Reading books from 1977
I enjoy taking part in book blogging jollies, but seldom find time to give them my wholehearted commitment. This year alone there have been tempting readathons and readalongs for Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark, Agatha Christie and Persephone Books, to name but a sprinkling. Sad to say, I haven’t signed up for any – until now.
I recently spotted a post about the forthcoming 1977 Club; an event hosted jointly by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Stuck in a Book from the 16th-22nd April. Participants were asked to read books published only in that year (there had previously been clubs for 1924, 1938, 1947, 1951 and 1968), and a helpful list of eligible titles was provided to make the challenge easier.
A day or two later I noticed a photograph on Karen’s blog displaying a pile of books originally published in 1977, among them Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, a short story collection by Sylvia Plath. This title had been sitting unread on my shelves for a long time, but until that point I was unaware it had been released in the very year required to take part in this challenge. I had my book, so why not join in the fun? Voila!
“I’m a wormy hermit in a country of prize pigs so corn-happy they can’t see the slaughter house at the end of the track.”
Although Sylvia Plath died in 1963 at the age of only 30, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, a collection of short stories, pieces of journalism and extracts from her journal, was published posthumously by Faber & Faber in 1977.
Her estranged husband, the late Ted Hughes, had complete control over her unpublished work. He selected thirteen stories for the anthology from manuscripts found among her papers after death, including those, he claimed, “she wished to keep,” plus “others written during her last two years in England.”
I no longer recall how or why this book came to be in my possession, but it’s likely I picked it up from a second-hand book shop with every intention of reading it shortly thereafter. Doubtless other books came along to lure me away, and Johnny Panic was set aside for another day.
Finally reading this volume of Plathian ephemera over the course of a weekend was at times a bizarre experience. I discovered her prose was sharp, sinister and oddly surprising. Her narrative had a jittery intensity. It was filled with foreboding and had a uniquely mirthless quality. Some stories were stronger than others, but the selection as a whole offered an insight into her development as a writer.
I wonder now why it took me so long to read this collection. I’ve always admired Plath’s poetry, especially Ariel with its free-flowing emotion and ambiguous themes. Perhaps I was waiting for the right moment in my life to fully appreciate this particular work. Though, it’s far more likely I was overwhelmed by the growing number of unread books in my library and, like Johnny, I panicked.