Sunday, July 24, 2005

Reading in the Shade

More a question than a blog (drum roll for the chain of references please...): I'm reading Neil Jordan's Shade, having started to read my mum's copy a while back, and it's making me nostalgic for a whole case of books (as I suppose the plural noun must be) I read about the same time as his earlier Sunrise with Sea Monsters, such as Colm Toíbin's The South, which I just saw on a top ten somewhere (much of a blogger I am...) and an Anne Tyler book about a woman who leaves her family that has, early on, a sentence to the effect that "she was a woman who knew how to eat alone at a restaurant, without a book" (something I'm well nigh incapable of) -- but then that memory, as well as making me wonder if anyone out there knows the name of the Tyler book I'm thinking of (could be Ladder of Years or A Slipping Down Life), sets me off on two streams of consciousness: the first, about reading in restaurants, cafés, bus shelters, and the way in which books become indelibly associated with the place in which they are read (most of The Aeneid in a park in Bath, resulting in uneven but quite severe sunburn; bell hook's all about love on the Dundas West via King streetcar, in a summery blur; HP 2 through 4 on my friend Malve's sofa in her beautiful house, the house of perfection that I will always long for, where I also read...) anyway, stream of consciousness 2, somehow intertwined with 1: Anne Tyler makes me think about realist writers writing across gender, because of an article Sebastian Faulks wrote about one of her more recent books, commenting on a male character who stops to comment, internally, on the fabric of the bra worn by the woman he is seducing - this is relevant to Jordan, who switches between male and female characters living in the same era as those in Faulks' best known novel, Birdsong... and this stream meanders into the thought that I rarely read this kind of serious, adult, largely realist (Shade is narrated by a ghost) fiction any more - I'm bored by the thought of tackling nine out of ten novels that get reviewed. But I can't bring myself to give away those shelves & shelves of such fiction. There's still the odd writer who could get me to read anything from a post-it note upwards: A.L. Kennedy, Angela Carter (who wrote the screenplay of Company of Wolves, directed by Jordan), Elizabeth Bowen (still have a couple of her novels that I found at a book sale waiting for the right time), David Mitchell - but then, none of them are realists, are they?

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Losing It

I've spent the day pleasantly adrift from all that should have been anchoring me (thesis work, horrible heat, the need for food) in the company of Rebecca Solnit's new book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost. What, you cry, another new book? What happened to the plan? Don't you read your own blog? Well, it's a funny story that mirrors both the idea of the blog and the subject of the book. Some time ago, I decided that I wasn't going to buy Hope in the Dark before the store returned it, but did a websearch on Rebecca Solnit because I remembered my friend Leo mentioning her to me. I came across some reference to her forthcoming book on getting lost, and ordered it from the store - then forgot about it. While hanging out of a weekend morning in the UK, I read a review, which I now can't find on the Guardian website (it's not like my media consumption is very broad). Then, magically, the book appeared with my name on it. For those of you for whom Solnit isn't even a vague memory, you could check out litblog Conversational Reading for a better guide than I can give you. But she's one of those authors that you switch onto when you need her, a lucky find, a samizdat secret. I'm full of envy because she writes without teaching - it would be unfair to call her books academic, but they contain both research and theory, as well as personal narrative and meditation. It's hard to sum up FGtGL, partially because the experience of reading it is about allowing your mind to meander, to notice what strike you as a reader. My course through the book will be utterly different to a reader with a different set of life experiences and interests. Like Benjamin, Solnit is a wanderer rather than a guide, and so ends up being a better guide because she doesn't claim to know the way. It's also a beautiful book to hold, at least in the US edition - it feels lovingly designed (although in occasional need of a copy editor), and is MUCH smaller than HP6, so perfect for reading while you go about getting lost.

Monday, July 18, 2005

There's a hundred million HP6 reviews out there by now, and I never really planned to contribute to them, although it was fascinating to hear just how global a phenomenon the books have become, putting literature firmly in the 'entertainment industry' in terms of revenue, reach, celebrity, and media coverage. This site is supposed to be dedicated to the lost and the obscure - but also to the delirious madness of reading, and Pottermania counts. Especially if - like me - you work in a bookstore. A bookstore that decided to have its annual Customer Appreciation bbq (yes, we really rock) on the day that HP6 launched. Harry Potter even graced us with his presence. There was a short reading (not by Harry Potter, but by emerging local fantasy author Daniel Justice). And there were the customers, all with their own Potter stories, Potter tics, Potter plans. Me? I reckoned I'd wait until a sick day in November, and then lie in bed and read the whole thing over some boiled eggs or soup. The books are like comfort food to me - heavy, not bad for you but maybe not so great, familiar, and satisfying without ever being incredibly delicious. I think Rowling has an amazing fund of inventiveness when it comes to detail (names, magic gags, buildings, character quirks - like Mr. Weazley's fascination with all things Muggle) but she sweats the big stuff (prose style, character development, narrative clarity). Not everyone has to be Henry James - although fantasy shares James' preoccupation with the minutiae of what characters eat and what the furniture looks like. World-building. All good. After selling so many of the damn bricks, I got caught up in the fever (also, I'd been working for nine hours and it was very hot, so I may have had heatstroke), and decided to buy it and read straight through. Five hours later I was wearier, warmer, and slightly teary from a well-managed climax (hardly an ending) that had the Chinese food effect: satisfied but hungry for more.
Except there's something very weird in the magic world on the other side of The Leaky Cauldron. Many reviewers have noted that HP6 'develops' its now-adolescent characters by having them engage in snogging. Fair enough, it's a main constituent of being a teenager (along with drinking weird potions, obviously), but Rowling's descriptions of both the physical and emotional relationship between Ron and (look away, spoiler) Lavender - as well as between Ron's older brother Bill and Fleur Delacour - are full of queasy images of disgust and violence. Harry's desire for (look away) Ginny is figured as a monster that lives in his chest - which makes his feelings less, rather than more, convincing. I think back to the faraway days of HP5, in which Harry stared moodily into fireplaces and tossed and turned in his sleep waiting for a message from Sirius... who always seemed to be on the verge of telling Harry something, every time they were together, and then - someone else would burst in.
The passion of Harry's feelings for Sirius was unmistakable (to me, anyhow), and fitted in with the curious evolving backstory about Harry's father and his gang of male chums, who liked to turn into animals and sneak off for all-night carousing. One of them, Remus Lupin, becomes a teacher at Hogwarts and... disappears every so often, returning with the signs of a hell-raising night out all over his face. As played by David Thewlis in the tremendous film version of HP3, Lupin is Harry's first grown-up friend, someone who understands Harry's isolation, the special challenges he faces. At the same time, in the film, romance is burgeoning between Ron and Hermione. And then - after an unfortunate night in a house of ill-repute - Lupin's cover is blown, parents are horrified, threats are made. It's a resonant conclusion for anyone who knows schools, and the precarious position of teachers who have to juggle a private life with a medley of restrictions such as... oh, say, don't be gay. Mrs. Thatcher's fear of queers legislation, Section 28, which banned any teaching that addressed homosexuality, lies behind Rowling's gentle werewolf and his fate, to my mind.
And then there's the rest of the Order of the Phoenix - Tonks, in particular. Now, not every tomboy who doesn't want to be called Nymphomaniac and dyes her hair pink and does magic kung-fu is a dyke. Not even every tomboy etc. who names herself after a toy truck. But what the hell is one to make of Tonks' sudden confession of love for Lupin in HP6? (Ooops, spoiler). It has to be the least convincing note in a book that has its share of unconvincing hetero muzak, such as all the girls at Hogwarts suddenly becoming silly gigglers who make eyes at Harry (except Luna, who is mad, and Hermione, who keeps giving him meaningful looks about something). The only sensible XX in the whole thing is Professor McGonagall (the lovely dykey flying teacher appears to have left to set up a coven in Cornwall or something). And she's called Minerva.
So I'm peeved - perhaps unfairly - at the boy-on-girl action that pervades HP6. It's not like it wasn't obviously going to happen. It's just that... a girl can hope. Harry's relationship with Sirius was the best-drawn of the series (as far as his relationship with adults goes), and Hermione suggests that Rowling doesn't think that all girls are eyelash-fluttering spazzes. As for my theory about Voldemort's Dark Side being the sort of loveless self-hating queerness that straight people attribute to serial killers in 1950s movies, while Lupin and Sirius represent a more integrated homosociality (that has brushed the Dark Side)... I think that's waiting for someone else's Ph.D. thesis.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

the beginning of the beginning of the beginning (or, sometimes the way forward is also the way back)

My friend SF emails to tell me that this blog is clearly inspired by his invention of the "degree of urgency" bookpile, which takes up a large section of his office floor, and is inhabited by many books that I've recommended to him. I remind him that he lifted the phrase from a review written by a mutual acquaintance, Gareth Evans, the editor of outstanding film magazine Vertigo. And that I knew Gareth before he did. In one of those curious 'the British arts scene is so small and yet so sprawling' incidents of reconnection, SF met Gareth many years after I encountered him (and subsequently lost touch), when he came to my first ever book-addict job, at Joseph's Bookstore on the border between the ghetto of Jewish North West London and the real world. Gareth thought Joseph's should sell his arts magazine Entropy, I thought Entropy should publish my poetry. Kismet, as they say. So Gareth is awarded the 'beginning of the beginning' certificate (with gold star) for setting the ball rolling nearly ten years ago...
The terrible, wonderful habit of book-collecting with a vengeance began during my tenure at Joseph's, particularly influenced by one customer, the Box Man, author Moris Farhi - you can read his review of the store by scrolling through this excellently-time-wasting directory of reviews of independent bookstores in London. Moris was, at the time, president of PEN UK and thus in touch with writers and journalists around the world. He would come in with long lists of new books, culled from literary magazine and other, more obscure processes of osmosis, and we would set aside a box. Over the next weeks, and sometimes months, Moris's books would arrive - some from publishers so small or countries so previously unpublished that we would turn them over in our hands as if they could not be real. Once, when Moris came in to trade a box for a new list (and, you know, some cash), I asked him how he found time to read all these books, as well as working as a writer and activist. He smiling knowingly and wisely under his knowing, wise beard, and said that of course he didn't find the time. He read some, and others assembled on a shelf in case... and he shrugged.
In case of what? I wondered. A time when there were no more books? A time when he couldn't leave the house? And, as I've grown older, I see that both of those things are possible, and that many writers in exile have experienced versions of one or the other. There's so many stories of writing, prison, torture, and punishment - Nadezha Mandelstam learning her husband's poems by heart so they would survive, Antonio Gramsci writing his devastating indictment of fascism while imprisoned by Mussolini, actress Mary Robinson starting to write poetry and novels in debtors' prison where she had been sent after her husband's bankruptcy - are three that spring to mind. Reading and writing can be taken away in an instant, by politics or disaster or ill-health. When I had severe tendinitis last year, I had to consider very seriously that I might never write a poem (or column or article or blog) again, or at least one without pain.
I survived - thanks to technology, patience, friends' love, and spending an entire day in bed reading Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix thinking 'Fuck, I could write this book in my sleep!' - and got back on the thesis treadmill, and book accumulation continued apace. Oh, the piles of theory books whose first chapters I've read! Oh, the matching piles of graphic novels from The Beguiling that I've read twice so I can avoid the theory books! But there's theory, and then there's 'theory', the stuff that loosely gets grouped with it because it's essayish and concerned with important stuff. I don't mean Foucault and the other inhabitants of the Ikea 'complete-with-books' bookshelf that occupies many of the living rooms I visit. I mean the Essay. Whether it's Montaigne or Marina Warner, there's the sense of a mind ranging over ideas, rather than coming to conclusions; delighting in the play of words, rather than using them for obfuscation. Essays were the big discovery of my Joseph's Bookstore year. I was introduced to works by the philosopher E.M. Cioran, by American writer Dorothy Allison, by travel writer Jan Morris, and - perhaps most lastingly - by the indescribable Walter Benjamin.
Benjamin then got 'taught' during undergrad, and I read the essays that I had to, dutifully, quelling any sign of passion other than for ripping work apart and finding something useful in the stuffing. But the one essay that I never read was the one that - according to psychic poster WipednWired - is the one that really is the beginning of the beginning of this blog. You can download a PDF of it here. It's called "Unpacking my Library," and it's the first essay in the collection Illuminations, which has been superceded by the super-Benjamin complete works appearing volume by volume. But Illuminations is all about collection, not completion - especially the first essay, in which Benjamin describes his library.
A collector, he sayys, has "a relationship to objects which does not emphasize their functional utilitarian value - that is, their usefulness - but studies and loves them as the scene, the stage of their fate." Wow (and I wonder how he ever considered himself a Marxist). Books are not only the scene and stage of the narratives that they contain, but of the narratives that surround them. Bibliophilia is centrally concerned not with objects, but with stories (and Benjamin has another essay in the volume called "The Storyteller"). This is why I've become increasingly drawn to buying travel books in one place, about a second place, and reading them as I travel in a third. Not only does it help me see transnational correspondences and differences, and to travel respectfully and with awareness, but it also adds to the storied nature of the books. Books about books that travel would be the ultimate example of this - like Barbara Hodson's The Sensualist, about tracking down the lost book plates of a famous work of anatomy. There's also reading books about places that you know that see them differently, or that invoke nostalgia - William Gibson's Pattern Recognition did this for me with London. I'd been in the restaurant that Cayce eats in in the first chapter the previous night, and - as I read the book on the plane back to Toronto - I had instant nostalgia for something that still existed but, because it was in a book, felt even further away in time and space.
Benjamin ends his essay with a list of places and people recalled by his methodical unpacking, finally returning him to his childhood bedroom and its one or two shelves (it's interesting that one of his largest collections was of rare children's books). He attributes the passion of collecting to children, who like to order and name their worlds, and to make something new out of what they find (Benjamin the Womble???), and imagines the impulse collector as "little genii" inside him, like a less tacky version of an inner child. At the end there is a sense of Benjamin disappearing back into childhood (his boyhood room, his children's books) willingly, as a reconnection with the imagination that allows him to build his own dwelling (of books) and imagine books as living objects. Books, he says, are most alive in the hands of a private owner who knows (hears?) their story. Although he admires the impetus, he shakes his head at public libraries, which make books into commodities, carriers of information, rather than individual objects in their own right.
That sounds a bit much like The Book for me, the one that can't be marked or destroyed. In the Jewish tradition, when a Torah scroll or prayer book, or anything containing the Tetragrammaton, is too old to be used, it is buried with a full funeral service (OK, so cutlery that's been unkoshered is also buried in the backyard, but there's no service over it -- still, I grant you, weird). I love my books. But I find it hard to accept Benjamin's embrace of private ownership, although I love the way he describes it, as an almost erotic relationship between book and owner, in which the owner listens, like the Sultan, to the book's 1001 tales, without ever opening the cover. For me, that sense of the book's story comes from sharing - lending, discussing, placing one book next to another, even leaving a book somewhere for a stranger to find it (although I've yet to engage in official BookCrossing, slogan "Free Your Books). Or donating them to booksales, prisons, thrift stores. Books, to me, belong in circulation.
Of course, Benjamin was talking about rare books, first editions, stuff with woodcuts. I'm talking about Harry Potter 5. Of the twelve tea chests of books sitting in my mum's garage in London, I managed to clear out two, mostly kids' books that I gave to the families across the street. Will I ever need my Riverside Chaucer again? Probably not. But it's Literature, and that makes it hard to give up. And it meant something to me once (yeah, a millstone around my neck). So I agree with Benjamin more than I let on. Books do acquire meaning from holding on to them, even as they acquire marginalia, coffee mug marks, bus tickets, and minute flakes of skin. As for the books that remain unread, they offer something else (other than a sense of potency in ownership, and pride in a complete collection) - they offer the promise of a future, in which there might be time, or cause, to read them. In case... in case of a quiet day, or a longing for William Maxwell (one of Moris' recommendations, still languishing on a shelf in London). In case of emergencies.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Reading London in its wounds

A map with a whole in the middle greeted me on waking this morning. London turned into a Polo mint (Lifesaver, for North American readers) by a series of explosions in the capital's vulnerable bloodstream, the public transport network. People's responses are pouring out, and into the media. King's Cross, scene of an almighty fire that killed dozens of people and derailed the underground for years (some would say it never recovered). Tavistock Square, where my grandfather died, giving a speech to the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Russell Square, core of Modernist London, where so many university students live, where the British Museum stands as a monument to both imperialism and multicultural education. Edgware Road, terrifyingly posted as "Edgware" on many sites, although the suburb where I grew up and the subway stop for Madame Tussaud's are an hour apart. Aldgate East, end of the line, east of the city, edging towards where the Olympic regeneration project will begin. So close to where I was last Friday, filled with excitement at the new East London blooming from the depression of the 1980s, becoming a cultural centre. Where I sat in The Flea Pit, a cafe exhibiting local artists, and offering out space for screenings, reading the incredible words of Sally Potter's new film YES, persuading us to substitute love for hate, and courage for fear. I think of the scene in the film where Simon Abkarian's character, a Lebanese immigrant who has just been fired from his job after he responded to racist comments by other workers, rides the Tube alone, on Christmas Eve. The Tube, which admits everyone who can pay a fare, and carries them where they need to go - or just offers a seat for thought.
The Tube might be a joke, a complete waste of time some days, but it's so integral to London's identity -- I think people sheltering in the now-defunct British Museum stop from air raids during the Blitz. Images of safety, of companionship. In London, everyone rides public transit - unlike North America, where the car is king and anyone on the bus is either too young, too poor, or too illegal to have a car. Of course, I'm eulogising - the Tube is also a crime scene, a place of surveillance, and a source of confusion for locals and tourists alike. But as James Meek writes in his beautiful article from the vantage of east London, public transport could, if we looked up from our papers and self-interest long enough, provide community and conversation that cuts across all divisive lines, through the commonality of space and motion.
But it's there. And we do read on it - not just newspapers or ads, but books. Everyone who uses the Tube learns that nervous, hyper-attentive state of reading, checking up at stations, monitoring the stranger next to you. Long commutes are the ideal site to read - I used to do my homework on the 113 bus (when I wasn't sleeping). An average Tube journey has gone from short story to novel as the system grinds down and gets only partially overhauled. And it's in every novel, play, film about London that I can think of, or find on my shelves. As Delirium's Library is wont to do, it throws up (un)likely bedfellows: Rose Macaulay's The World My Wilderness, an anarchic post-WWII novel about bombsites and freedom, and Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, about an alternate universe coinciding with the London Tube.
Then there's the many volumes of Poems on the Underground, full of memories of "I first read this poem..." "I first discovered Anna Akhmatova..." (and the teensiest bit of ambition to be a poet on the underground ;) and the London A-Z, perhaps the best book ever written, certainly one I turn to again and again. It changes every time. There's Aldgate East station highlighted in pink, with my route to the Flea Pit. There's Russell Square, with a small black cross beside the student apartments where friends were staying.
What else? Iain Sinclair's conspiratorial black dystopias of Eighties London (perhaps the best descriptions of the East End) - or Derek Walcott's Omeros, for its melancholy stanzas on being lost, exiled in - but amazed by - London as a Caribbean man. If it's horror you want, the Tom de Ville's series Urban Gothic, full of things that go bang in the night. Or perhaps Alan Moore's V for Vendetta (read it before the Wachowski film comes out).
Or, to go another way, recent books about the Londons few people see, the London being changed and rebuilt by new communities - Monica Ali's Brick Lane, Lela Aboulela's Minaret. Alan Hollinghurst's gay London in The Swimming Pool Library and The Line of Beauty.
Perhaps above all, the London book that takes in the city and sees a battlefield, where the ghosts of soldiers walk in Hyde Park, where time stops like a bus, Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. A book where the desire to life emerges from tragedy - but only just. Where the city is as fragile and real as the memory of a kiss opening like a tulip. Something to hold onto.
And if someone reads over your shoulder (perhaps now not the worst Tube crime imaginable), share the book with them.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Beginning at the Beginning

Once upon a time, there was a library that held all the books in the world. No, really. It was called the Library of Alexandria and it was so large that young boys were employed to scurry up ladders and fetch papyri for the scholars and readers below. The publishing industry hadn't quite hit its stride, most people in the world were part of largely oral cultures, and there was no way of getting anything written outside of Europe, Asia, and Africa - but who's complaining? Classical scholars, for one, because the Library burned down, destroying complete texts by Sappho, Euripides, and other ancient authors whose names we don't even know. So great excitement ensues when 100 words are recovered on a fragment of mummy shroud and turn out to be a "lost" Sappho poem.
Anyone who has moved house, or returned an essay's worth of late library books, knows that books are hardly insubstantial. Paper weighs you down. It makes Ikea bookcases sag, it gathers dust, gives you wee cuts, and generally has physical presence in the world. For thousands of years - in Western culture, at least - paper has been the stuff of literature, the material of stories and poems, and books have been possessions, things to pile, stack, arrange alphabetically or by colour or on coffee tables. Change is in the air, and most librarians are worried, as the internet turns books into bits and bytes, even books that were once the province of academics with library cards.
Delirium's Librarian is not worried, though. She was there at the burning of Alexandria (and has the scars to prove it). She was there when the Nazis burned Jewish books in Berlin. She was in London recently when Queen Mary's University weeded its collection and dumped books in a skip. Scraps, broken-backed texts, books no-one has ever checked out, pamphlets, anything with a 50% off sticker that isn't a self-help book... these all make it into her capacious book bag, and come home to form part of the library she guards.
Until now, it's just been a storehouse, gathering that aforementioned dust - but, prompted by the charming historian Alberto Manguel and brilliant writer and scholar of the lost culture of Edil-Amarandh, Alison Croggon, I have decided to put the library online.
Not literally, you understand (only Google has those resources, and that arrogance), but as a story in itself - of reading, of remembering how books came to be in my possession, of seeing where working through them takes me, making connections, hopefully hearing from other readers (best comment on each reading gets the book! How's that for a library?)... And in remembering and connecting, an archive will form of lost texts, writers, bookstores. Does anyone remember Compendium in Camden, London? Does anyone know what happened to its fabulous collection of Beat, Modernist and experimental books? I have this plan to make an installation one day... But for now the blog will have to stand, virtual monument to the passing of paper, people and places.
"Men and bits of paper / Blown by the cold wind," as that old curmudgeon T.S. Eliot put it when he was busy shoring up culture's ruins the last time everything seemed to be falling to pieces and into place. And who wouldn't feel curmudgeonly when discovering that the splendid Books Etc. at the Royal Festival Hall is closing because evil conglomerate Borders is refusing to pay the rent (how much more expensive than Oxford Street can it be???). But then, who wouldn't feel uncurmudgeonly at discovering the splendid half-price sale on small press, consignment, and generally weird books with which they didn't go gently into the good night? Having hauled my haul clear across London, and now back to Toronto (much to Air Canada's disapproval), Delirium's Library has a groaning new shelf - which is where I intend to start my monumental project of reading every book that I own but have yet to read, logging it here. I don't think this means an end to book-buying - I work at an independent bookstore after all! So my voraciousness - I once read Finnegan's Wake in a day for a dare - will be put to the test. Watch this space for the delirium to set in...