Back in 2000, when the world was young, Sarah Coley wrote an excellent review of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf that was published in The Reader. As part of our ongoing mission to bring you the best of the magazine’s back catalogue, it has just been republished as a feature here.
September marks the 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road, notorious for being written on a single roll of paper (sort of true) without revising (not true). Among the avalanche of commentary on Kerouac to have appeared in the last week or so a few pieces stood out for me. David W. Hall, Director of the Kenyon Review Young Writers’ Program wrote a fascinating piece about how he attempted to introduce typewriters and scrolls to a workshop on The Beats. Sadly they had to resort to writing longhand in notebooks.
Hall claims Kerouac as one of his heroes. I’m afraid I don’t. So I was gratified to find (via Ready Steady Book) a review by Anthony Daniels, aka Theodore Dalrymple, of John Leland’s book Why Kerouac Matters, published to coincide with the anniversary. Daniels is very unkind about Kerouac, though he admits a writer can be important without being any good and this point is spot on:
I mentioned the banality of the book to a young man who told me that he had thought it wonderful when he had read it a few years previously. I devised a test. He would open it and point to a passage at random, and I would read the passage out loud. He would then tell me whether he thought it was banal. Here is the passage:
The drizzle increased and Eddie got cold; he had very little clothing. I fished a wool plaid shirt from my canvas bag and he put it on. I had a cold. I bought cough drops in a rickety Indian store of some kind. I went to the little two-by-four Post office and wrote my aunt a penny postcard. We went back to the gray road. There she was in front of us, Shelton, written on the watertank. The Rock Island balled by. We saw the faces of Pullman passengers go by in a blur. The train howled off across the plains in the direction of our desires. It started to rain harder.
A passage such as this, appearing in an alleged literary classic, must encourage and delude many an adolescent keeper of a diary that his entries will one day find the appreciative audience that their immanent genius deserves. The popularity of On the Road is a manifestation of the propensity in a demotic age of mediocrity to worship itself.
Who could have predicted that an essentially plotless novel about the relationship between two rootless young men who seemed constitutionally unable to settle down was about to kick off a culture war that is still being fought to this day?
Jorge Luis Borges’ story ‘The Library of Babel’ proposes a library so vast it contains all possible books, but is completely disorganised. In a perceptive article lawyer James Grimmelmann reflects on Borges’ story and tries to come up with an information policy for it. In the process he connects the idea of the library with the Internet and the difficulties we face in not only organising but finding, reading, and categorising the information we find there. Who or what is our Book Man?
But the Library’s vastness and disorganization also make it almost completely useless: “[T]he chance of a man’s finding his own Vindication … can be calculated to be zero.” The image of the Library is haunting and suggestive. What would we do if we took it at face value? In this bagatelle of an essay, I propose to do just that: set out a few principles of sensible information policy for the Library of Babel.
Back in the 1980s, when the Sinclair Spectrum seemed the pinnacle of personal computing, English departments were arguing over the value of thinkers such as Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. Their views of texts as interactive, interconnected, overlapping things were shaking up the traditional view of artistic creation in which the “Author God” controlled meaning. In English universities, by the 1990s, many of the academics who were interested in “theory” had moved to philosophy departments, or aligned themselves with modern language studies and linguistics. In 2007 dedicated courses in literary theory are rare, but the influence of these ideas has not gone away. Rather every twenty-first century academic literary critic is a theorist now. Believing in the author as a lone genius unaffected by culture and other writing, or in the meaning of a text as fixed and unarguable, seems faintly ridiculous. Influence and interpretation are what matters. The sun no longer revolves around the earth.
What may come as a surprise to those who saw Derrida and his peers as impractical critics is that technology has made the deconstructionist world view eminently real. Hyperlinking, collaborative projects such as Wikipedia, the Free Software movement, are all examples outside the literary world. Until relatively recently books were exempt from all this because as physical objects they were fixed, unconnected, remote. That is no longer true. While Project Gutenberg has been working on digitizing out of print books and is now a wonderfully huge, searchable, free resource, progress has been slow. What has really transformed the landscape is Google’s attempt to scan and put online the contents of the world’s major libraries.
On Thursday Google announced new booksearch services that will take it even further. In a blog post entitled “Dive into the meme pool” researchers Bill Schilit and Okan Kolak explain:
With the full text of millions of books digitized, we started thinking about how people quote and build on each other’s ideas. Like Bartlett putting together the Familiar, the Google Book Search team has been uncovering a vox populi of passages that authors have deemed worth repeating. Take, for example, Eleanor Roosevelt’s book, You Learn by Living, in which she describes how her experiences helped shape her personal philosophy. On the “About this Book” page, you’ll see it has 10 Popular Passages. One of them, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience,” appears in over a hundred books in the index. Wow.
Of course, hypertext researchers like Ted Nelson also have a history of connecting texts using links. Following in that tradition, we use links to highlight popular ideas in a book, or to lead readers to Schopenhauer when they’re struggling with Kant. We hope that this new feature inspires you …
Suddenly we find ourselves in a world of argument and interaction, discovering links between ideas that have never been found before. And of course, where would this technology take us if you couldn’t share and enjoy your discoveries?
Here’s the link to Google Books Search.
The shortlist for this year’s Man Booker prize was announced today with most newspapers, including The Guardian focussing on Ian McEwan’s chances of becoming the third writer to win the prize twice. His novel On Chesil Beach has also caused ripples for its length–200 pages–which some people think disqualifies it from categorization as a novel. How long is a novel anyway?
Darkmans, by Nicola Barker
On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan
Mister Pip, by Lloyd Jones
Animal’s People, by Indra Sinha
The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid
The Gathering, by Anne Enright
I have just (reluctantly) returned from Venice and although my body is back in England, my spirit has stayed there. I’m unwilling to let go of the romantic surreality of the watery metropolis. I want to soak it all up – the architectural magnificence, the dilapidated beauty of the place, the history and mystery that permeates from each street and canal – and of course, I’m not the only one. Literature about Venice, inspired by Venice, created in Venice is abundant (click here to see a few titles). It is obvious what lured artists and writers to this city – its dark mysticism and uniqueness is a challenge to our sense of normality and I suppose that’s its pull…
Since I have been back, Lord Byron’s ‘Beppo’, Ernest Hemingway’s Across the River and into the Trees and Thomas Mann’s ‘Death in Venice’ have been quickly devoured in an attempt to re-live walking along those narrow back canals, imagining the past that clings to the disintegrating stones and aware of its transitoriness. Each of these texts brings very different qualities of the city back to life and I can appreciate them all, glorifying and disapproving. These three works show very differing approaches to Venice, some majestic, some threatening and some peaceful. Yet it is Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities that utterly captures the ambiguous nature of Venice. Constructed as a series of short accounts of ‘made-up’ cities by Marco Polo to Kublai Khan, the descriptions offered are of just one place – Venice. So beautiful in its narrative style it is more akin to reading poetry, Calvino’s masterpiece brings together the fantastical and authentic, the celebrated and deprecated elements of the city. It is in the pages of this book that I can experience all the varying sensations that Venice offers, a true testimony to its uniqueness.
Tyler Meier has posted an interesting piece on the Kenyon Review blog about figurative language and its role in making writing ‘move’ and especially the way it seems to have become more ‘extreme’ in the twenty-first century. Meier is responding to an essay by D.A. Powell on the same topic entitled ‘The Great Figure: On Figurative Language’. In his essay Powell argues that ‘If rhythm is the heart and breath of poetry, then surely figurative language is its beguiling and sexy skin and musculature.’ But times have changed. Simple similes, Meier says, are impossible these days:
Can you get away with a simple simile these days? I suppose the mitigating factors are too complex to get a straight answer, but suffice it to say (as Powell suggests) that unless irony is your goal, you are using something of a relic from the 20th century, and would do well to acknowledge that fact (and, one would suppose, the baggage and risks.)
The whole post is well worth reading. Here’s the link.
Carbon offsetting is all the rage at the moment. Take a short flight somewhere warm for some well-earned beach time and you get to offset the burnt jet fuel by planting trees. It is difficult to make the connection between a sapling planted in Sweden and a guilt-free sandwich at 35,000 feet, but as the history of world religions shows assuaging guilt has always been big business.
The connection between books and trees is more intuitive. It is estimated that ‘virgin’ paper production for the US market alone accounts for 20 million trees every year. As an avid reader and profligate buyer of books that makes me feel a little uneasy. Ecolibris, which it should be noted is a for-profit organization, has come up with a way to do something about it. Ecolibris users register with the website and decide how many books to balance out. The word ‘offsetting’ is not used, because this isn’t really offsetting. For every book you register a tree is planted by one of several reputable organizations in developing countries, mostly in Africa and South America. In return you get a sticker to put on your ‘balanced’ book.
by Angela Macmillan
One of the great things about the Internet is the wealth of material that would never see the light of day without it. One such wonderful thing is this recollection by Walter de la Mare of an interview with Thomas Hardy. Walter de la Mare is an old man at the time of the recording and there is something quite wonderful about listening to this very Edwardian voice, speaking to you across 50 years. He describes going to Max Gate to meet Thomas Hardy and being surprised to find not a dour old pessimist but an affable old gentleman. Walter de la Mare has never been fashionable in the academic world but his poems continue to delight the old and young. ‘The Listeners’ – ‘ “Is there anybody there?” said the traveller’, is the most requested poem of Radio 4’s Poetry Please. Walter de la Mare, Selected Poems is an excellent new collection of his best work edited by the poet Matthew Sweeney and published by Faber and Faber, 2006.
de la Mare as fiction writer is not so well known these days. Fortunately Hesperus Press have recently collected and published three of his short stories (‘Missing’, ‘The Almond Tree’ and ‘Crewe’) with the added bonus of a foreword by Russell Hoban. If you enjoy Missing (Modern Voices), see if you can find a copy of his brilliant dark short story ‘Seaton’s Aunt’
Jane Davis writes to point out that Liverpool poet Eleanor Rees has been shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, for her new book Andraste’s Hair. The collection is published by Salt Publishing and you can find out more about it here.
Eleanor has also recently launched a collaborative piece with writer Rachel Rogers for Merseyside Dance Initative documenting the rehearsal process for The Migrant Body project, a collaboration of European dancers and experimental choreography. She is also working with artist Jyll Bradley on The Fragrant Project responding to the complex history of Liverpool Botanical Collection as part of the Liverpool Commissions for 2008. This is due to launch August 2007.
Here’s the complete 2007 shortlist:
Best collection prize (£10,000)
Domestic Violence by Eavan Boland (Carcanet)
Gift Songs by John Burnside (Jonathan Cape)
The Drowned Book by Sean O’Brien (Picador)
Birds with a Broken Wing by Adam Thorpe (Jonathan Cape)
The Harbour Beyond the Movie by Luke Kennard (Salt Publishing)
Beasts of Nalunga by Jack Mapanje (Bloodaxe)
Best first collection prize (£5,000)
Twenty Four Preludes and Fugues on Dimitri Shostakovich by Joanna Boulter (Arc Publications)
Galatea by Melanie Challenger (Salt Publishing)
Look We Have Coming to Dover! by Daljit Nagra (Faber and Faber)
Andraste’s Hair by Eleanor Rees (Salt Publishing)
Best single poem prize (£1,000)
The Hut in Question by David Harsent (Poetry Review)
Thursday by Lorraine Mariner (The Rialto)
Dunt by Alice Oswald (Poetry London)
The Day I Knew I Wouldn’t Live Forever by Carole Satyamurti (The Interpreter’s House)
Goulash by Myra Schneider (The North)
The Birkdale Nightingale by Jean Sprackland (Poetry Review)
Posted by Chris Routledge