literary transgressions

It is telling that the one poem that I can always remember from my first year of primary school is as follows –

Read, read, read.
The more you read
The more you knowThe more you know
The more you grow
So read, read, read!

Surprise surprise, right? I didn’t choose the book life, the book life chose me, yadda yadda. I acknowledge that I had a privileged childhood in that regard, growing up in houses full of books, walking past a library every day in my formative years. And though, it’s not exactly a requirement of such an upbringing that you end up with books on the brain every waking moment… here I am. Even as I carry my Kobo with me everywhere, there is almost always at least one physical book in my bag with me too (Zac & Mia by A.J. Betts, for any interested parties – a ‘sick-lit’ YA piece is probably forthcoming) – it’s just a way of life. Wallet, phone, keys, Kobo, notebook, real book. Life’s essentials.

But what I thought would be interesting to mention is a few moments in my personal back catalogue where I have been Anti-Book. By which I mean Anti-Specific-Book, of course – but still, they are noteworthy enough events that I still remember them vividly. And I will leave out most of the ‘ehhh, can I be bothered?’ moments that occurred during my English degree, because I was ill and tired and depressed and many other things that weren’t conducive to reading beyond my own specific selection of titles.

Here we go.

2001, my first year at intermediate – more importantly, I suppose, my first year at a very posh, very proper, very high achieving private school. None of this was too terrible – I was a high achiever myself, back in the day – but it meant that sometimes there were moments of more… traditional books than I was perhaps interested in. My primary school days were filled with Margaret Mahy and Joy Cowley and every other glorious NZ writer for children and young people – I was never a fan of books that I saw as ‘old-fashioned’, like Enid Blyton. I also had a ten year old’s resolve that war was idiotic and there was no reason for it and anyone who wrote or said anything about it was stupid.

And so it was that I launched my first act of academic rebellion, when we were set The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier. Which, if you haven’t read it, is about children fleeing Warsaw in WWII (if memory serves). So it was about war, and it was OLD. It was basically everything I theoretically despised in a book, and I was having none of it. So I didn’t read it. We were supposed to be doing an on-going project – double page spreads for each chapter, illustrations – the whole shebang. I refused. I stood my ground. I… eventually relented, after getting in trouble with both my teacher and my mum – but I wasn’t happy about it. I skimmed the book, made faces while working on my intentionally subpar assignment.  Such was my First Act Of Waywardness.

The Second Act Of Waywardness was less my own fault and more the fault of a teacher who just didn’t have an inspirational bone in her body. But still, it’s shameful to reflect on. You see, in Year 11 (that’s about the equivalent of a high school sophomore, for you Americans who occasionally pop up here), I had my first brush with Katherine Mansfield.

And I HATED it.

see what i mean?
see what i mean?

In hindsight, it really taught me a lot about how important the role of the teacher is, and how some people just… shouldn’t. Katherine Mansfield is one of my favourite authors these days. She is a literary a role model, not to mention a sassy lady, and she rocked a great bob. I realised the error of my ways two years later, in Year 13 English when we studied some of her other stories, under the guidance of a better equipped teacher – and to my amazement, suddenly the words were beautiful, and I no longer hated the name Kezia with a burning passion. Revisiting The Doll’s House  was a revelation, and I haven’t looked back – my most recent tattoo idea currently brewing is actually a Mansfield reference. I get happy every time I walk past the KM statue on Lambton Quay, even if it does remind a little of the Other Mother in Coraline.

Those are the two memories that stand out, in terms of Briar Against The World. I suppose you could add to that the fact that I have an English degree, seven years working in bookstores and exactly zero experience reading Jane Austen, apart from the first chapter or two of Pride & Prejudice many a time. There was also the time in my first year of university when I took a second year Shakespearean tragedy course and never quite got around to reading any of the plays at the right time – and still managing to pull a B on the exam with my four essays encompassing King Lear (which I’d fortunately studied the year before), Othello (which I’d studied the year before that – so quotes were a little thinner on the ground), Hamlet (which I hadn’t actually ever read, and pretty much based my points on general knowledge and The Simpsons episode “Tales From The Public Domain”, featuring their retelling of the story), Anthony & Cleopatra (which I based entirely on actual historical knowledge, not the play at all), and, perhaps most impressively, managed to eke out a page and a bit on The Duchess of Malfi (this was an ‘Age of Shakespeare’ course rather than exclusively the Bard himself), with my only knowledge of anything to do with the play being societal context and a Helen Mirren quote stating It is essentially a feminist play”.

I confess it – I’m a bad book brat, at times.

But we all have our moments, right? And if our bad moments are slightly salvaged by Helen Mirren quotes, so much the better.

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