Under the Redacted

I have spent the last week trying to ignore the fact that I have had a cold. This is how I deal with them. I just carry on regardless, obstinately pretending that I feel absolutely fine. Like my face isn’t leaking from about half of its orifices. I’m not fooling anyone.  I don’t get ill very often. Less than once a year, I think, but it always seems like such an inconvenience when it arrives. The one concession I made to being under the weather this time was a very early bed time, which really cut into my day, as I already have a fairly early bed time to begin with.

‘Under the weather’ is the phrase I prefer to use. I don’t know how else to describe it. It was more than a cold, definitely, but if you say flu it just sounds melodramatic, as though no one on earth had ever suffered from the flu. Like the flu is some exotic ailment that hasn’t struck civilized society since the middle ages. All we get now is the sniffles, and no one is allowed to stop doing anything if all they have it the sniffles.

I spent a good portion of my free time reading Guantanamo Diary. The heavily redacted manuscript of a Guantanamo prisoner that has taken a decade to finally be made public. There are black bars all over it where someone or other has decided that those particular words need to be kept top secret. It makes into a kind of political Blankety Blank, trying to work out what might be hidden underneath.

It is, of course, not a fun read. But it is a socially responsible read, I think. It would be pretty easy to ignore a book like that in favour of doing fun things, but I think it is important to really see the world we live in. To take these kind of accounts and allow them to inform our views. To think critically about everything. Fun is OK, I guess, but fun won’t change you.

Loads has been written about this book elsewhere, stuff about the writer and his philosophical outlook and unseemly humour. The sheer horror of what goes on between its covers. (The cover quotation mentions both Kafka and Orwell, these seem like reasonable points of reference.) For me, a book like this one should be read with disinterest. A lot of it so emotive but I think we owe it to ourselves to read these sorts of things as judiciously as we can. Which is challenging, of course, because a lot of what the book talks about, liberty and freedom and morality and ethics, can stir up such a lot inside of us.

Read it critically, read it with an open mind, read it questioningly. Read it and see what thoughts it leaves you with, see what sticks in your mind when you are done. Read it if you are feeling under the weather, because there is nothing like context to make you feel better.

Penguin’s Great Ideas and the Eradication of the Foreword

I’m usually late to the party when it comes to exciting new things. By the time I discover the author, or hear the band, or whatever, there will already be a large body of work behind them and a fanatical group of followers will have already formed. I’m used to it now, being one step behind. For a while I had this idea that I would try and buy first edition books by debut authors off the shelf at Waterstone’s and then wait and see if they became valuable later. Not really sure why, I wasn’t too interested in making money (and it is about the poorest way of making money that I can think of) and I wasn’t too fussed about the minor prestige of being an early adopter either. I don’t really bother so much anymore. But while I was browsing around the net one afternoon and found that Penguin had released a series of books called Great Ideas – a collection of short, important texts from history I thought I had struck upon an exciting new thing. Then I looked closer and realised they were already on series five. Oh well, late again, but at least I had a hundred of these Great Ideas to dig through.

The format is quite nice, about a hundred pages and small enough to fit in a back pocket (tested and confirmed, you’re welcome,) and covering a wide range of subjects. My initial purchase of four covered Descartes, Seneca, Kant and Orwell, a selection heavily biased toward philosophy I realise now, but the hundred titles also include Churchill, Darwin, Freud; loads to dig through. There was even, pleasingly, one I had already read; Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (though I don’t think I can claim to have been there first on a text that is two-thousand years old. Oh well.)

While the Penguin Great Ideas series is, if nothing else, a nicely presented collection of important (or at least interesting) texts it also has a great idea of its own. There are no forewords. The text gets to speak for itself, and given that all one hundred books have been selected as being particularly worthy on its own merits it is hard to imagine that a foreword would add much. But the model of getting someone contemporary to tell you about the old book you are about to read has become pretty ubiquitous. I read about a resurrected Woody Guthry book that is being released with a foreword by Johnny Depp (who was involved in the publishing of the book, rather than having just been drafted in) that talks about how exciting and relevant and important this book is. But if I were going to read that Woody Guthry book I think I would just want to get right into it. Marketing aside, why would I want to read about the book, rather than read the book? Penguin’s Great Ideas gets this right. No preparation, no forearming with knowledge of what is to come or pre-formed, borrowed opinions about it; just meet the book. Maybe you’ll get along. Maybe you won’t.

What I think would be a better idea it to get rid of forewords and have afterwords instead. I would be much more interested in reading about a book I have just read. Once I have finished is the time for explaining the context of what I just read, the importance of it, the relevance. That is something I can engage with. I can meet Johnny Depp’s views with my own, rather than being led by the hand into a book I was already prepared to read. Sometimes when I am finished with a book I am still so invested in it that I would love to read more. A good afterword is like a nice denouement, a slow winding down.

I guess I could just skip the forewords until I am finished with the book. Get a biro and cross out the fore and scribble an after in over it. Maybe cut out the pages and stick them in at the end. There are other solutions, I guess.

The Secret Footballer by The Secret Footballer

I had this great idea, about fifteen years ago, that when I finally wrote a novel I would do so anonymously. Not that I had any great need of anonymity, I didn’t have anything to hide or anything to protect. It just seemed like a cool device. Something to break the fourth wall and have the reader feel like there was more to the book than the words on the page. It’s been done, of course, and when I did start putting my work out there it had my name on it. I imagined any interest that having an anonymously written book might create would be more than undone by the revelation that the author was someone you had never even heard of.

Apparently, an authors name is his brand. This, while creating a cynical little shiver inside of me, makes perfect sense. If nothing else the aim is to get to the point that people associate a name with good writing. The obvious reasons for a writer maintaining anonymity are because they are writing something scandalous, or to build interest in the book. The Secret Footballer does both. The hook is clever, by maintaining his anonymity the Secret Footballer can tell us things about football that no one else would ever be able to say, and it is double clever because who it actually is of real interest.

I’ve only read half of it so far. Bad form, I know, but this blog has been neglected for a while and the idea of anonymous authors got me thinking. Reading The Secret Footballer is half expose, half Sherlock Holmes mystery. Its fun to tick off players as they get mentioned as being ineligible candidates for who this guy is. There’s a lot of discussion about it on a website devoted to the mystery. But the truth is, I don’t want to know who it is. I doubt I’d have ever been interested in the book (or the Guardian column from which the book is derived) had he been named from the start. The anonymity also offers authenticity. His opinions carry more weight and his version of events seem more reliable purely because the fact that we don’t know who he is suggests he has little to gain from lying. His candidness would be less trustworthy if he were named and his picture were on the cover. And the distinct lack of ego required to write anonymously also causes him to stand out from other football players. For right or for wrong, the stereotype of a professional football player is well established and the creation of The Secret Footballer as an entity in its own right is clever. He mentions reading Shakespeare as a boy, and there is a Proust reference in one chapter. These might be deliberate attempts to undo the stereotypes and give some weight to his abilities as a writer, but what it has done is create an author that is more intriguing than if he had written under his own name. He has been able to shake off some of the baggage that being a football player carries with it.

I tend to be wary of books by celebrities that are not necessarily celebrated for their writing. I almost missed out on reading Andrew Kaufman because he has the same name as the other Andrew Kaufman. I don’t automatically trust a celebrity chef to write an entertaining and enlightening book any more than I would trust a novelist to open a restaurant. For some people a book is just another outlet, another product that can be delivered from their brand. For other people, the book is everything. The Secret Footballer has managed a little of both.

Harold Fry and the 2012 Booker

As with every year when the Booker prize long-list and the subsequent shortlist are announced I take a look, ostensibly for the purpose of finding new things to read but always in the hope of seeing something on there that I have already read. The usual turn of events is that the list features some books that I had seen in the bookshop but, for one reason or another, neglected to actually read. I don’t know what it is I am hoping to achieve, whether some sense of keeping up with developing literature or simply the thrill of being there first. I suppose on the one hand I quite admire the Booker lists, and on the other don’t want to have my reading choices dictated to me. Childish, I know.

This year though the long-list featured a book I had in fact already read. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. A speculative purchase from a Saturday meander in the local Waterstone’s. Not only had I already read it, I had thought quite highly of it, and even, if distant memory serves, thrown off a nonchalant tweet about it. Had I struck the Holy Grail of speculative book purchases and incidentally bought and read a future Booker winner before the judges had even been assembled? No, as it turns out. It didn’t make it onto the shortlist. I’m not going to say it should have made it onto the shortlist. As much as I liked it I haven’t read any of the other 11 books (yet, I am currently enjoying Will Self’s Umbrella,) and it would be, I think, ridiculous to state which book should win without having read them all. Part of the Booker’s magic is in the controversy it courts, and that controversy exists in the contradiction between making definitive conclusions about something fundamentally indefinite. The Booker is decided by a panel of arbiters who judge it arbitrarily. How else can it be judged? By my mind being the twelfth best novel of the year is an achievement markedly similar to being the best.

But it seems with every stage of the Booker’s ever shortening list of finalists the ones that don’t make it fall away drastically. I don’t have the numbers. I have no real idea of what the sales figures are like between longlisted and shortlisted novels. But this is how it appears from my distant perspective anyway; fail to make the cut and fall into oblivion. Which seems a shame to me. The difference between a long-listed novel and a shortlisted one is not the difference between quality and rubbish; they will all be of quality. It is, I know, a terrible suggestion that would take away more than it adds, but I would much prefer a process that ends at the shortlist. These novels are remarkable. They all deserve our attention. That one is better than all the others is a truth that will vary from reader to reader.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry pulls off a deft trick with its ending. The climax doesn’t build with a rising crescendo, it drops like a great lump. It feels like a fairy tale, but it isn’t one. Fry’s journey feels wondrous, but we are never promised wonder. There is a magical element, of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, but no actual magic. Without wanting to spoil it, because as one of the twelve best books of 2012 you perhaps might want to go and read it, when the ending comes the novel almost pointedly reminds us that we were never promised magic. It lets our imaginations wander and come to all kinds of fanciful conclusions, but come the end the novel gently reminds us; we were never promised anything.

If a novel can pull off one great moment in 350 pages then it is worth reading.

But then, just as the great lump that is Harold Fry’s ending has settled, the final page has a little something extra that bring all the wonder crashing back again. Harold Fry is a book with two great moments and isn’t just an early casualty of the Booker race, it is one of the best 12 novels written in 2012.

25/02/2013 – Reading this post back I feel obliged to point at that The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry has not fallen into oblivion. It has been in the top ten sales charts as listed in the Guardian for a while now. Utterly deserved, or course, and evidence, it seems, that the process of stripping half the selected books out does not damage them so severely.

A Break From Fiction

I finished reading the third volume of 1Q84. I tried to drag it out for as long as I could but it had to happen eventually. There is a lovely quote (that I am probably going to mis-remember and I can’t even look up because I don’t remember who said it. I only just about caught it as it zoomed past on my twitter feed,) that goes like this; There is no better sadness than that of finishing a good book. And so, out of disproportionate reverence, I am taking a little break from reading fiction in order to allow 1Q84 to ferment in my mind a little bit. So I pulled some non-fiction from my to-read pile.

Continue reading “A Break From Fiction”