Review: Outside of a Dog: A Bibliomemoire – Rick Gekoski

I suppose one of the quickest way to get an idea about someone is to look at their bookcase, or even better, to talk to them about books which have inspired them and guided them through life. Quite a few writers have been tempted to write about their life in books – I’m thinking about Francis Spufford (The Child that Books Built), John Sutherland (The Boy Who Loved Books) and Alberto Manguel (A Reading Diary) to name a few among many.  I greatly enjoyed reading these and in any case, I collect “books about books”, and when I saw Rick Gekoski’s new books, Outside of a Dog, it had to be mine.

Rick is not the first person to write his life story in the context of the books he’s read, but this one is as good as any and was a read both amusing and informative.  I’ll quote from the publisher’s website to list some of the books covered:

Dr. Seuss, Horton Hatches the Egg;
Magnus Hirschfeld Sexual Anomalies and Perversions;
Allen Ginsberg, Howl;
J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye;
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land;
Descartes, Meditations;
David Hume, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding;
W.B. Yeats, The Collected Poems;
F.R. Leavis, The Common Pursuit;
Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy;
Tom Wolfe,The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test;
Ludwig Wittgenstein,Philosophical Investigations;
R.D. Laing, The Divided Self;
Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch;
D.H. Lawrence,Women in Love;
A.S. Neill, Summerhill;
Roald Dahl, Matilda;
Alice Miller, Pictures of a Childhood;
A.J. Ayer, Language, Truth, and Logic;
Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams;
Carl Hiaasen, Double Whammy;
Peter Wright,Spycatcher; and
Rick Gekoski, Staying Up.

And there was a good enough mix of the familiar and the new to keep my interest throughout.  Rick is basically an academic (ex-lecturer in English at Warwick University) turned rare book dealer, and has many contacts in the world of literature.  And oh yes, he’s been a judge on the Man Booker Prize.  So, as far as literature is concerned I guess he’s qualified to write about books, which he does eruditely, knowledgeably and perhaps above all, humorously. Continue reading

Review: Curiosities of Literature – John Sutherland

I always enjoy John Sutherland’s writings having first come across his literary columns in The Guardian.  I’ve already read this year How to Read a Novel and The Boy Who Loved Books, so when Curiosities of Literature came out a month or two ago it was a bit of a “must have”. In fact it turned out to be the perfect book to take on holiday, being very easy to dip into and always providing entertainment in odd moments reclaimed from the swimming pool or excursions.

At first glance it appears to be yet another of those attractively-produced little books aimed at the Christmas market – the sort of thing which is opened with a laugh but soon bores.  However, anyone who loves books will find plenty to interest here, some light and inconsequential facts (the first spliff in literature, the shortest poem, the longest book etc), but even these, with Sutherland’s immense store of knowledge, are set in a context which illuminate rather merely amuse.  (and incidentally, the first spliff appears in Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines and the longest book is Clarissa by Samuel Richardson and is about a million words long).

Continue reading

Review: The Library At Night – Alberto Manguel

I always enjoy “books about books”, or books about the pleasure of reading, and remember Manguel’s A History of Reading as one of the greatest literary pleasure. Now he had presented us with what is effectively a history of libraries in The Library At Night and the effect is equally as satisfying.

Perhaps “history” is not quite the right word, for in his 15 chapters, Manguel writes of not only the history of libraries, but also the impact and meaning of libraries through the centuries.

Everything is covered here, from the history of the great library of Alexandria to the development of the most modern libraries such as the British Library or the library of the Free University of Berlin. The book considers location, cataloguing systems, themes, and great librarians  (Gottfreid Leibnitz of Hanover, Andrew Carnegie who created over 2500 libraries, Aby Warburg of Hamburg and many others).  But the book is far more than history, containing many digressions on the nature of literature itself, and the process of reading.

At times the book has an almost magical or mystical feel to it.  Manguel has created a library of his own in the Loire Valley, and indeed the title of the book, The Library at Night is derived from his feeling that,

. . .at night the atmosphere changes.  Sounds become muffled, thoughts become louder . . . time seems closer to that moment halfway between wakefulness and sleep . . . the books become the real presence and it is I, their reader, who, through cabbalistic rituals of half-glimpsed letters, am summoned up and lured to a certain volume and a certain page.

It is these almost whimsical passages which give the book its charm, for after all, libraries are not merely collections of physical objects, but have atmosphere, cultures, accumulated historical usages which have almost sunk deep into the walls and shelves creating an experience unique to each one.

Continue reading

Review: How to Read a Novel – John Sutherland

I’ve always enjoyed reading books about reading and have a few on my shelves (not least the excellent, A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel).   Margaret heard John Sutherland talking about How to Read a Novel on the radio, and when she told me about it, I decided to see what it was like, and was pleasantly surprised how good it is.  While feeling I already know how to read a novel, when I read about John Sutherland (Booker Prize judge, Guardian columnist, academic etc), I guessed he would something to say to a compulsive reader like myself.

In How to Read a Novel, John Sutherland certainly tells his readers how to read a novel, but also covers many other topics about publishing and the book trade.  Beginning with the presentation of the book (dust-jacket, cover design, author photograph etc), he moves on to show how these have all developed over time to become a key marketing tool – packaging is all, in the book trade as well as for those who sell baked beans.

John Sutherland well understands how difficult it is to choose a book to read among the vast numbers available in bookshops or online and gives his views on reviewers, advertising, back cover recommendations, best-seller lists and competitions.  His considerable background as a reviewer, columnist, academic and Booker prize judge enable him to provide a huge amount of inside information to help readers navigate a bookstore without being taken in by the marketing hype of the industry.

Throughout the book, Sutherland describes the history of novel publishing, but in a humorous and entertaining way which draws the reader along with him.  The book is witty and amusing as well as being informative.  Where necessary, he focuses in on specific books, and shows how particular novels were land-marks of their time, which led to many others following.  The book is almost a mini-history of the novel and shows how public tastes have changed over the years.

Continue reading

Review: At Large and Small – Anne Fadiman

I first came across Anne Fadiman some years ago via her book of reflections on reading Ex Libris. I enjoyed that little book more than its size would suggest, and when I read a review of At Large and Small I was intrigued enough to buy a copy.  I found that it contains a collection of essays on a wide range of subjects, from the ice-cream to butterfly collecting, from the esssays of Charles Lamb to the dominance of correspondence by email.  This is definitely a book for someone who like reading intelligent musings on a miscellany of topics, and although the essays are essentially light and amusing, most readers will learn something interesting along the way.

As I read it, I began to wonder how this differed from a newspaper column, or even an Internet blog.  After all, there are countless coloumnists who write reflectively in the Sunday supplements or the weekly magazines, and even more bloggers who put their thoughts down almost daily on anything that comes across their path.  In the end, I felt that Anne Fadiman’s essays are perhaps written over a longer period and took longer in the gestation, giving them a depth and consistency across the topics which other media writers may not achieve.

Ann Fadiman is of course highly qualified to write such a book, being Writer-In-Residence at Yale University.  The books closes with a comprehensive list of academic references and other notes, and suggests that this is rather more than chance ramblings, but a well-researched set of thoughts born out of a long period of reflection.

The books is beautifully produced, and perhaps this is part of its appeal.  Its not a book to hurry through, but rather one to make last over several weeks, and return to again and again.  Any book-lover would appreciate it on their shelves, and it would make an unusual gift for anyone who likes reading and is prepared to try something a little different.

Review: The Emergence of Memory – Lynne Sharon Schwartz

This book, The Emergence of Memory, consists of conversations with, and essays upon, the German writer W G Sebald, author of Austerlitz, Vertigo, The Emgrants, and Rings of Saturn.  When W G Sebald died in a car accident in 2001, after publishing just four books, his readers felt both a huge sense of loss, and also a sense of irony, that such a melancholic, perceptive writer should have come to an end quite so synchronistic with his writings.  It seemed so appropriate that his disjointed, somehow incomplete literary wanderings should come to an abrupt end, leaving so many questions hanging in the wind.

All great works of literature either found a genre or dissolve one (Walter Benjamin, quoted in the book under review), and Sebald’s books are quite unique, baring a resemblance to nothing which has gone before, and almost certainly being followed by no book quite like them.  Sebald creates thoughts in us which are entirely our own, as though discovering something which has always been there, but unrecognised until the convoluted prose of Sebald has penetrated into out own depths to release something precious from its swirling eddies.

For those who still hunger after more Sebald, this book fits the bill very well.  A collection of essays and interviews with Sebald, it fills in many gaps, offering assistance to those who ask the questions:

  • Are these novels or reflective travelogues?
  • Are the characters Sebald meets real or imagined (or perhaps composite)?
  • Who is the narrator?
  • What is the meaning of the photographs?
  • Are the photographs genuine illustrations of the events in the books?
  • What is the relationship of the books to the Holocaust?

Continue reading