University of Victoria English department celebrates 50 years with 50 special books
Whether you're in a book club or you enjoy chatting over a cup of Earl Grey about the book on your bedside table, you've probably, at some point, read a book someone has recommended.
Maybe it was your high school English teacher forcing you to read a 1000-page Dickens classic, or your mom buying you a "7 Steps to a Highly Inspired Future" self help sizzler. Either way, most of us enjoy sharing our thoughts on books, and also enjoy hearing about a book someone else is reading.
That's why I think the English Department of the University of Victoria chose the best way to celebrate their 50-year anniversary: by asking 50 special friends of the department to share their favourite book on the "50 Special Books" website.
While I was a student of English Literature, first at Laurentian University in my undergrad, and later at UVic in the graduate program, the focus on writing, analyzing, and researching, not to mention reading multiple texts at the same time, sometimes overshadowed what drove me to study post-secondary English Literature in the first place: a love of reading.
The English Department's celebration of reading reminded me – and all in attendance at this evening's website launch – that we were all called to study English first and foremost because we love books.
I was truly honoured to have been selected to share with the Department – and the world – a book that has meant something special to me. I chose Canadian writer George Elliott Clarke's unique novel, Whylah Falls.
In the write-up I submitted to the 50 Special Books site, you can read at what time in my life I read the book and what one line in it means to me (“Numbers reveal truth. Words always have something to hide.”). But what you can't read is why I chose the book.
To the best of my remembrance, Whylah Falls is the first book I read by a black Canadian writer. I studied black American literature extensively in university, but never black Canadian. The book introduced me to an entire new culture in my country, a new community and experience. Many in the book are sad experiences, but many are joyful and full of love, family, and music.
The book remains to this day the most beautiful piece of writing I have ever held in my two hands. Clarke plays with words in a way I had never experienced. If you thought there couldn't possibly be any way for a writer to string together words in a new, never-seen order, give this book a try. You'll be amazed at what a bit of rearranging can do.
I hesitate when I call this book a novel. It's a series of poems, letters, songs, put together like a novel. The influence of music pervades every line he writes. You can practically hear how these words would be sung. Clarke makes you want to sing them, to put them to your own music. I've been lucky enough to hear him read from it. His voice and tone is such that he seems to be singing the words he utters. But he's not.
Whylah Falls made me want to play with words, that's why this book has meant so much to me. The book makes me want to arrange and rearrange words until I create a sentence that makes someone feel. Something. Anything. If in my life, I string together one sentence as musically and beautifully as Clarke, I will feel peace.
Now I've recommended this book to you, I hope you'll consider picking it up. If I haven't convinced you to read it, check out the other 49 Special Books other friends of the UVic English Department recommend. There is something for every taste and every age. Sure, there's Shakespeare and Austen and Kafka represented. But there's also C.S. Lewis and Tolkien and authors I've never heard of. You are bound to find something to keep you up late at night. I can't wait to work my way through them all, maybe over the next 50 years. I invite you to, too! Enjoy.