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.


Amuse gueule

Work seems to have diverted my attentions. Here’s a few bits to keep the blog pulse ticking. I was going to title this post, Amuse Bouche, but I found the French prefer Amuse Gueule, so I went for that. Never say you don’t learn something new everyday.

Work, eh? When I first entered the workforce, I saw work as an old man’s thing*. As a consequence of this, me and most of the staff of a similarly young age used to play about something rotten, having a laugh, pranking, and generally not taking things seriously.

Now that I’m fast approaching the time to chuck it all in, I seriously see work as being a young person’s game. They all seem to possess the ambition and the level of enthusiasm I don’t.

The odd thing is, this suggests somewhere in my working life there must have been a time when work must have been right for me and me for work, but for the life of me I can’t see when that was.

(* apologies for the apparent sexism but it was literally all men when I began and remained so for about twenty years.)

After writing about Ikigai previously, I see there’s another Japanese idea to consider: Tsundoku. It specifically relates to buying book’s you’ll probably never get around to reading, but it could apply to other things you may buy and neglect to use, like records, shoes, or anything.

Apparently, even in Japan it isn’t that old and is a pun on the words Tsunde Oku meaning “to pile up”.

Guilty, I confess. Off the top of my head I know of a box set of Otis Redding albums and one of Emmylou Harris which I must’ve picked up a decade ago. I think it’s still wrapped in its security cling film.

Books? Well, I blame the “3 for 2” culture. I could never find that third book worth reading amongst the offers but, it was “free” wasn’t it? Now I buy mostly ebooks for convenience, it’s things like Bookbub which break down my weak resistance. I’ve amassed a fair library of 99p books waiting to be opened. Tsundoku!

An interesting piece I read just now about Aristotle’s take on friendships. He saw there were three types of friendships, and the article translates these as friendships of Utility, Pleasure and Good.

Utility friendships are the kind you might make at work. These are accidental and don’t generally last beyond work. Sure, when a guy leaves, we exchange emails and say we’ll keep in touch, we’ll even write that sentiment on the leaving card, but, two, five or ten years down the line, and we’re strangers again.

Pleasure friendships are the kind we make at school, again by chance. We have a laugh with these guys who are fun. But like the Utility ones, eventually it comes to an end and we lose touch.

Aristotle favoured the last kind, the Good, founded on shared virtues. He saw these as lasting friendships.

I was thinking of friendships the other day; all the people I kicked around with who I no longer know. Too many, to be sure. Friendship is a bit like tending a garden, or having a second language: it needs continuous attention or else in time all is lost.

Tsundoku – a Pile of Books

Aristotle on Friendships

The Venn of Ikigai (posted previously)

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)

Islands & Larks

Desert Island Discs (BBC Radio 4) is a nice concept but I don’t listen. The concept is this: a celebrity is invited to choose eight significant pieces of music, a favourite book and a luxury item. All these would be the only cultural things allowed them on a desert island. (I think there was also The Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare at one time, just to eliminate those from the lists of less imaginative guests, but I’m not sure if either is still included. Never mind.)

The reason I don’t listen is simply because I don’t like celebrity interviews; I prefer musicians to play, actors to perform and politicians to talk politics. But I do have a curiosity about what these people listen to and what it says about their knowledge and tastes in music. So the good thing about the Beeb and this show is they bung up their guests’ music choices on the website so you can find out their musical tastes without having to endure twenty minutes or more of them babbling about themselves.

I’m telling you this because the Beeb has sent me an email notification about their current programming and it included a link for Desert Island Discs – and I had almost forgotten about it.

Anyway, I clicked on the emailed link out of curiosity and soon found out that the listeners’ most popular piece of music is Ralph Vaughan-Williams’ The Lark Ascending. Brilliant!

I think in the unlikely event of being invited on DID myself, one of my choices would be The Lark Ascending. (I haven’t a Scooby what my other seven choices would be – far too difficult, far too many contenders.)

I read a biography on the late BBC disc jockey, John Peel, and he claims to have first heard Teenage Kicks, by The Undertones, whilst driving. So overcome with emotion was he that he stopped the car and wept. Well, I didn’t weep when I heard The Lark Ascending in my car one time, but I did have an urge to pull over.

Hmm, now what about those other seven pieces? It’s bad enough shortlisting seven artists’ or composers’ names without going further and selecting individual songs!

Thinking about island castaways reminded me of a book I read years ago – An Island To Oneself, by Tom Neale, a survivalist. I must have been still in school and the book came into my possession through my mum who found it at work. It was a real, life Robinson Crusoe tale although Neale chose to live alone on his island. It fascinated me at the time and now I feel like reading it again.

But it’s a book which is out of print and Amazon marketplace are offering copies for over thirty quid! I think I must have given mine to a charity shop. There isn’t even an ebook option. Hopefully, in time, in this century, all books, whether in or out of print, will have an ebook option, inexpensive and accessible.

In the meantime, I’ll have to keep my peepers open around the charity shops.

The People’s DID – The Lark Ascending (BBC)

Wheat Field With A Lark by Vincent van Gogh, 1887

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?

In Pursuit of Good Reading

A few Summers ago, whilst out dog walking, I came across a young woman sitting in the middle edge of a farmer’s field, studying books. She was possibly a student preparing for an exam. As she looked up, I felt sorry for disturbing her. The scene reminded me of myself, many Summers past, sitting on the baked turf of our small back garden, supposedly revising for my O-Levels but discovering instead why I should start reading novels.

My grades were mediocre but a love of literature flourished. I suppose you might call it a Life Changing moment of a sort; I don’t have many of those. All this comes to mind now as I feel the pleasure of reading has not been in a sweet spot for a long while.

Reading – and also listening to music for that matter – require a set-aside time and space, a “me time”, if you like, in order to immerse and engage fully and enjoyably. It seems Life abhors tranquility and peace as much as nature abhors a vacuum, and the trouble with both reading and listening to music is that, to the outside world, you have all the appearance of someone looking lost for something to do. Intruders invade; “L’enfer, c’est les autres“, as Sartre put it.

Maybe I should take a leaf from the young woman’s book and go and find a quiet field to sit in and read. Not everyday but now and again; weather permitting. Maybe a coffee shop in its early hours of opening, perhaps? This is why I hanker after a “shed”. In such a shed, I could secrete myself away for an hour to read and listen to music! Either way for now, I must change my life long habit and pick up my book in the quieter mornings, and leave the nighttime for sleep.


Does anyone subscribe to Bookbub?

It used to advertise itself as the best kept secret of book lovers. (That would be ebook lovers.) I don’t know how I came across it, maybe from that advert though adverts and me don’t seem to connect much. I have to say that after a few good titles early on, there’s been a chronic dearth of tempting offers.

But today I’m taking a chance on this novel. I don’t know anything about it or its author only I’m a sucker for a long walk. I’ve read quite a few books involving long walks, I don’t know how I haven’t yet created a shelf for them over on Goodreads.

Yes, I’m on Goodreads, the one other platform of social media I do now I’ve abandoned the vile, ego driven, now practically useless Twitter. (Why would they even allow politicians accounts?)

I did a reading challenge in 2016 when I read only women authors for a year. This was to address my natural reading bias towards men. I didn’t do one last year. This time, however, I thought I’d try to read more authors who are still breathing. To address my bias towards older “classic” books. I may even attempt to stick to those published after the millennium.

Also, I like to throw some non-fiction into the mix. I think it’s important not to read too many older books with non-fiction as, ironically, facts – what we think we know for sure – are in the habit of changing over time. It’s that toxic blend of knowledge and opinion.

I spotted this book this morning. A “international best seller” for 99p. Why We Sleep by Professor Matthew Walker, Director of Berkeley’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab, University of California. It should be interesting and vital, but I already know why I sleep: I’m too tired to do anything else.

Good reading! And no sleepwalking!

Girl playing a samisen 

I think I left school with less than I ought to have. It was a good school and there are plenty of esteemed alumni. Sadly, it didn’t suit me. Schools are like that, one size fits all, they try, and fail, a few. As long as it’s just a few, it doesn’t matter, no one minds. Water under the bridge.

So, at the end of my time there, I walked out the front door (something which was forbidden for reasons I don’t know. It was a school rule: boys should emter and leave by the “new entrance” – that is the side doors – and never by the “main door” – he doors at the front of the building, closest to the street). So, I passed out the front door, sod them, without ceremony, send off, handshake, or the slightest pastoral concern. After seven years!

I didn’t leave exactly empty-handed, though what I ended up with was unintentional. I simply forgot to return my library books. The irony here is that I wouldn’t have borrowed them in the first place had there not been a campaign one term to get boys to use the library. So, one class at a time, we were ushered in and given about fifteen minutes to choose three books. It didn’t matter which three, it was a quantitative exercise, pure and simple.

Somehow, by divine intuition maybe, the three I ended up with weren’t bad, though I wouldn’t have known this at the time. A collection of three novels by John Windham (The Day of the Triffids, The Chrysalids, The Kraken Awakes); The Autobiography of a Supertramp by W.H.Davies; and The Arts of Man by Eric Newton. In our house, books come and books go, but I’ve hung on to these all this time. I have read Supertramp three times, it is possibly one of my favourite books.

The school, my old school, is no more. The buildings still stand though with unrecognisable alterations. Its grammar status was abolished during my final year, it’s had two changes of name and I think it is now co-educational (something I wish we had). How much of that place is in me now? I honestly can’t say. Mostly I like to think I am who I am despite of it, yet sometimes I get a hint of something that could only have come from my time there.

These thoughts were prompted by a random thought I had whilst browsing Pinterest. I use it primarily to gather ideas, like subjects for printmaking. Here is a Hokusai woodblock print, Girl Playing A Samisen, from The Arts of Man book. I loved it the first time, and I still do.

Girl playing a samisen c.1820-25 by Hokusai (1760-1849)