Monthly Archives: October 2009

In the Library…

The library is pretty much the only place I entertain existential thoughts. Working or reading in a library for seven hours awakens in my mind the possibility that there is a very strong chance I don’t exist… at least not outside its four walls.

I was thinking this as I emerged, no doubt bleary-eyed, from a morning in Leeds City Library for my lunch break. I didn’t feel at one with the Saturday shoppers, but rather looked upon their seemingly hysterical shopping and socialising with a confused but benevolent eye. Still wrapped in my library cocoon, I viewed everyone curiously, wolfed down my horrible sandwich, and rushed back gratefully to the calm repressive order of la bibliothèque.

After all, that is the appeal of the library – the repression, the rules, the order that is imposed upon you, but which, in reality, you have willingly submitted to. It is for these reasons that it frees up your mind – you don’t feel resentful of the constraint, like you would if you were at school, yet observe the rules carefully and respectfully, and glean enjoyment from doing so.

My two favourite libraries are Leeds City Library and Hornsey Library in Crouch End, London. The former I can’t find out much about, but it is, I would guess, a mid-to-late Victorian civic building that appears subtle in its architecture due to its proximity to the heavy stone wedding cake of Leeds City Hall.

Inside, the most notable features are the beautiful mosaics that cover the main staircases and lower half of the stairwell walls. On the second floor, my favourite spot for working is a huge galleried room which holds a steady peace and offers glimpses out over the city. You hear voices echoing up the stairs and shoes occasionally squeaking down the corridors, sounds which never irritate, but rather comfort. I can happily be ensconced in there for many hours at a time.

Hornsey Library, by contrast, is a sixties north London dream of modernism for nice people. Built between 1963-5 by Ley & Jarvis, it is a flat roofed, concrete-bound, plate-glassed construction, open-plan, full of light, with a grand sweeping staircase as its centrepiece that floats half-elegantly above the fiction section. It’s not so good for working for very long hours, but there is something friendly and calm about the space and you often have good ideas there.

Both libraries have their resident oddballs. I don’t visit Hornsey so much nowadays, but when I went there a lot there was one guy who went round chuckling to himself and saying interesting phrases very loudly. My favourite being when he incanted for about ten minutes ‘Boxing champ; boxing, boxing champ.’ Then moved on to ‘Card sharp, card sharp’ for another ten. I used to write down what he said.

In Leeds there are often what I assume to be obsessive Bible readers on the second floor who pore over the good book and mumble. When I went there a lot there was one man in particular who was always in the same spot. He carried a lot of empty plastic bags around and used to sit hunched over his tome mumbling to himself and never looking up. But when I went over to see what he was reading when he left the room for a moment, it was a book about JRTolkein… so maybe they’re all Middle Earth obsessives?

There is also, without fail, someone slightly pervy in any library worth it’s, er salt. But somehow their perviness seems to take on a quaint charm amidst all of that soothing paper and print. I don’t know if they come in normal, and then the silence and the dust and all those musty pages lining the shelves making the tick of each second seem deliriously long turns them to it, but you often look up from reading your chosen tome to find one of them staring down your top with a conspiratorial yet strangely blank expression. (After all, they don’t want you to remember what they look like when you’re back in the real world.)

& there is something illicit about the library. Surrounded by the safety net of categorizing systems and methodical study or administrative tasks, everything seems to move on a different timescale, as if you have tricked normal life and escaped to a slow moving haven.

I was unaware that Jorge Luis Borges was of the librarian fraternity, but I like his comment, ‘I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library’. To me, especially after eight hours in there, this comment equally suggests that Paradise, like the depiction of Heaven, can be a little too grindingly perfect at times and that after a full day of it you’re ready to talk to all the sinners on the outside again, that is if your mouth can remember how to form words… Or maybe it can help you get it together:

‘I’ve been drunk for about a week now and I thought it might sober me up to sit in the library.’– The Great Gatsby.

I also recommend you take a look at this youtube clip where the Islington librarian discusses Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell’s defacing of library books – the librarian’s tone is a completely brilliant mix of censure and admiration.

If anyone has particular recommendations for libraries, do comment and let us know where your favourite library is and why… Bit like our My Favourite Bookshop feature, perhaps…? Or good fiction references to libraries… Get in touch!

***

I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before, but it’s worth repeating: I really recommend a look at the ‘Literary Review’ pages of Private Eye. Always hilarious, plus these pages provide welcome relief from the acres of literary journalism you can wade through over the course of a week, and it usually hits the nail on the head in a critical sense, especially in its main feature review.

This issue [No.1246] it is Dan Brown who comes in for a friendly if complete drubbing. At one point the article asks: ‘But is the writing really so bad? Brown’s sentences rarely sing, but only a few actually scream in pain.’ And despite his reputation for writing action-driven page-turners, PE’s literary expert also points out that DB’s professor hero Robert Langdon ‘often takes […] two or three pages to walk across a foyer,’ and that ‘At one point, while the lunatic [the bad guy] is escaping across town, cackling evilly, Langdon and other characters stand around talking for several chapters.’ The article concludes cheerfully that the book’s, ‘… lack of sophistication is absolute: it can’t be faked’.

Other highlights include the ‘Books & Bookmen’ column where you can catch up with the publishing world’s latest news… Often very cutting and hilarious, the literary pages do admit when something’s good, and the satire can be absolutely spot on. PP recommends.

Advertisements

How do you read yours?

Pen Pusher had a good day out at the Publish & Be Damned fair on Sunday (27th September). It’s always a pleasure meeting and talking to people about PP, selling some magazines and seeing what other publishers are up to. Though the venue couldn’t really match the sun-soaked gloriousness of the Rochelle School in Arnold Circus where the fair has been held in previous years, it was all good clean publishing fun.

It’s an interesting experience sitting behind the table while people come and browse. Rules: don’t stare at them else you’ll make them feel uncomfortable; then again don’t ignore them as it’s rude and also they’re less likely to take an interest. So you generally boil the social interaction down to an enthusiastic smile and ‘Hi’ as they first approach, then you leave them to it, trying to stay alert in case they want to speak to you unexpectedly.

I act in exactly the same way when I go to have a look round at the other stalls – browse, try not to make eye contact, or if you do, only the most fleeting kind if you’re fairly certain you don’t want to buy anything, then smoothly glide on where another couple of sets of expectant eyes greet you from behind a table laden with fanzines, art books, comics and badges. Repeat action until you reach the relative safety of a non-tabled area.

From a certain point of view you could see the publishing fair as one socially awkward situation after another… From the vendor’s point of view, it’s rather like watching animals behind a glass as they react to some unknown quantity that has been placed unexpectedly into their habitat. All are initially curious and at the same time cautious – they want to have a look but not to commit to the act of having a look.

At this year’s P&BD we had some serious speed-readers – Rain Man types, who intensively studied the magazine for about ten minutes before politely returning it to the stand, leaving you with the distinct impression that they had read the whole thing and stored it to memory. Then there were the panic browsers, those who pick up the magazine from a shopping reflex, then realise they’re not interested but give a show of looking through anyway, their brains feverishly flitting through escape routes rather than reading words. There are the purchase bluffers who have an interested read, and then start talking to their companion whilst still holding the magazine, making the stall vendor think – ah ha! possessive of the item – this is a sale, dudes! Then after five minutes of talking to their friend, they put the magazine back with a polite smile. Bah! And of course, every stall holder’s no.1 browser – those who read a few things, admire the design, ask you a few interesting question, then buy a copy to enjoy later! (Or you can just skip to the last part… that’s fine too.)

It’s a funny feeling looking up from the Everyman crossword and seeing four or five people facing in your direction, engrossed in reading, right in front of you. It makes you realise that reading is a private affair, even when done in public, and it’s sort of strange to be given license to stare at people while they’re doing it…

Away from the intense social scrutiny of the publishing fair, you can spy many species of reader around you. The free papers, in particular, reveals your reading personality: some, especially neat and well-turned out girls on their way home from the office, turn the pages very precisely, carefully folding each page down with carefully manicured hands before proceeding to methodically read its contents; or you might, like I do, rush through scouring the page for any titbit of information that immediately takes your interest, looking at the pictures, and then throwing it down feeling slightly travel sick and dissatisfied. Then there is a curious new breed of reader or, I suspect, half-reader: the mp3-er. They sit on a bus or tube listening to music … and apparently reading a novel at the same time… Is this a more highly developed sub-species we haven’t been told about?

But when people read, however they read, if they are able to concentrate fully on the page, their eyes take on a particular look: one that is quite clear, very focused, illuminated by comprehension, but also gives that sense of being a million miles away.

I mentioned the power of paper and through it, reading from the printed page, in my previous blog about William Powers’ essay on paper – ‘Hamlet’s Blackberry: Why Paper is Eternal’. A brilliant piece, it discusses why paper is still relevant when surely, as Tomorrow’s World no doubt predicted in 1985, we should have discarded paper long ago. We shouldn’t need paper anymore in 2009, the twenty-first century, for goodness sakes! (As well as only needing to take one pill a day for all our meals and nutritional needs, and wearing identical Lycra outfits for no apparent reason.)

In the essay, Powers suggests paper’s slogan could be: ‘Just this one thing’. Doesn’t that just make you feel better already? No messaging, no communication with people, over half of whom you don’t even like, no music, no images, no emails, no updates. Just reading. Aaaaah.

Reading can give us a sense, albeit an illusion, of personal power – not just because knowledge and understanding is power, but because reading a book gives us the power to escape normal life. You can feel as if you have beaten the mundanity of the everyday when you emerge from reading fifty pages, and realise you’ve been completely unaware of what has been happening around you, you have ignored all other distraction and have been taken far, far away – sometimes all the way to Barnet on the 43 bus…

I sometimes find it hard to let go of the intense sense of other reality that a really good novel provides: most memorable recent examples, feeling drunk whilst reading The Sopranos, checking out guys on the Tube as if I was a gay man whilst reading The Swimming-Pool Library, and having to leave American Psycho on a bus because, despite the fact I though it was an incredible book, I also kept imagining my fellow passengers taking out large knives and breaking into acts of extreme violence… and it was starting to bother me.

When a book gets you like that, even if you’re scared, it’s a good feeling – not like when a blast of disturbing imagery in a film freaks you out and you want to turn away. That is just about forgetting and blocking. An engaging, even if disturbing book, is far more powerful than that.

At which point I turn to my favourite of my not especially extensive collection of reference books: 20th Century Quotations – compiled by that quotations hoarder, Mr Frank S Pepper. (Not to be confused with Dr Pepper.) It is a very useful tome as it has most of the famous quotes, along with some very random and often very funny individually collected gems. It is also very simply ordered by subject, and Mr Pepper does not baulk at allowing such subjects as ‘Income Tax’, ‘Chamber Pots’, ‘Virginia Woolf’, and ‘Unemployment’ to be fully explored. Here are some of the gems dear Pepper has collected on the subject of ‘Reading’:

‘I would sooner read a timetable or a catalogue than nothing at all. They are much more entertaining that half the novels that are written.’ – Somerset Maugham, The Summing Up, 1938.

‘All my good reading, you might say, was done on the toilet.’ – Henry Miller, Black Spring, 1936.

‘I have only read one book in my life and that is White Fang. It’s so frightfully good I’ve never bothered to read another.’ – Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit Of Love, 1945.

‘Give me a bed and a book and I am happy.’ Logan Pearsall Smith. Afterthoughts, 1931.

And what must be the hands-down winner, Michael Caine talking in an exclusive interview with Woman’s Own, date unknown (or undisclosed at any rate):

‘I read books like mad, but I am careful not to let anything I read influence me.’

Though perhaps we should end with something a bit better? I think so. I hastily rifle to the ‘Books’ section of Pepper’s tome and find this typically opaque yet enlightening quote from the Notes on Life and Letters by Joseph Conrad, 1921: ‘Books most resemble us in their precarious hold on life.’

***

Just a short footnote to John Banville’s comments in the Paris Review, which I quoted, regarding narrative / characterisation & why those who claim their characters just ‘take over’ as they write are to be mistrusted. James Ellroy, also being interviewed by the Paris Review in the current issue, puts a stop to any further speculation on this issue:

‘It’s disingenuous when writers say they have no control over their characters, that they have a life of their own. Here’s what happens: you create the characters rigorously, and make clear choices about their behaviour. You reach junctures in your stories and are confronted with dramatic options. You choose one or the other.’

Don’t think we need to talk about that anymore, then. It’s another great interview, and some classic quotes as you would expect from Ellroy.

My favourite has to be when the interviewer asks him how well read he is. The response is typically direct and hilarious:

‘[…] I tried to read a Cormac McCarthy book and thought, Why doesn’t this cocksucker use quotation marks? I picked up another Cormac McCarthy book and saw that there were six or seven consecutive pages in Spanish. I didn’t know what it meant. My name isn’t Juan Ellroy, OK?’

OK.