Book Stuff

Picaresque

“When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”

(Jonathan Swift from “Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting”)

Do you ever go on a Google Safari?

This may look like a conjoining of two popular search engine names but really my meaning is the popular and ubiquitous meaning of the first word and the literal meaning of the second.

So, it may start by recalling a phrase or quotation or, in this instance, a title of a book, and I’m curious as to its origin or context or literal meaning. The book is the only work published by the author, John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces.

This was a book I’d judged by the title back in – whoa! the 1990s, I reckon, when Penguin issued a series of modern classic novels at an introductory bargain price. I wasn’t disappointed.

The phrase used for the title came to mind this morning after reading the news, but in particular the readers’ comments which are invited below many of the news items. I will admit that I have commented on items myself though I hope I haven’t been typical of these commenters. It’s a healthy sign of freedom and democracy that we are allowed to express ourselves publicly even if we wrongly equate our opinion with that of the author’s. A moment’s thought would tell any reasonable person how wrong this is likely to be so they might discard their certainty before going in search of the truth. Yet vanity and pride overwhelm, so generally people will choose ignorance over correcting themselves.

So, discovering the title comes from Jonathan Swift rather than The Holy Bible or Shakespeare, and being happy with that, I find a term I wasn’t familiar with but ought to be: Picaresque.

Essentially, Picaresque is a literary genre which deals with the lovable rogue, in particular someone from the lower orders in society, though in a broader sense anyone swimming against the popular tide. I love this genre and find such persons, whether fictitious or real, interesting.

In human nature, I feel there must be a “gene” which compels us to move with the herd. You can see its possible “evolutionary advantage”, can’t you? The downside is, amongst other things, people are informed by a narrow section of news outlets – somewhat bias driven for cynically commercial reasons, we get hemmed in by “party politics” – mostly self-serving and unrepresentative of ordinary citizen’s needs or views, and a largely out-of-date and devalued education.


The author, John Kennedy Toole’s life story is a sad one. Having written A Confederacy of Dunces – a brilliant and funny debut novel, I thought – he failed to get a publisher interested in it. He suffered depression and took his own life at the age of 31.

It was his mother, an influential figure throughout his life though not always a welcome one, who championed the novel in her son’s memory and eventually had it published. Later, Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It reads like a good story in its own right and although there is a play, I don’t know if anyone’s made or thought of making a film of it.

Though the Safari could’ve gone on, I chose to end it there.

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If Our Books Disappear

As a Kindle shopper, I hadn’t been aware of the fate of Microsoft’s ebook store. Apparently, the company have decided to pull the plug on it due to its lack of profitability. If and when this happens, any books purchased through this shop will disappear. It’ll be like a virtual book burning session and there’s nothing those customers can do.

It’s worth some consideration, if you’re an ebook buyer, or whether you buy any virtual product, that what you are actually buying is not an object to own, in perpetuity, but a licence or permit to use that thing, maybe for an unspecified period. As long as you know this, I can’t see much wrong with it; you pay your money and you take your choice.

In the UK, at least, ownership of anything and everything is a relatively new social concept. I remember as a small boy, almost everyone rented their TV and music systems, a lot of household stuff was on hire-purchase (colloquially referred to as the never never because you paid but never owned it). My parents were the first in our extended family to own their home – through a 25 year mortgage deal, mind – and everyone thought they were odd, or even mad. Renting and hiring was the norm.

Getting back to books – and thinking about music, too – there is this idea of owning a collection, something which I had mindlessly fallen into as well. I think the craziness of it first surfaced when a colleague explained how he had fallen out with his partner after commandeering the second bedroom of their small, two-bed apartment and had installed wall to wall, floor to ceiling shelving to house his record collection. He had amassed many thousands, apparently. I asked if he actually listened to them all regularly and he said, of course! I doubted that: knowing my own habits and then doing the maths, there hardly seemed enough hours left in a lifetime to indulge in that level of listening, and that supposes that we won’t be seduced by any later offerings by artists and the industry.

It’s exactly so with books but worse. Reading a book is a lot more demanding, intensive and time consuming than listening to a record. While a favourite album might be on repeat playlist for a year, how many books do we return to that often? Of all the books I have reread, probably fewer than six had retained the impression of the first read. Quite a number had felt diminished, knowing the plot, the characters and the ideas within.

Not wishing to decorate my home with expansive shelves of records and books – I much prefer paintings and other images; and space! Let’s hear it for a clutter free existence – we found most of our unread books and unheard music had been confined to packing boxes under the beds or in closets, out of sight, out of mind. We took the step to cull most of it, offering them to charity shops and other collectors, keeping back a small number which we considered having special qualities, but even these rarely get looked at or listened to.

With music, it’s more convenient to pick something from an online platform, I never feel I have to own it to enjoy it. With books, I often find good literature on offer for less than a couple of quid each. There seems to be no end to these offers and I am in danger of collecting a virtual library of more books than I have time left to read. I’m not expecting it to disappear before I do but if it does, I think I’ve had my money’s worth. Owning stuff is not so important to me now, as long as I have access to books, music and art some other way, that’s fine. I understand the deal.


When this ebook store closes, your books disappear too (BBC News)

The Scarecrow’s Reasoning

“That proves you are unusual,” returned the Scarecrow; “and I am convinced that the only people worthy of consideration in this world are the unusual ones. For the common folks are like the leaves of a tree, and live and die unnoticed.” 
― L. Frank Baum, The Land of Oz


Who doesn’t notice the leaves of a tree?!

Leaves are an identifier, the best, probably. We tell a type of tree from the look of its leaves more than anything else about it. But greater than this is their reminder of the seasons and, come Autumn, who isn’t impressed by the leaves show of colour?

For me, it’s a marvellous thing to see the leaves in their true colours, the golds, the ochres, the russets, the coppers and even the purples. The green was a mask they all hid beneath, for good reason. It’s the effect of chlorophyll: the green substance they produce which allows them to convert abundant sunlight into growth.

This is how a carelessly chosen simile casts doubt on the writer’s ability. Are they not writing within the scope of their knowledge? Write only what you know, is the advice often given; the first lesson. Of course, the Scarecrow is in want of a brain, so I’ll let him off this once.


If we only ever consider the unusual, then the unusual will become the usual, and the hitherto usual will then become the unusual. And so things would go around and around in an ever decreasing circle.

Give that straw man a brain before his intellect ruins us all.


written for Reena’s Exploration Challenge #78 – “on a paragraph from The Land of Oz, by L. Frank Baum”

I’ve not read The Land of Oz and I didn’t know what this excerpt is really about. I know the scarecrow only from the movie, The Wizard of Oz. In the film, he asks the Wizard for a brain and is given a certificate of diploma. Brilliant! That says a lot about the world we live in.

Monochrome Dreams

Did you know we dream only in black and white?

No? Neither did I.

I’ve been reading Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, the one which begins with him taking mescalin, and in that book he claims this is the case. Apparently, dreaming is nearly always about symbolism and symbolic stories don’t need colour as it’s irrelevant.

I’m not so sure but being one who rarely remembers dreams upon waking, I have no personal evidence. The trouble with TDOP for me is as soon as Huxley thinks of something and writes it down, it becomes fact. He sees no need for explanation or evidence.

I wondered if this monochrome dreaming was influenced by black and white movies and telly. His mescalin experience took place in 1953. Most western people’s exposure to imagery would have been black and white ones and so, when dreaming then, it may have played out like a typical movie. This could mean that nowadays, it’s likely we dream in full colour. But I don’t know.

Catching the Light Again

“…it wastes my time like an old friend.”

A beautiful turn of phrase, I think.

Thanks to Edmark at Learn Fun Facts, a blog I follow, for posting a letter from William Dean Howells to his friend, Mark Twain, in 1875, concerning difficulties he had trying out a new type-writer.

Click on the link above for the full transcript and more goodies.


image from Pexels.com

And here’s my earlier post mentioning Catching the Light.

Views on Writing: Catching the Light

Clive James wrote of writing that it was turning a phrase until it catches the light.

When I read – and when I write, though this is a late experience and I’m still on the nursery slopes – too often I’m not noticing the glint of light. This is made more obvious when I consider those times when the light appears brilliantly, and it’s as if something magical is happening. It’s quite often an opening paragraph or an introduction to something, and it’s usually quite simple, precise, colourful and concise.

Following a path towards an understanding of Reena’s Exploration Challenge this week, I googled the name Kosho Uchiyama Rōshi. He was a Zen Buddhist monk in 20th century Japan, a master of origami, and an exponent of zazen, literally “sitting”, a method of meditation devised by the Zen master, Eihei Dōgen.

I follow his name in turn and find this passage on zazen attributed to him,

“I have not visited many Zen monasteries. I simply, with my master Tendo, quietly verified that the eyes are horizontal and the nose is vertical. I cannot be misled by anyone anymore. I have returned home empty-handed.

I quietly verified that the eyes are horizontal and the nose is vertical. This is a phrase that catches the light.

Where Every Day Is Everyone’s Birthday

One thing sure to boggle my mind is an extraordinary planetary fact, and I forgot to mention one picked up from the podcast about planet Venus.

A day on Venus is slightly longer than its year.


The image is a Gif made to illustrate the Transit of Venus last seen from Earth on 8th June 2004 – basically stop-frame animation. The online app – ezgif.com – also allows resizing the finished image. This avoids having to use the WP image editor which rarely works well for me. Time permitting, I could refine it but…life’s too short.

Worms and Casts

“A moth ate words

the pilfering visitor was not one wit the wiser

because he had gulped in those words.”


I had a thick head waking up this morning, the result of neglecting exercise, too much rich food, half a bottle of red before bedtime and mostly down to a cold I’ve been trying to ignore since Christmas Eve.

My eyes can’t stand to read or write, and my brain can’t bear to compute, but I need some distraction to relax and shift the ache. So I look at the Swiss Army Knife of a tablet by my side and wonder what else it can offer.

Podcasts! There’s an app for these which came pre-installed and at some point I must have selected some preferences as it’s lined up a series called The Essays, short audio pieces on Anglo-Saxon history. This is perfect because the gentle tone of an intelligent human voice can be soporific and the subject isn’t at this moment a matter of importance; I can tune in and out as desired, sipping occasionally from a tall glass of ginger and lemongrass cordial, mindful to keep my hydration up.

Actually, the podcasts proved to be very interesting and I love all those “Dark Ages” names; Bede, Egbert, Eadfrith, Ethelred, Athelstan. Why on Earth aren’t they more popular nowadays? Bladud?


The lines at the top are quoted from a podcast on Eadfrith, the Scribe. It takes the form of a riddle and inscribed on manuscripts as a warning against careless reading, the answer to the riddle being a bookworm.

As we close 2018, the Goodreads app tells me I’ve read nine books this year. Usually I average around twelve. In 2015, I entered a personal challenge to read twenty, which I achieved by the skin of my teeth but I didn’t look back on that as a good reading year. Occasionally I wonder with books whether less is more and even choosing one or two favourites to reread, again and again, would be better.

In the new year, we hope to be moving home and, as a designer, I’ve already begun sketching out plans including space required for our books. I’m looking at hacking some of those inexpensive IKEA Billy bookcases for the job.

The design involves comparing the available shelf space with what we have now, but I couldn’t help notice that though we’ve culled our library many times and kept only those books we loved, most of those have sat on the shelf, unread, for many years. Having a Kindle account means I don’t buy many hard or paperbacks now anyway, and a few of my favourites I’ve since picked up cheaply on Kindle.

Is displaying your books a bit of intellectual signalling, a boast, a pretentiousness?

I think it’s good to show that you’re a reader, to have a collection of books which you can identify with, much the same as having pieces of art around the place. But I should really try to read the ones I’ve shelved otherwise what’s the point?


The Essay Podcast: Eadfrith, the Scribe.

Bookworms vs. Pirañas

I’ve never considered reading as a competitive pastime but maybe I should; it would seem I need to pick up the pace considerably, according to an article in Goodreads.

An ex of mine would devour any book in a single sitting. I lent her a book I enjoyed and a few days later asked her how she was finding it. It was okay, she said. Was? She’d read it in a day and it was three books ago. This was quite amazing to me but when I tried to talk about the book it wasn’t easy; it was difficult for her to remember exactly how she felt about it at the time; she’d moved on.

So, what’s my performance like? I get through a modest 10 – 12 books in a year, usually around 350 pages each. I’ve been reading ebooks for some years so I know my reading speed is around 6 hours from the app’s stats.

I joined Goodreads a while back, a social site for bookworms though I joined really to give some extra meaning to my reading, mostly putting into a few words what I made of a book I’d just finished. In this month’s Goodreads newsletter is an article on “Pro” tips to increase your reading rate. Many of these “Pros” read well in excess of 100 books a year. Let’s say two books each week, or one every three days.

Let me do the sums,

three days = 72 hours

healthy sleeping time = 24 hours (8 per day)

eating time = 3 hours

chores = 3 hours

work = 24 hours (8 per day)

time left = 18 hours

time to read one book = 6 hours

So, it seems as if I should be spending at least one third of all my spare time reading books. What about art, music, movies, exercise, just getting out and about, socialising (in all its forms), all other beneficial interests – and even time for a bit of mindless telly?!

I guess if you’re a Pro, that’s your job and you’re making money off of it, but an amateur is literary a person in love with it. I think I’m okay the way I am.


Hot Reading Challenge Tips from Pros Who Read More Than 100 Books a Year (Goodreads)

Compound Interest

You know that trick about Compound Interest? You start early, put a modest amount away regularly and then some years later, you see what you have and find it’s quite an impressive amount, and accumulated relatively painlessly.

Then you kick yourself, wishing you’d put a little more away and started even earlier, instead of blowing it on silly things like magazines and take-out coffees and designer label jeans. My own stupid awakening has shown me I could have paid off my mortgage a decade ago and be retired by now. Hindsight, eh? Never mind.

I think I’m becoming aware of other things which act not unlike compound interest but in an intellectual sense rather than a financial one. Reading has to be the most profound and obvious of these. Since I was about sixteen, I’ve nearly always had a book on hand, reading. I wouldn’t say I’m an avid reader and I’m definitely not a fast reader, rather a continuous and steady one. I think my tastes have been broad; I tend to mix it up, avoid getting into genres or sticking with a particular writer’s oeuvre to exhaustion; it’s been a varied habit. And it has taken on the character of a habitual endeavour. Often I can’t remember the books I’ve read, can’t recall the story precisely or its conclusion. But I do remember most of the best details; they seem to embed themselves automatically in my subconscious. I’m sure it’s the same for most people who read.

Lately, I’m becoming aware of the benefits of a longterm reading habit. Knowledge, wisdom, facts and ideas seem to crystallise and form an interconnecting whole. It’s a bit like reaching for an ingredient whilst cooking and finding it close at hand. It feels quite wonderful.

In its own way too, cooking is an art and a life skill acquired with a modicum of effort, regularly over time. I’ve always liked to cook; funnily enough, I enjoyed cooking probably before I enjoyed eating; I used to be a fussy eater as a kid. Without much effort, I now have enough confidence to prepare a good range of meals without recourse to recipes, have an understanding of food pairings, flavours, nutrition and diet, all simply from getting stuck in in a small way, from an early beginning.

And there are other skills, picked up in a similarly effortless way, which pay dividends in time. Simple life skills. I trust you’ve each got one or two of your own. I can’t help thinking, if we’d only dismissed the stupid, trivial, nonsensical things we habitually do over a lifetime, we’d be better people in the longer term. Is that wishful thinking?