Saturday, 5 March 2016

The books as physical object

When I first got my Kindle, the most notable thing about it for me was how quickly I forgot whether I was reading something on paper or screen. It was surprisingly hard to judge the reading experience, because after a minute or two I would forget I was using a Kindle at all. It turns out that reading is all about the words! And I still have the same thing -- the other day I spent ages searching my house for a book I wanted to reread, only to realise it had been on my Kindle all along. (It had a particularly memorable cover design, and I was sure I'd owned the physical object.)

Now I find that I have a slight preference for books on paper, as long as they're not too large, and are well designed. I've never been that bothered about book smell -- old books mostly smell musty, or peppery, or of disintegrating leather bindings, and only occasionally have that sweet lignin--vanillin smell. (I own a set of Lucy Toulmin Smith's edition of John Leland's itineraries which smells amazing.) Books where layout or pictures are important are that bit easier on paper -- poetry for example, or guidebooks. Modern books should be paperbacks, and they should be unpretentious, and designed by the sort of designers who want you not to notice that they've been designed at all. The book as a physical object used to be my professional life, and I have read some of the most beautiful books in the world. (The Bury Psalter, for example, or the Trinity Gospels -- the thought of the Rustic Capitals in the latter still makes my heart feel tight.) I am hard to impress therefore -- I think that modern hardbacks in particular are nasty objects. And a book on my Kindle I can reread at a moment's notice anywhere in the world. But still a nice clean paperback in my bag feels like a small, everyday luxury. I think it's a bit like travel methods. If I need to get to a place I would rather go by train than by car or coach or plane; but usually the main point of travelling is the place you're going to.

But back when I first got my Kindle I thought about this a lot. I felt sad that a lot of my pleasure in browsing in bookshops had been removed. This was also at a time when I did not own permanent book shelves, when something like two-thirds or three-quarters of my library were long gone to Oxfam or the Cambridge market book stall, and the remnant were tightly sealed in cardboard boxes in my parents' garage, inside a metal shed which had been carefully closed up to keep out mice. The idea of the book as a physical object began to feel strangely metaphysical. I thought about someone I had heard of once who built an actual, physical memory palace. I yearned for the way that my library, even with bad books in it, had seemed like an outward reflection of the mind which had read them. I imagined a conceptual ideal of a library, with all the significant books of my life neatly arranged around the walls, each book placed among or against the books it spoke with. And inside it I would be in my proper setting, like a picture in a frame or a tiger in its jungle.

So that seems like the significance of physical books to me now -- not that they look nice, or that they smell nice, or that they survive being dropped in the bath, because they don't. It's their symbolism, the way they signify an entire mental experience, something that's changed you or spoken to you, perhaps in the smallest way. You could say (this might be going a bit far) an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. (Spritual is almost certainly not the right word.) And at the time when I was thinking about this I had abandoned the most liberal church in England to go to St Paul's cathedral instead for Evensong, and sit under the resplendently mosiaced dome while the choir chanted the canticles, something I was ashamed of even as I felt I needed to do it. For a long time I was troubled by my preference for quite high church services, given that they so often seemed to me to be about superficial things. I care nothing and less than nothing for chasubles and acolytes. I was brought up, and I am, a Protestant and we care about the words. We read them and we study them -- we take them in and dwell on them. We could never place beauty, or anything for that matter, higher than truth. We cannot bow down to things made by human hands (I still just physically can't) -- we would rather go into a lion's den or a burning furnace. We worship God as well in a forest or on a mountain or in someone's living room as in an old draughty building, perhaps better. But still there is something in the symbols too. The icons I own are not to be worshipped, but they are signs of something that has been spoken in my mind, and not just mine but those of many people widely scattered through time and space. The fourteenth-century building that my parents' church despairs of keeping maintained, and heated, and welcoming to normal people, is to my mind a sign of an ongoing love and attention to God, and to truth, for the whole life of a small and troubled Devon town. So I will keep my library of printed books, and add to it, and I will keep going to Evensong instead of Family Praise, and attending to Tallis and St Augustine rather than Graham Kendrick and Nicky Gumbel, because none of these things are the thing itself; and with that understood, they are free to take their real significance as signposts to other things that are true.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Some music I like

1. I've liked this Miike Snow song, 'Genghis Khan', for a while, and now it has an excellent video.

2. The video for this Zara Larsson song, 'Lush Life', is just her dancing. There's no narrative as such. But on the plus side it doesn't make me feel bad about the Anglican communion.

3. This AlunaGeorge song, 'I'm In Control', doesn't have a video at all yet.

4. This video isn't for music, but if you feel like vegging out a bit it's just the view from the front of a train over a half-an-hour journey in Sweden. Soothing.

Friday, 1 January 2016

Reading in 2015

I reread way less than last year, and a bit less on kindle, but rather more non-fiction. I think I probably read a bit too much again -- a lot of what I read was pretty meaningless filler, but then it's so hard to work out what will be good. Next year I think I will aim for between 150 and 180 books.
  • Total number of books read: 211
  • Gender of authors of each book: 94 male, 111 female, 4 not sure, 2 anthologies
  • Number of non-fiction: 39 (18.5%)
  • Number of re-reads: 28 (13.3%)
  • Number read on Kindle: 68 (32.2%)
The stand-out things of the year were Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan books, and Jane Smiley's ongoing Last Hundred Years trilogy. I read the first three Ferrante books in January after they got so many rave reviews on the Millions End-of-Year summaries for 2014, then pre-ordered the fourth one out of impatience. I don't know of any other portrayal of female friendship that's so unsentimental and true. I've always been a big fan of Jane Smiley, but I think her Last Hundred Years trilogy may be her best work. I read Some Luck and Early Warning this year, and Golden Age is out in paperback next year. They tell the story of an American family from the Depression to the near future, and they are really strikingly good. Every now and then I start reading a book and realise that I am in safe hands -- I remember feeling that when reading Wolf Hall and The Children's Book -- and I felt the same way when reading these books.

There hasn't been anything this year that's felt like an amazing find, though. I enjoyed Astray by Emma Donoghue, a collection of short stories based on American historical documents. K.J. Parker's serial Two of Swords is very good -- it tells the story of a war from lots of different angles in monthly installments. I liked Claire North's three Gameshouse novellas, and Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch trilogy. Perhaps the most remarkable book was Sarah Gainham's Night Falls on the City, the story of an actress in Vienna in the 30s. Her husband is not only a prominent left-wing politician but Jewish, and the Nazi tanks are about to roll across the borders. The next two in the trilogy are not quite as good, but are still worth reading.

In non-fiction, I particularly enjoyed Mr Foote's Other Leg, about comedy in the London theatre at the time of the more famous Garrick. It makes a reasonable case for the eponymous Mr Foote's being the inspiration for the famous Pete and Dud sketch 'One Leg Too Few'. The Moth, a collection of true(-ish) stories, is very good indeed. The Rainborowes is a very interesting story of a family of Puritan merchants who fought Barbary pirates, emigrated backwards and forwards between the London dockyards and Massachusetts, and even got involved in the famous Putney debates -- it was a Rainborowe who said "It seems to me that the smallest he that is in this kingdom hath a life to live as the greatest he." But the most important non-fiction book I read this year was probably Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, which seems like someone saying something believeable about race in America, at last.

This is the fifth year I've done this so I can now make a nice table:
Total number of books read209175155217211967
Male:female authors (percentages)51:4452:4549:5150:4945:5349:48
Percentage non-fiction132214101915
Percentage re-reads112241301320
Percentage read on Kindle355727413239

Saturday, 5 December 2015

This Missy Elliot song is very good.

Also the Pharrell bit is very good in its rhythms, once it's got past the obligatory bit about sperm. (What is it with male rappers and their sperm?) "Herm├Ęs Trismegistus" is an excellent lyric. I think it's saying that the fashion industry or consumerism in general is all made-up alchemy. So I have reluctantly decided that Pharrell is quite talented. But I am not going to change my mind about Pitbull.

I've been reading some stuff about Jung. He was very keen on alchemy -- he saw all that soror mystica stuff as a sort of mythologisation of something inside the human soul. I used to think that if I had loads of money I would undergo Jungian analysis, because it's charmingly crazy. Partly this was because in Robertson Davies' Deptford Trilogy when the alcoholic son has Jungian analysis he's told that every single character he meets in his dreams, without exception, is just an aspect of himself. That idea is very appealing from a self-importance point of view. For example, the other day I had a dream where I worried about the strain on my mother of looking after my very elderly grandmother. If everyone in that dream was me then I can spend some time feeling sorry for myself about the inevitability of aging and mortality. But unfortunately it turns out that's not a Jungian thing at all, so I'm forced to think about other people instead of just myself. Heigh ho.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Internet, you have pleased me

I don't know if this is real, but apparently rumblr is like grindr but for fights. You can taunt each other online first to get into the mood.

These people will put a tweet into cuneiform (Persian from circa 500 BC), bake it onto clay, and post it to you. This is some consolation for the fact that it looks like you can no longer get one of Kanye's tweets hand embroidered to order.

I tried singing this song to my cat. She immediately left the room. I respect her for that.

Asian Mike Lavin And His Cat from Andy C on Vimeo.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Things I have considered calling my cat

So I have a cat now. She came from a rescue shelter, where she had been for four of the six years of her life. We had a difficult start, but we seem to be getting on better. It's not her fault that really I wanted a dog, but couldn't afford the daycare. But it is her fault that I have big red scars on my legs. So, swings and roundabouts. I have no idea what's going on in her head, not even a smidgeon of a jot of an idea. It might be nothing, or it might be something really really complex.

This is actually her name, and I'm sticking with it. It's a fine name. If she'd been called Snookums I might have had to change it but Minxie captures her pretty well. She's quite nice but not reliable. She went to the shelter because she took against her owner's new husband and baby. I totally would not trust her with a baby.

I once decided that if I got a dog I would call her Bella, so I could shout 'Chow Bella' at dinner time. Minxie is not a dog though. If she were a dog I think I'd know how to communicate with her. Also Bella just isn't a very good name.

Victoria Regina
She's really not amused. She is not prepared to play. I've mostly given up trying to get her to. Also even if she does make a leap for a toy, if I twitch it out of the way at the last minute in a playful manner she gets embarrassed and has to pretend she was actually leaping at something else -- or if she puts her paw up to pat it but isn't quick enough she has to pretend she was stretching her foreleg out to lick it instead. I don't understand this. There's only me and her here, and she's missed the boat on dignity where I'm concerned, I clean up her poo.
Apparently Queen Victoria was often amused, but I still bet she wouldn't leap after a mouse on a piece of elastic.

I was reading some seventeenth-century will inventories with notes and came across the word 'snarlygoggs', which apparently is a Devon dialect word for the rough stuff left in the dregs when cider is made, which was often in turn used to make illegal cider brandy. Minxie does snarl at me -- not so much now as before. I came up with a policy which was that if she snarled and hissed I would hiss back and not look away, though I was actually a bit scared of her for a while. I think that at first she was hoping that she could be boss. She's welcome to manipulate me, but I won't be bullied. I don't think I could live with a pet that frightened me.

She's a lazy cat, which is great, but unfortunately she turns out to be quite intelligent, which is not so good. She gets bored. I've got her some cat puzzles, most successfully this treat maze. She has to push the treats down the holes to make them fall out at the bottom. Since I got it our interactions have improved, and she asks for treats to be put in it -- she seems to prefer them like that rather than just given to her. Once I have put the treats in she sits and studies it intently like a chess player planning her first move. She also has a ball which intermittently dispenses treats as it's rolled around. Once it's empty she likes to dribble it to me like a footballer and repeatedly roll it against my feet. I like it when I know what she wants. (Obviously in this case her name would have to be Kaspurrov.)

Not that she's merry, but I read Shirley Jackson's American Gothic classic 'We have always lived in the castle', and this is the name for her if what's going on in her head is lots and lots of things. (Also although I've never read any of her books, Edwidge Danticat is a brilliant name.)

Emma Bovary
I think this fits her character quite well. She really really wants, but I don't know what she wants, and I'm not sure she does. She wants to be inside and outside at the same time. She wants me to do something but whatever I try is not that thing. She wants me to open the door so she can go outside, but not that outside, an outside where it's not raining. But I've gone off giving tragic names to pets since when I was fourteen I called our new puppy Tess after Tess of the D'Urbervilles and she died young and horribly. We then got another puppy from Tess's mother's next litter and I called her Eliza-Louisa after 'Liza-Lou, Tess's younger sister whom Angel marries in the book. My family humoured me about all these names, though we actually called her Elly day-to-day, and she lived to a very good dog age. (And anyway the cat's name would clearly have to be something like Emmew Bovary or Emma Bofurry.)

Mini me
She's grumpy, overweight and lazy, doesn't like men or children, gets bored easily and makes herself miserable by over-thinking things. If she could type she'd probably be blogging about me right now. Alternatively, she's a space so blank I can see anything reflected in it...

I have occasionally called her Snookums when she curls up on my lap and purrs loudly. I think we'll get on ok in the long term. She keeps making my kitchen smell awful, but if I learnt one thing from the sitcom Friends it's that that's not her fault.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Ow my mind

Our new super computer will have a quarter of a million cores.

A quarter of a million cores!

This just blew my mind so much that I had to post it, even though I'm at work and shouldn't really be writing a blog post. EDIT: turns out that's just the next phase. When it's finished it will have 480 000 cores!!! !1!!!