Thousand of books, nothing to read

Daunt Books, Marylebone

Daunt Books, Marylebone

Shopping paralyses me.

Not in the ‘lost male in home furnishings’ way (although I once managed, embarrassingly, to lose myself in a Macy’s outlet), but more the ‘holding two items in either hand and sweating’ way.

The excess of choice, the thousands of single items to choose from – in this shop, on this day, NOW – jam my circuits and lead me to walk away, empty-handed.

Take last weekend. With an hour to spare in London, I headed to the Charing Cross Road to browse the bookstores. I’d even drawn up a short list of potential buys on my phone – what could possibly go wrong?

Some 45 minutes, and four bookshops, later and I am standing in the middle of Foyles, staring up at three floors of books above. Everywhere I look there is something I could read, hundreds of potential purchases within metres, including everything on my list. I thumb through the H’s of Fiction, make a half-hearted stab at browsing the wall-to-wall Poetry before I shuffle off, stomaching an odd mix of indecision and anger.

And it’s not just books. Every time I enter a record shop I’m confronted with this same tyranny of choice – hundreds of albums I want to listen to but will never have the time to hear.

debtA ‘first world problem’? I don’t think so. I want less consumer items in my life, not more (our apartment is crammed with books and CDs as it stands); a used album is just as good as a new one.

Shortly after my book trek, while picking through a pile of CDs in a Soho record store I thought of a tweet posted by Brian Eno days earlier: “I realise the reason I like playing records (as opposed to CDs) is that they’re short…I want less music.”

I never believed I’d reach a point at which I want less music, less books, less choice. But it’s happened. Faced with a tsunami  (and that’s before we get to the infinite distractions of the Internet) of writing and music, film and TV drama, my reaction now is to step back.

Walking back to my hotel last Saturday, along Marylebone High Street, I spotted an Oxfam shop. I stepped in and made straight for the books’ section, a small collection in a corner of the store.

The choice was minimal but there, on a shelf, was one of the books on my list – The Debt To Pleasure. Without the temptations of a dozen other titles, it stood out – a £2, 20-year-old paperback.

It was the easiest buy I’d made in months.

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‘I started to imagine another me somewhere’

Sky Mirror at Rockefeller Center, NYC Pic: Anish Kapoor

Sky Mirror at Rockefeller Center, NYC
Pic: Anish Kapoor

“Turning all this over in my mind, I started to imagine another me somewhere, sitting in a bar, nursing a whiskey, without a care in the world. The more I thought about it, the more that other me became the real me, making this me here not real at all.”

– Haruki Murakami, ‘A Wild Sheep Chase’

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So how are the other Cormac Looneys doing?

The one I left in my early 20s studying in the library at Trinity College? The one I last saw as he walked to La Taqueria in The Mission in 1998 to pick up dinner? The one who cursed the cold as he slipped half an hour behind while descending from the Zumsteinspitze in 2010?

They’re fixed in my memory, set in linear time.

But are they? Is each one where I left him, back there in my past? Did they move on too, just like this me did? How did their lives develop? Are they happy? Are they alive?

They exist – if you believe (or understand) the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. This concept suggests that multiple versions of me exist, living an infinite number of  lives, succeeding and failing, living and dying, in parallel with the Cormac Looney who is currently typing these words on a screen.

pic1Each version of me that I can recall (in fact, an infinite number – more than I can comprehend) lives on, as an alternative me. The me that walked to the taqueria is as real as the me who didn’t and who is typing these words.

This begs an unsettling question. As Murakami’s character asks, which one of these is the ‘real me’? Is the ‘real me’ somewhere else, and the me existing here in Dublin in 2015 just a quantum shadow? Does a ‘real me’ exist? Can a ‘real me’ exist?

Am I the total of an infinite number of Cormac Looneys, all bar one of which I will never be aware of? Am I universal? Am I immortal (given that at any given moment I can both die and not die)?

This is all possible, indeed it’s scientifically undeniable.

But one final piece of the jigsaw remains, without which the mind-bending wonder of many worlds remains just an almighty cosmic tease.

How can I be aware of these other me’s?

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The right notes – music to read by

FullSizeRender (1)Back in the early 2000s I worked a night shift job. Each morning I’d return to the house I shared with three others at 4 or 5am, and read for a hour in bed before turning in.

I’d always believed that reading, like sleeping or writing, was best done in silence. But there’s silence and then there’s 4am silence. The coastal suburb I lived in was pin-drop quiet.

And so I picked up a new habit – I’d play music as I read. The only condition was that the music had to be quiet – not solely in terms of volume but also by way of sound.

I spent most of those early mornings listening to Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works, Volume II. The slow surges, whale-call noises, absence of percussion – all served to fill the lingering silence of an early summer morning in Clontarf.

The music also helped me, it seemed, focus on what I was reading. The subject matter might have differed (two of the books I read at that time were Crime And Punishment and a popular biography of Irish Arctic explorer Tom Crean) but the effect of music was the same. Like the ambient hum of one’s body heard in a sound-proofed room the music lingered, just out of feeling but present, while I read.

Brian Eno. Detail from 'Music For Films' sleeve

Brian Eno

The use of music as an aid to reading is a well-covered topic. This week I was brought back to my pre-dawn reading sessions when I encountered a post by Sam Jordison on the Guardian’s Books blog. Much of the article concerned how we can battle ‘aural sludge’ – distracting and loud daily noises -when reading.

I find it difficult, if not impossible, to deep read amidst loud noise – even custom-made soundtracks are unlikely to help me.

But the article led to me to ask: what other music worked like Selected Ambient Works, Volume II did, as a reading aid?

In the 12 years since those night shift days I’ve encountered only a few: a Naxos collection of Chopin’s piano works, Brian Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks and, perhaps, Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way.

The ‘x’ factor in each of these recordings is hard to pin down. Perhaps the tidal feel of the music in each set of recordings is the key; or perhaps the absence or mere suggestion of a beat which, when present, is no faster than my resting heart rate.

Whatever their key is they all work to break ground, coming through silence to open my ear and eye and mind to absorb the words.

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‘The strange courage of the second rate’

Charles Bukowksi

Charles Bukowksi

No one remembers the person who comes second. Or third. Or twelfth.

History, in as much as it remembers anyone, reserves its slots for the winners.

And yet almost all of mankind’s graft, humanity’s progress and civilisation’s march has been done by the also-rans, the forgettable others who simply got on with it.

As Charles Bukowski had it, for every Wagner there’s a Bruckner.

While the mercurial Wagner revolutionised opera and was seen as the inventor of modern classical music, his contemporary was a humbler man, who acknowledged Wagner’s greatness while producing some lesser known symphonies of his own.

Anton Bruckner

Anton Bruckner

Bukowski was himself no stranger to the world of uninspiring graft. Until the age of 49 he worked various mundane jobs, most notably as a post office clerk, while writing at night.

Perhaps that explains his affinity with those who did “the best they could/and kept on doing it/even when they knew they/were second best”.

Milton’s thousands, “who only stand and wait”, become Bukowski’s second raters, those of us “who refuse to quit”.

His short poem ‘Bruckner (2)’ is a tribute to their presence, their perseverance, their “strange courage”.

Bruckner wasn’t bad
even though he got down
on his knees
and proclaimed Wagner
the master.

It saddens me, I guess,
in a small way
because while Wagner was
hitting all those homers
Bruckner was sacrificing
the runners to second
and he knew it.

and I know that
mixing baseball metaphors with classical
music
will not please the purists
either.

I prefer Ruth to most of his teammates
but I appreciate those who did
the best they could
and kept on doing it
even when they knew they
were second best.

this is your club fighter
your back-up quarterback
the unknown jock who sometimes
brings one in
at 40-to-one.

this was Bruckner.

there are times when we should
remember
the strange courage
of the second-rate
who refuse to quit
when the nights
are black and long and sleepless
and the days are without
end.

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Why walk when you can saunter?

Henry David Thoreau, 1856

Henry David Thoreau, 1856

When was the last time you had a good saunter?

Not a bracing walk on the beach after Sunday lunch, or a sweaty stroll around the shops, but a mind-emptying couple of hours spent outdoors, putting one foot in front of another?

Can’t remember? In that case you may be risking your happiness, your mental health, your limited days of existence as a sentient being in a world that offers soul-blinding experiential delights.

Henry David Thoreau thought you were. In 1861 he wrote his treatise ‘Walking’ (neatly summarised on this Brain Pickings post), in which he described the benefits of sauntering for those who otherwise endured a sedentary life.

By Thoreau’s standards that would be most of us nowadays. (Elsewhere in ‘Walking’ he writes: “I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day.”)

The Walden philosopher, at leisure to stroll thanks to – it seems – the donut-baking generosity of his mother and sister, extols us to get up and move.

But it’s not that simple.  Sauntering is not a physical act, it’s a mental one.

You can stroll off along a beach, for an hour or more (as I often do), believing that you’re immersing yourself in nature and renewing your sensibilities. But you’re wasting your time – the act of motion is not enough.

Dollymount Strand, March 2015

Dollymount Strand, March 2015

How often we find ourselves strolling while distracted? Thoughts of the day-to-day easily pervade – work, appointments, plans. How much of my walk is wasted as I  fiddle with my iPod’s song selections or its ear buds?

Thoreau again: “The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is — I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?”

So even the great Transcendentalist himself pondered his shopping list while perambulating around Walden Pond.

Aware of this, Thoreau set to practice what he dubbed ” the art of walking”, the highest form of which was the act of sauntering: walking with a presence of mind, a focus on the body, the land, the air, the everything, and with the affairs of “the village” left behind.

It doesn’t come easy. Thoreau stated that “it requires a direct dispensation from Heaven to become a walker”.

Or just finding the right path.

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Clearances that suddenly stand open

Madame Cezanne in the Conservatory Paul Cezanne (1891)

‘Madame Cezanne in the Conservatory’
Paul Cezanne (1891)

Mother’s Day is an occasion often observed more in the absence.

No voice, no presence, instead a void. A loss.

The feeling is unique to each person in a hundred ways but it’s also shared, among family members and outwards, to friends and acquaintances.

The Irish poet Seamus Heaney saw the absence of a mother as a clearance – an emptiness where a tree had been, rooted in a homeplace.

Shortly after his mother died Heaney wrote ‘Clearances’, a short cycle of sonnets documenting her life and his bereavement.

The details are personal, like breath in a room – his mother’s voice, how she folded sheets, how he felt closest to her when Heaney, as child, would help her chop potatoes.

In the final two sonnets, below, these details gather, as we stand with Heaney and his father at his mother’s final bedside, witnessing a ‘pure change’ happen.

For many Mother’s Day is not a celebration, nor is it a commiseration, instead it’s a simple, clear, unified absence.

‘Clearances’ extends no explanations or simple comforts. It does offer up a final hope that somewhere there’s “a soul ramifying”,  forever in a place “beyond silence listened for”.

 

In the last minutes he said more to her
Almost than in all their life together.
‘You’ll be in New Row on Monday night
And I’ll come up for you and you’ll be glad
When I walk in the door . . . Isn’t that right?’
His head was bent down to her propped-up head.
She could not hear but we were overjoyed.
He called her good and girl. Then she was dead,
The searching for a pulsebeat was abandoned
And we all knew one thing by being there.
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated
Clearances that suddenly stood open.
High cries were felled and a pure change happened.

 

I thought of walking round and round a space
Utterly empty, utterly a source
Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place
In our front hedge above the wallflowers.
The white chips jumped and jumped and skited high.
I heard the hatchet’s differentiated
Accurate cut, the crack, the sigh
And collapse of what luxuriated
Through the shocked tips and wreckage of it all.
Deep-planted and long gone, my coeval
Chestnut from a jam jar in a hole,
Its heft and hush become a bright nowhere,
A soul ramifying and forever
Silent, beyond silence listened for.
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Drink more coffee? I’ve bean there…

A cappuccino from Kaph on Dublin's Drury Street

The  cappuccino at Kaph on Dublin’s Drury Street

So coffee’s good for you, again.

In moderation, of course.

Or with butter.

Or between the hours of 9am and 11.30am only, from a custom-made insulated mug, using only beans that have passed through an elephant, while wearing a Clooney-on-The-Riviera face. Maybe.

Because it’s another week, another ‘coffee and your health’ report. This time the advice is that five cups a day will, it’s reckoned, free up your clogged arteries.

Combine this with daily glass of red wine we’re told is good for us, the steak that we didn’t eat for 30 years but now can, and the eggs that were once going to kill us but now provide excellent daily protein, and we’re on the pig’s back again (as they say) – even pork is good for us, maybe.

I’m sceptical. As a journalist barely a week goes my encountering another food advice being debunked or reinforced, or the reinforcement debunked. If I was a cynic I’d suggest all this is geared to keep university science departments and news organisations busy.

Instant in the communal kitchen.

Instant in the communal kitchen.

Of course put-upon doctors regard the whole ‘eat/don’t eat/eat less/eat without butter/eat with your fingers crossed’ advice cycle to be pointless, sensibly arguing that the best policy is moderation.

Which is also the dullest possible approach for the sort of person who drinks five cups of coffee at day. Almost as dull as that more extreme concept – abstention.

When it comes to coffee I’ve grappled with both, which has led up some blind alleys – usually involving the dubious dark arts of decaffeination.

But well into my fourth decade I’ve hit on the cure, and it’s got nothing to do with willpower, or advice from Heart, or my proximity to a decent cappuccino.

Detail from 'Nighthawks' Edward Hopper (1942)

Detail from ‘Nighthawks’
Edward Hopper (1942)

It’s age. Twenty years ago student me fuelled up on half a dozen cups of treacly Buttery coffee daily. Now I’m on two hits, an espresso before breakfast and a latte at lunchtime. On weekends I may stretch to a cappuccino.

That’s all the coffee I need. No more desperate sipping of my ‘fix’ from crumbly polystyrene mugs at service stations, or dipping into gallon jars of freeze-dried, taste-bypassed, caffeine granules in communal kitchens.

I got old. I didn’t adopt moderation, it adopted me.

I’m liberated, free of the worry, the shakes, the stains, the burned lips and the acid reflux, the queuing and the spilling.

But most of all I’m liberated from the next breathless, heart-racing report on how and why coffee is going to kill me. Or not.

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Want some Satchmo? Take five

800px-Louis_Armstrong_restored1Appearing on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs in 1968, Louis Armstrong was asked to pick the eight tracks he’d take as a castaway.

Satchmo, a man who could never be accused of not having a great welcome for himself, chose five of his own recordings.

And, lest he tire of hearing himself on record, Armstrong picked as his island luxury his trumpet. When it came to reading material he opted to bring the book closest to his heart…his autobiography.

Well, as the himself said: “There are some people that if they don’t know, you can’t tell them”.

As for me, I’m told. In the unlikely event that I ever shuffle onto Desert Island Discs Pops will make my list  – one of the few dead-cert tracks, in fact.

But what if I emulated him and picked my five favourite Louis recordings?

Well, Kirsty, I couldn’t resist.

1. Basin Street Blues

One of the great performances from jazz’s own Rosetta Stone, Armstrong’s Hot Five recording from 1928 takes a Dixieland standard and adds scat singing and then, two minutes in, that solo.

2. Stompin’ At The Savoy

No, not the London hotel. Instead it’s a celebration of the New York ballroom that Langston Hughes called “Harlem’s heartbeat”, and where Ella herself once fronted the house band.

3. West End Blues

From the top, the most famous solo in jazz. As for the rest of the performance, Billie Holiday put it best: “Sometimes the record would make me so sad, I’d cry up a storm…other times the same damn record would make me so happy.”

4.  St Louis Blues

WC Handy‘s groundbreaking mix of ragtime and blues, with a little tango thrown in, topped off with a Satchmo solo.

5. Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?

What else could a son of Storyville, who spent most of his life far from the French Quarter, sing?

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On turning 37

John Updike Pic: George Bush Presidential Library

John Updike
Pic: George Bush Presidential Library

After a decade’s work Gertrude Stein completed The Making of Americans, comparing the finished novel to Ulysses. It went unpublished, in any form, for 13 years.

While working as the head chef at the Grand Hotel in Monte Carlo Georges Auguste Escoffier met Cesar Ritz. The pair later formed a business partnership which commercialised gastronomy for the ordinary man – and led to the birth of the modern restaurant.

John Updike published his first collection of Henry Bech stories, writing that he modelled the character on Norman Mailer, J.D. Salinger and himself.

After spells in Berkeley, Belfast and Wicklow Seamus Heaney moved to Sandymount, Dublin, shortly after the publication of his ‘Troubles collection’, North. He would live there for the rest of his life, but rarely write about the area.

Lou Gehrig died of ALS at his home in New York. Two years earlier he had delivered his “The Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth” address at Yankee Stadium.

Joni Mitchell Pic: Paul C Babin

Joni Mitchell
Pic: Paul C Babin

Joni Mitchell released Shadows and Light, a live recording featuring jazz musicians Jaco Pastorius and Pat Metheny. It was her final album on the Asylum label, run by her Free Man in Paris.

Ten years after quitting his job as a crime reporter David Simon published The Corner, later praised as an “unblinking and agonizingly intimate” account of the urban drug trade on a single street corner in Baltimore.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, having narrowly avoided death during the construction of the Thames Tunnel, almost choked when he inhaled a coin while performing a trick for his children. The disc was finally jerked free weeks later.

John Coltrane formed his classic quartet, with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. After two years the group produce one of the most famous recordings in jazz, A Love Supreme.

Despite years of frustration at a lack of commercial or public interest in his work Edward Hopper continued to paint, working on seascapes during time spent on an island off the coast of Maine.

'Monhegan Houses, Maine' Edward Hopper (1916-1919)

‘Monhegan Houses, Maine’
Edward Hopper (1916-1919)

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Finding God in a clean, well-lighted place

'Our nada who art in nada'. A Clean, Well-Lighted Place - Ernest Hemingway

‘Our nada who art in nada’.
A Clean, Well-Lighted Place – Ernest Hemingway

Thinking of buying a new car? Don’t.

Trust me. Why? There is a theory that 21st century consumers value experiences, not products.

Unlike the boomer generation, the conspicuous consumers of the 1980s or the tech-fetishists of the 2000s, more of us now spend money to experience moments – as opposed to goods or services.

There’s a theory that this is a natural progression; after the agrarian, industrial and service economies we are now part of the ‘experience economy‘.

So far, so Forbes. But could the same theory be shifted from Instagram snaps of a Michelin-starred meal or a Grand Canyon sunset and applied instead to The Big Question?

Last week I wrote about Stephen Fry’s attack on, as he sees it, a maniac God. An atheist, Fry doesn’t believe in an omniscient, cloud-dwelling Creator, loving, judging and punishing.

But still God exists – because we need Him, or Her; the bearded man in the sky is a reflection of our concept of defeating death, of love without any end, of natural justice and  order.

But if God wasn’t a being, a single entity, could He still exist? Hardly, you’d think (if you were a monotheist). He either is or He’s not. Either you believe in Him or you do not.

‘Night on the Dnieper River’ Archip Kuindshi (1882) Pic: Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Detail from ‘Night on the Dnieper River’
Archip Kuindshi (1882)
Pic: Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

But what if – instead – God was an experience? What if, instead of spending our lives trying to attain a relationship with Him, we can connect with God through our experiences and our environment?

One man famously accumulated experiences but was not as a believer in God was Ernest Hemingway.

Having witnessed the horrors of mechanised warfare in the First World War (and being blown up by a mortar shell on the Italian front) the concept of a ‘good’ God may have too much for Hemingway to stomach (his subsequent novel about the war contains the notable line “all thinking men are atheists”).

Instead he found ‘nada’, nothing, the void. He wrote of this in his short story A Clean, Well-Lighted Place. At it’s end the main character, a waiter in a cafe, broods on the difficulty of sleep, of facing what waited at the day’s end.

It was a nothing that he knew too well…Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada they will be nada in nada as it is in nada.

But nada is not all.

The same waiter has just closed up, sending home his last customer – an old man who sits on the terrace nightly, refusing to leave until closing time, one of “all those who need a light for the night”.

Facing his long night, in nada as it is in nada, the old man’s light is a simple human experience –  the cafe, the brandy, the routine, the human contact. The waiter thinks:

It was all a nothing and man was a nothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order.

Here is God, not a cosmic figure reached by prayer or met after death but a connection here and now, an enlightened personal experience in this life in this world.

The human divine – only that.

'Sunlight in a Cafeteria' Edward Hopper (1958) Pic: Yale University Art Gallery

‘Sunlight in a Cafeteria’
Edward Hopper (1958)
Pic: Yale University Art Gallery

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