Charles Gammie is a professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Our family spent the summer preparing to travel to Oxford, England for a year’s sabbatical from our beloved University of Illinois, and we’ve done a bit of literary preparation.
We’ve all been reading novels by Terry Pratchett, some out loud. This summer we read “Hogfather” and “Thief of Time.” Our favorite (favourite?) character is DEATH. Like some of my colleagues, HE SPEAKS IN CAPITAL LETTERS, cannot be ignored, carries a scythe, can appear anywhere at any time, and has very little sense of humor. The best part of Pratchett is not the plots – which are fun – but rather the way he loves to play with language, often in the service of a good joke, typically unboxed several dozen pages after it is set up. Once we arrived in Oxford we managed to buy Pratchett’s final novel, Shepherd’s Crown, on the day it was released (Pratchett died this year from early onset Alzheimer’s disease). The kids devoured it over a single afternoon, which gave their parents an opportunity to do astrophysics and history (an underrated benefit of having children who love to read). Shepherd’s Crown is next on my reading list.
Once over here in Oxford I read the novel All Souls by the famous Spanish novelist Javier Marias. It’s about a Spaniard who spends a few years teaching in Oxford before returning to Spain, as Marias did. You might say it’s a novel about nothing, but it’s melancholy, beautifully written, and engagingly follows the narrator’s journey through Oxford as an outsider. Without giving away too much of the story, there is one particularly interesting, real figure who makes an appearance: the poet John Gawsworth, who also styled himself King Juan I of Redonda, an uninhabited, guano-covered island in the Caribbean. The “throne” has now passed to Javier Marias, who gives out Redondan titles as a sort of literary prize.