When the year turned, I was reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, something I’ve been intending to read for years, but was jogged into by Sam Byers recommending John E Woods’ translation for Everyman’s Library. I’m currently about halfway through its 800-odd pages, but it sits neglected on my bedside cabinet because of other reading commitments.
A rush of reviewing work at the beginning of the year (a good time for new fiction in the literary calendar) brought me Roberto Bolaño’s posthumous The Woes of the True Policeman, Nicholas Royle’s First Novel and Niall Griffiths’ A Great Big Shining Star. I don’t want to pre-empt my reviews, except to say that anyone who read and loved either of Bolaño’s ‘big’ novels and has been discouraged or disoriented by the flood of slighter pieces from his backlist and bottom drawer work should definitely give this one a look. And that the good things you’ve been hearing about the Royle are justified. And that the Griffiths, while familiar in its style from his previous novels (a good thing), takes an interesting turn in its subject matter.
But, in the manner of this blog, I’m interested not so much in what I can say about those particular books as in how they arrange themselves in my wider reading. Thomas Chadwick wrote a piece for Litro recently in which he took exception to the demands of the publishing/marketing/reviewing machine that insists on an immediate response to new books. As a result, he said, i) the critical responses are rushed and so unconsidered and ii) don’t take account of the longer-term effects that books have on the reader, as they slowly sink to the deeper levels of the consciousness.
I couldn’t agree more, while also accepting that a certain level of cultural hoo-ha is essential to the continuation of the publishing industry in its current form, however doomed and knackered that may be. What would happen if we abolished literary prizes, and the whole hardback/paperback two-step publication process, and just brought out books and let them find their readerships – and their critics – according to the timescales and schedules of those parties, rather than the imperatives of the publishers and the media?
Well (and I sense a digression coming: I do intend to come back to Thomas Mann in a minute) quite apart from the damage it would do to the already shaky economic model, my first thought is that it would be psychologically disastrous for authors. Working on the maxim that no writer can ever be truly satisfied with what they’ve produced, it must be a blessed relief to send off a book to your editor and finally have done with it, no matter that the little boat you’re setting down to voyage bravely over the waves is, you suspect, inherently unseaworthy and likely to go down with all hands.
Nevertheless, you wave it off and, although you know you’ll have to go through a certain amount of intellectual reflux when it comes to promoting the damn thing, that will be a finite segment of time, that you can block out in your diary and think: ok, nothing creative will happen in those three weeks, or whatever. Other than that, you can consider the book done, dusted, dead, and move onto the next one.
The alternative model, that frees the book from the market imperative and hands the half-life of its growth and development over to the reader and the new breed of ‘slow critics’, would remove that consolation from the author. They would never be able to write off their newest novel as their ‘last novel’, and think of it as foundation or springboard for the next one.
There will be hundreds of illustrative quotes for this idea from authors, but the one that comes to mind is a recent conversation between George Saunders and his editor Andy Ward, in which Ward says:
It brings to mind a story I once heard about Robert Rauschenberg, I think, who was asked, “How do you know when a painting is done?” And he responded, “When I sell it.”
In other terms, though, I am all for books living beyond their ‘cultural moment’. First of all, because encouraging them to do so weeds out the ones that simply do not deserve it.
Example: last night, I spent a few minutes searching my shelves for a book I had reviewed a few years back, that I remembered as a travelogue taking the author across a tranche of African nations that had a strong undercurrent of radical Islam. In memory it was particular prophetic with regards to the recent entry of Mali into the international geopolitical consciousness, and wanted to see if I was right. Unfortunately, on looking in all the likely spots on my shelves, I had to conclude that I had chucked it out. I had not saved it for its cultural moment.
Then, wanting to find its title, I trawled back through the folder on my computer where I store my book reviews. In scrolling down through its contents, digging further back through the sediment of time – it’s ordered chronologically, most recent first – I came across book after book that I had forgotten I’d ever read, that had extinguished themselves from my reading memory.
Now, in most cases, the books I’d forgotten were books that I haven’t kept, ones that I judged would never have their cultural moment. (And in most cases, I’d like to think I was right. Not all books can be read, just as not all moments can be remembered.) But, as I’ve said before on this blog (here and then here), keeping books on your shelves is important, if the reason you read is to do more than simply pass the time or distract yourself.
I fervently believe this, to the extent that I’m paying someone money to build shelves, as many as possible, in the toilet of our house. It’s a small room, but it has a high ceiling; many of the books will therefore be out of immediate reach. But they’ll be visible. (I’ll be able to hop on the hopefully solid enough toilet seat to fetch them down.) And that’s the important thing; that’s what sets a physical book, read or unread or half-read, apart from a digital one.
Before I move onto the next digression (and I feel another one brewing, involving an analogy to snail shells) I should credit the book I threw out, whose cultural moment I misjudged: it was The Lost Kingdoms of Africa by Jeffrey Tayler (published in the US as Angry Wind, possibly bringing its political content closer to the surface than the more travelogue-y UK title). Here’s the end of my (in brief) paperback review for, I think, the Telegraph:
The Sahel is the heartland of Muslim black Africa, and it is the spectre of Islamic fundamentalism that haunts Tayler’s journey. You get the feeling that his fears are unwarranted. Saith the optimist, Africa will never breed international terrorists. Blowing yourself up, according to one Malian, ‘is the opposite of the African way, which is love of life.’ Saith the pessimist, the people of the Sahel are too busy oppressing each other in the name of religion or tribe to ever trouble themselves with the West.
There you go. He was f-ing right, and I was f-ing wrong.
Now then, back to the importance of keeping books, not as trophies, not as a room-furnishing, but as an essential part of your intellectual life (the graphic index to your mind, as William Gaddis had it). A couple of days ago I wrote a blog for the Independent about Edward Lear. How did I go about it? I made myself a cup of coffee. I had a think. I pulled down the Lears I have from the shelves, flicked through a couple of anthologies to see where he gets put (interestingly, not in the 1956 Penguin Book of English Verse, but there in the 2000 New Penguin Book of The Same Thing).
Then I started rifling elsewhere. Books on poetry, books of essays. Orwell: yes, he’s in there; Burgess: yes; Martin Amis: no; Chesterton: yes, in a recently picked up Pelican Book of English Essays – very good indeed, if you happen to spot it in a secondhand shop. In the Burgess (the wondrous collected journalism Homage to Quert Yuiop, which would truly be a literary vade mecum to match Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia if only it were indexed) he claims to have tried to film Lear’s life twice. No doubt an exaggeration, if not an outright lie, I think, remembering Roger Lewis’s vicious takedown biography. I get that down and check it: no, it wasn’t an exaggeration at all! Lewis even quotes Peter Ustinov, who was to have played Lear, as telling him the script was “very good”. Then, there on the shelf next to the Lewis: the Kingsley Amis Collected Letters. Amis must have had an opinion on Lear. Yes: “Hate Lear.”
Etc, etc. That’s how the post got written. Yes, it was a throwing together of other people’s thoughts (other men: yes, but perhaps Nonsense, in the literary field, if not elsewhere, is rather a masculine concern) but that’s what a big part of literary criticism is, whether of the slow or fast variety: an ongoing cultural conversation. I’ve had the Penguin Essays of George Orwell for decades. Perhaps I read it all when I got it, when I had time, but since then it’s come down from the shelves only on occasion, but each time it does, I flick through and remind myself what’s in there. Not deliberately, just as a part of the what the book operates.
Would that happen with an ebook? No.
Can I find all that stuff online? Maybe. But, Christ, google Edward Lear and what do you get? The same shallow stuff, over and over. Not like the stuff I’ve got on my shelves; though it takes time to find it, that time is never wasted time, because as a byproduct it accumulates a super-thin veneer of future knowledge, future connections, for when I need to find out, or remind myself about a different subject. Peter Ustinov? Unlikely, but possible.
(That accumulation of veneer, or rather nacre, was supposed to be where I brought in snail shells, but I haven’t got time to find out if the analogy works properly, so I’d better leave it.)
This post is going to end, not with Thomas Mann, as I intended, nor yet with the other books I’ve been reading inbetween these main ones (Deborah Levy’s Black Vodka, Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, Javier Marías’s The Dark Back of Time) nor Twelfth Night and Four Quartets, both have which have been laid open on my desk pretty constantly for something I’ve been writing, but with my damn kids and the damn internet.
They get homework. They’re supposed to research The Tudors, or Climate Change in the Caribbean, or Famous Clarinet Players. This is primary school homework – they don’t have to come up with anything mindblowing; it’s just to get them to learn how to research. So, they come home with this homework and ask, ‘Can I go online Dad?’ or ‘Can I do a PowerPoint, Dad?’ (essentially the same question).
And what do I say? I say No. Just as I didn’t let the 8yo take a PowerPoint presentation on the Caribbean into school that he’d spent an hour or so making, because he’d just cut and pasted stuff into his file from whatever he found on Google, and unfortunately, when I asked him to read out what he’d used, he clearly didn’t understand half of it (though they knew how to use the fancy effects, oh boy yes). Was I being a harsh Dad? Yes, but.
‘Can I go online, Dad?’
‘No. We’re going to see what we can find on the shelves.’
Half the time, of course, we don’t find what we need, because, frankly, those are not subjects that I have built my library around (no entry in the index of The Picador Book of Jazz and Blues for ‘clarinet’, though a 10yo was quite intrigued by Antonia Fraser’s Six Wives of Henry VIII in terms of the Tudors), but hopefully, just hopefully, it’s going to sink in to their growing brains that there are other ways of learning about the world than Google and Wikipedia.
And when a boy sits in bed reading Lego Star Wars: The Visual Dictionary rather than, say, The Eagle of the Ninth, I (mostly) don’t take it away from him. He took it down off the shelf himself. He doesn’t yet know it, but he’s learning how to ‘read’, where ‘reading’ means more than just the moment of processing the words on the page, but a gradual accretion of cultural nacre, a gradual building of synapses. He’s building his own Graphic Index of the Mind.