Conall McDevitt, who bravely agreed to go first, was awarded "100 Frans". How will you rate this week's reader? I know one of last week's commentators, Mike, is going to find out his wish has come true!
Steven Agnew MLA, leader of the Green Party, stars as our reader of the week. His candid and detailed answers have laid the ground for very enjoyable writing time.
As a child discovering books, Steven slightly differed from our previous Blyton fans, opting for the Five Find-Outers mystery adventures rather than her Brer Rabbit stories. He alternated these with Roald Dahl's books.
"I read everything and anything by Roald Dahl. Inevitably Charlie and the Chocolate factory was a favourite along with the BFG and Witches. I loved Enid Blyton's Mystery Series with the Five Find-Outers. I think I read everything in the series. I then tried to move on to the Famous Five series but was really disappointed when I read the first one. I'm not sure if it was a case of not liking the stories or if I'd just outgrown her books."
Being disappointed in a new book stopped him in his tracks and he found it difficult to enjoy books again until his twenties. "I didn't really know where to go next and this lead to me stopping reading for pleasure throughout my teens. I read books for school of course but it became something I had to do rather than wanted to do."
Coincidentally, Steven started reading again after he left the family home in Ballybeen to join the South Belfast student community, house-hopping along the Lisburn Road, sharing thoughts, music and reads. "My friend Michael has been a huge influence. We've spent many a night discussing and debating various issues and he put me on to a lot of music that helped shape my views."
"I began reading for pleasure again around the age of 20. My friend Gareth bought me Lord of the Rings for my birthday (...). Not the easiest book to start me reading again but I was determined to read it. I took a break around half way through the second book to read Catch 22 which my then girlfriend had bought me for Christmas."
Joseph Heller's 1961 masterpiece, Catch 22, is a World War II novel with a... well, catch. It was reviewed in glowing terms by Robert Brustein, celebrated theatre critic: "Like all superlative works of comedy - and I am ready to argue that this is one of the most bitterly funny works in the language - Catch-22 is based on an unconventional but utterly convincing internal logic. (...) It is a triumph of Mr. Heller's skill that he is so quickly able to persuade us 1) that the most lunatic are the most logical, and 2) that it is our conventional standards which lack any logical consistency."
Steven has read, bought and lent Catch 22 many times. He believes books should travel, exchange hands, be a shared experience between friends. He buys his "books second hand (I love second hand book stores) for a couple of pounds so I'm not possessive of them. I think I'm now on my third copy of the book [Catch 22], though I plan to lend it to a colleague who I've recommended it to."
Other favourites include any book by Charles Bukowski, "but particularly Ham On Rye which is one of my top five books. Bukowski is seen by many as a misogynist, although he would have said that he hated men and women equally. Ham on Rye charts from his childhood up to early adulthood and the beginning of alcoholism. Bukowski is an anti-hero, a man that I would never want to be or even want to know. However, he writes with an honesty that is rare."
I very much like the point Steven makes about reading as an acquired skill. We're not born holding a book and nurture has everything to do with developing a strong reading mind, and consequently analytical thinking and creativity. "Ultimately it was a combination of my friends recommending books and my own determination to ensure that I didn't just stop reading once I finished uni.
Reading was something I felt I should do, and I persevered until it became something I enjoyed again. It probably took a number of years before I worked out what type of books I like reading."
Reading Steven's notes, I found it fascinating that most of his role models used art to push their political agendas. Green politics, Punk music and literature were intrinsically linked as part of Steven's life-changing epiphany in his 20s.
The activist and comedian Mark Thomas inspired him to become politically active whilst Steven's friend Michel introduced him to Jello Biafra whose "spoken word album Become the Media was also a big influence. Biafra is formerly of the punk band The Dead Kennedys and is a member of the US Green Party. Listening to his album was the first time I heard of the Green Party, shortly before I met John Barry."
A politics lecturer at Queen's University in Belfast and now a Green Party Councillor, John Barry not only recruited Steven into the Green Party in 2003 but also wrote the book that most influenced Steven's political career: Rethinking Green Politics, which "offers a pragmatic look at Green ideology" and makes the Green Party in Northern Ireland "a party (...) both strong in principle but also electable."
Today, being a busy party leader and doting father, Steven has to prioritise his Enterprise Committee pack and children's books over reading for his own pleasure but he still manages to keep a couple of reads on the go. He reads in bed or in his den, where he keeps his books and music (he hasn't fallen for the charms of e-books just yet). He's just re-read Hemingway's To Have and Have Not, and takes most of his picks from realist literature. He loves Orwell, Bukowski, but also enjoys books by Nick Hornby, which provide "lighter reading (...) although no less insightful. I think he writes like men think. Or at least how I think. High Fidelity is one of my favourite books along with Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms." Pratchett also features on Steven's top shelf, "a complete departure from my other favourite authors but it's intelligent writing whilst still being a joy to read. I've even read Where's My Cow to my son when he was still in the womb. It's a kids' book of sorts that came with one of Pratchett's recent books, Thud!"
This week, Steven is reading Owen Jones' Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. Class issues are close to his heart as Steven grew up in a working class area, with a taxi driver dad and mum who worked as a cleaner and moved on to an administration post in the civil service. From a young age, Steven realised that "terms like 'spide' and 'milly' were used to describe those less well educated and/or less well off. (...) The word 'chav' is similar in that regard and the book looks at how the working class is portrayed in the media and highlights the implicit prejudice in the mainstream media. It's a view that I have a lot of sympathy with."
Being a multi-reader, he alternates Chavs with Woody Allen on Woody Allen, "a book-length interview spanning [Allen's] film career." As with Hornby, Steven relates to Woody Allen's prose so naturally our quote of the week will come from a famous Woody Allen film (also co-written by Allen), Annie Hall:
"There's an old joke ... two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of 'em says, "Boy, the food at this place is really terrible." The other one says, "Yeah, I know; and such small portions." Well, that's essentially how I feel about life - full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly."
I really enjoyed Steven's account of his reading epiphany, rolled into the context of political awakening and the influence of Punk music. My epiphany was much more trivial than this. I have very few memories of my youth but could describe to the last piece of chalk the nursery classroom scene when I proudly managed to read aloud the word t-o-m-a-t-e for the first time. I also got told off for blurting it out loudly instead of whispering it in the teacher's ear, but that's another story.
I'd love to hear the stories of your reading epiphanies... Do you have a revelation to share?