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Posts tagged ‘Orwell’

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

The Literature of Oppression: Part 1

I know many books which have bored their readers, but I know of none which has done real evil.

So said Voltaire in the eighteenth century.  Since then, the world has seen the publication of Mao’s Little Red Book, Qaddafi’s Green Book and Hitler’s Mein Kampf, three books which might be considered as a sort of grotesque canon of totalitarian literature, covering as they do both extremes of the political spectrum, with rogue state oppression somewhere in the middle.  All three were published in the twentieth century, the century in which totalitarian ideology somehow managed to evade reason and irreversibly scar the face of human history.

“[Our purpose is] to ensure that literature and art fit well into the whole revolutionary machine as a component part, that they operate as powerful weapons for uniting and educating the people and for attacking and destroying the enemy, and that they help the people fight the enemy with one heart and one mind.”

The above quotation from Mao’s Little Red Book provides a singularly perverse view of the function of literature and art in society.  It is not often that books are seen as weapons that can be wielded by the forces of oppression, but unfortunately art is an inherently malleable thing, only as benign and constructive as the artist chooses it to be.  As such, we can hardly be surprised if on occasion literature is co-opted by the forces of darkness and used as a tool to further the totalitarian policies of oppressive regimes, all the more so since propaganda is a key element of any dictatorship.  Ultimately, there is no denying that books have been complicit to a certain extent in some of the worst atrocities committed by human beings.

And yet the hideous number of deaths caused by the regimes of twentieth century tyrants does not necessarily refute Voltaire’s point; a book in and of itself can do no harm, unless the reader is of a particularly frail and sensitive disposition.  Of course, that a book is unable to commit genocide of its own volition does not settle the debate over the potential harm caused by books either, in vaguely the same way that a rifle being unable to commit murder on its own does not settle the debate over US gun control (see the laughable simplicity of the NRA’s slogan “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”).  One could argue that Mein Kampf, which is still banned in numerous countries, including Austria and Russia, continues to incite racially aggravated violence across the world, from Greece to Colombia.

Interestingly, Mein Kampf was never banned in Germany, but its publication has been restricted since the end of the Second World War by the state of Bavaria, which owns the copyright to it.  This copyright expires in 2016, seventy years after Hitler’s death, and Bavaria plans to publish an annotated edition of the book before this happens, in an attempt to educate new readers and make it “commercially unattractive” to publish in the future.  The latter may be optimistic, but perhaps this is the best way to proceed.  After all, to ban books, however offensive or inflammatory the content, is to fall into the totalitarian’s trap.  In view of this, the Literature of Oppression series aims to look at some of the worst books ever published by oppressive regimes, not, we hope you will agree, in an attempt to stoke anger or resentment, but in order better to understand the influence they continue to exert, whether or not that influence is still enforced down the barrel of a gun.

The Editors

For your consideration

Apparently “slush pile” is the technical term for unsolicited manuscripts sent to a publisher, as in “have a wade through the slush pile and see if there’s anything decent.”  It must be a daunting experience for first-time or unpublished authors to submit their creations to publishers in the knowledge that the default reaction of the latter will probably be to assume that what they have been sent is rubbish.  I suppose it is understandable really, given that of the thousands of manuscripts sent to a publisher there are probably only a handful that are worth reading let alone publishing.  This undoubtedly makes the publisher’s role a difficult one: how to be selectively dismissive without missing the real gems out there?  It is not a new problem, nor is it confined to literature.  When Beethoven’s Fifth was first performed it was variously called a “vulgar din” and “the end of music”; Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring started a riot on its opening night in 1913.   Clearly, human beings are not enormous enthusiasts of novelty, and it can take decades for an artist’s work to be fully appreciated.

Sticking to literature though I thought it might be amusing to collect a few quotes of publishers’ initial reactions to classic novels, partly as a way of encouraging budding authors not to take criticism too seriously and partly because they’re sometimes quite a hilarious reflection of human ignorance and misunderstanding.  I owe most of them to the recent book This Is Not The End of The Book, in which Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière discuss, among other things, the history of human stupidity.  If anyone has any others (or personal experiences), we want to know about them – dontreadtoofast@gmail.com.

On Proust’s In Search of Lost Time: “It may be a lack of intelligence on my part, but I fail to understand why it should take thirty pages to describe how someone tosses and turns in their bed, unable to sleep.”

On Hemingway’s Fiesta: “Sir, you have written a travel book.”

On Flaubert’s Madame Bovary: “Sir, you have buried your novel beneath a hotchpotch of detail that is very well done, but utterly superfluous.”

On Melville’s Moby Dick: “There is little chance that a book such as this would interest a young readership.”

On Emily Dickinson: “Your rhymes don’t work.”

On Orwell’s Animal Farm: “It’s no good trying to sell the Americans a novel about animals.”
The Editors

1. Writing and the Future

The ability to predict the future has always been one of the most well regarded skills.  In this tough economic climate it is perhaps the one thing that is guaranteed to secure you a job: whether you’re applying for a position as a football pundit, economist, or anything in-between, the ability to successfully foresee future events is sure to stand you in good stead for a long and prosperous career.

Wishful thinking aside, the idea of being able to see the future retains an enduring place at the heart of popular culture.  Fairly recently, a Mayan calendar sparked an internet furore when someone dug up the fact that the world is coming to an end in December this year.  Indeed, Wikipedia tells me that Nostradamus’ Les Propheties has rarely been out of print since it was first published in 1555, despite the seer’s own admission that “the whole thing is written in nebulous form, rather than as a clear prophecy of any kind” – which is as clear a sign as any of a bare-faced liar.  However, it’s easy to understand why predicting the future remains a powerful concept: noone knows what is going to happen tomorrow, so when someone somehow manages to convince us that he or she might be able to, we like to indulge our long-standing taste for mysticism and the occult.  In any event, the failsafe for prophets is that whether or not a prediction has any truth in it can only be known retrospectively, in Nostradamus’ case looking back several centuries later.

Sadly, our fascination with being able to see the future by some mystical clairvoyance (or by statistical analysis – see Long Term Capital Management) often overlooks the fact that novelists constantly grapple with the future, not always explicitly, but in an earnest attempt to explore humanity’s experience of the world.  As Alex Starritt said in his Why read? article: “it is habitual for discoveries or advances in the study of the human to appear in fiction first.”  This is an extremely wide concept, and the interlink between art and science is something that requires considerable thought, particularly because it is only by looking closely that one can begin to see the connections.

A book that does a lot of the hard work for us, and does it brilliantly, is Proust was a neuroscientist, by Jonah Lehrer.  By examining specific instances in which scientific discoveries have been anticipated in writing, he gives us a convincing insight into the idea that in many respects man can see the future, just not perhaps as the Nostradamus brigade would have us believe.  To take one example of this, the book considers the poet Walt Whitman’s central conviction that, contrary to the Cartesian doctrine prevalent in the mid-19th century, the mind cannot be separated from the body; a philosophy that he developed during his time as a nurse in various military hospitals over the course of the American Civil War: “Behold, the body includes and is the meaning, the main concern, and includes and is the soul.”  This idea was brought into the scientific arena by the pioneer Harvard psychologist William James, who stated that “the actual content of our minds are always representations of some kind of ensemble.”  More recently, modern neuroscience has explored the interrelationship of the mind and body, with one renowned practitioner, Antonio Damasio, concluding that the two are indeed inseparable, that is to say, logical thought cannot function independently of the body’s feeling.

Science, of course, is not the only area of human thought that can be anticipated in literature: socio-political trends are prefigured to a greater or lesser extent in the writing of countless novelists, from Orwell and H.G.Wells, to Balzac and Dickens.  Fiction has the ability, after all, of looking at reality as a whole, without the need to focus on specific aspects of it.  This gives the author the freedom to explore ideas that may not have any solid empirical basis at the time they are written.  Denis Diderot, for example, wrote Le rêve de D’Alembert, a surreal essay in which the characters discuss the idea that nature is constantly evolving, in 1769, almost a century before Darwin published On the Origin of Species.  Furthermore, fiction can examine aspects of reality that haven’t yet been reduced by science or socio-political theory: the novelist is free to look around himself and write what he sees, what he feels.  Indeed, it is this feeling that is the mark of a good writer: the ability to see and express things others don’t or can’t, perhaps until someone with a microscope points them out fifty years later.

The Editors