Meet Me In The Library

(Book Reviews and Bookish Adventures…)


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Readerly Quirks: Introduction

Welcome to a new intermittent series of posts on the topic of Readerly Quirks.

What do I mean by ‘readerly quirk’? Well, anything about someone’s approach to reading – book choices, reading practices, bookish preferences – that is quirky and affects their overall life as a reader.

Everyone has them, from only reading certain books in a particular chair to avoiding anything with talking animals on the negative side of things or, on the positive side of things, buying anything related to Jane Austen or being a sucker for a tale set on a small, remote island. Some readers will buy or accept any edition of a book they want, others insist on new, matching copies only for their shelves. Some of us even have definite quirks about exactly when and how we buy books.

And I think these quirks are what set us apart as readers and fuel some of the best bookish conversations, but up until now I haven’t really talked about my own quirks except for small mentions here and then in a review or two. Someone stumbling on my blog might be able to guess I love non-fiction about libraries and books-about-books because they are a definite trend in the titles I’ve reviewed here or they might know I like specific authors because I’ve said so in posts in the past even if they’re under-represented in actual reviews. But I doubt they’d guess that I have a shelf of books about lighthouses, have certain books I love to read aloud with partners for the sheer pleasure of sharing the magic of their stories, their language, with them for the first time or have very specific reasons why I don’t read crime fiction much any more. Because those niche, personal things tend to stay off my blog. I mostly assume that you won’t be interested in the super-niche stuff and I worry that writing a personal piece about ‘Why I Don’t Read (Almost Any) Crime Fiction’ will offend those of you who do enjoy a good police procedural or serial killer caper.

But what I want to do with my Readerly Quirks series of posts is share a few of the things that shape my reading, some are positive, some are negative and some are probably rather foolish. But they make me the specific reader I am and I think it would be interesting to write about them here. I suspect actually sitting down to write about these tastes and quirks will make me re-think a few ideas I have about books and perhaps I will even find fellow readers who share specific quirks of mine – after all, how will I know unless I ask you? :)

Anyhow, I’m going to share my first ‘quirk’ later in the week. I hope you’ll find these musings about how quirks come about, which factors affect our own preferences and how tastes change over time interesting even if you don’t share my particular quirks. I also rather like the idea having the series here on my blog as a sort of ongoing, adaptable manifesto of exactly what kind of reader I am, for better or worse…

(Edited to add: If you’d like to borrow the idea/join in the discussion on your own blog then please just add a link in your post back to my round up page!)


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Review – One Hundred Details by Kenneth Clark

Detail - William Hogarth - Cat from The Graham Children - 1742

Category: Non-Fiction, Art History – Hardback: 160 pages – Publisher: Harrison & Sons – Source: Public Library
First Published: 1938

Okay, so this is not so much a review as a sharing of treasure. :)

I read four books by the art historian Kenneth Clark in December/January, and while I will write a proper review of Civilisation: A Personal View at some point (before they go ahead and make the planned remake of it *shudder*), this is the one I want to tell you about first.

In 1938, taking advantage of technical improvements in photography, Clark, who was in charge of the National Gallery in London at the time, devised this wonderful, wonderful book. What it does is simple: it offers big, clear images (A3 sized pages, near A4 sized images in the edition I had) of fascinating details in paintings within the gallery’s collection. Some of these paintings are internationally famous and some are overlooked by those crossing off the famous ones from their ‘artistic hitlist’ as they swoosh through. All benefit from a closer second look.

By focusing in on small, interesting details rather than analysing the whole of the images Clark offers any curious child or adult a way into the art without any stuffiness and little snobbery. (Well, he is a bit snobbish in the accompanying notes but you could easily just look through at the images and only dip into the notes.) All the notes are at the front of the book so that you can just look through the details without being bogged down in information. Each pair of details are presented one on the left page and one on the right to offer contrasts in style or show how techniques developed through time.

For example, that lovely image of a cat at the top of this post is from William Hogarth’s 1742 work, The Graham Children, a painting that focuses on rich, well-behaved children and then, in the background, there is this cat which has all the energy and personality that the children appear to be missing. As Clark says, you get the sense that Hogarth enjoyed painting the cat far more even though it’s such a small part of the complete painting. Clark says she is ‘the embodiment of cockney vitality, alert and adventurous – a sort of Nell Gwynn among cats.’

Hogarth’s energetic cat is paired with:

Detail - Piero di Cosimo - Dog from The Death of Procris - c1495

This stately, grieving dog is from Piero di Cosimo’s A Satyr mourning over a Nymph from c.1492 (here’s the complete painting) and has ‘the gravity of an antique philosopher’. It’s such an entertaining comparison that nudges you to look more closely. Other pairings compare van Eyck’s approach to portraits with Raphael’s, show a medieval hunting scene that inspires sympathy for the wounded stag opposite a painting of Saint Sebastian being killed with arrows where the artist’s sympathy appears to be with the archers rather than the murdered saint, and point out how much imaginative energy was pouring into the backgrounds of medieval paintings because the rigid list of approved subjects – the Virgin Mary, biblical scenes, the deaths of saints – limited artistic freedom. I wonder how many people with gallery fatigue spot the lion and bear fighting in the top right corner of this painting for example (you can zoom in using the tool on the right of the painting)? I also liked a cutely funny pairing where it appears the little girl looking through a doorway in the image on the right page is seeing the view in the image on the left.

I would question whether it’s worth telling you about this book given that I read the 1938 edition and the images are in black and white, except for the fact that I was debating whether to mention it and found that a modern edition, replicating the images and notes, has been published by Yale University Press. And its in colour too!

So, if you fancy an unusual approach to art and exploring a gallery’s collection in a quirky way without leaving your armchair…

Further Reading: A PDF on the National Gallery’s site showing some other pairings

List of books read in 2015 / Index of Non-Fiction


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Quote: The Only Story There Is…

I hope this little anecdote is true too:

‘There is a story (which is so lovely that I hope it’s true, although I haven’t been able to verify it) that someone once asked the South African writer J. M. Coetzee to name his favourite novel. Coetzee replied that it was Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe – because, he explained, the story of a man alone on an island is the only story there is.’

(Kathryn Schulz (2010) Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, London, Portobello Books, p. 258)

I don’t agree with Coetzee but it’s such a curious little snapshot of his worldview at the time if it’s true…

If you’re curious: a link to my review of the book.


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Quote: The Extremely Obscure Palinode

A fascinating little footnote from a recent read:

‘Western culture has another mechanism for admitting mistakes, but its extreme obscurity only underscores the point that such devices are woefully rare. In poetry, there is an entire form, the palinode, dedicated to retracting the sentiments of an earlier poem. (In Greek, palin means “again,” and ōdē means “song,” make a palinode linguistically identical to a recantation: to “recant” means to sing again. We invoke this same idea when we say that someone who has shifted positions on an issue is “singing a different tune.”) The most famous palinode – which isn’t saying much – was written by the seventh-century poet Stesichorus and serves to retract his earlier claim that Helen of Troy was solely responsible for the carnage of the Trojan War.’

(Kathryn Schulz (2010) Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, London, Portobello Books, pp. 7-8)

I do love a good footnote. :)

If you’re curious: a link to my review of the book.


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Review – Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz

Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz

Category: Non-Fiction, Psychology/Philosophy/Science – Paperback: 272 pages – Publisher: Portobello Books – Source: Public Library
First Published: 2010

One of the things I did last month to increase the number of science-y books by women in my reading pile (for this goal that I am working on) was go through my bookmarks looking for videos of lectures, talks, debates etc that I’d enjoyed that might have a related book. About five years ago I watched all the TED videos so scanning through my favourites offered up quite a few titles to add to my wishlist. :)

Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz was the first one I went looking for in the library. And, although I knew it would be well written having seen Schulz speak so articulately about some of her book’s themes, I didn’t expect this to be my favourite book of the year so far… Which just goes to show I was, myself, enjoyably wrong.

Combining science, psychology and philosophy, Schulz looks at everything from the ways our brains trick us into being wrong (seeing mirages or being tricked by visual puzzles), why the mind will invent false stories rather than accept missing information (for example, rare cases of paralysed people who will insist they have just been running because their mind tells them they are still able-bodied) to how confabulation means you shouldn’t trust your memory because you are programmed to think your current belief applies retrospectively (studies show people tested twice about their beliefs will say in the second test that their opinion has always been X, even when the early test clearly shows it wasn’t). She also then looks at what it means to society when we can’t empathise with those we disagree with, struggle with apologies and miss valuable learning opportunities because we don’t want to be wrong or look foolish.

As she points out, we think we know what it is to be wrong and we dislike it. But what we’re actually describing is the feeling of realising we’re wrong. You can’t feel ‘being wrong’ – because it actually feels exactly like ‘being right’.

What I enjoyed most about this unusual and enlightening book is the vast range of experiences, stories and sources that Schulz draws from. I can’t remember another book that has quoted from a range as wide as celebrity divorce lawyers (on why being wrong about love leads to so much anger), arctic explorers who saw mountains where there weren’t any due to a trick of the light and a woman who realised that her testimony, affected by police deliberately coaching her choice of suspect photo, had resulted in the wrong man being jailed for rape. It’s also surprisingly literary too, Keats’ ideas on the connection between Art and Doubt are here along with a look at the rarely seen ‘palinode’ (a poem specifically written to recant previous opinions) and a consideration of why Hamlet was seen as a noble victim of circumstance not personality up until the 18th century and then, suddenly, became entirely defined by his doubts and seen as weak so that now it has become a standard topic for student essays. When he’s debating committing murder and only has the words of a ghost, who may or may not exist, to go on, shouldn’t we applaud him for checking the facts first?

There is so much intellectual energy in this book that every time I picked it up I became engrossed in it and found myself making dozens of notes and reading bits aloud to those around me. Mostly what impressed me though was how accessible it is. The tone is just so funny, smart and curious that I’d recommend it for anyone wanting to write non-fiction as a kind of masterclass on engaging the reader. It glides along smoothly because of small, important things like acronyms being explained simply or used once and then replaced with a simpler term and the science always being paired with a human experience of it in action. I quite honestly can not remember the last time I enjoyed a science book so much.

On a personal level, I am one of life’s doubters. I rarely tick 1 or 5 on rating scales. I find most surveys weird because there is always a question that I want to change the wording on or clarify. I don’t understand how those with a blind faith, religious or secular, keep their eyes closed to contrary evidence. So reading a book like this was incredibly eye-opening. I might not read a full book about why someone becomes a member of the Ku Klux Klan or a full book on how exactly memory works but the story included here of someone who went from being a KKK leader in his community to campaigning for racial equality is one I won’t forget and I now understand that vivid memories of events we think we’ll never forget (September 11th 2001 for example) are, unfortunately, blurred and distorted at the same rate as other memories in a pattern that is so predictable it can be plotted on a graph – the Ebbinghaus curve of forgetting.

I realise that a science book with lots of psychology and philosophy thrown in might not appeal to everyone but I found this an unexpected page-turner and I want to recommend it to you as a quirky non-fiction gem. I’ve already bought my own copy to keep since I just know this is going to be a book I turn to in the future, for the masterful writing as much as the stories it shares. If I read a couple more books as good as this in 2015, I’ll be a very happy reader.

Further Reading: Schulz now writes for The New Yorker and here’s the video of her discussing some of the ideas in her book at the TED conference

List of books read in 2015 / Index of Non-Fiction


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Quote: Terry Pratchett – Tarlatane, A Lovely Brilliant Green

One of my favourite quotes from A Slip of the Keyboard by Terry Pratchett that demonstrates his wide curiosity and magpie-like tendency to find interesting ideas everywhere:

‘Let me tell you, for example, the story of tarlatane, uncovered in newspaper accounts from the mid 1850s. Tarlatane was a kind of false silk, made in, I think, Lower Saxony. A mineral was ground up, and mixed with paste, and rubbed into cloth, and polished in such a way that you got something that looks a bit like silk. It was a lovely brilliant green, and this young lady attended a ball for troops going to the Crimea, in London, one sultry summer’s night, and she had a dress made of tarlatane and shoes made of tarlatane and a bag made of tarlatane. Thus dressed, she danced the night away in this closed, rather humid ballroom, and no doubt little flecks of green spiralled off her dress as she whirled and danced from partner to partner, and then she went home and she felt a bit ill. And then she felt very ill – and after a couple of days of horrible torment, she died of acute arsenic poisoning. How do you make tarlatane? You make it out of copper arsenate. And this is terrible. And this is tragic. But as an author, you look up and you see the glow, the whirling dancers, the beautiful girl, the deadly green glitter in the air. And this is so cool! Sorry… but you know what I mean.’

(Terry Pratchett in A Slip of the Keyboard: Collected Non-Fiction, 2014, London, Doubleday, p. 59) (From a speech Pratchett gave at Noreascon 2004)


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The Reading Legacy Terry Pratchett Left Me…

Terry Pratchett - Living is Dying

It’s peculiar how memory shifts our perception of a writer. If I was asked directly which authors have shaped my thinking about the world, about words and creativity, about what books are ‘for’, Terry Pratchett wouldn’t have make the list. And sadly, it was his recent death that made me reconsider that as I contemplated the various, direct and indirect, ways his life and books have impacted on me as a reader.

Oh, I wouldn’t have disputed his impact on me when I was younger. One of my first cats was called ‘Luggage’ because he was both an artful baggage and reminded me amusingly of the character in The Colour of Magic.

And, if I thought about it, I’d have to concede that yes, yes I do still answer my phone by saying ‘Ook’ if I am in a good mood and that’s down to time spent in the Unseen University’s library. (I know. It’s entirely unconscious though.)

But in recent years I had almost stopped considering Pratchett as a novelist, strange as it might sound.

You see, when he announced he had been diagnosed with a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease in 2007 I was deeply sympathetic and impressed by his honesty. I watched his 2008 documentary, Living With Alzheimer’s, and applauded his bravery in confronting the condition (forgive the pun) head-on. But it was in 2009 and 2010 where my interest in Pratchett’s journalism deepened and overtook those memories of summer afternoons spent holidaying in the Discworld.

In 2009 he started campaigning and writing about assisted death, something I have always strongly believed in. I found his articles clear, funny and moving. I found the way he was shaping the debate, and giving voice to fears and hopes about the specifics of how and where and when we die, truly inspiring.

And then at the start of 2010 I got the results of my personal genetics test back and discovered I have a considerably elevated risk of Alzheimer’s Disease. There isn’t a family history of the disease… but that’s down to the fact that I am the first generation with my particular combination of British, European and Asian heritage and have inherited risk factors from both my parents. Suddenly Terry Pratchett wasn’t a general role-model for how to handle the condition with grace and intelligence, he was a relevant one that I might well need one day. My memories of the novels faded and my interest in his campaigning increased.

When his death was announced in March in a typically fantastical way:

Terry Pratchett's Self Obituary

I hoped he’d been able to hear the haunting notes of Tallis’s Spem in alium at the end (it’s always been one of my favourites too) and was happy to read that his cats, family and friends were with him. I hunted out and re-watched his two death-focused broadcasts which had such an impact on me: the intense 2011 documentary on those who go to Switzerland to seek assisted death at the Dignitas centre (Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die) and the lecture on his own experiences which he gave in 2010, Shaking Hands With Death, which was delivered in part by his friend, Tony Robinson, because of his issues with memory and reading.

And afterwards it struck me that I was doing this incredibly intelligent and brave man a disservice by only focusing on his ’embuggerance’ rather than balancing it with the books he’d actually set out to write, his shared curiosities and enthusiasms that gave me such pleasure when I was younger and more open to tales of magic. So I borrowed A Slip of the Keyboard from the library. This collection of assorted non-fiction allowed me to reconnect with the pre-embuggerance author through stories of his first forays into writing novels, his life as a journalist and PR man, his love of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable and his thoughts about Discworld fans and the practice of writing.

I’ve been remembering again how he was one of the first authors to make me appreciate sly mockery and to show me that some authors love simply to play with words. He’s not the only author who made me realise how much I love dictionaries and weird bits of trivia of course. To claim so would be dishonest. Without my love of Pratchett though would I, for instance, have so quickly understood and appreciated Nabokov’s literary games and felt that jolt of pure reading magic the first time I dipped into his stories in my teens? Probably not.

Reading this collection was, in a lot of ways, a re-introduction to an author I’d lost years before and a reminder that the deepest influences aren’t always the ones that are obvious.

I’m going to share a quote or two over the next week or so as lots of his words ended up being copied into my commonplace book. Perhaps the more interesting result of this re-introduction though has been that I have borrowed one of his non-Discworld books to try. In one of the pieces in A Slip of the Keyboard, Pratchett said that his favourite of all the books he’d written was Nation. Such was my disconnection with his work that I’d never heard of it. But, having read the plot synopsis and been recommended it by the author above all his other books, I have borrowed it too from the library and have it here by my side to read this afternoon.

I will no doubt make it back to the Discworld in the next month or two, beginning again with Rincewind and The Luggage and Ook’ing with re-discovered glee at my cat. But, so deep and tangled can relationships with a writer be when their lives as well as their works touch you, I needed to find my way back to Pratchett the novelist first.

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