It all started with Mr Culligan’s homework assignment for the summer. As we were to
study Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ in the Autumn term, he asked that we should read it
through before the class reassembled in early September.
A habit that has plagued me all my life is the talent for putting things off, and my
paperback remained in my school bag for most of that August. I would occasionally
recall that I needed to get down to reading it, but thankfully those moments were rare
and the unpleasurable task repeatedly side-lined. Only two days before a new school
term came calling, I reluctantly took out the book, hunkered down in the corner of my
bedroom and read it. Animal Farm? Not too difficult. Quite easy to read, actually.
In Mr Culligan’s class we all sat in strict alphabetical order, and I was sitting next to
David Hall who, rather irritatingly, managed to combine academic brightness with no
small degree of personal charm. I wanted to dislike him, but always found I never
“So, boys, what do you think this book is really about?” Mr Culligan asked in his
beautifully modulated south Yorkshire accent.
Hall’s hand shot up and he outlined how it was actually about the tyranny of
totalitarianism. What was David talking about? Surely it was a book about a bunch of
farm animals who were as devious with each other as any human is. But David Hall
was right. And I was shocked by my own shallow reading of Orwell’s masterpiece.
More than narrative
In that moment I saw that a book can be so much more than a mere unfolding of a
narrative. It can be so many things – and often a very different book when revisited,
as I found out reading ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ three decades after first
That sun-sloping September afternoon, I walked home rather dazed, as if someone
had punched my underweight intellect in its own solar plexus.
‘So that’s what books can be about. That’s what books are really for.’
The lamp was lit.