Sunday, 14 November 2010

All Hallow's Read

First off, I give you a link

All Hallow's Read is not a half bad idea. In fact, it's a very good idea. I, of course, am late as all hell and currently combing my second hand bookshops and charity shops for battered old Stephen Kings and Daphne Du Mauriers and the odd Edgar Allen Poe, even, which are probably going to arrive around Christmas in orange and black paper with spider web ribbons. As someone who has watched The Nightmare Before Christmas twice a year, every year, since childhood, I fully approve of this.

I am quick to leap upon new ideas, especially when they involve something I love, such as books - however, I think this idea is highly reliant on A. convicted bandwagoners like me and B. the fact that the person who came up with it is Neil Gaiman. We love Neil Gaiman, but I can't help but think the success of All Hallow's Read has more to do with the fact that we all love Neil Gaiman than we all want to give people scary books. It's like Trick or Treating - you go to the house with the shiniest pumpkin lantern. If the house doesn't have a shiny pumpkin lantern next year you forget to go, no matter how good the sweets were. Or something like that.

This makes me just a little sad. Giving someone a book is possibly the best thing you can ever do. Nobody is EVER worse off for having read another book, particularly not children. Even if it's a bad book.

Especially if it's a scary book.

A good book sticks in your brain and you think about it every so often. A scary book sits in your brain and you can't help thinking about it every time you're alone in the house.

I do not watch modern scary films - I have pacing issues and am too easily able to guess the trajectories of scripts and things jumping out at me just shortens my temper and my lifespan - so all my horror comes from books. And it has had an impact. I will not stay in a room with yellow wallpaper. Scratching noises at night are never just the cat trying to get out. I am highly suspicious of large black dogs, especially near the sea side. Under no circumstances will I approach a lone house with a light on at night. I cannot look at theatre audiences without speculation. Getting lost in the woods is not a minor inconvenience but a recipe for a panic attack. And I will never, ever visit Massachusetts. Or so I like to pretend, at times.

The first horror books I ever had were, of course, Goosebumps. I watched the series as well, but the books I devoured. The only thing that topped them in terms of sleepless nights was a How2 episode on how ghosts didn't exist (In which they explained all the things that weren't ghosts but cars passing at night, the central heating warming up, or so on, and thus kept me awake for weeks waiting for the thing that wasn't explained) and the time the fire fighters came to teach us fire safety at age seven and brought the door.

Oh god, the door.

To this day, weird noises at night will render me an immobile blob under the covers clutching Alfred the tiger, and I'm too nervous around flames to ever learn how to cook worth a damn. Until three months ago I'd never struck a match. This is 'real' scary. This is bad scary. This is the kind of scary that traumatises small children and eventually small adults.

Goosebumps, on the other hand, was good scary in that I was terrified at the time in a way that was vaguely enjoyable and then I grew out of it but still remembered. Goosebumps was all about the incongruously eerie and playing on your phobias. Goosebumps did not have happy endings. Half the time the hero or heroine turned into a monster or ghost or devil or worst of all - it turned out they had been all along. Gothic Horror would later teach me to love atmosphere and suspense and creeping dread and a well tied cravat, but for sheer shock value it was Goosebumps  all the way.

But I'm not scared of any of those things any more.

I think this is perhaps the best thing scary books can do for small children, which is to give them fears to outgrow. I am not afraid of eerie music boxes or empty parks at night any more. I am not afraid of monsters. I am not even afraid I will turn out to have been a monster or an alien all along. And I'm happier for it.

Don't wait for Hallowe'en. Give a small child a scary book today.

I decided to make my first 'official' foray into poetry - sometime, I should do one of these asides on poetry and my love/hate/love relationship with it, but not yet - and thus I'll see you in two weeks with W.H.Auden, assuming of course I can figure out how exactly I plan to do this...

Saturday, 6 November 2010

In A Bamboo Grove

"That is true, Your Honour. I am the one who found the body..."

Edition Notes; In A Bamboo Grove, by Akutagawa Ryunosuke, 1922, within Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories translated by Jay Rubin with an introduction by Murakami Haruki, Penguin Classics 2006 - £9.99 ISBN 978-0-14-044970-9

As I may have already mentioned, I am primarily a film buff. My literary education may be lacking but I can spiel off producers and cinematographers and wardrobe mistresses like there's no tomorrow, guess the year of production based on quality of film stock, cinematographic devices and censorship cuts, and other such smug and totally pointless abilities. Thus when the next book on the row turned out to be entitled 'Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories', it immediately sparked a twinge of recognition.

The Testimony of a Woodcutter under Questioning by the Magistrate
The Kurosawa epic Rashomon - which I have heard people claim is one of the greatest films in existence, and I'm not sure I could disprove them - is virtually required viewing for any student of film OR Japanese and seems to hold roughly the same ponderous weight, dignity and influence in Japan as Citizen Kane combined with Gone With The Wind would do in the study of Hollywood cinema. I'm reliably informed that the ability to talk about Kurosawa movies in Japanese will ensure you never have to buy a drink on your travels through Japan. The film is a classic and the director is a genius. I don't even like it very much and I'll admit that.

The Testimony of a Travelling Priest under Questioning by the Magistrate
It's equally important to understand that one of the reasons the film is so lauded is because the story - or rather stories - it's based on are a massive cornerstone of Japanese literature. Japanese school children are routinely required to read Akutagawa in class (A status not extended to almost any other popular Japanese writer you can think of) and have been for a while now. They may not like it, they may not remember it, they may not ever read anything else by him - but you'll get at the very least a vague recollection from almost anyone you ask. Many Japanese writers are massive fans (Including Murakami Haruki - the more famous Murakami, author of Kafka on the Shore and a dozen or so others - who wrote the introduction to this volume) and I'm pretty sure there are many others who hate every single word, but either way, it's a huge shared cultural experience.

The Testimony of a Policeman under Questioning by the Magistrate
Have you ever thought about how shared cultural experiences, especially ones at a young age, shape us? I know a whole generation of people (Almost, but not quite, exclusively in their twenties and British due to the times and places the film in question was turning up on televisions) who will forever be slightly disturbed on a fundamental level by the song 'Bright Eyes' thanks to the weirdest scene in the animated movie of Watership Down. Watching it as an adult is not the same. Watching it as an adult, you can process this information logically and remember the framework it comes with - logically the scene is some kind of vision or near-death experience. Most British children in the 90's were not equipped to process a near-death experience in an animated movie. Thus remembering watching the film as a child, all most people recall is 'Bright Eyes' and a surreal swirl of vaguely unpleasant tribalesque images. It was one of the most hauntingly weird experiences of a weird childhood for me, and what's more, it was for lots of other people who watched that film at around that time. Sometimes, all I need to do is start humming the tune to elicit a shared memory of bewildered horror.

The Testimony of an Old Woman under Questioning by the Magistrate
I made the rule that I was going to read the most popular or famous story by each writer, unless of course I had already read that one. Rashomon the film was based on two stories by Akutagawa - Rashomon, which gave the setting (A gate in Kyoto which sadly no longer exists, although if you hunt there is a rather unimpressive sign entirely in Japanese that attests to it's existence. Plenty of other Japanese gates are lurking around should you choose to go hunting) and In A Bamboo Grove which gave the characters and the plot. I had already read Rashomon whilst in Japan, thus I moved on to In A Bamboo Grove. I could have decided to read the whole book, but I found I had enough to say on the back of one short story.

Tajomaru's Confession
Speaking of shared experiences, thanks to schools the world over, English speakers have one major shared experience - Shakespeare. Everyone's read or seen a Shakespeare play at some point. Well, almost everyone. And what are Shakespeare plays like? Loud, rough, sensational - full of sex and violence and tension and action, and at the end everyone dies horribly or gets married and is happy forever after. I could be broadly describing the yearly output of all the Hollywood studios combined for the last eighty years (Yes, even the Haynes Code years - there was still sex and violence, it was just coded differently). For a long time, most people have been exposed to Shakespeare very young. Logically, this must have some kind of an effect. Maybe the effect is that most people in the English speaking world understand the way a Shakespeare play is written to be the way a story is meant to work.

God only knows what will happen when literary works start appearing from my generation and the one immediately after it, where the single greatest shared literary experience at an early age in the English speaking world is either Harry Potter or Twilight. It's either going to be dire or fabulous.

Penitent Confession of a Woman in Kiyomizu Temple
I've been to Kiyomizu-dera several times. It's beautiful. I highly recommend it.

I sometimes think that Japanese writers are the masters of the short story - at least, that I've discovered so far - just because it's what they do. Every classical Japanese writer I've encountered writes short stories. Many pop writers write only short stories. The great epics, like Genji Monogatari and even The Wind Up Bird Chronicles, are written episodically in several to many smaller volumes. The average length of fiction mass-consumed in Japan is roughly that of a novella, often as part of a series. Large books are often split up into many parts once translated (Twilight, I believe, became six or seven books) whereas in Britain at least English language writers of short stories get delivered in massive hard cover compendiums - it's not enough to have a trilogy or worse, a series of tiny, individually bound novellas, everything has to be compiled into a single volume that could be used for ballast. I often wonder if it's the desire for shorter stories because smaller books work better in Japan ('Light Novels', as they're called, are the perfect size to go in a pocket or a handbag, last you around four to eight average train journeys - or, for my bad grasp of kanji, about twenty - and don't take up much space in cramped Japanese accommodation. They're just so neat) that has lead to Japanese writers becoming excellent at them, or if it's the excellent short stories that has lead to the desire of more of same.

Ultimately, many English and Japanese writers started off at roughly the same place around the Victorian and pre-War years - writing short stories for magazines and newspapers - but I do wonder why I can get Akutagawa stories in more or less individual volumes in Japanese, but Poe and Lovecraft only come to me in massive collections of their entire works in English. I think this is more about modern cultural reading habits than anything else, but it does intrigue me.

The Testimony of the Dead Man's Spirit Told through a Medium
In A Bamboo Grove is a story about stories. There are three conflicting first person accounts of an event, none of which quite match up to the testimonies of any other partial witnesses. It's a story about truth that seems to conclude there is no such thing - a story about an individual's view of the world which seems to conclude primarily that any one person's view of the world is ultimately flawed. It is brutal and unkind and does not shy away from the horrific. It treats the supernatural as valid and the testimony of a dead man's ghost as not only obtainable but of equal weight to that of the living. And it has no conclusion.

If you are a fan of Japanese story telling - of any kind, be it films or manga or novels or anime or television dramas - then it may well feel like I've summed up some of the major tropes of narrative that are considered to be particularly prevalent in Japan. And now you understand what all that shared cultural experience stuff was all about.

I'm not trying to claim that Akutagawa is Japan's Shakespeare, but if someone else was to claim it, I wouldn't disagree.

Edition Notes
The only alternative to this volume in my bookshop was somewhat shoddily bound, it has to be said - I am abusive to my books, if the paperbacks do not have decently weighted covers that aren't going to start curling then they just don't survive very long - and didn't actually have In A Bamboo Grove in it. I am quite pleased with the Penguin Classics version - the selection is good, the translation is good (I prefer the translation of yabu no naka to In A Bamboo Grove rather than In A Grove because the second title, as a native English speaker, immediately starts me thinking of trees which yabu does not) and  it has a generous portion of notes, most of which are actually useful. The paragraph on Japanese names and naming is brief and informative and the chronology is concisely handy. The translator's notes are a little less to the point than I would like. Murakami's introduction - which I read after writing the body of this post - picks up a lot of the same themes I've been bouncing around here and is thus vaguely embarrassing in a fun way. The end notes are obnoxious but end notes always are (Footnotes, ladies and gentlemen, scuffling around at the end of the book is no fun and breaks up the flow of the story something terrible).

For the hardcore/absurdly talented among you, you can read the story in Japanese for free, here.

This one came a little late to the party, didn't it? A whole week, my goodness. I haven't actually decided/figured out/found whatever I'm going to be reading next (Maybe it's time to give the poetry a go? Or something from early literature?) but I am going to be back in a week's time with a bright, informative, and above all also late post about horror, chocolate, staying up late at night, All Hallow's Read, and why Neil Gaiman is like a pumpkin lantern.

Saturday, 16 October 2010


"I call our world Flatline, not because we call it so, but to make it's nature clearer to you, my happy readers, who are privileged to live in Space..."

Edition Notes; Flatland, by Edwin A.Abbott, 1884, Oxford World's Classics (Oxford University Press) 2006 reissued 2008 - £6.99 ISBN 978-0-19-953750-1

Heard of it? No, me neither.

This - part religious tract, part social satire, part almighty mathematical mind-fuck - is one of the weirdest, most worthwhile books I never knew existed.

Our hero - if you can call him that - is a square. No, I mean it. Square. Four sides, four right-angles corners, occasionally mistaken for a semi-un-pronouncable Japanese character. Square.

He lives on a flat plane, his sons are pentagons, his grandsons hexagons, her servants triangles and his wife and daughter straight lines. Flatland is colourless, two dimensional, stratified by class (Denoted by the number and regularity of angles), absurdly sexist, classist, and pretty much any other 'ist' you care to throw at it, and completely oblivious of any dimensions beyond the two they exist in.

The first half of the book is a description of Flatland and a few brief snippets from it's history - principally the event known as the Colour Revolution. It details natural progression or evolution (The son of a Square is a Pentagon, the son of a Pentagon a Hexagon, and so on and so forth, along with a relative 'natural' increase of intelligence and social status), the plight of the lower classes (Isosceles triangles of angles as small as five to fifteen degrees are considered so worthless that they're used as teaching aids in geometry, and it's generally considered to be more cost effective to merely replace them every month or so as they die off rather than feed them), the role and state of women (I'm going to actually give this a whole paragraph to itself) and the fine arts of discerning what kind of shape another person is ('Feeling' and 'Sight Recognition'). I'll admit that that final one gets a tad tedious, but overall it's hilarious and disturbing in equal measure.

Hilarious and disturbing. For me, the biggest hitter in this category was the section on women. In a world where your status is determined by your number and regularity of angles, women are straight lines - and thus the lowest of the low. They're rarely educated, considered to be deficient in reason, emotional, irrational, and boasting exceptionally short memories. They're also very, very pointy and almost invisible, which makes them potentially deadly to their menfolk. For this reason, houses have separate doors for women, and at all times in public a woman must sway from side to side and utter a 'peace cry'.

This was written in 1884. The Victorian period was the pinnacle of fabulous clothes and utterly moronic ideas about women, and often it's hard to remember that there were people saying "Look, you guys, this is retarded." So retarded that it's expounded by two dimensional objects. I take my hat off to you, Mr Abbott, for some fabulous satire. It made me happy.

Lineland and Spaceland
The second half of the book is the actual 'story', which involves our Square encountering different planes of existence - literally. Firstly he tries to convince the King of Lineland - a single planed universe - as to the existence of two dimensions and fails miserably, and then encounters a Sphere, who attempts to reveal to him the mysteries of the third dimension, and fails miserably until he is physically yanked into three dimensional space. Unfortunately, he then goes on to theorise as to the existence of the fourth, fifth, sixth etcetera dimensions, and the Sphere gets pissed off and kicks him back into Flatland.

This is the point where you can tell that Abbott is a clergyman as well as a mathematician - and can I just say how nice that is? I'm so fed up with science and religion being at each other's throats. It's nice to go back to the Victorian period where men of science and men of religion were often the same men and all interested in the existence of extra dimensions. It gets a bit starry-eyed convert over the whole thing, and the language definitely errs towards the 'religious convert' rather than 'geometric mathematician' at this point - more interesting to read, but still a tad... enthusiastic - but overall, although I found the social satire part of the book more fascinating, this part did make my brain warp on itself trying to conceive of exactly where I was putting this fourth dimension.

The Ending
Is depressing. Nobody believes the Square, he gets locked up, and sits around writing this book and trying to remember what Spaceland looked like. If you can't read a book with a sad ending - or a lack of a conclusive ending, I personally find you repulsive and pathetic, but you might want to give this one a miss.

If the book has a failing, it gets a tad too maths heavy in places. Usually only for a paragraph or two, at worst, but because the language used is old fashioned and it assumes a Victorian knowledge of geometry (Which is actually pretty bloody extensive) if you're not into maths, it's potentially easy to get bogged down. I, personally, love maths in a freakish, geeky way, and read a lot of Victorian literature so I'm fairly familiar with the kind of language used, and even then it was occasionally a little confusing. I glossed over those bits. My edition did have the original diagrams, which was quite helpful.

Science and Religion
It's not actually that religious - or at least, it was written at a time before the frenzied wolverine pit which is the modern God or No God debate, and subsequently has an IQ of over 27. Don't expect it to reaffirm or disavow anyone's faith. In actual fact, the word 'faith' is really only used once - that I can remember - which is in the prologue, which was added in the second edition. You can read this as a dialogue about God OR a dialogue about the wonders of science, or you can read it as it was probably originally intended, which is both. At the same time. I like that.

I am really - REALLY - glad I read this. It's one crazy piece of work, but it's short and it's very entertaining and it's clever and it blew my mind. I think this is pretty much exactly what I want from a book.

Have I mentioned recently how much I love the Oxford World's Classics? Good lord, how I love them. The very no nonsense covers bely the fact that they have more notes and extra information than any other edition I've ever found, and they're cheap(ish. In comparison. To others). Flatland comes with an author biography, timeline, introduction to the text, bibliography, detailed analytical and  textual notes. Half the book - to be fair, it is a slim volume, but still - is notes and half is the actual text. It can be frustrating to get forty-odd pages in before starting the actual BOOK, but I personally really like having the extra information.

Next Time
I'm getting the hang of this two weeks thing, and I'm cheating like a mad thing by following up one short book with one (Maybe two) short stories. I'll be back in about two weeks - I'm going to try and get this one off before I head off to Expo over the Hallowe'en weekend - with Akutagawa Ryunosuke's Rashomon - or maybe In A Grove, or maybe both, I'm not sure, they're short and plus, I can start talking Film. Hurrah, Film.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Pride and Prejudice

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife..."

Edition Notes; Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, 1813, Collectors Library (Macmillan?) 2003 edition illustrated by Hugh Thomson - £7.99 ISBN 978-1-904633-01-3

Somewhat misguidedly, I cheerfully announced last time that I would be back in two weeks with my thoughts on Pride and Prejudice.

Several things immediately happened in quick succession that pushed that thought, and the paper wrapped copy I had just purchased, to the back of my mind. To be fair, they were very good things. To be unfair, they took the form of the publication of one book I had been quite looking forward to and the arrival of three others I had been recently recommended. The next thing I knew it was the 25th and I had five days to complete a totally unknown quantity.

Let me explain - I am a fast reader. Under certain circumstances I am a blindingly fast reader. I am also very, very easily distracted. The amount of time it will take me to finish any given book is not distinguished by size or length but by how well it holds my attention and how easily I can get into the prose. I expect to finish most children's and young adult books, and any light genre fiction from an author I particularly enjoy in one day (Sometimes one sitting), Pratchett, Murakami, Gaiman and other heavier authors I am a slavish fan of in two or three days, a biography in half a week, and the average Edgar Allen Poe short story in a fortnight. Lolita took me three days, The Great Gatsby took me twelve. None of the Dark Tower novels has ever taken me more than a week but I had a three hundred page collected works of Washington Irving in my bag for a month. I had no idea whether Pride and Prejudice was going to be done in three hours or three weeks, because despite having it - still wrapped in a paper bag - hanging around for a week or more I hadn't actually opened it.

Happily, on Sunday morning I missed my bus and had half an hour to kill at the bus stop (Is that happily? Lets assume so) and, between that and my lunch break - in all maybe forty minutes at most actually concentrating on the book - managed to get a respectable six and a half chapters in. All in all, the whole thing should have taken me a little over a week - I got lazy and made it twelve days, because being a week late sounded more respectable than being a few days late. A few days is disorganised - a week sounds planned.

I always assumed Austen would be hard work - the Victorian literature I adore is nonetheless tortuously difficult, and I know people who had more trouble with Shakespeare than they did with French, and as a result the Regency period - coming neatly in the middle - should by all accounts be equally impenetrable. I was happily surprised.

My first revelation was how easy it was to read - there's the odd turn of phrase that doesn't quite make sense at first, the odd unusual spelling (Which I was actually more or less prepared for by Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell) and it's not Twilight but it's still very accessible. The second revelation was that Austen is funny.

The third, which is going to come as no surprise to anyone who's ever read the books but may well surprise those, like me, who haven't but judged them anyway - is that she's blindingly clever. Not necessarily educated - I have no doubt she was, but that's not what comes through in the book - what comes through is that she watched people and she understood people and then, when she wrote, she creates people. She's a satirist of the highest order but she's desperately sweet about it.

The problem with Pride and Prejudice is that I know the story. Between the BBC adaptation - the good one, with Colin Firth, that's become essentially synonymous with the story - and Bride and Prejudice (2004, Gurinder Chadha) which I was forced to sit through three or so times, I know exactly what is going to happen.

Which isn't, actually, such a bad thing. There are no terribly dramatic plot twists to be spoiled for you, and the characters are so well done that you can more or less figure out what's afoot well before it actually happens because you come to understand what their reactions are going to be. To be honest, if you didn't figure out within seconds that Darcy and Elizabeth are meant for each other and the rest of the book is just going to be details, then there is not a bone of romance in your body.

Above and beyond everything else, the book's strong point - and probably the reason why it and Austen's other work has endured so well - is the characters. The characters are masterfully done. In fact, the characters are blindingly, overwhelmingly good, because they're real.

I never felt the need to be told anything more about any of the characters to guess what they were going to do next, because they work in exactly the same way real people work. Mr Collins is whaffly and self-important, and in my experience people who are are usually so because they're insecure, and an insecure person would feel a failure after Eliza turned them down, assume that they'd be mocked at failing to come away with a bride, and thus wouldn't leave the house without some kind of engagement so it comes as absolutely no surprise when he goes scrambling off after Miss Lucas. I never needed to be told he was insecure and afraid of being mocked by society - or even if he is - because Austen understands how people work, and the characters work like real people.

Austen must have been a woman after my own heart as well. I was not expecting to find Mr Darcy either remotely attractive or compelling because I have virtually no interest in men (A major handicap when you're reading romance, I tell you now) and was proved wrong in the space of about three pages. Mr Darcy is incredibly sexy. It's the same kind of almost sociopathic arrogance borne out of a staggering intellect, absolute confidence in himself and zero tolerance for people who can't keep up that makes me go weak at the knees over Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes, General Cross in D.Gray-man and Georgette Heyer's Marquis de Vidal. When girls say they love a bad boy, they don't mean bloody Edward Cullen - they mean this.

Elizabeth is also a pretty damn good heroine. She has her faults - she's contrary for the sake of being contrary sometimes, and rebellious, and stubborn, and - by Regency standards - not attentive enough to her feminine qualities. She is also, in the most fabulously  honest way, not pretty. She's claimed to be a famed beauty but we quickly figure out - or at least, I did - that it's not because she's beautiful but because she's bright and quick witted and charming, which turns moderately pretty into stunning. This means she's incredibly easy to relate to. Every modern woman would like to think that, should they have lived back then, they'd have held out for a marriage with someone they loved and walked across fields even if it meant getting their petticoat muddy and refused to dance with someone who'd slighted them, even if he was darkly charming and had ten thousand a year. And I'm willing to bet every Regency woman did too.

A couple of things surprised me about Austen. One, like I said, was that it's very easy to read - grammar has changed a little since then but it's quite simple to get into - which I'm likely to put down to her being a female 'genre' writer of the time, writing for light enjoyment, instead of the heavy Victorian Gothic literary stuff by male authors I tend to be attracted to.

The other was that she's got a very unique approach. There is virtually no description. Settings and surroundings are only mentioned when they serve a function or are being discussed, which tends to say more about the character than it does about the room. Characters are only described by their bearing and conversation and dancing skills, not the colour of their hair or eyes. Not once has she mentioned any of their dresses. And do you know? It doesn't bloody matter. Well, I'd rather like to know what they were eating and what colour their gowns are - but the book doesn't need it and I'm surprised that I don't either.

The version I bought is the cute hard cover Collector's Library. I've been meaning to buy some of these for a long time just because they're so sweet, and hardcovers wear so well. On the plus side, it's so compact I can hold it one handed - which is great for me, who mostly reads on my lunch break, because I've got a sandwich in the other - on the downside, the gilt edges means that reading it for the first time, the very thin pages stick together, which defeats the object of being able to hold it in one hand. Despite the fact that the pages are tissue-paper thin, they're also quite opaque, don't discolour or become translucent under prolonged contact, and I have also failed to rip any of the pages or give myself a nasty paper cut so far so I think the gilt edges are worth it. The illustrations are charming. Of course, the trade off for hardcover and gilt edges is that there are more or less no notes on the text other than a brief afterword. For some people that's a blessing, and I have to say I didn't miss them - I'm not particularly familiar with the Regency period (Not in the same way that I am with the Victorian) and nothing came up that I was confused about. Austen's very accessible that way.

I enjoyed this far, far more than I expected to - which is to say still not quite as much as it deserved, but I expect it will bear up to further readings.

This is one of the books, I imagine, that's going to turn out invaluable for shoehorning Young Adult romance readers into adult fiction. The heroine is well developed and easy to relate to - the hero is almost alarmingly sexy - and the plot manages to convince you to suspend your disbelief and genuinely wonder if Darcy and Elizabeth ever really will get married. It's even worth reading if you've seen a good TV adaptation, because Austen's prose is delightful and not too heavy.

Next time
Because this one took me three weeks when it should have taken two, I'm going to attempt to get back on track by finishing the next book in one. So come back next time for Edwin Abbott Abbott's Flatland.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

What Is This 'Literature' Of Which You Speak?

Last time, I outlined what went into my somewhat impetuous and misguided decision to single-handedly conquer the entirety of 'literature'. In this post, I come across my very first problem.

My very first problem is I'm not entirely sure what this 'literature' thing I've decided to tackle consists of.

I thought it was going to be so easy. I mean, look - it's got it's own department in the bookshop, surely I just start at the beginning and work my way around-

- except, no, that isn't going to work. That isn't going to work because a two second survey of the half-moon that makes up Literature in my bookshop reveals that there's something missing. Something big. Something that is easy to miss when it's not there.


I am not a massive fan of Shakespeare, it must be said, but something in my hind brain - the bit I thought had committed suicide out of self defence when it suddenly dawned on me that our teacher may well have chosen Of Mice and Men because it was the shortest text on the GCSE list - baulked at the idea that I could consider myself to be tackling 'the classics' without him. Plus I can always use more sex jokes. But at the same time, I felt I couldn't justifiably just shoe-horn Shakespeare into the 'S' section and ignore everything else that was getting left out of Literature.

So now I actually had to think about what I was doing.

In the shop in which I work, the line was drawn at 1945. If it came before 1945, it was Literature. If it came after, it was mere fiction.

Unless it was a play, poetry, written in Old or Middle English, translated from Norse, Anglo-Saxon, Greek or Roman (But not, for example, ancient Chinese or Arabic), crime fiction, science fiction, fantasy, essays, a children's book or a religious text.

And then things got crowded, so they moved the date to 1960 and... well, actually, they're still working that one out. Some authors are getting split between floors, poor things.

So not that helpful, all told. (Which I simultaneously despise and order from, giving myself regular periods of well-justified and cathartic self hatred after which I can happily get on and read my absurdly cheap and hard to come by purchases) handily gives us tabs under 'Fiction' entitled 'Classics' and 'Literary Fiction', both of which immediately provide an obnoxiously organised cocktail of everything from Ovid's Metamorphosis to Charles Dickens, and absolutely no indication of how we got here.


Is it any easier to determine what isn't literature? Wikipedia (Online receptacle of facts that are always true enough but not quite totally technically true) handily informs me that books may be discounted from the canon of Literature on the grounds of newness, poor quality, or genre.

Well, I was born in 1988, so I don't think I'm in a good position to judge 'newness' compared to four thousand years of recorded human civilisation (The oldest qualifying text I've come across so far is, of course, the Epic Of Gilgamesh at a conservative 1900 BC) and I hardly think I'm qualified to start excluding people on the grounds of their literary skill - I don't even think the exam boards are qualified to do that, since they seem to sift through the aforementioned four thousand years of texts and come up with a lot of dead white male Christians. Besides, in order to do that, I'd have to read them first and that would be self defeating.

So, what about genre? This is pretty standard, actually - when you're asked pick a work of literature, very few people, knowledgeable on the subject or otherwise, haul out a copy of Murder on the Orient Express or The Worm Ouroboros. And thus, the is the one thing of all this rambling so far that has actually made me angry.

Ruling out books on the ground of genre is, for me, a complete non-starter - and it's not just because most of what I read could quite accurately be described as 'genre', although sometimes people seem hard pressed to figure out which genre, exactly. Actually, no, it is because of that. Genre is arbitrary. It's constructed.

Someone made it up.

To start off with, genre didn't exist. And then someone invented it, and it got incredibly complicated incredibly fast and it was all terribly awkward. I remember learning in school (I did do that, occasionally) that Shakespeare claimed to have two genres - comedies, where everyone got married at the end (Except for the bad guys, who would hopefully see the error of their ways) and tragedies, where everyone died horribly at the end (Including the bad guys, the good guys, the other guys, the guys who just wanted to go down the pub, the guys who just sort of wandered in by accident, and - if you were performing Macbeth - possibly also the stage hands). And then he screwed it up, because he started to write 'tragicomedies' which normal people called the 'histories', where some people get married and some people get horribly dismembered, and sometimes it's the same people and sadly, occasionally it's also the stage hands, but no one ever said working in theatre was easy.

Several hundred years down the line, we've got more genres than we know what to do with. I don't have a problem with that, necessarily - I don't even mind separating out the shelves based on genre, it makes it easier for me. What I dislike is that it's all so bloody inconsistent, even in the bookshop I work in, and then I start making unkind speculations on why that is.

Edgar Allen Poe and Dracula occasionally migrate into the 'Horror' section, and yet despite being solidly pre-War H.P.Lovecraft never seems to join them in the rare echelons of Literature. Arthur Conan Doyle is quite firmly Literary but Agatha Christie (Who sells massively better, by the way) never seems to make the jump. Last time I checked, some of Mervyn Peake's work - being pre-1960 - had started living in Literature but the Gormenghast trilogy stayed put. I'm willing to chalk all of these up to space constraints (Lovecraft is only available in a substantial special edition hardback, Agatha Christie has written more books than any human being should have been capable of, and you could kill a horse with the Gormenghast trilogy) and anticipating customers thought processes rather than dispersions cast upon the value of the authors or their work, but it just gets weirder. Alice In Wonderland gets to party with the big guns up in Literary Fiction but Peter Pan doesn't - and neither do The Chronicles of Narnia, and while we're on the subject of Children's Fiction, if you let that genre slip away you risk letting it take Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm with it, which rips an enormous hole in the history of Western European storytelling.

Actually, that's the crux of it - you take away genre work and you lose too much, which defeats the point of this exercise. In every genre we could strip away, there's books I feel I shouldn't leave out. Drop Science Fiction and Fantasy, and you're on shaky grounds for Verne and Wells, you can rule out The Lord Of The Rings right now, and I could throw some serious doubt on, say, Gawain and the Green Knight or the Divine Comedy. Crime Fiction covers a massive sweep from Edgar Allen Poe to the present day. Take away Romance and well, you might as well give up now, there's so little left it's not worth starting. Nothing much worth reading, at any rate.

More distinctions - lets go back to the beginning. I have to include Shakespeare. It's the done thing. I would feel like I was missing something I should be reading if I didn't include him, and that's the whole point. So now we have the whole problem of Poetry vs Prose vs Play, which can be either, but isn't.

Prior to a certain point in history, it seems they hadn't invented prose. This makes everything rather awkward, because now I have to examine things on a case-by-case basis, make broad, sweeping decisions, or take everything. We studied poetry, and plays, in school, and since the starting point for this was that there were an awful lot of books I felt I somehow should have studied in school and didn't... I'm backing myself into a corner on this one, but ultimately it amounts to; I can't think of a good reason why or how I could leave poetry and plays out and still include all the things I want to, or feel I should, read.

There is also nationality, since a substantial number of these texts are going to be foreign in origin, but lets be honest, this one was never going to fly. I am massively suspicious of any bookshop that distinguishes between works by British and American authors and works in translation. Lets just chuck the Vikings and the French and the Greeks and the Italians and the Romans and the Arabs and the Chinese and the Russians and everyone else aside from the moment and I will give you one book which makes the global perspective worthwhile. That one book is The Tale Of Genji (Which, to be fair, I'm being slightly biased in choosing since I actually speak the language it's written in, although it's so archaic I doubt I'd be able to make much headway - imagine a student of English trying to read the Canterbury Tales) which is quite possibly the world's first ever novel, written by a Japanese woman, and full of poetry, pretty clothes, and exotic sex. I'm damned if I'm leaving that out.

Having decided that I'm not going to discriminate based on genre, nationality, level of skill, form, place in the bookshop or anyone else's classifications, I had better discriminate somewhere or I'll end up trying to read every single book in existence, which last time I checked was physically impossible. I do need to sleep occasionally.

I like the pre-1960 rule. It's completely arbitrary and silly and yet, part of me thinks that if nothing else, still being in print after fifty years has got to count for something. So that's a rule. Anything before 1960 is fair game. Anything. If I find a copy of the Epic of Gilgamesh I'll read it (Although I have to admit I don't read a word of Ancient Sumerian or whatever the hell it's written in, so if you're going to send me a copy it better be a translation).

That's rules number two and three - it has to be available, and it has to be available in translation. If it's not in print, I can't be expected to read it. I can follow conversational French and Spanish and occasionally German and can reply in Japanese, but my literary reading skills are not up to much and if I'm taking on the entirety of world literature I'd need more languages than that, and that would extend the scope of this project by several decades. I'm open to parallel texts. I'm wobbly on how I feel about tackling Middle and Old English, which are nominally the same language but in reality fiendishly difficult, but we'll see how that goes if I can't find translations.

Rule number four is that for the kind of books I've been describing so far, we are dealing, more or less, with fiction or at the very least with the creative treatment of fact. This means texts on science, philosophy, politics, essays, religious texts, whatever - things that are considered by the powers that be or indeed myself (With good reason) to fall under a specialist subject - are off the list. This includes biographies, on the grounds that people are a specialist subject, and autobiographies and memoirs will be excluded except under rare circumstances (I can't think of any right now, but it may arise, especially given the dubiously self-centred nature of Literature). I don't anticipate there being a lot of these, but I'm covering all exits. On the plus side, this means I don't have to go anywhere near the Buddhist canon, which makes anyone who ever complained about having to read the Bible look like a pathetic weakling. On the downside, this means I do actually have to read Ayn Rand. Hmm.

Finally, rule number five is that is has to be noteworthy. This is the blurriest one - and largely cancelled out by the 1960 rule, since you have to be fairly noteworthy just to stay in print for fifty years. But, certainly around the 50's and 60's end, I reserve the right to give up on unpromising specimens on the grounds that nobody's ever heard of this and maybe that's a good thing. On the other hand, this requires me to finish things I find direly tedious and unpleasant because people have heard of them, and because they're significant in some way. The whole point of this project, as I periodically try to explain in a way that makes sense to anyone except me, is that for every single book I read there is someone, somewhere, who is appalled I haven't read it already.

I'm going to be going more-or-less alphabetically by author or title-if-it-has-no-author, but this looks like it's going to be 'A is followed at some point when I've run out of books, by B' rather than strict alphabetical. One book per author, no more, and generally speaking I will go for the most famous or well recommended one - or possibly just whatever takes my fancy, who knows? In the case that I come to an author who I have actually read before, I have to read a book I haven't read yet, unless they A. only wrote one book, or only one book that anyone cares about (If you think I'm tackling Lewis Carroll's maths textbooks, you have another thing coming) or B. I've read everything they ever wrote (That's you, Oscar), in which case I go back to the most famous/well recommended rule.


I thought it would be appropriate to start with a pretty impressive book - something that has 'classic literature' status that nobody argues about - partly to establish my own credentials and partly to see what the fuss is about, and, being in 'A' territory, there was really very little competition as to what that should be.

Come back in two weeks (Provided I get off my backside and actually read the thing) for my reaction to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

Because you don't get much more classic that that.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

The Books I Should Have Read, Or, What Exactly Was I Doing In English Literature?

Do you like to read?

I like to read.

What kind of a stupid statement is that, anyway? I like to read? Read what, exactly? Train timetables? Cereal packets? The newspaper? Even when you narrow it down - all the way down - to actual books, that tells you nothing at all. There are as many genres as there are people.

I like to read. Everything. Anything. All of the above. You remember those geeky kids who sat in the library at lunch time, every lunch time, and just read everything they could get their grubby mitts on? That was me. I had preferences, obviously - largely science fiction and fantasy, like a good nerd, but the truth was, if it had text in it and someone I trusted told me it was worth reading, I read it. And fast, too. And I didn't stop when I left school. I started working at a bookshop. I kept working at a bookshop right into university. I kept reading. The bookshelves filled up and then the boxes and then they were stacking up against the wall, knee high, waist high, pyramided to stop them tottering over and burying me only to be found six weeks later crushed to death by the combined complete hardcover works of Terry Pratchett and Brian Jacques, decomposing and semi devoured by cats.

Where was I?

Oh yes. I read. A lot. And all was well.

And then, at the bookshop, I was moved departments. From Fiction, with it's added candy house of Children's, to 'Literature'.

What is this 'Literature' of which you speak?

Oh, you know. Classic fiction. Books of worth. The sort of thing you read in school. You did read books in school, didn't you?

... well, obviously, but not in the context I think we're talking about.

What did I read in school? Hmm. The Machine Gunners. Twice. Of Mice and Men. I don't think we actually finished Far From The Madding Crowd - well, obviously I did, but I'm not sure about the rest of the class. Maybe ten poems, only half of which were written before 1914. Macbeth. Much Ado About Nothing. The Tempest (Although that was primary school so it was heavily abridged and I'm not sure it counts). I also don't think we actually read Romeo and Juliet - just watched the hideously bad film by Baz Luhrmann. I wrote a very long essay ripping that film to shreds, which kickstarted my interest in Film Studies, and now I have a degree in the damn thing, so thank you for that, English.

For the rest of it? Not so much. I mean, names get chucked around - I know when we were doing Of Mice And Men, some of the other classes got to do Frankenstein or Lord of the Flies (Lucky bastards) and so I've heard of all these authors. But read them? Nope.

So there I was, suddenly standing in a room full of books I hadn't read. Hundreds, thousands of books I hadn't read. Why hadn't I read these books?

Because I didn't want to? That's certainly true for a couple of them. After English was through with them, there was no way I was touching Steinbeck or Hardy with a bargepole - but it wasn't that I objected to being asked to read them, it was that I objected to being asked to read them for the fifteenth time. English did manage to kill poetry for me, simply by convincing me that the absolute best going was Carol Ann Duffy, which is a bleak start to any art form if you think about it. The rest of them, however, I refuse to believe I wasn't willing to read them. The few 'classics' I did seek out of my own volition - largely because the few teachers I respected told me they were good - were often challenging, odd, and I'm not entirely sure I liked all of them. But I still read them. And unlike 90% of all students, school couldn't kill Shakespeare for me because I started reading Shakespeare, abridged, at eight years old, and then figured out at about twelve that actually it was all just sex jokes. It'll always be me, Will, and the sex jokes. They can't take that from me.

Did I not know they were there? It's a distinct possibility. Despite living in the library for six years, the librarian never talked to me beyond the cursory 'shhhh!'. As it is, I rarely pick up a new book by an unknown author unless someone - a person, the radio, the internet, a sign in the bookshop - tells me it's worth it. There's too many books to work through as it is to start grabbing things at random, especially when you work in the General Fiction department. I'm pretty sure if I did know where they were in the school library, I've now forgotten, because I never went there.

However it happened, here I am. My coverage of classic fiction - based on only the vaguest notion of what constitutes 'classic fiction' - is limited, more or less exactly, to: Nabokov's Lolita, The Great Gatsby, Dracula, a smattering of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, the collected works of Edgar Allen Poe, Alice in Wonderland, everything Oscar Wilde ever wrote, and the aforementioned books from school. I think I could expand that out a little bit if 'Literature' included some genre stuff and the 'Children's Classics' section, but not by a huge amount.

As an adult with a library a dozen times her own bodyweight, to suddenly find an entire section of the bookshop you have never read is rather embarrassing. Embarrassing and incredibly exciting.

Because do you know what? There's a whole damn section of the bookshop I haven't read! Hundreds, no, thousands of books! That'll keep me going for... well, okay, lets be honest, maybe a couple of years, but by then there'll be a whole fresh crop of stuffs in Fiction. Nobody has spoiled these for me. I have no preconceptions, very few prejudices, and am adult enough not to give up because they're written in a difficult way. I have absolutely no idea what I'm getting myself in for, and I love it.

So where do I start?

I start with 'A', of course.