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I broke my vow – again. It must be four years since I vowed never, ever to see another 3D film at the cinema; and two or three times I have been lured back by simple curiosity, or by the shallow desire to see the ‘unmissable’ film that everyone else is seeing (a playground fear of being left out), or by the reassurances of a friend that this really is worth it.

There are some beautiful images in Life of Pi. It wasn’t actually the visual effects that struck me most, but the fluid cinematography of the first half hour – India in pastel colours rather than the usual primary ones; and a fairy-tale glow about the zoo, the swimming pool, the family dining table. But as a film, it doesn’t work. It’s a series of short stories rather than a novel; some of them fun, some of them deadly dull. The spirituality is too syncretistic to have any bite.

Now and then, when a film is getting high percentages on Rotten Tomatoes (in this case 89%), and in my humble opinion it doesn’t deserve them, I delight in searching through the bad reviews – conveniently flagged up by the splattered green tomatoes – for confirmation of my artistic discernment. Peter Bradshaw says everything that needs saying in a single paragraph:

No one can doubt the technical brilliance of Ang Lee‘s new film, an adaptation of Yann Martel‘s Booker-winning bestseller from 2001, a widely acclaimed book that I should say I have yet to read. The effects are stunning, more impressive than anything in the new hi-tech Hobbit, and on that score, Peter Jackson can eat his heart out. But for the film itself, despite some lovely images and those eyepopping effects, it is a shallow and self-important shaggy-dog story – or shaggy-tiger story – and I am bemused by the saucer-eyed critical responses it’s been getting.

The last line of the review is a classic version of ‘damning with clear but carefully targeted praise':

This is an awards-season movie if ever there was one. It deserves every technical prize going.

There was, however, one fascinating theological scene. Pi, from a Hindu family, is dared by his brother to go into a Catholic church and drink the holy water from the font by the door. He rushes in, drinks, and then stops and gazes around the interior of the church. We are led to believe that he hasn’t been in a church before, or that he hasn’t ever taken the time to look properly.

When he sees an image of Jesus, he is transfixed. A priest comes through the church and talks to him. Pi asks (I’m paraphrasing from memory): Is it true that God became a human being like us? And why? And the priest answers: Yes, he became one like us. He became small so that we would not be frightened by him. He became our brother so that we would be able to approach him. He died for us so that nothing, not even death, would keep us apart from him. Pi, the Hindu boy, announces that he wishes to be baptised.

It’s a simple, un-ironic presentation of the Christian message, and of a child in all innocence discovering a life-changing spiritual truth. It doesn’t happen very often in cinema.

(Then, just a few moments later, he announces that he wants to be a Muslim as well as a Christian, and at the same time to remain a Hindu; it’s very confusing in the film – perhaps it makes more sense in the book, which I haven’t read. This is why I called it syncretistic!)

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As you know, I’m a ‘late adopter’ when it comes to new technology. I hear about things late; I wait around cautiously to see where something is going; I tell myself how happy I have been for so many years of adult life without this dazzling piece of equipment; I hang on until the price drops a bit further; then – sometimes – I take the plunge. So it was with the Kindle, which I bought about six months ago.

What’s remarkable is how quickly it has become a normal, boring and almost indispensable part of daily life. In many ways it’s incredibly retro, even more so after the Google Nexus 7 comes out – dropping the price and raising the stakes for a decent 7 inch tablet. And I betray my own retro-ness in remembering the tipping point that got me pressing the BUY button: it was when I became convinced that the electronic ink pages really were as easy to read as a paper book.

Why do I like it? More to the point, why is it so normal that I have already forgotten it was ever a buying issue? Three main reasons.

(1) Legibility: I was worried it would strain the eyes, and it doesn’t. I can sit in bed and read the Kindle for 2 hours not noticing that I am reading an electronic screen rather than a book (not that I read in bed that long very often…). In fact it is even easier because you can change the font size.

(2) Portability: It goes in the inside pocket of a light jacket, so instead of taking a shoulder bag or a man bag out with me for the sake of carrying a book, I just take the Kindle. So it’s easier than carrying just one book, let alone a whole library of books and journals.

(3) Versatility: I mean the range of stuff that I am reading, and that slips into my pocket so easily. I knew I would use the Divine Office (from Universalis), and the ubiquitous e-Books – a mixture of freebies and paid for. But I’m also downloading journals and websites. And one of the most helpful features is the way you can email documents to your Kindle that then appear as short texts. There are documents, talks, websites, sermons, etc, that I keep thinking I’ll read one day, but never want to read on the computer screen. So I email them to the Kindle, and read them on the bus or tube. I’m actually catching up on piles of interesting reading without having to make an effort.

I’m sorry this sounds like an advert. I’m just delighted when something does what it says, and does what you want it to do, and also does much more.

My fear now is that my present version of the Kindle will be replaced by a higher spec, and the very reason I like it – it’s simplicity – will disappear. I know they have the touch screen versions, which I dislike, because I’d rather a simple click to turn the page than having to tap the screen; that’s why I bought the Kindle rather than the Kobo [correction: apparently there are clickable Kobos as well!]. My fear is that the ‘Retro’ Kindle (my version), like the magnificent, groundbreaking and never bettered Palm, will be overtaken by smart technology. Strange how technology can regress as well as go forward, or at least lose the simplicity and sophistication of its primary purpose in the search for secondary thrills. I said the Kindle was dazzling, but it’s actually the dullness that I like…

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I reviewed Marilynne Robinson’s latest book in the Tablet recently. My very first post, nearly three years ago, referred to a passage about wonder in her extraordinary novel Gilead.

When I Was A Child I Read Books is a collection of essays about subjects as diverse as Calvinist theology, evolutionary psychology, American hymnody, Japanese economics, growing up in small-town Idaho, and the decline of democracy. You may not have a passionate interest in all or any of these topics, but the book is still well worth reading, because her deepest concern is always to understand what it means to be human, what it means to confront the reality around us, and what lies just beyond the boundaries, in ‘the vast terrain of what cannot be said’.

I won’t copy the whole review here, but here is a passage about Robinson’s distinctive interest in religion:

I doubt that there are many self-professed ‘unreconstructed liberals’ who wear their Calvinism on their sleeve. Robinson is never preachy, but it’s clear how her Christian faith informs her view of things. Religion, for her, is not a cosy enclave, but a disruptive force, which expands and shatters the narrow definitions we would otherwise have of ourselves and our world.

The story of God’s extravagant, wondrous love casts a ‘saturating light’ over the whole of human history. Even original sin, which seems such a pessimistic idea, points to ‘the literally cosmic significance of humankind as a central actor in creation who is, in some important sense, free to depart from, even to defy, the will of God’.

Theology, in other words, leads us back to anthropology – to our understanding of the human person. Robinson laments the loss of the word ‘soul’ in contemporary discourse, and has a clear-sighted view of how human dignity needs some external theistic foundation if it is to be defended. Why? Because any notion of human ‘exceptionalism’ needs to anchor our nature, our dignity, ‘in a reality outside the world of circumstance’.

When the Declaration of Independence states ‘that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights’, it makes the human person sacred, once by creation and again by endowment, ‘and thereby sets individual rights outside the reach of rationalization’. Religion, in this context, stops our thinking from becoming too narrow or domineering.

Robinson is a debunker of lazy ideologies. She is incensed by the reductionist assumptions implicit in so much contemporary thought. Evolutionary psychology, for example, focusses its attention on the adaptations it claims allowed human beings to survive on the primordial savannah – but marginalises everything else about us. For Robinson, our humanity consists in the fact that we do more than survive. ‘This kind of thinking places everything remarkable about us in the category “accidental”.’

So yes, I’m recommending it. But even more so, I’d recommend Gilead.

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I had a few minutes in the British Museum last week – not long enough to visit the Hajj exhibition, so instead I wandered round the Islamic section by the back door.

I came across this beautiful unbound copy of the Qur’an from West Africa, together with its leather carrying case. There was a tradition of having an unbound edition of the book, so that the individual leaves could be distributed around a class of boys for study and memorisation, and then collected together at the end.

I have always loved unbound books, filing cards, manuals that come apart or consist of discrete detachable sections, etc. I don’t know if it takes me back to pre-nursery flash cards (although I don’t think my mum had a stash of these!), or my huge collection of Top Trumps.

I certainly remember being fascinated by a series of history ‘books’ at school which were really folders filled with facsimile documents, and one of my favourite birthday presents was a set of architectural blueprints (or whatever the technical word is) of each individual floor of the Starship Enterprise – with every lift shaft and escape hatch and ‘beam me up Scotty’ floor-disc carefully marked.

And I have had such a disrespect for books (or a love at the idea that they can easily and usefully be deconstructed) that – don’t be shocked – I have been in the habit of cutting them up into different sections so I can take just the next few necessary pages with me on the bus.

Perhaps it’s the idea of a ‘whole’, a unit, that can be taken apart and put together again – like a Lego or Meccano structure. Perhaps it’s the joy of taking out a beautiful object (in this case a piece of paper) and knowing that it has its proper place to go back to – the delight of storage. Or it’s just that something is useful and adaptable and practical.

Is there such a thing as an unbound bible? Bible flashcards? So you can take out your chapter of the week and carry it around with you without having to carry all two thousand pages? Let me know if you have something useful like this.

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There is a lovely online debate going on about how best to organise your bookshelves. It falls under that more general heading of ‘cataloguing disputes’ or ‘making lists about lists’.

Here are Stephen Moss’s reflections:

Ah, how to organise one’s bookshelves? One of life’s central questions, and well done Alexander McCall Smith for raising it on Twitter yesterday. Perhaps not everyone would consider this a vital topic, but for me it is. Just as Casaubon in Middlemarch is trying to find “the key to all mythologies” (the title of his unfinished book), so I believe that if I can arrange my library properly, everything will be solved. Who needs the Higgs boson? The real key is where to file The Iliad. Poetry or history?

I have about a dozen categories. Fiction is the largest. It is arranged alphabetically by author and then chronologically where I have several titles by the same writer. There are sections devoted to poetry, memoir, biography, essays, travel writing and plays, all organised alphabetically. Books in these categories have a better chance of surviving than novels, which tend to be culled first. There are smaller sections, more loosely organised, devoted to dictionaries, reference works, art, music, sport and chess. I also have a shelf of foundation texts – the Bible, the Qur’an, the Mahabharata, Plato, Aristotle, St Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and the modern philosophers. I admit this shelf is very inaccessible.

History is a large section. It begins with general histories, and then takes a predictable course from Sumeria and Egypt to the Third Reich. There is a problem with a book such as Roy Foster’s Modern Ireland 1600-1972, because I don’t have a separate Irish section and can’t decide whether it should be in general histories or in chronological sequence. For the moment it sits awkwardly in the 17th century, next to Simon Schama’s The Embarrassment of Riches. Clearly I need to spend the rest of the day assessing this. One day, when I build my book annexe, all these questions will be resolved. Then, the whole of existence will be mapped, classified, ordered, and I can die happy. George Eliot was unnecessarily cruel to Casaubon. He was definitely on to something.

There are some lovely comments below his piece:

melymnn: I organize my books by publisher and colour and I’m not even ashamed to admit it. Come at me, bro.

Gdhsyerehdjsue: I have colourbetised my books and it looks great.

Mark Barnes: My entire collection is organised by Dewey, and catalogued on LibraryThing.com. Perhaps I need to get out more. That said, not only can I easily find my own books, but I now know exactly where to go in most libraries I visit.

msmlee: The WORST way to organise bookshelves is by an immediately discernible order to the untrained, non-bibliophile eye — you are not running a public library, you are arranging your bookshelves as a means of self expression, why do it so that others could find your books easily without having acquired your particular history of book encounters??? No, the right way to shelve books is not alphabetically, not chronologically, and certainly not by colour. I can stomach somebody’s bookshelves arranged broadly by subject, but that is only elementary level to book organising. You have to organise books in such a way that ONLY YOU know the rhyme and reason for these books being together, and really showed that you have actually READ the books to know what they are about before filing them.

ontheotherhand2010: Not trying to sound aggressive or anything, but… Who cares. Get a life. As long as you can find them, why does it matter? FYI I have mine in about half a dozen fairly broad categories or so (not alphabetical), which is enough for me to know roughly where they are located. I stopped being pedantic with the exact location of my books in my late teens. Maybe you should give it a rest as well…

To this last commentator I’d reply: If you can’t understand why someone wants to catalogue and sort and order and list and arrange and argue and shape and obsess and file and group and re-group and on and on and on, without it having to be explained to you, then you never will. It’s part of being human. Maybe the obsessiveness isn’t, but the impulse is.

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I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love and treasure books. I still have the first book I ever possessed: a pocket King James Bible, given to me on the day of my baptism by my maternal grandparents. I still have the first book I remember ‘reading’ (meaning ‘looking at’ or ‘being read to me’): an illustrated life of St Francis of Assisi for children. And, by the way, the most recent book I bought was Volume 3 of the Collected Works of St Teresa of Avila – ordered on Amazon on Monday evening. I suppose there is a religious thread here…

When I was old enough to get the train to London on my own I spent hours in the second-hand bookshops around Camden Town and Charing Cross Road, snapping up all the hippie books that were de riguere for any self-respecting teenager at the time – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Rules for Radicals, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, The Tao of Physics, The Faber Book of Modern Verse, etc. This is what formed me! But even while I was hunting out paperback bargains to sit under my Athena posters, I had one covetous eye on the small collection of Folio Society books that sat in the corner of every bookshop.

They were and still are the most beautiful books in the world. The covers, the binding, the print, the paper, the illustrations. And the box cases, with that distinctive curve at the front edges so you can pull the book out without having to shake it. Every one a work of art.

I dreamt of having a whole library of Folio Books. I own one now, Augustine’s Confessionswhich I blogged about last year. The second-hand bookshop round the corner here in Chelsea has its own Folio Society shelf – I might pop round tomorrow and see what I can find.

I write all this simply because there is a feature on the Guardian website about Folio books – more an advertisement really. But it does give a glimpse of what delights exist behind the covers – a taster for anyone who hasn’t come across them before. Here is the main feature. Here are ten classics, with examples of their illustrations. Here is the Folio Society site itself.

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The Guardian’s comment is free turned five last week. It’s a good site to bookmark if you haven’t come across it before; there is always something interesting or surprising. And even though the readers’ comments at the bottom can be a bit predictable, there is enough variety in the subject matter to keep it fresh.

But then the whole point of the site is to allow not just comment, but comment on the comment. So it was a delight to find this piece, by Joe Moran, on the topic of marginalia – the original form of the comment box.

I am almost neurotically law-abiding, but there is one area of life where I am an outlaw, beyond the pale, a fugitive from justice. I only do it in pencil, and sometimes I remember to rub it out, but … I write in library books. Those spaces down the sides of the page seem so inviting that the impulse to anoint them with scribbles is irresistible. History is on my side: until the 19th century books were often used as scrap paper, and few people had qualms about scrawling on a pristine copy. No jury in the land would convict me. Books are meant to be written on.

Is such annotation a dying art in our online era? Most ebook readers allow you to highlight text and take notes, but there isn’t the same aesthetic of columns of alluring white space. On the other hand the web has whetted our appetite for sharing reading experiences. Amazon has just introduced a facility for the Kindle which posts your marginalia online so others can read it. Social reading websites like BookGlutton, where you can attach notes for other readers of the same book, have been around for a while.

You could argue that this impulse is really a return to the great age of marginalia, which the literary scholar HJ Jackson identifies as lasting from about 1750 to 1820. The practice then was widespread and communal. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who coined the word “marginalia”, wrote his own marginal comments with an audience in mind – and even published some of them. “You will not mind my having spoiled a book in order to leave a Relic,” he wrote, a little smugly, in one of Charles Lamb’s books. Many of today’s social networking sites similarly create a kind of ongoing collective commentary – not just on books, but on the world in general.

And yet there is something missing from this electronic marginalia. First, it seems so ephemeral. Pencil marks left on a page will last several lifetimes, perhaps as long as the paper itself. Public Notes, on Kindle, are less tangible and, even if someone is archiving them, are likely to be unreadable in future because of hardware or software changes. The most basic motive for writing marginalia is surely to create a sense of ownership: children often write their names over and over again in books. You can’t do that with a Kindle.

Second, this public note-taking seems too much like performance. For the last two centuries, marginalia has been semi-private, almost furtive, a silent communion with the author or the unknown reader who might pick up the book, secondhand, a generation later. Marginalia is, by definition, something on the margins – undervalued, overlooked.

Do you write in your own books? Do you write in other people’s books? Is it the same putting notes on your Kindle?

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