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

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