Blog Topics, Sociological Castaways

Sarah Burton, Goldsmiths

11102624_10155322401430361_9028425635459089358_nBefore even beginning, I feel the need to note that I’d find being cast away on a desert island beyond deathly. I can’t bear inactivity, and the notion of endless days lying in the sun is one which fills me with a horror akin to Christmas Eve shopping with ceaseless serenading from Aled Jones and Paul McCartney. All my choices are oriented to letting me cope with the solitude, quiet, and stillness. On top of this, I am much beholden to whim, so these choices are what I love now, rather than fixed in stone. I’d probably pick entirely different things should I be asked in a year – or even a day’s – time.


Four sociology books:


I’ve taken a liberty with the definition of ‘sociology’ here (which is surely the entire point of the discipline), and gone with works which I use in a sociological manner. My first instinct was to include texts like Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness or ‘Postmodern Blackness’ by bell hooks; certainly these intersectional feminist texts are vital to me as a researcher, but I hope, alone on my desert island, to forgo my usual go-to academic books.


My first three selections are all geared to a deeper reading of the everyday, in terms of a sense of place, space, and landscape, but with a very particular eye to the sensuousness of language, to its tangibility and texture and the importance of deliberating over not just words, but cadence, rhythm, punctuation, and the shape of writing. To this end, I’d take with me Les Back’s The Art of Listening, followed by Robert MacFarlane’s Landmarks, and a collection of Georg Simmel’s writing. These are all books which transport you somewhere else. They offer a different method for viewing the familiar, which I’m thinking would be most welcome if I’m stuck interminably on a desert island. Both Landmarks and The Art of Listening would also provide much-needed links to my various markers of home, as they cover both the busyness and verve of London, but also the ethereal, mystical nuances of the English rural. I’ve chosen to accompany these with Simmel because what little of his work I’ve read, I’ve liked – he’s a writer who is seriously attentive to the micro and the visual. But I rarely get an opportunity to fully engage with him, so I’d take the occasion of my stranding to delve more thoroughly into his work. These are all authors who write with intimacy and tactility; since as I’m alone on this island I want to surround myself with books which embrace me and give me succour.


My final choice for my four sociological books is Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan Quartet. I’ve picked this for two reasons. Firstly, I think I might be the only person in the land who hasn’t read them and I’m worried my supervisor will wash her hands of me if I’m any slower to start.

Secondly, technically speaking Ferrante is fiction but my intention would be to write about them and, indeed, read them in the same light as the former three – a sociological eye on the microcosm of family, the everyday, and the politics of belonging. Reading and exploring the quartet would be my project whilst trapped on the island.


Two fiction/non-academic books:


This was a really hard selection to make – not necessarily because of my profound love of literature of almost any kind – but because I’m still deliberating exactly what the purpose of my fiction choices is. Being a scholar of literature (but quite put off at how grandiose that sounds) I’m tempted to take books that speak to the mind – something that will make me want to write. On this count I immediately leapt to Beloved by Toni Morrison, which is possibly one of the best novels in English. Painful, visceral, complex, heart-rending, it is the book that pushed me out of my comfortable sort-of-rural-middle-class position when I read it as a first year undergraduate. Repeated readings are necessary, so perhaps my desert island is the place to do this. But – given that I will doubtless be consumed by the academic texts above – I think I want to make fiction a place of escapism rather than confrontation. So the two works of fiction I’m taking are Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons and Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges. One of my biggest loves both creatively and intellectually is magical realism. Borges takes you to such radically different worlds, such radically alternative ways of imagining, but always rooted in something uncannily familiar. You strive when you read Borges. I’d take a copy with both the Spanish and English so that I could perhaps teach myself a little more Spanish whilst trapped. Cold Comfort Farm is, quite simply, the funniest novel I have ever read. It’s funny on the first read and hilarious on the ninth. Stella Gibbons’ lampoon of both the melodramatic gothic novel and the quintessentially English country house trope is perfect. For comedic value, I thought also of Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall (which should be required reading for everyone working in education) but Cold Comfort Farm wins out owing to the breadth of what Gibbons parodies.


Four pieces of music


Choosing only four pieces of music was – surprisingly – harder than choosing only two fiction books. Deselecting favourites was quite devastating, but also a pertinent reminder of how big a part music plays in my sense of self, my writing practices, and the catharsis music brings. I found it especially hard to do justice to my rather eclectic collection – how to include the right classical, the right blues, the best riot grrl. I’m going to begin with the easiest choice: Magnificat by Arvo Pärt. I do most of my writing to Arvo Pärt, but aside from that, he composes the most beautiful, joyous, unsettling, and shiveringly poignant music. My second piece is ‘Do I Move You?’ by Nina Simone. Nina Simone is easily my favourite voice and the idea of not hearing her on a daily basis depresses me. This is Nina at her fiercest, strongest, and sexiest best. My third choice is ‘Et Demain Déjà’ by French band, Mansfield-TYA. I don’t listen to a great deal of music in English – partly just because I find it distracting when writing – so this would be a welcome variation when I’ve used Magnificat as writing accompaniment one too many times. This track is really dark in tone, with quite oppressive violin. To quote Buffy, ‘I like my evil like I like my men: evil’ – I feel much the same about music, the darker the better. I enjoy the ambivalence and nihilism of this track, plus anything with a violin is right up there for me. Speaking of dark, my final choice is Diamanda Galás’s version of Gloomy Sunday. It’s so potent, you lose yourself in her.


If I was sneaky, I’d also like to find a way to smuggle in a bit of Kate Bush (The Kick Inside/Hounds of Love), the exquisite folk of Hedningarna (Karelia Visa), and the Argentinian bordello evocation of Gotan Project. But that would be cheating.


One luxury item


I’m not happy if I’m not writing, so I’d ask for a perpetual writing desk: never-ending supplies of A4 Moleskin softcover notebooks, a bookstand, my laptop (with an electricity supply), Staedler fineliner pens in all the colours, and lots of sticky tabs. I’d write about Ferrante, landscapes, and work on my first detective novel.


I’m tempted also to ask for a boat so that I could row to Claire Alexander’s island and watch Buffy with her…



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