This post is part of a series of posts in which students of the English Seminar present their favourite books they have read in 2015. The lists are not restricted to books that were published this year. If you want to participate as well, send your list to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today’s list comes to you from Fabia Morger.
2015 has been a rather weird book year. While the first semester was stuffed with literature due to me taking the reading list exam, the second half of the year was relatively book-empty, at least for my standards. I really had a hard time remembering enough books to make a decent list, which is kind of depressing to know. Besides, I did a lot of re-reading, which feels important to me, a bit like visiting old friends. Some of those on the list are therefore not new to me, but I rediscovered and revisited them in 2015. I listed them in the order in which I think I have read them.
1984 by George Orwell
I had intended to read this book for ages and the reading list gave me the necessary pressure to finally pull through with it. The reason why I’ve been so reluctant to read this book probably had to do with the fact that I knew so many people who loved it and I felt certain that I would be disappointed. Well, I can tell you that this wasn’t the case, even though it felt painful to read the book. The dystopian story of a lonely man living in airstrip 1 of the superstate Oceania was something I had never experienced myself (obviously!) but to which I could still relate to on a deep level. Having had two courses about the German Democratic Republic this semester, I know that many of the themes Orwell mentions (censorship and surveillance, for instance) were all too close to the truth in this communist dictatorship. I would say, however, that 1984 was not merely written to picture life in Soviet Union but, more generally, life in any totalitarian state. I would not agree with the many people who say that Orwell was some kind of fortuneteller who somehow warned us about today’s public surveillance. I don’t even think that public surveillance is the most important factor of the story (albeit very prominent). I think the most striking aspect is the loss of everything that is good in humans if you subordinate it to a merciless system, which only has the purpose to uphold its supremacy.
Howl by Allen Ginsberg
I read that poem a long while ago and read it again last spring for my reading list exam. Since then, it’s popped up in my mind every now and then. Maybe the fact that I’m currently living in a former mental hospital is the reason why this poem has been haunting me. Many parts of it are concerned with madness and the horrors of psychiatric clinics in the first half of the 20th century. Then, the poem touches upon some other issues, such as sex, drugs and the evils of capitalism. Honestly, I’m kind of glad that this didn’t come up in my reading list exam because it feels like I only understood half of the poem. There are so many references in it, which I can’t quite understand and which are probably hard to get if you haven’t been a beatnik living in San Francisco during the 1940s and 1950s. But even so, you can’t miss the beauty in its language, which was considered highly obscene after its publication and almost resulted in banning the text.
Animal Farm by George Orwell
Another Orwell, this one was not for any reading list but entirely for my own pleasure. I know I’m a minority but I actually liked this one slightly more than 1984. Yes, the communism-allegory is rather obvious. But does that change anything about the powerful message? Besides, it is one of the many books that taught me during the course of last autumn what high hopes people had in communism and how utterly shattered those hopes were by the merciless totalitarianism to which all communist countries devolved. We easily forget that the most ardent opponents of the communist dictatorships (such as George Orwell) were socialists themselves.
A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin
With all the talk about the latest season of Game of Thrones, it’s important to remember that the TV series is based on an awesome series of books, which I reread this summer. On several thousand pages, Martin spreads out the tale of the Seven Kingdoms and the struggle of several individuals to gain and keep power, while an evil force awakens in the North. I guess there’s not much I can say about the books that hasn’t been said before. I can only recommend you once more: if you’re a fantasy fan and not scared of remembering about 50 main protagonists (not to mention the more than 1000 side characters): Read. Those. Books. Now.
Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
This book was a Christmas present by Sara Bucher (shoutout to Sara: you’re awesome!) and it has taken me a while to get into it. In summer, however, I sat myself down and read it and I have no regrets. I admit that I’m usually rather conservative when it comes down to storylines: there has to be chronological recounting of a story. Foer, of course, doesn’t care about my ideals. Effortlessly, he jumps over centuries from one page to the other while recounting the history of a Jewish family in Ukraine, sometimes in a (to put it mildly) rather weird, non-native speaker English. The author is at the same time one of the protagonists, which made me wonder whether the story was actually 100% fictional. Will I ever know the answer to that and the many other questions that arose while reading the book? No. Nevertheless, I consider myself illuminated.
Die Übergangsgesellschaft by Volker Braun
I felt obliged to include this book because I read it in last semester’s literature course about culture and literature in the German Democratic Republic. It’s a theater play written in 1982 and, because of its controversial theme, the play had no chance of ever being staged in the GDR. To be completely honest: many times while reading the play I wished it had just stayed in the author’s drawer forever. There are so many absurd dialogues, disturbing turns of events and mere nonsense in this play that the perspective of having to write a paper about this piece fills me with dread. But it’s an important text and I’m of the opinion that important texts don’t have to be an easy read. Perhaps the only way to express the mere absurdity of the GDR regime is by writing an utterly absurd play, where some characters just run around naked in the end.