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Last Saturday saw the first ever World Book Night, when a million books were given away across the UK. The Guardian had the wonderful idea of asking writers which books they most often give as gifts, and which they’ve been most pleased to receive. Take a look here – it gives you so many new ideas about what to read.

This, as an example, is Margaret Atwood’s entry:

The book I most often give as a gift is The Gift, by Lewis Hyde (Canongate). I keep four or five copies around the house at all times, for swift giving to people who need them. Most often they are artists of one kind or another, and are worrying about the disconnect between what they do and how hard they work, and how little money they make. Hyde’s book explains the differences between the money economy in which we think we live, and the gift economy, in which we also live. Gifts – including artistic gifts – travel in mysterious ways, but travel they must, or else they die. The Gift is essential reading for anyone who has embarked on this journey. (It also inspired the creators of World Book Night. That is one of its gifts.)

Twenty-five titles were chosen to be given away. How? The World Book Night website explains that they “were selected by a committee of people committed to books, based on recommendations from publishers, booksellers and others”.

I’ve copied the covers below. If you click on the title-links it takes you to the World Book Night comments on the book. (I can’t get all the titles and covers to line up nicely – oh well!)

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If you are looking for something intelligent and thought-provoking to read on the net, and haven’t yet discovered it, then visit Arts & Letters Daily – an ‘aggregator’ that collects the best articles in the fields of:

Philosophy, aesthetics, literature, language, ideas, criticism, culture, history, music, art, trends, breakthroughs, disputes, gossip.

Dennis Dutton, it’s founder, died a few weeks ago. This is from an obituary by Margarit Fox.

Professor Dutton was perhaps best known to the public for Arts & Letters Daily, which he founded in 1998. The site is a Web aggregator, linking to a spate of online articles about literature, art, science, politics and much else, for which he wrote engaging teasers. (“Can dogs talk? Kind of, says the latest scientific research. But they tend to have very poor pronunciation,” read his lead-in to a 2009 Scientific American article.)

Long before aggregators were commonplace, Arts & Letters Daily had developed an ardent following. A vast, labyrinthine funnel, the site revels in profusion, diversion, digression and, ultimately, the interconnectedness of human endeavor of nearly every sort, a “Tristram Shandy” for the digital age.

As one of the first people to recognize the power of the Web to facilitate intellectual discourse, Professor Dutton was hailed as being among “the most influential media personalities in the world,” as Time magazine described him in 2005.

Arts & Letters Daily, which was acquired by The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2002, currently receives about three million page views a month. The site is expected to continue publishing, Phil Semas, The Chronicle’s president and editor in chief, said in a statement on Tuesday.

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After yesterday’s slightly mystical post about a new sun rising on the eastern horizon each morning, quite by chance I happened to start reading Augustine’s Confessions later in the evening.

St Augustine writing one of his works

And in Book 1, Chapter 6, I came across this remarkable passage about the relationship between time and eternity; between the succession of created days and God’s ever-present Day:

For thou art infinite and in thee there is no change, nor an end to this present day – although there is a sense in which it ends in thee since all things are in thee and there would be no such thing as days passing away unless thou didst sustain them.

And since “thy years shall have no end,” thy years are an ever-present day. And how many of ours and our fathers’ days have passed through this thy day and have received from it what measure and fashion of being they had? And all the days to come shall so receive and so pass away.

“But thou art the same”! And all the things of tomorrow and the days yet to come, and all of yesterday and the days that are past, thou wilt gather into this thy day.

What is it to me if someone does not understand this? Let him still rejoice and continue to ask, “What is this?” Let him also rejoice and prefer to seek thee, even if he fails to find an answer, rather than to seek an answer and not find thee! 

This is a translation by Albert C. Outler, available online. My own version is by J. G. Pilkington, in a beautiful edition published by The Folio Society, and given to me by a dear friend for the tenth anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. I’d seen these Folio editions in second-hand bookshops, but never in my life had I dreamed of ever possessing one!

It’s not just the box or the binding; every page is a work of art. The font (Palatino), the paper, the illustrations. We were arguing over lunch about whether iPads and Kindles will soon replace books. Now I have an answer: “Not if every book were the quality of these Folio books”.

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Well, I needed a catchy title. What I mean is: Out of the handful of novels I have read in my short life, and out of those I managed to remember driving up the M1 to Leeds a few days ago, here are some that have touched me profoundly and stayed with me. Another title could be, ‘Summer reading suggestions – if you are stuck for ideas’.

Oh, and one isn’t quite a novel, more an autobiography (but on the novel end of autobiography); and another is quite definitely not a novel but a collection of short stories, but I can’t leave it off a list of books like this, and they fit together like chapters in a novel.

This all started because I re-read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road while I was in Lourdes, which moved me even more than it did the first time, and got me thinking about other books that have shaken me to the core, or just shifted the axis of my being a few degrees. So McCarthy takes first place.

I was going to copy the publishers’ blurb below, but even that would break my rule about giving away plot details. If you are intrigued enough you can click on the picture links and read the Amazon reviews etc.

So here is the list:

Cormac McCarthy, The Road.

The Road

Don DeLillo, Underworld.

Underworld

Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory.

The Power and the Glory - Vintage classics

Carson McCullers, The Member of the Wedding.

The Member of the Wedding

 Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen), Out of Africa.

Out of Africa

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I’ve been dipping into the Guardian’s How to Write, edited by Philip Oltermann. There is a 100 page style guide, lots of general advice for writers, and separate chapters on: Fiction, Books for Children, Memoir and Biography, Journalism, Plays and Screenplays, and Comedy. It’s full of wisdom, and practical tips. Many of the articles are available online here.

There are many passages I would like to quote. I can’t resist these two paragraphs on cliches:

Overused words and phrases to be avoided, some of which merit their own ignominious entry in this blog, include: back burner, boost (massive or otherwise), bouquets and brickbats, but hey…, count ’em, debt mountain, drop-dead gorgeous, elephant in the room, fit for purpose, insisted, key, major, massive, meanwhile, politically correct, raft of measures, special, to die for, upsurge; verbs overused in headlines include: bid, boost, fuel, hike, signal, spiral, target, set to.

A survey by the Plain English Campaign found that the most irritating phrase in the language was at the end of the day, followed by (in order of annoyance): at this moment in time, like (as in, like, this), with all due respect, to be perfectly honest with you, touch base, I hear what you’re saying, going forward, absolutely, and blue sky thinking; other words and phrases that upset people included 24/7, ballpark figure, bottom line, diamond geezer, it’s not rocket science, ongoing, prioritise, pushing the envelope, singing from the same hymn sheet, and thinking outside the box.

You can tick me off whenever I use any of the above.

Another suggestion that came up more than once was to aim at a plain style and avoid using adjectives and adverbs. I’d like to try this, but not at the end of a long day…

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Just for fun, here is another ‘best of’ post. This time it’s the 100 best books of the decade, as judged by the Times. [I’ve linked here to the printer-friendly version to save you plodding through all 17 pages.] I’ll reprint the top ten, as they do, in reverse order:

  • 10 The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (2003)
  • 9 Atonement by Ian McEwan (2001)
  • 8 Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth by Margaret Atwood (2008)
  • 7 Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2002)
  • 6 The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell (2000)
  • 5 Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky (2006)
  • 4 Masterworks of the Classical Haida Mythtellers trans Robert Bringhurst (2002)
  • 3 Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama (2004)
  • 2 Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (2003)
  • 1 The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)

Lot’s of food for thought here. You get the impression that ‘best’ sometimes means ‘bestselling’ or ‘most influential’ or ‘of the moment’ rather than, well, best. But of course it is impossible not to be subjective. Or is it?! (I’d better stop, before I get into a whole discussion about the possibility of making objective value judgments.)

More Monsoons by ethan.crowley.

I’m not sure if The Road should be at the very top – but it is certainly a staggering work. Yes, it’s as brutal and stark as the reviews say; but it is at heart a story of a father’s love for his son. And there are moments of hope – one in particular – which I can honestly say shifted the existential ground within me and made me gasp with unanticipated relief and with gratitude at what the human spirit could bring.

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