Friday 25 June 2010

The Great Bloomsday Tortoise

Team Ulysses finally made it to the summit and have every reason to be proud of themselves. This was essentially a year-long online book group devoted to reading the world's second most unreadable English-language novel (actually the first, if you consider Finnegans Wake to be multi-lingual) at sixty pages a month, beginning on Bloomsday '09, ending a week last Wednesday, and hosted and led by the oft-linked-to dovegreyreader.

I left a partly encouraging, slightly patronising comment on the initial post, bestowing a handful of brief impressions of my own, as I'd begun Ulysses in December '08. I'd been working up to it for some time, having read The Odyssey in the Fagles translation at the beginning of the year, and then Dubliners and A Portrait. I was also dipping into Anthony Burgess's Here Comes Everybody, picked up second-hand a few years before, which is typically fluid, intelligent, enthusiastic.

By the time Team Ulysses began I had read around 200 pages. I toyed with the notion of taking part, but I had already been a member of a book group, and the joint-reading thing just doesn't ring my bell. (Anyway, I was well ahead of them.) Real life and other interests intervened, and when I got round to hefting Ulysses again, nearly a year had gone by. The hare had slept too long.

I have now completed 300 pages. It has gone back on the shelf. It won't be taken down again for a while. I have some sympathy with Roddy Doyle's invective against Ulysses, still more with his criticism of what he terms 'the Joyce industry', but most of all with something I heard him say in interview in 1996: at some point one has to accept that there are some books one is probably never going to read. He was talking about War and Peace (which he did in fact read, very quickly, when he was in his teens), but for me the most likely candidate is Ulysses. At some point I'll have a go at the final chapter, the famous Molly monologue, but I make no promises regarding the rest of it.

Now this is interesting, because that makes three key modernist novels I've been unable to finish: Ulysses, The Good Soldier, and That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana. Perhaps I'm too bound to narrative, skewered by time's arrow, but in my more frustrated moments it seems as though modernism is simply a licence for the writer not to bother telling a story - and Al Alvarez, who if I recall correctly thinks it was the last great movement in European literature and possibly its high point, can go suck a runny egg.

From Here Comes Everybody [1965]:
[Ulysses] is, in many ways, a precursor of the new wave in the novel, which is quite capable of asking us to treat a work of fiction as if it were a dictionary or an encyclopedia - something to be stepped into at any point we please, begun at the end and finished at the beginning, partly read or wholly read, a plot of space for free wandering rather than a temporal escalator. The 'Wandering Rocks' episode of Ulysses is a reminder that the whole book has a spatial scheme in which time has been divested of its bullying hurry-along authority, and this is reinforced by the knowledge that the final image is of a human body, presented piecemeal in its various organs. Time is the great enemy, and books like Ulysses and Finnegans Wake triumphantly trounce it. Time has to be put in its place.
On the other hand, one only has so much of it, particularly when one sees the chapters getting longer and longer, and Joyce's accretive writing method becoming more in need of a fierce edit. The two most attractive words in the quoted section above are 'partly read'. I accept that this is close to a contradiction of a recent post on the virtues of browsing, but whaddaya know? I am legion - I mean to say, I contain multitudes.


I find one thing to say without equivocation in defence of Ulysses, and have said it before: one does get to know Bloom to a degree that one simply doesn't and can't with the characters in Dubliners. (Dubliners, I should say, is one of the very few books which I think demonstrates art in prose, as opposed to craft, and which I would urge other people to read without feeling I was being an unjustified nuisance.) Orwell says something of the same in his essay on Dickens:
You cannot hold an imaginary conversation with a Dickens character as you can with, say, Pierre Bezukhov. And this is not merely because of Tolstoy's greater seriousness, for there are also comic characters that you can imagine yourself talking to - Bloom, for instance [...]
Just so, and this is down to the space that a novel affords, and to the terrific expansion in technique beyond the standard tropes of realism which Joyce made use of in Dubliners, the famous 'stream-of-consciousness' which has been very interesting to see at work.

The more Bloom is exposed, the more one sees of his various aspects (or inspects, as so much of what we read is internal mumblings, half-finished thoughts and reflections, flashes of desire and surges of memory), the more one appreciates him. Among other things, he is much more sympathetic than any of the Dubliners: kind, tolerant, humble, fallible - in fact, the complete opposite to his Homeric counterpart, who is cunning, proud, violent, resourceful, respected - a king, not an advertising canvasser - and of course fiercely protective of his wife's virtue, whereas Bloom is a cuckold perfectly aware and accepting of his position.

According to the introduction by Jeri Johnson in the OWC edition of Ulysses, Joyce saw that the ancient heroic attributes could not be applied to modern urban life, and sought to present an everyman heroic in his ordinariness, his life being lived internally rather than through action. It's an interesting notion, particularly in the light of a criticism by Gore Vidal:
Until the last century the mainline of imaginative literature had always been stories of the gods, heroes, kings of a people. From Aeschylus to Dante to Shakespeare to Tolstoi, what went on in the palaces or on Olympus provided the main line of narrative in verse, prose, drama. [What about The Beggar's Opera? Tom Jones? Simplicissimus? But perhaps these are stops on a branch line.] I think it a pity that, as a character in Saul Bellow's Herzog remarks, somewhere around 1840 the novel fell into the quotidian, to which Professor Herzog irritably asks, So where was it standing before it fell? The answer was in myth or history or whatever narrative is back of us.

[From the introduction to Creation.]
I'm not convinced by either argument, but I see the merits of both. It is of course Joyce's right to rework the ancient myths for modernity (and Modernism), but with considerable relief I'm going back to Richard III.

Wednesday 16 June 2010

Changing tastes

Recently got a text from a former colleague who is now also working furth of the book trade: a relief, she says, as she's rediscovered her enjoyment of books. Orwell experienced something similar:
But the real reason why I should not like to be in the book trade for life is that while I was in it I lost my love of books. A bookseller has to tell lies about books, and that gives him a distaste for them; still worse is the fact he is constantly dusting them and hauling them to and fro.
I'm not sure that I ever had to lie about a book (this is one of Orwell's characteristic, too-strong assertions; time and again one admires the cadence and force of one of his sentences, and agrees with the bulk of the sentiment, while being unable to entirely submit to his fiat) but one does have to learn the market, recognise what certain types of people are likely to want to buy, and simply accept that one won't approve of an awful lot of it.

In my experience, even when I was asked for advice, people very rarely took it: instead, I would present them with no more than three options, often only two, and let them get on with it. You could actually see them making their decision in the first few moments, and even when they asked about the merits of Y over X, they would almost always go for their first choice. It was very, very rare for customers to actually listen to what you were saying. Perhaps I didn't lie often enough - or maybe I should have read Gladwell's Blink. Certainly it proved that the cover of a book is terribly important.

Anyway, since leaving bookselling I've had the opposite reaction to my friend: books no longer seem as vital as they once did. Partly it's because I am no longer in the daily swim of things, peripherally aware of even the dross which contributes to the front-of-store bricklaying, let alone the fruitful oddities of customer orders. I don't regard this with any particular sadness. It's a reflection of growing older, changing priorities, developing new perspectives, and in any case I've always been of the opinion that one should never forget that books are, in the final analysis, a handy source of fuel. What matters is the stories, which don't rely exclusively on print.

The process actually began prior to leaving, when Bastardstone's saw fit to introduce staff searches. No longer could you blithely bring in your two or five or twelve titles, proofs, sample chapters, library copies: everything had to be signed in, every day and - this was what drove me hog-wild with fury - had to be witnessed by other people. What in the name of fuck was this? Scotland in the 21st century, or the 17th? I could just about have tolerated the signing-in, on the grounds that if anyone had suspicions of jiggery-pokery, there would be some means of checking what one declared against what one possessed. But the introduction of the staff searches, the proofs becoming store property until being signed out, and the everyone-is-guilty-until-proven-innocent-before-the-kirk attitude killed off the last of my enjoyment. I stopped bringing books into work, and nearly stopped buying them.

Because I needed something to do on the bus I began listening to classical music again, after a nigh-on twenty-year hiatus, and so got back into Beethoven, discovered Mozart, Copland, Boccherini (through, yes, Master and Commander), and am making some progress with Schumann who, it turns out, was my maternal grandfather's favourite composer. I can recommend the following recordings in particular:

Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20; Clifford Curzon with the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Britten

Beethoven Piano Sonatas 8, 14, 21; Wilhelm Kempff

These are very well known pieces, and recordings, to anyone who knows anything about classical music, but I pass them on with the unashamed enthusiasm which only an amateur or newbie can muster. The Kempff has some dropped notes here and there, but I understand that's almost inevitable unless you are Maurizio Pollini; both Curzon and Kempff seem to me display concentration but not overt seriousness, they're not showy but they don't let the music play itself either.

Finally, here's a link to a YouTube video of Vladimir Horowitz playing Schumann's Traumerei in Moscow in 1986. If I read it right, this was his first return to Russia in over sixty years. The reaction of the audience is fascinating.

Friday 11 June 2010

A rounded education

Throughout All Quiet on the Western Front Remarque has his narrator make various bitter comparisons between the academic subjects he and his classmates spent so much time and effort studying at school - little different from the ones I studied myself - and the knowledge and skills they've been forced to acquire as soldiers.
We remember mighty little of all that rubbish. Anyway, it has never been the slightest use to us. At school nobody ever taught us how to light a cigarette in a storm of rain, nor how a fire could be made with wet wood - nor that it is best to stick a bayonet in the belly because there it doesn't get jammed, as it does in the ribs.
Something of the same sentiment is expressed in lines by Ezra Pound from the poem-sequence Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (which I have not read - I came across them quoted in another book):
There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilisation.

Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
At the quick eyes gone under earth's lid.

For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books
and again, rather more convincingly to my mind, in the passage I've quoted before by Czeslaw Milosz, which begins
The work of human thought should withstand the test of brutal, naked reality. If it cannot, it is worthless...
It should be pointed out that All Quiet... passes this test admirably, and provides an answer to the question it tacitly poses, 'What use is a liberal education?' Plenty, if the result is a novel like this.

But to return to education...perhaps we should side-step the dilemma by trying something like this, from Gore Vidal's Creation:
In my time, school life was strenuous. We were up before dawn. We were taught to use every kind of weapon. We were even taught farming and husbandry as well as mathematics and music. We learned to read and even to write, if necessary. We were taught how to build not only bridges and fortresses but palaces too. We were given only one meager meal a day.
By the time a Persian noble is twenty, there is very little he cannot do for himself if he has to.
Although the catering smacks of Orwell's memoir of school days, of the slab of suet used to break the boys' appetites, of Lamb's account of Christ's Hospital, of Dotheboys Hall. Assuming this reflects research and not invention on Vidal's part, the practice of educating children through partial starvation clearly has a long pedigree.


Some cheering news: Frederik Pohl, he of The Space Merchants, Gateway and Man Plus, is not only still alive (which I was surprised, impressed and oddly comforted to learn in 2008 when The Last Theorem was published, Arthur C. Clarke's last novel, for which Pohl was co-author) but he blogs. Pretty good it is, too - and it has got him a nomination for Best Fan Writer in the 2010 Hugos. I intend to read all of it.

Thursday 10 June 2010


I can think of three ways of reading a book.

The first is straight through, cover-to-cover, one page at a time, front to back, put it down - the way most novels are read. For that I reckon the iPad and similar devices are absolutely fine.

Second: reading only specific sections at a time, cross-referencing with other texts, using the index to find related subjects. Relevant to manuals, guides, technical documents, textbooks. For something like this, an e-text is almost certainly superior to a printed book - it weighs nothing; it has to be less intimidating than the thousand-page behemoths the students pick up at the beginning of term; you can hyperlink and add your own notes; updates and revisions can be uploaded (one hopes) easily; you can look up unknown terms or references; you can search the entire text almost at once.

Third: browsing, dipping in and out, relying on serendipity to give you what you need at any given time. This is the way I read a book of essays, a poetry collection (particularly an anthology), some reference books (the Oxford Companion to English Literature, the Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, the Encyclopedia of SF, even for that matter an English dictionary) and, at present, Henry Kamen's European Society 1500-1700. Because I'm pretty slow to take in something from a history book I'll often need to flick back and forth to check a name or an event, or to re-establish a context, from several pages before or after; it takes several visits before the details of a passage are memorised. That is the weakness of an e-book - all it gives you at any point is, at most, two pages. A printed book is present in its entirety, and nothing an iPad can do is going to match the speed of simply riffling through the pages; nor can it give you the fruitful resonance, the chord-making which results from juxtaposing one passage with another; nor can it aid memory through the association made with the physical layout of the text on the page.

Writ large, the same holds true of the bookshelf. If you were to take all the books you own, chuck 'em out and replace them on an e-reader, no doubt the sense of liberation would be very welcome, and it'd be a weight off your floorboards, but you simply wouldn't have the pleasure of scanning the shelves at a glance and seeing something you'd forgotten, or taking something down at random.

I am emphatically not against the iPad. I'm in favour of anything which upholds and develops literacy, and by extension, a thinking and informed public. It's just that the technology, while it brings many very useful benefits, does not meet all the needs of the reader. In certain specific ways the printed book cannot be surpassed. Novel-readers and textbook-users will gain from the iPad, but I doubt very much that the same will hold true for browsers like myself.

Of course, prior to the invention of books, browsing couldn't exist; no doubt the iPad will lead to fascinating and rewarding new practices appropriate to the technology, just as the internet has given rise to blogging (itself impossible to define precisely in a paper-print context - not quite a diary, not quite an essay).


I'm glad to have come across this passage from a 2002 article by Malcolm Gladwell which neatly expresses what I've been trying to reach for above:
According to Sellen and Harper, paper has a unique set of "affordances" -- that is, qualities that permit specific kinds of uses. Paper is tangible: we can pick up a document, flip through it, read little bits here and there, and quickly get a sense of it. (In another study on reading habits, Sellen and Harper observed that in the workplace, people almost never read a document sequentially, from beginning to end, the way they would read a novel.)
(Hat-tip to blogger Brett at Branches and Rain for this.)

I'm even more heartened by Dr Johnson's comments, the only one of which I knew was the following:
Mr. Elphinston talked of a new book that was much admired, and asked Dr. Johnson if he had read it. Johnson: “I have looked into it.” “What,” said Elphinston, “have you not read it through?” Johnson, offended at being thus pressed, and so obliged to own his cursory mode of reading, answered tartly, “No, Sir, do you read books through?”
- and that from a quote on the cover of Schott's Miscellany. It turns out there are quite a few others from Johnson on the benefits of browsing, all of them worth reading, and they are helpfully collected at this post on blog Miscellenies. Ain't e-reading great?

Tuesday 8 June 2010

And this too shall pass...

Yes, I know all of this happened a while back. Yes, I've been out of touch. Yes, we'd be better off with these guys still around.

I went to an author event with Mailer in Glasgow when he was promoting The Gospel According to the Son in 1997. It was thoroughly enjoyable: he was funny, a professional performer, perfectly happy to engage with his audience, and really quite sweet...he was tiny and stout, a wee ball of an old man. He didn't have a lot of energy, it's true (as he carefully poured a glass of water he joked, "At my age everything become existential - you don't know if you're going to make it") but his voice was still good: he did superb impersonations of Truman Capote and Gore Vidal during a mock obituary of himself, written in the early '80s, which should have been printed alongside all the real ones. I'm glad I made a point of going.

Damning the Amazon

It's a toss-up which would be easier: bring the river to a halt, or bring the world's most popular online retailer to its senses and make it behave with something approaching common decency. I'd heard of Amazon's use of union-busting tactics before now, and have tried to use publishers', authors', and independent booksellers' websites when linking to particular titles. However, I hadn't been evangelical about it until I found this on my Blogger dashboard:
Do you link to Amazon in your blog posts? Our Amazon Associates integration makes linking easier and can even earn you some money! Details here.
I'm leery of such propostitions anyway: who, I think, is using whom here? Is this an offer of payment, or a bribe? Am I being invited to do Amazon's work for them, pretty much for free? How easy is it to de-integrate if you decide to withdraw? (The penny first dropped twenty years ago when I read, in a portrait written by Harlan Ellison, that Steve McQueen would cut the little red tab off his Levi's. I did the same, wincing. The Levi's 501 is the only product I've ever consciously bought as a result of advertising - the coolest being the one with the Screamin' Jay Hawkins cover of a Tom Waits song. Waits sued, successfully.)

Well, I took a look at Amazon's record on unionisation, and it's not pretty. In 2001 the GMPU had a go at getting the 500 workers at Amazon's Milton Keynes warehouse to sign up; Amazon responded by (allegedly, our lawyers advise) improving terms and conditions while at the same time spreading black propaganda about the union; by constructive dismissal of organisers - sorry, agitators; and by arranging and simultaneously undermining a ballot of the workforce on union recognition. The tactics worked, the ballot failed and the GMPU was driven off, all under the appearance of consultation, democracy and corporate avuncularity on Amazon's part. The details can be found on the Guardian, The Register and on an article at the Word Power Books site.

Now I know this is all some time ago, and one could be forgiven for thinking, well, what's the point now? But no, no no no...just because this shmuck is coming late to this particular party dun't mean the party isn't still going on. One thing I know from bitter experience is that a corporate culture which is this malign doesn't just fade away with time: it's embedded, it permeates the structure, the practices and the souls of the people of work for the company - especially in management, and regardless of who goes and who stays. And so in a Sunday Times (hardly a firebrand publication of the hard left) report from late 2008, we find that the working practices and the attitude towards the workforce are...well, as you'd expect.

Of course, there was a total contradiction between what Amazon said and what they did in 2001, but I still can't help being shocked and enraged by it. I mean, treating your workers like shite is one thing - it's to be expected that employers will try that and get away with it whenever they can, and of course it is always unacceptable and should always be fought against - but bare-faced lying and manipulation is something which drives me to a fury beyond reason.

So from henceforth this will be an Amazon-free zone. Neither by link nor by reference nor by passing comment will they be acknowledged.

Yeah, that'll bring 'em to their knees...but what else can you do?

Monday 7 June 2010

On bookselling

From Bury My Heart at W.H. Smith's by Brian Aldiss:
Those were years of revelation for me. Every day brought new discoveries. I fell into books in my eagerness to catch up on all those years lost in the sun [military service in Burma]. History, psychology, philosophy, biography, literature, art: the bookshop became my library. When Sanders promoted me to buyer of new books, I ordered from publishers whatever interested me. I believed that if I filled the shop with books I liked I would have no difficulty in selling them.
That is a pathetic fallacy (and who among us, who have worked in bookshops, has not fallen into it?) because, as Orwell recalls in 'Bookshop Memories' (published 1936):
...the thing that struck me was the rarity of really bookish people. Our shop had an exceptionally interesting stock, yet I doubt whether ten per cent of our customers knew a good book from a bad one.
Almost everything Orwell has to say in this essay is still relevant to bookselling today - though here his habitual pessimism and misanthropy seem to have failed him:
Also [bookselling] is a humane trade which is not capable of being vulgarized beyond a certain point.
It all depends, I suppose, which point you have in mind.