Monday, June 30, 2014

I keep a little journal called The Book of Three Good Things in which, every night, I write down three good things, big or small, that happened that day. Sometimes, I write a few pages about an exciting event. Sometimes, I write down a phrase. From The Information by Martin Amis I recorded the expression ‘pictograms of inanity’, which describes modern playgrounds for children. But sometimes, I write just one word that I have discovered or have remembered, or want to learn to pronounce (I was delighted to discover that a voice on the internet will pronounce any word for you). I can be careless about noting where I found the word, so I don’t know where a recent one came from, but it’s nice: ‘finical’, which means being precise in trivial matters. The more common version is ‘finicky’, but even that word is fairly uncommon, I think.
At the back of the book I keep track of what I’m reading. You might wonder why I have the need to keep track. Well, this is because of my disorganized reading habits. Everything I read takes me off to read something else, and I start the something else in the middle of reading the first thing. It's like clicking on hyperlinks.
I have always read in this jumpy way. Occasionally, I read from beginning to end without interruption, but almost never. In fact, I often read the end of a book when I am just a few pages in. It is still possible to feel and to observe suspense while knowing how it all works out. I am most of all interested in the writing, you see. Of course the story matters, but the writing and the structure matter (to me) just as much. The story has to be there, as everything depends on the story, but the everything-else is very important if the story is to live.
The internet is an important player in my reading. I am forever looking up things that drift into my mind from the books I am reading. Before I go on, I must record the fact that just now my browser crashed. It happened thus: I was thinking—and I’m not sure why—about Mephistopheles. So I googled him, mainly to see that I could spell his name properly. For fun I got the voice to pronounce his name. And then Safari died. And could not be revived. I realise now that google is part of the joy of reading. You can check out reviews, look at places, find dates, learn about the author’s love affairs, discover the meanings of words and how they’re pronounced—well, you know all this. The internet is now part of the experience of reading for a lot of people. Most people.
I recently used the internet to order Philip Hensher’s new novel, The Emperor Waltz. I’m dazzled by the title, and a friend, who is reading an advance copy, says it’s marvelous. The copy I’ve ordered won’t arrive for about a month, so in the meantime, I've started reading Hensher’s 2011 novel King of the Badgers and can’t put it down. I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t read it before, but then I remembered that I had been put off by the title. From an epigraph in the middle of King of the Badgers, I learned that the title came from a children’s book by J.P.Martin. And that is how I have been introduced to the Uncle books by J.P. Martin. I wonder why I didn’t know about them long ago. I have ordered one.
No sooner had I read the first forty delicious pages of King of the Badgers than I received a new book on Hans Christian Andersen by Paul Binding to review. This is serious reading, with a deadline. I started reading it straight away because Andersen is a great interest of mine. His stories have a sense of the omnipresence of evil, and, as it happens, so does King of the Badgers. Well, lots of literature does. Of course, Andersen’s evil works as dark, dark metaphor and myth, while Hensher’s is banal and often comic, perhaps all the more frightening for being so. There I was, horribly trapped in the palace of the Snow Queen one minute, and in a cheese shop in Devon, in the company of various grotesque people the next.
As I was in the middle of both of them, the postman delivered a book by Cassandra Pybus, Seduction and Consent: A Case of Gross Moral Turpitude. I have been impatient to get this book for a couple of weeks. Here is the story behind this one: I was having a cup of tea with a friend and she told me she was going to Tasmania where she would, among other things, ‘walk on Kingston Beach’. I said that the mention of Kingston Beach always reminds me that Professor Orr and Suzanne Kemp used to tryst there. She didn’t know very much about Professor Orr etc., and so I said she might like to read Cassandra’s book. I hadn't been able to find my old copy to lend her, as my personal library is so out of control, so I asked Cassandra to send over a copy.
Greedily I read the first six pages on which are listed the characters who will appear in the story. I love this book. When my copy sidles into view one day soon, it will be obvious that I've read it because every book I read (unless I have borrowed it) will be annotated by me. I use a pencil and I mark significant moments with a cross. Then I list the page and a few key words in the back of the book. It’s a kind of personal index for future reference. When I am writing I sometimes want to refer to something I have read, so these lists are invaluable, and save me a lot of time.
Tonight in The Book of Three Good Things will be the note that Gross Moral Turpitude has arrived; that the book on Andersen has been read and reviewed, with several excursions onto google; and that I am up to page 155 of the Hensher, with some googling of the coast of Devon. And I’ll say that my googling has been interrupted by Mephistopheles who has for the time being cut me off. For although this loss of browser is not strictly speaking a good thing, it is important to note.
Written in Castlemaine on 19 June, 2014

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