After the Cambridge festival of nine digital devices and arguments, and after some splendid bouts of Balderdash with various combinations of my extended family, the reality principle casts its sober light once more on Propagandum Towers. This follows, of course, the excellent but not currently much honoured Feast of Fools on 5 January, also known as Twelfth Night, the one day of the year where the world might relish turning itself upside down, the day the kings serve the servants. There is more than an echo of this very ancient festival in the homage to a particular carpenter’s son by three kings in a stable, as handsomely illustrated by Rubens in my previous post. I usually lose the meaning in the superstitious panic to get the decorations down in time, and think of Twelfth Night’s appeal to Shakespeare’s increasingly (from about 1600 onwards) astonishing explorations of disorder, illusion and madness – in this play, in comic form.
My Christmas media harvest this year included both a Kindle, in a svelte suede wrapperette, and (conveniently continuing the post-Christmas ‘12’ theme) the following diamond dozen. I have now read a few of them, bits of some and none of most, but one of the pleasures of reading is the planning, the hopes, the ‘dipping into’, the teasing blurbs from the publisher, the cross-checks against reviews and what friends say – the social media of reading, which used to happen anyway before social media were invented. In the internet age these pleasures are, for me, both more available and intense. Perhaps, gentle reader, you are even now finding in this social medium a reflection of your own experience.
Any cross-connections between the books in the following list is both entirely accidental and entirely to be expected. As Virginia Woolf said in 1929 in A Room of One’s Own (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1989, p. 80), ‘Books continue each other in spite of our habit of judging them separately’; I thank her for letting me make her point simply by quoting her. This booky referencing/linking is just more noticeable in the age of the internet. Perhaps the facility of ‘search’ externalizes and mechanizes the connections, whereas the intractability of books requires us to hold our memories of them deep within ourselves.
So, to the twelve. With a nod to multimodality and inter-book connnectivity I have made some comments about the covers. Let me know if you disagree.
1. Simon Garfield, Just My Type – this is a book of the stories behind the typefaces we all have seen and increasingly seem to know. It was the surprise UK bestseller of 2011, and shows – contrary to received wisdom about e-books – that people really do care about fonts.
2. Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter – Kittler is the successor to the startling media analysis of Marshall McLuhan, though this was also written just before (1986) the internet age. This one is an exciting kick-off for a new ‘books about books’ group in Cambridge starting next month. Book groups are both comparatively modern and an impressive example of an autonomous self-help and self-education initiative; they are also fun and friendly. I am tempted to suggest they are, perhaps, long-term, more interesting and important than the Occupy movement, which only has life because of the media attention from the conglomerates they purport to oppose.
3. Mark Forsyth’s The Etymologicon was my first Kindle book, now safely and enjoyably survived. The writing if not the device was an entertaining canter through some of the wormholes surprisingly connecting the words we use, for example caliphate to California. The brilliant linked-up narrative structure that ends back at the beginning is shared with other popular successes such as ‘On Ilkley Moor bartat’, Pulp Fiction and the cycle of readings in the church year (the first sentence ever to link these together?). And any book that starts off by discussing metaphors of book has got to be good, in my book.
4. Manuel Castells, Communication Power, is a major attempt to theorize the relations of media and power in our time. The author seeks to explain the causes of the uprisings in the Middle East and northern Africa in 2011; he goes on to suggest how the current power and communication matrix may affect power relations in the future. The author describes digital and smartphone media as ‘means of self-communication’ – which sounds rousingly controversial and an incitement to read.
5. John Baskerville (printer), The Book of Common Prayer. This is the classic Church of England text, full of magnificent word music such as ‘the author of peace and lover of concord’, ‘the devices and desires of our own heart’, ‘till death us do part’: three of hundreds of phrases that have rolled around the backs and fronts of English minds since 1549 to intrigue and inspire. Published and printed in a particularly superb edition in 1760, I am writing more about this in the next post.
6. Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridien, for my book group #1, is so far showing itself a tour de force of sickening narrative and textures of grit, rock and dust, lumped in with an aching lyricism in its descriptions of savage and inhospitable landscapes. A beautiful and disturbing existential masterpiece.
7. Simon Baron-Cohen’s Zero Degrees of Empathy is accessible academic-based writing published in a more populist way for what the business calls ‘the trade’. Written by a near neighbour, it sounds like an explanation of the behaviour of the people in #6 and will be read next. Incidentally, this is a signed copy – how do authors sign e-books?
8. John Cheever, Collected Stories – making good on a promise in a previous post,
9. Frances Spalding’s John Piper Myfanwy Piper is the biography of two major forces in the British artistic avant-garde from the 1930s onwards. This is another signed copy. I don’t specifically collect signed books, but I like the physical expression of the individuality of the author. A writer’s quill is definitely archaic, but a pen seems natural; a signed book happily makes the metaphor literal.
10. Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs – I’m sure you’ve seen copies everywhere. Through the crassest-possible eyes of a publisher the death of its subject could hardly have been more opportunely timed for publicity, but hype or no hype, this would be a fascinating read anyway.
11. John Hooper, The New Spaniards – a very well-reviewed present from one of my sons, who lives in Spain. A book is a door to any not-yet-known world.
12. Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt (eds) Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970–1990 – unashamedly brash but virtuoso large format design/colour collection of essays by cool streetwise academics, linked to the exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
I am most grateful to all my family for knowing me (or picking up my dropped hints) so well they hit my reading interests bullseye so often. Where the books are more tangential I thank them for broadening the gene pool of my stable of hobbyhorses.
The John Baskerville is so unusual I’ll write about it (with pictures) next time.
My Kindle (two words I have only fleetingly toyed with before 25 December) is perhaps the thirteenth fairy, the wicked one. Rather than refuse to invite her and banish Kindles from the kingdom for ever (with soporific consequences), I shall continue my discussion in the next post.