My favourite books of 2010

I read about 150 books during 2010. A good chunk of these were read on my holiday at the start of the year (including re-reading Lord of the Rings). Picking out the best ones was difficult, as I read some very good books. Setting an arbitrary limit of ten, here are the ones I loved most, in alphabetical order:

  • The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker – I think Nicholson Baker is one of the most inventive and fascinating writers working today. This book interleaves fiction with theories on poetry and some good jokes. At one point Baker makes a fascinating observation, that the collection may not be the best format for poetry.
  • The Marlowe Papers by Ros Barber – this book is not yet published, but I read a draft. It's a historical novel in verse which tells a story of adventure and subterfuge. Its format as poetry actually adds to the pacing. It deserves to find a wide audience. 
  • Crooked Little Vein by Warren Ellis – previously blogged about here.
  • The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby – blogged about here. I need to revisit this soon.
  • Advice for Strays by Justine Kilkerr – see here.
  • How I escaped my certain fate / Stewart lee – see here.
  • i play the drums in a band called okay by Toby Litt – see here.
  • Something Beginning With by Sarah Salway was republished this year. Her book uses an interesting structure to tell a serious story. Despite the dark ending, you get a feeling that Sarah really enjoyed writing this.
  • Are you experienced by William Sutcliffe – I read a lot of books about India in preparation for my trip. I learned very little from most of them, particularly the serious tomes written by English and American journalists. This book questions the idea of travelling and makes some very good points. I was surprised by how thought-provoking I found it.
  • The New Journalism by Thomas Wolfe  - I read this around the same time as I read Reality Hunger. The introduction to Wolfe's book the most interesting writing on fiction I've read in some time. He seems to have been ahead of Shields on many points. However, Wolfe did turn to fiction after working on this book, and I hope to find some time to look into why. 

I would normally do a list of the films I enjoyed too, but I only saw 7 movies in the cinema this year. Most of them were entertaining without being particularly memorable. At the end of the year I find myself unable to pick one out as a favourite.

Thinking about Time Travel

I've been thinking a lot about time travel lately, and messages from the future.

Some weeks back, there was a game on twitter: #tweetyoursixteenyearoldself. The idea was to send messages back in time that would have been useful to you then. My advice to myself was simple:

Don't bother with uni. And take English Lit & History, not Maths and physics for A-Level.

The game started me thinking about what would happen if I received a message from my future self:

Of course, it would be more useful if my 50 year old self could tweet me and give me a heads-up

I've been thinking a lot about time travel lately. Because I am travelling into the future day-by-day, and I'm not sure what lies ahead of me. Before you know it, you’ve leapt fifteen years on, and you’re not the person you expected to be. Those little day-by-day steps in the past seemed to be in the wrong direction. 

I’d probably have thought less about this, except for an article I read in the paper, where a woman had drawn up a bucket list, a list of things she wanted to do before she died.

Bucket lists are a disturbing idea in general, the idea that life can be reduced to a series of goals that you achieve or don't, and a life fails if some are left unticked. (And what are you supposed to do if you do finish the list? Start another list of things you really have to do?) There were nine items in this woman's list, some of them things she'd been planning to do for years and not got around to. One item was to see Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1986 musical, The Phantom of the Opera.

If this person could send a message back in time, it might be to see Phantom at some point in the next 20 years. But maybe there were other priorities. In each of the 7,000 nights she could have watched that show, something else was happening. As John Lennon said, "Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans." 

And I've been wondering about the me in the future, and the things I might want to scream into the past, the days here and there that were squandered thinking there would always be more to come. Something interesting happens when you consider your future self and your current self as two separate people. Decisions I make now have an effect on me in the future.

And I make decisions now that I will live with in the future. Douglas Coupland expressed it well in Girlfriend in a Coma:

"Imagine you're a forty-year-old, Richard," Hamilton said to me around this time, while working as a salesman at a Radio Shack in Lynn Valley, "and suddenly somebody comes up to you saying, 'Hi, I'd like you to meet Kevin. Kevin is eighteen and will be making all of your career decisions for you.' I'd be flipped out. Wouldn't you? But that's what life is all about – some eighteen-year-old kid making your big decisions for you that stick for a lifetime." He shuddered."

I imagine the tweets that would be sent by by 54 year old self. Or the one in six months time. So many of the things that were important to me at 24 seem irrelevant now. I might have been able to justify how I spent that time a month later, but now I can't.

The clash between past and future selves is one of the main sources of procrastination – we imagine our future self will be more willing to do the work we don't want to do now. Behavioral economists and psychologists refer to it as dynamic inconsistency ("when somehow the preferences of some of the selves are not aligned with each other") or present-bias (as a brilliant article described it, "This is why when you are a kid you wonder why adults don’t own more toys."). It's hard to guess what the future you will want. 

I expect my future self will be similar to me, in that he would be frustrated with the short term goals that his younger self sought, the time spent doing fake work. He would be annoyed that focussed on the things that really mattered.

While I hate the idea of a bucket list, it's worth asking, what am I doing right now that might still seem worthwhile in twentry years? What would I want to have done before I die? Only a few things. I guess I had better get on with them.

I've been thinking about time travel lately.

Boxing Day Swim 2010


Yesterday was my friend Sarah's birthday. She wanted to celebrate with a dip in the sea. So I decided to join her.

The sea was very still but it was cold. We only stayed in for about a minute, long enough to do a few strokes. I went swimming with Mr. Spratt on New Years' Day a few years ago but this felt far colder. As I came out my skin was tingling, but I felt invigorated and refreshed. We dried off, changed and headed to the Sidewinder for a drink. I'm glad I did it.


Is the amount of information in the world really increasing?

Googling for something else yesterday, I found this paper by David Berreby: The Myth of Peak Attention.

As Berreby points out, people tend to take the view that their current situation is unique in history. He shows that the idea that life is speeding up, that too much information is being produced, is an old one, dating back to the start of the twentieth century and before. The assumption that there is more information nowadays is dubious, and reflects our personal feelings about the world around us.

I wonder how much of the belief people have that 'things are getting worse' comes from a selection effect, in that they tend to compare the world with what they remember from their youth – a time when they were healthier, more optimistic and had less responsibility.

Without having people to review old texts, like Berreby has done in this essay, it is easy to fall into the trap of making baseless assumptions about the present. With the current attacks on the humanities in UK universities, we could easily lose an important perspective about the scale of the changes in the world around us.

What if the amount of information in the world is a constant? 

Miscellany: alien invasion, the death zone and archive fever

  • Charles Stross' essay Invaders from Mars puts forward an interesting theory about the state of the world, with serious implications for SETI. 
  • Abandoned on Everest (via LinkmachineGo) is a gruesome essay (with pictures) about what happens to the bodies of those who die on Everest. The debate in the comments about the David Sharp controversy is both horrifying and fascinating.
  • Sarah Salway provides some interesting tips for short story writers. "Wait for the second thing".
  • "I’d like one-shot novels as well. Wouldn’t it be nicer if the tube was littered with single interesting pages of novels rather than discarded London Lites?" – Chris Heathcote
  • I love Matt Ogle's essay Archive Fever, which asks some important questions about the mass of data people are starting to accumulate through mobile phones and social media. "We’ve all become accidental archivists." I have over three thousand photos on my computer. I'm not sure what they are for. 

Cups and currency: a story of Latitude

This is something I wrote in the summary and lost among my draft posts, which is why it's so unseasonal. 

Monday morning, Latitude festival was packing up. I was thirsty but couldn’t buy a cup of tea because my money was tied up in cups.

Latitude had a two pound deposit on plastic pint glasses. I would come back to the van with a glass and forget to take it back with me. I had five by the end of Sunday. The campsite bar was open for a couple of hours on Monday morning for refunds so I traipsed down. I’d got the time wrong and arrived early so I joined the queue waiting for the tent to open.

Festivals are all about queueing and waiting, with occasional performances and food. The sun was hot and I pulled up my hoody to give me shade. A couple sat near me, the girl stroking her boyfriend's belly, a large plastic ring on her finger.

About twenty people waited ahead of me. The man at the front had a stack of about fifty cups, others had smaller piles. Some people arrived at the queue but didn't have time to wait. Some surrendered their cups to the two children in the queue, who counted and recounted the twenty cups they had. Someone told me that there had been kids looking for stray cups all around the site, stealing them from people taking drunken naps.

Others wanted to sell their cups to people in the queue. Some of them would exchange the cups for their standard value, but others were prepared to accept smaller amounts. A brief shadow-economy started to flourish.

With the sun beating down on me, I imagined what it could become if the bar didn't open soon. Since the queue had a limited amount of cash, it couldn’t keep paying face-value for cups. The exchange rate was going to fall before long. It wouldn’t be difficult to set up a futures market, trading cups against their future price.

The the door opened. The first man in the queue handed over his fifty cups. He came out with a bag of money, kissed it, and ran away. I stood up, adjusted my hood to keep the sun off, and shuffled forwards.

The Brighton Santa Dash 2010


Last Saturday, I entered the Brighton Santa Dash for the fourth time. This was my first race and it's a fun event. Despite better weather than some previous years, my time was quite slow. Drinking a couple of bottles of wine the night before may not have been the best preparation!

It is good to be running again, following some physiotherapy for my ongoing injury. 2010 hasn't been the best years I've had for running. While I ran 600 miles in 2009, I am likely to manage about 400 by the end of this year. As someone who loves long distances, it's been frustrating that the longest run I have managed this year is only 10 miles, and that back in January.

But I am now in training for the Brighton marathon, and did a fantastic 6 mile run with Mr Spicer on Sunday. My body is coping well with the increasing distances and I'm hoping to ward off any problems as I work towards April's marathon.


We Have Always Lived in the Slaughterhouse (reading on December 15th)

A new story of mine, We Have Always Lived in the Slaughterhouse is being read at the next Are You Sitting Comfortably night in Brighton. The event takes place at the Basement in Brighton on December 15th at 7:30pm, £6/£4. White Rabbit always put a huge effort into their nights and it is well worth attending.

The theme for the night is Horror. My story is an unpleasant story about an unusual domestic arrangement:

"When I was ten years old, I lived with my sister and my Mum in a slaughterhouse. Mum was hiding from her ex-husband, my sister’s Dad, and Uncle Harry thought we’d be safe in one of the old offices. Uncle Harry converted the disused office into a living area, with beds and a small gas stove. He even found some oilskin, hosed down and cleaned, and hung it as curtains, giving each of us our own areas. We didn’t mind living in that old office. Better to hide there than to see our mother beaten." 

I'm hoping that the night will be the perfect antidote to the Christmas preparations. See you there?