
As I turn left to make myself run up a hill rather than avoid it I’m angry. 12-minute-miles are fast miles for me. Mostly I run slower than politicians manage in marathons. Sometimes I wish I didn’t but there it is, I do. Part of me wants to challenge Vybarr to run some of these West Yorkshire hills with me, that’ll teach him – no hills like these bastards in London. And then I remember that I can’t run them either and even if I could, I’d still be slower! And as I push the last few steps up the hill and force myself to keep running on the flat I also force myself to accept that the comment about 12-minute-miles is a comment situated in the context of Vybarr’s running, not mine. That pace may well be utterly awful for him, it may well be a sign that the route got the better of his legs, that’s what that’s about really – not me being someone who runs slower than politicians do in marathons.
The second comment is about marathons. Vybarr recalls his 2012 London Marathon (lovely and funny read this) and notes that his official time was a ‘horrific’ 5 hours. Really? Horrific? I’d love to have a marathon time that started with a 5. I have run two. Nearly 7 hours and nearly 6 and a half hours. I rolled my eyes and read on.
So there’s a sentence and a word I don’t like in the book. Everything else is, I think, pretty perfect. The book has had an influence on my running. I took my shoes off on the beach and ran when we were at Seahouses a few weeks ago. I was tempted to take them off yesterday and feel the warm rain on my feet but I haven’t run barefoot. I need to try it on softer surfaces first. It has helped me connect more with the environment I am running in – or do so more consciously which then bizarrely leads to less thinking. It’s made me determined to increase fitness so that I can do those 7 or 8 miles runs more comfortably. I think I agree that they are a really nice distance – no major concerns about fueling and far enough to achieve the almost meditative state you get when you finally find your rhythm. The book has also made me think about literature and whether maybe I should revisit some classic authors. Should I maybe go back to Dickens and Hardy and others with a focus on nature and movement and place? Could I read Bleak House, for example, not as a lawyer but as a runner? How different would it be? And finally the book has taught me something really important about academia. If academics can follow their passion and write about something that truly brings them alive, they can create magic. I love this book for that alone and as I continue to run (at my pace!) I am getting closer and closer to figuring out what I want my magic to be. On this run though I reach my driveway before I can grab hold of ‘it’ so for now, thank you to Vybarr for sharing his magic and if you haven’t read the book yet; what are you waiting for?