Category Archives: Reading
I only have eleven books on my phone at present. Not many, you may think, for someone who is such an avid reader. However, I do most of my reading at home, have bookshelves stuffed with everything from battered Penguins to unwieldy hardbacks and I also use the library. So far I have seen no need to get a Kindle, the phone is perfectly adequate.
Nevertheless it is a bit of a double-edged sword, so to speak. Perhaps it might be more accurate to say it is the technological equivalent to a Swiss Army knife. Not only does it have books on it but it also has Angry Birds and a notepad, radio and TV and Lord knows what else. So distracting. However, now that I have mastered the keyboard ( ironically touch keyboards are not good for touch typists like me) I try to do some writing when I’m commuting. So, one way or another, when I am out and about there’s not a lot of time for reading. Indeed, should I wish, I could have not eleven free books on my phone, not even one hundred and eleven for, currently, there are over 42,000 free books available for downloading through Project Gutenberg.
The aim of the project is “to encourage the creation and distribution of eBooks.” The oldest digital library in existence, it was founded by Michael Hart in 1971 and takes its name from Johann Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press and moveable type. Run and sustained by volunteers, it digitises and archives cultural works and makes them available to anyone who wants them. They can be downloaded onto virtually any computer or phone. Michael Hart stated that his goal was “to provide as many eBooks in as many formats as possible for the entire world to read in as many languages as possible.” Another stated objective is to help spread public literacy: in that respect Gutenberg might be likened to a digitised version of the public library.
All books have to have copyright clearance before being added to the archive. Project Gutenberg claims no copyright of its own on the titles it publishes; most are distributed as pubic domain, according to U.S. copyright law, though there are some restrictions. Many of the books are out of copyright in any case. All eleven of ‘my’ books are out of copyright – among them the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Wuthering Heights and several works of Dickens.
I haven’t yet added any Shakespeare – though should I wish to do I’d be spoilt for choice. Not only regarding the amount of works available, but also the languages. If I was that way inclined I could read the Bard on my phone not just in English but also in French, in Catalan, in Esperanto and in Tagalog. A delightful name for the language spoken in the Philippines. However, what with the classics I have already, the pile of paperbacks beside the bed, the lure of the TV and radio not to mention those irritating but addictive birds I don’t see myself embarking on the Complete Works any time soon.
Last week I was bemoaning sloppy language. This week it’s sloppy reading. Or, to be more accurate, reading a watered down, slanted impression of what someone else has written, and taking it as fact. If you want to criticise Hilary Mantel for goodness sake read what she actually wrote, not what the tabloids and others say that she wrote.
I blame the press but I also blame our general laziness; I include myself of course. A nice bit of gossip, a slice of sensation is easy to read and hard to resist, unless you are very, very noble or perhaps a tad po-faced. Show me the Guardian and Times reader who has never, ever, not even once taken a quick peek at the Mail or the Express. Perhaps not the Sun, that might be a step too far.
The ‘Hilary Mantel v. Katherine Middleton’ story is a case in point. I was going to say ‘debate’ but it’s not a debate, is it. (Rhetorical question, spellcheck, no need for a question mark.) It’s a perfect example of the meaning of the word ‘uninformed’. Relatively few people read The London Review of Books so it would be unfair to expect that they would have read the whole article in full. Nevertheless, it does behove (lovely word) the press to report accurately and in a balanced manner, if they are going to report at all. As to David Cameron wading in – he obviously hadn’t a clue what he was talking about. No surprise there then.
I can see no reason why certain journalists would bother to comment on the Mantel article except to seize upon her so-called criticism of ‘our Kate.’ Leaving aside that it’s a free country where people are still allowed to express an opinion, a careful reading shows that, if anything, Kate is treated more sympathetically than critically. Yes Mantel uses the words ‘jointed doll’ but what comes before that? The sentence reads ‘… I saw Kate becoming a jointed doll’ and further along “a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore.’ The italics are mine. And the question is of course, who is defining her. Not Kate herself. The press and we readers.
I’m not proposing to go through the whole article. However, it’s worth pointing out that while it runs to over 5,500 words direct references to Kate Middleton are minimal. More to the point the so-called criticism of Kate is not personal, nor indeed are any of the individuals mentioned treated to the sort of outright tearing of limb from limb so often meted out by the press. The bulk of the article is a thoughtful and erudite examination of monarchy in a historical context and their understandable fixation on the need to produce heirs. Together with a measured, fascinating analysis of our continuing obsession with them.
While at times very funny, overall I find it enlightening, thought provoking and sympathetic. Yes, she is critical and expresses strong opinions but the real criticism is for the way the monarchy is presented to us.
“It may be that the whole phenomenon of monarchy is irrational, but that doesn’t mean that when we look at it we should behave like spectators at Bedlam. Cheerful curiosity can easily become cruelty. It can easily become fatal. We don’t cut off the heads of royal ladies these days, but we do sacrifice them, and we did memorably drive one to destruction a scant generation ago. History makes fools of us, makes puppets of us, often enough. But it doesn’t have to repeat itself. In the current case, much lies within our control. I’m not asking for censorship. I’m not asking for pious humbug and smarmy reverence. I’m asking us to back off and not be brutes.”
That is a direct quote from the concluding paragraph of the article. It certainly gives the lie to the claim of a ‘venomous attack’ as stated in the Mail.
When it comes to criticism of the royals, the Mail is no slouch itself. In the very week that it attacked Mantel it treated us to a lengthy article on how the Middleton family are exploiting poor Mexican workers paying them ‘sometimes less than 10p an hour’ to make a product that ‘sells for £12.99.’ Full of evocative language and photographs it nevertheless takes care to say that the Middletons are profiting ‘albeit inadvertently’ from the labours of these poor overseas workers. Thus covering themselves from being sued. Though, if the Middletons are indeed unaware of the exploitation, wouldn’t it be better to draw it to their attention privately instead of splashing it all over the papers. But what would be the point of that? The words ‘pot’ and ‘kettle’ spring to mind. And how!
Hilary Mantel’s article ‘Royal Bodies’ was the basis of a lecture, organised by the London Review of Books, and delivered at the British Library. Later published in the Review. I urge you to read it if you can, it’s online. For excellent and more in-depth analysis read Hadley Freeman’s piece in the Guardian, Gaby Wood in The Telegraph and Google ‘Hilary Mantel’ for a plethora of information, biased and unbiased. I should have realised that many others have written and tweeted about this, but it’s been a heavy week and I’ve only just found time to read the full article and catch up with the various commentaries.
Where should you write? How often should you write? Is there such a thing as writer’s block? Should you discuss your writing with others, while it’s still in progress? If you’re looking for answers, the best people to ask would be writers themselves. Right? Not necessarily. Writers are a contradictory lot, like people really. Of course they are people too but sometimes we appear to be rather a strange breed.
In a collection spanning over 20 years, Jon Winokur’s little book ‘Writers on Writing’ contains as many varied opinions on the subject as patterns in snowflakes. Well, maybe not that many but still, a lot. The collection was published in 1988 and is now out of print, I believe, but you can still get a copy on Amazon. One reviewer claims ‘this book stopped me from stopping writing’ and I must say that certainly strikes a chord.
When you’re starting to write, you get bombarded with advice. If this is coming from people you perceive as being more knowledgeable than you, who have been writing for ever who are, yikes, already published, it can be most confusing. Especially if you respect them and yet their suggestions don’t seem to work for you. Whenever I was stuck, when felt that the idea of me writing fiction was simply laughable, I’d phone one or two trusted writer friends. And I’d turn to this book.
The great thing about these quotes is that they are contradictory. The lesson? There is no ‘right’ way to write, no ‘right’ time of day, no set hours – no set anything. It’s just a matter of finding out what suits you best and doing it. Of course, at first, you don’t know what that is – so it’s a question of trial and error. I’m not suggesting that you don’t take advice. Of course it’s good to learn from others who have been there before you. Just remember that it’s not set in stone. Pick and choose. Take the bits that fit you and ignore the rest.
Isaac Asimov would write for 18 hours a day. Edward Albee got a splitting headache after only three or four. Samuel Johnson said one should write at any time of day. Henry Millar started after breakfast. Jack Kerouac preferred midnight to dawn (that figures). As to the process, Joyce Cary never wrote to an arranged plot, Dorothy Parker thought it all out first and then wrote sentence by sentence, revising she went. Hemingway also revised over and over again whereas Katherine Anne Porter wrote her stories in one sitting.
There is some consensus – virtually everyone agrees that you shouldn’t discuss a work in progress. Most writers revise and redraft, though some far more than others. On everything else – including motive, readers and reading. Ego, talent, work habits, technique – there’s a wide difference of opinion. Here’s just a few of them. They are chosen at random, except the first one and the last – two statements that I believe in wholeheartedly. And find immensely comforting.
“A writer is someone who writes, that’s all. You can’t stop it; you can’t make yourself do anything else but that.” Gore Vidal
“The first thing you have to consider when writing a novel is your story, then your story – and then your story.” Ford Maddox Ford
“Writing is pretty crummy on the nerves.” Paul Theroux
“If you can’t annoy somebody, there’s little point in writing.” Kingsley Amis
“I write books to find out about things.” Rebecca West
“Every writer I know has trouble writing.” Joseph Heller
“I don’t get writing blocks except from the stationers, but I do feel so sickened by what I write that I don’t want to go on.” Anthony Burgess
“If my books had been any worse I would not have been invited to Hollywood, if they had been any better I would not have come.” Raymond Chandler
“How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” E.M.Forster
“Money to a writer is time to write.” Frank Herbert
James M. Cain tells a great story about his novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. A strange title, you might think, for a book about sex. It appears, though, that the manuscript was rejected so many times that when the rejection letters arrived, the postman rang twice. Now this does rather beg the question as to how the postman knew they were letters of rejection. It’s a great story and who am I to take issue with the likes of James M. Cain.
My information comes from Rotten Rejections, edited by André Bernard. It’s subtitled ‘The letters that publishers wish they’d never sent’ – and to give him his due, he does include rejections he sent out as well as some he received. Of course we all have the benefit of hindsight, even so the book is a great encouragement for those of us who’ve ever been rejected. I particularly dislike the cop-out – ‘it doesn’t fit our list’ but I’m in good company. The great Agatha Christie was subjected to that one for The Mysterious Affair at Styles.
There are so many gems in this book it’s hard to know what to include. So I’m leaving aside manuscripts that were rejected because they were, in their time, considered to be too racy or too sexy. Manuscripts submitted by DH Lawrence, Norman Mailer, W Somerset Maughan, Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Hardy and Jacqueline Susann among others. Since I haven’t room for all of them I’m listing those that most appeal to me, on all sorts of levels. Some are well know, others less so. Here’s a selection.
Animal Farm, George Orwell. “ It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA.”
Crash, J.G. Ballard. “The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.”
The Bridge over the River Quai, Pierre Boulle. “A very bad book.”
Untitled Manuscript, Emily Dickinson. “Queer … the rhymes were all wrong. They are … generally devoid of true poetical qualities.”
Northanger Abbey, 1818. Jane Austen. “We are willing to return the manuscript for the same advance we (paid) for it.”
The Lord of the Flies, William Golding. “It does not seem to us that you have been wholly successful in working out an admittedly promising idea.”
The White Goddess, Robert Graves. “I have to say that it was beyond me and failed to stir any spark of interest …”
Catch-22, Joseph Heller. “I haven’t really the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say. It is about a group of American Army officers stationed in Italy, sleeping (but not interestingly) with each others’ wives and Italian prostitutes, and talking unintelligibly to one another … constitutes a continual and unmitigated bore.
The Spy who came in from the Cold, – John Le Carré “You’re welcome to le Carré – he hasn’t got any future.”
A Dance to the Music of Time, Antony Powell. “… a 350,000 word monstrosity that may not be any more saleable than its parts have proved.”
Man and Superman – George Bernard Shaw. “ … he will never be popular in the usual sense of the word, and perhaps scarcely remunerative.”
The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells. “ An endless nightmare. I do not believe it would take … “
Look Homeward Angel, Thomas Wolfe. “Terrible.”
A River runs through it, Norman MacLean. “These stories have trees in them.”
That last one is my absolute favourite, it’s so weird – mad as cheese. Apart from the rejections themselves, the book is full of anecdotes by or about writers such as George Bernard Shaw, Steven King, Emily Dickenson, James Joyce and Beatrix Potter. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was self published in the first instance, though the publisher who’d rejected it later had a change of heart. And knew he was onto a sure thing! Not much change there then! But take heart. There’s no disgrace in being rejected, especially in such illustrious company.
The material in this post comes from my old website. I had always meant to update it but never got round to it. Now that the new website is up and running and the blog is too, I think this stuff is better on the blog. It’s a totally random selection of some of the books I have enjoyed.
Ridley Walker – Russell Hoban. A must-read for anyone intrigued by language.
Beloved -Toni Morrison. Among the most exquisite writing you’ll find anywhere. An emotionally searing book.
His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman. A brilliant, un-put-downable trilogy. The very best storytelling, tangled up with metaphysics.
Where the Wild Things Are – Maurice Sendak. A children’s story, also much loved by adults and artists. Extraordinary imagination and amazing illustrations recently made into a film that, for once, is more or less faithful to the brilliant original.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil – John Berendt. Fantastic, dark, intriguing, factual. A cross between a travelogue and a crime mystery. Makes you long to visit Savannah.
Mortal Engines – Philip Reeve. An astonishing debut novel for children, but a great read for grown ups too. London on wheels. Yes, you did read that correctly. Read the book.
If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things – Jon McGregor. Another wonderful debut novel. Beautifully written, spare and compelling. The tension is almost unbearable. And he’s written two more since then – both different, both amazing!
The Shipping News – E. Annie Proulx. One of my bibles. A book I return to again and again for its power and its poetry, its characters and its quirkiness.
Amusing Ourselves to Death – Neil Postman. The effect of mass media on society. An instructive, if chilling, book.
A Dictionary of Angels – Gustav Davidson. Perfect dipping in material. Did you know there is an angel over vegetables? And an angel who returns small birds to their owners?
More to come. Watch this space.
I’m a writer – I love writing. I love reading too. So that’s what this blog will be about, in the main. Writing and writers. Books and reading. Language in all its forms including rants about the misuse of English.
I earn my living copywriting and writing blogs and articles and advising businesses, large and small, how to make the best use of their advertising and marketing.
Personal, idiosyncratic and quirky stuff is in my other blog Form an Orderly Queue – just click on it in the sidebar. And click on Articles to read other pieces I’ve written.
You can also find my work in Eat Me Magazine, both online and in the paper version.