Readersforum's Blog

March 29, 2012

A new chapter for rare book collecting

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — Henry Greeff @ 6:21 am

Book dealing was once, as Graham Greene told me, a ‘treasure hunt’. But the internet has made it all about pots of gold

Buy the book … a first edition bearing an inscription from TS Eliot to Virginia Woolf. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

By Rick Gekoski

I’m not a rare book collector, not anymore. You can’t afford to be when you are a dealer, unless you have a lot more money than I do, or a lot less. When I was doing my DPhil on Conrad I accumulated a number of unprepossessing (dust wrapper presence and condition of book immaterial) first editions of his work, seldom for more than a few pounds. I needed these, I had been informed, because the most reliable text of a novel for scholarly purposes is usually the first edition. But in Conrad’s case (as I knew) the later Collected Works, published by Dent with new prefaces by Conrad, has texts that were approved by him, and hence constituted his final say on the matter.

I bought the first editions anyway, for reasons more sentimental than scholarly. So this was how the books looked when Conrad himself first saw them! There was something satisfying and historically accurate about reading, say, Lord Jim in the light green cloth, stamped in gilt, in which it would have appeared in shops in 1900. (I wonder if it originally had a dust wrapper? I’ve never seen one.) But if you had asked me, at that time, if I was a Conrad collector, I would have denied it. (Evidence that I had no real collecting appetite can be found in the fact that JRR Tolkien lived in the house at 21 Merton Street, where I had resided a couple of years before, and was known to be willing to sign books for Merton men. It never occurred to me to ask, though I was a great fan of Lord of the Rings.)

But only a few years after getting my DPhil, and having started teaching in the English department at the University of Warwick, I began a book on DH Lawrence, which is, to this day, the only piece of work I contracted for but failed to deliver. I’m not sure why this was – academic writing and I didn’t get on very well – though there seemed an obscure connection to the fact that, this time, I was definitely a fully committed DH Lawrence collector.

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February 28, 2012

Beautiful bookshops? No thanks!

Pile of books: spare me the sofa. Photograph: Toby Talbot/AP

At best, the attractiveness of a bookshop is beside the point. At worst it’s a positively bad sign.

By Rick Gekoski

According to William Morris, one of the major thinkers, and designers, of the Aesthetic Movement, you should “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”. This injunction has always puzzled me, because of that “or”: there seems to be some choice involved between utility and beauty. Presumably a knife is one thing, so useful for cutting lamb chops, and gorgeous cushion covers (from Morris & Co) quite another. But a cushion cover is also useful, isn’t it? So is a well-designed chair or fabulous table, a curtain or bedspread? Morris designed all of them to be both beautiful and useful.

The stronger claim – have nothing in your house that isn’t both beautiful and useful – is more compelling, and is indeed the mantra of most designers of the homeliest artefacts. You want a knife? Why not buy some Georgian silver? Or, if you can stump up for it, one designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh? Surely a choice of such an object is not based on its utility – all knives will cut a lamb chop – but additionally on how attractive one finds it?

It is harder to make the inverse claim: that objects of beauty should be chosen, too, for their usefulness. You might make such a case, even, for paintings: being surrounded by the beautiful works of art is calming and delightful to the soul, and such an aesthetically-enhanced inner organ may well make us perform better in our daily lives.

But I am not much interested in pursuing this, because what I am really interested in here is bookshops. A recent post on this website by Sarah Crown enthusiastically described the “most beautiful” bookshops she has encountered. Readers were invited to add further examples, and pictures were posted of book-lined rooms replete with comfy sofas covered in chintz, tables with pretty little lamps and a vase of tulips, Persian carpets – all the cosiness of a cottagey sitting room redolent of brewing tea and baking scones. Flyers announcing forthcoming poetry readings behind the desk. Mozart playing, soothingly. Nothing that isn’t enhancing to the spirit.

What a delight to enter such a place, pick a book off a shelf, plump up a cushion, accept the offered lapsang souchong (lemon only, ta!) and settle down for a read!

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February 8, 2012

When novelists reach the end of their stories

Henry James: Late bloomer. Photograph: Pictorial Parade/Getty Images

Whether their material has been exhausted, or they have, very few writers reach old age at the top of their game.

By Rick Gekoski

When I was doing my DPhil on Conrad, one of the seminal texts, (now, I suspect, largely unregarded) was Thomas Moser’s Joseph Conrad: Achievement and Decline. I was innocently struck by his thesis that Conrad, after an apprentice period that covered the first couple of years of his writing life, then had a golden period (from 1897–1911) in which he produced a series of masterpieces, after which two indifferent books followed (Chance and Victory) and then a distinct falling off into the later works. This seemed to me, at the time, admirably observed and illustrated, and it did not occur to me for a moment how banal the argument actually was.

Maybe I hadn’t yet read enough yet? Achievement and Decline? That’s what novelists do, and the trajectory of Conrad’s career – for Moser was largely if unremarkably right – can serve as a model for the career arc of most novelists. Think of Conrad’s contemporaries. DH Lawrence? Perfect. Virginia Woolf? Yup. Thomas Hardy? Sure enough. EM Forster? Saw the problem coming and headed it off at the pass.

Or think of ours. Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Graham Swift – that excellent generation of novelists whose best work is now, pretty clearly, behind them. And, yes, I know who won last year’s Man Booker, and was glad of it. But it’s not Flaubert’s Parrot is it?

There is nothing very remarkable about any of this. It figures: you have to learn your trade (novels one and two?) then, while energy is still fresh and the supply of material still vibrantly available, there should follow the best and freshest work, which may well be sustained over a longish period. But energy flags, talent – however scintillating – may fade, and the wellsprings of personal feeling and reminiscence dry up. These changes are often marginal, and the “decline” of later works for most novelists is a matter of degree. Conrad’s The Rover is still quintessential Conrad, only less so. And I am still thoroughly engaged by many writers who are my contemporaries, even in their so-called decline, rather than by the new generation. Better Philip Roth’s Nemesis than Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot.

 

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February 6, 2012

Why is there no good sex in fiction prize?

Still 'uneasy and unsure' when it comes to sex … John Updike. Photograph: Rick Friedman/Corbis

As the bad sex prize rather unnecessarily highlights, it’s very difficult to write well about this subject.

By Rick Gekoski

My biblomemoir, Outside of a Dog, has just come out in paperback, and on the rear cover it says “Shortlisted for the PEN/Ackerley award.” No one will buy it as a result – who cares? – but publishers (oh, all right, and authors) are always keen to mention that a book has achieved some such distinction. Getting on the Man Booker shortlist, by way of contrast, catapults sales: many shortlisted novels sell well under 1,000 copies before being selected, and 10 times that afterwards. Actually winning effects a writer’s finances dramatically: “I don’t have to worry about money anymore,” one Booker winner told me.

The exception to all of this admiring, hyping and selling, is The Literary Review’s Bad Sex in fiction award, which exists primarily to amuse its sponsors, and surely has no affect – unless an adverse one – on sales. I have yet to find “Winner of the Bad Sex award” emblazoned on a dust jacket, and though the chagrined winner sometimes turns up for the (rather fancy) dinner, and makes a wry speech, that’s just being a good sport.

We’re supposed to give prizes for good writing, surely? We celebrate it and in so doing presume that we honour literature, our writers, and ourselves as readers. Prizes are given by genre generally – best biography, travel book, novel, play, poem, memoir – not for specific passages. We don’t reward a terrific description of a sunset, or a tiramisu, or an orgasm, though we’re keen on all of them, even all at once. (Flaubert once bet some friends that he could make love to a woman, smoke a cigar, and write a letter at the same time. He won, as they looked on in admiration.)

Martin Amis has remarked that there aren’t many literary descriptions of orgasms that quite, as it were, do the business. We cringe when we read a sex scene, not because it is explicit, but because it is usually so bad – as porn movies are dull, not because they are right-on and in there, but because they are joyless, witless, and boorish. What we are offered as pornography is objectionable on aesthetic grounds, not moral ones.

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November 2, 2011

The bibliophile on holiday

Reading on deckchairs. Photograph: Don McPhee

Jolly pastimes, fine scenery and sociability are all very well. But they can’t really compete with reading.

By Rick Gekoski

I’m just back from holiday, as it’s called, sailing on a gulet in Turkey with my wife Belinda and our friends the New Zealand artists Boyd Webb, Gretchen Albrecht and Jamie Ross, and Boyd’s wife, who designs and more or less builds by herself huge complexes for university campuses. They’re perfect companions, fully engaged: they notice the details of everything, and are happy to call them to your (my) attention. The goats shelter under the trees anticipating rain, the teak deck is examined with joinerly competence, yachts shift on their anchors and almost collide, the prehistory of the archaeological sites is adduced, we chart the possible trajectory of the giant catapults that sank passing Greek triremes, the colours and moods of the water in various bays are analysed, the tsatsiki, I am informed, is made with watercress, peppery and surprising. They love to go for treks on the rocky hillsides, from many of which I manage to absent myself. On one of them, Boyd falls backwards off a stone wall, six feet down into a thorn bush, confirming my sense of how dangerous walking is. He dislocates a finger, which he whacks back into place, and has major abrasions on his hands and legs. Within half an hour he is taped up, uncomplaining, and almost as good company as he was before.

Even I notice this, but most things pass me by, which is observed with increasing frequency and mild incredulity. I’m reading.

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July 16, 2011

Writing is bad for you

Filed under: Authors — Tags: , , — Henry Greeff @ 6:11 am

By Rick Gekoski

Shadowy occupation ... a typewriter. Photograph: Corbis

I’m not sure about the improving influence of reading, but I’m certain that writing brings out the worst in me.

We live in a literary environment that – a little uneasily, I often think – feels the need to justify the reading and study of imaginative literature. That is understandable, for writers and readers often have to stand up and fight for what they care passionately about. We believe it is good for us, it must be good for us, this force we attribute to the enterprise of reading and writing. A wide exposure to great literature, it is claimed, provides a basis upon which we may feel more deeply, understand more widely, become better.

If this is an empirical proposition, I rather doubt it, though I have no substantial evidence for my scepticism. I have not interviewed thousands of teachers, novelists and critics in order to quantify their goodness on some objective scale. Horrible thought. So I rely, here, on some degree of self-examination. I am pickled in the brine of literature, as an academic, critic, and writer. I have read pretty carefully and widely for 50 years. If there is something enhancing about such an exposure, I should be showing some signs of it by now.

Sometimes, for sure, I can feel the old Leavisite values kicking in, and am able to consult an inward panel of fine sensibilities, and to employ those voices in making my own judgments. The question “what would Jesus do?” is not entirely inane, and if you substitute Montaigne for Jesus, you have a useful tool at your disposal. (Not that he would do much, but he might have a lot to say.) But for every such benefit there has been, I am sure, a corresponding loss, as there must be in a class of persons who so widely, and often unreflectively, introject the voices of others, and psychically identify with those wiser than themselves. Jung calls this process psychic inflation, and you can see examples of it everywhere in literary life. I try to guard against it, but it recurs, like bouts of malaria.

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April 21, 2011

The damnable task of being a Man Booker International prize judge

The inaugural Man Booker International prize, awarded in 2005, was won by Albanian writer Ismail Kadaré. Photograph: Murdo Macleod

Deciding which living literary great to honour for their body of work is overwhelming, akin to ‘sizing up the giants and arranging them in order’.

By Rick Gekoski

Since January 2010, Carmen Callil, Justin Cartwright and I have been reading for the 2011 Man Booker International prize. Never heard of it? Well, it only began in 2005, so let me fill you in. The prize is awarded every two years to a living author, is worth £60,000, the winner is chosen solely at the discretion of the judging panel, there are no submissions from publishers and the judges consider a writer’s body of work rather than a single novel.

This provides a beguilingly open-ended brief. It is up to us judges whom to read, what to read, and how to read, until one day a puff of smoke will go up (in Sydney on 18 May) and a great writer will be honoured. The three previous winners were Ismail Kadaré, Chinua Achebe, and Alice Munro.

                                                                                                                                                           …read more

January 23, 2011

Why literary archives are like monkfishProperly filleted, they can be fascinating, but don’t they spoil our appetite for the real flavour of the published work?

Properly filleted, they can be fascinating, but don’t they spoil our appetite for the real flavour of the published work?

Not obviously appetising ... monkfish. Photograph: Murdo Macleod

I once attended, and spoke at, a conference on literary archives at the home of so many of them, the Harry Ransom Centre at The University of Texas. The conference stretched – interminably to me, for I am impatient and not very good at such things – over three days, and covered more topics about archives than most people would wish to know. But it was, of course, peopled by participants who did wish to know, and we (they) covered topic after topic with enthusiasm. What is the future of literary archives? How will they be affected by changes in digital technology? What new ways have been devised for information recording and retrieval?

 Yawn, alas. Alas, because I make part of my living dealing in literary archives. So I ought to have been interested in such questions, and intermittently I was….read more

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