Tag Archives: Moby Dick

Round the Cape with Ishmael, in a one man tent

FullSizeRenderIn the end Chuck D had the last word.

For the past decade we’ve read of the decline of print and the rise of the e-book. Bookshops would close, paper was dead, the Kindle was king.

It turns out that was wrong. Or, as Public Enemy had it, ‘don’t believe the hype’.

Sales of physical books are back on the rise. According to Waterstones, demand for the e-reader has disappeared.

It seems we’ve entered a brave new world of the post-book book. All those over excited tech predictions appear to have been just that.

After being gifted a Kindle three years ago I assumed I’d grow to love it. I bought e-books, read them, used the clunky notetaking system, even synced it with my iPad so I could wistfully view the covers in colour.

But I never felt it a replacement for a book, piles of which continuing to grow – mysteriously – around our apartment.

It wasn’t just a lifelong habit of reading on the printed page, or of scribbling notes in the margins. Nor was it the feeling of satisfaction in  re-reading sections of a book to catch up, or dip back in.

It wasn’t even the physical book itself.

What kept me returning to print was the feeling of a book as an artefact, an item with a history outside of its pages, an object linked to a time or a place or a state of mind.

FullSizeRenderThe two paperbacks above are each an artefact – my reading, marking, spine-breaking and scratching of both linked to a certain time and place.

My old IR£1 copy of The Great Gatsby has margin notes for an all-but-forgotten American literature course, taken at university almost 20 years ago.

Each time I re-read it (and it’s the book I return to more often than almost any other) I wonder exactly why 18-year-old me bothered to notate that specific passage…

But I refuse to replace it.

My Moby Dick contains marks of a different order, elemental ones that Melville may have favoured more than dry academic scribblings.

Many of the pages are curled and stained by water, after the book somehow spent a wet night outdoors during a camping trip I took to the Adirondacks.

I rounded the Cape of Good Hope with Ishmael as rain and wind blew, in a one-man tent.

My memories of Midnight’s Children are drier, dating back to a beach on the shores of Lake Tahoe, where I spent afternoons of a 90s’ summer recovering from working 12 hour standing shifts at a casino the previous night.

My sun-baked copy may still have sand between the pages. Blame the heat or the slots but, alas, I never finished it. (As with books, no reader is perfect.)

Rushdie’s novel, like my Fitzgerald and Melville, lies fading on a bookshelf. It will be picked up, but rarely. Instead it will remain with the others, shelved, untouched and gathering dust.

Not read, but not replaced by an e-version either. After all, how could they be?

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Reading, the long and short of it

What would Cervantes, Tolstoy or Wallace think? Pic: Steve Rhodes (David Foster Wallace)

Unimpressed? Cervantes, Tolstoy, Wallace.
Pic: Steve Rhodes (David Foster Wallace)

HOW long is too long?

Around 250 pages – if you’re award-winning novelist Ian McEwan.

More than one reader probably slammed down their Hilary Mantel in disgust last week on encountering the writer’s comments on the length of the modern novel.

Using his new release, The Children Act, as a convenient guide, McEwan reckoned 65,000 words is about the right length for a book nowadays.

Such a work can be read in one sitting, he suggests, “like enjoying a three-hour movie or opera”.

Moreover, “very few really long novels earn their length…the Americans especially love a really huge novel…a real brick of an object.”

This shorter-is-better mindset shouldn’t surprise anyone. McEwan is about as far from an American as I can imagine, and most of his novels clock in well under 250 pages.  (The much-lauded On Chesil Beach runs to 166, placing it firmly in novella territory.)

"A real brick of an object."

“A real brick of an object.”

One can only imagine what David Foster Wallace (1079 – Infinite Jest), Cervantes (1072 – Don Quixote) or Leo Tolstoy (1225 – War And Peace) would make of it all.

As a reader (or masochist) who has made it through Moby Dick (625) twice in his 36 years I’m not on McEwan’s page on this.

His comments did get me thinking, though. What was the last 800-page novel I read? And, for that matter, when was the last time I watched a three-hour movie?

It’s been a while, on both counts. But I haven’t avoided longer books because, as McEwan suggests, characters should be established “very quickly” and one or two subplots is enough.

If only it was that simple. Like most people the reason I avoid longer books is time.

Time that’s eaten into by digital grazing, by work, by working out, by (sometimes) just wanting to sit in a room and stare at the ceiling.

Any number of reasons, really. But they combine and conspire to cut into reading time and the concentration required to read.

A slim Steinbeck.

Flat boy – slim.

When my time comes under pressure like this shorter books quickly look more attractive. And so I buy The Children Act and not The Goldfinch, lamely convincing myself that I will, one day, get to Donna Tartt’s 784 pager. (Spoiler: I won’t.)

But once or twice a year, usually on vacation when the time pressure eases, I’ll attempt something longer – The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle on a two-week trip last May, for example.

The increased time investment usually yields a greater reward – more time spent with characters, deeper immersion in plot – and I tell myself I should really do this more often.

And then my eye is caught by a slim Steinbeck and I’m back in the sub-65,000 aisle again.

With a clear two-week period coming up soon I’m already promising myself great things: maybe even Murakami’s gargantuan 1Q84 (brace yourself …928).

We’ll see. Maybe it’s time for a very short story (4), just while I decide.

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In search of the perfect opening line

He got game. Ernest Hemingway on safari.

He got game.
Ernest Hemingway on safari.

IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a lingual man in possession of an empty page must be in want of a good opening line.

This crossed my mind recently while browsing through some short stories and, more pressingly, when I sat to write this post.

As a journalist my default setting is usually to put the most important info in the first line.

Writers of fiction, novels or short stories, require a different approach.

Some of my favourite fictional first lines are a short, shocking stab. Others are longer, introducing an image or setting a mood. Others yet bear comparison to a short poem.

Some are one line, some are more.

The best are always singular, the very best perfect. But no good ones are incidental.

Analysing what makes a perfect opening line is difficult; the best way to do it is to simply read the best examples, cut loose from their source titles.

With this in mind I decided to assemble my top five.

Here they are, with a hint to the work in question afterwards.

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“One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.”

So begins one Welshman’s childhood chronicle.

_____

A whale of a time. Herman Melville.

A whale of a time.
Herman Melville.

“It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.”

A nothing that comes back to haunt one big-game hunter – and his wife.

_____

“Call me Ishmael”.

The only time anyone does, it turns out.

_____

“Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression. I reflected on the subject of my spare-time literary activities. One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with.”

The first of three opening lines, one for each hero.

_____

His sheet metal memory. John Steinbeck.

His sheet metal memory.
John Steinbeck.

And, finally.

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and the scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants, and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.”

So the story of Mack and the boys, and all humanity, begins.

_____

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