Category Archives: Bookends
While catching up on back issues of The Paris Review recently, I came across an article which at first glance I thought was advocating a rather strange way of reading books.
Elisa Gabbert, a poet and writer, said that “reading the introductions to great books …” was one of the great pleasures in her life. Nothing remarkable about that; plenty of readers can agree with that sentiment. It was the next phrase in her sentence that got my attention for she went on to say “.. and not the books themselves.” That seemed a bizarre idea. An introduction is surely not meant to stand alone but to provide a form of gateway to the text itself. So why would you stop at the gate and not want to enter?
For Gabbert however, the fascination with introductions is the way they often contain grand claims of a philosophical nature; theories or big ideas the meaning of which might, or might not, be clear but which she enjoys just because they exist. It’s a love affair that extends beyond the introduction into all kinds of material found at the front of books; from translator’s notes (she’s thrilled by the linguistic trivia and gossip they contain) and epigraphs. It’s a pleasure that apparently began with a Chinese classic text called Tao Te Ching which she has yet to complete yet she’s read the introduction to a 1989 edition several times and heavily underlined key passages.
I confess that I’ve read only the introduction to many books but they’ve always been business-related titles. Usually it was on occasions when the book was required reading prior to yet another strategic review (Who Moved my Cheese, The Innovators’ Dilemma spring to mind here). Getting on a transatlantic flight once I was bemused to look across the rows of seats to find a number of my colleagues all desperately trying to read enough of Jim Collins’ Good to Great to be able to look intelligent when the subject came up at the forthcoming leadership pow wow. Every one of us admitted later that we’d got no further than chapter 2 and skimmed the rest…..
But if there was a non fiction book I was really keen to read, I can’t imagine reading only the introduction. Wouldn’t that feel like going out for dinner but stopping at the appetiser? Even if the introduction didn’t give me the feeling this is a book I would understand, appreciate or even enjoy, I’d still want to read a little of it before making up my mind.
I was relieved however that Gabbert takes a different approach when it comes to fiction. For her, introductions to classic novels are so “notoriously full of spoilers” that she tends to avoid them though admits that sometimes the preface content does provide some gems of information (one novel she mentions began with a story involving Dostoevsky and a last minute reprieve as he stood before a firing squad.)
My own approach is rather haphazard. Before plunging into the meat of any new ‘classic’ I’ll scan some of the front matter. If I know nothing about the author I’ll read the biographical information and any notes which give me an idea of the period and the context in which the novel was written or explain the author’s influence on later writers. If the author has written a foreword I’ll read that also because it gives me an insight into what they were trying to achieve with their book. Some nuggets of gold lie within these sections — my edition of North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell for example explained how the novel’s title was changed under pressure from Charles Dickens, a change that significantly shifted the emphasis of the book away from a story of individual growth and towards social criticism. In my edition of Trollope’s Dr Thorne I found an apology from the author to his readers for the fact the novel begins with “two long dull chapters full of description”.
The one type of front material I try hard to avoid at this stage is anything which suggests it will delve into the themes of the book or characterisation. because I don’t want to be influenced in how to read the text — I much prefer to make up my own mind.
But when I’ve got to the end of the text, then I’ll go back to the beginning and read the foreword and introductions. Over the years I’ve found Oxford World Classics and Penguin Classics editions the best at providing thoughtful analysis of the novel, particularly when they’re written by a leading academic. Often the emphasis will reflect the academic’s own field of interest. Reading an old copy of Jane Eyre I found an article by David Lodge about the significance of fire and ice in the novel (it was a shortened version of what is considered a landmark interpretation). In a later copy I found the introduction was more focused on the novel’s underlying theme of colonialism. Neither of these would have made much sense if I’d read them before reading the novel itself, but reading them afterwards enhanced the whole experience.
It seems my interest in this front material isn’t shared universally. I discovered during a tutorial for an Open University course I was pursuing a few years ago, that no-one else had even looked at the content that came before chapter 1. For them it was just a distraction, or of questionable value. I tried hard to persuade them otherwise though not sure if I ever succeeded.
You can find Elisa Gabbert’s article in the Paris Review blog here.
Let’s get the good news out of the way first. Last month you may remember I said that, because I’d broken my upper humerus, I had limited movement in my arm. Good progress has been made in the past month and I no longer walk like a penguin. I can do pretty much most domestic and social activities unaided now, including drive my car. Freedom at last!!! I even managed a three hour baking class last week where we were throwing around a heavy batch of bread dough (I did it left handed just to be on the safe side).
Apart from trying to coax my damaged wing back into health, what else was I up to on October 1, 2017?
I’m not one of those people who makes a habit of simultaneously reading multiple books. Two I can manage providing they are in vastly different genres (a crime novel say and a more literary novel, or a novel and a short story collection) but unusually I have three books on the go at the moment.
The first is my 44th Booker Prize winner – Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre which won the prize in 2003. This is not one I was looking forward to read and it seems I am not alone. Although some reviewers thought it highly comic, others hated it and didn’t feel it deserved to win the prize. It’s set in a town in Texas in the aftermath of a mass shooting of students at the local school. One student, Vernon Little, is taken in for questioning and gets caught up in the legal and media circus. I’ve not yet read far enough to judge whether this will be one I enjoy but it certainly has a unique style.
By contrast on my e-reader is a psychological story that became a cinema classic when it was adapted by Alfred Hitchcock with the leading roles taken by James Stewart and Kim Novak. The film was Vertigo and the book was D’entre les morts (From Among the Dead) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. It was published in English as The Living and the Dead in 1956 and now re-issued under the new Pushkin Vertigo imprint. Apart from re-locating the action from Paris to San Francisco, Hitchcock seems to have stayed fairly close to the original story of a former detective asked to help an old schoolfriend who is concerned about the increasingly strange behaviour of his wife. Interest in his quarry becomes a dangerous obsession however.
My third book is a re-read. It’s a novella which has become a stable of the school syllabus in the UK for 14-16 year olds. I’d never read Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck until four years ago when it was chosen by the book club I belonged to at the time but loved it (my review is here). Now I’m re-reading it to help coach a young girl in my village who is being bullied at school so studying on her own until a solution can be found.
Reflecting on the state of my personal library
One of my goals for 2017 is to enjoy the books I already own and to reign back on acquiring yet more. I started 2017 with 318 unread books. I’m holding steady to last month’s total at 274. I bought just one book in September: The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames) by Emile Zola published in 1883 as part of his Rougon-Macquart cycle. This one focuses on the world of the department store, a form of retail outlet that is very familiar to us today but was an innovative concept in the mid-nineteenth century. Until then, shoppers had to visit separate establishments for different items but with Le Bon Marché (the model for Zola’s store) they could find all their purchases under one roof. The book was adapted by the BBC for a costume-drama series The Paradise broadcast in 2012 and 2013.
Thinking of reading next…
I don’t know what I’ll be reading later in the month other than one of the remaining six Booker prize titles from my list. It’s a long time since I read any of the Louise Penny novels I bought on my last trip to the USA ( I much preferred the covers of the US editions to the British ones) so a return to her fictitious village of Three Pines could be on the cards. I also found a little collection of Penelope Lively books when I was hunting through the shelves recently and its ages since I read anything by her. As always there are too many choices!
Watching: I read Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time at the time it was published which is now about 30 years ago and went on to read and enjoy many more of his novels (his early output is, with the exception of the magnificent Atonement, superior to his more recent work.). The recent BBC adaptation starring Benedict Cumberbatch was a reminder of just how powerful a study of loss and grief The Child in Time is and of McEwan’s versatility as an author.
Required viewing in our house at the moment is The Great British Bake Off. I’m frustrated by the intrusions of the commercial breaks but other than that the series hasn’t seemed to have suffer much by it’s move away from the BBC ( I never did like the Mel and Sue double act). There’s a new series of The Apprentice starting I think this week – this is a show that is probably on its last legs. The last few series they seem to have scraped the barrel and found the most inane and useless candidates possible. They talk a lot about how great they are but I wouldn’t let them anywhere near any business of mine. It’s good for a laugh though.
And that is it for this month. I hope by this time next month the arm will be back in operation again. Until then, happy reading everyone.
School term started a few weeks ago here in the UK. This weekend saw thousands of new students (including my nephew) head off for university which means Cardiff, where there are two universities and a further education college, is best avoided for a little while. I made a mistake last year and ended up in the city during Fresher’s Week – the pavements were congested with gangs of students (why do all newbies go around in large groups) and the roads full of these odd-looking vehicles where people sat at a bar drinking beer while cycling. A dangerous combination surely? The most amusing aspect was to encounter the people handing out leaflets for parties and bars – I clearly wasn’t in the right age profile for such festivities but they didn’t want to offend me so kept foistering all this stuff on me. I kept all the coffee shop vouchers and 2 for 1 cocktails but ditched the ones for the burger chains along with the free condoms.
Not to be outdone I had my own back-to-school event this week. Not as a student but as a volunteer for an adult literacy and numeracy programme being run in my village. Literacy is something I’ve always been passionate about, even more so after I met the woman who started the Plain English Campaign in the UK. Chrissie Maher didn’t learn to read until she was in her mid teens. Many years later, frustrated by the complexity of a lot of government forms, she set up a project in Salford, UK to help people in the same position. In 1979 she took on the government by burning piles of their forms in front of the Houses of Parliament, an act which brought her to the attention of a government minister called Margaret Thatcher. The Plain English Campaign was born as a result.
I’m not in the same league as Chrissie Maher but I know there are many adults who struggle with writing and arithmetic because they missed out a lot of formal education. The Essential Skills programme is giving them a second chance. A few of the people in our programme are mothers who want to become youth workers but can’t start training until they can prove they have basic literacy and numeracy skills. We also have some young people who can’t start college because they don’t have the required qualifications. Even though we’ve only had a few sessions together I’m impressed by how determined all these people are – it takes a lot of courage to say ‘I need help.’
It’s been an eye-opening experience for me because it’s meant digging into the grey cells to remember concepts I first learned 40 or 50 years ago. I’ve worked with words for all of my career so I think I know a thing or two about punctuation and sentence construction but explaining it, now that’s a different thing. Faced this week with the question: what are the two situations in which you use a comma, my mind went blank. I know it instinctively but that’s not much use to students faced with the conundrum of when to use it’s rather than its or whose instead of who’s.
The picture with arithmetic is even worse. I’ve thought for many years that there are words people and numbers people. I belong firmly to the first. Show me a piece of text and I can summarise, analyse, edit or proof read it easily and quickly. Show me a set of numbers or a chart and I’ll be able to make some sense of it – eventually. It made work rather challenging often when I’d be sat with one of our business boards reviewing last quarter’s performance for example and everyone else would quickly home in on what was working well/ what was heading for a fall etc. Me, I’d still be working it out long after they’d passed to the next topic.
Addition, multiplication , subtraction, division I can do in my head (the product of working in my parent’s shop every Saturday without the benefit of a calculator or fancy cash till). But I’ve forgotten everything I ever learned about multiplication of fractions, how to solve an equation or calculate the area of a circle. I knew it once (I have the certificate to prove it) but it’s long disappeared down memory lane. As for those stupid questions about calculating how long a bath fills if the tap runs at x gallons a minute and the plug hole empties at y gallons a minute, I never did figure how out to solve those puzles. I couldn’t ever see the point really. Nor did I see the purpose in calculating the point at which two trains would pass if they were travelling in opposite directions at different speeds. I mean, how many times in the last five years have you been called upon to know how to do this?
But these are still questions that our students might encounter so I thought I’d better refresh the old memory. Part of my summer has therefore been spent re-learning how to multiply and divide fractions and decimals (this has generated much heated debate with Mr Booker Talk who takes a completely different route to get to the answers) and work out percentages. As you can tell from the title of these two books I’ve gone right back to the beginning. It’s going to get harder from here on though – next step is my old favourite of algebra. But I need a glass of wine to help me with that I suspect.