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.
Our very own Philip Davis was interviewed on Dublin radio station Dublin City Anna Livia tonight and the programme is replayed tomorrow (Tuesday September 11) at 11am. There is a live stream for the radio station though sadly no “listen again” feature. You can find the link to the stream here.
The instructions are for Windows users only (shame on you DCAL) but if you’re using another operating system copy and paste the following url into your media player of choice:
Linux users will need to have the Windows Media codecs installed. Mac users should install the Flip4Mac plugin for Quicktime then use Quicktime to play the stream (File–>Open URL).
I have just added an article by Philip Davis on the neurological effects of reading Shakespeare to the Features page. This piece appeared in The Reader 23 and is a fascinating summary of research into the way Shakespeare’s linguistic innovations affect us at a physical level. Philip Davis has recently taken over as editor of The Reader magazine. His biography of Bernard Malamud, Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life, is published on September 13th. Here’s a link to the article.
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.
An article published in The Lancet today states that depression “produces the greatest decrement in health” compared with the chronic diseases angina, arthritis, asthma and diabetes. Research by the World Health Organisation found that depression had the largest effect on declining health compared with other chronic illnesses. Professor Louis Appleby, National Director for Mental Health, said on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning that “it is vital we find new models” to address this destructive condition. Get Into Reading, an outreach programme run by The Reader centre, was highly commended by Professor Appleby at this year’s Health and Social Care Awards for its work in this area. Launching a project with Mersey Care NHS Trust in the next few weeks, The Reader is at the forefront of tackling the disabiling effects of depression through its unique model of weekly shared reading and conversation groups.
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’m not an especially acquisitive person. I hate shopping and flashy gear doesn’t impress me much with its flashiness. But I am deeply covetous of a “reading wagon” like the one featured on the Shedworking blog (via The Times):
Apparently reading wagons were used by circus artistes and eventually became what we now call caravans. Having one of these things as a place to sit and read would be really wonderful. I’m off to fetch my hammer and nails:
Like a revolving shed, one of the beauties of being on wheels is that it can be moved during the year or even during the day, however the whim takes you. During the autumn it has to be near the house in order to be plugged in to the mains electrics. Loudon has used the wagon as a guest room but has now started making them to order, including as a garden office.
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.