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Review of the Year 2014

Fiction: Part 2

Welcome back to our Review of the Year 2014 – enjoy our remaining “best reads” and if there’s anything you’d like to contribute please send us an email: editors@dontreadtoofast.com

Alice Farrant
Alice Farrant writes the blog ofBooks.org. Follow her on Twitter: @nomoreparades.

The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

I love all of Tartt’s novels (including The Little Friend), but The Secret History is one of the best books I have ever read. Reading it felt like fireworks exploding in my mind and I’ve never felt as creative or motivated as I did after finishing it. Who knew five intellectuals, two deaths and a murder could bring me so much joy.

Mrs Hemingway, by Naomi Wood

Fictionalising historical events or people is a complicated task that has the potential to go horrendously wrong. However, Wood manages to breath live in Hemingway’s four wives in a way I never have thought possible. She destroyed my preconceptions of his wives, ones that were predominantly negative of the three who followed Hadley, but after reading Mrs Hemingway I had grown to love all four women who loved and suffered with him.

Editor 1

Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger

That place had phonies coming out of the window” was one of my favourite sentences of 2014. A book I am looking forward to reading, and re-living, over and over again. I am not sure why I hadn’t read it before. (Read the DRTF review).

Your Fathers, where are they? And the Prophets, do they live forever? by Dave Eggers

A chilling take on the rational justifications we make for the actions we use to mask our fear and the sense that we don’t belong. One of the more impressive works in the psycho-lit genre that has been born out of America’s lost youth taking up arms to define and discover their place in an alienating society of the twenty first century. (Read the DRTF review).

Editor 2

This year has had the requisite amount of furtively ploughing through science fiction and fantasy hardbacks such as The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss, Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman and the collection from everyone in that generously sized genre aptly named Rogues.

I have reaffirmed my respect for the short story thanks to Bark by Lorrie Moore, and shall endeavour to keep reading entirely different kinds of stories, such as S by JJ Abrams, and the wonderfully funny and entirely bonkers In the Approaches by Nicola Barker. The latter book is essential reading for anyone who has ever lived on the South Coast and/or suspects that their family are mad.

2014 has also been a really strong year for comics: Through the Woods by Emily Carroll shows beautifully dark fairy tales with bite (read with Marina Warner’s latest if you are interested in the roots of these stories). Porcelain: A Gothic Fairy Tale by Benjamin Read is drawn by the wonderful Christian Wildgoose, and perfect for reading over Christmas. Finally, decades later, Neil Gamain has returned to fill in a few gaps he left when The Sandman came to an end, with Overtures. Everything I could have hoped for.

Editor 3

Stoner, by John Williams

An almost inconceivably succinct, heartbreaking account of the highs and lows of human existence. Despite the ostensible adversity with which Williams besets his protagonist, I found this an extremely uplifting novel, as though the author had somehow managed to crystallise the essence of what it is that makes life living. (Read the DRTF review).

Levels of Life, by Julian Barnes

This book was written as a glorious tribute to the love the author shared with his late wife, Pat Kavanagh. It is a book that deals with the immense suffering of loss, yet recognises that a loss of this magnitude must be preceded by the greatest possible victory. The novel revolves around the central metaphor of ballooning, which deals precisely with, to quote Nick Cave, “those moments when the gears of the heart really change.”

Review of the Year 2014

Fiction: Part 1

Welcome to Don’t Read Too Fast’s review of the year 2014.

For those who have yet to experience our yearly extravaganza, our approach is not to give a list of the best books published this year, but rather to share some of the best of what we’ve actually managed to read, whether 21st century offerings or tomes from the Dark Ages. With that said, please sit back and enjoy the first instalment.

Hannah Joll

The Dig, by Cynan Jones

This is very short and very good by a fairly new writer, I think. The length and intensity of language (like Ted Hughes or Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist collection his ear is poetic and rough at the same time e.g. describing a badger’s nose hanging from ‘a sock of skin’). It’s about badger baiting but also farming, briefly. The physical descriptions, (knowingly) brilliant attention to detail, and its address to grief make the book tender as well as frightening.

The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi

I’d looked at this book on other people’s shelves and skipped over it for years (also vaguely mixed it up with Italo Calvino). The whole thing is great but a story like ‘Iron’ I’d recommend to anyone, anytime and feel confident. It’s about friendship and bear meat as a euphemism for experience. ‘Nitrogen’, a story about the author sifting through chicken shit with his new wife on their honeymoon to try and synthesise the factor that makes the better post-War lipsticks stay on is also tip top. He’s so thoughtful and excited, it’s good to read.

Alexander Starritt

Naples ’44, by Norman Lewis

I’m pleased to say I’ve read lots of good books this year, but the best I think is Norman Lewis’s Naples ’44. Lewis was a population liaison officer in the War and for this book has basically written up his diary, taking out the boring bits. It is still in the form of entries a page or two long, and each of them is fantastical. Naples seems only half-real, only half-European, starving, oriental, in thrall to sex and superstition. Lewis reports that the Neapolitans raided the aquarium for food, sparing only a baby manatee they could not bring themselves to kill; it lived a few short weeks more before the American commander in chief demanded it for his table. A prince comes to Lewis to find a position for his sister at a military brothel. The populace anxiously awaits the annual liquefaction of a vial of San Gennaro’s blood. The volcano erupts. The mafia seize control. The warped and the monstrous gather in caves. Each diary entry is the most astonishing short story you’ve ever read.

Olivia Hanson

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

I’ve never read such a long book that is so compelling. A well-written page-turner! I have now totally forgiven Donna for The Little Friend on this basis. (Eds: we agree)

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

This, plus The Corrections, are two of my favourite novels ever. Beautiful turns of phrase and highly believable characters. Perfect reflections of the human condition.

The Last Tycoon, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Beautifully written, one of Fitzgerald’s best. If only it were complete!

Tender Shoots, by Paul Morand

A jewel-like collection of short stories, set in Paris at the turn of the century. Such a find.

The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst

Wonderfully written, sympathetic narrator, startling insight into 80’s life for gay people.

World War Z, by Max Brooks

What a revelation.

Imogen Lloyd

Innocence, by Penelope Fitzgerald

Chosen for the scene with the tailor and all the other bits I wanted to underline and remember forever but was too greedy to.

A Girl is Half Formed Thing, by Eimar McBride

Because once I found a rhythm, it became the most ferocious and intimate thing.

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

I got there in the end. Because every scene felt intricately painted (like those tiny Dutch rooms ), not just the characters but their surroundings, as if she’d been spying on them inhabit that world before she started writing, and that richness and made all the tricksy twists and turns easier to navigate.

There but for the, by Ali Smith

It was a bit like if all the best, weirdest characters from legendary sitcoms have been told to hang out, and the master of ceremonies is an unassuming genius who has never watched TV and has no clue who they are. I loved it so much but can’t really explain why!

This list seems a bit sexist now, I did read men too but they didn’t cut the mustard this time.

The Men and Women of Middlemarch: Part 1

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I at least have so much to do in unravelling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven, that all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web, and not dispersed over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe.”

George Eliot’s Middlemarch, first published serially in 1871-1872, is a work of almost unrivalled complexity set in the Great British Countryside.  AS Byatt has suggested that the title is both a nod to the geography of the novel, and a reference to the first lines of Dante’s Inferno: “In mezzo cammin di nostra vita / mi ritrovai per una selva scura” [“In the middle of the road of our life / I found myself in a dark wood”].  Certainly, the main characters are all beset at various stages in the novel by the obstacles life hurls at them.

Middlemarch was famously the conflation of two separate narratives the author was working on simultaneously: the first, a study of provincial society revolving around the character of Dr Lydgate; the second, a short story entitled “Miss Brooke”, with Dorothea Brooke occupying centre stage.  The resulting dual-protagonist structure of Middlemarch has been a source of confusion for readers and critics ever since, doubtlessly exacerbated by the fact that Eliot did not contrive to have her two main characters end up romantically entwined.  However, to describe Middlemarch in terms of two parallel stories would also be simplistic, there being a huge number of other characters whose separate entanglements are also central to the overall makeup of the novel.  In fact, it has often been noted that the underlying metaphor of the book is that of “the web”, holding the various strands together in an intricately woven arrangement.

Besides Dorothea Brooke and Dr Lydgate, much can be made of Bulstrode the morally dubious banker, Mary Garth the sensible daughter of the local land agent, Ladislaw the principled outsider, and even Mr Brooke the delusional would-be man of politics.  Arthur George Sedgwick, writing in 1973, observed the debate that had already begun to rage regarding the identity of the novel’s true protagonist, noting that some even viewed the town itself as the lead player.  Unfortunately, Mr Sedgwick ultimately appears to have become caught up in Eliot’s carefully constructed web of interconnected plot-lines and overlapping characters:

It would be a mere waste of time to go into a minute criticism of Middlemarch.  The plots are too numerous, the characters too multitudinous, and the whole too complicated.”

He thus concludes as follows:

In the attempt to play the critic of such works as these, one cannot help feeling that to properly analyze and explain George Eliot, another George Eliot is needed, and that all suggestion can do is to indicate the impossibility of grasping, in even the most comprehensive terms, the variety of her powers.”

It is not our intention in this series to get bogged down in a similar state of despair, so we will not be attempting anything approaching a comprehensive analysis of the novel.  Instead, we plan to look at a few of the characters individually, to see what still resonates about them and the way Eliot presents them to us.  The idea is that by putting some of the key character under the microscope separately we might learn something about the way Eliot conceived her characters, both as someone fascinated with the concept of freedom and choice, and more generally with the intertwining paths of human life.

The Editors

Spoken Word: Other Lives – Hilary Mantel in conversation with Harriet Walters for the RSL

Wolf Hall - MantelWolf Hall has just come off the London stage, and it is about to appear on ITV as a ten-part series starring Mark Rylance, adapted for the screen by Mantel, just as she oversaw the stage production. With Bring Up The Bodies finally edging off the bestseller lists, Mantel’s collection of short stories The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher is on every top ten list predicting Christmas books. In short, Mantel is everywhere, luckily for us.

Before delving into her latest offering, her appearance in the Union Chapel with Harriet Walters for the RSL is definitely worth mentioning. It was a few months ago now, but the overarching conversation has lingered, centring as it did on the idea of wearing another’s skin on your back. Walters, an established character actress, described having to go “a long way” to meet Lady Macbeth, reassuringly. Mantel, in turn, described the process of acquainting herself with Thomas Cromwell as mediation, or more simply as the process of getting inside a character’s head. The way she explained this was to recall the first moment the reader encounters Cromwell, as a fifteen year-old, bleeding in Putney after a beating from his father. She could hear a voice floating above his head, feel the cobbles beneath his cheek, and taste blood.

She gleefully relayed Christopher Hitchens’s review of Wolf Hall (“you would never know it was written by a woman”) as a testament – as well she should – of how naturally she occupied Cromwell. She clearly delights in living unlived lives by writing as a man, much as she did for Robespierre in A Place of Greater Safety. She wears their skins well and has done it often, so she knows what it requires, and is conscious that if you encounter the actor playing Cromwell five minutes after the curtain, you cannot be entirely sure if they have yet made the “perfect conversion”. Something of the public Croydon’s thuggish self may remain, before the private core of the actor manages to reassert itself.

The power of the play (it will be impressive indeed if this translates to the small screen) is that watching it makes Cromwell inhabit the present, walk in your line of sight and live, of course, if only for a while. The two women agreed that when it really works, the production “pins you to the heartbeat and to the breath”. This would be harder for a more thoroughly cerebral Machiavellian character, perhaps, as Cromwell lashes out – lightning quick – to strike Wolsey; he paces, looms and threatens. Exposition and rubbing one’s hands together in a sinister fashion alone will not get it done.

Given that Mantel is a pleasure to watch as well as to read – she beams and laughs, and seems to enjoy herself – sinister is the word that describes some of her rawer home truths (“ultimately, we are all just alone in the dark”) as well as the creeping feeling of dread from reading her recent collection of short stories. She described on stage the presence of an unarticulated secret – like Bluebeard’s locked room – in a novel, and how this can change with contextual climate. For Wolf Hall, she cited the preconception of people who tend to watch Henry VIII as a wife killer, because this is how the Tudors are taught in schools. We learn his list of wives with the song in order to remember how they snuffed it, rarely dawdling on his accomplishments in poetry, music or foreign policy, let alone his relationship with the Privy Council.

In the same way, every story from The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher carries a patina of dread. While it is not as overt as the corpse stashed beneath the coffee table in Rope, it is much more than something stuck in one’s tooth or a fingernail split to the quick. Some of the stories are more overtly macabre, and ‘Harley Street’ is just plain upsetting as one cannot help but speculate it is based on Mantel’s own delicate health. They are all funny. On finishing the title story, however, it is difficult to shake that feeling of something starting to turn on a muggy day, or indeed get rid of the sand concealed under one’s own skin, like the rhino in Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories.

The Editors

An Evening with Julian Barnes

Vintage_Arthur_&_George_250JUSTICE “Law and Literature” event – 28 October 2014, Inner Temple Hall, London

Last Wednesday the London-based human rights organisation, JUSTICE, held the first event in its “Law and Literature” series: ‘An Evening with Julian Barnes’.  It began with a presentation by Lord Justice Laws, followed by Julian Barnes reading from his novel, Arthur & George, and then a conversation between the author and Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws QC.  Unsurprisingly perhaps, but unbeknownst to me at the time, the novel was chosen because it revolves around an early twentieth century miscarriage of justice known as the Edalji case.  The case concerned the prosecution and conviction of an Anglo-Indian solicitor, George Edalji, for numerous incidents of ‘horse-ripping’ (the apparently random mutilation of horses), known as the Great Wyrley Outrages, that occurred in Staffordshire in 1903.  The proceedings were drawn to national attention when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, already a major celebrity writer, took it upon himself to campaign on Edalji’s behalf, having become convinced that no man as short-sighted as Mr Edalji could possibly have committed the crimes himself.  The campaign was ultimately successful in turning public opinion in favour of the convicted man, and a commission of inquiry into the case was ordered by the government, which granted Edalji a pardon in 1907.  The case was also an important driver for reform of the criminal justice system in England, including the creation of the Court of Criminal Appeal.  Interestingly, the Edalji case was almost exactly contemporaneous with the Dreyfus affair, a sort of more celebrated older brother, which sharply divided public opinion in France at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Barnes explained that he had first stumbled across the Edalji case completely by chance, and had investigated it with a writer’s “predatory” instinct, that is, in the hope of being able to turn the source material into some sort of fictionalised account of the episode.  He quickly became aware, upon researching the case, that his biggest challenge would be successfully balancing the lives of his two protagonists, Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji, so that the latter would not be totally eclipsed in the novel by the adventures, success and renown of the former.  This balancing involved drawing out the character of George so that it could become more interesting and nuanced than first impressions might indicate.  To this extent, Barnes actually read Edalji’s one book as a solicitor, Railway Law for the “Man in the train”, published in 1901, which he found surprisingly funny.

The use of real figures from the past as the basis for fictional characters was also discussed later on in the evening, with Mr Barnes declaring that he treated real people with as much seriousness in his work as he treated fictional individuals.  He did, however, concede that it was sometimes necessary to embellish a character in fiction, often for want of sufficient information on the original person – he remembered once being challenged at a book festival by a descendant of one of the characters in Arthur & George, who complained that the physical appearance of his relative as described in the novel did not match reality, before noting bitterly that “I suppose he’s your character now.”  To which Mr Barnes was tempted to reply: “yes, he is.”

This exchange, and in fact the evening as a whole, led me to reconsider two slightly hackneyed but nevertheless important and related issues in literature.  Firstly, the issue of artistic licence when it comes to exhuming and attempting to resuscitate incidents from history.  There is a well-founded concern, on the one hand, that figures from the past should not be posthumously slandered in any way.  On the other hand, there is a belief that significant episodes from our collective history should not be confined to non-fiction accounts and sterile textbooks.  In certain situations the two positions cannot be reconciled; opinions about what happened in the past frequently differ, and we therefore inevitably find ourselves entering a slippery debate about objectivity and the nature of ‘truth’.  However, the fact that writers of fiction cannot avoid causing some offence when adopting positions vis-à-vis history should never preclude them from embarking on artistic reinterpretations of the past.  I would argue that an author has some responsibility to be sensitive to what he believes to be true (perhaps an obligation to take characters “seriously” at all times), particularly when dealing with lesser known figures, but that is all.

This leads directly into the second issue referred to above, which is the responsibility of writers generally.  It is often claimed that literature and politics or social responsibility do not sit well together: the necessary ambiguity of the former clashing horribly with the black-and-white dogma of the latter.  This is true insofar as literature as art should endeavour to convey an experience of reality that is self-aware and not bound to rigid ideological structures, which is perhaps why Milan Kundera once remarked that “what Orwell tells us could have been said as well (or even much better) in an essay or pamphlet.”  Even accepting this, it is still nevertheless the case that writers wield significant influence outside their fictional output: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used his celebrity clout at the dawn of the twentieth century to secure the pardon of an innocent man, whilst only last week Julian Barnes put his name to JUSTICE’s most recent fundraising campaign.

But returning to the fiction itself, there is also a responsibility inherent in the act of writing, albeit one that is not immediately obvious.  I think Mr Barnes put it best in the preface to his book of essays Through the Window:

Novels tell us the most truth about life: what it is, how we live it, what it might be for, how we enjoy and value it, how it goes wrong, and how we lose it […] Fiction makes characters who have never existed as real as your friends, and makes dead writers as alive as a television newsreader.”

As applied to the fiction of Julian Barnes, I can safely say that without Arthur & George it is extremely unlikely that I would ever have heard of the Edalji case, let alone have become interested in it.  More importantly, I would never have put myself in George Edalji’s shoes as he faced the injustice of a world intent on punishing him for being different.

The Editors

25. Why Read?

“Why Read?”

You can rely on reading.

Lots of the other things that you can do to pass your time and have fun are out of your control. My favourite television programme has ended and there probably won’t be another series because not enough people liked it (which means they must have been stupid), but with a book, it’s just you and the book. It doesn’t depend on anyone else’s point of view – once it’s there, no-one can change that.

In the same way, when I read, no-one is making their mind up about the appearance, setting or accent that characters have: everything comes out of my own brain. If you go to the theatre, or to the cinema, then lots of that has already been done for you. Even if you don’t think that that lady looks like Medea, that’s bad luck because she’s already in it and that’s who you’re going to see. I didn’t think Percy Jackson would have an American accent, but he did in the film and now that’s the voice I hear in my head when I read the books.

Reading allows me to make my own mind up about everything, and make my own decisions: there’s just me and the writer’s words – and that’s how I think it should be. That’s why I read.

William Kelly, age 11

“Why Read?”

I read me because it enables me to go back in time and experience what other people with different standards of living experienced.

I find it really interesting to read about things that I don’t understand, because then I’ll know about it, and that knowledge will never leave me – I even know about the Stone Age now, and that’s not the sort of thing that comes up in conversation, but it’s good to know, because now I’ll never wonder what happened in the Stone Age. I’ll know.

Some of the most amazing people in history wrote their autobiographies, so you don’t have to think what they MIGHT have thought: you can read their actual words. People like Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Julius Caesar (and some baddies as well) wrote about what had happened in their lives, so when I read about them, I know they’re telling the truth and that they haven’t got it wrong.

Alexander Kelly, age 10

“Why Read?”

Reading lets impossible things happen to you.

You can be in the story, with the characters, not just watching the story like you would do on television, but actually being there. Even if you don’t know people exactly like in the story, or know the places that they’re talking about; when you read, it’s like you do know those things.

In “Alice in Wonderland”, I think Alice is me, and that those things could actually happen to me in real life. Even if there are things that seem impossible (like girls turning into kangaroos in “The Wind on the Moon”), when I read it in a book, I don’t think it’s fake or unrealistic: I think that there’s a world where it can happen and does (under certain circumstances). When I read these stories, I think that these places are lovely places to be, and that the things that are happening are lovely things to happen. It brings a huge amount of pleasure into my life and allows me to relax in silence, and if I couldn’t read I’d miss all the worlds, the lives and the people in the books who have come to life as I have read about them.

Nina Kelly, age 10

 

24. Why Read?

The rational benefits of reading have been extolled at length and are varied: it’s an educational pastime, it’s social, there’s a simple pleasure to visiting a well-stocked bookshop or library. But the thing that really interests me is the unquantifiable; the magical: it is the finishing of a book.

It is taking a second to let it settle in the mind and the heart. It is being in – and yet slightly apart from – your surroundings. It is getting on with the business of living after the book has happened to you.

The moment varies in intensity and spirit depending on what’s been read. Sometimes we move quickly on, with the lightness of an untroubled mind, immediately forgetting much of what we’ve just read. Sometimes we linger as we reintroduce the back cover and the last page, feeling heartbroken, inspired, bewildered or philosophical, as the book colours the way we take those first few steps back into the real world. For my part, the imagery conjured up by George Orwell in his Homage to Catalonia remains with me from the first reading; the lucid recollections leaving a permanent impression on an adolescent mind dealing with the challenges, responsibilities and myriad journeys of impending adulthood. Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks writing as Ian Fleming: not so.

The finishing of a book is a brilliant thing to experience oneself, but an even better thing to witness.

It’s a joy to watch someone close a book and try to judge how they felt about it from their actions and expressions.

This is what I see as the reader’s “decisive moment”, their pause after the curtain falls and before the applause sounds, the second between the apple striking Newton and the forming of an idea in his head. It’s the stillness and clarity and optimism of that single moment at the very end of any tome that keeps me coming back to the bookshop or library in search of my next conquest and compels me to encourage the same venturing spirit in you.

We never acknowledge it, but we avid book devourers are all in a club. And it’s changed our lives. It’s the Finishing a Book Club.

I call on you to renew your membership today.

Simon Thompson

Reading as (True) Travel: Part 3

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The limits of the possible can only be defined by going beyond them into the impossible.” Arthur C. Clarke

Having looked at a few of the classics of ‘travel’ or adventure literature in Part 2, I thought it would be worth considering the outer limits of the genre in this post. After all, it seems logical that after the full extent of physical or spatial travel has been exhausted, humanity and therefore literature should turn towards other less obvious modes of travel. Where to go in fiction when the world is no longer a mystery in reality? This seems a preposterous question to ask in the 21st century, but would probably have been less so in the 19th century, when the possibilities of spatial travel must have excited the imagination in a way that is difficult to comprehend nowadays. In fact, a brief glance at Jules Verne’s bibliography betrays the progressive fetishisation of adventure: we have a simple enough start with Five Weeks in a Balloon and The Adventures of Captain Hatteras, before we move swiftly to the more ambitious Journey to the Centre of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Mr Verne is quite obviously pushing the boundaries both of physical travel and of our appetite for exploration literature generally, probably to breaking point and beyond.

Even in the 19th century, there must have been a threshold for the public’s endurance of adventure fiction. Once a hero or heroine has gone up and down and sideways as much as is humanly possible, where to next? The answer I think can be found in the clear progression from R.L. Stevenson’s romantic adventure novels of the 1880s (Treasure Island, Kidnapped) to H.G. Wells’ science fiction of the 1890s (The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds). The first of H.G. Wells’ novels listed above represents a particularly interesting spin on the conventional spatio-temporal dimensions of the adventure novel. Indeed, the protagonist of The Time Machine, the Time Traveller, explicitly remains in the same location (a laboratory in Richmond, Surrey) whilst simultaneously embarking on a journey of discovery to the England of the distant future. This is thought provoking for a number of reasons. Firstly, in departing from the confines of spatial exploration, Wells subtly floats the notion that adventure is not merely the preserve of pirates and treasure hunters. In other words, whilst the Time Traveller remains locked in a laboratory, the adventure he undertakes is nevertheless very real.

This seems to be getting at the idea that the scientists of the 19th century were just as ambitious in their quest for discovery as the explorers of the geographic world. Within the context of the adventure story, the idea that a man or woman could emerge from a confined space and claim to have encountered something previously unseen and unheard of must have been nothing short of revolutionary, bordering on the mystical. And yet, that is of course what scientists have always done. In a way, this makes their exploration all the more authentic and noble: scientific explorers cannot always count on the admiration of a timid public when they emerge from their adventures; more often they are greeted with a general lack of understanding and dismissive mockery. This introduces another fascinating element to the classic adventure tale: the idea of the returning traveller shunned for having the temerity to look behind the veil of accepted reality. The Time Traveller cannot be fully understood or believed, which is presumably one of the reasons he chooses to embark on another quest the day after his dinner party, this time never to return. Once again we encounter a hero in the Ulyssian mould, a man driven by a lust for knowledge and adventure, but also perhaps alienated from his peers in mainstream society. It is not hard to imagine, after all, that Ulysses, having returned home to Ithaca after ten years of travel, would have struggled to convince Penelope that he had been kidnapped by a Cyclops.

The frustration of not being fully understood is the universal curse of the keen reader. When a reader emerges from the solitary world of book-reading, there will almost inevitably be a gulf between that reader’s appreciation of reality and everyone else’s. However much a book is dissected, explained and shared with others, the reading of it is inevitably a deeply personal experience. This is, of course, both terrifying and exhilarating: no one can do the reading for you, just as no one can visit Southeast Asia for you, which is why summaries and SparkNotes unfailingly miss the point. And when the heavy-lifting is done, when War and Peace lies conquered on your bedside table, no one is there to congratulate you or admire your newly-found intellectual acumen (or newly-found sense of existential despair). Any sense of triumph is purely your own, like a lone Himalayan climber who, having successfully reached a summit during the day, is forced to dig a one-man shelter in the side of the mountain at night.

The Editors

Book of Mammon, Part III: Zero to One

Peter Thiel - Zero to OneZero to One, Notes on Startups or How to Build the Future, by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters

The word entrepreneur must be so tired as to nearly be dead by now. Does that apply to freelancers and sole traders? Does it apply to people who go to big corporates and do something ‘entrepreneurial’. Roles at Unilever or Tesco described in this way don’t quite ring true but without a meaningful definition against which to measure claims, the word is apt for hijacking by pretenders of every shape.

One entrepreneur who could not be described as a pretender, Peter Thiel, has recently published a new book in this hectic pop-lit genre: Zero to One.

Thankfully, Zero to One is not a rags to riches, this-is-why-I’m -a-billionaire disaster like many of the books in the same category. The title refers to what Thiel considers to be the nature of entrepreneurship: creating something that did not previously exist.

Whilst the book itself is not a work of literature, it is of broader cultural significance because it taps the shallow of veign of contemporary business thought which at once shapes the world we live in and glances disappointingly off the surface. Thiel and Masters book measures well against the benchmarks of quality for the genre, like Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Letters to Shareholders, or Dee Hock’s exceptional One From Many. It occasionally lapses into the generalisations that plague much of the genre but on the whole it is enjoyable for its structure, concision and insight if not into the business of high technology investment, then into one of the greatest technology investors of his generation.

Peter Thiel speaks with natural authority on the subject of successful technology companies and technology investing. He founded PayPal and led it as CEO until its public listing and acquisition by eBay in (2004?) and his venture capital firm, Founders Fund, was the first investor in Facebook. His latest company, Palantir, in which he is a co-founder and investor produces data analysis software that is being adopted by business and government across the world including the CIA and is rumoured to have been used in the CIA operation to track down Osama bin Laden. Whether it is true or not: such is the hype around Peter Thiel.

More interestingly, the book’s genesis is more nuanced than the usual business magnate’s PR excercise. The book’s co-author is a recent Stanford graduate called Blake Masters who came to Thiel’s attention after his detailed lecture notes on one of Thiel’s lecture courses at Stanford became an internet sensation. The book is in fact a collaborative write up and update of those notes, a sign perhaps of Thiel’s magpie-like eye for opportunity.

One key theme of the book is Thiel’s critique of competition. Better, he says, to operate a tiny monopoly than compete yourself to destruction in a giant market. ”Monopoly is the condition of every successful business.”

He gives light to the kind of low-tech decisions that his Founders Fund uses, in combination with some more sophisticated analysis to reach their conclusion: “cleantech executives were running around in suits and ties. This was a huge red flag because real technologists wear t-shirts and jeans. So we instituted a blanket rule: pass on any company whose founders dressed up for pitch meetings” and on explaining why he has not invested in Uber, ”I prefer not to invest in business models that venture capital guys are too familiar with.”

His understated manner is refreshing in a world dominated by hyperbole; on the subject of his Facebook investment he said simply to a recent interviewer: “it’s a good sign when a company is only looking for money to buy more computers to keep up with demand.”

He sets out his investment principle that any investment ventured by a fund should be capable of returning the entire value of the fund to shareholders because the majority of investments will fail. He sights a potential return of 10 times the investment as the only return that should be entertained by investors not because he expects big returns from all of the companies he invests in, but because each company must be potentially capable of making up for the failures of all the others.

This approach may leave the impression of a cavalier or even scattergun strategy, the kind of institutional gambling that is so vilified by the modern media but the impression of Thiel from the book is of a calculating pragmatist.

Thiel’s success as a founder turned investor outside of the literary world imbue the book with a significance that it would not otherwise deserve. Whilst Zero to One does not pertain to any standards of art, as the public face of an economically significant cultural phenomonen, it is interesting and even insightful and in the end, like any good shop-talk, it is easily confined to an afternoon.

The Editors

Reading as (True) Travel: Part 2

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Since writing the first post in this series a few weeks ago, I’ve discovered that the Germans have a word for the inconsolable yearning that seems to be at the root of much of what we do as humans: Sehnsucht. Apparently the notion is now commonly used by psychologists to describe our feelings of inadequacy regarding what we view as incomplete in our lives, as well as our perpetual search for happiness and alternative forms of living. C.S. Lewis became fixated with the idea, which he described as:

“… our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside …

Over a number of years this thought led C.S. Lewis towards his espousal of the Christian faith, which he saw as the only satisfactory counterpoint to the inherent restlessness of the human heart. Similarly, Ulysses’ condemnation in the Inferno is heavily linked to his pursuit of knowledge by purely terrestrial means (i.e. physical as opposed to spiritual travel). For Dante, as for C.S. Lewis, the only way to arrive was to embrace God.

However, turning away from religion, it is clear that a large part of what we derive from books and travel comes from the process itself. In other words, we often undertake both not as necessary steps towards a fixed goal or “arrival”, but as activities we enjoy in and of themselves. This is certainly where Robert Louis Stevenson was coming from when he declared that “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.” Indeed, despite his frail health, Stevenson was a man constantly on the move, and his travel writing (notably In the South Seas, 1896) is said to have deeply influenced Joseph Conrad, who also travelled extensively in the south Pacific and used it as the location for much of his own work (see Lord Jim and Victory).

Seaward ho! Hang the treasure! It’s the glory of the sea that has turned my head.”

The idea of travel for its own sake plays a prominent part in Stevenson’s Treasure Island, a novel which dwells on the invariably anticlimactic nature of achieving a specific goal or arriving at a specific place. The treasure itself becomes a corrupting influence, and is depicted as a stale symbol lying in stark opposition to the travel and adventure that precedes its acquisition. Gold requires a sophisticated system of exchange to recognise its value; in other words, it is inherently worthless. And yet, despite the absence of a meaningful objective, the central quest of Treasure Island is portrayed as a welcome antidote to the drab professionalism of nineteenth century Victorian England.

Reading is a similarly exhilarating but anticlimactic process. The realisation towards the end of a good book that there aren’t many pages left can be crushingly disappointing, as though we expected something more to appear miraculously after the final sentences. It is not, howver, a disappointment that stops us picking up more books, from which we must infer that, as with travel and treasure-hunting, reading is a never ending activity the real pleasure of which lies in the doing and not the arriving. As T.S. Eliot said,

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

The Editors

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