The Alchemist

The Alchemist

Title: The Alchemist
Author: Paulo Coelho (English translation: Alan R. Clarke)
Publication date: 1988
Country/culture: Brazil

Note

For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See My Creative Journal to find out why I’m doing this.)

 

What’s it about?The Alchemist

An Andalusian shepherd boy has a recurring dream about treasure awaiting him at the Egyptian pyramids, and sets out on a journey across sea and desert to pursue his quest. Along the way he meets both friends and foes, loses his way and finds it again – and learns how to listen to his heart and stay true to his dreams.

What did I find out?

It may seem slightly prosaic to say that I was surprised to discover this book was only published in 1988. It’s held iconic status on the fringes of my consciousness for a long time now, and I’d convinced myself it had been written decades ago. OK, I realise that 1988 is nearly 30 years ago – so it’s not exactly yesterday – but it’s the year I went to university (and also the year my mother was the same age as I am now, which is not a little unnerving), and recently I’ve been struggling quite significantly with the recognition that so much time has already passed in my life.

So this realisation has given me an enhanced sense of the book’s message: that we need to follow our dreams if we are truly to fulfil our destiny. Just because I am older than I would like to be, and haven’t yet achieved everything I know I’d like to achieve in my life, doesn’t mean it’s too late. On the contrary: having that awareness that time is passing gives me an increased sense of urgency to get the hell on with it.

I’m still not entirely sure what my dream or destiny is, but I do know that the clock is ticking…

What do I now see differently?

Oddly, The Alchemist didn’t make me see things differently so much as reinforce something I’ve believed for some time but which I’ve recently been questioning. This is the emphasis on spotting omens to guide your path through life as you seek your ‘treasure’ (destiny): the boy regularly pauses on his journey to look for signs to help him decide what to do next, and it is by following the signs/omens that he is able to stay on track and pursue his quest to its successful conclusion.

While I don’t believe in waiting for an external power to tell me what to do, I do believe – very strongly – that what we call omens, signs or ‘messages from the universe’ are in fact indications of what is going on in our subconscious, or our gut. When something is truly important to us, when we know deep down what we are seeking, we see reminders of it everywhere: the trick is to look out for these reminders, and to recognise them for what they are when they appear.

This quote from page 96 of my edition (HarperCollins, 2012) sums it up for me:

He knew that any given thing on the face of the earth could reveal the history of all things. One could open a book to any page, or look at a person’s hand; one could turn a card, or watch the flight of the birds… whatever the thing observed, one could find a connection with his experience of the moment. Actually, it wasn’t that those things, in themselves, revealed anything at all; it was just that people, looking at what was occurring around them, could find a means of penetration to the Soul of the World.

 

The reference to opening ‘a book to any page’ in fact describes exactly what I am trying to do with the Quick Lit Fix: helping people tune in to their subconscious desires by connecting with random words that will have a unique meaning for them because of their own unique life experiences. Recently I’ve been doubting whether this is just a load of ‘cod psychology’ – but reading this novel has made me realise that it is not, and that I am not alone.

It seems that The Alchemist has acted as my own omen for staying true to my purpose. How about that for synchronicity?

How will this inspire my writing?

I’ve been trying for a while now to write up a more detailed exploration of how I use books to help me tune in to my subconscious and stay on track with what I want out of life. This had fallen by the wayside, but I recently decided I’d have another crack at it. Reading The Alchemist, as you’ll see from the preceding paragraph, has reminded me that this is important to me, that it is not a waste of time, and that I need to keep at it. So I will recognise my ‘omen’ for what it is, and make a renewed effort to continue this work.

Secondly, as the novel is described (on the cover of my edition, at least) as ‘a fable about following your dream’, it has re-ignited another latent idea of mine. In my last post I stated that I would start going to my local open mic night again, with the ultimate aim of performing my own work. I now recall that I once had the idea of writing alternative fairytales or fables – and it might now be fun to give these a try, with a view to performing them at Voicebox.

A musical interlude

This track came to mind before I’d even finished reading the book. It’s from one of my favourite bands of all time, and expresses the sentiments of the novel perfectly, thus presenting another beautiful example of synchronicity.

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly

Title: The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly
Author: Sun-mi Hwang (translated by Chi-Young Kim; illustrated by Nomoco)
Publication date: 2013
Country/culture: South Korea

Note

For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See My Creative Journal to find out why I’m doing this.)

 

What’s it about?The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly

Sprout the hen dreams of escaping the chicken coop, gaining her freedom and hatching an egg of her own. Her path towards this dream is a slow and hard one, but along the way she finds love and fulfilment in some surprising and unexpected places – and, perhaps most importantly, she remains true to herself.

What did I find out?

Animals are often given names in stories, but we are not always told where those names come from – or, if we are, it is usually from the humans responsible. I think this is the first story I’ve read where an animal has chosen her own name – and chosen it for very specific reasons.

‘Sprout’ represents the beginnings of life, the promise of new green shoots – and the help offered to that new life by the mother plant. Right from the start of this book, therefore, we have a clear insight into Sprout’s character: her name defines her perfectly, all the more so because she has not acquired it by chance; she has actively decided that this is how she intends to live.

It is a fantastic reminder of the importance of carving our own paths and choosing our destinies, rather than accepting what others thrust upon us. In writing terms, it’s also another prompt for me to consider the symbolism of names: I may be able to use my characters’ names to provide deeper insights within my own stories.

What do I now see differently?

I knew early on that this was a story about breaking free from the herd and honouring one’s individuality. As the book is fairly short, I’d assumed it to be a fable in a similar vein to Jonathan Livingston Seagull, with one clear overarching message: ‘follow your own path’.

However, as I progressed through the book, I came to see that it wasn’t that simple; the story was multi-layered in its treatment of not just individuality but also other issues. For example, in the story of Sprout the hen raising Greentop the duck as her own, we see tolerance – of diversity, of adoptive or step-parenting, and of mixed-race families – take centre stage. Clearly, tolerance is connected to the ability to think for oneself, but it is at this point that the tale seems to veer away from Sprout’s fulfilment of her personal needs and towards how she uses her determination and individuality to help improve the lives of those she loves.

One of the things I’m always trying to communicate through the Book Diaries is that different people will see different themes in the same book, depending on their own circumstances and worldview; The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is a perfect example of this. It also illustrates that, even if a book seems to be short and simple, it may yet prove to be beautifully complex.

How will this inspire my writing?

My inspiration this time came almost instantaneously. I’d previously decided to write a short story for a competition being run as part of our local literary festival, but the plan had been on the back burner for a while: my novel had stalled, and I was trying to get myself back into the habit of making progress on that. However, on reading Hwang’s book, which (although definitely a novel​) is a fairly short read, I was filled with renewed enthusiasm for writing my own short story. Maybe it would even kick-start the novel again…

Since finishing the book and writing this post, I have now completed the first draft of my story. It’s still rough around the edges and needs editing for sense and storytelling (not to mention word count), but I’m happy with my little tale. I’ve also got a fresh writing schedule in place for my novel – and I know it wouldn’t have happened without The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly.

I will be sure to report back on my general blog if the story places in the competition! Watch this space…

A musical interlude

This song is for Sprout rather than Greentop – I feel it describes her journey. 

Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Title: Jonathan Livingston Seagull
Author: Richard Bach (with photographs by Russell Munson)
Publication date: 1970

What’s it about?Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Jonathan Livingston Seagull is a bird who desires more from life than just grubbing for food: he wants to become ever more skilled in the art of flight. Cast out from his flock, he perfects his technique and moves into a higher realm with other gulls who share his aims. He finally achieves his dream of bringing all he has learned back to those members of his flock who are now willing to listen.

Where did I get hold of the book?

This one was from the public library – but I will at some point be buying a copy to keep.

What did I learn from it?

I hadn’t expected the book to contain pictures, but the black and white photographs of seagulls in mid-air really added to the vibe of the story. It’s one thing reading about the joys of flight, but quite another to see it in motion, even if through a static rather than a moving picture (although the book was later made into a film). This was a great reminder of the value of illustrations – and not just for children, but for adults too. A well-chosen visual image can greatly complement the visions conjured up by a skilled piece of writing.

I also learned something about the technicalities of a seagull’s flight. The author goes into great detail about wingspan, speed and angles; he has experience in aviation, which explains his interest in flight as a metaphor for life, but the focus on Jonathan’s technique was, again, something I wasn’t expecting. I now have a renewed appreciation for the abilities of other creatures with an anatomy different to my own.

How did it make me see the world differently?

The novella is quite clearly described as a ‘fable’, so it is easy to see the relevance of Jonathan’s experiences to our own human lives. He is not content with the limited life led by the other seagulls, and instead chooses to pursue his own dreams. For this he is exiled from the flock, but accepts this as the price for living life on his own terms; and he uses his new-found freedom to relentlessly pursue perfection.

Anyone who has ever stepped outside the bounds of what society deems a regular life will feel kinship with Jonathan. The definition of a regular life will, of course, differ from culture to culture, but as we are social creatures, we cannot deny the pull of the group, the urge to belong and to continue to be accepted. Difficulties arise when we wish to do something that we know our group will disapprove of, whether that is quitting the 9-5 to become self employed, selling a suburban home to go and live off grid in a yurt, or relocating to the other side of the world to pursue a new skill.

This is a familiar tale – the brave soul who breaks with their group to achieve accomplishment and fulfilment – but the interesting thing about Bach’s story is that he does not pretend the journey is easy. Jonathan endures great pain, suffers many setbacks, and even risks death (indeed, it is possible that he does indeed ‘die’, at least on one plane of existence); every day is a constant hard struggle to reach the heights he so craves. And yet reach them he does.

It is an essential reminder that we can all strive to be much better versions of ourselves, and push ourselves to limits we never thought we could attain – but that we should not expect it to be easy. If we want our lives to be truly amazing, rather than merely average, we should be prepared to work for it.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

After my last post, in which I promised to take things a little easier towards the end of this year, this book seemed to be telling me the opposite! Is life too short to relax and smell the flowers? Should I be pushing myself harder and harder? I felt exhausted just thinking about it – and I eventually decided that my answer was ‘no’.

I know from many years’ experience that if I work myself too hard, I burn out. I try to fit too much stuff into my days, and I crash, wasting more time than if I’d taken it easy in the first place. The key for me, I have realised, is to find focus: to figure out what my time can most valuably be spent doing, rather than running around on a variety of busy tasks that ultimately don’t yield great gains.

I’ve decided that my focus next year is going to be creative writing. I already feel excited at the thought of it, and am sneaking odd hours here and there to develop stories, even though I don’t ‘officially’ have to start until 1 January. It no longer feels like an exhausting struggle, because – probably – it’s the one thing I’ve been wanting to do all along.

And so the challenge I’ve set myself after reading Richard Bach’s fable is to use it as inspiration to write a fable of my own. Something creative, something that ties in with my interests in sci-fi and fantasy, and probably something based around the wonder of books and libraries. I’m hoping that this will be a good way in to writing more lengthy works – and if I can meet my regular three-month target, then maybe by next Spring I’ll have my first piece of creative fiction out there in the world!

A musical interlude

This song came to me almost as soon as I’d chosen the book. It’s not quite the right kind of seabird, but the feel of the track fits perfectly with Bach’s visions of a bird freely in flight across the oceans.

No words are needed.

The Bell Jar

The Bell JarTitle: The Bell Jar
Author: Sylvia Plath
Publication date: 1963

What’s it about?The Bell Jar

Esther Greenwood wins a scholarship to work as an intern on a New York fashion magazine, and hopes to subsequently pursue a career in writing. When this does not take off as hoped, she spirals into depression; the novel then charts her experience of mental illness within the psychiatric hospital system.

Where did I get hold of the book?

This one was from the public library.

What did I learn from it?

Some time earlier in the year I became very aware that a lot of the books I’d picked for 2016’s Book Diaries were written by (predominantly American) men. This came to a head when I read On the Road, which describes the experiences of young men travelling – and what I hadn’t realised was that some of the characters indulge in these road trips during college vacations.

I realised I’d read far more about the college experiences of men than women, and so The Bell Jar was a refreshing change in this respect. In it I got to see more of how women approached this time in their lives – and, specifically, what restrictions they faced that were not placed on men. For example, Esther and her fellow magazine interns live in a women-only hotel: even the (male) doctor who attends them when they become ill after a food poisoning outbreak suggests that he is only permitted to be there because of the urgency of the situation.

Towards the end of the novel, Esther visits a doctor to be fitted for a diaphragm, in an attempt to free herself from the limitations that a sexual relationship would otherwise threaten her with (pregnancy, marriage to the wrong man). This was a salutary reminder of the impact birth control had on the lives of women who wanted to be more than just a wife and mother.

How did it make me see the world differently?

Given the above, it is not surprising that I found myself with a renewed appreciation of all the advances that have been made by feminism over the decades. Esther’s experiences are already an improvement on earlier times, but 50+ years on from the publication of the novel I am able to pursue a career of my choosing, I am able to live happily child free, and my bank account is mine to do with as I wish.

This is all the more meaningful as I related quite strongly to Esther’s experiences of mental illness, having suffered from depression for a large part of my life (although the extent of mine was nowhere near as extreme as hers). As she talks about her early academic success, her ability to put on a competent face when inside she is struggling, and her difficulty in finding her place in the world as this period of her life draws to a close, I heard uncanny echoes of my own path through life – with the difference that I, now, have many more options available to me.

That said, we still have a long way to go. I recall going to see a (male) doctor, sometime in my mid-twenties, and telling him I thought I was depressed. (My experiences over subsequent years would come to bear this out.) His response? ‘I think you’ve just got yourself into a bit of a tizzy.’

The Bell Jar is a reminder of the importance of fighting for our rights, if we are to make the most of the lives we have been given and not waste our valuable gifts. It is a tragedy that Sylvia Plath did not survive to share more of her gifts with the world.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

I put off starting this book as I thought it would be incredibly depressing; however, I have been reminded yet again not to make pre-judgements about books, as in the end I absolutely loved it! For a novel about depression and death it is remarkably full of life and vitality; Plath’s wit sparkles through, and it is the first book I’ve read since Fahrenheit 451 that I found genuinely un-put-down-able.

I’d decided to get it out of the library rather than buy it for myself, as I didn’t want to spend money on something I assumed I would find a struggle. However, I’m now determined to buy a copy to keep – and this made me realise that this would be a fitting tribute to pay to all the books I’ve read for this blog.

This year has been about trying to support the local libraries, but the idea of having an entire bookshelf (or bookcase) dedicated to my Book Diaries collection is very enticing. I will therefore go through my list and note down which books I’m not in possession of – and make an effort to acquire them.

A musical interlude

Although the Police’s Can’t Stand Losing You was the first track to come to mind for this book, I didn’t feel it had quite the right vibe; it seemed to oversimplify and even misrepresent Esther’s situation. I then started to think about the broader themes of the book rather than merely her suicide attempt, and came up with this number by James Brown.

A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork OrangeTitle: A Clockwork Orange
Author: Anthony Burgess
Publication date: 1962

A Clockwork OrangeWhat’s it about?

Teenage Alex lives in a dystopian society and regularly indulges in bouts of ‘ultra-violence’ with his three ‘droogs’, or friends. Arrested and imprisoned for murder, he undergoes a psychological conditioning technique that is almost as vicious as his own behaviour. He is released back into the world, but finding his place – and establishing his identity – within it is not as easy as it once was.

Where did I get hold of the book?

This one was on my bookshelves; I ‘borrowed’ it from my parents some years ago, but this is the first time I’ve read it.

What did I learn from it?

I learned that ‘nadsat’, the teenage slang spoken by Alex and his friends, is based largely on Russian. This was very interesting, as I studied Russian at school, and so a lot of the terminology in the novel was familiar to me. I don’t know whether this is why I didn’t find the book particularly difficult to read, despite significant chunks of it being written in nadsat; or whether it is simply that the invented language makes sense in its own context.

As I mentioned last year in my post on The Lord of the Rings, languages were my best subject at school and I’ve always been interested in how language can be used to convey meaning and nuance. Reading this book, and realising that I can figure out what Burgess’s made-up words mean purely from the context in which they are used, is fascinating – and a reminder that we don’t need to be able to speak the same language to understand one another.

Think of international road signs, which use symbols and colour to convey important information to a variety of linguistic groups. Think of sign language, which uses gesture and expression. Although our species has evolved to a point where many different word systems are used around the globe to communicate increasingly nuanced messages, it is testament to something deeper in the human spirit that we can still connect even when our words make no sense.

How did it make me see the world differently?

This novel deals to a large extent with the issue of free will, and poses the question: is it better to live in a world where everyone is forced to be good, or to permit human freedom and accept that some may use this freedom for evil?

Alex is conditioned, while in prison, to suffer extreme pain and sickness when he contemplates violent acts; this is designed to force him to adopt more socially acceptable behaviours. This clearly touches on the issue of how far a governing authority may intrude upon the life of an individual for the benefit of society as a whole. Of couse, there is no one right answer, and as such this is a popular theme for science fiction writers: for other takes on it, see The Minority Report by Philip K Dick and the episode ‘Charmageddon‘ from the TV series Charmed.

This topic is a key one for human life and development generally, as we make greater and greater discoveries in the sciences and ask ourselves, ‘just how far should we go?’ Any scientific advance, from nuclear fusion to stem cell research to the internet, has the potential to be used either for good or for evil. Do we refrain from developing a technique that could improve or even save lives, simply out of fear that it could be turned against us? Or do we go for it and trust to our mutual humanity to protect us from the worst possible outcomes?

A Clockwork Orange has reminded me that these are questions we all face every day, even those of us who are not government scientists. Any word we speak or act we commit could be misinterpreted and used to cause harm – but is that a reason to remain silent and passive? I don’t think so. I think the key may be greater mindfulness – but even as I write, I know the answer isn’t as simple as that. Yet even if I don’t have the answers, I certainly feel that this book has given me a greater awareness of the questions.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

I’ve been reminded of my love for languages; specifically, my interest in clever word-play and new worlds and systems dreamed up by imaginative writers. One of those authors, mentioned above, is JRR Tolkien, and there is a huge pile of Tolkien-related research out there just waiting to be read, digested and mulled over by geeky types such as myself.

A little while ago I purchased two volumes of conference proceedings from this field of study, which a Tolkien society was disposing of for a small fee. I’ve not yet made time to read any of the papers, as this random interest has never quite made its way to the top of my priority list; but when I come back from holiday, I am going to make a serious effort to dig out some of the research into Tolkien’s language building and get stuck in.

I can’t promise that I won’t get distracted by other Tolkien topics along the way, but the point is that I will actively make time for a fun project that usually gets discarded – but which I will hugely regret if I never indulge myself.

A musical interlude

This song sprang to mind almost instantly, despite my not thinking it had any particular connection with the novel other than the general vibe. But then I read on Wikipedia that the ‘themes and imagery in the band’s songs were often influenced by futuristic, dystopian or post-apocalyptic films such as A Clockwork Orange, The Terminator, Blade Runner and the Mad Max trilogy’ – and it suddenly all made sense.

I should also admit that I remember seeing this on Top of the Pops when I was growing up, so there is a definite element of nostalgia playing out here… It’s Sigue Sigue Sputnik.

The House of Mirth

The House of Mirth

Title: The House of Mirth
Author: Edith Wharton
Publication date: 1905
Genre: Literary naturalism

What’s it about?The House of Mirth

Lily Bart, a penniless young woman who nevertheless moves in high society, needs to marry a rich husband to continue living in the manner to which she is accustomed. However, an unwillingness to play the game and a desire for something (freedom?) beyond this blinkered life leads to an ongoing struggle with her ultimate adversary: money.

Where did I get hold of the book?

I downloaded this one for free to my Kindle app.

What did I learn from it?

I’m debating whether to continue with this section on my blog posts. Usually what I ‘learn’ from a book are facts about the world in which it is set, in this case New York high society of the 1900s – and other than saying ‘I learned about this period’, I don’t always feel there is much worth expanding upon. Maybe just a brief overview will suffice?

On other occasions, however, I learn things about myself – but then I wonder whether this is in any way different to the next section, ‘How did it make me see the world differently?’ Am I repeating myself? I’m not so sure about that. The things I might learn (or, more accurately, be reminded of) about myself aren’t necessarily the same as the way the world works – so perhaps it is worth pursuing this train of thought after all.

Let me know in the comments below if you’ve found these sections particularly enlightening, or, conversely, no use at all! But this year may be more of an exploration to home in on what each book has truly done for me – and perhaps that is in itself a learning experience.

How did it make me see the world differently?

This was a perfect example of the environment being described having a resonance for me with regard to a totally different set of circumstances.

Lily Bart loves the high life, having been raised with a taste for luxury. However, she has an independence of spirit, and enough self knowledge to recognise that her love of the moneyed life is shallow and, ultimately, unsatisfying for the soul. She has romantic feelings for a man, Lawrence Selden, who is not rich enough to offer her the society marriage she believes she needs; however, with him she can be truly herself, unbound by the conventions of the ‘in crowd’. Her dilemma is whether she can overcome her desire for affluence and choose the authentically free life she could have with Selden.

I do not have luxurious tastes. I chose to leave the perceived security and status of full-time employment and go freelance, precisely because my freedom is more important to me than being able to afford holidays, fancy cars, new clothes and any of the other trappings that come with a comfortable income. I actively choose to spend less because this means I have to work less, and this is a pay-off I am more than willing to make. In Lily’s terms, I have opted for the life with Selden rather than that with the Trenors, the Van Osburghs and the Dorsets.

However, this does not mean that I am impervious to the charms of money. While I try to avoid over-working (as this leads to enormous stress and a tendency to eat and drink unhealthily), it does occasionally happen, for example when a client project grows beyond its expected bounds or when I overestimate my stamina levels. And when I do work extra hours, this results in extra money… and it is hard not to feel excited by the total figure in the bottom line when I’m totting up my invoices.

Whenever I go through a busy patch, the boost to my income means that I am able to look forward to more months of financial security than if I just did the bare minimum. But while the lack of freedom I’ve experienced while working leads, in theory, to a prospect of more freedom in the months to come, the extra bulge in my bank account means I can easily be tempted to splash out on all those little treats I usually deny myself in the pursuit of a peaceful life.

This book is a salutary reminder for me, not necessarily to think I can ignore the issue of money (as Lily finds out, it is good to have principles and dreams, but we still need to be able to pay the bills), but to ask myself the question every time I take on a piece of work: do I really need the money, or am I being distracted from what is really important?

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

The novel is set at a time when people used wax to seal their letters and stamp them with their own design. Lily Bart’s seal is a picture of a flying ship, with the word ‘Beyond!’ inscribed beneath it. I think this is meant to represent her desire for something more meaningful (again, that word ‘freedom’…) beyond the conventions of the society she inhabits.

For years I have had a desire to get a tattoo – something small and elegant, maybe in a location where it can be hidden if I so choose – but I’ve never known what design would sum up my thoughts or express my feelings.

But now I do 🙂 As soon as I read about Lily’s seal, I knew that this was the design I’ve been looking for. It represents my urge to go beyond the boundaries of what the world tells us is possible, and branch out on my own to uncharted territories, by unconventional means.

Without wanting to give away any spoilers, I will say that Lily’s story doesn’t develop in quite the way I’d hoped. However, I am a different person, living in a different age, and getting this design etched on to my skin will, I hope, be a continual reminder to do the things that were perhaps denied to Lily: to live my life in my way, and enjoy the freedom I have always craved.

A musical interlude

Something new I’m going to try for this year’s Book Diaries is to post a video of a music track that each book has inspired me to think of.

This week it’s the Flying Lizards, and Money

Over to you…

Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?

If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?

Please share in the comments below!

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoos NestTitle: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest24-book challenge
Author: Ken Kesey
Publication date: 1962
Genre: Fiction

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's NestWhat’s it about?

Randle Patrick McMurphy – loud, swaggering, and rebellious – arrives on the ward of a mental hospital and almost instantly locks horns with the ‘Big Nurse’, Miss Ratched. But what begins as sport soon develops into out-and-out war between the two, as they vie for superiority and control.

Narrated by Chief Bromden, one of the ward’s long-term residents, the story follow McMurphy’s struggles against authority and his attempts to understand and make a difference to the lives of the other inmates. We come up against questions of personal freedom, self sacrifice, and the point at which individuality and insanity intersect – and there are no easy answers.

As McMurphy becomes more and more embroiled in his battle of wits with the Big Nurse, we realise it cannot be long before catastrophe strikes. And so – after many arguments, confrontations, and escapades – it does. But, running in parallel to the inevitable tragedy, we also see, in the Chief’s own narrative, a glimmer of hope. McMurphy’s actions have not been in vain.

Read more information on Goodreads.

Where did I get hold of the book?

I finally got an account set up in my local university library, and got the book out of there. I just need to remember to take it back, as I don’t have any visits planned before the due date; so I’ll need to make a special trip… or renew it!

What did I learn from it?

I learned that I find this subject fascinating! My work is based in and around medical research, so anything with a medical setting tends to grab my interest. Also, as someone who’s quit the 9-5 in order to work freelance, I’m drawn to any writing that deals with issues of personal freedom / being different / opting out of ‘the system’. So this book ticked both boxes.

As with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, I learned a little about medical practices of days gone by. In this case, however, it was intriguing to see a different twist on issues of privacy and consent: not a factual account of the abuse of trust, but a fictional one – which meant that the author could go much further, and dig much deeper into the possible consequences of such actions.

How did it make me see the world differently?

In terms of the value placed on freedom and individuality, the book spoke to feelings I already possess. I have a huge thing about not getting caught in what Kesey refers to as ‘The Combine’: the abstract authority that governs society and wants to put people in neat little boxes and keep them there, the better to control them. So I was half expecting the book to give me a ‘courage boost’ for thumbing my nose to social convention, speaking my mind in the company of those who would seek to squash me, and being loud and proud about being different.

But then, the more I read of McMurphy, the more I started to question whether the loud approach is the right way for me. I’m a massive introvert – I hate drawing attention to myself, not because I’m scared of what people might think, but because it’s so exhausting to have to fend off the inevitable questions and criticisms. I don’t know that I’m self-sacrificing enough to make a big noise purely so that others can find inspiration, if it ultimately means that I get noticed, worn down, and potentially squashed for good.

That doesn’t feel like a particularly admirable thing to realise about myself, but I take comfort in the fact that it is in the story of the Chief that we introverts can find motivation. The Chief is the quintessential image of a quiet type: believed to be deaf and dumb for the majority of his time in the hospital, he nevertheless finds the courage to recover his sense of self, take a stand when it truly matters, and eventually strike out on his own.

I need to remind myself that it’s OK to be quiet.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

I think that the best way forward for me is just to keep on trying to do what I want to do. Not shouting about my rights to freedom, but showing by example that it is possible to lead a life that is different to the one everyone expects you to lead.

In my case, that means more writing. Specifically, my supernatural novel. I’ve been juggling ideas around in my head for months now, without making any progress beyond the fiddly little details of my imaginary world – and the time has come to get a move on and start writing.

So, my contribution towards a world where we can all be free to be ourselves is to commit myself, not to an institution, but to the act of writing. Pen on paper; fingers on keyboard; however it manifests itself. I will not tell myself I can’t do it, that there is no point, that it will be rubbish. There are too many people in the world who are quite capable of doing that for me – and I refuse to join their ranks.

Rather than try to lead others to freedom, I will simply continue tracing my own path – and hope that this simple act will enable others to follow the trail too.

Over to you…

Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?

If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?

Please share in the comments below!