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.
It’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation, a meme where a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Readers and bloggers are invited to join in by creating their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book.
This month’s chain begins with a book I have never heard of let alone read. It’s Like Water for Chocolate, a debut work by the Mexican author Laura Esquivel. Apparently the central character grows up to be a master chef, using cooking to express herself and sharing recipes with readers.
The obvious choice for chocolate lovers like myself would be to the best selling novel Chocolat by Joanne Harris. But I think for my first link I’ll use the location where chefs work rather than the ingredients they use.
In 1929, an aspiring author by the name of Eric Blair arrived in Paris. Whether out of necessity because he had his money stolen, or because he wanted to gather material for a book, he began working as a dishwasher in some of the city’s restaurants. The result was Down and Out in Paris and London, the first full-length work by an author better known as George Orwell.
Paris of course likes to think of itself as the gourmet capital of the world. The recently-published Michelin guide lists 10 restaurants in the city awarded the coveted 3 stars (remarkably however this achievement is outdone by Tokyo with twelve 3-star restaurants). Gourmet restaurants attract gourmands which gives me my next book in the chain.
The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery features Pierre Arthens, the greatest food critic in France. In the final two days of his life he wants to track down the most delicious food he has ever eaten. It’s a flavour he recalls from the years before he was critic though he is not exactly sure if it came from his childhood or his adolescent years. As he digs into his memory, he remembers all the dishes he has relished over the years, like this ” Pan roasted breast of Peking duck rubbed with berbère; grapefruit crumble à la Jamaïque with shallot confit … ”
Before I stopped eating meat I was quite partial to duck though I don’t find the combination of fowl and grapefruit very appealing. But then I’m not a gourmand.
All those descriptions of food do however remind me of another character who thinks he has a refined palette. So for my next link let’s leave France behind and move to the English coast to catch up with Charles Arrowby, the central character in Iris Murdoch’s Booker-prize winning novel The Sea, The Sea. Charles, who considers he has had a highly successful career as a London stage director, retires to a bit of a tumbledown seaside cottage to write his memoirs. In between writing and swimming, he prepares his own meals, some of which sound frankly bizarre.
For lunch, I may say, I ate and greatly enjoyed the following: anchovy paste on hot buttered toast, then baked beans and kidney beans with chopped celery, tomatoes, lemon juice and olive oil. (Really good olive oil i essential, the kind with a taste, I have brought a supply from London)
I could manage the anchovy paste on toast quite easily but baked beans and kidney beans on the same plate would be a step too far. I’m beginning to think duck and grapefruit wouldn’t be so bad after all….
Charles thinks he is irresistable to women but the protagonist in the novel for my next link would certainly not be one happy to share his lunch table and it’s nothing to do with his after shave.
Marian McAlpin, the protagonist of The Edible Woman, by Margaret Atwood, has a problem with food. Meat revolts her but so do eggs, carrots and even rice puddings. Soon she is existing on little other than salad leaves. Her revulsion with food is symbolic of her rejection of the kind of behaviour expected of her as a woman. On the eve of her marriage she struggles against the idea that her change of status will mean she can no longer be herself. Atwood’s first novel was considered a landmark when it was published in 1969 because of its themes about gender stereotyping and objectification of women.
Fast forward some forty years and we find in my next link another author using women’s relationship with food to tackle the same issue. The Vegetarian by Han Kang was one of the most extraordinary and disturbing books I’ve read in many years. Yeong-hye is a docile, obedient South Korean wife until the day she decides to stop eating meat. In the eyes of her husband and family this is an act of gross rebellion against their culture so they try to force her to eat. It doesn’t work. She stops eating all together in the belief she is a tree and hence needs sustenance only from the earth.
The starvation both Yeong-hye and Marian McAlpine experience is the product of mental disturbance but for the protagonist in my next, and final link, starvation is thrust upon her by a force over which she has no control.
White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen takes a real life event in his native Finland, a devastating famine in 1867 that resulted from a series of poor harvests. The food shortage co-incided with a particularly harsh winter. In desperation Marja, a peasant farmer’s wife from the north, abandons her dying husband and sets off on foot through waist-high snow with her two young children. They trudge from village to village, sometimes supported by strangers but just as often turned away and denied even a morsel of bread. It’s a bleak book, and not just because of the many descriptions of the barren, inhospitable landscape, but because of what it says about human nature when faced on the doorstep with suffering.
It’s a sombre note on which to end this chain …
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.
Today is National Poetry Day in the UK in honour of which I thought I’d share two poems by one of my favourite poets: William Blake. One of the aspects of his work I love is his ability to use poetry to shine a light on the injustices he saw around him, of which there were many.
The Chimney Sweeper
When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ” ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!”
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.
There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head
That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved, so I said,
“Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”
And so he was quiet, & that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping he had such a sight!
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black;
And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins & set them all free;
Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing they run,
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.
Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind.
And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his father & never want joy.
And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm;
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.
Blake is of course highlighting the appalling practice of child labour that was so prevalent in the late 18th and 19th centuries where, as young as four or give, boys were set to clean chimneys which they could more easily negotiate because of their small size. This poem always suggests to me a court case where the child sweeper is giving evidence in the witness box and calling on the jury to do their duty by him and his fellow sweeps.
Another, equally dark poem is London where Blake points an accusing finger at every aspect of British society for the pain and suffering he sees about him as he walks the streets. There isn’t a lot of hope in this poem – rapid urbanisation means children are no longer free to enjoy childhood and people’s physical freedom is restricted by charters. Where Blake was taking a risk, bearing in mind this was written as the French Revolution was in full swing, was in the image of the walls of the palace streaming with blood. A warning perhaps to the British monarchy that they too could face the same fate as their counterparts across the Channel?
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear
How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls
But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse