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COLUMN: Time to read – but only because I don’t watch TV

BY: Karin Schimke

I am often asked when I get time to read so much. Do I have more leisure time than other people? I don’t think so. It took me a while to figure out the answer to this question, but I have now: I think I get through more books than other people because I don’t have a television. Or rather, I do have one, but it’s not hooked up and is only used for watching DVDs. Watching a television screen is an event for me.

The ancient, buzzy and seldom used television.

The ancient, buzzy and seldom-used television.

How humans use their free time is not a new area of thought though: important people have been thinking about it for centuries: Aristotle; the influential British economist John Maynard Keynes; the “idling” philosopher Bertrand Russell and, more recently, adherents of the thoroughly modern Slow Movement which advocates slowness in everything, from work to food to urban design.

My favourite book on questions around time, work and leisure remains How To Be Idle by Tom Hodgkinson, but I’ve also recently read In Praise of Slow by Carl Honoré, factual and well-researched but not as dotty and entertaining as the Hodgkinson.

I’ve been thinking about leisure these past few days as I tallied up that I have “engaged with” (to say “read” would be disingenuous) thirteen books in seven weeks.

Of them,  eight are novels, of which four are unfinished but haven’t been shelved. They are  Zadie Smith’s NW (just started it) and the audio-book version of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which requires solitude. One novel – The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick – got drenched by a leaky water bottle and fell apart, but the movie’s on at the moment and it did a brilliant job of telling the story I already half knew.

Pix of kids reading 011

This is the very ragged copy of Class A – second book in the much-loved Cherub series by Robert Muchamore – from which my daughter reads to me while we’re driving.

My daughter, who reads obsessively has discovered that when she reads aloud in the car she doesn’t get car sick, so I’m also halfway through Robert Muchamore’s Class A, the second in his Cherub series, because she reads while I’m driving.

I seldom read poetry collections once, or beginning to end. One evening in the bath I read only about eight poems, slowly and more than once, from Loftus Marais’ second collection Kry My By Die Gewone Plek Aguur. Last week I read several of Adrienne Rich’s early poems in The Fact Of A Doorframe, a selection from her entire, enormous  ouevre.

One non-fiction has been dipped in and out of, a marvellous Afrikaans book called God: Die oorsprong en uiteinde van alles, in which prominent Afrikaners are interviewed by Fritz Gaum, a religious man, and George Claasen, an atheist. The interviewees, who are both robust and sensitive at once, share wonderful personal anecdotes about the course of their spiritual lives have taken. It’s an intelligent, sane and tolerant approach to a thorny subject.

That leaves the The Art Book,  a thing which weighs so much it works best on the floor, where I’ve paged through it a number of times. It’s a social book: whoever is around can’t seem to help but be drawn in by the famous art works displayed on each page, and debate often ensues.

My home leisure time is currently – since my brainwave to buy myself the audio book of Anna Karenina – utterly delightful. I put on the book, put my feet up and take up my knitting. In a few weeks’ time I will have finally “read” a book I’ve always wanted to, and I will have a new knee blanket.Photos of knitting 005

I wonder whether multi-tasking your leisure time in this way would win the approval of proponents of the Slow Movement, or whether they would argue that I am still in the high-productivity trap that so afflicts modern life.

At any rate: I can’t say I regret the time that not having a TV gives me. – Schimke is an independent writer, a poet and the editor of the Cape Times books pages.

COLUMN: Recent books to movies

BY: Karin Schimke

I have a confession to make: I have not read Anna Karenina.

I have no explanation. I haven’t avoided it, but it has somehow never crossed my path either. Every now and again someone does that sigh and dreamy-eyed look that seems to accompany or precede mention of the great Leo Tolstoy novel and I think again “I must get around to that book”. But I never have.

Finding time to read Anna Karenina has now turned into a small emergency: the film is being released in 2013 and I must see it on the big screen as I fear my small, fat third-hand television – the one I practically have to start with a hand crank and intermittently thump on the head when its anxious buzzing threatens to drown out dialogue from a DVD – will destroy the experience for me.

I am simply not prepared to go and see that particular movie without having read the book first. Judging from the various people over the years who have spoken of Anna Karenina in a way that made it clear that the book is a peak reading experience – I would be committing several kinds of wrong by opting for the shortcut movie version above the story presented in its intended and original form of a novel.

There are quite a number of a very exciting literary works that have been or will be turned into movies in the new year. Already The Life of Pi – that truly brilliant, unusual story by Yann Martel which was published eleven years ago – is on the screen and having read it and listened to the audio book I’m chomping at the bit to experience it in one more medium.

I’ll skip The Hobbit, being (flay me for this sin) not a fan of Tolkien in any form, but I’m definitely going to see Cloud Atlas. The original book – written in 2004 – felt uninviting, positively inhospitable, to me. I know from experience that when this happens with a book that comes highly recommended by many people, it has more to do with my own emotional or intellectual development, than with the novel, but I’ve had no great urge to get back to Cloud Atlas, so the movie shortcut in this case is indicated.

What I’m really looking forward to seeing on the big screen next year are books I read a long time ago: The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, On The Road by Jack Kerouac and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

I find that now, thinking of them, I can remember only the scrappiest general summary of each book, but have retained a happy sense that they were wonderful stories, each of them.  So they bear repetition – because no-one gets sick of a good story.

  • I’d be keen to know what movies from books others have recently seen and what they thought of them. I managed to see The Life Of Pi and The Silver Linings Playbook.

 

A story for Christmas

By KARIN SCHIMKE

Drawing by Willem Samuel

In spite of the extra time I’m banking on over Christmas, I am unlikely to get through the piles of books I have. For the first time in my life I will not have a book title on my Christmas wish list. But I am not without a book-related wish.

At the risk of sounding like a desperate vacuous wannabe Miss World tottering on six-inch heels and speaking through a superglued smile, staking her winning ambitions on a vaguely formulated desire for world peace, I will share my hopeless wish.

But I insist that it is not a frivolous wish; that it has gravitas, history and gargantuan piles of academic research to back it up as a real answer to many of the ills that plague the world.

My wish cannot be reviled by a god-squadder of any theistic hue or brand. It cannot be subverted by any politician. It will not be sullied or trampled on or argued with, because its very nature and longevity have proven it an unerring joy and an immovable force. It will not be owned, boxed or tamed. It is deeply private and joyously communal.

My wish is that every baby born from now on, and every child that currently walks the earth, will be inducted to the magic of stories by having one told to them by someone they know. By a grandmother, an uncle, the local shopkeeper, an older cousin. By a father washing the dishes, by a mother helping a toddler into her sandals. By a teacher, a Rabbi, priest, monk or imam, the doctor, the dentist, the sangoma, a social worker, a friend.

Because a story is a tilling, the invaluable preparation for a garden. Because stories beget stories. Because stories beget  a demand so urgent (“Tell me of another one, tell me another one!”) that it ignores a child’s lack of confidence or shyness.

Because stories beget curiosity. Because stories begin the first loop of learning more effectively than anything else you can possibly think of inside the ancient human endeavour to hand down something to a next generation.

No one needs time or money to tell a story, and no amount of ersatz stuff you can buy at any shop can ever replace the experience of being told a story by an older person.

No one needs a special qualification, a special education, a special (acquired) language or an especially interesting life to tell a story. Almost anyone can tell a story, some better than others – though we do exult and cherish those particularly.

I wish Christmas really was magic. In the proper way of magic: supernatural forces mysteriously combining to grant wishes. Perhaps if I induce ritual – climb up into a pair of shiny stilettos and speak nervously through bright lipstick – my wish will come true. But no number of world-peace endorsing long-legged, glossy haired women ever brought about even an instant’s ceasefire.

So I’ll just have to rely on words – mine and others’ – repeated ad nauseum: if you want a better world, tell a kid story. Or read them one. And do it every opportunity you get, until you, personally, have done every single thing in your limited power to make something in this often truly vile world a bit better.

This column appeared in the Cape Times in December 2012

The drawing is by the comic book illustrator Willem Samuel whose work can be seen here and who blogs here.

Don’t know how to tell or read a story? Here’s where to look: Nal’iBali website.

 

 

 

 

COLUMN: Why I don’t read crime fiction

The pile of unread books on a small table in my bedroom fell over. That’s a first.

I dream of squeezing two extra secret half days into the week: one for just reading, one for just writing. A friend suggested that this was an excellent idea for a science fiction novel: someone finds a way to insert individual time into a week.  Responsibilities pause, and no one can reach you. No one, in fact, even knows or notices that you are gone. You have slid in between cracks in time.

Perhaps it would work as a premise for a science fiction novel, but it won’t help the very real  problem of struggling to fit what needs to be done into the time allocated. And if it were an idea turned into a novel, I wouldn’t even read it because I don’t read science fiction or fantasy. What’s with those stupid, unpronounceable names, anyway? Is it simply impossible to imagine an interesting story without using names like Y’Pora and Tedn Dahai, which cause the reader’s eyes to water? No one ever thought of a benign slimy, eight-eyed monster called Sue, or a zappy-weapon wielding hero called Raj?

I don’t like crime fiction either. Boy, have I taken flack for that in the current literary climate in South Africa, where it feels like every second writer is pushing crime fiction on to the market faster than it takes to read one of them. I am accused of being a literary snob, which is not the worst thing in the world to be called, but it’s not an accurate epithet in this case. I don’t read crime because I’m a ninny, a scaredy-cat, in primary school parlance.

Earlier this month, however, I was asked to read 7Days, Deon Meyer’s latest crime novel, in order to interview him at the launch of his book at Kalk Bay Books. The owner of the bookshop, Ann Donald, had asked me specifically because she knows I am not a crime fiction fan. I didn’t mind because years ago I did read a Deon Meyer crime novel and it wasn’t unbearably scary or bloody.

Meyer was more gracious about my disinterest in crime than most of my friends. He said it was true that some people didn’t like crime because of a tendency to over-empathise with the victims; because of “heightened sensitivity”. I liked what he was saying: basically, I’m too delicate a being for the hardcore stuff. Ha!2012-11-21 12.13.03

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed 7Days. It robbed me of sleep for three consecutive nights as I kept turning the pages in spite of the stern talkings-to I gave myself to stop. Friends who are fans have subsequently told me that it is not as good as his other work.

But after that I returned to more comfortable territory, reading Luminous Airplanes by Paul la Farge. I’ve just started on Deborah Levy’s Booker Prize shortlisted Swimming Home. The atmosphere she manages to create around a swimming  pool at a holiday villa in southern France is absolutely mesmerising, and the book is amusing and unsettling, and – for all that it is literary – quite as difficult to put down as Meyer’s book was.

I hardly need dream of that crack in time to slip into to read…Swimming Home  almost reads itself. And, because of that, I hope to start tackling that pile of books that is now strewn across the bedroom floor because I haven’t even had time to stack them again.

A report on the evening at Kalk Bay Books can be read here.

COLUMN: Democracy on the book shelves

all-white-bookshelf

I know it is here somewhere, in this shelf. This is where I put it. This is where I saw it the last time I saw it and thought: “Ah, I forgot about you. Hello book.” And yet it is not here.

I am sure the spine is ivory coloured, and just less than a centimetre thick. I could be mistaken though. The other day I was looking for an old favourite, utterly convinced I was hunting a yellow spine with red letters, cursing the thief who stole it, only to locate it as a beige spine with brown letters.

Lately in my home a book’s place is where it comes to rest. The stringent rules I had for organising my books have become sloppy over time.

01-colour-coded-bookshelvesMy dictionary shelf still only contains dictionaries, poetry shelf only poetry, journalism shelf only journalism books, medical shelf only medical books and my very special collection of the illustrated children’s books I have found remarkable and memorable and to which I often return, are on a low shelf in the kitchen where children can reach them too. The kitchen’s where – logically – the recipe books reside too.

Other than that, old and new writers are bedding down together haphazardly. The German and Dutch writers have gravitated to the far upper left shelf in some semblance of continental order, and the Afrikaans and South African English writers are so cosy you’d never believe there to be historical animosity. South Africans of all languages and races are mingling with Australians and Indians and Nigerians. There’s a loose, happy democracy going on in my bookshelves and it seems oblivious to my need for order, and the sometimes pressing urgency to find a book very quickly.

I often read several books at once and I read everywhere. This book untidiness leads to books sometimes being hurriedly squeezed into any available space on the shelves in the house.

How people arrange their bookshelves is always of interest to me. Bookshelves themselves hold great fascination and I even own a small collection of books about bookshelves.

Some people arrange them by theme (like I do), some by size, and the more methodical go for the library option of arranging by author’s surname.

A friend of mine recently designed and built his own enormous bookshelf, using Piet Mondrian as inspiration for the size and shape of the shelves. Then he proceeded to arrange his entire collection – again a la Mondrian – according to the colour of the books’ spines. His main motivation was that it would make it easy for the family to put books away.

At first I found this funny. Now I think it might be quite a wise idea when you’re an anytime, anywhere reader.

This month’s books however, are still scattered around the house, but mostly around the bed on already heavily laden side-tables. Bed always feels like the most appropriate place to finish a novel.

Craig Higginson’s The Landscape Painter, Michiel Heyns’ Ground Work and Rayda Jacobs’ Joonie, wait patiently for shelving along with Wuthering Heights, a recent bargain purchase, and Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, which I have finally come around to.

I must remember to memorise the colour of their spines before I pack them away though.

COLUMN: Whittling the library for a new life

I am grateful I became an adult in a time when – and a suburb where – one was not expected to have grand material ambition. Whether our parents had money or not was tested purely against the critical question of whether there’d be enough of it for us to study after school without having to get bursaries or loans on our mediocre marks.
The desire to study was based not so much on any sense that we were clever enough to be great, but on the desire not to have to spend our adult lives in the dreary shops and offices where our parents tried to earn enough money to help us avoid having to do so when we left school.
Books were acquired in three ways: for birthdays and Christmas, at the library and by borrowing. At university for a spell my friends and I cottoned on to second-hand book shops and we’d make little bundles of cheap used books for one another’s birthdays.
We were undiscerning readers. What landed in our hands, we read. If it was ours, we kept it. The literature those of us who studied languages bought with our hard-earned waitressing money sat happily alongside cheesy love stories and other pulp on our slow-growing book shelves.
The idea of getting rid of books never arose, that I can remember. Books were read and kept, and shared, and – hopefully – returned.
At some point the collection gained its own momentum, its own raison-d’être. Having books on shelves, displayed and easy to get to, became a thing separate and equally as important as reading a book. It also became, I realised in my twenties, a kind of status symbol: visitors were either enthralled and envious, or appalled and a little repelled that I spent my money on books and actually read them all. It became, in short, a way of refining friendships and alliances – that head-cocked sideways stance of a stranger in your home perusing your bookshelf is, often, the thrill of recognising a kindred spirit.
Five years ago my husband and I embarked on house renovations which were, in essence, an attempt to accommodate our books. Two weeks ago – because life never quite works out the way one plans – I had an enormous book sale at my house and that which didn’t sell must go to charity. My collection – which numbered in the thousands – has been whittled down by about three-quarters.
A few years ago, the idea of getting rid of my books would have filled me with anxiety so acute I would immediately have turned my thoughts elsewhere. And yet the culling now was good, even a little joyous as I passed on some loved tomes to other book lovers.
What I kept were my favourite authors, all my poetry, all my dictionaries, all my favourite children’s book illustrator and authors, books I bought or read in faraway places, books signed by authors or inscribed by friends, and those books which – for sometimes inexplicable reasons – subtly changed the course of my life…like Jonathan Livingstone Seagull which I read at a very young age and was the book that made me want to write.
The rest have gone away, but they’re not gone. They’re stored in the folds of my brain, under my fingernails, between each vertebra – the dust of their words are lodged in my wrinkles. Their work with me is done. But their work is not finished.

 

COLUMN: Looking is also a kind of reading

This month I did a lot more “looking at” than “reading” books. This is probably because I was a little bored with my novel– Kristen Tranter’s book The Legacy – which was decidedly un-thriller-ish despite the cover shout claims.
Because I kept thinking I was going to finish it quickly, I didn’t read what I have been chomping at the bit to, which is Ariel Dorfman’s Writing The Deep South, of which I snuck only the preface – a copy of the 2010 Nelson Mandela Lecture he delivered in Joburg last year.
The section is already underlined and notated and scruffy…I sense the whole book is going to be an exercise in furious pencil conversation with this bilingual, intense, prolific, questioning and vigorously political writer. I am enjoying the parallels he draws between Chile and South Africa and my long-standing desire to visit that country for writing and research has surfaced again in an urgent way.
I also managed to read about four stories from the collection Jonathan Jansen put together with Nangamso Koza and Lihlumelo Toyana called Great South African Teachers. The stories are short and most are written by people who are not writers, but who felt moved to remember the teachers that made them think or feel or see differently. I was delighted to find a story about a teacher I knew at school and who was universally adored by her students. This  is required reading for anyone who’s ever been to school, known a teacher, taught, or railed against their education. The book requires me to use that tired word “inspiring”, one I do not bandy easily.
I also finally got around to reading Ivan Vladisclavic’s Double Exposure, which in turn lead me back to one of my most treasured birthday presents ever, David Goldblatt’s Some Afrikaners Revisited. The book contains – apart from his stark, cool black and white pictures – essays by Ivor Powell and Antjie Krog, both of which are prime examples of that most thoughtful and stimulating of genres.
But it is the photographs I go to most enthusiastically. They  draw the reader (or “looker”) into a time and place that feels like both like yesterday and several centuries ago; that is at once hauntingly familiar and disturbingly alien.
My next “looking” book was a small, fat, colourful thing called Faceless. It is a collection of cartoon strips by South African Bruce Sutherland.
Even though I’d rather write about edifying or truly entertaining creative works, I must pause before this galling piece of rubbish to note that Sutherland’s work is profoundly unfunny and pathetically unoriginal (ancient regurgitated jokes from the frontline of the war between the sexes). Labelling it “Non-PC” does nothing to excuse this ridiculous waste of paper.
Sutherland’s cartoons would do better to remain on the net which has perfect side rooms for the people with unevolved sensibilities I imagine are his famed adoring audience. It did not surprise me to find that Sutherland makes knives by hand as a hobby…all that pent up misogyny cannot be calmed by simply making stupid cartoons in which blow jobs, anal sex and the desire to kill your wife are about the highest expression of your, um, creativity.
In order to refresh my bored eyes I then returned to picture books I will never tire of looking at: all the work of the Australian illustrator Shaun Tan and Colin Thompson – who lives there but was born in the UK – Tony DiTerlizzi’s wonderful black and white interpretation of the “The Spider and the Fly” (based on the cautionary tale by Mary Howitt) and the most delightful of all possible antidotes to Sutherland’s pathological fear and hatred of women, Anthony Browne’s Piggy Book.
This appeared Cape Times on 25 November 2011 and also appears on Books SA

“Not every answer can be found in books, you know.”

The narrator of The Lacuna (Barbara Kingsolver) sheepishly admits to the character of Leo Tolstoy that he is writing a novel. “It’s nothing that will liberate the people,” he says.

Tolstoy replies: “A novel! Why do you say this won’t liberate anyone? Where does a man go to be free, whether he is poor or rich or even in prison? To Dostoyevsky! To Gogol!”

It’s an imagined conversation, but Tolstoy’s exclamation rings true to the character Kingsolver has created.

The novel, that oft-denigrated – but tenacious – genre; when will people stop looking down their noses at it? When will they acknowledge that it creates a safe space for slipping sideways from our own confining lives and that that is a good thing?

Whenever someone tells me in sniffy tones that they can’t be bothered with fiction, I have to bite my tongue just a little, as I often must when I encounter other examples of dense arrogance.

There’s no doubt that personal reading history, psychic developmental leaps, personal taste, age and perhaps even (I say this gingerly) gender, all colour people’s reading preferences. I am more partial to fiction than to non-fiction  in general, but at times I tire of what fiction offers and find my reading needs more adequately met by non-fiction.

Usually my needs are met by variety. So, while I’ve been reading The Lacuna, I’ve also been consulting a very old book of mine on Frida Kahlo (Kingsolver’s novel is about Kahlo and her communist artist husband Diego Riviera), called Kahlo (by Andrea Kettenmann and published by Taschen), as well as the thorough Reader’s Digest Facts at your Fingertips (because I needed to remind myself of Russia’s leaders in the twentieth century). This last is faster and more reliable than Google.

Before The Lacuna I was swept like so many millions around the world into Téa Obreht’s Orange Prize-winning The Tiger’s Wife, where the shards of magic dazzle in the blanket weave of a rich and eloquent modern fable.

My books seem to have a travelling pattern: the novel is intrepid, travelling everywhere with me in my handbag or the crook of my arm – a charm against wasted reading time and boredom (all that waiting around in cars and queues when I could be reading). There’s only ever one novel on the go.

Non-fiction is more domesticated, but more restless, staying home but shifting between the rooms of the house and places I sit (or stand – I sometimes read while stirring pots). Currently there are two of them open and face-down in various convenient places, the most compelling being All About Love, by Lisa Appignanesi (Virago), a magisterial, humane and astoundingly researched work, girded and bolstered by Appigananesi’s intelligent, brawny prose.

The other one arrived in the post one day in December: a gift from a male friend of mine who has a son the same – rather spiky – age as my own pre-pubescent son. We’d been talking about their odd mood swings, intermittent testosteronal surges that flop into poignant moments of hold-me-I’m-just-a-little-boy.

My son was next to me when I opened the unexpected package: Raising Boys by Australian psychologist Steve Biddulph. He raised a sceptical eyebrow and said: “Not every answer can be found in books, you know.”

He’s right of course. Neither fiction nor non-fiction have The Answer to everything, maybe even to anything. They just offer varieties of options, little soupçons of possibilities, and – if we’re lucky – clumps of truths that will never be ours, but settle, as only truth can, in the corners of the heart. If you have a mind at all you will absorb, digest and reject everything you’ve ever read in the lifetime’s span of reading. And found your own answers.

Speaking of my son: he is the fussiest of readers. When he can’t find anything by one of his favourite authors he mopes around complaining about the dearth of reading material and refusing to be to be drawn down unexplored reading avenues. He has his own mysterious reading road map.

For months, while waiting for the next Rick Riordan novel to come out and make him happy for the two days in which he disappears from this world into Percy Jackson’s, I have been trying to get him to read Bill Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There.

He refused on the grounds that it’s not fiction and (this one unspoken) it is recommended by his mother – whose general intelligence he is currently regularly questioning.

Yesterday he flumped into my office, barely able to speak from laughing. “Mom! Mom! Listen to this…” and he read me a paragraph from Neither Here Nor There.

Either his desperation for something to read, or a moment of weakness in his will to resist me and non-fiction, had brought him around finally.

And so begins, I hope, a new relationship with a new genre for one ardent reader

This appeared in the Cape Times and can also be read here: Books SA

COLUMN: I like my books dirty

“I’m all precious about the thing, causing somewhat of a distance between myself and the book it holds. Instead of the book becoming an extension of me – like my hair clips or flip-flops or battered handbag – it is an expensive little gem that requires care and attention I feel unable to give.”

The month I read my first e-book. Here’s what I think:

I like my books dirty.

The reverence that some hold of the product – the paper thing between covers – is not something I appear to be capable of.

I came to this realisation because I read my first ebook this month on a tablet given to me as a gift.

After fiddling around with the new contraption I realised that I wasn’t going to use it much unless I did something with it I really wanted to. So I ventured into the mysterious world of on-line book buying and came away with Jeffrey Eugenides new book The Marriage Plot.

I’ve written before that I don’t see myself as someone who would easily convert to ebooks. So I tested the hypothesis and my main finding was that I’m not very nice to my paper books. It won’t do to balance a cup of coffee on the e-reader on the way to the stoep. I can’t let it drop to the floor next to the bed as I do when I start nodding off, or read it in the bath or on the beach or in the park or while I am frying onions.

I’m all precious about the thing, causing somewhat of a distance between myself and the book it holds. Instead of the book becoming an extension of me – like my hair clips or flip-flops or battered handbag – it is an expensive little gem that requires care and attention I feel unable to give.

I don’t feel that way about paper books. I know this is anathema to many people. It’s also why I am loathe to borrow books because I know I work them hard, that my consumption of them requires them to negotiate the rough terrain of careless hands, pencil scribbles, dog ears, and my obsessive reading habits which require me to take the thing everywhere – meaning it gets stuffed into grubby handbags and gets read over solitary lunches and during chocolate binges.

When I am being careful with a book, I read less, slower and with greater difficulty.

Another draw-back of this e-book awe is that I feel limited by carrying around something that is so desirable to so many people. I didn’t take it to the park with the kids. I didn’t leave it on the passenger seat when I went hopped out at the shops. In short, I became more furtive about reading because I was worried someone was going to bop me over the head and carry away my gift.

I am not dismissing ebooks though, and have come to the conclusion that this is not an either/or debate. The point of all books is to convey the story. The vehicle is almost secondary. And once Eugenides hooked me, I read with appetite and delight, sometimes even forgetting I was holding a mini computer instead of a paperback. And he – Eugenides – was the second author of the month (after I finished Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna) that made February a dazzler the other months this year are going to have a hard time outshining.

Eugenides ended rather abruptly, what with me being unable to assess how the close the end of the book was from the little bar at the bottom of the reading pane. From there I splashed into Milan Kundera’s Immortality with too much lightness, the philosophical themes being unaligned with the ones I am currently engaged in – and splashed right out again into something fizzier, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – a radical and surprisingly enjoyable departure from my usual reading preference. Now I am swimming in a placid lake of a book: The Fox In The Attic by Richard Hughes, epic and atmospheric.

Over lunch just now some crumbs fell on to the page and the cheese left a tiny smear of grease. The book and I are now bonded by the mess of the prosaic. –

This column can also be read here: Books SA

 

COLUMN: Facing the wild things

Mostly we read because it pleases us, but sometimes what we read is not “pleasing”, or “enjoyable” but we don’t stop just because the going gets rough. There is some other reward that is not related to our simple understandings of what pleasure might be.

Mostly we read because it pleases us, but sometimes what we read is not “pleasing”, or “enjoyable” but we don’t stop just because the going gets rough. There is some other reward that is not related to our simple understandings of what pleasure might be.

This month I’ve been struggling with what that other reward might be because friends kept asking me what Nadine Gordimer’s new book No Time Like The Present is like.

I don’t have a simple answer. It’s not “excellent” – to be recommended in that serious or breathless voice we save for books that really do sweep us off our feet.

It’s not even really “good” in the usual ways: brilliant writing that shakes itself loose of the page and becomes airborne; unusual concepts approached in new and interesting ways; delightful dialogue that places you directly into someone else’s conversation; a plot you can’t predict.

The fact is, the book is a plodding walk on the steadily increasing incline of South Africa’s of democracy, and it is written so thickly and in such convoluted style – a style that all but disdains the reader – that on a purely aesthetic level it comes across as a chunk of concrete hacked off a modern ruin, rather than a finely moulded piece of clay from the hands of a sensitive ceramicist.

To be brutal, the easy word that comes to mind – the one people would understand most easily in reference to a work of art with a particular effect – is that Gordimer’s new novel is depressing, a word that makes most people turn sharply away. And I don’t want to do that because I think it should be read.

Gordimer is an “important” writer. She is “relevant”. I could use those imperatives, appealing to people’s sense of duty, or interest in the South African situation – even to their own vanity: some readers rate themselves as slightly superior beings for their ability to get through notoriously difficult books.

Really, though, the reason I think we read some books – and Gordimer’s is a case in point – is because it activates our worst fears. And without understanding rationally why that would be desirable, it is a force in us as strong as the desire for pleasure. We want to be scared witless. But as vicariously as possible.

I don’t presume to say something new this matter, but here’s my thinking: if we have our worst fears lead into the light through the once-removed experience of reading about other characters’ experiences, we are finding our way towards a resolution we would not otherwise experience.

The idea, for instance, of being murdered, abducted, tortured and raped is absolutely abhorrent, and yet thrillers and crime fiction easily rate as the most-read fiction books on the planet – other than love stories, which represent their hopeful opposite. Maybe it has to do with facing down a monster. With imagining how we would respond in certain situations. With testing our internal limits through imagination, rather than through – God forbid – direct experience.

Maurice Sendak, the octogenarian writer of the classic Where The Wild Things Are, has always been a strong advocate of scary books for children, postulating that children want to be afraid. Anyone who’s ever been a child – all of us  – know this: how fright – the kind contained in ghost stories, or the peek-a-boo games that give babies such a fright and then make them giggle – is thrilling to the point of inducing visceral anxiety, and how overwhelming its resolution or relief is.

“I refuse to lie to children,” said Sendak in a recent interview. “I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence.”

That’s why, I suppose, I am glad that this month I read hard and upsetting stuff like No Time Like the Present and So Much Pretty, an unsettling novel by Cara Hoffmann, and – most depressing and frightening of all – an essay by Arundhati Roy – who wrote the 1997 Booker-prize winning The God of Small Things –  entitled Capitalism: A Ghost Story (the original link on OutlookIndia.com appears to be broken).

Because my horror was being contained and managed for me by writers who have already faced the Wild Things and returned not just safely, but alloyed.

This column can also be read here: Books SA