Skip to content

Book Club Spy Abroad: Edinburgh Book Festival


bayeuxtapestry-620x350

Edinburgh Book Festival 2015: Waking the Wuduwasa

The first literary event I attended at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival was a three-way talk given by actor Mark Rylance, writer Paul Kingsnorth, and ‘mythologist’ Martin Shaw, who gave a rolling rambling performance on England in the 11th century. Kingsnorth was promoting his book The Wake, which Rylance has apparently bought the film rights for. It is set in East Anglia in the 1060s and written in an approximation of Anglo Saxon.

Their shared session opened with Rylance ploughing straight into a reading from the novel, which is written in clearly understandable English prose (easier than Riddley Walker, reviewed here recently) but delivered with a mystifying Jamaican tilt by Rylance. A similar premise to Walker, the plot was described as “a post-apocalyptic novel set a thousand years in the past.

Kingsnorth provided some historical context, perhaps to refresh the memories of those people (like myself) who felt slightly rusty on this passage in our nation’s history, but also to animate the stage for the kind of myths he is looking to revive. He opened with England’s foundation myth of the 5th century: after the collapse of the Roman Empire, warring tribes and king Vortiger were under Pictish threat from the North. Vortiger hired German mercenaries – the Angles and the Saxons – who did not know the Romans had once been in residence (this seems hard to believe) and told stories that giants had built the aqueducts.

Once the Germans had overcome the Picts, a giant leap forward to the eleventh century saw England as a rising medieval power on the island of Albion with a centralized monarchy and language. When it came to discussing 1066, Kingsnorth was keen on not rushing straight ahead to the Plantagenets, as History has been taught on the curriculum for a long time, but stopped at this point and asked why it took several hundred years after 1066 before English became the first language of the King, and why the first law of the land, created in 1067, was that all land is first in the possession of the crown. In other words, all land was automatically owned by the King, which is technically still the position in law today. There was also something called a ‘murdrum’ fine, which provided the root of murder as we know it, which you had to pay if you took a Norman’s life.

The effect these two factors had on the English people yielded more interesting results than posing the usual Battle of Hastings questions suggests: the decade after 1066 saw resistance to the new rule across the country. There were pockets of it, of little prominence, as resistance often manifests itself. The Battle of York saw all local rebel factions flee upon William’s approach. He then scorched hundreds of square miles of the surrounding land and killed all the livestock in what became known as the Harrying of the North, which resulted in widespread famine. This was dutifully recorded in the Domesday Book and is still referred to today. It was of course a decision William took in order to ensure rebellion would not be repeated, as well as to flush any remaining rebels out of hiding. He was quoted as saying on his deathbed to (the hardly impartial) Audric: “I fell on the English as a ravening lion…in this way I took revenge…and so became a barbarous murderer…and so dare not leave the crown to anyone but God.”

The main question that actually preoccupied Kingsnorth was clearly what life in England during this period was like, from the point of view of the Lincolnshire Fens farmer of his novel, who is in constant dialogue with the pre-Christian Teutonic gods. In this way the intersection between myth and history remains as knotted and integral as it always was. Picking at this knot with the old stories as a tool is something Kingsnorth is attempting for a part of the country we don’t hear enough about.

The Fens then were very different for one thing, being undrained, wild salt marshes, with a reputation for errant messengers travelling between villages, taking any news with them. One such story was that of a local ruler sending men into the Fens to find the source of its eeriness. There they found a being with long red hair, known as the Wuduwasa; the Wood Worm; the Witch of the Bleak Shore; a Cyclops or “the being that never dries out”. The men took the creature back to their king and built it an iron cage to investigate what gave it such presence. Their torture yielded no results. The king’s dreams started to be affected by the creature, and he gave his wife the key to the cage and told her to keep it in the croft of her hips, before he departed for the hunt. Their son is of course trapped by the creature in his cage, and bargains with him for his release. The prince is given a way to summon the creature before the latter returns to the swamp. The King returns and banishes his son in the same direction, at which point he summons the monster and leaps upon his back. They disappear under the earth and into the darkness of the Fens. Beneath the swamp was a kingdom where the boy spent seven years. Before he leaves, the creature washes his hair in a pool that turns his curls into gold that the prince is warned not to show anyone, unless he cannot avoid it. The story ends with a grand reveal, a reversal of fortune and a lesson, as most stories do.

In 1070 there was the last stand of the warrior band, lead by Hereward The Wake, to resist the Normans from invading Ely on the Fens. The Normans built a giant floating causeway and siege towers but were attacked from behind their own lines by the resistance. In the end Ely was betrayed rather than conquered by a local monk. Hereward escaped, never to be seen again. Perhaps he resides beneath the Fens still, complete with golden curls.

The Editors

Logicomix 2: the fine line between insanity and genius


logicomix2

“Insanity is often the logic of an accurate mind overtasked.” Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Following on from last week’s post on Logicomix, it occurs to me that I failed to deal with one of the key themes of the graphic novel: the relationship between logic and madness. The authors openly make a big deal out of this (i.e. they discuss it as characters in the book), mainly because there seems to have been a disproportionately high incidence of mental illness among the great logicians. As noted by Gian-Carlo Rota:

It cannot be a complete coincidence that several outstanding logicians of the twentieth century found shelter in asylums at some point in their lives: Cantor, Zermelo, Gödel and Post are some.”

The purported link between insanity and genius is, of course, a well-trodden theme in popular culture; we need only think of Russell Crowe’s portrayal of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, or of Dustin Hoffman in Rainman. As a result, the ‘mad genius’ trope does set alarm bells ringing, particularly because the causative connection between mental illness and the work of logicians has been persuasively challenged (see, for example, this blog post). This raises the question of the extent to which the mad genius cliché is really just used to ostracise or at least stigmatise part of the intellectual community. After all, it is much more comfortable for people generally if high intelligence and the study of complex mathematics is confined to a category of the population with personality disorders.

Notwithstanding the above, the idea that many great logicians were driven insane by an obsessive dedication to their work does make for a compelling narrative. In many ways, madness represents the polar opposite or obverse of the coherent framework these thinkers were trying to achieve. To this extent, the fear of insanity must have been very real. In Logicomix, Bertrand Russell is the vehicle for expressing this fear, and he is shown as tormented not only by his encounters with mad logicians, but also by the knowledge that his family has a history of mental illness. And yet, Russell is also presented as the most human of the thinkers engaged in the quest for foundational mathematics. He fervently protested against what he saw as the madness of the First World War, had numerous passionate relationships with women, and was involved in several radical experiments in education. In this way, Russell becomes a sort of human conduit to the netherworld of foundational mathematics, a twentieth century Virgil tasked with guiding the reader towards an understanding of what the quest was really all about.

Interestingly, the narrative is framed as a talk given by Russell at an American university entitled “The Role of Logic in Human Affairs”. Moreover, the talk is given on 4 September 1939, the day the UK declared war on Germany after the invasion of Poland. As a result, Russell is confronted at the gates of the university by a crowd of anti-war protesters advocating that the USA play no part in the escalating European conflict. Russell invites the protesters to hear the lecture he is due to give, noting that “I will be speaking about reason, in its highest form: logic!” Of course, in introducing his lecture audience to the foundational quest for mathematics he does the same for the humble reader, thus acting as a guide both within and outside the text. In this way, Russell becomes a narrative symbol for accessibility, which is surely the overriding objective of the book as a whole. Of all the ways to be introduced to the work of the great twentieth century logicians, Logicomix as a graphic novel must be the most approachable.

The Editors

Logicomix and the quest for a quest

Logicomix_coverLogicomix: An Epic Search for Truth – Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou

Logicomix is a graphic novel, no less, that sets out to tell the story of the foundational quest for mathematics. The superhero in question is Bertrand Russell, the British mathematician cum philosopher whose life we follow from austere upbringing to his role as one of the protagonists in the attempt to root the whole of mathematics in a logical framework (more on which below). The attempt to portray this quest in graphic novel form is itself, of course, a highly ambitious project, and the authors reflect this by building their own artistic quest into the narrative. In this way, we are presented with two parallel quests (or a quest within a quest): the foundational quest in mathematics, on the one hand, and the attempt to tell the story of that quest in a 300-page comic, on the other. When I started reading I found this format both slightly irritating and slightly patronising, but actually it works very well as a means not only of showing the difficulty of navigating an artistic project on this scale (involving at least five major players), but also of defusing the tension created by the inevitable liberties that the authors take with some of the events they depict.

The foundational quest in mathematics, for those who like myself had no idea that such a quest even existed (it is apparently also known as the foundational crisis in mathematics), was the concerted effort to find a rigorous logical and philosophical basis for mathematics. The quest started towards the end of the nineteenth century with the growing awareness of so-called “foundational issues”, including inconsistencies between the main branches of mathematics. The goal of finding a complete and consistent set of mathematical axioms from which everything in mathematics can be derived is also known as Hilbert’s programme, after the logician David Hilbert, who identified it in his famous list of problems in mathematics.

Bertrand Russell joined the quest after becoming frustrated with what he saw as unproved assumptions underpinning the study of mathematics. In 1900, he attended the Congress of Philosophy in Paris where he was introduced to the work of Giuseppe Peano, who was busy developing Georg Cantor’s principles of set theory. Russell’s personal attempt to achieve the Holy Grail of foundational mathematics is reflected in the enormous Principia Mathematica, which he co-authored with Alfred North Whitehead and which was eventually published in 1910. Unfortunately for both of them, and for foundational mathematics as a school of thought, Kurt Gödel’s two incompleteness theorems of 1931 proved that for every set of mathematical axioms, there are mathematical statements whose truth cannot be derived from the system itself. The presentation of the two theorems led another great mathematician, John von Neumann, to declare: “it’s all over.”

The rise and fall of foundational mathematics, and the consequences for those involved, is really at the heart of Logicomix, and the authors struggle to find the best way of portraying this in narrative form. The main point of difference between Doxiadis and Papadimitriou is over the issue of whether or not to depict the quest as essentially tragic. Broadly speaking, Doxiadis (a novelist) thinks that it must be seen as a tragedy, whilst Papadimitriou (a computer scientist) disagrees, pointing to the importance of the work of these mathematical crusaders in leading to the development of computer science:

Follow the ‘quest’ for ten more years…and you get a brand-new, triumphant finale…with the creation of the computer, which is the ‘quest’s’ real hero! Your problem is, simply, that you see it as a story of people!

As Papadimitriou notes above, the issue is really about whether the quest is seen in personal or impersonal terms. For Russell, the quest in its purest sense was a failure, even if he did live to see his work and that of other logicians inspire Alan Turing’s prototype computer, the theoretical “machine”. Papadimitriou, on the other hand, takes a wider (more contentious) view of events and, understandably perhaps as a professor of computer science, sees the computer as humanity’s great hope for freedom and democracy. To this extent, Russell’s failure was part of the “greater good”. I’m naturally inclined to side with Doxiadis on this one, probably because as a reader of novels I’m drawn to the human aspect of the narrative, and Bertrand Russell makes for a fascinating protagonist. However, the way the schism is ultimately reconciled via a dress rehearsal of Aeschylus’ Oresteia is cunningly staged, and ties in well with the Athenian backdrop. Having said that, perhaps more could have been made of the human/non-human divide, particularly because the limits of mathematics and by extension of human reasoning seem to have led indirectly to the ‘shadow’ humanity that is the world of computing that we have become so accustomed to. After all, without Turing and von Neumann this computer, let alone this online blog, would almost certainly never have come into being. [Ed: I’ve now been advised that this is a whimsical historical counterfactual that doesn’t stand up to rigorous philosophical scrutiny – apologies.]

Finally, it would be wrong to write anything about Logicomix without mentioning the stunning artwork. The two artists, Alecos Papadatos and Annie di Donna, do a fantastic job of recreating scenes from Russell’s life and more generally from the history of mathematics. I was also struck by the depictions of modern-day Athens, which is shown basking under a perpetually clear-blue summer sky. Even when Papadimitriou notes at one stage how much the city has changed in recent years, it still seems like an ideal place from which to write/draw a graphic novel. Inevitably, thinking of Greece nowadays immediately conjures images of queues outside banks and Alexis Tsipras sweating as he attempts to negotiate another bailout package with troika bureaucrats. However trite it may seem though, Logicomix reminded me of the enormous intellectual and artistic debt the rest of the world owes the country.

The Editors

Book Club Spy: Do No Harm

Do No HarmDo No Harm – Henry Marsh

After a considerable hiatus, we reconvened to discuss this autobiographical account of neurosurgeon Henry Marsh’s career. The book is essentially a series of episodes spanning several decades of practise, and the most immediately disconcerting thing about a fairly unsettling book all round is Marsh’s tone. He veers between brutal honesty, peevish rebellion and didactic pomposity, and everywhere in between. The idea of an egotistical surgeon is as entrenched as our acknowledgement of the job as fairly technical and demanding: on Radio 4 on 30th June, he described himself as “jolly clever”, whilst at the same time being keen to debunk the idea of the surgeon as a solo “Michelangelo genius”.

He partially dispels the latter notion with his description of his entrance into the medical profession, which would be impossible now. He is quick to describe himself as middle class, but the story of him meeting one old boy and discussing fly fishing in order to gain a place at medical school (despite only two science GCSEs) suggests he is rather grander than that.

However, there are moments when he confirms every assumption surrounding the medical profession I have ever had, especially regarding his personal relationships, about which to be fair he is very discreet. I felt deeply sorry for his first wife – about whom he respectfully mentions very little besides the fact that his work contributed to the breakdown of the marriage – but his few explosions of temper/ego in the book are all compared to his younger episodes and found paltry by comparison, so he must have been a terror in the 90s. He refers to the nervous breakdown he had as a young man – necessitating a year out from Oxford – as silly. He glossed over it on the radio as he does on family matters in his book – as long as he is calling the shots on which episodes of his life to expose he is far more detailed, just very selective, as is his right.

Marsh claims the idea of surgeons needing to have steady hands is a myth, but the idea of an inexperienced wobbler operating on you or a loved one is not going to inspire many with confidence. Everyone is keen on training new doctors but no one wants to be the one experimented on, as it were, especially his story of a man being paralysed when a normally able, confident trainee snipped a vital nerve in his spine. The description of that white thread flopping where it is not meant to be is utterly desolate. It is one of the reasons Marsh hates training junior doctors.

He is not sentimental about his patients: he is gleeful when an outpatient has recovered sufficiently to say to him: “I hope I never see you again.” There is no Grey’s Anatomy schmaltz here. He claimed on the radio never to have had his mind changed by a patient – occasionally he has advised against operating in order to prevent spinning someone’s painful life out and has clearly expressed his views on avoiding a painful end for patients and families. He would, however, encourage patients to get second opinions on riskier surgeries – this is the culture elsewhere and he claims that in this country there is too much of a tendency to defer to a medical opinion rather than question it.

He has experienced surgery in Iran and Ukraine on several occasions and so is qualified to make some comparison. One reader questioned his motives for going to Ukraine to perform surgeries: was it because these extreme, neglected cases were interesting to him, and a coup if he pulled them off (he is much less accountable there if he doesn’t) rather than doing something genuinely altruistic? Another quibble was his account of bringing second hand medical equipment from England to perform these surgeries, as if everything provided for Ukrainians was second best. The ‘better than nothing argument’ is never sexy. He bought said kit with his own money. The patients he saw would certainly have suffered more without him, so on balance it seems to have been a good thing. The same sceptic questioned whether he should go back to Ukraine having retired to operate. Again, less than ideal to know an elderly gent is operating, but I would choose one of the most accomplished brain surgeons in the UK over none at all, personally.

His parting, reedy comment regarding his expertise on Radio 4 was that he finds neurosurgery crude. It is particularly interesting that he compares it to butchery when the practise is comared to the complexity of the brain, which no one completely understands. The book opens with his painfully vivid description of an exposed brain, with its jelly-like surface encased in silvery strands like a spider’s web. Brain surgery is only every chopping bits out of the brain – he is especially good at describing tumours: soft, uckable-out ones and hard ones that have to be collapsed in on themselves. Herein may lie the tension inherent in the profession at which he is so clearly proficient: he likes making things and admiring in them in their entirety, yet for thirty years he has had to remove and break things, never adding to the whole of the brain. Perhaps as a result, his retirement plans are to make things: furniture and houses while taking care of his own health. At the age of 65 he claims: “I am taking nothing for granted”. Except perhaps the publishing world, as he is planning a second book.

The Editors

Gormenghast

GormenghastGormenghast – Mervyn Peake

This massive tale of a remote, gothic earldom is comprised of three novels published between 1946 and 1959. Peake was unable to realize his plans for further novels after his death from Parkinson’s at the age of 57. His pellucid language darts in and out of the dark, hulking place he concocted in Gormenghast, which of course is a living presence in itself.

Gormenghast has been ruled by the family Groan always; it is a vast castle, isolated from the outside world by inhospitable regions on every side. As Peake was an official war artist (and had been present at the opening of some of the Nazi concentration camps), it has been suggested that the partially abandoned and jagged skyline of Gormenghast is intended to be reminiscent of London or Dresden post-war.

Outside the castle, clustered under the northern walls, are mud dwellings inhabited by the “Bright Carvers”, whose only purpose is to carve elaborate objects out of wood and present them to the Earl. The Outer Dwellers bear children of unearthly radiance, which fades rapidly on reaching adulthood. The castle’s highest tower, the Tower of Flints, is inhabited by huge numbers of death-owls. The realm’s inhabitants know “every bay, inlet and headland of the great stone island of the Groans, of its sheer cliffs, of its crumbling outcrops, the broken line of the towers”. Their lives revolve around the ruling family of Groan. Martial force, economy and religion appear to have no place here, yet this still does not make for simplicity, because of course there are still people in it.

The melancholy Earl Sepulchre loses his mind after his library is burnt, and sacrifices himself to the death-owls, believing he is one of them. His Countess – a magnificent bulwark redhead with locks like “burning snakes”– only talks to birds, is followed by a cloud of white smoke and yet hides a keen strategic brain. Their wild daughter Fuschia always wears a dress of “flaming red” and their son Titus is not keen on taking on their father’s mantle of observing endless, onerous ritual. And this is approximately seven percent of the plot.

The Groan way of life is threatened by a boy from the kitchens, named Steerpike. He worms his way up the ranks of the servants by murdering and manipulating at every opportunity. He knows every rule and every nook, and is quite simply a wonderful creation. He is revolting (“His body gave the appearance of being malformed, but it would be difficult to say exactly what gave it this gibbous quality”) and highly intelligent. His rise to power is psychopathic (declaring “Equality is everything” whilst pulling the legs off a beetle) fuelled by the fundamental urge to destroy the castle. With his bulging brow and red eyes, capering over the corpses he creates, you do not clamour for his victory but there is a chasm in the novel at his departure.

Notable dynamics are between the obese, sweating cook Swelter (first name Abiatha) and his murderous, reciprocated hatred for the top servant Flay. Flay is an emaciated tall devotee who sleeps outside his master’s door and who lives to preserve the stones of Gomernghast. Second to their dance macabre is Doctor Prunesquallor’s verbal torture of his egomaniac sister Irma (played brilliantly by Fiona Shaw in the 2002 BBC production). She is:

Vain as a child, thin as a stork’s leg, and, in her black glasses, blind as an owl in daylight. She misses her footing on the social ladder at least three times a week, only to start climbing again, wriggling her pelvis all the while, She clasps her dead, white hands beneath her chin in the high hope of hiding the flatness of her chest.

The romantic sub-plot concerning the vapid Irma Prunesquallor and Gormenghast’s Headmaster Bellgrove is welcome relief from Steerpike’s machinations. The established professional academics, the schoolmasters of Gormenghast, are parodies of Oxbridge learning; pedantic, futile, vulgar, lazy and grotesque. Bellgrove is gently dismissed thus:

Two things demand transparency when it comes to this epic. Firstly, that because it is an epic, it is of course immense. Perservere by all means, and here is the second thing: the third book is extremely strange. At the end of the second, Titus flees the castle for the wider world beyond Gormenghast Mountain. The third book follows Titus as he finds a futuristic world of industrialists and advanced technology – with strong steampunk overtones. The plot for this one is utterly bonkers, but suffice it to say that Peake includes some fairly indulgent love scenes, and Titus learns that he does not need to live in the shadow of Gormenghast. Peake’s humour and original illustrations help you along the way. This is a book to read over a holiday, when it does not matter if the way is long, and when you can succumb to the intensely detailed world he created, and follow Flay into the dark.

The Editors

Justice for Thomas Cromwell

JUSTICE “Law & Literature” event – 11 February 2015, Great Hall, Middle Temple, London

Three months agCromwello, JUSTICE hosted their third event in what seems to be the increasingly popular “Law & Literature” series, and surely there was no better venue than the Great Hall of Middle Temple for Hilary Mantel to read from her new, as yet unfinished novel, The Mirror and The Light, the third in the trilogy featuring Thomas Cromwell as its protagonist. Up to this point in the series it was noticeable that JUSTICE had carefully selected their authors based on some sort of affinity with the law and, understandably, justice. The first event featured Julian Barnes discussing his novel Arthur & George, which revolves around a well-known miscarriage of justice, and that talk was followed by another given by Robert Harris on An Officer and A Spy, also about a notorious miscarriage of justice (l’affaire Dreyfus). Although the theme of righting wrongs was not so immediately obvious with Mantel’s trilogy of Tudor-age tomes, all doubt was cast aside at the entry to the event, where the title of the reading was unveiled as “Justice for Thomas Cromwell”, slightly giving away the plot of the third instalment in the process. Of course, Cromwell himself was also a lawyer, among many other things it seems, if we are to believe Mantel’s retelling of his life and times as one of Henry VIII’s closest consiglieri.

Mantel’s is certainly not what you would call a booming voice, and the size of the venue meant that the audience had to lean forward as one to catch everything she said. Again, perhaps given the high proportion of lawyers in attendance, she was quick to point to the legal mechanics underpinning the history of the novels: England’s break from Rome was about “jurisdiction not ideology”. In other words, the separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church was not about a disagreement over religious doctrine, but rather about sovereignty and the right to self-determination. In that sense, certainly, it could be said to anticipate by half a millennium the current political tussle over the Human Rights Act/European Court of Human Rights, which also seems to have little to do with legal philosophy and everything to do with perceived foreign interventionism and the fact that politicians never like to have their power challenged. I suspect that the organisers of the event at JUSTICE may have made that connection before inviting Mantel to be a speaker.

Mantel said she was less interested in the formalities of history and power than she was in the behind-the-scenes wrangling that actually leads to agreements being reached between kings and countries. To this extent, her interpretation of Cromwell is as the ultimate manipulator of events (almost like a slightly more benign 16th century version of Frank Underwood), whose pragmatism stands in marked contrast to the ivory tower intellectualism of Thomas More. In Mantel’s world, less gets done in the great halls of power than in its courtyards, corridors and kitchens; one would imagine that little has changed over the ages in this regard. However, it is these interstitial spaces between what we know as history that Mantel has made herself master of. It reminds me of something Julian Barnes once wrote about his aversion to famous dates; he said he was less interested in 1492, for example, than 1493 – i.e. what happened when Columbus got back to Europe and took all the credit for finding the new world? The answer is that things continued very much as they had been before, except that the man who actually first sighted America wound up as a gunrunner in north Africa.

I think it is Mantel’s eye for detail and nuance, her ability to humanise historical characters by revealing both their strengths and their weaknesses, that accounts to a large extent for the incredible success of her novels. However, it is also her immense skill at filling in the void between what we think we know actually happened at the time. To this extent, I pity historians of the period who must be unable to read Mantel’s novels without a considerably heftier degree of scepticism.

Dial M for Mass Market Appeal

Killing-Floor-by-Lee-ChildLee Child is clearly a talented writer. The first three chapters of Killing Floor constitute one of the most strident openings to a novel I can remember. Strident, which is to say, gripping and devoid of nuance.

Then the problems begin. Because Killing Floor is too carefully constructed an artifice to be satisfying. Firstly, the author’s name is not Lee Child. It is Jim Grant. Jim Grant chose his nom de plume because it would put him next to Agatha Christie on the shelves. Good commercial thinking, but unsatisfyingly cynical.

Secondly the booming clarity of Jack Reacher’s internal monologue is a pace that Child is unable to sustain for an entire novel. When compared with an equally forthright opening to a book, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, it whithers on the vine.

Thirdly the intricate twists of plot, the Sherlock Holmes like deduction, the neat tying up of loose ends to lay the foundations for the next novel smack of the worst of Hollywood. The base commercialism that great literature manages to avoid, patterns the novel in its paint by numbers crime thriller simplicity. It’s clear what Lee Child has done with Jack Reacher and he sells a lot of books, but it’s not art and it’s not literature any more than the The Hardy Boys or Biggles (though Biggles is great). It reveals nothing about the broader conditions of humanity, except that some people have talent and use it with cynicism and there is a huge market in feeding people entertainment which refuses to challenge them. No doubt the greatest of artists are prone to venality as much if not more than the rest (I remember an anecdote of Mozart in which he was asked what he was thinking when he stood as if in a reverie at the end of a performance regarding the applauding audience and he said “I was counting the house.”) but the lasting impression of Killing Floor is not improved by the cynical aftertaste it leaves or the charmlessness with which it is achieved. In the shadow of other great English popular writers such as the late Terry Pratchett who outsold every other author of the nineties, shifting close to 100 million books, or George MacDonald Fraser who wrote the first Flashman in two weeks on leaving the Royal Navy because he needed the money. Both were strongly and impressively commercial writers who serviced great audiences with their franchises but somehow achieved it with wit, charm and an invention that escapes Lee Child’s cruel and ultimately unsatisfying novel.

He is a great British export success story, for that we should be grateful, and we must certainly be impressed by his commercial performance, but as for his writing, it evades most compliments except, of course, that of purchasing it.

The Editors

Book Club Spy: H is for Hawk

One ofHawk our more sensitive members misheard somebody talking about Helen Macdonald’s book and thought it was called “H is for Whore.” The latter somebody, as a pretty dyslexic person, was delighted to have the opportunity to tell the unfortunate mishearer that that is NOT how you spell it. Sadly/luckily, he left the room before she could even try.

H is for Hawk is predominantly about Macdonald’s grief upon the death of her father, T.H. White, and her decision to train a goshawk as a result, as she has been obsessed with hawking most of her life. However it is also partly a biographical account of T.H. White, as she interweaves his earlier, abortive attempts to do the same, only he was not grieving, but in retreat from life in general.

His first biography is described by Macdonald as almost like having his recently interred corpse on full display, with the detritus of his life (such as fishing reels) too much on show. Her version is more self-consciously delivered, and to be honest, none of us were ever going to read a book just about him anyway, no matter how big a fan of The Once and Future King one is. However, her extracts on White were some of the most enjoyable parts. The idea of a man living in a cottage in the grounds of a school almost pretending to be a hermit in the wild, fighting certain aspects of his nature and trying to apply hawking principles lifted from medieval texts is desperate. He was pretty much making it up as he went, or applying wildly outdated knowledge (he overfeeds his gos as he mistakenly thinks she is hungry when she is merely miserable), whereas Macdonald has had years of experience. She knows what she is doing, although of course there are plenty of panicked moments when she feels her gos does not like her. The wildness and alien aspects of the gos appeal to her, so she starves her and keeps her at flying weight to a carefully calculated level. Yet this beautiful, wild animal (the passages describing these elements of the animal’s nature are gripping) is kept inside, hooded, for large swathes of the book.

So it is certainly more than a beautiful and poignant account of Macdonald’s grief. There is no tragedy or mawkish sentiment. She clearly adored her father and had a strong relationship with him. It must have been hard to write about this. There are sections of the book which are slightly overwritten, and she asks far too many rhetorical questions. Phrases such as “I can tell a hawk from a handsaw” made us all collectively cringe, but she settles into it after a pretty poor opening line, and we were all spellbound until the final quarter. Apparently editors tend not to be too strict with academics, believing they can write already so why waste resources. This is unfortunate.

As well as a biography of White, and of grief, it is also a story about a woman with blood streaming down her face from a laceration to her scalp on a hillside in the Cambridgeshire countryside. The only thing that stops it from going fully Robert “Wildman” Macfarlane is the fact that it is located just there: in the mostly rather dull and flat Fenlands, rather than somewhere less urbanized.

There is something, too, about the fact that this is also a story about a slightly bonkers woman in her sitting room – the floors covered in birdshit – of a house she does not appear to need to work to keep. Of course she is not required to disclose any aspect of her life, least the financials, but a year to ride out grief alone in your own house with a companion over whom you are able to obsess is the province of the relatively few.

She may be bonkers, but someone unaffected by that level of grief may be deficient in some regard. Her honesty is uplifting despite some of the dark matter. And of course, we all obviously loved it when she chose the small, old, mad gos, not the large meek bird on that quayside.

The title does raise the question of whether the author is merely referencing her childhood in a semi-autobiographical work – learning the alphabet for some was done through beautiful illustrations such as

Or is the H that used to stand for her first name now for Hawk as her sense of self becomes so entangled with this animal during the course of their relationship that she has become obscure.

It is unclear which of these several titles and many stories this book contains, and of course therein lies much of its appeal.

The Editors

The Frozen North

the expedition bea uusmaThe Expedition – by Bea Uusma

A Swedish doctor who has been obsessed for over fifteen years with the story – known to all Swedes – of the doomed attempt to reach by the North Pole by hot air balloon, has written her own account. She describes her attempts to venture out to the White Island (where the ballooner’s bones were found) four times only to turn back as the ice had never thawed enough to allow the ice breaker ship through. Usma returns to her cabin to watch the frozen North, and quiets her disappointment by taking the reader meticulously through the facts.

Three young engineers boarded their hot air balloon in Stockholm, 1987, totally unprepared for the demands of such a journey: their donning of monogrammed woollen stockings was not an encouraging sign. They thought it would take six days by air, having inflated the balloon by dissolving iron filings with liquid sulphuric acid and loading the basket down with port and champagne, plus more essential stores for several years. The balloon started to leak after a few days, and came down without incident but very far off course. They started to walk, dragging hugely overloaded sleds, against the direction of the flow of the ice floes. It took them days to realize that they were barely managing to stand still, let along gain ground, shedding ballast as they trudged.

Perhaps one of the saddest sentences in the recovered diaries – which extend from 11 July 1987 to 3 Oct 1987 – was that “the homing pigeons are all dead.” That, and their consumption of the champagne they had dragged for miles while they withered with cold and hunger. Once the diaries were recovered, the fiancée of the now deceased Nils Strindberg had the singularly strange experience of being informed that he had died – when she had suspected as much and therefore been married to someone else for decades – and was told his last words were addressed to her. Her name was Anna Albertina Constantin Charlier – a name which, Usma informs us, “means hydrogen balloon in French.”

They survived for almost four months on White Island, where their bodies were not found for thirty years. When they were found, it was by accident. At the time, there was no conclusive evidence with the technology then available, as to the cause of death. The bodies were then cremated, destroying any chance of later study. Usma was desperate to return to the site in order to search for some clue, as she was tired of reading theories about trichinosis and death due to an excess of vitamin E in eating polar bear and seal liver. She is wonderfully open about her obsessive attitude, and the book is written in the most lucid, detailed fashion without succumbing to opaque fact or passages moaning about the fragility of human life on the frozen wastes. It is also rather beautiful, with wonderful photographs and excellent formatting.

Those who are susceptible to the language of endless horizons, harsh conditions and impossible courage (in other words, the Scots) tend to be suckers for this kind of book. I have not enjoyed a book about ice so much since Francis Spufford’s Ice and the English Imagination.  For those that need to find out more, Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage is a free exhibition at the British Library until April 19th.  Next week: how to make your own pemmican.

The Editors

26. Why Read?

Man on fish reading

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If aliens from outerspace came down and saw us reading they might think we were mentally challenged. They would probably blow us up as useless.

“Why are they they looking at these strange lines and curves and shapes when they can be talking to each other or running or watching movies or whatever.”

Or “Why slouch on a couch, squinting at an obscure and probably meaningless piece of paper when they can be doing healthy things?”

Reading seems like a very hard activity. You have to learn a written language, sit very still, focus, and try to translate the 100,000 or so marks that appear in every book.

And, by the way, if you read enough it’s a guarantee you will damage your eyes.

But it’s worth it. Here’s 10 reasons why:

A) EDUCATIONAL (with an important caveat):

Today, for instance, I read from “End of Power” by Moises Naim, to prepare for my podcast with him.

The man is a genius. I read about his theories of why countries like America or companies like Microsoft inevitably experience a decay in their power and influence despite their massive size and ability to coerce.

How photo companies like instagrapm can have a dozen employees, zero revenues, and be sold for a billion dollars while other photo companies like Kodak can have 140,000 employees and then go bankrupt.

He explains how, why, what, and how to take advantage of it. It was fascinating.

The caveat is: I’ll only remember a small amount. Maybe a year later, one or two pieces of information and maybe one theme will stick with me. But that’s ok.

Hopefully I’ll remember the important parts.

B) ENTERTAINING

Given that I’m only going to remember a small amount in the long run, I have to also love the act of reading.

I love how writers put together words to form sentences I’ve never thought of. How the sentences weave together into stories.

I imagine myself in the story. I imagine that for a moment I’m the main character. I live their lives.

In the middle the night, with wind blowing, Claudia sleeping next to me, the anxieties of the day subsiding, I get to travel to an entirely new Universe and be a part of it. I’m Harry Potter. Or I’m Frodo. Or the guy stuck on Mars in “The Martian”.

Why not watch it on TV instead? I am!

The TV is in my head and much more vivid. It’s IDTV – Imagination-Density-TV and has many more colors and pixels and dreams infused in it.

C) INSPIRATIONAL

The other day I was reading “The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin. She decided to spend a year focusing on making 12 different parts (one for every month) of her life happier.

Each month she had a dozen or so suggestions about how to improve that part of her life. Again, some I’ll remember, some I’ll apply, some will make me happier, some will be applicable only to her. She admits that.

And some I will forget.

I was inspired by the fact that several hundred small suggestions could add up to a significant increase in our level of equanimity in her life – our ability to be calm in the face of the difficult and to enjoy more the higher peak moments.

She gave one suggestion which I tried the other day. Claudia and I were bickering about something or other. I forget.

Gretchen suggests hug for at least six seconds. It takes six seconds of hugging for the oxytocin and serotonin “happy chemicals” (which I learned about in another book: “Meet Your Happy Chemicals” by Loretta Breuning) to get triggered into the body, causing feelings of intimacy and happiness.

I hugged Claudia and slowly counted to six.

It worked.

D) VIRTUAL MENTORSHIP

Although reading is inspiring, it feels like the inspiration lasts for a few hours and then starts to get metabolized.

I feel grateful and mindful and “present” for awhile but then I need more.

I don’t mind though, since I like to be inspired. And the more of it I read, the easier it gets to become a practice.

But just as important and inspirational to me, is reading about the lives of virtual mentors.

At any given point, I have interests. And with any interest, there are people who came before me who are much better than me. They have put in their 10,000 hours.

They have dominated the subtleties of their field and have spent a lifetime mastering their craft.

We’re the average of the five people we surround ourselves with. But I don’t usually hang out with five people a day. But I can hang out with five people through books.

Every day I read about people who have done what I would like to do. I then try to model myself after them: their behavior, learn from their failures, their successes, their behavior, their courage.

It’s hard to get a real-life mentor. That said, I think at every stage of life we need one. And for every passion and interest you have, I, at least, learn the fastest from the people who came before me.

A book about a person you want to model yourself after, allows you to have a virtual mentor. Virtual mentors are often greater than real-life mentors.

A book is the curated life of these mentors, the exact pivotal points where their actions had the most impact on the people they came to be. I love to read these books.

I just finished “Born Standing Up” by Steve Martin. He might not know it but he’s now my mentor.

E) LAUGHTER

Food, by Jim Gaffigan.

Trust me on this one.

F) YES, READING MAKES ME BETTER THAN OTHER PEOPLE

I love playing games. For instance, since I was a kid I love games like chess, scrabble, poker.

But if I just play the games day after day, I never get better. The only way I get better is to study the books written by or about the great players of history.

It’s a sad goal: to want to beat your friends mercilessly in a game. But it’s worth it and reading lets me achieve that goal.

In every area I read about, I slightly improve my knowledge, my understanding, and my ability to come up with new ideas in that area.

It’s that little bit each day, that can give any of us a huge edge in the long run. Knowledge compounds rather than increases little by little.

G) ART

This sounds pretentious. So I will make it less pretentious.

The other day, right here on this page, I plagiarized my 12 year old daughter.

She had written a story. In one part of the story things were somewhat somber. So she used the phrase “the hush of silence” to describe the feelings of the characters.

Later, as they often do in life, things got more tense.

The atmosphere was “stung with silence”. I liked that juxtaposition. I honestly was a bit envious she used these phrases and they didn’t seem like cliches.

Two opposite ways to describe something that was essentially empty: silence.

So, like a good father … I stole from my daughter, figuring she would never know (shhh, don’t tell her). I used the phrase “stung with silence” in a post.

I need to improve as a father.

But I can’t help it. Sometimes the way words weave together, and connect me to other parts of a story where similar words were used (like a poem), makes me want to put a book down and think the words over and over in my head.

Sentences and stories and articles have a rhythm, like a song. The best writers make beautiful songs.

Many great authors do that through the authenticity and honesty in their language: Denis Johnson, James Baldwin, Miranda July, and on and on.

You don’t have to be a great poet. Just really dig out the honesty of a single moment.

H) OPTIMISM

This is why newspapers are junk. “Being informed” is a scam marketing campaign. Fear drives subscriptions. Period.

But books don’t worry about that.

“Bold” by Peter Diamindis and Stephen Kotler gives me huge reasons for optimism in a world where the daily junk media is nothing but doom and gloom.

3D Printing, Robotics, Synthetic Biology, virtual reality, space travel, and historical trends on literacy and poverty and violence – all show the direction the world is heading and it’s a positive one.

One great example: many of the tools we take for granted in our cell phone (GPS, a game player, video recorder, camera, music library) when added up would have cost close to a million dollars in 1982 and now cost just a few hundred dollars.

This democratization of technology is spreading throughout the developing world, creating a larger middle class than ever and bringing people out of poverty. As Dr. Naim said in “The End of Power”, for the first time, more people live above the poverty line in Africa than below it.

Not a huge cause of celebration but a start. It’s a direction of growth. And as I learned in Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project” – growth and happiness go side by side.

Or “Sapiens – a Brief History of Humankind” describes the historical evolution of our species going from tribes to cities to kingdoms to empires to leaving us with an optimistic hope that further unification will lead to greater abundance and eventual peace.

I) WRITING

I can’t write unless I read first. I’ll read and read and read and then suddenly a little electric bomb goes off in my head when the reading uncovers a memory I had forgotten existed.

It’s like reading digs into my head as if it were an archaeological find.

Then I almost feel like I’m hypnotized until I write.

Often I like to try on the styles of different writers as well. It’s like they’ve woven clothes out of their words and I get to try on the different sets of clothes.

The writers become my mentors after I read them.

J) SHARING

The reality is: as much as we have in common, I’m different from my daughters. But guess what – we’ve all read The Hunger Games.

And so we can talk about the ethics of what happens in the Games. The dynamics of how the world is set up politically. We can make up possible ways fan fiction can exist in the world created by the author.

We can talk for hours about it.

With almost anyone I meet, our common ground is usually based on the things we read. The more we have both read, the more common ground in most cases.

It’s such a pleasure to occasionally speak the same language as my children like we are complete equals. Even though they are smaller than me and love to watch the reality show “Dancing Moms”, reading has become our great equalizer.

I like to sleep eight uninterrupted hours a day (many reasons for that by Dave Asprey’s “The Bulletproof Diet”, AJ Jacobs “Drop Dead Healthy”, and Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project” give good descriptions of how to build a good sleep routine). Sleeping is the number one way to build energy and rejuvenate the brain.

But I also once read that when you wake up with an idea, you have to write it down immediately or you’ll forget it.

I woke up at 2am with the idea to write this post. It’s 3:04 and I’m going back to sleep.

James Altucher

This post originally appeared in the newsletter of jamesaltucher.com with the title ‘10 Reasons Reading Makes Your Life Better‘ and is reproduced with thanks to the author.  

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 484 other followers