18 Mar What is Ian Hobbs Reading?
Today, in our series What Are You Reading, we ask Ian Hobbs, avid reader and Senior Manager (Social Care Commissioning) at Devon County Council, what holds his literary interest right now.
What are you reading at the moment? Why would our readers enjoy reading it?
I’m reading The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich. In 1976 Gretel left her home in New York to make a film about sheepherders in Wyoming. She never left.
The book is beautifully written – deeply honest, and profound but also sumptuous in her descriptions of the people and their lives, landscape and natural world, the climate and her own journey from bereavement to salvation. It is a tough book, which is peppered with humour and humanity.
The most memorable book you read in 2020; and why?
I’m going to cheat and give you two as I can’t choose between them – Les Miserables by Victor Hugo and The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse.
Les Miserables is a remarkable book. I’d anticipated it being a challenging read but it wasn’t at all. Hugo is a master storyteller and reminiscent of Dickens (who was his contemporary). I loved the plot, though its twists and turns are gloriously improbable. It is rich in character development (which I also love) and held me throughout. A long book (1400+ pages) I immersed myself in it for a month during November and December – a glorious winter read. I also learned a huge amount about French history and that illuminated a lot for me about modern France. The settings in Paris in particular are familiar to me – especially the scenes in Le Marais where I’ve stayed several times – and I was right there in the street with the people when they were manning the barricades. I’ve never watched the film or play but am glad I read the book first.
Written in the 1930s The Glass Bead Game is simply remarkable. I hardly know how to describe it. It is set in Castalia in the 23rd Century, a world where intellectual excellence is nurtured in a state which is apart from the rest of the country – so that the scholars can develop undisturbed by daily life – though they do venture into it. We follow the main protagonist, Joseph Knecht, from childhood through to becoming a master of the game. The game is never truly explained – it can last weeks and is a fusion of music, art, science etc in pursuit of aesthetic perfection. The book is rich in so many themes but as Hesse was persecuted by the German state for his anti-fascist views, it has a contemporary, allegorical feel.
A book you return to and reread; and why?
I don’t re-read many books – my TBR list is too long! However, in recent years I have re-read The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng several times.
Set in the mountains of Malaya, this is multi-layered book. It is superficially about memory but is truly about so much more. A retired judge, Yun Ling returns to a house in the mountains that she shared with a Japanese gardener, Aritomo, (who had been exiled from the Emperors court – or maybe not?). In the second world war she was interned with her sister in a camp by the Japanese. Her sister died but only after the Yun Ling promised to build her a garden in a particular Japanese tradition. Despite her hatred of the Japanese she becomes apprenticed to Aritomo and what follows is a deeply moving account of the internment, her relationship with Aritomo, his traditions and secrets.
The book is rich in description, character development and illuminates the history of the period, both symbolically (the garden, art and literature) but through the plot. The first third is slow but sets the scene for the remarkable second two thirds of the book. Everyone I have recommended it to has loved it.
Your favourite book of all time; and why?
Almost impossible to answer but I won’t cheat again, having done that once already and I’ll settle on Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.
I am in awe of Tolstoy. Nominally about Anna and her infidelity this book is about so much more. It deeply explores Russia – its history, social order, politics and its economic and intellectual development. It does so in a very accessible way through a wonderful cast of characters who we grow with through the book in all their complexity. Tolstoy handles his characters with unparalleled subtlety. He slowly peels away their layers and reveals so much about the human condition whilst telling a story which is engaging and compelling.
I have probably read the book 5 or 6 times and every time I discover something new. Last year I listened to it as an audio book and spent many happy hours walking in Devon whilst transported to Russia.
People may think that Tolstoy is hard to read (or listen to) but he is not. His books are beautifully written and, albeit of their time, still work today.
Ian Hobbs is Senior Manager (Social Care Commissioning) at Devon County Council. He is an avid reader and the founder of Devon Book Club, an online community of more than 4,000 readers who meet to discuss all things literary via Goodreads, Facebook and Twitter (plus occasionally getting together in real life for bookish chat, tea and cake!).