Behind the handsome 18th-century façade of The Hague’s Museum Meermanno, ‘the House of the Book’, pages are turning. Everywhere you look they are turning over, but also turning into other things: screens, data, moving image, sound, even skin. The Art of Reading: From William Kentridge to Wikipedia is not so much an exhibition of contemporary book artists as an attempt to use their work to ask what reading is. The question has increasingly exercised theorists and scholars as the printed book loses its dominance, but here the overfamiliar act is scrutinised through the lens of art.
In his Essay on Diseases Incident to Literary and Sedentary Persons (1769), Samuel Tissot warned that ‘the devourers of books, who exhaust themselves only by reading, should desist as soon as they find their comprehension more than commonly slow, their sight moaty and dimmish, or their eyes hot and watery.’ Undeterred, I stayed in bed last Christmas Day until 4 p.m., reading Lost Illusions.
Browsing in a second-hand bookshop on Charing Cross Road in the spring of 2004, I came across a copy of History and the Early English Novel by Robert Mayer. I opened it up and loose papers tumbled out. Turning the book’s pages, I saw hundreds of annotations pencilled in the margins: shaky lines and ringed numbers and then, across the endleaves and inside back cover, a thick scrawl of largely illegible notes: page numbers, cross-references, summaries, words circled furiously or underlined – ‘21. Facts’; ‘135. Origins of novel’; ‘143-4. Cromwell, Defoe’. What looks like ‘48-9. Milton’s lust’ is probably ‘Milton’s hist[ory]’. The inside cover has an elegantly looping signature: ‘Christopher Hill/1997/7’. I put the loose papers back and handed over £15. Then I put the book on my bookshelf and forgot about it for nine years.
About six years ago I started teaching creative writing to undergraduates. When I took the job at Royal Holloway, I had never taught creative writing, and when I was younger and struggling to get published, I never took creative writing classes either. I was pretty suspicious of them, for the usual reasons. They always made me think of Woody Allen’s joke about the kid who cheats on his metaphysics exam by looking into the soul of the boy sitting next to him.
Julian Barnes has won the 2011 David Cohen Prize for a 'lifetime's achievement in literature'. As well as £40,000, the winner gets to choose the recipient of the £12,500 Clarissa Luard Award, which Barnes has given to the Reading Agency to spend on their work in young offenders' institutions.
Google announced that they were going into the digital bookselling business at last year's Frankfurt Book Fair. The first e-books for sale from Google Editions, they said, were going to be available in the first half of 2010. As yet, there's still no sign of them although Google remains adamant that the project is on its way. It's already clear that there are some key differences between what Google Editions will offer and what's already on the market.
As a young novelist who writes almost exclusively about young people (specifically, his friends and himself), Tao Lin has unsurprisingly been tagged – or burdened – with the ‘voice of his generation’ label, and said to resemble such writers as Douglas Coupland and Bret Easton Ellis. But the ‘voice of his generation’ who came to mind while I was reading Lin’s books was Jack Kerouac. It’s not the most obvious comparison, perhaps: their prose styles are very different, and one of the few other people to have seen some resemblance points out that ‘entire Lin paragraphs could be housed in a single Kerouac sentence.’ More obliquely, Lin has been included in a loose collection of writers one critic has called the ‘Offbeat Generation’.
The Society of Authors has a petition to ask the Department for Culture, Media and Sport not to cut the Public Lending Right (which gives writers sixpence every time one of their books is taken out of a library) in next month's Spending Review. 'Any and all writers who feel strongly about this subject' should sign it, they say. Is it too much to hope that a few readers might care about PLR too? Anyway, the 'Statement by Authors' is as follows and writers can sign it here:
I’m a bit of a snob. I’ve never looked inside a volume of York Notes. Are they the ones that used to have those waspish yellow and black bands on the covers, that I used to sneer at when I was an Olympian teen, doing A-Levels like a real grown-up by reading the actual books? Or were those Mr Brodie’s rival notes? Never knew. Never knew who Brodie was either. Didn’t want to. Both series seem now to have had glossy makeovers so I will never know.
Probably I ought to find out what teenagers are told they should know about Othello and To Kill a Mockingbird and stuff, though somehow I feel that not reading York Notes is among the least bad of my bad habits of a lifetime. Curiously (I’m obviously behind the times) the bestselling York Notes Intermediate Volume is on Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. An Amazon review of this no doubt admirable volume says: ‘i bought this book for myu english gcse course, it is very helpful and must have one if you want to do well in your exam.’ This isn’t signed ‘Molesworth’, but I suppose by now he has grandchildren who can txt like that while taking out the civilians in Call of Duty 6 with an uzi.
Following the revelations in La Repubblica that a supposed interview with Philip Roth published in Libero last November was a complete fabrication, I got in touch with a few Italian novelists to ask them what they thought about the affair. Most of them politely declined to be interviewed, but Italo Calvino – I found his number in an old Turin phonebook mouldering among the carboys in the cellar; I can't think how it got there – was generous enough to give me a few minutes of his time. My computer unfortunately wiped the recording of our conversation before I was able fully to transcribe it, but here's what I've managed to salvage from my fragmentary notes. It was a bad line, and my Italian isn't all it might be, but this is more or less how the conversation went:
From Christopher Ricks's forthcoming book True Friendship: Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hecht, and Robert Lowell Under the Sign of Eliot and Pound, about 'A Certain Slant': This is finely 'Etched', at the edge of the first line, with 'Edged' likewise at the second line. In its precise finesse, in its unembarrassed self-consciousness, the effect is echt Hecht. (I know, I know, but our poet did advocate 'mens sana in men's sauna', and he metamorphosed Horace's 'Pyrrha' into 'piranha', as well as Wallace Stevens's 'Le Monocle de Mon Oncle' into 'Le Masseur de Ma Soeur'. And he is the justly proud author of Civilisation and Its Discothèques.)
When my friends and I were young and awed by David Foster Wallace (whose papers were recently acquired by the ultra-acquisitive Harry Ransom Center) we saw the author's ever-present head scarf as a sort of tourniquet: it keeps his brains in, we thought. We were joking, of course. We didn't know how tortured he really was. Wallace's terminal self-consciousness seemed to us to be symptomatic of the times. If anyone had the intelligence and stamina to point the way out of our post-postmodern labyrinth, it was him. And, for a while at least, Wallace seemed willing and able to shoulder the burden. 'For me, the past few years of the postmodern era have seemed a bit like the way you feel when you're in high school and your parents go on a trip, and you throw a party,' he said in 1993, in a long interview with the Review of Contemporary Fiction:
It recently dawned on me that the volumes of collected poems popular these days in trade publishing are often a literary auto-da-fe. Are there a dozen people who have read The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara or The Collected Poems of Allen Ginsberg from cover to cover? On the other hand, there’s no doubt that Lunch Poems and Howl, first and still published by San Francisco’s City Lights Books, have been prized and pored over by throngs of happy readers for decades.
The idea of film ‘trailers’ for books may look like yet another unpleasant twist in the commodification of literature, or, at the very least, an attempt to convince consumers that books really are just like movies, but all the same there have been some enjoyable results. Most trailers consist of the author reading a short (and usually dramatic) extract from the book over a montage of images. The recent one for Joshua Ferris’s The Unnamed is a pretty representative example:
The four most ‘informative’ words in Moby-Dick, statistically speaking, are ‘I’, ‘whale’, ‘you’ and ‘Ahab’. Marcello Montemurro and Damian Zanette worked this out by comparing the text of Moby-Dick to all the possible alternatives obtainable by shuffling Melville’s words into random sequences. These are not the four words that are used most often, or that carry the most ‘information’ in the everyday sense of the term, but the words whose positioning in the original, meaningful text differs most from the way they would be scattered in all other permutations. The ‘information’ here is of the mathematical, measurable kind: ‘most informative’ means ‘least randomly distributed’. It may seem a slightly odd way to try to quantify semantic content, as though when Melville wrote Moby-Dick, it wasn’t so much a matter of finding the right words, as of putting them down in the right order.
From an early age, I have missed the point of things. I noticed this first when the entire class at school seemed to understand that Animal Farm was about something other than animals. I alone sat there believing otherwise. I simply couldn’t see who or what the book was about if not about farm animals. I had enjoyed it for that. Now, the teacher and every other boy seemed to think it was really about Stalin or Communism or something. I looked at it again, but I still couldn’t quite work it out. So, too, with a lot of poetry. I couldn’t see that things were like other things when they were not like them. Maybe they were slightly like them, or somewhat like them, but usually they were not like them at all.
Reviewers in the UK seem to have quite liked Invisible, Paul Auster's latest novel, and I was starting to wonder if it might be worth checking out – I haven’t read a book of his since The Book of Illusions (2002) – when
Jerry Morris, a doctor and epidemiologist who established that bus conductors, in general, have longer lives than bus drivers, who was an authority on exercise and life expectancy, and who firmly believed in the importance of the public health service, died last week aged 99. From the Camden New Journal's obituary: To think of Jerry's life in terms of his immense contribution to public health overlooks his fanatical interest in culture. He read widely, a subscriber to the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker and the British Medical Journal. He was also an insomniac and would read two to three thrillers every week. Intelligent and racy reading may keep you and your heart going.
In a ghastly vision of future desolation, Lord Byron foresees the contemporary American novelist’s dust-jacket photo:
You know the way John Wayne was hopelessly typecast, forever the cowboy, never Hamlet – who knows how vast a range he might have had? Well, so it's beginning to seem to be for me and penguins. One of these days I'm going to branch out and give my attention to spaniels, or water buffalo, but in the meantime, those gay broody penguins I've mentioned before, who were given their own egg in a zoo, are the subjects of a children's book, And Tango Makes Three which has made it to the top of the American Library Association's list of the ten most frequently challenged books of 2008. Challenged, as in: take that filth of the shelves.
'What makes Melville Melville is digression, texture, and weirdness,' says Damion Searls. No, said Orion Books in 2007, all that extraneous business just gets in the way of the story arc. Without all that whale stuff, you could make a readable book. Hey, maybe someone could make an action movie. The result was Moby Dick in Half the Time (which you can buy in a bargain bundle at Amazon with Vanity Fair in Half the Time and Anna Karenina in Half the Time). 'All Dick and no Moby,' said Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker. Moby Dick is the novel you read to see what novels can be, and for delight.
Reviews in the LRB of novels on the Man Booker Prize shortlist: Colin Burrow on Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel Thomas Jones on The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters Coming soon: Frank Kermode on Summertime by J.M. Coetzee James Wood on The Children's Book by A.S.
Stanley Middleton died last week at the age of 89. He didn't start writing until he was 38 but had 44 novels published and one manuscript with his publishers at his death. He wrote a calm, whispering prose, full of unspoken suggestion between ordinary acts of daily living. Once, long ago, before it was the abysmal circus it is now (though it was always a circus) he shared the Booker Prize with Nadine Gordimer, but it didn't make much difference to his sales. He lived in Nottingham, was not seen at London literary events or dinner tables. He refused public honours and didn't supplement his income by becoming a talking head, but taught English at secondary school until he retired. In the evenings and during holidays he wrote his novels out in longhand. Writing, he said, exhausted him.