I first met Scott in October last year, when I arrived at the serene and gorgeous grounds of Keele University, Staffordshire. I had just joined the MA Creative writing course from Nigeria and arrived straight into class. Scott and I had had several discussions before I met him and I found him warm and friendly. He was patient in explaining the details of the course to me. As chair of English literature and Director of the Keele writing course, Scott has a wealth of fantastic writing teachers; all of them authors with much experience. I am coming to the end of my course and I have thoroughly enjoyed being part of the Keele writing family. During my stay, I found Scott an excellent teacher, a great listener and a great motivator. Not forgetting his wit which came in handy whenever I began to miss home. In this collection of some of his favourite books, Scott has enlightened and engaged us. This is a collector's piece. Enjoy.
Professor Scott Mc Cracken is chair of English Literature and Director of the Writing Programme at Keele University. He was educated at Christ's College Cambridge and King's College London. He has been a visiting fellow at Stanford University and the University of British Columbia. In his spare time he plays capoeira (badly, but with great enthusiasm).
What are you currently reading?
I am currently reading Jane Rogers new short story collection Hitting Trees with Sticks (Comma Press, 2012). I heard her read one of the stories at Keele University and it had the whole room spellbound. I love Rogers' work. Her novel Mr Wroe's Virgins is a feminist classic and her latest The Testament of Jessie Lamb is selling like hot cakes.
What book did you never finish and why?
I don't consider any book unfinished, as I am always convinced I am going to finish it one day. I have been reading Proust's In Search of Lost Time for about 15 years and I'm nearly at the end of the penultimate volume, Albertine Disparue. Trying to read it in French has slowed me down a lot, but I'm getting there. I didn't finish Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy and I'm not sure why as I was enjoying it, even though I thought it was a bit old-fashioned. I am sure I will go back to it.
What book do you wish you had written? (You loved it so much and also it resonated)
That's a difficult question as I feel that if I had written some of my favourite books they would no longer be the books I love. From a purely egotistic point of view, I wish I had written Don Quixote as I think it is a work of comic genius, a novel for the whole world, and how wonderful it would be to have been the author of the first great modern novel.
What makes you buy a book in a bookshop?
I get most pleasure from buying a book when I already know and have enjoyed reading the author before. The anticipation of enjoyment from a book always gives a thrill as you take it off the shelf and hold it in your hands.
What are your five favourite books and why did you pick them.
Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote for the reasons above and because in Quixote and Sancho Panza Cervantes creates a comic pairing that will live on as long as people read.
Lawrence Sterne, Tristam Shandy is a worthy heir to Don Quixote that takes even more risks with the novel form but is just as funny.
Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage. Richardson's extraordinary thirteen volume novel was compared with James Joyce's Ulysses and Proust's In Search of Lost Time when the first volumes appeared at the beginning of the twentieth century. It has been largely forgotten since, although there is a Virago edition available on print on demand. It charts the progress of a young woman in London in the 1890s entirely through her subjective perceptions of the world around her. Not an easy read, but a worthwhile one for those who stay the course. A new edition is being worked on at Oxford University Press and I am sure she will soon regain her rightful place in canon of English literature.
Bertolt Brecht, Svendborg Poems, most of which are available in Bertolt Brecht: Poems 1913-1956. Brecht wrote these poems after he fled from Nazi Germany to Svendborg in Denmark. They are a wonderful evocation of personal self-doubt, political reassessment, and hope during a very dark period in Europe's history.
My favourite book is James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It made a huge impact on me when I first read it as a teenager and I still think some of its sentences are the nearest thing to perfection in literature.
What time of day do you read?
If I want to do some serious reading, I get up in the morning, make a cup of tea and take the tea and the book back to bed. I find my mind is at its clearest first thing. I love to read on trains and I always have a book in my bag on the way to work - it's often when I read a few pages of Proust and inch towards finishing In Search of Lost Time. Last thing at night I usually read something a bit more accessible, sometimes detective fiction, although there's always the danger I won't be able to stop if it's a gripping story. Where I read is as important as when. I like to read in cafes, in pubs (if I can find a quiet corner), and on holiday, ideally stretched out in the shade of a tree.
What two books would you have wished made it into your favourite books list but did not?
You mean what twenty books would I have wished to add!
William Blake, Songs of Innocence and Experience. Deceptively simple when you read them first, these verses stay with you and are always rewarding to return to. However, it also pays to read his Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
Jane Austen, Emma. I have inherited from my mother her great love of Austen. She has read all her novels dozens of times. It is difficult to choose, but I think probably Emma was Austen's greatest achievement. Although she is often accused of being a miniaturist, an artist who excels in the detail, I think there is far more in her delicate irony than in the vast sweep of some other writers.
What was the last book you bought?
Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities. Another long novel from the early twentieth century. This time from Austria. It is unusual and it will take me a long time to read (it is over a thousand pages), but having read the first few chapters I am enjoying its strangeness. Of course, I am convinced I will finish it!