Tag Archives: book reviews

Libraries of the past and the future

I’ve always thought of libraries as places that have existed forever, like cemeteries, or shoe shops — they’re just a necessary part of a normal society, right? (It’s thought the Library of Alexandria was founded as long ago as 285 BC, though its current incarnation is only 16 years old and closes at 4 pm today.)

But libraries haven’t always been around for everybody.

A history of the American public library
CityLab’s visual storyteller Ariel Aberg-Riger shares the story of how America’s public libraries came to be, and their uneven history of serving all who need them.

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That’s all a world away from the history of libraries over here, in our grand stately piles.

What was the real purpose of the English country house library?
In Mark Purcell’s all-encompassing study, The Country House Library, every aspect of this topic is researched and addressed on an epic, Girouardian scale. Whereas architectural and art historians are often uninterested in the actual books found in historic architect-designed libraries, Purcell argues it is impossible to separate them from a consideration of situation, appearance and design. Demolishing the commonplace belief that volumes were “bought by the yard”, he offers an opportunity for historians to think afresh about the way collections were read and valued within the elusive confines of the country house library.

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A gripping chapter covers the early 19th-century bibliomania that culminated in the great sale of the Third Duke of Roxburghe’s library in June 1812, described as a chivalric tournament between Earl Spencer, the Marquess of Blandford and the Sixth Duke of Devonshire. Purcell gives an excellent account of the arc of sales reflecting the decline in the fortunes of the landowning classes after the late 1880s. In 1966, Shane Leslie wrote in his memoirs, Long Shadows: “The empty shelves at Blenheim, Sledmere and Althorp gave me the ghastly gasp as coffins and vaults ravaged by body-snatchers.”

Here’s an idea of how to make more use of our present-day libraries.

How to be a library archive tourist
When I’m traveling and am at a loss for how to spend my time, I look up as many libraries I can in the area I’ll be traveling to, and I check to see if they have special collections. Then I make an appointment with the library to visit those special collections, and usually it means I get to spend a day in a quiet, climate-controlled room with cool old documents. It’s like a museum but with no people, and where you have to do all the work, which is honestly my idea of a perfect vacation.

But what of the future? As this high-tech university library shows (designed, coincidentally, by Snøhetta, the Norwegian architecture firm behind the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt), those old values of accessibility are still key.

A robot-filled, architectural marvel in North Carolina is the library of the future
Public libraries remain a critical public resource, but as budgets have been slashed and information digitized over the last several decades, many have been forced to adapt from book-storage rooms to high-tech public spaces. Indeed, libraries in urban areas remain an important space for those residents with limited incomes, education, and access to resources. By reimagining the relationship between information and technology and how humans interact with both, Hunt’s designers created a unique space in which the community can learn, create, or simply gather.

[…]

“Whether or not you’re talking about a library focused on digital technology or on books or papyri, as the ancient libraries were, the most important thing is to make a library open and accessible,” he adds, noting that books weren’t invented until centuries after the first libraries came about. “[Libraries] had museums, they had lounges, they were interactive and in a very vibrant way,” he says, “more like libraries of the future.”

And yes, I know this is a bookshop and not a library, but you must check it out.

Mirrored Chinese bookstore offers readers a maze of discovery
The newest of China’s surreal mirrored bookstores is now open in Chongqing, offering a disorienting, Escher-like experience to all who enter. Designed by X+Living, the Chongqing Zhongshuge Bookstore leads visitors through an unassuming glass facade on the third floor of Zodi Plaza and into a reflective maze full of reading materials waiting to be discovered.

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Anyone else seeing Daleks there?

It’s still 1984, and always will be

It’s 2019, but are we any further on?

Nothing but the truth: the legacy of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four
Orwell was both too pessimistic and not pessimistic enough. On the one hand, the west did not succumb to totalitarianism. Consumerism, not endless war, became the engine of the global economy. But he did not appreciate the tenacity of racism and religious extremism. Nor did he foresee that the common man and woman would embrace doublethink as enthusiastically as the intellectuals and, without the need for terror or torture, would choose to believe that two plus two was whatever they wanted it to be.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is about many things and its readers’ concerns dictate which one is paramount at any point in history. During the cold war, it was a book about totalitarianism. In the 1980s, it became a warning about technology. Today, it is most of all a defence of truth.

Speaking of liars.

Boris Johnson may be the UK’s next Prime Minister, but he’s up on criminal charges for Brexit “Battle Bus” lies
Ball’s complaint claims that Johnson knew that his NHS promises were lies, and as evidence, cites instances in which Johnson used accurate figures. The complain calls for a criminal sanction as remedy for these lies, because “lying on a national and international platform undermines public confidence in politics.”

There will be preliminary hearings tomorrow, and then one of four things may happen: Johnson may appeal, the Criminal Prosecution Service may allow Ball to continue with his own private proceedings, or the CPS may take over the proceedings, or they may shut them down on the basis that the prosecution is not in the public interest.

George Orwell jumped ahead 36 years. With his new TV series, Years and Years, Russell T. Davies only leaps from five to 15 years ahead, but his vision of the future feels likelier and far scarier as a result. Why do we, the audience, keep doing this to ourselves?

From Years and Years to Bird Box: why we turn to dystopian dramas in a crisis
Right now, it’s hard to think of a more prescient film than the 2006 thriller Children of Men with its depiction of environmental catastrophe and xenophobia; call me naive but not in a million years did I think we’d get so close to Alfonso Cuarón’s vision. Great art is supposed to reflect life, or so we are told. For me, the power of Years and Years lies not in its moments of high drama but in its more subtle drawing of the growing tensions between families, generations and cultures, and the line the series draws between now and the years to come. The future is here on TV, but the question is: have we got the stomach for it?

Years & Years (2019): Official Trailer

What a load of crap

The world is full of it.

The curious history of crap — from space junk to actual poop
That’s the thing about our garbage: We have become experts at acting like it doesn’t exist. Space trash, in fact, barely registers as a blip compared to the enormity of the waste our species generates. In disused home appliances, computers, mobile phones, and other electronic equipment, or e-waste, we generate close to 45 million metric tons of waste every single year. That’s the equivalent of over 4,500 Eiffel Towers. Trash that could obstruct a city skyline. But not only do we not see it, most of us don’t even know where it goes. […]

But even then, what we toss out is just the tip of the proverbial trashberg. Most garbage comes from the manufacturing process. What we throw in the bin—the final product—represents a mere 5 percent of the raw materials from the manufacturing, packaging, and transportation process. Put another way, for every 150 kilograms of product we see on the shelves, behind the scenes there’s another 3,000 kilograms of waste that we don’t see. In total, the world produces approximately 3 million metric tons of garbage every 24 hours. That number is expected to double by 2025. And if business continues as usual, by the end of the century it will be an unfathomable 10 million metric tons of solid waste a day.

Some people produce more crap than others, though.

‘Staggeringly silly’: critics tear apart Jacob Rees-Mogg’s new book
“Absolutely abysmal”, “anathema to anyone with an ounce of historical, or simply common, sense”, “a dozen clumsily written pompous schoolboy compositions”, “yet another bit of self-promotion by a highly motivated modern politician”. […]

“No doubt every sanctimonious academic in the country has already decided that Rees-Mogg’s book has to be dreadful, so it would have been fun to disappoint them. But there is just no denying it: the book is terrible, so bad, so boring, so mind-bogglingly banal that if it had been written by anybody else it would never have been published.” […]

“The book really belongs in the celebrity autobiography section of the bookstore. At best, it can be seen as a curious artefact of the kind of sentimental jingoism and empire-nostalgia currently afflicting our country.” […]

“Before I started, the prospect of Rees-Mogg in Downing Street struck me as a ridiculous idea. But if this is what it takes to stop him writing another book, then I think we should seriously consider paying the price.”

Boy meets girl meets robot

So what to read next, after Dune? More sci-fi? Ian McEwan’s “retrofuturist family drama” seems to be getting some attention.

Man, woman, and robot in Ian McEwan’s new novel
It’s London, 1982. The Beatles have reunited (to mixed reviews), Margaret Thatcher has just lost the Falkland Islands to Argentina, and Sir Alan Turing, now seventy, is the presiding spirit of a preemie Information Age. People have already soured on the latest innovations, among them “speaking fridges with a sense of smell” and driverless cars that cause multinational gridlock. “The future kept arriving,” Charlie ruminates. “Our bright new toys began to rust before we could get them home, and life went on much as before.”

Buyer’s remorse is a recurring theme in Ian McEwan’s witty and humane new novel, “Machines Like Me” (Nan A. Talese), a retrofuturist family drama that doubles as a cautionary fable about artificial intelligence, consent, and justice. Though steeped in computer science, from the P-versus-NP problem to DNA-inspired neural networks, the book is not meant to be a feat of hard-sci-fi imagineering; McEwan’s aim is to probe the moral consequences of what philosophers call “the problem of other minds.”

In “Machines Like Me”, Ian McEwan asks an age-old question
Amid all the action, there are sober passages of philosophical discussion between Charlie and Adam. But in parts the novel is funny, too. To Charlie’s disgust, Adam’s encyclopedic recall of Shakespeare makes him seem the better catch to Miranda’s father, a writer, who assumes Charlie is the robot, because he isn’t interested in books.

Late in the story it emerges that other androids around the world are committing suicide in horror at the behaviour of their flesh-and-blood masters. Adam wonders about the “mystery of the self” and his fear that he is “subject to a form of Cartesian error”. Strip away the counterfactual wrapping and “Machines Like Me” is ultimately about the age-old question of what makes people human. The reader is left baffled and beguiled.

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan review – intelligent mischief
This is the mode of exposition in which he [Kipling] seems to address the reader from a position of shared knowledge, sketching out an unfamiliar reality through hints and allusions, but never explaining it too completely. This inside-out style is the default mode of modern SF. It is economical and of special usefulness to makers of strange worlds, plunging a reader into a new reality and leaving them space to feel like a participant in its creation. It’s the opposite technique to that of McEwan’s narrator, who explicitly sets out his world, overexplains the historical context and never turns down a chance to offer an essayistic digression.

To my taste, this is a flat-footed way of doing sci-fi.

‘It drives writers mad’: why are authors still sniffy about sci-fi?
Machines Like Me is not, however, science fiction, at least according to its author. “There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future,” McEwan said in a recent interview, “not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas.” There is, as many readers noticed, a whiff of genre snobbery here, with McEwan drawing an impermeable boundary between literary fiction and science fiction, and placing himself firmly on the respectable side of the line.

But perhaps we’ve had enough about robots and AI recently.

Never mind killer robots—here are six real AI dangers to watch out for in 2019
The latest AI methods excel at perceptual tasks such as classifying images and transcribing speech, but the hype and excitement over these skills have disguised how far we really are from building machines as clever as we are. Six controversies from 2018 stand out as warnings that even the smartest AI algorithms can misbehave, or that carelessly applying them can have dire consequences.

Dune. Done.

So. They’re remaking Dune.

7 things we know so far about the Dune remake (& 3 things fans are hoping for)
Dune has quickly become one of the most anticipated upcoming movies. With plenty of talent and a beloved source material already behind it, there were plenty of fans looking forward to this big screen adaptation. However, with big names being announced to the cast seeming every day, excitement for the film has skyrocketed.

I thought now would be a good time to read the book, to see what all the fuss is about. All I knew of it was from the David Lynch film. It didn’t make much of an impression, to be honest.

Dune, 50 years on: how a science fiction novel changed the world
Every fantasy reflects the place and time that produced it. If The Lord of the Rings is about the rise of fascism and the trauma of the second world war, and Game of Thrones, with its cynical realpolitik and cast of precarious, entrepreneurial characters is a fairytale of neoliberalism, then Dune is the paradigmatic fantasy of the Age of Aquarius. Its concerns – environmental stress, human potential, altered states of consciousness and the developing countries’ revolution against imperialism – are blended together into an era-defining vision of personal and cosmic transformation.

The book is over 50 years old. You can buy this collector’s edition from the Folio Society for £75, or the e-book together with its five sequels on Amazon for £1.99. I chose the latter.

Manny Rayner’s review of Dune
So that was the Dune we know and love, but the man who rewrote it now would get a rather different reception. Oh my God! These Fremen, who obviously speak Arabic, live on a desert planet which supplies the Universe with melange, a commodity essential to the Galactic economy, and in particular to transport. Not a very subtle way to say “oil”! They are tough, uncompromising fighters, who are quite happy to use suicide bombing as a tactic. They’re led by a charismatic former rich kid (OK, we get who you mean), who inspires them to rise up against the corrupt, degenerate… um, does he mean Westerners?

Dune has made a huge impact on many people, one that it failed to make on me, but then I watched this. My goodness, imagine if this had been made instead.

Jodorowsky’s Dune | Official Trailer HD (2014)

I knew Jodorowsky from watching the incredible, hypnotic Santa Sangre many years ago, and knew he had wanted to do something with Dune, but hadn’t really appreciated the full extent of his surrealist and psychedelic project until I watched that documentary. Goodness me.

And what an incredible legacy that film-that-never-was has left us. Dan O’Bannon and HR Giger’s work on Alien, for example. But also Dan O’Bannon’s collaboration with Moebius.

“The Long Tomorrow”: Discover Mœbius’ hard-boiled detective comic that inspired Blade Runner
Alejandro Jodorowsky may never have made his film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, but plenty came out of the attempt — including, one might well argue, Blade Runner. Making that still hugely influential adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ridley Scott and his collaborators looked to a few key visual sources, one of them a two-part short story in comic form called “The Long Tomorrow.”

The Long Tomorrow, by Moebius
As we were still in the stage of preparations and concepts, there was almost nothing to do and he was bored stiff. To kill time, he drew. Dan is best known as a script writer, but is an excellent cartoonist. If he had wished, he could have been a professional graphic artist. One day, he showed me what he was drawing. It was the story board of ‘The Long Tomorrow’. A classic police story, but situated in the future. I was enthusiastic. When Europeans try this kind of parody, it is never entirely satisfactory, the French are too French, the Italians are too Italian … so, under my nose was a pastiche that was more original than the originals.

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And from The Long Tomorrow to Blade Runner and back to Dune, with the news that Denis Villeneuve, the director of the Blade Runner remake, will direct this new Dune remake.

Looking back for a better digital future

A review of two books on the histories and possible futures of the internet, that try to position themselves somewhere between the more common approaches that recent studies have taken — either deterministic accounts of the “improbable marriage of countercultural hippie experiments and the military-industrial complex”, or heroic tales from Silicon Valley of “whimsical personalities and talents of digital entrepreneurs and inventors”.

Counter-histories of the Internet
Two recent books address similar speculative scenarios in the course of offering alternative histories of the internet: David Clark’s Designing an Internet and Joy Lisi Rankin’s A People’s History of Computing in the United States. Clark’s book introduces its readers to scientists who designed our networks, many of whom still dream of redesigning them. Rankin writes about groups of students and researchers who used early computers with uncommon egalitarianism. Both authors wonder why versions of the internet that they personally favor have not prevailed. They also hope that recalling such forgotten projects could inspire their readers to fight for a better digital future.

[…]

Rankin explicitly describes herself as “highlight[ing] the centrality of education—at all levels—as a site of creativity, collaboration, and innovation.” More obliquely, but no less forcefully, Clark tries to free his readers from a myopic view of web architecture as a given landscape within which we pursue our goals and interests without considering how that landscape came to be. He shows that knowing more about how the web was built, or could have been built, allows us to think more freely about how we distribute our capacities and resources within it.

It’s an interesting debate, though I worry it may be a little redundant — do the top execs at Facebook, Google and Amazon have these books on their reading list?

Support your local melancholic

Another review of Mark Dery’s biography of the “deadpan Victorian-Surrealist”, Edward Gorey. This one seems more positive than the previous one I found.

Edward Gorey: A highly conjectural man
Hackett would be the first of many people who championed Gorey, who at Parker worked on murals and artist projects for the school paper. It’s with Hackett that we begin to see a defining element of Gorey’s career: the willingness of others to embrace Gorey’s weirdo style.

Money ≠ happiness

Wired’s review of a new book has a somewhat click-baity headline.

Social media has totally warped how you think about happiness
That higher-status jobs lead to more happiness is only one of the social narratives that Dolan’s book surgically dismantles. Happy Ever After may sound like a cheap self-improvement guide to positive thinking; in reality, it is a pragmatic inspection by an LSE-qualified behavioural scientist.

And it’s not just about securing a good job. Dolan also tears apart the myth of monogamous marriage and of long-lasting marriage; the myth of having children, of going to university or of earning a lot of money. Of owning your own property. Of donating to charity (and not bragging about it). Even of being healthy.

It may sound like a blow to what you have always been taught – but the link between all of these things and happiness is, according to research, extremely loose.

He’s done his research, so has the numbers to back that up, but he talks about social narratives being to blame for our unrealistic expectations and harsh judgements of ourselves and others, not social media. That’s just the mechanism by which these narratives are being magnified.

It all sounds a little Stoic.

Too many books, not enough time

Everyone’s at it.

Goodreads Choice Awards – Best Books 2018

London Evening Standard’s best books of 2018

Guardian best books of 2018: across fiction, politics, food and more

Barnes & Noble – Best Books of 2018

The New York Times Critics’ Top Books of 2018

Publishers Weekly – Best Books 2018

Quartzy – Best books we read in 2018

And if all that wasn’t enough for you.

Download 569 free art books from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
You may remember that we featured the site a few years ago, back when it offered 397 whole books free for the reading … [T]he Met has kept adding to their digital trove since then, and, as a result, you can now find there no fewer than 569 art catalogs and other books besides. Those sit alongside the 400,000 free art images the museum put online last year.

I think I prefer Maria Popova’s round-up, though.

The loveliest children’s books of 2018
Maurice Sendak’s last book, a celebration of history’s heroic women illustrated by Maira Kalman, a stunning serenade to the wilderness, and more.

So many books, so little time.

We should ban the ‘best of’ end of year lists – they make us feel guilty and old
I mean, I suppose if I did nothing else with my free time, I might be able to get through the Times’ list, but that would be next year gone, and I would have to put off all the great new books of 2019 until 2020 and so on, year after year until the sweet release of death.

Melancholy Gorey

The New Yorker magazine has a review of an Edward Gorey biography. I don’t think the reviewer cares much for the book, but greatly appreciates the life and work of this strange artist: “It’s nice to have a biography of Gorey, with whatever silliness.”

Edward Gorey’s enigmatic world
These dark territories give the book’s overt themes a place in which to burrow and ripen. Alison Lurie wrote that, in looking at such drawings of Gorey’s, “one of the things you want to remember is what the nineteen-fifties were like. . . . All of a sudden everybody was sort of square and serious, and the whole idea was that America was this wonderful country and everybody was smiling and eating cornflakes and playing with puppies.” Gorey’s hatching and cross-hatching were his answer to that—the shadows inside the sunny hedge.

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On the shore a bat, or possibly an umbrella,
disengaged itself from the shrubbery,
causing those nearby to recollect the miseries of childhood.

* of the year

December’s not quite here yet, but the best somethings of the year articles are starting already. Here are two I’ve spotted recently.

National Geographic’s best photos of 2018
National Geographic’s 100 best images of the year—curated from 107 photographers, 119 stories, and more than two million photographs.

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As well as the usual, and often quite grisly, natural history images, there are some remarkable human interest stories here too.

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Books of the year 2018: the TLS contributors decide
From autofiction to ‘unbooks’ and ‘Ancient Mariner novels’.

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Having spent much of the past three years writing about a fictional piano-tuner I thought I had had enough of the instrument. Then along came Paul Kildea’s fascinating Chopin’s Piano: A journey through Romanticism (Allen Lane) and I was hooked again. The starting point for this beguiling journey is a somewhat basic piano – a pianino – made in Majorca in the 1830s on which Chopin composed and polished his 24 Preludes.

[…]

Hastings’s indictment of Washington policy after the South Vietnamese military coup of 1963 is lethal. America’s prolongation of the war was a mutilating act of self-harm which took generations to heal. It happened because US policymakers lied to the electorate, which is usual enough, but more culpably also lied to close colleagues and lied to themselves. In this sense, at least, Brexit is Britain’s Vietnam.

[…]

Schnackenberg has everything except (a) a snappy name, and (b) a recital voice powerful enough to overcome the uproar of gerbils mating. Listen to her on YouTube and you’ll think that the Americans are developing a new weapon: Stealth people. 

Hard work being lazy

Two articles on some recently published books which I thought worked well together.

What we do: The evolution of work
Much of Komlosy’s writing about the evolving understanding of labor is illustrated with excellent examples of linguistic differences. Across European languages, she points out, there exists a structural distinction roughly equivalent to what we’d recognize in English as that between “labor” and “work”—the former traditionally more toilsome, the latter signifying not just effort but also the redemption of a realized product. German makes the split between arbeit and werk; French, between travail and oeuvre. In one telling etymology, she points out that travail (and its Spanish and Portuguese cousins, trabajo and trabalho) comes from the Latin tripalium, a three-pronged stake used to torture slaves in ancient Rome. Oeuvre, on the other hand, along with the Latin opus and the Italian opera, speaks for itself.

Idleness as flourishing
It is hard work to write a book, so there is unavoidable irony in fashioning a volume on the value of being idle. There is a paradox, too: to praise idleness is to suggest that there is some point to it, that wasting time is not a waste of time. Paradox infuses the experience of being idle. Rapturous relaxation can be difficult to distinguish from melancholy. When the academic year comes to an end, I find myself sprawled on the couch, re-watching old episodes of British comedy panel shows on a loop. I cannot tell if I am depressed or taking an indulgent break. As Samuel Johnson wrote: “Every man is, or hopes to be, an Idler.” As he also wrote: “There are … miseries in idleness, which the Idler only can conceive.” This year brings three new books in praise of wasting time.

What are you reading?

A review from TLS of what looks to be a fascinating book.

Pass the tortoise shell: Eve Houghton explores reading and writing across time and space
The history of the book does not always involve the study of either history or books. As James Raven shows in this slim, engaging volume, the question of what sort of object might count as a book remains very much up for debate. The history of the book in the Western world has traditionally made “book” synonymous with “codex” – gatherings of leaves folded or stitched together – but in Professor Raven’s geographically and chronologically wide-ranging account, it takes a variety of material forms: Chinese tortoise shells inscribed 3,000 years ago; Sumerian clay tablets impressed with cuneiform scripts; knotted string records, or khipus, used for record-keeping by South American Incan officials. The boundaries of the book seem even less clearly defined in the era of the blog post and Kindle.

I’ve mentioned khipus here before. It’s so odd to think of a bundle of knotty string as a book. But of course books aren’t just written, using knots or otherwise — they’re read too, a trickier research topic.

The book also gestures towards emerging areas of scholarship, particularly in an illuminating chapter on the history of reading. Raven writes that reading is “the most significant and challenging dimension of the history of books”. Because it leaves few material records, reading remains one of the most elusive practices to capture in historical terms. For example, it is not always a silent, solitary activity. As Paul Saenger and other scholars have shown, there is significant evidence that many people in pre-modern Europe heard books more than they read them. But how can historians and literary critics account for a form of engagement with books that, more often than not, left no trace behind?

I was going to make a comment about the rich, varied and global history of the book standing in contrast to its bland, flat future, if Amazon has its way, but that could be a little hypocritical as I’ll probably read this on my Kindle, like everyone else.

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Vibrant butterfly

Another great find from the Futility Closet — an incredible book, hiding within an ordinary one.

Subtext
To create his 1970 novel A Humument, British artist Tom Phillips began with W.H. Mallock’s forgotten 1892 novel A Human Document and drew, painted, and collaged over the pages, leaving a few words showing to tell a new, hitherto unrevealed story. For instance, the title arises from Phillips’ deletion of two central syllables in Mallock’s title, and the protagonist, Bill Toge, can appear only when the word “together” or “altogether” arises in Mallock’s original text.

The article points us to this amazing gallery of pages from the book. All I knew of Tom Phillips before reading this was that he collaborated with Peter Greenaway on A TV Dante, but you can certainly see some of that shared aesthetic here.

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We’re also pointed to this review from the London Review of Books, for a more in-depth look at the ‘author’ and his ‘book’.

Double Act: Adam Smyth reviews ‘A Humument’ by Tom Phillips
He treats each page of Mallock’s novel in this way, effacing most of the text, generally by painting, occasionally by cutting, slicing, or even in one instance burning the page, to leave an alternative narrative. Phillips’s revealed story was in one sense always there in Mallock, just lost amid the torrent of other text. This is authorship as pruning, a process of erasure or cutting away that finds in the buttoned-up A Human Document a teeming world of humour, sex, sadness and art that would have baffled and shocked the conservative Mallock.

[…]

Phillips is a lover of games and chance and rules. With Brian Eno – his pupil at Ipswich Art School in the early 1960s – he invented ‘sound tennis’, striking a ball against five pianos with their workings exposed, and scoring according to the sounds produced. In A Humument, Phillips deploys what he calls ‘invited accident’: in the 1987 edition, coin tosses dictated which words should be struck out on page 99 of Mallock, until there were only two left standing: ‘something already’.

[…]

The reeling comic voice that Phillips finds buried inside Mallock – ‘on the philosophy mattress to-night My sister is going to attempt to join the morning after and Aristotle’s Ethics’ – frequently recalls other masters of strange, urgent sentences: Monty Python; Samuel Beckett; Chris Morris in Blue Jam; and perhaps most vividly of all, Vivian Stanshall in Sir Henry at Rawlinson End. In fact, A Humument is a novel of quotation: not only in the sense that all of its words were written first by Mallock (although not, as Eric Morecambe said of the notes in his piano playing, necessarily in the right order); but also because Phillips pieces together Mallock’s words to produce other writers’ lines. So there is Donne and Shakespeare, but also lines from books that in 1892 had not yet been written. Versions of E.M. Forster’s ‘only connect’ (Howards End, 1910) pop up throughout: ‘merely connect’; ‘closely connect’; ‘oddly connect’; ‘My little muse was connect connect.’ Molly Bloom’s closing words in Ulysses (1922) fill A Humument’s penultimate page (‘And I said yes – yes, I will yes’); and Ezra Pound’s Make It New (1935) is in there too. Beckett is a constant near presence, including a version of the most famous lines from Worstward Ho (1983): ‘as years went on, you began to fail better.’ The temporality of the quotation is complex: Mallock (1892) is being made to quote Beckett (1983) by Phillips (in a 2012 edition of a book he began in 1966).

OK I’m getting dizzy now.

Can we call what Phillips is doing ‘writing’, or would some other term be better? What version of authorship or creativity is at work here? A Humument is a reminder that books are inevitably intertextual – they grow out of older texts – and that all writing involves selecting words from a finite pool: what appears to be a constraint, having to work within the walls of an existing novel, in fact dramatises a condition of literature.

Sad ending

Like many others, I’m sure, I raced through The Third Policeman in the sixth form. I’ve read it a few times since, and recently found the nerve to tackle At Swim-Two-Birds, fearful of its reputation. I shouldn’t have waited so long. Very funny-haha as well as very funny-peculiar, though I’ll have to re-read it again before I could tell you what it was all about.

flann-o-brien-books

I know very little about Flann O’Brien, though. Maybe that’s for the best. According to this collection of his letters and correspondence, drink turned him into quite an unpleasant and angry man in his later years.

Yours severely: the collected letters of Flann O’Brien
In a book full of crackpottery, one of the strangest moments comes in 1965, when O’Brien suggests that the French edition of At Swim-Two-Birds be translated back into English by a serving French Foreign Legionnaire and used to replace O’Brien’s original text, which he had come to detest. In its daft way, the suggestion is a perfect example of O’Brien’s estranged relationship with language – language in general but also the language of his artistic prime, as surveyed from the wreckage of his final years.

[…]

Might a non-drinking O’Brien have been a happier and more savoury human being? Almost certainly. Might a happier and better-adjusted O’Brien have ever written anything? Impossible to say. As it is, our reaction to the unhappy soul captured in these letters will probably be, in the words of a 1965 letter, ‘halfway between a guffaw and a puke’.

By the way, At Swim-Two-Birds was very nearly a film, if you can imagine that.

Brendan Gleeson secures funds for Flann O’Brien film
Actor Brendan Gleeson has secured funding to make a film of Irish writer Flann O’Brien’s masterpiece At Swim Two Birds. Gabriel Byrne, Colin Farrell and Cillian Murphy have all been linked to the new film.

Though that now seems doubtful.

Gleeson’s doubts over Two Birds
Domhnall Gleeson has revealed his doubts over the At Swim Two Birds film. His father Brendan Gleeson is planning to make his directorial debut with the big-screen adaptation of Flann O’Brien’s novel, which Colin Farrell, Gabriel Byrne and Cillian Murphy have been attached to. It was originally set for release in 2010, with 14 drafts of the script already written by the actor, but has yet to start shooting.

I think I will re-read the book, though, just in case.

Mind your manners

A couple of polite reviews of In Pursuit of Civility by Keith Thomas. I love the first reviewer’s breakdown of the passive-aggressive phrase “Polite Notice”.

In praise of (occasional) bad manners
There are some funny moments here. One involves Keith Thomas’s lunchtime encounter with Norbert Elias, “world authority on the history of table manners,” when Thomas apparently knocked a jug of water all over the table. Elias’s response is not recorded; perhaps it was unprintable. It would have been good to learn more about comparable embarrassments in the early modern period—tales such as that reported by John Aubrey involving the Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), who, “making of his low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth, happened to let a Fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed that he went to Travel [for] seven years. On his return the Queen welcomed him home, and said, ‘My Lord, I had forgot the Fart.’”

How manners made man
In his final chapter, Thomas reflects on today’s world, in which civility means the recognition of equality, the right to self-expression, and the tolerance of difference. The new barbarians, in my view, are those who conduct phone conversations on trains and take selfies outside Auschwitz. But these actions are not, insists Thomas, signs of a “decivilising process”, because they do not threaten the internal order. I disagree, but then civility, to quote Barack Obama, is about disagreeing without being disagreeable.

Explaining anxiety

TLS reviews On Edge by Andrea Petersen and Hi, Anxiety by Kat Kinsman; books that document the authors’ battles with anxiety and their attempts to better understand the disorder.

Tunnel of silk: trying to explain the condition of anxiety
Though her writing is sometimes dry compared with Kinsman’s, Petersen poses some pertinent questions about anxiety in society. “Why do the rates of anxiety disorders seem to be rising among young people?” she asks, noting that “Between 2008 and 2016, the number of college students diagnosed with or treated for anxiety problems jumped from 10 to 17 per cent”. There are no firm answers to this question yet. But by balancing research and interviews with personal anecdotes, Petersen manages to fuse the typical memoir’s self-preoccupation with journalism’s broader ambition.

Dante’s Divine Comedy: the book was too long, the video too short

This article from BBC Culture reviews the enormous contribution Dante made with his Divine Comedy, not just in terms of literature and religion but the development and adoption of the Italian language too. It does include this irreverent passage though:

Dante and The Divine Comedy: He took us on a tour of Hell
… Right there that suggests this view of the afterlife is coloured by authorial wish-fulfillment: Dante gets a personal tour from his father-figure of a literary hero and the woman on whom he had a crush. In the parlance of contemporary genre writing, Dante’s version of himself in The Divine Comedy is a Mary Sue, a character written to be who the author wishes he could be, having experiences he wishes he could have. Sandra Newman, author of How Not to Write a Novel, has said that “The Divine Comedy is really a typical science fiction trilogy. Book one, a classic. Book two, less exciting version of book one. Book three, totally bonkers, unwanted insights into author’s sexuality, Mary Sue’s mask slipping in every scene.”

I guess I must agree. I want to say I read The Divine Comedy as a sixth former, but it’s more accurate to say I read Inferno and just briefly skimmed the rest, like everyone else.

And I loved Peter Greenaway’s video version, A TV Dante, though it was frustratingly too short, only covering the first eight cantos of the first book.

Dante_El Infierno, “A_T.V. Dante” ( Peter greenaway & Tom phillips_1993) subtitulado en español

The illustrations that tend to go along with the books are wonderful, and I’m sure they have contributed to the ongoing appeal of this massive Medieval poem.

A digital archive of the earliest illustrated editions of Dante’s Divine Comedy
These images, from Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, represent a 1497 woodcut edition, at the top, with a number of hand-colored pages; an edition from 1544, above, with almost 90 circular and traditionally-composed scenes, all of them probably hand-colored in the 19th century; and a 1568 edition with three engraved maps, one for each book.

As evocative and helpful as they are, that typical cone shape never really worked for me, though, as it doesn’t feel underground-y enough. In this version below, it looks like a vast plain or the map of a pleasant stroll through the North York Moors.

a-wide-open-hell

It needs more ceilings, like in As Above, So Below, a film dealing with similar geography, but with added claustrophobia.

as-above-so-below-ceiling

(I must admit I haven’t seen this film, however. Rather than having to sit through all these kinds of films, I get all I need from the FoundFlix YouTube channel these days. Much quicker.)

Remarkable, beautiful and completely meaningless

Another great find on Brain Pickings.

Reality, representation, and the search for meaning: Argentine artist Mirtha Dermisache’s invented graphic languages
A century after Nietzsche, the Argentine artist Mirtha Dermisache (February 21, 1940–January 5, 2012) set out to probe the limits and possibilities of language by filling countless notebooks, letters, and postcards with text. None of it was legible.

In the 1970s, Dermisache invented an array of graphic languages, each with a distinct syntactic texture and a visual rhythm that inclines toward meaning, or the longing for meaning. The lines she composed in them — so purposeful, so fluid, evocative of a script in a foreign tongue or a cardiograph or birdsong notation — become a Rorschach test, beckoning the mind to wrest from them a message, a meaning, a representation of some private reality of thought and feeling.

And from the Mirtha Dermisache: Selected Writings Amazon page:

Her work, which she created while living under the junta in Argentina, is lasting and subversive even though she barely penned a legible word…In our current environment, it is difficult to look at her work and not think about the impossibility of discourse, the primacy of self-expression, and the fallacy of a shared objective language, not to think of this art as both radically political and necessary today.–Will Fenstermaker “The Paris Review “

remarkable-meaningless-1

Very poetic. A little spooky? Teeline? What would the graphologists make of them, I wonder.

remarkable-meaningless-2

A different kind of banned book

This is a fascinating story from Codex 99 — an incredible website I’ve only recently discovered, but so glad I have.

Topographische Anatomie des Menschen – Eduard Pernkopf
After he died suddenly in 1955, Pernkopf left behind the first three volumes of his monumental Topographische Anatomie des Menschen (The Topographical Anatomy of Man). The book was unlike anything attempted before—a watershed in the history in medical illustration. To many it was the most beautiful, detailed and important anatomical work ever published, but its troubled past eventually caught up with it and it became a contentious case study in biomedical ethics. Today the Anatomie is effectively banned; hidden away in library archives and listed as “out of circulation.”

[…]

The University of Vienna wasn’t particularly interested in reliving its’ Nazi past, but under pressure, especially from Yad Vashem, it eventually agreed to form an official inquiry—the Senate Project—to review the issue. Daniela Angetter, a young medical historian, was tasked with tracing records that, in many cases, simply no longer existed. What she and the Senate Project finally reported was beyond horrific; almost surreal in its’ scale.

[…]

Needless to say, the University’s report raised a considerable ethical debate in the medical community. It’s easy to dismiss the brutally flawed Nazi science of Josef Mengele or Carl Clauberg, but what do you do with the exemplary science of Pernkopf? What do you do with the Anatomie?