Sunday, 8 April 2012

World Book Night - getting ever closer

I found out a few weeks ago that I've been selected as a World Book Night giver - I'm going to get a box of copies of The Remains of the Day, which I'm planning to hand out at the school where I'm a governor. I'm really looking forward to it - though as it becomes more real, there's a bit of me that's starting to get apprehensive about how people will respond to me pressing a book on them... 

In the run-up, I've signed up to the World Book Night facebook page - and I'm not normally a fan of organisations/companies doing marketing via facebook. But for a tiny organisation, I think they're doing a great job - and I'm really enjoying their posts and links to other good stuff.  Some of the best things I've seen there include a silent film about how Slightly Foxed hardbacks are made and a set of April fool's inventions by famous novelists. They've also got all sorts of other things, from lists of coolest books, to books you'd want to pass on to the next generation, and high culture stuff about how Shakespeare's lines might have been pronounced when first staged to a couple of posts about beardy authors...

And I'm thinking about whether/how to mark World Book Night at work. We've got a fairly bookish group - and so we could probably get a few people together to read from their favourite books, but I'm wondering whether we should do something like Secret Santa, or games like trying to identify people from their favourite book, most recent book, etc etc.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Words are the daughters of earth, and [...] things are the sons of heaven

Another quote from my Dictionary of Quotations - from Samuel Johnson's preface to his mid-C18 dictionary. It's an interesting inversion of what I think many people would assume.

Johnson thinks of words as concrete and earth-bound - which is how I think of 'things'. He says that things are 'the sons of heaven' - but surely that is more the realm of words with their lack of substance but incredible power?

From the gallery at 

Anyway, it prompted me to think and write about some of the language-related books I've read since the start of the year. After last year's encounter with Through the Language Glass by Guy Deutscher, the first pick for my book group this year was The Language Wars: A History of Proper English by Henry Hitchings for the first book group pick of the year. With a subtitle like that, and knowing that 'Proper English' has a whole world of connotations, I was expecting a fairly argumentative read. 

Frankly, I was a bit disappointed. There was plenty of interesting substance - but it felt dry and academic. I was gagging for a Bill Bryson-esque rewrite or even some Lynn Truss argumentativeness, and when we met in January it was obvious that most of the group had spent Christmas reading 'proper books' and so only started this late - and quite a few people gave up after the first few chapters. I did persevere on, and also read The Secret Life of Words: How English became English - which is much better, and The Etymologicon, which is eminently readable but feels like it was written to be bought and given as a Christmas present. 

None of these are a patch on the fantastic and amazing Melvyn Bragg and his The Adventure of English - which I only own as an audiobook, but is all the better for having an actor read out the old words! I've got a bad habit of skipping lists in books, and the actor's reading not only made me follow through, but also gave me a chance to hear the echoes into modern English. 

And if you've not yet listened to the In Our Time programmes on the written word - get yourself here, and fill your podcasting boots!

World Book Night - here we come!

Monday April 23rd is World Book Night - and I've been picked as one of 20,000 givers across the country. I'm going to be handing out copies of The Remains of the Day, which is one of my favourite ever books. 

I still remember reading it during my A-levels - it was the first time I'd really been so aware of a fallible narrator and the magical power of an author to create a credible character, present the world through their eyes but let us see other perspectives too. I'd read a lot of other books which used irony and a semi-detached tone to similar effect, but this remains one of the best and most affecting examples I've ever read.

As the World Book Night people say: the greatest reading journeys start when you put a book in to someone's hand and say 'this one's amazing, you have to read it' 

Anyone else lucky enough to get picked? And is anyone planning any events?

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Stop what you're doing. Keep calm. Read a book.

Preaching to the choir? Celebrating a shared passion? Marshalling the defence of what makes us human?

Why publish a book called 'Stop what you're doing and read this'? Why contribute to it? Why demand that people make time to read essays about the value and importance of reading fiction?!?  The book has become ubiquitous in my circle over the last month or so. It's on several desks at work, it's been reviewed in the papers, become a radio 4 book at bedtime and it's also getting a fair bit of blog coverage

Stop What You're Doing And Read This!…

I enjoyed the essays - and there are passages that strike a chord with my experiences and hopes as a reader. I'll re-read Blake Morrison's 'Twelve thoughts', and loved the idea of books as real daemons in Carmen Callil's section. I was struck by Tim Parks' 'Mindful Reading' and the difference between the experiences of looking at a picture, listening to a piece of music and reading a book. 
There is no artefact as such: unlike painting or sculpture, there is no image to contemplate, there is no object you can walk around and admire. No one is going to say you must not touch. No alarm will go off if you get too close. 
You don't have to travel to enjoy a piece of writing. 
And there is no performance, either. Strictly speaking. Unlike concerts of plays, you don't have to queue for tickets or worry whether you're near the front. 
You can't take a photo. 
Then a book has no fixed duration. Unlike music, you don't have to respect its timing, accepting, along with others, an experience of the same length. 
You can't dance to it. You can't sing along. 
Instead, there are signs on paper. Or on a screen. 
We can change the size, or shape, or colour of the signs, we can alter their distribution on paper, on the screen. [...] We can read these signs at whatever speed suits us, stopping and starting again wherever we want, for however long we want [...]
But to be honest, I'm not really sure why the book exists. It's way too dry and earnest to persuade non-readers to read, and it's not a patch on other 'bookish' books which offer insights into books or suggest and inspire future choices*. And although there are undertones here which are getting at public policy (the importance of libraries and/or how children learn to read properly), I don't imagine that the book will lead to a swelling and expression of public opinion to change decisions. So while I really admire the Evening Standard's Get London Reading campaign, the point of this book mystifies me.

* for example it's not a patch on Ex Libris (I LOVE the insight into the relationship milestone represented by merging two book collections!), it's not a memoir of reading, it's not a list of recommendations. 

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Divorced, Beheaded, Survived

It can't have been much fun to be Queen in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. For that matter I doubt it was much fun being a woman (or being anything) in those days - at least, not by comparison to the ease, comfort and variety of our lives today.

I've been reading a whole range of books about Queens in the middle ages and early modern period, including Alison Weir's book on Eleanor of Aquitaine (fascinating content, I found it a bit dry) and Lucy Worsley's history of the Georgian Court. And I've got into Philippa Gregory's books - in particular The Other Boleyn Girl, and her books about the Wars of the Roses (The Red Queen and The White Queen). All credit due to Yvann at ReadingWithTea for the blog posts that prompted me to head to the 'G' section in the local library.

I know that we're meant to look down on historical fiction as being somehow 'less' than other fiction, but I don't think received wisdom can possibly be right. Firstly - because good historical fiction is a good read, and fundamentally, that's what I'm after in a book. Who would say that Wolf Hall was a less good book because it concerns historical characters? What about Shakespeare's history plays? A good read is a good read is a good read - and a great book must be a good read, as well as doing something more.

Secondly, because history is about what happened and why. And good historical fiction contributes to understanding the why - if we trust the author to have done a respectable amount of research, it's a lot easier to understand (and to empathise) with social mores and manners if they're illustrated within a plot rather than described with academic caveats. And fictionalised conversations are a far more 'real' way to explain how and why individuals might have made the decisions they did - and to give and gain a tangible understanding of the motivations and constraints that shaped people's decisions and actions.

To be honest, though I feel I ought probably to blush as I type, I even think that the fantasy 'Song of Ice and Fire' adds something to my sense of how feudal loyalties, authority and politics worked and felt. Obviously you need a bit of nous to realise that there are often different interpretations of what happened and/or why, and to remember conversations and plot are not the same as actual history. I think you need a bit less nous to grasp that no-one was hatching dragon eggs in the Middle Ages.

I've also just finished The Song of Achilles by Madeline Millen - retelling the Iliad but focussed on Achilles' relationship with Patroclus, and a great read (made me think of giving the 'real' book a go at some stage). Coming up some time soon, I'm going to continue this historical thread of reading with She-Wolves, and The Winter King. Any other suggestions? Who else writes good historical fiction?

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

It's funny how your memory of a book shifts

Looking back at my year's reading (a bit late, I know), I've realised that the books that win an instant 5* rating as I finish them are not the same as the books that I'd now judge to be highlights.

My best reads of 2011 - the ones that I loved, that I've talked about and recommended, and that I think I'll read again were

There were plenty of other books that I read and really enjoyed - but in the time since I closed the cover, the instant magic has faded and I've realised that they've not stayed with me as deeply as I'd expected.

Last year I read a huge number of books, way more than normal - in part it reflects my new and longer commute, but also that until September I was in a slightly less frenetic job and made a conscious effort to take a break to read while eating lunch. And I suspect a settled relationship sees a bit more reading in bed than the olden days... ;-)