Heroes and Villains – Monsters and Heroines!
This blog evolved through reading Heroes (398.210938), written by FoWHL's former patron, Stephen Fry, as a follow up to his earlier book, Mythos (398.20938).
Heroes is a recounting of the Greek myths in an accessible and informal way. I enjoyed the archetypal stories of jealousy, sacrifice and betrayal, but it set me thinking about heroes and villains more generally. In our library there are many biographies of exceptional people, but few which confidently describe their protagonist as an uncontested ‘hero’. Meanwhile, the search for villainy proved considerably easier!
How to Kill (364.1524), by Kris Hollington, you will be relieved to discover, is a definitive history of assassinations rather than a ‘how to guide’. Did you know that between 1950-2000 there were over 4,000 known assassinations worldwide, using methods from exploding clams to poison toilet paper? Or that only 1.4% of these killings were for money, and that most occurred on a Friday evening between 6 – 9pm!
Simon Baron-Cohen’s Zero Degrees of Empathy (179) forms a good companion read as it responds to Hollington's historical approach with a thoughtful and intellectual meditation on cruelty and evil – both of which he attributes to the erosion of empathy.
Oddly a library search finds that most books with ‘monster’ in the title are in the children’s section. But then if we must all face the scarier aspects of life, library books are as good an introduction as any! However this wasn’t quite what I was looking for, so I returned to the adult floor and found Scary Monsters and Super Creeps – In Search of the World’s Most Hideous Beasts (001.944). Written by Dom Joly, it’s actually a pleasant read, if a bit self-regarding, ‘Laugh inside’ rather than ‘laugh out loud’ funny. Without wanting to spoil the ending, Joly travels from the Himalayas to Loch Ness looking for everything from Bigfoot to Yeti. He talks to strange people, gets lost and doesn’t find, well, anything very much!
So if you are looking to get to grips with monsters, Matt Kaplan’s The Science of Monsters (001.944) is a better bet; full of thought-provoking asides about why we need monsters, how we create them and whether in fact we ourselves, as humans, have become the very things we fear.
For those wanting to find inner strength in the face of villainy, Samantha Ellis offers sage advice in How to be a Heroine (809.393522). I felt for Ellis as she describes finding that whilst Lizzie Bennet has stood the test of time, other heroines like Catherine Earnshaw seem selfish to her now, rather than wild and passionate as they did when they she first encountered them in print. Ellis is rueful in her recognition that the characters we find inspiring change as we experience more of life, but celebratory in her naming of Sylvia Plath and Patti Smith as women who helped her find out who she could become.
Whether you consider villains and monsters as cautionary tales, or see heroes and heroines as sources of inspiration, there is much food for thought here in your library, not least that heroism and villainy have many characteristics that run parallel, and that most characters, real or imagined, contain elements of both.
Adventures in the Library
One of the first things I do when I come into the library is check the returns shelf and trolleys; partly because I'm returning my own haul of books but mostly because I find other people’s books choices fascinating.
You’ll often find a driving test theory book here because it’s often the most borrowed book in the system (second only to Paula Hawkins' best seller The Girl on the Train, according to the stats). Next to it, on the last occasion I looked, was the much-borrowed Life in the UK Test and Study Guide (323.620941). In fact it was tracing this book to its source – the mysterious and expansive section called ‘Society’ that sparked this blog. But I digress!
Returning to the Life in the UK test book, it’s interesting to see what is considered essential knowledge. For example the reading list designed to distill Britishness into book form recommends Bridget Jones Diary, The Wind in the Willows, and Harry Potter...
So can you define the nature of a people?
The English: a Field Guide, by Matt Rudd (305.821) attempts it, but soon meanders around in gently humorous clichés before coming to a rueful non-conclusion. So far, so British.
A more rigorous historical attempt is made by David Starkey in Magna Carta, the True Story Behind the Charter. (323.440992). I wasn’t aware of rumours and falsehoods concerning the charter, but this is an enjoyable read for both students of history and those who use the past as a lens to understand current issues. Starkey’s somewhat pettish voice threads throughout his take on this defining document and it is all the better for a personal perspective. It is a socio-cultural consideration of where we’ve come from and where, he fears, we may end up. I had a strangely comforting thought as I turned the last page of this book. No matter what any one of us achieves in our lives – success, happiness, fame – David Starkey will always slightly look down on us all. It’s like a shared cup of tea!
A more thrusting polemic on the Society shelves can be found in Nick Cohen’s Waiting for the Etonians: Report’s from the Sickbed of Liberal England (320.510941). Cohen doesn’t hold back from delivering a stinging critique of where he sees the social fabric beginning to unravel, and whilst this book is slightly dated he proves prescient in predicting the present troubles. I enjoy the aggressive pace and wit in his writing but was also pleasantly surprised to also find some sensitive and moving passages on the plight of people caught in the churn of change – in this case divorced middle class women.
The attempt to understand society by looking at its parts is further encapsulated by Lynsey Hanley’s Estates: an Intimate History (363.5850941). I loved this book, finding it forthright, vivid and memorable. It is an informed look at society through the spaces in which it houses some it’s most vulnerable. I was particularly impressed by the exploration of the impact that living in a marginalised space can have on the way you might think about the world and your possibilities within it – ‘mauer im kopf’ ... ‘the wall in the head’.
These books are thought provoking, but they won’t deliver much in the way of positivity. For that you need my last pick, David Hendy’s Life on Air: a History of Radio Four (791.440941). This book is frank, funny and surprising. One extraordinary tale recalls an elderly woman who, in 1988, travelled by bus from Blackpool to shoot at a BBC commissioner because of her inability to revive Radio Four. Another quotes from a listener in 1970 who complains, ‘I suppose you are trying to be "with it’"with decadence, communism and a complete lowering of all standards’.
That's the joy of our ‘Society’ section – all human life is there!
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Nicky Lambert is FoWHL’s third Writer in Residence, and like her predecessors she is a big fan of libraries. After studying History and English, Nicky qualified as a mental health nurse, and is now an Associate Professor and Director of Teaching and Learning Mental Health and Social Work at Middlesex University in Hendon. She has been a member of West Hampstead Library since moving here 2011 and tweets about mental health and wellbeing under the name @niadla
TO READ NICKY'S RECENT BLOGS CLICK HERE