Archive for June, 2015

Jeffrey Tayler: River of White Nights

June 14, 2015

9781861059499Tayler and a Russian adventurer set off in a small craft to travel the entire length of the Lena River – about 2,700 miles, ending in the Laptev Sea in the Arctic Ocean. No roads connect with the Lena River which is in the Sakha Republic (formerly Yakutia) in the Russian Federation. It’s clear, reading between the lines, that the two do not really get on that well together, each having an inflated opinion of himself, for different reasons.

It’s an interesting account of part of Russia that hasn’t, to my knowledge, been travelled or described in depth before; it’s completely isolated and one gets a clear sense of the vastness and beauty of the land, as well as its dangers.

A major difference becomes evident, as Tayler meets and talks with people, between the inhabitants of metropolitan Russia and those completely out in the sticks, as all the people in the small settlements along the river’s banks are. The countryside is emptying, feeling abandoned and even more cut off since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had at least tried to develop its outlying areas and create a sense of belonging to a nation, as well as providing links to and supplies from the centre. So, almost everyone Tayler meets is disillusioned with Putin, capitalism and the ‘reforms’, which have basically abandoned them; there is considerable nostalgia for the days of the Soviet Union and its strong leadership. At the same time, there is a cynical, almost fatalistic acceptance of their situation, certainly no urge or ability to try and change the situation.

It’s this nostalgia and fatalism that seems to drive Tayler crazy: as an American he is unable to understand their attitude, or accept it; he often seems angrier than the Russians are themselves, and feels that they should want revenge for what the Soviet Union inflicted on them in the past. Eventually, his over-simplistic responses become tiresome and annoying, even though his meetings and discussions with people are fascinating in themselves for the insights we gain into their lives.

One often hears talk about national archetypes – even stereotypes – and Tayler fits the individualist, go-getting American picture (though I’m sure I’m guilty of oversimplifying based on the evidence here). Similarly the Russians are all slotted into his picture of ‘the Russians don’t understand democracy, they love strong leaders &c &c’ and his picture of the Bolshevik experiment is too one-sided to take seriously. And his patronising concluding observations are very disappointing, from someone who is clearly a seasoned traveller and observer of peoples. The horrendous summer storms as they approach the Arctic Circle, with the river ten to twelve miles wide, are dramatic and scary, and we see the travellers working together to survive…

So, it’s a decent read if you can overlook the political undercurrents. Russia is not the United States, it’s more than twice the size; its settlement and development is completely different and not comparable; Russians outside the big cities have been completely by-passed by any of the supposed ‘benefits’ of the reforms; somewhere deeper down there is a recognition that, no matter how badly wrong everything went, the Soviet experiment did attempt, in some ways, to make society different, fairer, better… I would have expected Tayler at least to acknowledge this, even while he disagreed.



Fading into obscurity…

June 13, 2015

I often find myself wondering about how much literature is lost, perhaps forever, just through the passage of time and the changing of fashions. Books go out of print and are forgotten; once gone, how few are ever rediscovered. These thoughts are often prompted by secondhand bookshops, especially the crumbling and ancient ones filled with fusty and mouldering tomes, which I often feel could be tidied by a judicious hand-grenade, and probably belong in a skip anyway…

Then I’m prompted by Theodore Sturgeon‘s observation – which I’m sure I’ve quoted before in a post – that 95% of science fiction is crap, but then 95% of everything is crap. So, much that is written and published deserves to vanish; if, like me you sometimes despair on looking at what is offered for sale (new) in bookshops, you will know what I mean. Does it matter what vanishes? In some ways I feel it does, because what disappears affects our understanding of the past, and I only need to recall the classics rescued from obscurity by a publisher such as Virago to be convinced of this.

When I used to raise the topic with my sixth form students, the touchstone question, to which they could all relate, was “Will future generations still read Harry Potter, or will those books also suffer the fate of the rest?” They were all convinced the books would survive; I was almost convinced then, but am less so now. I suspect they may disappear, to be rediscovered in a couple of generations or so.

What seems to change the situation is the increasing prevalence of digital texts, and the growth in people reading books electronically in preference to on paper. Surely this means that a text is far less likely to remain in print or to be reprinted, and there are also fewer paper copies extant to survive. Copyright lasts for 75 years after an author’s death: should this be shorter so that works can be digitally distributed free and thus survive in the public domain?

I remember two writers who were very much in vogue in the 1970s, when I was at university, and various reputations were being made through research and writing about them: D H Lawrence and Joseph Conrad. Now, I have the impression that it’s almost embarrasing to admit reading Lawrence, and Conrad is just so obscure, few have even heard of him. Similarly, two of the greats of science fiction when I first came to the genre were Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke. Though the former was seminal in his consideration of artificial intelligence, he has been completely overtaken by today’s reality, and the latter does seem to have been overshadowed my many great contemporary SF writers, though I still don’t think anyone has bettered The City and the Stars.

Texts are largely preserved nowadays by elites and academia: perhaps this was always the case? Again, in discussion with students, I would raise the question of what one might call the ‘eternal themes’ of literature: love, death, war, growth as aspects which might ensure a work’s survival; many texts focus on these themes, so it is not them alone which make a work survive. There has to be something which transcends time, crosses generations and their different interests and preoccupations, whereas it seems that texts which disappear into obscurity are too rooted in their own time to speak to future generations. And there I come full circle in this post, and realise that if we want to understand a particular time, then we do not just need history books and ephemera from that time, but also its literature.

What of our age’s literature will be remembered and preserved?

H V Morton: In the Steps of the Master

June 12, 2015

9780306810817I know nothing about HV Morton (yet) who travelled through Palestine some eighty years ago to write this book; there is a companion volume about the travels and world of St Paul. It is a thoughtful and well-written book, illustrated by old, sepia photographs of various places of significance on his travels and in the life of Jesus Christ.

Palestine was a country ruled by the British under a mandate from the League of Nations at the time, inhabited by Jews (some) Arabs and Christians, who, it seems from his account, got along with each other, more or less. What has changed in the intervening years is obviously the creation of the Israeli state, and a serious reduction of the numbers of Christians and Arabs living there.

A true believer is travelling and writing, so places and events from 2000 years ago are treated with respect and reverence, and illustrated by copious quotations from Christian scripture. Morton pays great attention to details, and adds much contextual information and explanation, which for him add veracity and conviction to the gospel accounts.

I found it an interesting read; what particularly impressed me was the sheer variety of Christian churches present in the holy places, and also the smallness of the country, the territory in which Jesus moved, preached and lived – Morton compares it to the size of Devon. He also manages to explain some of the incredible complexities of the Roman attempts to rule and subdue the Jews. A historical piece, more than anything.

Print or screen?

June 11, 2015

One of the things about the world of books that has changed faster than anything, I think, is the rapid obsolescence of reference books of almost all kinds. I have no idea why every year we have a new phone directory and yellow pages delivered: they are never opened, and I don’t understand why we haven’t introduced the German system, whereby you take an old one to exchange for a new one if you want it, ensuring no unnecessary waste, and certain recycling. But that was the first example that sprang to mind…

With access to the internet, looking for information has been transformed over the last decade. I use the OED online, free, via my local library, when I need a definition. Similarly, I use word reference, or my.dict for translations for French, German or Spanish words. Paper dictionaries get very little use, since, while I’m reading my tablet is next to me, far lighter than the alternative. I turn to a ‘real’ dictionary when I’m wrestling with a crossword and need to search for words, or if the online French dictionary lacks the words I need.

Encyclopaedias that I used to consult regularly now gather dust or have gone to charity shops. The Encyclopaedia Britannica, which used to be the gold standard, has, for me, paled into insignificance alongside wikipedia, which scores by virtue not only of its incredible scope, but also for its numerous further references and links.

I like to have my Bach reference books alongside me as I listen to the cantatas, because they are easier to use and cross-reference on paper than on a tablet, even though there are now some stunningly comprehensive websites out there.

But I suppose my major exception to the world of internet reference is with maps and atlases: I still rely on my vast and unwieldy Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World, and will probably replace it with another print copy when it is outdated, and I also have some map sheets of particular areas: the small area visible on a laptop or tablet screen just doesn’t lend itself to the kind of things I need from a map, although sometimes Google Earth is a useful complement.

Habits are clearly changing very rapidly; I’ve heard report that school students say that they don’t need to learn facts and information because they can look them up instantly; I like that I can have access to the latest information rather than relying on a possibly out-of-date book. I do think it’s important to discriminate, though – some texts obviously go out of date much more rapidly than others, and I also find that there are times when paper is much more user-friendly than screen text, for instance when I’m flipping back from page to page in a book, with my thumb in one place, or quickly scanning an index or table of contents and grazing a section.

I think all this is wonderful; my bookshelves are rather lighter than they might otherwise be (and I can justify some of the gadgets I’ve acquired). And, because so much information is at my fingertips, I can wander much more widely through the world of knowledge than I ever could before, and I have come across wonders that I might otherwise never have known the existence of.

More thoughts on translation

June 8, 2015

41nJdX9Qe7L._SL160_You may have realised from this earlier post that I’m fascinated by translation; indeed, sometimes I think if I could have my time over again, I’d perhaps study linguistics and then go into the business…

As far as I can make out, the book I read is a compilation of several talks and series of lectures Umberto Eco has given on the subject. Eco writes knowledgeably: he is a translator, as well as a writer, and has collaborated closely with the translators of his novels into many languages. He starts off by having some fun with computer translations and the confusions that they often cause, and throughout the book frequently provides humorous examples of how translators are tied in knots by the untranslatable. As your read, you become aware of the Pandora’s Box that is translation – the range of subtleties and nuances, difficulties and issues that you never imagined were there behind the scenes, needing to be addressed and taken into account. You just got on and read the translation. There are so many aspects I’d never even imagined.

Except that Eco’s point is that there is no such thing as a translation as we simplistically and superficially understand the concept: that’s why the title of his book (in English) is ‘To Say Almost the Same Thing‘; in translating one never says the same thing. All the issues are enumerated and copiously exemplified, through a range of translations of all sorts of works: some are of Eco’s own texts, some are texts he’s translated. Even issues such as how speech is punctuated in different languages can make a difference to how text is perceived. Then there is the question of slang. And what about culture-specific references? There are some issues Eco admits are just insoluble: the question of colours, for example: there is no universal language of colours.

It turns out that there were quite sizeable cuts and changes made to the original text when The Name of the Rose was translated into English, for various reasons and with Eco’s agreement; I found myself wondering whether to read it in French next time just to see if/what I noticed…

As I read I found myself pondering several questions: does the average reader pay that close attention to anything? would s/he notice all these things Eco points out, if translators didn’t pay such careful attention to detail? how much does it really matter that I might be reading something translated that is not actually the same as the original?

My head started to hurt when Eco got onto the issues involved in translating Joyce‘s Finnegans Wake. Looking at the book in the original English (?) made me seasick, but yes, it has been translated into a number of languages.

Eco  also observes that movement from one medium into another (i.e. book to film) is an aspect of translation, and this does not escape his examination either. He points out that translation is easier with concrete than abstract original texts. We are asked to reflect on the difference between translation and interpretation, and the idea of versions and adaptations

I think that if anyone wanted a reasonable – not easy – introduction to the full range of problems in the field of translation, then they could do worse than tackle this book. I found it fascinating, and really enjoyed it.

Christopher Hibbert: The Grand Tour

June 8, 2015

9780297178422I’ve been fascinated by the idea of the Grand Tour, on which the sons (only) of the leisured/idle rich were sent in centuries past to roam through Europe, and Christopher Hibbert‘s book was a good opportunity to delve into some of the details. I am always particularly keen to read about the actual travelling in previous centuries (see my post on travel in the middle ages here) when it was rather more complicated and arduous than in our day. Crossing the seas, and also crossing mountains, and the nature of overnight accommodation en route were all very different.

By and large the sons of aristocrats ate and drank, posed and whored around a lot, as well as complaining at great length about the inhospitality of Johnny Foreigner, his dreadful food and drink and boring landscapes and buildings; at least, this is the impression that comes across from Hibbert’s account. The writer Tobias Smollett seems to have been one of the worst in this regard. It’s clear that travellers didn’t usually set out to learn from their travels, and improve themselves, even though that might have been the intention of the fathers who laid out the necessary money…

I found myself thinking that, sadly, not a lot has changed, really: there are a lot of people now, with more money than sense, who seem to feel it’s necessary to travel the world and tick off places on a bucket list, and post comments on social media. And the English do not seem to have become any less xenophobic than they were centuries ago; many still expect to be able to consume recognisably English food and drink wherever they are in the world, a possibility obviously made much easier nowadays by multinational food and drink companies. I do wonder why some people go abroad at all…

To be fair, Hibbert does write about some travellers who liked what they saw and put up with the hardships of travel way back then in order to see what was different, and learn the languages, who came back home, and with what they had seen, influenced the art and architecture of this country in many different ways. If you have followed some of my thoughts on exploration, travel and tourism on this blog, you will be aware of my ambivalence about a lot of the travel that happens nowadays; surely one goes somewhere different in order to meet and talk with other people, participate in and enjoy the differences, to compare other lifestyles and manners with our own, to learn from the experiences. Certainly, that is what I have enjoyed about my travels.

Desert Island Books

June 7, 2015

I’m not a regular listener to this long-running radio programme Desert Island Discs, but like all other listeners, I have pondered the question of what book I’d take with me to my desert island.

You are automatically allowed the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare. These are both weighty tomes, and I suppose are meant to reassure you that you wouldn’t actually run short of reading matter. The Bible is somewhat limited; there are the familiar stories, and perhaps also the various Wisdom books which might keep me going for a while, but there’s lots of rather tedious stuff like Leviticus, and the geneological lists and the history of Israel and the prophets…

I’d have no problem with the complete works of Shakespeare (you knew I’d say that, didn’t you?), with the possibility of working my way endless times through all the plays and deciphering the sonnets, and who knows, maybe even bothering with the long poems, which I admit I’ve still never opened.

So what should my personal choice be?

Do I need to go for another large tome, so I have plenty to choose from? Should it be a massive poetry anthology? The complete works of Donne, or Milton? A door-stopper of a novel, like War and Peace, or A La Recherche du Temps Perdu (which, again, I’ve never got very far with) ? Another spiritual text, in case my soul craved such reading in its isolation – the Qur’an perhaps, or the Tao, or Confucius’ Analects, or Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, all of which I’ve found very useful and interesting at some point in the past…

Perhaps a favourite novel, so that I can revisit past enjoyments, and also enjoy the sensation of escapism that comes from reading a really good novel? After all, I’m obviously not going to be able physically to escape the island. But then, how many times am I really going to want to re-read any of the novels on this list? And, although I’m very tempted, I think the complete Sherlock Holmes stories would outlive any possible usefulness before very long…

Today, after a random scan of the bookshelves, I’ve narrowed it down to a choice between Tristram Shandy and Ulysses. Tomorrow? And what would you choose, and why, my readers?


Jan Zalasiewicz: The Earth After Us

June 7, 2015

9780199214983Serendipity… a while ago, the question somehow came into my head – what if there had been some kind of intelligent species that developed an advanced civilisation on this planet 500 million years ago, and then somehow became extinct: would any traces of it still remain by now, and would we be likely to come across any of them? And then I found this book in a sale in my local library.

Zalasiewicz looks at the question from the other end of the telescope, as it were, and asks what might remain of our civilisation in a hundred million years time for future explorers and archaeologists to uncover and deduce about us, but the idea is there. He puts homo sapiens and our relatively speaking tiny amount of time on the planet into perspectives of time and space, and offers a range of options about our possible future and for future explorers of Earth.

What came across very strongly to me, as a non-geologist who also knows precious little about archaeology, was the idea of the earth as a mechanism, with tectonic movements constantly creating and destroying continents, and the line between land and sea as the place where destruction of artefacts takes place. Things are both preserved and destroyed, through sedimentation and erosion…

It became clear that on   a geological timescale humans are seriously affecting the planet’s climate, atmosphere and prospects for the continuation of life as we understand it, though he also says that it is too early to be sure in cosmic terms what the ultimate effect of this will be; what is sure is that it cannot be business as usual for very much longer.

Zalasiewicz considers the nature of the traces humans will leave behind, and speculates in some depth as to what might happen to a range of human artefacts in different places over enormous lengths of time.

The different chapters of the book are well-framed, with an opening paragraph imagining what the alien explorers a hundred million years in the future might be deducing about their finds; he does not seem to over-simplify as do so many ‘popular science’ texts. His picture of how time and geological process will inevitably skew any record of us that does survive, is quite sobering, as is his sense of perspective.

Only one question remained for me at the end: will there be no trace of our nuclear waste to inform the future explorers?

I remember I used to tell my students to aim to learn something new every day, and reading this book I really had the sense of learning a lot of new things.

Confessions of a serial book abuser

June 6, 2015

While I was sorting out books to dispose of recently, I was a little shocked by the condition of some of them, and by what I had done to them.

I’ll start by saying that I know there are people who like to keep books in pristine condition. It isn’t possible, and it doesn’t work. I know, because I sometimes turn to a book I bought twenty years ago and have yet to read, and it has inevitably degraded over time: colours of the cover and spine fade, the glue weakens or crumbles, the paper goes brown or spotty.

I’ve always felt my books are mine to do what I like with. Mainly I read them, but they do get used – some would say abused. Over the years, for instance, I’ve got better at using bookmarks, but if I don’t have one to hand, then I will fold over the corner of the page… I have always written my name and the date I acquired a book on the flyleaf. This never did stop me lending and then losing books, so now I often use a post-it note instead, especially if a book has nice endpapers.

I log when I read a book – just the date, on the back flyleaf. Useful information, shocking at times.

I suppose my worst offence in the eyes of many will be the fact that I annotate some of the books I read. Mitigating circumstances: I’m not as bad as I was when a student, when every book was annotated and usually in ballpoint pen! This, of course, eventually meant they were unsaleable, and some of the books in the recent cull went to the recycling bin rather than the charity sale because of this. But I still annotate, though now I use 2B pencil, and jot ideas down on the back flyleaf rather than throughout the text, so that theoretically I can clean up the book. And yes, I get furious if I buy a secondhand book that contains someone else’s marginalia, though this is usually because some internet seller has described a book incorrectly and I’ve bought someone else’s annotations unawares.

I don’t feel guilty about any of this: the book is mine, I read it, think about what the writer has to say, interact with her/him, and learn… what I am more concerned about is my magpie habit, that I must keep every book, rather than moving it on to another home after I’ve done with it. However, I’m working on that. There is a kind of secondhand bookshop – if you’ve been in one, you’ll recognise the type – where your heart sinks as you look at rows and rows of hundreds of mouldering, ancient books and you think, these all need throwing in a skip… I don’t want a library like that.

Getting Rid of Books

June 5, 2015

Recently we forced ourselves to have a clear-out, and several hundred volumes found their way to a local Amnesty International book sale. Novels I knew I’d never open again, and a lot of books on sexual politics from the time when I was writing my thesis about thirty years ago, were among those that left the house. Although it hurts to part with books, for them to go to a good cause feels rather like a voluntary charity tax and made it a bit more bearable. But, after the cull, did the creaking shelves in our estures look very different? …no, not really.

And then – fatal error – we went on holiday. One of the things I always do before going away is look up secondhand bookshops where we are heading. And the north Norfolk coast is a very good hunting-ground, which I can thoroughly recommend if you don’t have enough books. The seaside is also very nice. So, quite a number of new volumes joined my library… and they will be read and enjoyed, and possibly not sit permanently on the shelves, but find their way to charity shops as soon as read.

I am also running up against a new problem: buying the same book twice! I always used to have an accurate memory of what was on the shelves at home, but when the aggregate hits about two and a half thousand, I can’t carry the full catalogue in my head, and consequently there are times when I get home, start to catalogue a new book, and discover I have it already… I have gone as far as to save a stripped down version of the catalogue on my phone so that I can check if I’m in doubt, but when I’m sure I don’t have the book, of course I don’t bother to check. Hmm.

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