reading

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in by “party politics” – mostly self-serving and unrepresentative of ordinary citizen’s needs or views, and a largely out-of-date and devalued education.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 Battered Hat #writephoto

a flash-fiction story.

The tradition dates back to yore, when a common man had no eye for words as written on a page, nor either a hand to make them. A symbol, an object he would recognise, was more helpful to him and so, in towns and cities, and any village large enough to accommodate them in number, the inns put up a sign by which they might be differentiated from another.

And so it was that Egfred Wattles, a person of nefarious means, instructed his companion, Gwent, to meet him in a certain named public house, three evenings following the second Sabbath of a month.

“I shall be at The Heart in Hand, Gwent”, he might say. To which Gwent might respond,

“The Heart in Hand. Oh. Right, right you are, Sir.”

Or,

“Gwent, we will try The Leaping Cow next.” To which Gwent would say,

“The Leaping Cow. Oh. Right, right you are, Sir.”

Or,

“It’s The Cat and The Custard Pot this time. Remember that if you will.”

“The Cat and The Custard Pot. Oh. Right, right you are, Sir.”

And so it was on a chill Wednesday night that Gwent found himself in an unfamiliar village, at The Battered Hat Tavern, cradling the sorry remains of half a pint of best ale and doing his utmost to avoid the suspicious glances of its overlarge landlord.

Every time the inn door opened and closed, Gwent would start and lurch across the table in hope of seeing his comrade. All too often it was just a local man, a stranger, and more times than he thought he could bear any more, just the wind rattling its timbers in the frame. In time he grew more afraid to cast his eyes down again, to take in the dwindling remnants of his drink, the tan brew slowly coming to resemble nothing more than a stain across its bottom.

“Can I restore that jug, matey?”

Gwent looked up and swallowed in surprise at the towering figure beside him. He had no coin for another, nor any sweet words of persuasion as was his associate’s trade, so he remained silent. It was the landlord who spoke again,

“I see you looking intently upon our door. Would you be waiting on someone?”

“Aye. If this be The Battered Hat for sure, then I am expecting to find my fellow traveller soon”, said Gwent.

“And who be this fellow traveller?”, asked the landlord with curiosity.

“A goodly gentleman, finely suited, and by the name of Mr. Egfred Wattles, esquire.” said Gwent with a sounding of pride.

The landlord crouched low so as to rest his knuckles firmly on the table, his great head coming close to one side of Gwent’s face.

“We hang that swindler on the morning of six days past”, he said in a low tone.

Gwent’s blood ran to ice and he felt the need to put down his empty pot for fear his trembling hands would betray his condition.

“Last week. Oh. Right you are”, he said at length. “Pray, how many weeks has this month seen?”

The landlord, rather confused, rose up at this apparent diversion, but he answered all the same,

“Well, almost four now, I reckon”, he said.

Gwent eased himself up from his seat. Smiling wanly, he offered the empty pot to the landlord who took it, but did not reciprocate the smile. Gwent left through the door he had entered three hours before and which he had watched keenly in all that time. Out in the cold night, the wind rocked the battered hat on its gibbet, to and fro, and the full moon, peeking out from the cloud, glinted off its many imperfections. The right place, the wrong time, he thought, and, turning up the collar of his coat, he set his feet for home.

(636 words)


inspired and written for Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo #writephoto prompt – “Sign”

The Incomplete Angler

Thinking a little more about it, I wonder how similar writing is to angling for a fish.

You should know the fish, your quarry, its repose, what attracts it and what it likes to eat. You bait it appropriately and when it bites, rather than haul it in, care free and rather clumsily, you play it, carefully and craftily, until it is in the net and yours.

I prefer the British way of angling where the fish is set free again, to be tempted and teased by other fisher folk at another time.


I read a story once and now I can’t remember who it was attributed to or who its subject was other than the subject was an eminent thinker. This man would often be seen at a certain lake or riverside, sitting beside a rod and tackle box. Actually, I’m not sure about the tackle box, the absence of one may have drawn the narrator to enquire about his method.

When asked if he’d caught anything, he would reply “nothing”. Then when asked whether he ought to consider changing his bait, he said he never baited his hook to avoid any possible distraction of having to deal with a bite. He simply enjoyed sitting by water, hidden in plain sight amongst fellow anglers so not arousing suspicion, and he found this peace conducive to his true purpose: thinking.

This is probably closer to my relationship with writing and blogging; not so much fishing for readers but fishing for thoughts, amongst the company of fellow bloggers.

Thesaurus

Self-identifying serious writer, Martin Amis, uses a dictionary all the time. I’m delighted by his confession because so do I. Really it’s to improve my sparse vocabulary but, like him, I often find the meaning of the word isn’t what I had in mind.

It’s interesting what he to say about talent, finding rhythm, and avoiding accidental alliteration amongst other things. He talks about crafting a sentence. I’m not sure how much I put into crafting a sentence. While I think that poetry ought to be recited, I hadn’t thought that way about prose; I probably thought this was a fundamental distinction between the two forms. However, yesterday evening I was remembering all the times when a passage in a novel enthralled me. I decided it wasn’t the narrative but the pattern of the chosen words. They were crafted, I imagine, for such an effect.

I suppose I haven’t any high aspirations for my blog posts but I still maintain if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. I shall try to pay more attention to the rhythm in a sentence, resort habitually to the dictionary and thesaurus. All this will be time consuming, of course. I will make my mantra: shorter and better.


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.

Better Places to Read & Write

I want to record this fact, that I’m writing this after reading through the latest posts from my followed blogs, sitting in The Cricklade Club. They are promoting Veganuary but I chose from the menu a chilli bean doodah which came with a soft poached egg.

I am also sinking deep into a wonderfully distressed, tan leather armchair, part of a suite corralled about a low, broad table. I sip an IPA called Pioneer which isn’t over bitter and has distinct floral-fruity notes. The place is buzzing but oddly not distracting, and it is this which makes me think I should read, and perhaps write, more in places like this.

After we move house, I must try to look for a pub with wi-fi and a comfortable corner, and bring along my iPad (the phone I’m using here is a bit too small for typing). Perhaps, amongst noise and strangers, I will be plagued by far fewer interruptions and distractions.


image: on the wall by the comfy corner, a stranger in contemplation.

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.

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.

To borrow or steal

I met a working artist who trained in England at a time when the prevailing painterly style was Abstract. As a consequence, that’s mostly all his generation of artists were comfortable painting.

When opening his gallery, he found customers preferred landscapes. Apparently there is a yawning chasm between what the art schools teach and what the public wants. To survive, he turned to copying the work of other artists, ones who painted landscapes, until his skill and confidence grew, and now he is a successful landscape painter.

This in part reflects a sentiment attributed to Pablo Picasso,

Good artists borrow, great artists steal.


As I’m reading over my little stories here prior to clicking the publish button, I’m partly aware that I’ve copied a style of a professional author I’ve read, and probably admired, recently. It’s probably automatic and possibly subconscious. It certainly must be easier than inventing your own unique “voice”, if this is at all possible to do.

When I read other people’s, I wonder if it too is an unconscious borrowing of whatever it is they like to read.

Romance, thriller, historical, classic, kitchen sink working class realism. Is there a regular prompt out there which involves writing in a particular style?