We ask our favourite lecturers what book changed their life, what novels get them nostalgic or what polotical journals get their blood boiling , and why they had such an effect on them.
Dr Geoffrey Poole, English Language
Good afternoon Geoff! Could you state your full name for the record?
Hey! Well, it’s technically Dr Geoffrey Poole, but I go by Geoff. I still, after all this time, feel like ‘Dr Poole’ is too much like my grandfather. He was actually a professor of Music at Wayne State University, in Detroit.
So dedication runs in the family! Diving right in; what is the name of the book that changed your life?
It sounds overdramatic, and it’s an odd one, but it’s called ‘The Book of the SubGenius’, published by the group SubGenius. Basically, this one guy called The Reverend Ivan Strang started this whole thing in Texas, back in the 1970s, which was a kind of parody of Fundamentalist religion and UFO cults.
An unusual choice…what do you like about it?
One of the things that appeals to me so much about the book is its multi-layered nature. They [the authors] understand the form of the stuff they’re parodying very well. Certainly on a personal level, what’s interesting is the detail. The book presents itself as a real cult, but then there’s the superficial detail, which is a parody of that kind of text. The mythology is unbelievably complicated, and it directly parodies Fundamentalist preacher rhetoric. I was always interested in humorous stuff with an anti-consumerist bent.
Ah, so similar to my generation’s nihilistic humour?
Yeah, in a sense! I first read it in the 1980s, and I felt alone in feeling this way except for a couple of friends on the same wavelength. I think being part of your generation comes with different problems. The internet makes it a lot easier to connect with like-minded individuals. One thing that isn’t a problem for you guys is subscribing to an indie music fanzine to find out that someone’s album is going to come out in six months. To find out there are people who feel the same way you do is really neat. I still carry over, in a very restrained fashion, the stuff from that book in my teaching. There’s an element of performance art as a teacher, about trying to surprise people. Like, wait a minute, that wasn’t what I was expecting – now I’ve got to think.
That makes a lot of sense given your teaching style! Would you say that this book changed your outlook on life?
It’s kind of a difficult thing to articulate. The overarching idea of the book is the essential nature of human beings…crucial freedom and creative control. The book shows that it isn’t always possible for people to control the way they labour and participate in society, and so we should try to change those things, because they are in conflict with our essential human nature, and I do agree with that.
Wow – now I can’t wait to read this book! Thank you so much for your time, Geoff.
No problem – and thank you!
Dr Robbie McLaughlan, English Literature
After hearing this week’s article choices, I jumped at the chance of sitting down with must surely be the only lecturer that can genuinely entertain, enthuse and teach for two straight hours without breaking a sweat, Dr Robbie McLaughlan, and ask him about his favourite book.
Considering I am currently in his module labelled Empire: Fiction and the Rise of Global Capitalism, I wasn’t surprised that his chosen book centered around socio- political discourse, as he proudly exclaimed it to be ‘The Communist Manifesto’ by Karl Marx, before mocking me and saying he thought this would have been more of a tough grilling!
He first read the book when he was around 14 years old, and explained that it did not only shape his political thinking, but it had a radical influence on his clothes and style at the time. For example, he started wearing old army jackets with political patches that his mum kindly sewed for him, although as a Fashion Editor I would like to subtly interject and reinforce that this is not a style that should be replicated now, thank you.
When asked what attracted Robbie to the book in terms of form, content and context, he highlighted his consistent admiration of the Molotov mix of Marx’s ideas and his writing style. It was written when literacy rates were pretty poor so it had to be memorable and easily repeated. From his description to bourgeois society as a sorcerer to the famous, rousing, last lines of the book, he excitedly announced he can still quote large chunks of it, before admitting he is generally rubbish at remembering quotations!
I had to ask the state of his first copy of the manifesto, and was unsurprised when he recalled it to be tattered and scribbled like any avid book- lover, as he still reads it all the time
Hilariously when asked who he would recommend it to and what readership would be as enthralled as he was with the writing, he simply stated that he would recommend it ‘to EVERYONE Comrade Couling!’
Feeling slightly more won over with what I thought was a rather dense political handbook, I asked if he went on to read any other works by Marx and how they compared to this one, as I beginning to be convinced of the manifesto’s accessibility. He admitted he had given Kapital a bash on several occasions but only got so far and similarly with his incomplete work Die Grundrisse. They are not exactly page turners, he reflects, but it is amazing how much of modern life Marx actually predicts. There is a chapter in Die Grundrisse that is all about automation and the consequences for humans, and this is something that seems to be of interest to us now.
Feeling officially convinced that maybe the manifesto is palatable to a wider audience after all, I thought I would test his love for the script and ask that, if he could take five items on a desert island for a month, would his beloved tattered manuscript be one, to which he roared with laughter and informed me that he wouldn’t take any items to a desert island! I then quote ‘private property would be abolished in the People’s Republic of Robbie. It would just be me living in my communist paradise.’
Sensing that his love for this book really has engrained itself in his brilliant mind, so much so that he didn’t even fancy taking a pillow with him on this said island, I concluded by asking him what reading literature meant to him (I asked him to answer ‘in short,’ as English lecturers to have the tendency to get rather eloquent and lengthy extremely rapidly!)
Robbie said this was hard question but believed it to be a source of pleasure and also his job. He concluded ‘I feel very fortunate to be able to make my career out of literature and also to spend my days talking about books with people like you Poppy!’
Dr Annie Tindley, History
Hi! What’s your name and what’s your subject?
Dr Annie Tindley, History
What is your favourite book and why?
This is a very hard question, but Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens.
When did you first come across it and how?
I first read it when I was an undergraduate student. I was doing history but always really liked literature and I got into Dickens. This was the first book of his I read, and I chose it because it is one of only two historical novels he wrote (the other is A Tale of Two Cities).
Have you read anything else by Dickens?
Yes, all of them and I re-read them regularly too, especially Barnaby Rudge, Little Dorritt and Our Mutual Friend.
What is the main selling point of the book?
Firstly (for me) that it is a historical novel by one of the greats; secondly, that the story examines both private and public violence – the violence within family relations and the wider social violence of the 1780 Gordon Riots, which were violent anti-Catholic riots that ripped through London. So, it is all about order and disorder, love and hate and social progress versus barbarity. What’s not to like?
Prof Anthony Harriman, Physical Chemistry
What is a book you feel has changed your life?
‘The Search’ by C.P. Snow. It was the first science-based fiction I read and it had massive influence over my decision to continue with academic research. I first read the book soon after starting postdoctoral research, and it influenced my entire approach to research and underlying work ethics. It is an old book, written between the first and second world wars, with rather old-fashioned views. I have re-read it many times, maybe each decade or so, and I see new things in it each time. At first, I saw the book as a model for my own work – it certainly inspired me to focus entirely on research – but with the passing of time, I’ve come to see some sinister aspects that I didn’t appreciate earlier.
In what way do you think ‘The Search’ influenced you?
The essence of the book is a description of a person with the ambition to be a top scientist, who knows he lacks the special element that distinguishes the very good from the best. He believed that total dedication to his work would overcome any limitations in his character. I accepted this premise and set about putting it into practice. It worked fairly well for me, as it did for the hero of the story, but only as long as I worked non-stop.
Why do you think it had such an impact on you?
I guess it had such a powerful effect on me due to the situation in which I found myself. Surrounded by colleagues better prepared, more confident and self-assured, I looked for a way to move up the ladder.
Did this novel teach you any important lessons?
The book taught me that you can overcome a restricted background and be taken seriously as a research scientist by virtue of hard work. You need a certain amount of talent and you need to identify a research topic that suits you and has real possibilities for success. If you lack certain skills, you must teach yourself and not use this as an excuse. However, you have to be prepared to pay the price in terms of personal sacrifice.
Did you learn anything else?
There is an excellent explanation of how scientific committees work – I found this invaluable later on when I became a member of “important” committees – and it nicely summarises the cruelty with which scientists dismiss their competitors. The book explores the reality that scientific fraud can restore a flagging career and examines the role of true friendship between scientists. These are massive issues, of great relevance today.
Who would you recommend it to, and why?
Although the book is rather dated now, I’d strongly recommend it to anyone thinking seriously about a career in academic research. Many things have not changed, especially the ambition and the work ethics needed to succeed. It would be invaluable reading for any PhD student or senior MChem student and could be a work of explanation for family members of those involved in advanced research. The book glorifies elitism, simplifies intellectual emotions and serves as a warning of what can happen when chasing a dream at all costs.
Julia McGee Russell
Last modified: 17th July 2019