Saturday, 12 December 2009
Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie and P. D. James that belong to my mum and her crime obsession. I organised the cookery books that belong mostly to my next brother and me to discover quite how many duplicates we have between us. He's living in college at the moment so all his cooking stuff is here. Still.
There isn't really excuse for the following, though.
The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers, first published in 1903. It's a relatively little-read early spy novel written at a period that was (rightfully) fearful of German imperial ambitions westward over the North Sea. It's actually a wonderful read, if you like an action story. That is no reason to have copies from re-issues in, respectively, each of 1955, 1978 and 1998. And I first met it as an audiobook, too, which means we have it FOUR times. I suspect the older two belong to my dad and my mum, and the newest one is mine. Still. Not really an excuse. For Harry Potter we have three copies of each of the last two novels. That's one for each child, though I suppose that makes sense - we were all living in different counties when those two were published. I also have the first book in Latin, but that's beside the point.
The duplication is hindering my ability to file things. I always have this problem. I suppose I have around two thirds of my books here, and the rest on shelves in Cornwall. Down there, where I have room for them, they're orderly - divided by genre and then alphabetised. Here, I've done my best. Adult fiction is downstairs, along with maps and travel, reference, drama, biography, interesting non-fiction ('coffee table') and most poetry. Up here beside me is the complete Discworld, 'young adult' fiction (that's the aforementioned Harry Potter*, Philip Pullman, Jonathan Stroud and a few other things - there isn't much space after Terry Pratchett), the irrelevant non-fiction and poetry anthologies. The main issue is that every single shelf is double-stacked, which means that A-E is behind F-K, etc, and hard to get to and hard to re-shelve. I haven't labelled things. I'm debating it. My family might upset things if they don't notice. I understand librarians and their constant air of irritation. It's taken me all day to do this and I hate the thought of it being disturbed. But I suspect that labelling things might be taken amiss, too...they aren't quite all mine.
I adore books. It's why I did a degree in English. I love them for escapism, I love them for learning, I love them for poetry and music and understanding and knowledge and information and discussion and ideas and new thoughts and hope and different moods and people and places to reflect back to myself. I get totally and utterly lost in stories, I always have. It's what makes me unbelievably irritating to watch films with - I jump, and gasp and mutter and have to resist shouting encouragement or warnings or advice to on-screen characters even in crowded cinemas. I usually fail when sitting on a sofa. That world onscreen is real. And I feel bereft when I finish a book, or a film, almost without exception. Putting one down in the middle used to be a very rare occurrence indeed, until my education led to more discerning tastes. Even now though, I'll probably read the book I've got and then not bother with anything else the author has written unless influenced by some trusted friend. Once a book is started I feel an obligation to it to finish it. It's a thing as a whole and never in parts - what comes after modifies what happened to begin with; you can rarely say with any authority that you don't like a book when you've only read half of it, you didn't look at the whole thing. That irritating foible of style might turn out to be magically transformed later in the tale into something of purpose. The only exception to this rule is something like a poetry or short story anthology, put together by an independent editor or team. Any set put together by a single author ought to hold together as a whole, like an album does. The best of them create something greater than the sum of their parts. I've never had that feeling about a multi-author collection, there's just too much disparity of style and preoccupation.
I do read several things at once, though, because what I read needs to reflect my mood or I will fidget and not do whatever doesn't fit justice. I tend to have a volume of poetry, something new to me - probably loosely-defined as 'literature' - and something familiar (still might be some sort of classic or modern classic) or otherwise simpler on the go all at once and will flit between them. That's often influenced by which is lightest. I read a lot of poetry collections on trains because they're so little. I actually don't get on with bookshops and browsing them, it isn't how I read. I follow threads, looking for influences on favourite authors or books I've heard reviewed or discussed or which come from the same family as something else I love. I have never been at a loose end for something to read next, not since I first picked up a book. I have a very well tended Amazon wishlist, which represents fairly accurately preoccupations of the moment, though with a bias towards to trashy because I let myself buy less of it - the 'worthy' stuff gets bought more often.
I virtually never read books created for 'art' that were originally published in a foreign language (non-fiction or criticism is different). Translation is a difficult and valuable skill, granted, but to my mind it will always muddy whatever the original text said. Some might argue that translated works should be regarded as something in their own right, and maybe they should, but I don't want my closeness to a text mediated by somebody else. There was a point that I kept making over and over in one paper of my degree, and I can't now find the reference - about the fact that no reader can truly approach a text in total isolation as advocated by the enormously influential New Critics of the early C20th. How you understand a given word in a given position is always governed by where you have seen that word, that phrase, a similar word, a rhyming phrase, the same idea, a contrary idea, used in what you have read before - which is influenced by your historical moment, your employment, your gender, your education, your class, what you're listening to...right down to what the weather outside is doing and maybe even what colour pants you put on this morning.** A translation means that someone else's unique position in time is already influencing how the text can be interpreted, and so one individual's unified creation becomes clouded. At some stage, maybe I'll learn enough of a foreign language to read well in it, but it hasn't happened yet. It requires total immersion, I think, to get to the point where your mind feels the connections between things instinctively. Mind you, there are advantages to being an outsider - I, reading American novels for example, will understand them very differently to someone from that nationality, and it is from such oppositions that the most interesting ideas come from, I guess. What I read won't be what you read, and from what we each comprehend from a text will a more full and more interesting reading, conversation, philosophy come***. That is a strong reason for the existence of criticism, for me****. To do with the exchange of ideas is central in really good criticism and the reason that I read essays on texts I'm interested in, still - even if I'm not writing essays any more.
More about the function of art, from me. I meant it when I said I was keen.
*I keep thinking 'that is the type of thing I'd usually find a reference link for'. But it's Harry Potter. No.
**I think this possibly wanders around the edges of Derridan Deconstructionism, should anyone be remotely interested. Lots of fairly nihilist Post-Structuralist Post-Modernist philosophy about the instability and eventual futility of human endeavour. Fascinating, but a little dark.
***Edward Said definitely discusses the idea that the Critic should always be in opposition to society in order to be of any use. Which kind of makes sense. References... I *think* this will be in The World, The Text, and the Critic but I couldn't swear to it...
****There's a very great deal to say about the function of criticism - which really means the function and influence of art and literature...the discussion of the POINT of reading. Academics have been studying it for centuries, which always seems a little uncomfortable to me. All those discussions could boil down to a justification for their existence, on one level. In modern times (as opposed to the Greeks), the conversation comes into its own in the Victorian period with Matthew Arnold's seminal essay 'The Function of Criticism at the Present Time' (1864), particularly 'the idea of a disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world, and thus to establish a current of fresh and true ideas.' I find it absolutely fascinating and wrote my dissertation on the function of art and whether or not it is or even remotely should be regarded as philosophy. I'm aware that other people wouldn't find it quite so interesting, though...