I have a confession to make. I’ve never really understood Shakespeare. I’ve been to quite a few plays written by the bard and most of the time, I’ve got no idea what is going on. (I never can say no to a trip to the theatre, regardless of what is showing.) Once the actors adopt that old English of Much Ado About Nothing and all the others, a language that is as slippery as it apparently is brilliant, my eyes glaze over and instead I turn to admiring Kenneth Branagh and Denzel Washington in uniform.
But after reading Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, I’m suddenly desperate to see Hamlet. O’Farrell’s novel, based on the life of the playwright and his wife and children, tells of the loss of his son, Hamnet (an interchangeable way of spelling Hamlet).
The novel is heartrending and beautiful, and also ignited in me a fascination with the playwright which I had not previously felt, even despite visiting his hometown of Stratford-Upon-Avon in the past. Now, I want to see how that home life inspired his work, and how the death of his son manifested in Shakespeare’s words. I have seen some of his life, and now I want to know more. His art is suddenly grounded in a reality that I understand.
It is not the first time that books have provided a portal to new interests for me. Many books have provided an entry into different lives and places that I only wanted to know more about after finishing the book.
Sometimes, it is a point in history which I want to know more about. After reading Geraldine Brooks’ historical fiction – Year of Wonders – about a village who closed its borders after villagers became infected with the bubonic plague I visited the place where it was set with my book club. It was extraordinary to understand the depth of history in the place, and that knowledge enriched the experience of visiting. The book had made us want to know more, and helped us appreciate the history when we were there.
I find that reading books on the Holocaust have similarly only made me more determined to hear the stories of those who suffered during this time. I want to know as many people’s stories as I can, to understand and to somehow comprehend the reality of that time. This interest has led me to Primo Levi, Kirstin Hannah, Viktor Frankl, Heather Morris and Markus Zuzak, each adding a different voice and perspective.
On the other hand, the palpable joy emanating from some books make me desperate to experience the times and places they were set – The City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert presented New York in its heyday, when showgirls performed and jazz clubs proliferated. I wanted to walk those streets and gaze at the faded beauty of the theatre facades at a time before the lights of Broadway were quite as startling as they are today. If I am lucky enough to visit one day, I will seek out the small theatres like the one Gilbert brings to life, where a wide-eyed Vivian created costumes for actresses and showgirls.
Hilary Mantel introduced me to the intrigue in the court of Henry VIII and made me hungry for more in her Wolf Hall trilogy. These extraordinary books introduced me to historical figures like Oliver Cromwell and Thomas Moore, who otherwise would have seemed boring, their stories remembered by rote. Wolf Hall imagines the personalities behind the names and explores the fascinating power plays behind the scenes that ensure these books provide a better education on this time in England’s history than any classroom could.
Books also give me an interest in travel – I want to see all sides of India, from the gritty slums to the middle-class communities thanks to A Suitable Boy and A Fine Balance, I want to explore Naples’ crowded streets where Lenu and Lila walked thanks to Elena Ferrante, I want to eat at a diner in middle America thanks to Phillip Roth, John Updike and Jonathan Franzen and I’d love to explore the pyramids of Cairo thanks to the Ramses series.
It is no wonder that so many embark on literary tourism, to see Jane Austen’s house, take a tour of James Joyces’s Dublin, book a room at the Sofitel Metropole Hanoi thanks to Graham Greene and drink in the cosy Oxford pubs frequented by CS Lewis.
And so, in the same way, I’ll chase Shakespeare armed with a small knowledge of the playwright’s life that is enough to compel me to seek out more, to see the plays through fresh eyes and to want to break through the language barrier.
Now, having discovered an interest in so many different people and places, I just need to find a book that draws me in to the wonders of mathematics.