Books, dressed and undressed

I’ve been rereading Lion Woman, a marvellous novel by my favourite Norwegian novelist Erik Fosnes Hansen.  It’s not available in English as yet so I read it in French, but if you can read any Scandinavian or European languages you have an excellent chance of getting hold of it, and if not you’ll have to do with one of EFH’s novels that are translated into English: Psalm at Journey’s End and Tales of Protection – both are brilliant.  Anyway, while my French copy was hanging around my flat, in a moment of idle curiosity I did a thing I rarely do: I took the jacket off to see what was underneath.

Here is the book dressed:

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and undressed:

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French literary publishers have a long tradition of presenting their books to the public in what to British and American readers seem to be rather boring covers.  The uniform and unillustrated jacket style came about for a reason: historically publishers could assume that readers were an educated lot who read the literary press, kept up to date with what was going on in the world of letters, and were therefore so knowledgeable about authors and books that they didn’t need the cover to inform or persuade them. They already knew what they wanted.  That’s how the thinking went.

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For some readers I suspect the sobriety of the jackets worked as a form of flattery: the unadorned covers were testament to their seriousness and intelligence.  (There is a form of intellectual snobbery that looks down on colour and image.)

But time went on.  We entered a more visual age.  Reading had to compete with new forms of entertainment.  Markets became more competitive.  The traditional publishers were loath to abandon the sober style that had become a recognisable part of their identity among their long-term loyal readers, but knew they had to reach into a new market too.  Hence the new style: an illustrated and often very colourful outer jacket (sometimes just a band) and underneath it the ‘old style’ plain and lettered cover.

When I was a student and then an academic I used to shelve my French books separately from my English ones.  My French shelves with their serried ranks of black, charcoal and cream spines looked smart, formal and verged on the stiff.  They would have looked very fine in the home of a chic minimalist.  My English shelves on the other hand were full of colour, all jumbled together.

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In the interior design magazines that are the guilty secret of my reading life, I often notice photos which feature graceful ivory tomes left lying on side tables beside vases of flowers.  I squint and peer until I can figure out the – usually French – title.  This, in the homes of people who are most unlikely to be French readers!  The books are not there to be read, but are stylists’ props, used for their elegant, ‘goes with everything’ aesthetic.  Old rectories and parsonages with their Country House look go the other way: English books, all in different colours that don’t necessarily go, but that en masse produce an effect of relaxed warmth that is an essential part of the charm.

I love both styles.  The colourful images on books produced for the English speaking market have a more immediate attraction but I am very drawn to the elegant sobriety of the old fashioned French literary volumes.  The typography is endlessly fascinating in itself: when illustration is absent and colour is kept to a minimum, the delicacy of a serif, the weight of a ball terminal are seen to have a grace that is truly beautiful.  I have a geeky side that means I can gaze at a lovey ampersand for sixty minutes on end and not get bored.

Here’s a true classic (Penguin, 1949) where monochrome and lettering come decoratively together:

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I started to wonder: do we in the English speaking world do truly plain books?  My first thought was of the Everyman hardbacks.  In recent years you can see a parallel development there to what has happened in the French market.  Here is an older Everyman Dickens:

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and here is a new one:

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Undressed, they both look the same:

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And then there is the brilliant, delightful and utterly-fantastic-in-every-way Persephone Press.  Look at this pared down and oh-so-French-looking tome:

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Inside, by contrast, it has these totally bonkers and very English endpapers:

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Every book also comes with its matching bookmark – how about that for genius?

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(By the way, in case you don’t know them, Persephone books are as glorious to read as they are to look at.  You can find out all about them here: www.persephonebooks.co.uk)

The final thing I found on my bookshelf that I would call plain English, are the twin Penguin hardbacks that I couldn’t resist last year when I was supposed to be on a book buying go-slow:

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Sans serif typeface, black and grey cloth cover – oh, what could be finer?

We live in a competitive world where books have to fight for our attention in the bookshop windows, and every author wants their book to be the one that stands out on the shop floor – but my bookloving heart says: long live the plain cover!

Theale Library

A little bit of (library) magic

This ordinary looking building is a library.  It is also a treasure trove.

Theale Library

Theale Library, in the village where I did much of my growing up, is set to close due to austerity budgeting.  This will be a great loss to the village.  Not only does the library provide reading, it is also a place to meet, to talk, to connect.  It is an invaluable resource and the village and its readers and other residents will be the poorer without it.

On Wednesday 23rd March (tomorrow, as I write this), supporters of the library will gather to protest against the closure.  The event is from 4.30 to 6.30.  I will be there, and if you live nearby, please try to come by.  It will be greatly appreciated.

The sad news about Theale Library got me thinking about all the library books I have read over the years and I remembered this piece I once wrote for another purpose.  Its original purpose was to illustrate the workings of memory and the cross-pollination that takes place between books, but it works equally, I think, as an instance of the value of libraries for childhood reading and the way such reading can bear fruit many years later.

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Writing The Thirteenth Tale, there was one particular scene that I wrote and rewrote many times.  In it my two main characters – Margaret Lea and Miss Vida Winter – meet for the first time, and the reason it was tricky was because there had to be a very fine balance between the giving and the withholding of information.  After a lot of hard work it was almost there but it still needed something else.  It needed a little bit of magic.

For months that bit of magic eluded me.  There was something specific that would make the scene work, and I knew that in some far-flung realm of my mind the answer already existed.  In bed, on the border of sleep, my brain sent out search signals and I could sense something answering feebly, but it wasn’t enough to give me a compass bearing.  I had no map.  No X marking the spot.

The answer took time to come to me, and when it did it was perfect: the magic of 3!  All those folktales and fairytales with three questions, three wishes…   I had got it!  I went back to my pages and inserted a few words here, a few words there.  The scene opened up to make space just where I wanted it to and absorbed my additions quite if it had been expecting them:

page of 13T text

Some time after The Thirteenth Tale was published I found myself reminiscing with a friend about childhood reading.

‘There was a book I used to borrow from the library.  How I adored it!’ I told her.  ‘It was about a lonely girl by the sea who found a magical sort of friend.  I wish I could reread it.’

Soon afterwards my friend gave me this:

When Marnie Was There cover

When Marnie Was There, by Joan G Robinson had been reissued by Collins in their Modern Classics series.  (Thank you Collins!)

I settled down to read with that rare sense of doubleness that comes when you reread a book after many years and still find it enthralling.  My adult hand turned the pages, my adult mind reacquainted itself with a world it had all but forgotten, and all the while I felt the presence of a ten-year old self, reading over my shoulder, across the decades – and she knew the story better than I did.

I had got to the part where lonely Anna has met the mysterious Marnie.  There is something unexplained about Marnie.  The two girls need to get to know each other, but not too well, not yet.  Certain things must remain unknown.  I turned a page to Chapter 11.  It was entitled Three Questions Each and the moment I set eyes on those words a thrill ran down my spine.  What was it?  I did not know, but my shadow reader was anticipating something.  I hurried on, and then there it was:

When Marnie Was There TEXT

Two characters, newly met, must tell each other something about themselves.  It must be the right amount of information, neither too much, nor too little.  It is a ghost story, so there must be magic in it.  Joan G Robinson wrote it first.  I read it, forgot about it and twenty-two years later wrote it again (from what Miss Winter would call the compost of memory).

In my work I am constantly delighted by the incessant whispering that goes on between what I am writing and what I have read.  The years fall away, an old story brushes against a new one and leaves a trace of itself.  It is magic: of reading, of writing, of memory.

It is also the magic of libraries.  When Marnie Was There was a library book and I must have borrowed it countless times.  Almost all my childhood reading came from the library.  Amongst the children using Theale Library and so many others that are under threat or have already disappeared, there must be a number who have it in them to become the storytellers of the future.  Their reading imaginations need to be fed.  Libraries are there to do it.  What will happen to story telling when the libraries disappear?

If you cannot come to Theale Library at 4.30 tomorrow, Wednesday 23rd March – or even if you can! – please help protect local libraries everywhere in the UK by signing this petition:

http://www.cilip.org.uk/advocacy-campaigns-awards/advocacy-campaigns/my-library-right

booksonshelf

Diane on Facebook? Wonders will never cease!

Readers have been asking me about a Facebook page for years, and I’m sorry to have been so slow about it.  I kept putting it off because I was reading.  Then one day recently I got to the end of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet (all 1700 pages of it) and when I woke up the next morning the most extraordinary thing happened: I just didn’t feel like reading.  So at long last, I made a Facebook page.  It turns out to be a nice way of sharing my thoughts about reading and writing with people who like books as much as I do.

The best bit of putting the page together was selecting the cover photo, and this is it:

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It’s a shelf in my bookcase. My favourite shelf. What is it that makes me love this collection of books so much?

  1. The whole collection fits the shelf to perfection: no empty spaces and no volumes left over.  I am fond of neatness.
  2. The glory of the colours!  If I didn’t have a novel to write I could while away hours reorganising them in different combinations…
  3. For any lover of typefaces and fonts, the books look brilliant from the front too:greenbook
  4. And look!  The edges are coloured too!colourbooks
  5. They were a gift from my Canadian publisher so they remind me of happy times in Toronto with Lynn, Martha and Ruta and the whole team at Penguin Random House.
  6. These are beautiful books to look at and to hold.  But that would mean little if what is inside didn’t match up.  This collection came about when the booklovers at Random House Canada decided to bring out new editions of their favourite novels and story collections in brand new jackets.  As soon as I saw the list of titles I knew it would be special.  About a third were books I had already read – and loved.  (Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace is there; it’s the regal purple volume, far left.)  Another third were on my radar and I was planning to get round to them one day.  (David Mitchell, Black Swan Green and Rohinton Mistry, Such a Long Journey; peacock green and saffron yellow respectively.)  Alongside these familiar names and titles were a number of new names, new voices.  Over the months and years that I have been exploring them, I have come to realise that there is not a single disappointing book in the collection.  So finally, this is my favourite shelf because:

  7. Every book on it is a good one.

That’s why I photographed it for my Facebook page.  You are cordially invited to come and visit me there.  You’ll find it at:  https://www.facebook.com/dianesetterfieldauthor/

But if you are too busy reading, I quite understand.

 

Merry Christmas!

Christmas is not a day, but a season.  My favourite part is between Christmas Day and the New Year celebrations when, if I’m lucky, there are a few tranquil days when I can sit and be quiet with some reading knowing there is a fridge full of food.

Here are two books that always come out at that time:

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These are my reading diaries.  Month by month, since I was about twenty, I have recorded the books I read.  For a long time I just noted the author and the book title.  In recent years I sometimes record a few thoughts on the book in question, but it’s not systematic.

The blue diary was the first one.  It begins in summer 1984 (with Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native) and ends in July 1998 (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark).  I bought it in the Post Office, it has one of those faintly textured board coverings that hides stains from coffee cups quite well but not quite well enough.  I remember buying it and wondering whether I should buy half a dozen, thinking that I would be needing more in years to come.  But student frugality stopped me.  It is a very good book: after thirty years it is holding together really well.

By the time summer 1998 came round I was silly enough to buy something more glamorous, hence volume 2, covered in velvet and with a spine in fraying metallic gold and red fabric.  The price was £15.95 according to the label that is still inside the cover, but I got it in the sale.  I regretted it almost instantly – it is pretty, but it has been on the verge of falling to bits ever since I got it.  It opens with W G Sebald’s The Emigrants and last night I added A Notable Woman (which is Jean Lucey Pratt’s diary edited by Simon Garfield) to the list for December 2015.

The reason why they come out at this time of year?  Because it’s a cosy thing to look back and see what I was reading five and ten and twenty (and thirty) years ago.  Because it reminds me of books I once meant to read and might, now, in 2016.  And because once a year I sit in an armchair with a cup of tea and look back at my reading over the past twelve months and select the book which is to be the recipient of the ‘Diane Setterfield Read of the Year’ award.  There is no prize attached to it.  There is no glory.  The winner will not even know they have won.  It’s just a thing I like to do, in private.

This year the award will be decided on Boxing Day.  I am looking forward to it very much.  And some time in 2016 (in the summer months I reckon, unless I do more lengthy  commenting than usual) I will go shopping for a new reading diary to take me through the next decade or two.  It will be a sensible one, and not something that is going to fray and fall apart in no time.

Merry Christmas – and may you have a good deal of happy reading in the holidays!

A whole box of reading

There was a moment of great excitement in the Setterfield household at lunchtime today.  The postman rang at the door with this box:

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And a few seconds later it was like this:

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And – more prettily arranged, with the aid of my obliging houseplants – the contents are these:

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Six new books.  Yes, six.  I don’t know what your purchasing habits are, but for me that is something of an event.  Ordinarily I am a drip-feeder where book buying is concerned.  I find it hard to pass a bookshop without going in, so I buy frequently, but usually come out with a single volume, at the most two.  There are benefits to this frugality.  I get to enjoy regular chats with the nice people at Daunts, as well as indulging my secret urge to eavesdrop on strangers talking about books. (I suppose that’s a secret no longer, now that I’ve told you.)  Once or twice a year though it is a huge treat to splurge.  And when you are used to books coming home in a bag over your arm, there is something utterly thrilling about having a whole box of them arrive at your door (thanks to the Guardian bookshop).

This is what I chose and why I chose it:

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 A Notable Woman: the romantic journals of Jean Lucey Pratt, edited by Simon Garfield

The thing about other people’s diaries is, you’re not supposed to read them.  Which is why Simon Garfield is such a genius in finding these very private writings and making them available to spying snoops like me.  (Which sets me thinking, what is reading anyway if not legitimized snooping?  Hmm…  There’s a whole new blog there, I think.)   There is nothing like a diary for giving you a fine grain view of a person’s life, the inner and the outer, and I am expecting to love this one.  What is more, my sister and my Mum are in the queue to read it after me.

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 40 Sonnets, Don Paterson

Lately I have been missing poetry in my reading.  I can’t remember how or why it fell out of my reading habits but I am deliberately making a space for it now and this volume is the start.  It is the only one of these six books I opened the moment I had it in my hands.  I read and reread the first sonnet – it is called Here – between taking the second and the third of the photos above.  The pleasures of poetry are many, but among them are the lightness of the volume in your hand, the generosity of white space around the lines, the fact that a slim volume like this is the first of my six new books to be started but will almost certainly be the last to be finished.  I will read Here again when I have finished this, and again before bed. Tomorrow I will read the next one: Wave.  And so on.  Fourteen lines, several times a day, for forty days.

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 A Whole Life, Robert Seethaler, translated by Charlotte Collins

Jim Crace says this is: ‘heart-rending and heart-warming… for all its gentleness, a very powerful novel.’  By and large I am wary of endorsements unless I have a blood relationship with the person or have known them for a decade or more, but Jim Crace is, in my eyes, the author who can do no wrong.  If he likes this, it must be good.  I didn’t hesitate.  Also it’s a translation from German, and my fondness for translators and translation knows no bounds, so if I needed a second reason that is it.

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 Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child, by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

More translations.  These are volumes 3 and 4 of the Neapolitan Quartet that is selling like hot cakes all over the world.  I read volume 1 with my friend C in our two-member bookgroup (and blogged about that here), and read volume 2 after receiving it for my birthday.  In truth, this isn’t really my kind of book – I have never been able to generate much interest in fictional love affairs and there are love affairs aplenty here – but I am curious about the phenomenal reach of this series and a quartet that has female friendship at its heart is a rare thing, so I’m sticking with it.

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 Slade House, David Mitchell

This is a ghost story.  Although if I’ve got the right end of the stick, it’s a ghost-story-that’s-not-exactly-a-ghost-story, which makes it even better.  Many of my favourite haunted books were written with one foot in the genre and the other somewhere else altogether.  Books that are easy to classify make life easy for booksellers and librarians, but for this reader nothing is better than a book which is neither quite one thing nor the other.  And Christmas is coming!  It wouldn’t be Christmas without something chilling to read.

So with this lovely box full of treats I am all set for a few weeks of winter reading.

One last thing: when I took them out of the box and saw the jackets together, I realized how much grey there was in my selection.  Is that the new fashion in book covers?  Paterson’s egg-yolk yellow is gorgeously vivid by contrast.

Learning Creative writing at Arvon with Diane Setterfield

Lumb-top

I’m extraordinarily excited about this new development: in 2016 I will be teaching a week-long course at Lumb Bank in Yorkshire, England.  Lumb Bank is a gorgeous C18th mill owner’s house that once belonged to Ted Hughes and is now one of the Arvon Foundation’s centres for creative writing.  I can’t wait.  Not only do I love teaching (I taught French literature for years and miss it terribly) but I also love Arvon.  I did two courses with them when I was on my way to producing The Thirteenth Tale and it was at one of those that I met Jim Crace, the author I so admire and whose encouragement and advice set me on the path to publication.

The course is called Fiction with a Gothic Twist: Something of the Night, and my fellow tutor will be James Friel (author of The Posthumous Affair).  There’s going to be a guest speaker, Lauren Owen (author of The Quick).  It runs from 31st Oct to 5th Nov 2016 which is Hallowe’en to Bonfire night.

More info and booking details here: http://www.arvon.org/course/fiction-with-a-gothic-twist/

Lumb-end

What to read when you’re poorly

I have got a sore throat, a headache and a cough.  Intermittent sneezing too.  Brilliant!  I can loll on the sofa with Beverley Nichols.

Who?

Most people under the age of sixty have never heard of Beverley Nichols.  In fact many people over sixty haven’t heard of him either, unless they are British and gardeners.

I discovered him over a decade ago in the brilliant bookshop attached to Harrogate’s famous Harlow Carr gardens.  As a novice gardener, I was feeling a bit intimidated by the big books full of dauntingly expert advice, when I came across something that looked reassuringly smaller.

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‘Down the Garden Path’ was an old-fashioned, pinky-brown hardback illustrated with some rather sweet drawings by Rex Whistler.

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The publisher was Timber Press, a company I’d never heard of.  I opened it at random, read a few paragraphs and quickly realised that it wasn’t a gardening manual at all but something else altogether.  It confused me.  It bemused me.  And then it made me laugh.

The book I purchased that day was a proper gardening book that tells you how and when and where to plant things so they will grow.  But I didn’t forget the little brown book.  Every time I went back to Harlow Carr to buy plants, I would nip into the bookshop and steal a few more minutes with Beverley.  I never once thought of buying it: it was far too silly for that.  Any practical gardening tips were so buried in purple prose, sentiment and overblown drama that they were as good as useless.  On the other hand, I couldn’t quite stay away.  Any excuse to walk through the woods and up to the gardens for a few minutes loitering between the bookshelves, giggling with Mr Nichols.

So things remained – till I got the flu.

‘What can I bring you?’ said a kindly visiting friend.  She meant paracetamol I expect, or grapes.

‘Beverley Nichols,’ I spluttered and she was as good as her word.

I now have all eight Beverley Nichols books reproduced in facsimile by Timber Press.

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(Timber Press, I have learnt, is an American publisher that specialises in proper books for real gardeners.  They have titles like ‘Planting in a post-wild world: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes’ so clearly they are serious minded people.  Yet they too have been won over by Mr Nichols own brand of silliness.)

When we moved a year ago to this little flat and most of my books went into storage, G didn’t understand why Beverley Nichols was in the pile to keep.  ‘We haven’t got a garden,’ he pointed out.

‘No,’ I said.  ‘But I’m bound to get a cold.’

Can you think of a better room to feel poorly in than this one?

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In the last decade I have coughed through the Merry Hall trilogy and then sneezed through the Allways books.  The books – novels? memoirs? loosely linked anecdotes? – are only superficially about gardening.  They portray a dottily fanciful mid C20th vision of Englishness, one that includes daggers at dawn dramas provoked by village hall flower displays and far more kittens than most readers can stomach.  I occasionally lend them to friends, hoping to find a sister soul out there to share my sickbed passion with.  People return them with expressions of bewilderment or appalled horror.  ‘But Diane!’ they say.  ‘It’s so twee!’  Well, yes.  And whimsical and frothy and insubstantial and sentimental and melodramatic.  It has nothing to recommend it to the serious reader, nothing at all.  But when I am unwell, there’s nobody I would sooner have nursing me than Mr Nichols.  Even now, when I have coughed so much it hurts to laugh.

How many readers does it take to make a book group?

My first book group had five firm reading members plus one occasional. We were a tight-knit bunch who’d known each other for several years already. My present London book group couldn’t be more different. It’s hard to tell how many of us there are. Usually there are six or seven at a meeting, but never the same ones two sessions in a row. The mailing list for the group is large but people drop in and out. Some members have been friends for decades. Others (including me) are newcomers. Because it’s a porous group from time to time someone tags along who isn’t a member at all, just someone’s friend or visiting relative or temporary lodger. They get added to the mailing list, which grows longer and longer.

Does it matter how many members a book group has? In recent weeks I have co-founded two new book groups both of which have two members. Is that enough? Can two readers be a book group? How many is a group anyway? The Concise Oxford Dictionary is not terribly helpful: a group, it says, is: ‘a number of people or things’. Well, two is definitely a number but so, surely, is one, and when I read alone I am quite certain that I am not a book group. An online dictionary offers more precision: ‘two or more’ it states. If that is accurate then technically at least my two-member reading clubs qualify for the term book group – yet it still doesn’t quite feel right. In standard usage the word ‘group’ conjures up trios, quadruples, quintuples and larger statistical aggregates. Should my reading friends and I think of ourselves as book pairs? Reading duos?

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J and I have been talking about books and art for over thirty years now, ever since we met in our first term at university. My reading diary – which I began at 18 and in which I record every book I read – is inspired by the one she started keeping at the age of 10. (It is one of the enduring sorrows of my life that she has this eight year head start on me. Our friendship has flourished despite this diary envy.) Over the years we have agreed and disagreed about books, read and not read titles recommended by the other. Our reading lives have looped around each other, interlinked then gone in opposite directions only to come back and share what we’d discovered. She brought me back to Trollope when I’d got off on the wrong foot with him, and he’s a great favourite of mine now. When I was hooked on the joy of novelty, demanding a constant supply of new books, her’s was the quiet, persistent voice that told me how much fun she was having rereading Jane Austen. There is a huge overlap in what we have read, but often we read the same book after a lapse of many years. We have conversations where one of us says, ‘I read that book you told me about. Don’t you think the ending was a bit strange?’ and the other says, ‘Can’t remember. Wasn’t it 1992 when I read it?’ One day we were talking about Leonora Carrington, the runaway aristocrat and surrealist painter, friend of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, whose work we both liked. ‘Didn’t she write a novel?’ one of us wondered. We googled. She did! And one of us said, ‘Let’s read it. At the same time. Now.’ And we did.

And that was that. Not only did we discover the delights of The Hearing Trumpet with its new introduction by Ali Smith, but we also experienced the pleasure of a book group with only two members. We talked faster, we talked more, we argued more furiously (old friends can), interrupted without causing offence and used that kind of verbal shorthand that people develop over the decades. It was very satisfying – and our next read is going to be:

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I have another great friend, C. She lives in another city and we see each other only about twice a year, which is daft because it’s really not that far and twice a year is nowhere near enough. We are always saying we must meet more often, and we both mean it, and then we’re busy so we fail to arrange it. We needed some kind of a prompt. A reason to meet. This was it:

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During the reading period we were cautious about how much we said on the phone. ‘Where are you up to?’ we constantly asked. ‘I’m a bit ahead,’ one might say tantalisingly, and the other honed in on the tone of voice to see whether it contained a clue about what might be coming next. Our conversations were deliberately short and tangential. We skirted around the book, touched on themes and characters only to draw back, made deliberately vague allusions to things we were going to say outright eventually…. We were conscious of keeping the substance of our thoughts private until the day. For I had bought a train ticket and we were going to meet. The day came. We began in a café, moved to a restaurant then to a tea room, talking non-stop. We talked about the book, our working lives, the book, our family lives, the book, how we have changed in all the years we’ve known each other, the book, our children and neblings*, the book, our parents, other books, the book… It ended up being an eight-hour book group meeting in which ‘My Brilliant Friend’ was mentioned in every hour alongside a dozen other topics. It wove in and out of our conversation, led us towards other topics, disappeared and reemerged, time and time again. There were three of us present that day: C, myself and the book. Life and reading and friendship all part of the same fabric.

C and I have decided to sidestep the ‘how many people does it take to make a book group’ question. Instead of saying ‘Bookgroup’ our reading related emails now have the subject line: ‘Brilliant Friends’ after our inaugural read. By extension, I suppose J and I could call ourselves, ‘The Hearing Trumpets’. I can see how that might seem odd to other people, but so what? The thing about a group with only two members is that there are no other people. There is only us – and we know exactly what we mean.

* Neblings: a neologism modelled on ‘siblings’ meaning nephews and nieces.

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Marks of Genius and the Diss-ing one-liner.

A friend and fellow author took me to a brilliant exhibition at the Bodleian Library in Oxford called Marks of Genius.   It explores different understandings of and attitudes to genius through time.

We marveled.  Illuminated manuscripts painstakingly embellished, elegant botanical paintings and anatomical drawings that illustrate what was then new scientific knowledge, finely detailed maps made without the technical apparatus that enable accuracy today but that reflect a world as its human inhabitants perceived it….  These are visual delights.  You cannot help but be moved at humanity’s willingness to engage in painstaking, lengthy and meticulous work – frequently for no great reward, but for its own sake – in order to record aspects of the world and our experience of it.  I felt profound gratitude for the talent and patient labour that produced these works.

The word genius once meant the profound character or spirit of a person.  A handwritten page brings that character to our attention.  It transcends time and connects us, imaginatively, to the moment of writing.  A page of Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s own hand, a chummy letter by Gandhi, a song by Mendelssohn copied out and embellished with his own illustration for a friend – items like these carry a powerful and very intimate charge.

Genius is not always recognized.  The exhibition has an early edition of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.  It was purchased by and for members of the Diss Book Society.  (For non-UK readers, Diss is a pretty market town in the county of Norfolk.)  The book is displayed open at the flyleaf where a member has written:

‘More absolute trash was never written than in the present work.’

We laughed, and were put in mind of the one-line, one-star reviews we have both experienced.  What, we wondered, was the anonymous writer’s motivation, back then?  Was she or he trying to be helpful to fellow readers in the society?  Why not identify himself in that case?  Perhaps he was angry at being disappointed in his reading.  Or was she vexed at recognizing herself in a character subtly demolished by the genius Jane?  Anyway, in that room of glories where every other mark on paper was creative, made at the cost of effort and requiring time, thought, skill, and a generosity of spirit, the laziness of these eleven Diss-ing words struck a dissonant note.

The exhibition continues till 20th September 2015, so you’ve time to go and see for yourself.  I will definitely be going again.

 

 

Books in Bologna

I’ve been in Bologna for a few days.  It’s the first time I’ve been to Italy for a holiday and it’s glorious to have a few days to roam and explore.  The museums here are wonderful: havens of cool air and tranquil discovery.  In the Science Museum we came across a handsome library with this formidable looking library ladder leading to knowledge and the dazzling light beyond.

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I can’t help but approve.  Anyone with a library ladder like that is serious about books.

At the Pinacoteca Nazionale I was moved by the lovely colour and decoration of the religious books in the fifteenth century religious paintings.  They don’t seem to mind you getting your camera out here, so I took some pictures (without flash) to share with you:

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Aren’t they gorgeous?  Both painter and binder have gone to great lengths to display these religious texts as the prized objects they are.

There were some puzzling examples.  Here is what appears to be a burning book in the hands of St Anthony…

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…only I don’t think it can be.  From what I have been able to discover on a quick hunt, Anthony was renowned for his learning and often portrayed in a glorious illumination.  Might these ‘flames’ be the illumination of knowledge?  Hmmm.

And here’s another odd one, Girolamo.   What on earth is it that he is carrying on his book?

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Girolamo apparently DID burn books when he didn’t approve of them.  Ovid, Boccaccio, Dante were all destroyed in his bonfire of the vanities.  He got his come uppance later when he was excommunicated for being too extreme, but that was afterwards: this was painted during his lifetime.  None of which explains the small mammal perched on his bible…

Perhaps these books have whetted your appetite?  If so, and if you are a fluent latin reader, here’s an open book so you can have a read:

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I love the way the shadow falls where the pages are stitched in.

And here’s something else of interest only to committed bibliophiles.  Look at the way they shelved their books:

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I hope the lion in the study didn’t distract you from noticing that the books are shelved on their sides.  (Though it’s nice to see that cats and books were considered a desirable combination 650 years ago too.)   I suppose that the bindings were of soft leather, and the pages wouldn’t have been protected adequately if the books had been shelved standing as we do.  The man who would know about this for sure is Alberto Manguel.  His book The History of Reading is a great favourite of mine but I haven’t read it for some years and it’s in storage – oh woe! – but if you can get a copy  you’ll find that he really knows his stuff.  I was going through a period of being a bit reluctant to read non-fiction when his book first came into my hands, but his account of the relationship between readers and their books over the ages is so fascinating that I just gobbled it up.  Now all these paintings make me want to read it again.

Just two more pictures to finish.  Here’s the infant Jesus, having been put down for his afternoon nap, elbow nonchalantly resting on a book:

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Finally, my favourite picture from the whole museum.  It doesn’t have a book in it at all, but for some reason it stole my heart – perhaps because it reminds me of Stanley Spencer, a twentieth century British artist I love.  In any case, it has another ladder, which brings us full circle.

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