Term-time Reading

Paul Norris 14 October 2018

Cambridge is a city of books. The abundance of bound pages, the overwhelming quantity of them to be sampled and digested, can be oppressive. After a day (or a morning, or an hour) spent in the library, reading is far from appealing. But in fact reading a book on the side can be one of the great pleasures of student life, a perfect way to relax and reflect. The rhythm of reading for fun is completely different from studying. It’s the difference between rowing in the first eight and around the Serpentine. Rather than forcing your eyes down the page as quickly as possible, or running them repeatedly over the same impenetrable sentence, you can take your time and enjoy the words for their own sake.

Having said this, the typical Cambridge student doesn’t have hours to spend lingering over an especially beautiful sentence, so brevity is a precious virtue in a term-time read. Virginia Woolf’s short novels are a favourite for good reason, being small but dense. I don’t feel like I’ve ever totally understood any of her books, but they offer great richness even to the most casual reader given the beauty of her prose. Even if I didn’t understand what she was saying, I always enjoyed the way she said it. For a Cambridge angle, read Jacob’s Room, a large part of which is set in an early twentieth century Cambridge college.

Personally I don’t find this Cambridge angle especially desirable, instead enjoying some escapism from my immediate circumstances. For this I’d recommend E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, which is silly and serious in equal measure, evoking the hardships and entrepreneurial ambition which drove American industry in the 1900s. The novel’s various subplots include anecdotes about contemporary celebrities such as Harry Houdini, Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan, the funniest of which involves a conversation between the latter two where Morgan inundates his fellow businessman with insane conspiracy theories and reveals his desire to be locked in an Egyptian pyramid. As the scale of the novel grows, its subplots are stripped away to focus about a story of racial injustice and civil turmoil which is simultaneously bizarre, tragic and amusing. Ragtime is a real page-turner, exuberantly written and compulsively entertaining enough to keep essays and example sheets both out of sight and out of mind.

It is difficult to be humble when writing an autobiography, which is by definition a book entirely about oneself, but two memoirs I read over summer both achieved this feat and would make excellent term-time entertainment. One was Oliver Sack’s On the Move, the great neurologist’s account of his time at Oxford, move to America and subsequent scientific and literary career. A Cambridge medical student tells me that the book was the only thing capable of enthusing them about an otherwise stultifying neurology paper, and it’s easy to see why. The book touches on Sack’s other passions, music, weightlifting and motorbikes, and avoids navel-gazing self-analysis. His description of his sexuality feels matter-of-fact rather than confessional, and he doesn’t seek to explain his decades of celibacy, only to celebrate the love he finds in old age.

The Seven Storey Mountain also concludes with its author, Thomas Merton, finding love, but it is love of a very different kind. Merton began adulthood with a promising journalistic career ahead of him, having been educated at both Cambridge and Columbia, but gave it all up to become a monk in an extremely ascetic order, aged twenty-seven. His description of his life before this point contains much self-flagellation, but is also beautifully rich in detail and incident, giving a picture of artistic and sensory abundance. For believers, the book is an moving story of devotion, and has inspired many to become priests, nuns and monks. For non-believers, it gives insight into the psychology of extreme faith. Merton’s life in the monastery (defined by routine, manual labour, early mornings, and obedience to authority) could not be further from most people’s life in Cambridge, and glimpsing into it is would make any student grateful, but some, perhaps, a little wistful.