Tag Archives: Books

Book by book, I’m reverting to type

Actual books.

Actual books.

Burn the Kindle.

Trash it, recycle it, get rid of it. In recent months, slowly and silently and after long afternoons spend in Portland bookstores (often, but not exclusively, the labyrinthine Powell’s) this is the conclusion I’ve arrived at.

My Kindle, gifted to me by my wife some years back, is likely outmoded at this point. But it’s crammed full of books – titles I bought and read during in a golden year or two when I believed that e-readers – with their convenience, their ability to store notes, the searchability of text they offered – were the future.

They were not. As time passed I increasingly found myself reverted to type (so to speak), buying and reading physical books (very often used copies, which I’d pick up after hours trawling the shelves). Not only that, but I’ve also found myself buying second copies (hardback, paperback with a different cover or a nicer typeset) of books that I already own.

My plan, vague at present but soon to be locked down (I promise myself) is that the shelves in our home will eventually boast a perfectly-curated browsing experience; visitors will come and marvel at the smooth thematic transitions, the pristine Collected Yeats, the Michael Chabon with the Marvel-esque cover. And this is no books-as-interior-design-feature plan: I’ll only shelve what I’ve read.

My wife, sensibly, points out that this grand scheme may require, at most, a structural refit of our home and, at least, a serious purge of the piles of my existing titles. So be it – but what will remain will be distilled, pristine, our own Library of Babel.

Which reminds me, I need to upgrade my battered Borges…

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What will survive of us

From Dad to Anne. Powell's, Portland, Dec 2017.

From Dad to Anne. Powell’s, Portland, Dec 2017.

Fifty-five years ago a man sat in a diner somewhere in the United States, pulled a book from his pocket, and inscribed a short, touching note to his daughter on the first page.

As he did so, did it occur to him that a person not yet born, in another place in another century, would one day read his words? Or that the book he inscribed would travel from that counter top on a journey that would see it end up, in 2017, on the shelves of a used bookstore in Portland, Oregon?

“Anne,” the man writes, “waiting for lunch in the Olympic Grill I have been looking through this book I just bought, and it is so much your book that I have decided to give it to you, even though it isn’t Christmas or birthday or even Easter.”

He signs off with a simple, “Dad”.

Whatever became of Anne? Or her father? Were they close, a dad and daughter who knew each other well enough to know that one would enjoy the Dylan Thomas book that the other had just bought?

Or were they distant, or becoming so? Is the absence of a sign-off simply the sign of a less emotionally-open age, or a clue to their relationship?

Re-reading the note, as I stood between the shelves in Powell’s this week, I wondered how far the book had traveled. I can’t locate an Olympic Grill in Portland in 1955. Perhaps the man sat in the still extant Kelly’s Olympian, nearby in downtown Portland, or in another establishment in another part of the country.

The place is likely gone, like the man himself and, quite possibly, his daughter. But his small gesture remains, on the opening page of a crumbling $5 book that – perhaps because of the note inside – I couldn’t bring myself to buy.

“What will survive of us is love,” wrote Philip Larkin. I hope that I held a small piece of it that afternoon.

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Coffins, rats, corpses, and life – Bloom in hell

James Joyce, Zurich, 1915.

James Joyce

Hades is where it’s at.

The sixth chapter of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ is not only one of the most accessible in the book, it’s also a forensic depiction of an Irishman’s mind, as he considers life, the universe, and everything else.

The action plays out (or in, given that so much of it is internal monologue) against the backdrop of that greatest of Irish social occasions – a funeral.

The book’s hero, its Odysseus, Leopold Bloom, attends a service and burial for an acquaintance, Paddy Dignam. Bloom doesn’t know Dignam all that well but nonetheless, in the Irish tradition, feels duty bound to be present at the obsequies.

He travels there in a carriage with three other acquaintances, crossing Dublin from Sandymount to Glasnevin Cemetery, encountering on the way a child’s funeral, a herd of cattle, and the Royal Canal, while also spotting various places and people.

Glasnevin Cemetery

Glasnevin Cemetery

But the real activity is in Bloom’s mind, as his thoughts race from the undiscriminating nature of death (spurred on by the sight of the child’s coffin) to the mundane (as he reminds himself to switch a bar of soap between his pockets without being seen) to the fantastical (could a gramophone be put at a grave so the dead could ‘speak’ to the living?)

But for all the preoccupation with death, from the size of the child’s cortege (“paltry funeral: coach and three carriages”), to a fat rat running alongside a crypt (“one of those chaps would make short work of a fellow. Pick the bones clean”), to the “saddened angels, crosses, broken pillars, family vaults…old Ireland’s hearts and hands”, ‘Hades’ ends with a note of affirmation, a commitment to life.

As he walks away from Dignam’s grave, passing the cemetery’s hundreds of headstones, Bloom’s mood lifts. It moves from Dignam’s grave to his wife’s bed, from death to life, as Bloom exits Hades, stepping back into the living world of Dublin on June 16, 1904.

“The gates glimmered in front: still open. Back to the world again. Enough of this place. Brings you a bit nearer every time…”

“There is another world after death named hell. I do not like that other world she wrote. No more do I. Plenty to see and hear and feel yet. Feel live warm beings near you.

“Let them sleep in their maggoty beds. They are not going to get me this innings. Warm beds: warm fullblooded life.”

And so Bloom’s day continues.

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Boxes, tape and a dread responsibility

Towering classics

Towering classics

This isn’t an easy post to write. Every aspect of it goes against my better nature – and my worst nature too.

It concerns an action that I’m not proud of, one that I will never repeat, a deed which has left me sick to the stomach, questioning my core values and reassessing my life’s direction.

I’ve purged my library.

It was my own decision, taken in a sober frame of mind and without coercion. And it was cold-blooded.

Over the years family and the odd (very odd – who suggest someone throw out books?) friend had advised me to do this. I ignored them of course. And the books continued to pile up.

Shelves had long since overflowed. Piles of paperbacks filled the bottoms of wardrobes and sprouted from the corners of bedrooms. When tripping over them became too much a simple solution presented itself: stuff the lot into empty suitcases. Which was fine, until it came time for a trip.

No part of me wishes I lived in a large mansion. In fact I’ve never lived in a house big enough to accommodate a library or even a small study. But sometimes it’s occurred to me that the only upshot of Jay Gatsby’s quiet desperation was the spare room at the West Egg mansion where he could ditch his unread books.

Empty shelves. 'Man Read at Lamplight', George Friedrich Kersting (1814)

Empty shelves. ‘Man Reading at Lamplight’, George Friedrich Kersting (1814)

After years of procrastinating, dodging requests from my better half, and generally burying my head in the sand (or in a newly acquired Penguin Classic) circumstances conspired to force me to face the inevitable.

And so, armed with a pile of cardboard boxes, tape and a sense of dread responsibility I started into the task – onerous but now unavoidable – of separating the ‘must keeps’ from the ‘must keep but this is cold reality’.

The keeper books needed no attention, they were going nowhere. But the others, each one assessed and re-assessed, maybe’d and if only’d, now stand in a series of small paper towers on the living room floor.

I can barely bring myself to look at them, including – as they do – books bought 30 years and a lifetime ago. Some were read and forgotten, some half read. others just held once every couple of years.

Adieu then to Don DeLillo’s magnum opus Underworld, the second copy I’ve owned and lost, with the plaintive image of the Twin Towers on the cover.

Farewell to Nietzsche‘s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, half-read, the product of a brief dalliance with existentialism.

Goodbye to William Gibson’s The Difference Engine, read as I dipped a toe into the world of steampunk.

These, and dozens more, are about to go. A friend’s offered to re-home some but most will be donated. At least someone else will, hopefully, read them – after our poignant parting I’m not sure I ever will.

And if this wasn’t heartbreaking enough worse lies around the corner – the opposite corner of the same room to be exact, where hundreds of CDs sit taking up space, unused, awaiting the purge.

Adieu DeLillo.

Adieu DeLillo

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Venice – five ways

Her palaces are crumbling to the shore,
And music meets not always now the ear:
Those days are gone – but Beauty still is here;
States fall, arts fade – but Nature doth not die
Nor yet forget how Venice once was dear…

La Serenissima was already sinking when Byron wrote his famous verses about the city more than 200 years ago. Nowadays the city is subsiding into the surrounding lagoon at the rate of 2mm a year.

Not that it matters to most of us. The waves could be lapping at the altar of St Mark’s Basilica and it would still be crowded with visitors. I suspect that even in the depths of winter, amid fog, rain and blasts from the bora, the sidestreets around the Piazza San Marco and the market stalls of the Rialto are still full of sightseers.

But that’s no reason not to go, and so I found myself standing on the Viale Giardini Pubblici last week, as the April sun sank behind the Salute and the last light of day fell across the Grand Canal and onto the Riva degli Schiavoni.

The great landmarks of Venice – San Marco, the Canal, the Salute – are well known and well populated. But there’s another Venice to the one trodden by cruise-ship groups and tired families, of course. Here’s five ways to experience Venice that mix up the well-known with the less visited.

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Early evening libations in Harry’s Bar

This simple decor of this small room, where Giuseppe Cipriani opened a bar in a former rope warehouse 85 years ago, belies its reputation as one of the world’s most famous watering holes. The home of the carpaccio, the bellini and the ghost of Ernest Hemingway, it serves a fine Old Fashioned whiskey cocktail with a ‘doppio’ measure – Papa would hardly approve of anything less.

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A stroll around Peggy Guggenheim’s pad

After stints in London and Paris the bohemian art collector Guggenheim settled in Venice in 1949, setting up residence in a 18th century palazzo on the Grand Canal, which housed her collection of Cubist, Surrealist, Futurist and Abstract Expressionist paintings. Her house now serves as a gallery for the paintings. The view above is from her living room, through a window nestled between a couple of Kandinskys.

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burano

Crossing the lagoon to lunch in Burano

“A wide brackish waste surrounds it, exuding dankness…it is a muted scene…but in the middle of it there bursts a sudden splurge of rather childish colour…this is Burano”. So wrote Jan Morris of this small island, home in its heyday to fishermen and lacemakers. Forty-five minutes across the lagoon from Venice, it’s a million miles away in spirit. Small, house-proud, well-swept and very well-painted, Burano is a reminder that the people of the Venetian lagoon were – before the yachts, celebs and royalty – ordinary seafarers and merchants.

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Browsing the gondolas at Libreria Acqua Alta

This bookstore has a novel (sorry) way of keeping its stock dry from flooding – sticking the titles into gondolas. That’s not the only gimmick in this chaotically-shelved shop – a series of steps in the backyard are made of old encyclopedias, while canoes and other odd vessels can be found crammed with paperbacks.

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On the waterfront at the Viale Giardini Pubblici

We rented an apartment for our stay in the quiet Castello district, near to the Giardini Pubblici, the gardens created by Napolean Bonaparte when he took control of the city in the early 19th century. The quayside fronting the Giardini is remarkably quiet, used mainly by local strollers and joggers, yet affords beautiful views west along the Grand Canal, taking in the Salute, the Campanile di San Marco and the Doge’s Palace. ‘States fall, arts fade – but Nature doth not die’…anyone for an aperitif at the Danieli?

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I love that book – what’s it about?

What was that last book about?

‘What was that Camus novel about?’

Four months ago I read Haruki Murakami’s short novel South Of The Border, West Of The Sun.

Today I can barely remember a thing about the book. The characters (I’m sure there were male and female ones, maybe one of each), the plot (a quest of some sort, maybe involving travel across borders?), the ending (not happy, I’m fairly sure of that) – it’s all a blank page.

Now the book sits on a shelf, needling me from across the room. The problem is that it’s stacked alongside a Dave Eggers’ short story collection and a Jay McInerney wine book – and I can remember very little about those either.

What’s going on? Do I pick forgettable reads? Is my empathy through the floor? Or my concentration shredded? Am I reading on autopilot?

Part of this is age-related, of course. At 38 I’m likely experiencing the onset of age-related memory impairment. But I read Ask The Dust after Murakami’s novel and I recall every rooming house, bar and street corner.

About a boy. And a girl.

About a boy. And a girl.

Sitting on my shelf next to Murakami and Co is Patti Smith’s memoir M Train. In this account of her mid-life years, Smith is often preoccupied with the irritants of ageing. At one point the poet-singer (a Murakami devotee herself, incidentally), re-reading Albert Camus over her black coffee writes of “an intermittent, lifelong enigma”.

“I finished many books in such a manner…closing the covers ecstatically yet having no memory of the content…I look at the covers of such books and their contents remain a mystery that I cannot bring myself to solve. Certain books I loved and lived within yet cannot remember”.

That’s the thing. If I forget writing that was forgettable to begin with, that might be understandable. But some of the great long and short works that I’ve loved – Goodbye, My Brother; Great Expectations; The End of the Affair – are lost to me, in details if not in spirit.

The downside of this is that I often have a vague notion that a book is great but can’t really recall why. The upside? I’ve an excuse to read it again.

But not South Of The Border, West Of The Sun. It turns out it’s about a boy and a girl. The boy travels on a navel-gazing quest into his own past and winds up at sorrowful, empty ending. Sometimes your memory – or the lack of one – is enough.

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‘You call it as you see it, and stay in the action’

play-it-cover1When nothing is all that’s left in the game, why keep playing?

Why not?

That’s the answer given by failed actress Maria Wyeth, her final words on the closing page of Joan Didion’s terrifying, clinical novel Play It As It Lays.

The book, published in 1970, consolidated Didion’s fame. Almost half a century later its theme – how to save your humanity in the Age of Everything Now – seems as relevant as ever.

Maria Wyeth is divorcing, or not divorcing, her husband. She makes an effort to reignite her career – which fails. She drinks, tries to sleep, drives the freeways of Los Angeles and hopes to somehow regain custody of a daughter she’s lost. Despite occasional, desperate moments of connection she’s lost, a passive onlooker in her own life.

Sound familiar? Didion’s character may be an extreme exemplar, but five per cent of people suffer from depression, a figure that’s rising. Many of these individuals have plenty to eat, a career, children and money in the bank. And yet.

“She had a sense that the dream had ended and that she had slept on,” Didion writes of Maria, the onetime ingenue now reduced to swallowing handfuls of Seconal, existing in an environment of empty sex, listless career failure and relentless dread – her days strung out under a searing, white California sun.

Joan Didion Pic: David Shankbone

Joan Didion
Pic: David Shankbone

The actress is dangerously adrift in a sea of decadent plenty, so much so that the book’s final scene, in which a catatonic Maria holds a suicidal acquaintance’s hand as he overdoses in her bed, is less shocking than the preceding narrative.

Despite this, after 80 or so chapters spent in Maria’s life, Didion’s novel emerges as a tale of survival. Not all of life’s survivors are confronted by life-threatening situations, starvation, war or violence. Some are handed the 20th century’s bounty. But can they bear its weight?

Some can, if – as Maria finds – they come to a simple, final realisation. “I used to ask questions, and I got the answer: nothing. The answer is ‘nothing’.”

This nothing is the heart of Didion’s novel. It’s the poolside starlets’ conversations, it’s the night terrors Maria suffers after her abortion, it’s the reason she drives the LA freeways for days at a time, without a destination.

At the end it’s what Maria Wyeth accepts – and moves past. “You call it as you see it, and stay in the action,” she tells us, the words of a gambler for whom surviving is winning, even if the victory – for her –  is played out in a psychiatric facility.

Her words may be some small advice for surviving the drift of Western life in 21st century, where all choices are available, all desires can be fulfilled, but dissatisfaction still grows.

At the end of Play It As It Lays Maria’s psychiatric treatment, the loss of her hospitalised child, the death of her mother, and her overwhelming feeling of disconnection are seen as byproducts of a First World whose material rewards satisfy every whim, yet whose “disorganisation is general”.

Forty-five years later, in an equally saturated, satiated age, one can’t help wondering if Didion’s character made it out alive.

Interchange of the 110 and 105 freeways, Los Angeles

Interchange of the 110 and 105 freeways, Los Angeles

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James Joyce: drinking wine, talking weather

'Portrait of James Joyce' Patrick Tuohy (1924-1927)

‘Portrait of James Joyce’
Patrick Tuohy (1924-1927)

If any one of the hundreds of Joyce fans who’ll flock to the Dublin’s streets for Bloomsday next week could have met the man himself what would they have encountered?

The dandyish, cane-leaning street-stroller immortalised in a statue on Talbot Street?

The aloof, slightly imperious scholar who wed Greek myth to modernism?

Or the earnest, lovestruck young man who was stood up on a Dublin street corner on his first date with his future wife?

Perhaps none of the above, if they were to meet the man Djuna Barnes did. The French-based American writer, no small modernist talent herself, profiled the Irish writer for the March 1922 issue of Vanity Fair.

The Joyce of Paris 1922 bore “an orderly distemper of red and black hair”, wore a blue coat “too young it seemed”, a waistcoat made by his grandmother and sat with his head “turned farther away than disgust and not so far as death”.

Djuna Barnes, 1905

Djuna Barnes, 1905

He drank a “thin, cool wine with lips almost hidden”, and smoked an “eternal cigar”.

What did the Joyce the exile, the master storyteller of Dubliners, the writer of the novel of his century – published only two months earlier – chat about?

“We have talked of rivers and religion,” Barnes writes. “The instinctive genius of the church…of women…we have talked of death, of rats, of horses, the sea; languages, climates and offerings,” Barnes writes.

No mention of boater hats, gorgonzola sandwiches or bicycles with baskets, mind you.

Most surprisingly of all, for a man who propelled the novel into the twentieth century, the Dubliner wished to talk of “anything that is not “artistic” or “flashy” or “new””.

Were today’s Joyceans to meet the man himself then, they would likely encounter a “heavy man yet thin”, reading a book of saints (“he is never without it”) and “muttering to himself that this particular day’s saint was “a devil of a fellow for bringing on the rain, and we wanting to go for stroll””.

Let’s hope the weather holds for on Tuesday then.

Poets Patrick Kavanagh and Anthony Cronin on Bloomsday, June 16, 1954 Pic: National Library of Ireland

Poets Patrick Kavanagh and Anthony Cronin on Bloomsday, June 16, 1954
Pic: National Library of Ireland

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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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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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