Comment: The Reading Years, by Lol Candlin
A recent graduate of English, Lol Candlin considers the last three years, well spent between the pages.
On being accepted to study English at Falmouth University I found that the prospect of being surrounded by people who love to read was a powerful draw, though the social aspect of this new venture was simultaneously my greatest source of anxiety.
The first person I met on my course asked me what I liked to read. I told him I’d recently been enjoying the poetry of Charles Bukowski, to which he responded with a recitation of a few lines of the writer’s poem ‘Bluebird’. I knew then I needn’t worry. I was in good company — the company I had been seeking out in attending university.
In my first year I met a fellow English student who admired Thomas Hardy as much as I do. We lamented the tragedy of Tess, and I felt connected through our appreciation of his words, though we read them at different times, at different points in our recently coincided lives. Over the next two years in the houses we shared we would read poetry to one another, mutually muddling over its meaning whilst drinking endless cups of tea in the dimming light of the evening.
We would come together for the voicing of plays and particularly tough critical essays for which two minds combined encouraged a richer understanding than the solo reader could cultivate. Though we were seeing a vision of the world through the same eyes, we did so with our own individual minds, discovering how our views, impressions and experiences of the written word could differ, then align, and then run off from one another again.
Novels would mostly be tackled alone, in a solitude fitting for the quest-like task of digesting a narrative. On good days, I would read voraciously, with an eagerness reminiscent of my childhood spent indulging in fantasy novels. They say Proust wrote the entirety of his masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, from his bed. Well, I read in mine. I have travelled further than my most globetrotting friends, and seen sights others perhaps only see in dreams. I have time-travelled the centuries, and stepped through portals to other worlds, all without moving an inch from the comfort of my bedroom walls.
Had it not been for the diverse nature of the reading lists at Falmouth, I may never have picked up Milton’s Paradise Lost, and in doing so lost myself in its player’s plights. I may not have felt myself hurtling down the Mississippi River with Huck Finn on a raft, or contemplating the beauty of the humble hawthorn tree with young Marcel in Proust’s Swann’s Way. I now know the quirks of Kurt Vonnegut’s prose, so it goes… and I have learned that it is entirely possible for me to enjoy reading Anthony Trollope’s nineteenth-century political novel, Phineas Finn, despite its imposing length.
I have overcome my unfounded rejection of science fiction, discovering that there are enlightening social metaphors to be found in the other-worldly narratives of Ursula Le Guin and Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. I have also had the pleasure of being enthralled by the unparalleled mastery of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and the enchanting intrigue of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.
In my less blissful moments, when I might find myself feeling overwhelmed by my studies, or the mounting pile of washing up, I would head for the coast, then pace the shoreline in solidarity with the tide’s rhythms, watching out for moments of clarity to be plucked from the richness of my surroundings. On certain days the Cornish mizzle (a mist-infused light rain) felt like it had become a part of my soul, though not through force, for it falls lightly, but out of persistence, perseverance and prolongation.
At other times the Cornish sun took a hold of my body and carried it to a tropical paradise, leaving me wondering if this was really the country I had known, or some other realm slipped into unknowingly, foreign and fresh to the senses. I walked out in all weather, embracing place with feet moving forward, before carrying stones, feathers and sea glass back home, to bring the outdoors in.
Sometimes we would drive out to the Lizard, and, from the cliffs, overlook Kynance Cove in all its epic beauty. Arms wide to the elements, we would stand in that high place feeling the wind go through and over us, watching waves crash hard on to rocks, flowers bloom on grassy plains, and pebbles shine in salty wetness. Closer to home, I have idled on the pier in sunshine, watching tug boats pull in a mammoth grey monster ship by some unimaginable feat of power. On a boat party one evening I found myself distracted by the mythical coastline. Forgetting to dance, I dreamt instead of pirate ships, and rocks that wreck, and all the best legends of the Cornish coast.
I have often struggled with a lack of belief in my own abilities, but over the last three years in Falmouth I have found, particularly through the guidance of my tutors, that much of the potency of that feeling has been redirected into other, more worthwhile pursuits. Now that the deed is done, the ten-thousand word dissertation bound by its glossy front and curled wire, I feel content with what I’ve achieved irrespective of grades (though I don’t mean to dampen their significance).
What ultimately matters to me about this experience is the residing effects of the enlivened and impassioned responses I have felt to literature and landscapes which might otherwise have passed me by.
by Lol Candlin