Archive for the 'rambling about reading' Category

2020: My Year of Reading

December 29, 2020

No need to remind you what a weird year it has been. When lockdown arrived, naturally someone like me thought, “Well, OK, time to hunker down and get on with lots of reading..” Only it didn’t turn out that way. I found myself dithering a great deal, unable to choose what to settle down with. So I ended up reading quite a lot of magazines, and articles I’d saved offline on all kinds of different topics, tidying up my reading loose-ends if you like, but also, I increasingly felt, frittering away useful reading time. Overall this year I have actually completed slightly fewer books than usual. And the tidying up of my library, and the weeding out and disposing of many books that I know I’m never going to open again, has proceeded apace and some 250+ books have made their way to benefit Amnesty International at some point in the future. I think I’m now down to only 1700 or so books now!

You may not be surprised that I went back to Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which I taught once, many years ago; nothing new there, so I didn’t bother with revisiting CamusLa Peste

When I did manage to settle on a book, I found I did quite a bit of re-reading – Sherlock Holmes, Hermann Hesse, Josef Skvorecky, science fiction. I have read 51 books this year, and acquired 25 new ones. After some reflection I have decided I’d like to spend some of 2021 re-reading some of my favourite classics. We’ll see how far I manage to get with that one… but it is somehow comforting to return to a book I have previously enjoyed a number of times. It’s a sort of anchor in a very turbulent world.

Blog report:

Once again, my posts analysing various poems of or about the Great War have been the most visited. A logical deduction is that the poetry appears on examination specifications in various countries and students are perhaps tuning in for some insight, or else coming across the blog in search engine results and opening it by mistake. I do wish I got more feedback from visitors, and once again record my gratitude to those readers who take the time to like my posts and to occasionally comment or engage in discussion.

Other popular posts this year have included (again) Theodore Kröger’s The Forgotten Village, and Alexandra David-Neel’s With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet.

This year’s awards:

My biggest disappointment of the year: re-reading Christopher Priest’s The Space Machine, of which I’d carried positive recollections for quite a few years. It palled, it dragged, it was simplistic and it went on the ‘I don’t need to read this ever again’ pile. Ditto Harry Harrison’s A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!

The weirdest book I’ve read this year is definitely the Strugatsky brothers’ One Billion Years to the End of the World.

The best novel of 2020: re-reading Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, which never fails to disappoint in its poignant picture of a long-vanished age.

The best new novel of 2020: not awarded this year as I haven’t read any new novels!

The best non-fiction book of 2020: after a fair amount of hesitation, I decided on Alberto Angela’s Pompeii, which I’d wanted to read for quite a while, after really enjoying another book of his on daily life in the Roman Empire. His formula for telling the story of those dreadful days in 79CE worked really well, and sent me back to the catalogue from the major British Museum exhibition a few years back, the closest I’ve actually got to Pompeii itself (unless you count passing through a train station just south of Naples – Ercolano – many years ago and realising ‘hey, that was Herculaneum!’)

My book of the year award goes to a book I ought to have read years ago, Adam Mickiewicz’s Polish national epic poem Pan Tadeusz, which was a gentle and lyrical revelation and took me closer to my Polish roots.

Travel book of the year: in a year when not a lot of travelling could be done, reading about travelling was a substitute. A review sent me to Sophy RobertsThe Lost Pianos of Siberia, which was a surprisingly thoughtful, interesting and well-written variation on history and travel in Siberia. And I’ve read a good deal of that.

Special mention – because there isn’t really a category for it: Yuri Slezkine’s doorstopper of a book about the inhabitants of a building which housed the ruling elites of the Soviet Union over many years: The House of Government. If you’re interested in a deeper insight into the machinery of how the country worked and its ruling classes, this is the one. It felt like an obligation, but it was worth the effort.

Here’s to 2021: may it be a better year for everyone in every way, and may we all get lots of good reading done!

Here is the news…or not

November 23, 2020

Elsewhere you’ll find posts about my love of newspapers and my newspaper collection; recently while having a tidy-up and clear-out, I found myself looking through my collection again, and various different impressions struck me:

How much more serious and sober newspapers were in the days when they were monochrome! The message was clear: this is news, not entertainment. Almost – therefore, you can trust what you read here. I found a crumbling front page from the Daily News (founded by Charles Dickens, no less) in 1912, where the main headline speculated about what was going on at the South Pole. Had Amundsen got there? Had Scott got there? Scott’s imminent return was awaited…unless he had chosen to spend another season on the ice, continuing his research… There, you also get the sense of immediacy from the time way back when, as well as an even more poignant sense of the tragedy.

Back in those days, some newspapers did not carry news on the front page… The Times resisted up until 1968, I think. Some newspapers eschewed photographs – Le Monde did this I think well into the 1980s. There were far fewer pages: wartime restrictions and paper rationing meant that they often ran to only 4 broadsheet pages. They still managed to fit in pretty nearly everything you’d expect in a newspaper today, using space much more economically. I also looked back through some newspapers from the communist countries: again, few pages, few pictures, and most strikingly, no advertising. I found this very refreshing: the message was, here is the news, rather than, we are trying to sell you something. And yes, I know their idea of news was somewhat different from ours.

The changes creep in gradually, from the late 1970s and early 1980s onwards: more pages, more sections, as daily papers discovered the need to emulate the weekend ones. Designers took over, using white space and eventually colour to create a superficially more attractive product, with more pictures, and more ‘features’, ‘lifestyle’ content; news now occupied an ever smaller proportion of the pages. And articles, both news and commentary, became shorter, perhaps reflecting what television was doing to our attention-span?

Ironically, these developments came along at the time when newspapers themselves were becoming far less ‘relevant’ to more and more people, because the news was on the TV and the radio; these developments may have been intended to arrest the decline of print, but it is now evident that they have singularly failed, when you consider, for instance, a newspaper like the Daily Express that once enjoyed the largest circulation in the land, now a pitiable shadow of its former self, currently selling fewer copies per day than The Guardian or The Times did in their heyday…

It was inevitable, once the internet arrived; the vast infrastructure that distributed tonnes of print around the land overnight was no longer needed; a far more up-to-date news service is now available at the breakfast table than ever dropped through the letter-box. And yet, I am convinced, in many ways we are the poorer for the changes that have taken place over the past half-century. I think we are less clear about what news is, we are less clear about the distinction between news and opinion, and we are less well-informed that we used to be, in spite of, or perhaps because of those changes.

On learning to read

November 22, 2020

I now have a grandson at primary school who is beginning to learn to read, that first step to the opening of a huge world… I’ve written before about my learning to read, and also the importance of my local public library in fostering the enjoyment of reading in my earliest years, leading to so much pleasure throughout my life. So what did I read in those youngest years? Our house was not a house of books when I was a child: there was no money for such things…

Winnie the Pooh is probably one of the earliest books I can remember. It was a birthday present. I liked the stories, but I also liked what they offered to my imagination: I pictured myself living in the wood, in Pooh’s house and Rabbit’s hole. I laughed my head off at the impossible spellings Owl conjured up when he wrote Eeyore’s birthday card… I learned that books stimulated my imagination and made me laugh. Later on, at sleepovers – we didn’t call them that, in the old days – my friend and I struggled to read the adventures of Professor Branestawm to each other without totally creasing up in helpless laughter.

Another book I loved in my youngest days was The Wind in the Willows. I know I’m showing my age here, but there wasn’t anywhere near as much literature written for children way back then. Again, it had my imagination in overdrive: how I wanted to live in Badger’s home – it sounded utterly safe and magical.

Teachers at school are supposed to provide “extension activities” for brighter pupils; in my day, there was a bottom shelf of random books for us to be invited to read if we finished a task early, and that was fine by me: I worked my way through everything on offer. I can still remember a series of books about a bear called Mary Plain who had all sorts of adventures, and I have often wondered if these ancient storybooks is where the idea for the much more successful Paddington Bear series came from…

There was also the extremely worthy and edifying Children’s Encyclopaedia, nine hefty tomes filled with what seemed like a random assortment of articles on all sorts of subjects. There were also puzzles and tricks and scientific experiments described. I read my way through every page that interested me in all of these.

There were comics. I was allowed one a week and started with Jack and Jill. It was marvellous to be allowed down the street to the newsagent’s rabbit warren with my fivepence every Monday by myself to go and buy it. Later, when a more edifying and educational magazine called Treasure came out, my mother moved me on to this. Eventually my parents came across a part-work, Knowledge, which would build up over four years into a veritable encyclopaedia, to be bound into volumes. I think I devoured every word, in weekly doses…

Comics had to wait for the hairdresser’s, while I waited my turn to be cropped, and also for the annual visit to my grandparents where I could catch up on months’ worth of the Eagle which my uncle used to hoard. Here I came across Dan Dare and the Mekon: maybe my earliest encounter with science fiction? And when I got to secondary school there were the commando library comic books, Lion, Tiger, a whole raft of war stories, sf and sports stories (these last I really didn’t care for, just like sport itself).

There were newspapers at home and these too were hoovered up, although obviously I was selective in what I read and often failed to understand. There was the Daily Mail (!) every day, and the News of the World and the Sunday Pictorial at the weekend, though eventually my mother forbade the News of the World as too salacious.

And then there was the public library, for my parents could never have afforded to keep me in books. Often, especially during the school holidays, my sisters and I would go nearly every day, and I’d end up reading their books, particularly Enid Blyton, as well as my own choices. I went for the usual boys’ stuff: the Jennings series about life at boarding school, Biggles’ tales about warfare and flying, although I’m sure the greatest influences on me from those years were the amazing Young Traveller series, where two children and their parents ended up visiting almost every country in the world and introducing the reader to history, geography, culture and food of so many different lands, and the astonishing sf series about the Secret Planet, which really did get me hooked on science fiction for good…

They were magical days, magical times and magical books, and I’m sure that I can remember them in such detail testifies to the formative effect they all had on me.

On feeling oppressed by time…

October 31, 2020

I have realised it’s an aspect of growing older: the further I get in life’s journey, the more oppressed I feel by the very idea of time. At one level, it’s a personal thing. I look back to my early life and my parents, and realise how long ago all those memories are now; when I can say it’s half a century since I did my O levels, that feels overwhelming in a way. I look back to my own children’s early lives – they’re grown, now – and that feels an age away, looking at photographs and thinking, ‘thirty years ago?’…

Literature is interesting (though not particularly helpful) at this point in my reflections. Think of Shelley’s Ozymandias, and how much time has gone by between the making of the statue, now ruined, and the visit of the traveller who brings back the account of what he has seen. Even the situation, in the sands of the desert, feeds into our notions of time measured in the sands of an hourglass, remorselessly slipping away.

Ursula Le Guin is very interesting in the way she presents the pain of the passage of time. In the Hainish stories and science fiction novels, faster-than-light travel and communication is possible, and the officials of the Ekumen, the collective of known worlds peopled by human-like creatures that are sprinkled across the universe, often travel between worlds on journeys that take centuries in real time. This means that a person leaves their world knowing that even if they ever do return to it, their return will be centuries later, and everyone and everything that is familiar to them about home, will no longer exist, or will be radically changed. Ivan Yefremov, in A for Andromeda, takes us a thousand years into the future, to a world where communism and the Soviet way of life rules the planet, has created a utopia for humanity and abolished religion completely, and yet has his characters contemplating similar themes.

Socrates said that the unconsidered life is not worth living, and anyone who spends time reflecting on their life will surely at some time experience how hard it is being aware of both the enormity of the universe in time and space, and the brevity of their own personal existence. For some, religious or spiritual beliefs offer solace; for others, not.

We can look back over centuries, millennia even, of literature, and see same these preoccupations voiced: Horace’s poignant ode to his friend Postumus (even his name evokes mortality!), reflections on life and death in Chaucer, Shakespeare (Hamlet’s famous soliloquy!), Tolstoy… nothing has changed. And I have admired the way that somehow Tolstoy managed to capture the sense of the broad sweep of history and the individual’s place within it, in War and Peace. But, given that better minds than mine have wrestled with time over so much time in the past, I’m not sure I will ever resolve anything… What was one our present becomes our past, the past; becomes history, and then we are part of it. As an Arab sage once said, ‘One day you will only be a story. Make sure that yours is a good one.’

Dreams of utopia – part 2

August 26, 2020

81Ry5hSi3tL._AC_UY218_     I don’t pretend to have reviewed even a small number of all the different texts, or approaches taken, but I do note some similarities: the major issue that needs to be addressed in approaching a better world is the ever-present one of inequality – and it’s not always suggested that the answer is egalitarian communism. Rather it seems that the question of shortages of material or other goods is considered, with a view to removing such shortages by providing those in need with what they lack. In a world of plenty (like ours) this is basic fairness…

Writers nowadays do seem to be much more aware of the difficulties involved in getting there; it’s of little use presenting the reader with a vision of a perfect world, without a hint of how one might move towards it if we decided we really like the idea. So Le Guin’s presentation of the world Anarres (in The Dispossessed) and Callenbach’s Ecotopia – set in California – devote considerable time to how a transition was successfully effected. Not that we should regard these as road maps: we’re talking about works of fiction, after all, but an extension of the mental exercise that is the vision of the utopia in the first place.

Capitalism doesn’t work/isn’t a mechanism or system for getting there, so any utopia means replacing the current system, and herein lies the greatest difficulty: that the entitled, the rich and the powerful will do anything to stay at the top of the pile, including slaughter on a massive scale if necessary, and we should be under no illusions about that. Does this, ethically, draw a line under attempts to change things, or can there be another way? Here is a question that, in my reading, few writers have thoroughly explored.

Divide and conquer: as people have become a little better educated and aware and more politicised, those in power have focused on dividing people to retain and entrench control. This is my personal take on things from half a century or more of observing politics and world history. If you can convince – for example – women, that women’s issues are the most important, or people of other races, that racial issues are the most important, then you divide the potential opposition into smaller and potentially more fragmented groups, whereas things get much more dangerous for the elite if everyone unites and co-operates, in an understanding that the system itself is at the root of the problem. Then, once the system has been changed, addressing all the other issues becomes easier…perhaps. This, of course, is what Marx not only suggested, but perhaps demonstrated in a – fortunately for the powerful – almost unreadable lengthy tome. You need to find a different way of running the world politically and economically, and then seek to address all the other very real and demanding issues next. And the elites, the powerful, will do whatever they can to blur that message, to discredit it, to distract those who suffer, from it. They need to!

The closest any writer has got to addressing – in terms of getting her readers to realise and think about – these issues is, for me, the late Ursula Le Guin in her masterful novel The Dispossessed. She contrasts the rich, glitzy, successful capitalist planet Urras with the anarcho-syndicalist and poor separatist moon Anarres, which is attempting to explore different ways of being and organising. It’s effectively done through the standard utopian trope of having a visitor from one world visit another, and the utopia coming across as preferable by comparison. But Le Guin’s masterstroke is to do this in reverse: Shevek is an anarchist, from the utopian world Anarres which we are meant to admire, and becomes the naive visitor to be seduced by the bright lights of the capitalist paradise his forebears rejected some eight centuries previously. And he is tried, tempted, tested; we think he and his world emerge from the comparison as preferable, but oh the struggle, the constant hard work and alertness demanded to sustain the utopia (which is far from plentiful, far from perfect, but does at least offer equality of a sort). Le Guin leaves us under no illusion that human nature itself, perhaps perverted as it has been over millennia but whatever, craves the promise of stuff, power, wealth: there is a jackdaw primitiveness in us that craves the shiny-shiny… which is what got us and keeps us where we are today…

Dreams of utopia – part 1

August 25, 2020

41CQ2tBHymL._AC_UY218_     I’ve written about utopias (and dystopias) before, in a number of places, and if you’re sufficiently interested you can track down the posts. I’ve been thinking again, in the current incredibly dire and grim state of the world, about our likelihood of ever getting anywhere near one before the planet hawks us up and spits us out for good…

There have been religious utopias, economic utopias, feminist utopias, political utopias, rural utopias, ecological utopias. Writers have visualised happiness for an elite, for the many, for most or even for all, and with or without slaves. They have imagined utopias on this planet and on other, imaginary worlds.

A quest for an ideal or perfect world or society presupposed imperfection of and or dissatisfaction with the current one – a permanent given – and a picture of something better; more thoughtful writers also attempt the really difficult bit, which is to explain how we get/got there, and this always raises another question: why don’t we do it?

I find myself going back in time, to ancient days, when society first settled, became agrarian and was able to accumulate surpluses of food. At this point it seems to have been possible for more powerful individuals to take over and arrogate the surpluses to themselves, and thus to also control the labour that produced food, goods and surpluses. Here we have inequality emerging, and we have to think about whether this was inevitable or necessary. Yet, once it happened it will almost instantly have become a permanent feature of our world and its organisation, for what person or group, having seen what it is possible to do with power and more stuff than others, would not strive to keep things that way? And so it has gone on…

When did this start? In my imagination, I see an equality in the builders of something like Stonehenge, for example, which seems to have been constructed to answer to primitive spiritual needs of a society. But even then, in that lost past, was there not a privileged and powerful priestly class to insist on its construction, and make it happen? And when we come to consider the Pharaohs and their pyramids, it’s clearer that a ruling class used enforced labour to create monuments to themselves.

For me the crux is the point where the inequality emerges, where the lower classes are unable – for whatever reason – to resist or counter its emergence and consolidation. N centuries later, inequality is everywhere rampant, entrenched, and condemns countless millions to misery and impoverishment.

71J-9IfLqQL._AC_UY218_     Utopian visions, nowadays certainly, take issue with inequality and see equality of wealth and opportunity, sharing and co-operation rather than competition as the way to ensure maximum happiness or contentment for the greatest number. And we live in a society which has now shown that it can create sufficient abundance for their to be enough for everyone were it shared out more fairly (not even equally). Nobody needs the wealth of a Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos; they could never spend even a part of it.

Utopias usually imagine a world where warfare is part of the past. A rational consideration demonstrates that war is an obscene waste of money and resources (I refer you to this astonishing graphic if you want concrete evidence) without even thinking about the ethical issue of killing other human beings. Weapons are an ideal capitalist consumer good, for, used as directed, they immediately need replacing with more. And the idea that people make their livelihoods from inventing and constructing ever more horrendous devices for killing and maiming their fellow humans is too sick to think about.

Utopias have imagined technology as capable of providing plenty, a life of comfort and ease for all. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (or Life in the Year 2000) was published in 1887 and combines production and socialist distribution to imagine a marvellous future for humanity. More recently, writers have been aware of technology, production and pollution coming together as more of a threat: I offer Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia, and Ecotopia Emerging, as examples of how continuing on our current track is not such a good idea. And he was writing 40 years ago, before the horrific state of plastic pollution or the enormous threat presented by climate change and global heating became so obvious…

71FUig5zsTL._AC_UY218_     Some recent utopias (and dystopias) have looked to sexual politics as an issue that needs to be addressed. Charlottle Perkins Gilman created a women-only world in Herland a century or more ago. In the 1970s Suzy McKee Charnas first visualised a dystopia from a woman’s viewpoint (Walk to the End of the World) and then proceeded to construct a response (Motherlines). And Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time is a particularly good example of the genre from this perspective, as is Ursula Le Guin’s science fiction generally.

There have been utopias which have looked backwards in a different way, taking refuge in a quieter agrarian past, a rural idyll. William MorrisNews From Nowhere, W H Hudson’s A Crystal Age, and Austin Tappan Wright’s magnificent Islandia are all different examples of how this has been done. To be continued…

Still not reading books…

August 19, 2020

Despite all be best intentions and renewed efforts, I’m still not succeeding in reading very many books during the pandemic and all the extra time I have at home at my disposal, as this blog shows. I’ve accumulated a few new books with the best of intentions, but…

Recently I’ve been distracted by the way I use the internet. In a very old-fashioned way, I’m very fond of RSS feeds, which I discovered many years ago, but which now seem to be dying the death. Interesting websites allowed a feed to be set up, usually in an e-mail client (which was very convenient) so that one could be notified of new articles; these would remain in a list – just like emails – for me to look at whenever suited, but they contained links to the actual articles, so if the feed title looked interesting enough, I’d read the article, otherwise I’d just delete the header.

It’s only people like me that use desktop email clients; tablet and phone email apps don’t have built-in RSS aggregators, and purpose-made ones annoyingly insist on trying to ‘curate’ (god, I hate that word!) a list of articles they think I’ll be interested in, ie fill up with crap.

Anyway, I’d built up a stack of feeds over several years and only visited them desultorily, but over the last week or so I’ve been carefully making my way through everything I’d saved and reading everything that grabbed my attention: a lot of very interesting stuff, raging through a wide range of topics. The stuff I save is mainly literary, with some religion and politics thrown in. Arts & Letters Daily sends me three chosen links a day and rarely do I delete them all without reading one. Strong Language started up a couple of years ago and is a blog dedicated to swearing in all its forms and languages, and I find it fascinating. Then there’s Strange Maps, which, as the name suggests, offers all sorts of interesting cartographical perspectives on our world. And of course, Project Gutenberg is forever throwing new delights as ebooks into the public domain, and the marvellous volunteers at Librivox are regularly recording them for our delight.

Attempting to read the articles after some time has not been without its frustrations: some of them have just vanished, some of them are now behind paywalls, some of them dislike my adblockers, and I often have to clear the cookie cache in order to visit the same site more than a couple of times in a day. I’m still surprised that no-one seems to have found a way to make micropayments work for access to the occasional article on a site; I’m quite willing to pay a small sum for this.

I’m aware this has all been a displacement activity, but a very useful one in that it’s tidied up the laptop, the email, given me some more space back, and the few articles I may want to return to at some future date are saved as pdfs. I am planning to get my hands on some real, paper books in the near future…

On racism, and fear of ‘the other’…

June 13, 2020

I have been aware of the anger in the US, and more widely, following the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police, though I will admit that I have not been following all the events in close detail. However, as a white male, I have been made to think again about various issues. I’m old enough to remember the US riots of 1968, which are the nearest comparison I can come up with at the moment.

I could say, ‘I’m not a racist.’ But I’m not really a fit person to be a judge of that. I can say that in my teaching career I always sought to challenge what I perceived to be racist comments by any student or colleague, but I can’t say I challenged them all, because again, how can I judge clearly what constitutes a racist comment or statement?

When I start to think about racism, I find myself contemplating it as originating in the fear of what, or who is different in some way from ourselves, because we cannot understand or share their experience. When I travel, I feel more comfortable in lands where I am able to communicate with the people, even in a rudimentary way, and understand and be understood; I feel less secure if I cannot operate in the language. There are cultures that I experience as being so different from the one in which I grew up and have lived in, that, try as I might, I cannot really get beyond what feels like a very superficial knowledge and appreciation. China. India. Japan. For example. And at this point I have always felt that there are two possible reactions: I can fear and reject what I do not understand, or I can be curious and seek to know more. This latter is harder, and one does not always succeed. And I wonder what makes one person fear and then reject, and another curious, and seek to find out more…

I think that I provided places and times for the exploration and discussion of the subject of race at various points in my teaching. Racism in the context of the Nazi extermination of the Jews came up particularly through a novel called Friedrich, by Hans Peter Richter, which I always read with my year 8 classes. The story was more of a diary, year by year, of two boys growing up as neighbours and friends in a Germany which was gradually taken over by the Nazis, and how their stories and lives diverged. Particularly shocking to students was the final section, a historical chronology of all the steps taken by the Nazis against the Jewish population of the country. There was much discussion and much learning; the story was on a human scale, and ended with the boys at roughly the age the students themselves were.

But that text is a sideline, in terms of the issue I’m reflecting on here, which is racism towards people of colour, specifically in the US. Here, three books stand out for me: Harper Lee’s classic To Kill A Mockingbird, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

81oPMLy71QL._AC_UY218_     To Kill A Mockingbird was a GCSE text much loved by teachers and students alike until Michael Gove in his wisdom decided that texts written by non-Brits didn’t count as suitable ‘English’ Literature. A more dim-witted, idiotic decision I cannot recall. I know that the novel is nowadays somewhat looked down upon for a rather patronising portrayal of a black man as victim. I feel that is a simplistic judgement, and one from an adult perspective, and reject it completely when considering the novel as a powerful text through which teenagers – the developing adults of the future – can be brought to explore and consider closely and carefully how racism is both ingrained and institutionalised, and how basically unfair and unjust it is: they are truly shocked by how the story develops, and its tragic outcome. And they also see young white children pushed to confront their own internalised racism. No, it’s not perfect but it is powerful and effective, and I don’t know of a better opening for such a thorny topic to be brought into the classroom.

511vJG6H5DL._AC_UY218_     Mark Twain’s two novels are rather different. Tom Sawyer is a story of nineteenth century boys’ fantasy fulfilment more than anything else: running away from home, skiving, pulling a fast one on teachers, seeing a murder and finding hidden treasure. But the ‘servant’ boy Jim is introduced: he doesn’t have that hard a life in a children’s storybook, but in the 1840s Missouri where the story is set, he’s obviously a slave, owned and exploited by white people. It’s in the next novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that Jim comes into his own, for he becomes a runaway slave. That is a very serious matter, as is the fact that he’s aided and abetted by Huck, the town outcast who becomes his friend, and yet who, in the context of the times, wrestles with his conscience because he realises he’s committing a crime in helping Jim escape, thus ‘stealing’ another (white) man’s property. He also takes time to come to terms with the obvious fact that Jim is a human being on the same level as himself, rather than the inferior being and chattel that society considers him to be. Because Huck is a decent fellow, uncorrupted by ‘civilisation’, and in some ways a vision of the ideal American frontiersman, he does the ‘right thing’ and helps Jim escape from the slave states to freedom.

It’s a heartening tale, and one it’s today fashionable to dislike, condemn and even ban from schools and libraries, particularly in the US. It’s a book of its time – something we should not forget – and that means, among other things, that the infamous n-word is freely and liberally used. How on earth to deal with that in the classroom? In my experience, by full and frank discussion of that word, of offensive language and labels more generally, and what such language can do to people and ultimately lead to. Huck and Jim’s adventures together and their mental and moral struggles speak for themselves, and again open up a world of discussion, debate and awareness-raising, topics not to be shied away from in the classroom. In many ways, it is nowadays a very awkward and challenging read, as well as a very good story. My line always was, ‘if you can discuss it as sensibly and as maturely as you are able, then we will discuss it.’ And almost always, students rose to that challenge, and I respected them for that. I know I would say it, wouldn’t I, but in my experience literature provides many different openings for bringing the next generation of citizens to reflect on the world that they live in, as well as to appreciate the power of great literature.

Can a novel be too long?

May 10, 2020

A brief exchange with a friend a propos of my previous post about the length of Neal Stephenson’s novels has had me thinking about the length of novels in general. Of course, there is the thing about their having to be a certain number of pages nowadays to fit in easily with the printing process, but that’s not what I mean. And let’s set Dickens to one side, as we know he wrote by the yard for serialisation and cash…

I suppose the real question is, does the novel really need all those words? And so one has to consider the writer’s purpose and intentions, and to recognise that those may be very different from our own expectations or demands. Tolstoy’s War and Peace is the longest novel I’ve read; I think I’ve read it three times, and enjoyed it each time. Some readers have questioned the need for the lengthy philosophical section with which Tolstoy concludes the novel; for me it is an intrinsic part and thought-provoking reflection on the story he has finished telling. And the novel itself is both a panorama of Russian society and a fictionalised history of one of the major episodes of Russian history. Shortened, it would not be the same thing at all, and I think the same might be said about Middlemarch, which may perhaps be seen as an English novel with a similar scope. In other words, these two novels need to be as long as they are for the reader to be fully immersed in the worlds fictionally created, and to be able to appreciate that the author is doing more than just story-telling.

I had to study the first volume of Marcel Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu when I was at university. I read it a couple of times; it was decent enough, and the narrative technique interesting enough to engage me at the time. I remember being astonished at the lengthy and perfectly-formed sentences and the effect they had on one’s consciousness as I worked my way through a page or so to the end of one of them. I was full of intention to read the rest of the sequence, bought and read the first half of volume two, and gave up, never to return to it (this was over 40 years ago now). Why? What went wrong? What was different? In the end I couldn’t make myself interested enough in Proust’s characters and their fates. He was presenting a much narrower section of society, of the world, and not one that I cared that much about. His scope was completely different from Tolstoy’s, for instance. But that doesn’t mean that the books were too long, and that I might have succeeded with a Reader’s Digest-style adaptation, a “condensed book”.

I’ve made myself read a fair amount of Thomas Pynchon. V was interesting enough, as was Gravity’s Rainbow; Mason & Dixon I liked and it’s been on my re-read pile for at least ten years; Against the Day was a useful gap-filler during a bout of pneumonia, but I don’t have the urge to revisit it. These are long novels, but also rather rambling and shapeless, and it is hard to avoid a feeling that the writer is indulging something, and I found it hard to be bothered to find out what. Is there somewhere an urge in American writers to have the size of their novels match the size of the country? Moby Dick was a passable read, once; Don De Lillo’s Underworld irritated the hell out of me for being so long and I was angry with myself for giving in to the blandishments of reviewers and wasting my money on it. It’s almost as if there’s a conscious effort to write the ‘Great American Novel’ rather than to write a good novel and for it to turn out to be judged great much later on. But once again, I’m not sure that editing would have improved any of these…

Fantasy and SF is a different kettle of fish, perhaps. Readers are looking to immerse themselves in a completely different world; pure escapism? And there is the marvel of a good writer’s imagination in play as well, here, for they are creating a world, a setting from scratch that must make us want to stay there and leave our humdrum ordinary world behind. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings saw me through a bad, three-day bout of the ‘flu some forty years and more ago. I really enjoyed it, but it’s never called me back. The doorstopper in the field that I have returned to several times is Austin Tappan Wright’s Islandia, a utopian novel of some 1000 pages which I have always found gripping, although I will admit to occasionally wishing the romance sections had been edited a little. Why does it grip me so much? Because here is a writer thinking at great length about how the world might be a much better place. A utopian novel doesn’t need to come in at a thousand pages, but this one works at that length for me.

I’m realising that I don’t know anywhere near enough about the process of editing and what an editor actually does when they work with an author on a novel. A novel has always appeared to me to be a writer’s personal creation, although obviously mediated by the country and society and times they lived in and numerous other factors too, and so I have maybe naively thought that there wasn’t a lot for an editor to do. Perhaps one of my readers can enlighten me? Once upon a time in a previous existence I did know an editor for one of the major UK publishers, but did not have this conversation with her…

In the end I feel OK about respecting an author’s creation as s/he allows it to emerge in final published form; I’ll read it and either like it or not, and on the basis of that will either feel called to read it again one day, or not. I’m back with what I used to say to my students: there’s no law that says you have to like a novel or a poem (or indeed any work of art). What you need to be able to do is articulate what it is you like or don’t like about it, and ideally support your view with evidence…

American novels for a lockdown

April 16, 2020

Mark Twain: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I’ve always like this novel. It’s far more dark and serious than The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which is basically a kid’s adventure story (a very good one, at that!). The hero has to wrestle seriously with his conscience about the rights and wrongs of helping an escaped slave, and works out his moral dilemma for himself and lives with his decision and the consequences. It’s a novel about freedom, in the romantic sense of the early days of the US and people moving westwards to do their own thing. Sadly, it’s frowned upon a lot nowadays because Twain used a certain word, common parlance at the time, if derogatory, but which is now probably the most unusable and unacceptable word in our language. This is a silly reason to reject a novel: contextual understanding is all. I taught the book several times and we found a way to deal with that issue. If you have the time, there is a brilliant recording of the novel available on the Librivox website (look for the one by Mark Smith).

Harper Lee: To Kill A Mockingbird. I lost count of the number of times I taught this marvellous novel for GCSE. Thanks to the idiocy of a one-time ‘education’ secretary it’s now not allowed to be used, because it’s not by a British author; colleagues miss it deeply, for it allows so many issues crucial in the lives of teenagers and young people to be explored as you turn its pages. Yes, it romanticises issues and avoids others, but it plants the question of racism firmly on the agenda, along with relationships between parents and children, and growing up. It’s a deeply humane novel, in spite of its flaws.

Jack Kerouac: On The Road. One from my hippy days – gosh, how long ago! The open road, the yearning for freedom, time to do what you like, sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. Romantic tosh, perhaps, but it opens up the possibility to dream at that age. I don’t think I could read it now, I have to say, but that doesn’t take away the magical influence it exerted on me in my misspent youth, and I don’t regret it.

Joseph Heller: Catch-22. The war novel to underline the utter absurdity of warfare, the pointlessness, the profiteering, the incompetence of commanders, the fear. It’s a tour-de-force, with its craziness providing very dark humour – but real humour – and its seriousness in places is truly spine-chilling, for instance, as Snowden’s secret is finally uncovered. Although it wasn’t written during the Second World War, that’s the setting, and it’s surely the best novel in that setting. The greta American war novel, probably the great twentieth century American novel.

John Kennedy Toole: A Confederacy of Dunces. This is just so funny. I’ve read it several times, and there are still places where it has me in hopeless fits of laughter. As it’s not long since I last read it, I’ll just point you here.

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