The Polysyllabic Spree

I read a lot of books on my holiday, but my favourite was probably Nick Hornby's The Polysyllabic Spree. I picked it up in my last few hours in Delhi. I had a pile of books I'd read that I didn't want to take home. I lugged them between the second-hand shops on Paharganj's Main Bazaar, trying to find something decent to swap for them (there's a whole post to come on reading and buying books in India).

There was nothing in the bookstalls that grabbed me, so I decided to take a chance on the Nick Hornby book. I'm glad I did. The book was good enough that I read for a couple of hours on the flight home, despite being exhausted. I struggled not to laugh out loud at times.

The Polysyllabic Spree is a reading diary that Hornby kept for the Believer Magazine. During the course of the book he compares LP Hartley's The Shrimp and the Anemone with Mötley Crüe biography The Dirt; discusses the problems with novel about writers; and proposes a legal limit to biography length based on the subject's importance.

I particularly loved the book's introduction where Hornby talks about reading for pleasure. After pointing out that 12 million adults in the UK have a reading age of less than 13, Hornby questions the idea that literary novels are superior to books like the Da Vinci Code: "If reading is to survive as a leisure activity… then we have to promote the joys of reading rather than the (dubious) benefits" A version of the introduction is available on the Telegraph website, and is well worth reading.

Hornby was restricted by the magazine's editorial policy in that he could only say positive things about the books he read. At first Hornby chafed against this prohibition, but finally resolved to abandon any book he didn't enjoy. The enthusiasm Hornby shows for the books he likes is invigorating.

The dark side of book dealing

The last day or so has been rather dull as I spent most of it in bed with a monstrous headache. I did manage to complete a 10-mile run before I was struck down, so it's not all bad.

Meanwhile: I found the text below in a Fortean Times interview with Iain Sinclair.  It's a brilliant thumbnail sketch of a strange and dangerous world:

"I
was dealing books from about 1976 to 1986, and for a while it was
potentially quite dangerous – books and drugs were counter-balanced.
Some dealers were literally getting enough profit in a week to set up
the next week's coke deals. There was a particular house in Cannon St
that's right by the crossroads where the head of the Ratcliffe Highway
murderer is buried, and in this house was a pile of really abstruse
books, lots of first editions, and also all this drug stuff. There'd be
people arriving in the middle of the night and you wouldn't know if it
was drugs or books they were after – both were done with enormous
secrecy. The place was watched room across the road by a disgruntled
book dealer who was acting as a police informer.

It was quite
dangerous back then. One man, Chris Rowden, who ran Bell, Book and
Rowden ended up shooting himself with a shotgun. He was very much part
of this nexus, involved in some very dodgy business. I don't think
things are as bad as that anymore.
"

Killer Tease

Tease
Last night I finished reading Killer Tease ("Burlesque was her life but, in the seedy underbelly of Brighton, it might be the death of her"), the new book from Brighton's Pulp Press.  It's one of the most enjoyable books I've read in ages.  The prose is fast-paced and clean, the action violent and it's set in Brighton, name-dropping places with glee.  It's not a perfect novel, with a few mistakes ("North Laines" rather than "North Laine" being a notable local one), but it's so exuberant.  This is a book that doesn't care whether you like it or not, just gets on with its job.

I picked up my copy for a fiver from the Punker Bunker in Sydney Street and I'm now looking forward to the next Pulp Press book.  Here's an interview with Danny Hogan, the writer (I love his attitude to books) and a more in-depth review

Resisting the resistance

Sven Birkerts has written a lovely essay, Resisting the Kindle, which questions the idea of e-books.  Birkerts wrote the fascinating Gutenberg Elegies and, while I disagree with most of what he says, I think his critiques are important.

Birkerts "[perceives] in the move away from the book a move away from a certain kind of cultural understanding", with the e-book reader exchanging access for context.  Birkerts sees literature as "deeply contextual and historicized", giving an example of what he means:

"Somebody referenced a poem by Wallace Stevens but couldn’t think of the line. Her neighbor said “Wait—” and proceeded to Blackberry (yes, a verb) the needed words. It took only seconds. Everyone bobbed and nodded—it was the best of all worlds.  My response was less sanguine. I imagined an info-culture of the near future composed entirely of free-floating items of information and expression, all awaiting their access call. I pictured us gradually letting go of Wallace Stevens … as the historical flesh-and-blood entity he was, and accepting in his place a Wallace Stevens that is the merely the sum total of his facts… Turning up a quote by tapping a keyboard is not the same as, say, going to Bartlett’s—it short-circuits all contact with the contextual order that books represent."

Derrida claimed "the end of the book is the beginning of literature".  Technology threatens a certain type of reading.  But it also ushers in new forms of literature, new forms of writing and understanding.  I imagine e-book readers will, in time, provide their own forms of association and context, without being bound by the physical constraints of books or libraries.  Imagine being able to follow Steven's life and work through every book published on him and not needing to wait for inter-library loans to check citations.  Birkerts' essay outlines some risks of electronic books, but doesn't make the case that they outweigh the possibilities and opportunities of escaping the book.

Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Last week I finished reading Neal Stephenson's new 900 word page novel, Anathem.  I generally prefer short novels but I made an exception here because of the book's ambitious scope – the novel includes an invented vocabulary, echoing Ridley Walker, and is inspired by the Clock of the Long Now.

I found the book literally heavy and slow to start, but ultimately rewarding although I'm convinced it could have shed 300 pages.  Interestingly, some things that appear to be bad writing in the early part of the book are later revealed as subtle foreshadowing (it's hard to go into much detail without ruining the effect of the second half of the book).

I think Anathem was interesting, describing a complex world and playing some interesting games with science and philosophy.   But I'm not convinced it worked as a novel.  The world building and philosophical dialogues killed the story's flow, despite being fascinating.  The characterisation was scant, and the adventure-story style sections seemed out of place.

Nearing the end of the book I found myself thinking it would have worked better as a computer game or website.  The different type of content would have fitted together more naturally.  You could explore the areas that interest you, and even have more detail than the book allowed (I suspect Stephenson has piles of notes that wouldn't fit into Anathem as a novel, in addition to the audio material that is available separately).  It's interesting to see how Anathem failed as a novel – it simply didn't fit the medium. 

(Michael Dirda's review of Anathem is well worth reading.  I don't think I'll be keeping my copy of Anathem so if anyone from Brighton wants my copy leave me a comment).

Haruki Murakami and running

Thanks to an email from Disappointed Kid, I learned that Haruki Murakami's new book is called What I talk about when I talk about running (the title apparently a Raymond Carver reference). I have a strange relationship with Murakami, in that most of his books leave me cold, apart from South of the Border, West of the Sun, one of my favourite novels.  At the same time, I find Murakami fascinating: how can you not love a writer who was "inexplicably inspired to write his first novel … while watching a baseball game"?

Apparently Murakami took up running in 1982 and now runs long
distance, aiming to complete a marathon each year.  His new book
reflects on the links between running and his writing and comes out on August 7th (just before the half-marathon!).  An extract of the new book was published in the Guardian:

"Most ordinary runners are motivated by an individual goal: namely, a time they want to beat. As long as he can beat that time, a runner will feel he's accomplished what he set out to do.  The same can be said about my profession. In the novelist's profession, as far as I'm concerned, there's no such thing as winning or losing. Maybe numbers of copies sold, awards won and critics' praise serve as outward standards for accomplishment in literature, but none of them really matters. What's crucial is whether your writing attains the standards you've set for yourself. In this sense, writing novels and running full marathons are very much alike. For me, running is both exercise and a metaphor. I'm at an ordinary – or perhaps more like mediocre – level. But that's not the point. The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday."

Which leaves me waiting like ginquinn for the release date of the new Murakami book.

"Raymond Chandler once confessed that even if he didn't write anything, he made sure he sat down at his desk every single day and concentrated. I understand the purpose behind his doing this. This is the way Chandler gave himself the physical stamina a professional writer needs, quietly strengthening his willpower."

What books are for

Via boingboing, an article from the Telegraph’s property section entitled Rooms that lose none of their shelf life‘.  Apparently more people want libraries in their homes than home cinemas, gyms or music studios.   Prompted by a survey frm Legal and General, we learn from the article that "as well as furnishing a room, books confer a certain elegant ambience on a property".  And, according to a spokesperson from the Bookseller, "Books are the original insulator. A shelf of books along an outside
wall works well to prevent heat escaping.  If all
the books were removed from the homes in Britain, our energy bills
would rocket.
"

All those workshops learning how to write prose when what I should have been doing was focussing on what books are really for: interior design and energy conservation.