Reading Plan: February 2016

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Things that may (or may not) interest you from my January: (1) I was longlisted for a Trailblazer award by the London Book Fair – the awards are in a couple of weeks and will be an excellent opportunity for me to unleash my awkward-at-formal-occasions self who has been kept far too shut up of late. (2) I wrote a short foreword for an anthology of young writers’ work recently. It has since become an Amazon bestseller (absolutely nothing to do with me and my tiny foreword, I should add). (3) I am now the proud
owner of a functioning 1930s typewriter. You’ve got it, I am now one of those clich├ęd wankers. You’re welcome.

All in all I can’t say January has been too bad to me. Hopefully some of you will have read my reviews of The Godfather and Leading. The Godfather was really interesting – I’ve seen it on countless lists of twentieth century books you must read and I can understand why: it is a cult classic. But it does make me think about what makes a book a ‘must-read’. The Godfather is good but it is pulp fiction in my opinion. That is not intended to sound snobby – nothing wrong with being pulp fiction – but does prominence in the culture of a period alone make a book worth reading period? I don’t actually have an answer to that but I think it is interesting. Will 50 Shades of Grey be a ‘must-read’ of the early twenty-first century? If prominence makes a book worth reading then E. L. James, J. K. Rowling, and Dan Brown will be the important texts for understanding our times. Do they really represent anything useful about us? Well, probably yes, actually. I don’t think they are the be all and end all by a long stretch but they do say something about our reading predilections. Whether that is interesting or not possibly depends on how you read and how far you think books reflect anything about the real world.

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus book coverFor myself, I started reading The Myth of Sisyphus a few days ago. Camus is pretty good on suicide and suicide is something that has been on my mind lately – not as a life plan, but as a more abstract idea (and yes, that does sound wanky – believe me, I don’t take the topic lightly). I always enjoy Camus and it will be interesting to compare his writing in Sisyphus to his later work in The Rebel when he was a more mature writer and philosopher. I don’t particularly like approaches to suicide that assume it must come as a consequence of some deep depression, some temporary irrationality that can be lifted. It has always seemed to me, not just in the abstract as Camus largely describes it, but in general a choice to opt out of life that can be made rationally (even if it is not always chosen through rationality). When Camus writes that suicide is the “one truly serious philosophical problem” he is right. “All the rest,” he follows, “whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories – comes afterwards.” This seems absolutely true to me – to exist might not be a choice but to continue to exist is. Throughout life one must constantly sustain life – this is a positive action and a choice. Therefore, suicide and living must be equally considered a choice we make.

Psychology (I haven’t got a reference for this to hand but will add it in later if I come across one) describes suicide as an act that happens when someone is asked to bear more pain (psychic or physical) than they are capable of bearing. This is inescapably the case for many people. But it seems to me that the extinction of hope that suicide represents comes not at the final act but at the final decision. Inevitably as a big reader, I end up trying to understand the world through books. Life has for a long time seemed to me to be without any meaning save that which we ourselves infer on it. Increasingly I feel that the only thing that binds us to this transient existence is the stories we tell, which hold us together; stories that are personal, that make up our memories, or the stories that exist in the gaps between experience. Without stories existence has no shape – it is entirely formless and thus meaningless. If there is one character in literature that represents the antithesis of suicide, it is, for me, Jay Gatsby. His endlessly hopeful pursuit of a lost love and his complete refusal to acknowledge the universal truths of time and circumstance are at the heart of the human spirit. Life must be endured but for Fitzgerald and his fine boy from the Midwest, pure romanticism give life its colour. A suicide is birthed in the mind at the moment when one determines no longer to beat on, but to succumb to the current and allow hope to be extinguished.

Cheerful, right? I hope you aren’t here for the laughs. Incidentally, Gatsby has been on my mind lately and so has a line, less than a line, from Conrad: “we live in the flicker”. I’m sure many of you will carry a phrase around with you for weeks at a time, quietly letting it decompose in your mind and take root. The full quotation is “We live in the flicker—may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday,” but it is the first five words that have been lodged in my head for a while. So much so that I made the image to the right so I would have a visual reminder of the transience of life (as though the work of Chronos is not visible everywhere anyway). But don’t let me get too morbid, we should probably be talking about books or something and I am on an existential tangent!

So, back to reading. Camus. I shall doubtless write something about The Myth of Sisyphus this month. Incidentally, judgement has also been on my mind a lot lately for various reasons so I have been thinking back to the The Fall (Camus’s novel rather than all that business with Eve scrumping for apples). Being able to avoid making judgements about others seems both entirely impossible and incredibly moral. But that is probably a discussion for another time.





I’ve been reading a quirky little book about books lately too: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloane. A story of a peculiarly narrow bookshop situated next to a strip club and with an odd assortment of coded volumes for sale to the shop’s extremely small client base, centuries old mysteries require unravelling by techniques new and old. The story, to paraphrase from the novel, exists in the space where technology and books intersect. Pretty much exactly my niche then!

I also want to write about To Kill a Mockingbird but that might get pushed back a bit depending on how long I take thinking about other things. I also want to think about morality in books and whether characters who ooze moral certainty with every act make for slightly dull fiction. Does the postmodern world now demand conflicted characters or do we still appreciate those who are simply good ala dear old Atticus Peck, or Gregory Finch, or whoever that fine southern gent is.

If, like me, you’re not quite sure what this post is all about then you are not alone, and I think I shall sign off here before my mind determines to stomp off in some other unexpected direction. Thanks for sticking with and pop back over the month to check I’m not wholly incoherent eh?

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