Category Archives: Books

Flann O’Brien’s Book Handling Enterprise


Flann O’Brien was a pen name of Brian O’Nolan, an Irish author who is most famous for three novels, At Swim Two Birds, The Third Policeman and the Dalkey Archive.

He also wrote a column for the Irish Times from 1940 to 1966 full of wild imaginings.

I once read an anthology of his Irish Times pieces and one thing I have never forgotten is his proposal for a service which he called “Book Handling”. Even in this electronic age it could still be useful. Here are some extracts to show his thinking:

A visit that I paid to the house of a newly-married friend the other day set me thinking. My friend is a man of great wealth and vulgarity. When he had set about buying bedsteads, tables, chairs and what-not, it occurred to him to buy also a library. Whether he can read or not, I do not know, but some savage faculty for observation told him that most respectable and estimable people usually had a lot of books in their houses. So he bought several book-cases and paid some rascally middleman to stuff them with all manner of new books, some of them very costly volumes on the subject of French landscape painting. I noticed on my visit that not one of them had ever been opened or touched, and remarked the fact.
’When I get settled down properly,’ said the fool, ‘I’ll have to catch up on my reading.’
This is what set me thinking. Why should a wealthy person like this be put to the trouble of pretending to read at all? Why not a professional book-handler to go in and suitably maul his library for so-much per shelf? Such a person, if properly qualified, could make a fortune.

Read more…

A surprise intruder at my door


img_0976When I was in my twenties, I used to live in Bologna in a 6th floor flat together with 5 other people. The flat was on the outskirts of town  and I remember you could see a football pitch, a roller hockey rink, the motorway, the railway and just beyond it the airport and all the planes landing. The biggest room in the flat had a huge window which looked over all this civic activity and at night if you turned the light off, and in particular if you put the right music on (I especially remember one instance when Bach’s St. Matthew’s passion was playing), and watched the cars, the trains and the planes, it felt like you were on a spaceship.

One Friday I was alone in the house. Perhaps it was on the eve of a holiday, everyone else had gone back to their homes. I was up till late reading. The book I was reading was Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, which was made famous by the film adaptation which the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky made from it. Read more…

Slowly her tower crumbled – Nabokov’s Ada

I remember a Russian once telling me that when he read Nabokov in Russian it felt like he was eating words. I have since found that imagining that you are doing just that is one of the best ways to read (and imagining that you are dealing with single words may be one of the best ways to eat). Nothing is tastier or takes its place more interestingly in the mouth than the opening paragraph of Lolita :

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palette to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

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The Heart of Chinese Poetry

Quatrain_on_Heavenly_Mountain I remember clearly the first time I managed to understand a poem in classical Chinese. It was like seeing someone perform an unexpected conjuring trick, shaking out a piece of rope and then tossing it up into the air to make it stand stiffly like a stick . Then back again.

There was certainly some kind of alternation between states which I couldn’t quite understand. How could twenty simple syllables also produce some kind of shimmering complexity. Where was this chemical reaction taking place?

Another way I think of these poems is as of  magic seeds. Hold them in your hands and you see a whole tree, press them tight and they are simple seeds again.
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Undiscovered Amazon Tribes

The other day an article appeared in the New York Times about ethnic jokes in Dagestan. I am not sure how accurate a portrayal this was of life in Dagestan but some of the jokes were very funny.

An Avar is driving through Makhachkala with a Lakh in the passenger seat. Spotting a red light, he pumps the accelerator and speeds through it. “You just ran a red light!” the Lakh says. “Avars don’t stop for red lights,” the Avar explains, and speeds through another. In a few minutes, they come to a green light, and the Avar stops. “Why did you
stop?” the Lakh asks. “You can’t be too careful,” his friend says, “an Avar might be coming the other way.”

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Zeitoun – An Iron Fist Descending


Very recently I took a low-cost flight. On the evening before I left I read that the limit on hand luggage was 5 kg. and, since I didn’t want to send any luggage, I decided to wear all the clothes I was going to need and stuff as many belongings as possible into the surprising number of pockets I now had available.I checked in without any problems despite the fact that my body appeared to be a perfect square and before passing through security I re-assumed my normal identity.

I have an illogical fear of running out of reading material. Even if I am on page 32 of a 300-page book, I am always haunted by the suspicion that when I turn over I will discover that the next 268 pages are all blank. I had packed only one book and just in case it  depressurised and disappeared at 30,000 feet, I decided to look at the slim pickings in the airport book shop. One of the things I was thinking about writing was supposed to take place in a flooded city so, when I found a book which was set in New Orleans during the Hurricane Katrina, I picked it up thinking that at the very least I would learn something about what it is like to live in a waterlogged city.

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Ounce Dice Trice

For some time now New York Review Books has been re-publishing books which have been out of print for a while. This seems to me to be an excellent idea. In fact, it might be good to have a one week moratorium on new books once a year, call it Reprint Week, and dedicate it solely to old books which have been needlessly forgotten.

A while ago they brought out a book I had been waiting for. It is OUNCE DICE TRICE by Alastair Reid and Ben Shahn (first edition 1958). It is a book for children and word-lovers. It is only fifty-seven pages long but the words are meant to be read aloud, one at a time, and they are so unpredictable and interact so well with the drawings that if you belong to one of the two categories above, you will find you go back to it again and again.  On the back cover Marianne Moore is quoted as having written when the book first appeared: “Reading Ounce Dice Trice aloud is the best way of separating the bores from
their airs and the squares from their snores
.”) Read more…

Kafka’s Somebug

6a00e5502c099d883401156f1f180d970c-800wiA few months ago I spent quite a while cataloguing my books using LibraryThing, the most interesting tool of this kind I have come across. While most similar systems allow you to fetch bibliographical data using ISBN numbers or searching Amazon, this one makes it possible to search in 690 library data bases throughout the world. As a result I was even able to classify my copy of 中國書法大字典 (a wonderful dictionary of Chinese calligraphy I will talk about one day). Once you have started cataloguing your books you will begin to see  which other members have similar libraries to yours. You also get a host of suggestions with regard to other books you might be interested in. These suggestions are generally  very useful (unlike the mystifying ones generated by some other organisations). LibraryThing seems to attract quite a lot of people who really love reading and as a result there are  any number of fascinating libraries which you can explore. I was delighted to find that 24 other people owned copies of Leo Lionni’s Parallel Botany, (another favourite book I will talk about one day). It has long been out of print and sometimes I wondered whether anybody else had it. Among its more arcane features LibraryThing allows you to find out which books you share with only one other member. Some people might also be interested in what it calls its Legacy Libraries (libraries  belonging to famous people of the past). I apparently share 13 books with Marilyn Monroe (including Joyce’s Ulysses) but only 5 with Flaubert , the same number of books I have which were also in General Patton’s library (Machiavelli’s The Prince, On war by Clausewitz, Sun Zi’s Art of War, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall and Ernst Junger’s brilliantly written but very disturbing glorification of warfare – Storm of Steel). He must have really liked the last one, because he wrote very bad poetry which expressed the same kind of sentiment. For a sample go here.
If you are like me and have devised any number  of systems for arranging your books over the years, only to regularly forget how they worked, LibraryThing is precious because it allows you to attribute multiple tags to your books. As a result, you don’t have to worry whether a book should be put in a section for Ancient Borneo, left-handed writers or books your Aunt Mary might like to read because it can sit on those three virtual shelves simultaneously.  If that level of complication is not enough for you, LibraryThing also shows you the tags which other people have used for the books you own ,which gives you a new perspective on your collection and makes it possible to add further dimensions to your system.
While I was engaged in all this I discovered a few sobering things. First of all, for about half of my books, all I could remember was that I had read them.  That was  the sum total of my recollection. So perhaps it would have made no difference if I had watched soap operas or collected miniature whisky bottles instead. What I remember from most of the other books I’ve read tells me that my mind must have the same kind of geometrical surface which is used for egg containers, because anecdotes and pebble-like information seem to collect there and remain firmly lodged for years, but I am unable to retain anything flat and extensive like the argument the author is trying to get across or the theories the anecdotes are aimed at illustrating (At very best they lie there crushed, crumpled and decipherable only in fragments).
For example, I know that I read Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature and Lectures on Russian Literature with great enthusiasm  and I have often recommended them. What I actually remember about these books, in all honesty, can be summarised as follows:

  • He recommends using a dictionary and looking up words in it.
  • He says something like “literature should be felt in the backbone”.
  • He describes what a railway carriage was like in late 19th century Russia (for the purposes of understanding Anna Karenina).
  • He talks about the way that Gogol’s metaphors go on so long that they become little stories of their own.
  • As an entomologist, he tries to understand what kind of bug Gregor Samsa was turned into in Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

I probably remembered the last point so clearly because I studied a bit of entomology myself. (As a result of which I can tell you how a Mexican Jumping Bean jumps, but very little else). So I was interested to discover that  in 1989 a TV film was produced from Nabokov’s Lecture on Kafka’s Metamorphosis with Christopher Plummer in the part of Nabokov.

Here’s the link:

(The illustration at the top of the post is from Nabokov’s teaching copy of The Metamorphosis.)

Masters in Conversation – the Hitchock Truffaut tapes

I am not sure that there has ever been a book about film quite like François Truffaut’s interviews with Alfred Hitchcock. Two masters discuss the craft of cinema. Truffaut listens carefully and gets Hitchcock to provide full disclosure of what he thinks is needed to make a film tick.
I have had the book for a long time but I have only just discovered that you can listen to the tapes online or download them here.
If you don’t speak French don’t worry. Wait for the introduction to end and you will hear Truffaut being translated into English and Hitchcock answering in English.