A day spent working in the library

Fish in fountain
Fish in fountain

Taking a rest. Reading is like exercise to me: I have to stop to catch my breath sometimes, and I can tell when I'm really enjoying it, doing it well, because my pulse actually quickens, or seems to, anyway - or maybe I'm just thinking this because of the subject matter of the book I happen to have just put down. I glance up at the pink ceiling, and then out the window at the blank white sky. Yes, we've reached the time of blank white skies. Soon all of the leaves will have fallen (in our garden they are stubbornly hanging on, which at first was admirable but now feels desperate) and the whole world will be in black and white until March.

The smell of the Upper Reading Room makes me nostalgic. I used to come here when I was casually employed as a research assistant, and I can't help thinking that, at least in terms of work, that was the most purpose-filled time of my life so far. I came here with such a clear sense of what I needed to accomplish. I flipped through books and old periodicals, trying to find forgotten short stories or columns or even just a mention, a review, a reference - something. I was always searching for something. What pleasurable, simple work. True, it was not my purpose, exactly, not my project, but just being part of it felt good. I know I glorify it - some of it was little more than mindless copying-down, photocopying, confirming, stuff a child could do. But all work is like that, made up as much of small bits as big. I just wish that I could figure out how to replicate this sense of serenity and trust in my own work. I guess the trouble now is that I'm almost wholly responsible for where it goes, which is a harder thing to negotiate. I have to make the decisions about what to look for, and then look for it, and then decide what it means when I find it - or don't - and that takes some of the pleasure out of the looking, because there's always a niggling sense of doubt. What if I'm wrong? What if this isn't the right direction? What if this is purposeless work?

And anyway this, today, is illicit work: no one is paying me for it, or expecting me to do it. It's invisible, which is what writing has become to me. I worry about this often nowadays: is it true labour if there's no remuneration? Am I not just here playing in the library?


In Charles Sprawson's Haunts of the Black Masseur, I read of the poet Rupert Brooke that, "When working at the Bodleian he would get up in his country cottage long before dawn and bathe as he walked down to Oxford in the streams among the Cumner [sic] hills once favoured by Clough."

I think about these young white men, striding across the land (land they seem to "own" as soon as they step on to it, whether or not they actually own it), suddenly having an urge, stripping down, getting wet, communing with nature: "bathing". I think: to read about the (romantic) history of swimming, as rendered by Sprawson, is fascinating enough, but it doesn't really get close to why I find it such a compelling subject. True, I've been known to plunge semi-impulsively into bodies of water - ice-melt lakes in the Sierras during camping trips, oceans, rivers, reservoirs - but I don't have quite the same reverence for these encounters that I do for the highly regulated experience of going to the pool. For me immersion is not the same thing as swimming, exactly, though there's obviously shared territory there. And surely man-made pool environments are as varied and compelling as the ponds and streams of the British countryside. Even ugly, reeking, creaking municipal buildings have their own particular charm. If nothing else the inhabitants of these environments invite interest: here the elderly, the very young, the fit, the fat, the disabled, the old pros, the just-learnings, are all united by a desire to transcend the apparent limitations of the human body. They're here to float, to breathe. This is where the fizz of excitement is, to me. Who are these people, how have they come to be here, what brings them back, again and again and again, repeating the same old routine in the same old ugly, reeking, creaking building?

The other thing, if I'm honest, is that sometimes the nature-ness of nature alarms me. The thought of fish or reeds brushing up against me as I swim makes me shudder. To read some of Roger Deakin's accounts in his "swimmer's journey through Britain" is a difficult exercise: "Reaching down, I felt soft mud and ancient fallen branches, and sensed giant pike and eels".

Perhaps mine is a "girly" reaction: perhaps I need to man up, strip down, learn to happily glide "downstream, brushed by fronds of water crowfoot that gave cover to trout". But I remember, as a child, paddling a surfboard across a saltwater pond that had formed near our local beach, and feeling the rush of a scaly fish-like creature moving against my submerged arm, and screaming, my body rigid on the board. My father came to the edge of the water with something like concern on his face. "A fish!" I wailed at him. "Help! There's a fish!" - and it wasn't so much the presence of the fish (I wasn't afraid of it in a conventional way, I wasn't worried about what it might do to me) as the thought of the encounter, a visceral memory playing over and over again - the way it slithered, the way it was unlike me. My father wandered away, down the beach again, bemused, and I paddled frantically to the sand and pulled the board out of the water. I don't much like the squishiness of riverbed beneath my feet, either - you never know what you might encounter. I remember walking in the shallow part of a river near a friend's house and treading on a dead fish; there went the same shiver of unknown fear down my back, the same sense of the body of water as haunted.

For swimming "in the wild", I prefer the ocean, my native habitat, the kind of open water with which, growing up on the California coast, I'm most intimately acquainted - but I respect it greatly, its fickleness, its waves and tides, and I'm not sure I can ever be a swimmer in the sea in the same way that I'm a swimmer in a pool. In the ocean I'm just briefly part of something much bigger. I'm intensely aware of the danger, and therefore of my self in relation to that danger. I'm treading lightly, paying constant attention to my (physical and emotional) limits. It's good, it's important, but it's different. (Though maybe not so different: what did I say I liked so well about the pool? Partly the limits, the controls…)


While the pool allows, even invites, intellectual wanderings, at the same time it prevents the wanderer from losing his way. However far his excursions may take him, the simplicity of the architectural object enables him to pick up the thread where he left it, leaving no room for confusion, bombast, or contrivedness. The architectural part - the artifact - is, from the outset, easy to define whereas its contents - the natural part - are highly complex. The container encloses but also retains, holds together, and keeps from spilling. While stirring the imagination, it also prevents it from rambling; the container both kindles and quenches.

(From Thomas A P Van Leeuwen's The Springboard in the Pond: An Intimate History of the Swimming Pool)


I stay in the library until seven. I could go on like this, probably for hours, but I'm ravenous, and at the back of my mind I'm aware of the cold ride home I have ahead of me, which diminishes the pleasure of staying here somewhat. Darkness fell fast at about 4 o'clock. About an hour ago the library began emptying, but there are still quite a few of us here, at our little desks. I'd forgotten how nice the unspoken, unacknowledged camaraderie of this is, and, though perhaps just because this is what I've spent the last few hours reading about, suddenly liken it in my mind to the unspoken, unacknowledged camaraderie of swimming laps. Everyone's there for the same purpose, putting the work (or the play) in. It's similar here. We look up every once in awhile and almost catch each other's eyes, but mostly we're in our own weird little universes. Sometimes it's enough just to be surrounded by others, to be near human bodies.

So I dread the exit: the sudden imposition of real life, whatever that is, the cold air, the struggle with my bike lock, the stop at the grocery store, the nagging yelps of the self-checkout machine: "Unexpected item in bagging area. Please insert your card into the chip and pin machine. Please take your items. Please take your items. Please take your items."

The other problem is that, once I got going, I was really enjoying my work this afternoon, and this seems to happen rarely enough that I don't want to let it go. But you have to - otherwise you burn out. You have to stop, and take a break, and then come back to it. That's the only way it works. So out I go.

On Rebecca Solnit's The Faraway Nearby

Over at the Vela blog, I wrote a review (of sorts) of Rebecca Solnit's new book The Faraway Nearby, which is out soon and very much worth reading:

For almost two years now, I’ve been making a dress. I bought the pattern and a roll of fabric on holiday in Wales, but I didn’t have a sewing machine (or tailor’s chalk, or pins, or enough time, or enough patience) and I didn’t know how to sew, so what I was really buying was the possibility of becoming the sort of person who could make a dress.

For a long time the paper bag full of potential gathered dust in my wardrobe, until finally, one cold winter weekend, I brought it over to my boyfriend’s mother’s house, she set up her sewing machine, and we began to make the dress together.

To see or to help a garment come into being, to witness the transformation, is affecting. I don’t want to put too much importance on this – it’s just an item of clothing – but still: out of fabric springs form. This particular fabric, though, purchased because it felt warm and heavy on a cold Welsh afternoon, has a very loose weave, and unravels easily – forgiving if you need to unpick stitches, but dangerous, likely to fray: at any moment things might fall apart.

To describe something that’s not quite right, or that’s becoming not quite right, we use this language of un-making. It’s unraveling, we might say. She’s come undone. When I was 16 my mother taught me how to knit and I made half of a fog-purple scarf over winter break before I got restless and gave the hobby up. Around the same time I was listening to a lot of Weezer and the line “If you want to destroy my sweater/Hold this thread as I walk away” got lodged in my head, even after I’d abandoned the project. Sometimes it’s easier to destroy something with a thread than to create something with a thread; sometimes, though, a thread is what the whole world is made of: it’s a lifeline.

Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby is a book about threads, and a book made up of threads: “in the old way of saying it, tales were spun; they were threads that tied things together and from them the fabric of the world was woven.” Solnit spins familiar tales. Her mother gets old, and sick. She herself gets sick, and then well. A child falls down a well and is rescued, but ultimately her rescuer can’t rescue himself. An artist paints an escape route and sets himself free. Scheherazade tells her stories to save her own life and the lives of countless others. People die, or are born, or reborn.

“All stories are really fragments of one story, the metamorphoses,” Solnit tells us, and there’s an undertone of resignation or acceptance of this, of the slow march of time, the inevitability and invisibility of change: the soldier survives his war but is not the same man he was, and the cannons are melted down and reconstituted and eventually become a weapon for another war.

Read the rest here...

On My Desk

As I was moving from one study to another last week I started thinking about how dependent I am on the support of a certain set of books. It's not that I can't work without them, just that if I am working, I prefer to have them within arm's reach. It isn't even necessarily that I'll need to refer to them (though I might) - more that they're part of the comfortable scenery, reminders of my own intentions and ambitions (and conspirators in procrastination: if there's something else I should be doing, you'll quite often find me flipping through one of these books).

Here's what's on my desk:

- The New Oxford Book of English Verse. 1972 edition. Lime green jacket, blue lettering. Chosen and edited by Helen Gardner. Purchased for £4.50 in Hay on Wye a few years ago, during the literary festival, our annual pilgrimage. Once belonged to someone who signed their name (illegible) on the 5th of August, 1978. Some previous owner - maybe the same one - also pedantically (or appropriately?) added "D.B.E., M.A., L.Litt - Prof. of Eng. Lit. Oxford" after Helen Gardner's name on the title page. I'm not always very good with poetry but it seems important to have some to hand, and I have a sentimental attachment to this particular bulky, out of date volume, because this is how I discovered Louis Macneice: flipping through my new purchase on the train from Hereford, the sun setting outside, the carriage cold, I found "Snow": "I peel and portion/A tangerine and spit the pips and feel/The drunkenness of things being various."

- Louis MacNeice's Selected Poems is, of course, also on the desk. It has soft pages and smooth edges; my mother bought it for me one summer day in Bath and just to hold it, let alone to read it, is comforting.

- Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer.

- Zuleika Dobson. An old orange Penguin paperback ("This edition published...in celebration of the Author's eightieth birthday, 24 August 1952") that I bought in Boston, at a used bookshop in Brookline, one hot September night shortly after arriving back from Oxford for the first time. I was using it for research for a while, so it's marked up and peppered with post-it notes bearing cryptic notes like "'Mainly architectural...' + femininity in Oxford" that could, out of context (or even in context) be interpreted to mean almost anything you want. The post-its were bought as a joke from Urban Outfitters and all have obscenities written along the edges, like "Ass" or "Balls" or "Fuck", so that my attempts at scholarship cannot be taken too seriously.

- The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton. I have practically written my own book in the margins of this copy so I hope I never lose it, though in a way to read it fresh (without my own subtext) would probably be a good thing for me.

- The Elements of Style. I only keep this on the desk because I feel I should. I had a professor in college who said we should all own a copy, so I went out and bought one, and I have hardly looked at it since. Still, it lends gravity to the line of volumes, and I do like E.B. White's essays.

- Graham Greene's In Search of a Character. Stolen (or rather rescued) from a school library. It's a slim book but I haven't read the whole thing; I keep it there because of the introduction - "Neither of these journals was kept for publication, but they may have some interest as an indication of the kind of raw material a novelist accumulates. He goes through life discarding more than he retains, but the points he notes are what he considers of creative interest at the moment of occurrence" - and the first line of the Congo journal: "...All I know about the story I am planning is that a man 'turns up', and for that reason alone I find myself on a plane between Brussells and Leopoldville."

-Brideshead Revisited. We have at least three other copies of this in the house but this is the original, bought at a book sale in Santa Ynez, printed in 1945, with its unmistakable Brideshead smell. In the back is a National Express ticket from January 2009, from High Wycombe to Oxford. I have never been to High Wycombe, so this is a complete mystery to me. Over the years this book has come to mean less to me than it used to, but it's still inconceivable that I could ever sit at a desk and write seriously without it being present.

-The Origin of Species.

- An uncorrected proof of Isolarian by James Attlee, which I read during my first summer here. I guess in a way I think Attlee has written the book that I would have liked to write. At first I was sniffy about this, because I wanted to write it, but now I find it rather soothing, because seeing the book there reminds me that I don't have to write that book, - the burden has been lifted! - that I have another book (or other books, I should say) to write instead. Also, it's very good.

- Heart of Darkness. I remember reading this in my last year of high school. I got really into it (some of my notes and essays from that first reading are tucked in the back of this flimsy copy), and I think I mainly keep it visible to remind me that I know how to read, if you see what I mean.

- Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. I think if Kirsty Young asked me what book I'd like on my desert island in addition to the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare, this might be it. I don't know why but I can't seem to grow tired of reading it; the delight intsensifies with each re-reading. The book begins to smell worn and right, the pages stained with sunlight.

- Space and Place by Yi-Fu Tuan. Because the tension described by this line: "Place is security, space is freedom: we are attached to the one and long for the other" is at the heart of (a lot of) what I think and write about.

- Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage. For this line and a million others:

"So I went from making notes on Lawrence to making notes for my novel, by which I mean I went from not working on my book about Lawrence to not working on the novel because all of this to-ing and fro-ing and note-taking actually meant that I never did any work on either book. All I did was switch between two - empty - files on my computer, one conveniently called C:\DHL, the other C:\NOVELand sent myself ping-ponging back and forth between them until, after an hour and a half of this, I would turn off the computer because the worst thing of all, I knew, was to wear myself out in this way. The best thing was to do nothing, to sit calmly, but there was no calm, of course: instead, I felt totally desolate because I realised that I was going to write neither my study of D.H. Lawrence nor my novel."

- Vile Bodies. There's a chapter of this book written entirely in dialogue. It's hilarious and devastating, hilariously devastating, devastatingly hilarious.

- Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers. I know this book pretends to be a detective novel, but it isn't; it's a love story about Oxford. I can't remember who, but someone once told me it was "the best of the books about Oxford", and I'm not sure I could honestly disagree. In any case I do remember that Wodehouse wrote of Sayers that, "It is extraordinary how much better she is than almost all other mystery writers".

- The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton.

- The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard

Anyone else have any books they don't like to work without?

A Change of Scenery

Last night, probably because there was something much more pressing I should have been doing, I started rearranging books. I get this urge periodically, but I don't think it's necessarily symbolic of anything other than an ordinary human restlessness - "we are inconveniently vulnerable to the colour of our wallpaper...our sense of purpose may be derailed by an unfortunate bedspread," as Alain de Botton writes, and our house is wallpapered mostly with books.

I started to think a change of scenery might be nice. I spend so much time in my upstairs study, looking down on the frozen garden in winter, the lawn overrun with elder in summer. But the last month has been a period of intense unproductivity, and maybe, I thought, there was an unfortunate bedspread in the room, derailing my sense of purpose (also, the chair downstairs is much more comfortable than the chair upstairs). So I started the shift to the downstairs study - another periodic compulsion of mine, and an obvious luxury of space. It takes me a while to move from one study to the other, although ostensibly my only tool is a laptop, because I have to arrange the space with great care: I need to make sure I have all the books I might want to refer to, the irrational little display of shells and pens, the candle I almost never light, the box of wax matches from Kenya with which to light the candle I almost never light.

Anyway, as I was arranging my most crucial books downstairs, I looked up, at this towering shelf, floor to ceiling, 9 stories high, and I was overcome with a fear that it would come crashing down on my head if I worked here. At first I thought the fear was arbitrary: I worry about everything from whether my teeth are stained to whether the world will end in a series of nuclear explosions, so why not this, too, plucked at random from the infinite list of possibilities? But it had infected my consciousness, and now I was imagining all kinds of gruesome scenarios: what if I did light that candle, and the shelf collapsed and the books went up in flames and the house burned down? Investigation seemed not just prudent but necessary for survival, so I climbed up on a stool.

The shelves themselves are just slabs of wood, resting on small protuberances which have been drilled into the wall, and my investigation revealed that the protuberances holding up the 7th shelf had come loose. There did not seem to be any immediate danger of anything collapsing, but I was nevertheless vindicated: I had averted disaster! I removed the books from the 7th shelf, set them out in stacks on the mantlepiece and, when they began to overflow even there, next to the fireplace. And now I am literally surrounded by books and only a little less afraid that they'll all come crashing down on me.

The Unavoidable Comedy

"The stupidity of being oneself. The unavoidable comedy of being anyone at all."

I read Philip Roth's The Dying Animal a few days ago. I hated it. I think it's fair to say that. I hated it, but I read it anyway. I found a copy of it on the shelf near the bathroom, the one tucked in the alcove at the top of the stairs, while I was excavating the thick stacks of books, searching for more Paul Auster (on the same shelf I uncovered two copies of Man in the Dark and a hardback copy of Travels in the Scriptorium, so not a fruitless endeavor). Anyway, The Dying Animal. An uncorrected bound proof. It was strange to find it in this state - it was published in 2001, why did we have this uncorrected proof, with its flimsy yellow construction-paper cover? I had never read any Philip Roth before. I know I keep saying that - I had never read any Paul Auster before, I had never read any this before, any that before - and if it highlights the enormous gaps in my literary education, let it also indicate a curiosity, a willingness to admit these gaps and then fill them. But I had never read any Philip Roth before and I thought, from the back cover description, that maybe I would like this one.

I hated it - well, if not immediately, then almost immediately. The pleasure of the opening pages - promising! - was diminished by what came after, diminished by my irrational reaction to the white-haired professor's young lover and her "cream-colored silk blouse". Why should a cream-colored blouse matter so much to me? The repetition, I guess. Pages and pages of her big breasts and her bowlike lips and her startling self-awareness. None of it ultimately incidental, but all of it seemingly gratuitous. Why do I hate her cream-colored silk blouse? But no matter why: I do, and even so I read the book, the whole book, though I'd be lying if I said I hadn't simply skimmed the last few pages, coming to the last lines breathlessly and excitedly. At some point during my reading I remembered that Roth had once been shortlisted for some sort of bad sex award.

But it's this book, not its author, that I object to. And this line - extracted, as it happens, from its sexually explicit setting: "The stupidity of being oneself. The unavoidable comedy of being anyone at all." This I like.

How I Read

"the wall between work and idleness had crumbled to such a degree for him that he scarcely noticed it was there…his best ideas always seemed to come to him when he was away from his desk. In that sense, then, everything fell into the category of work for him. Eating was work, watching basketball games was work, sitting with a friend in a bar at midnight was work. In spite of appearances, there was hardly a moment when he wasn't on the job."

As a couple, our primary consumerist vice seems to be buying, or at least acquiring, books. Even when neither of us has any money, which is often, scarcely a week goes by that we don't have an influx of books, a new intake. I don't know why or even how this is - I don't set out to add to our extensive collection, but between buying and borrowing and receiving gifts, our extensive collection is undeniably expanding. And we have a lot of books in the house that neither of us has read - or that neither of us has read very closely, anyway. I like this because it makes it feel like my home is a bookshop: there are discoveries, as well as re-discoveries, still to be made here.

Paul Auster's Leviathan, from which the quote at the top of this post comes, is one such discovery, made after two months of failed attempts to read a whole good book. I started with Women in Love. I began it in October, during our strange Indian summer. One Saturday afternoon, knowing this was probably the last Saturday afternoon of the year that would be so mild, so sweet-smelling and free, I walked down to the café at the end of our street and sat outside in the sun in my shorts and fedora and ordered a green tea and pretended I was in Morocco, or someplace else, at least, sipping something hot to combat the heat of the day. At the time Lawrence seemed perfect; but later, about halfway through the book, I realized I couldn't bear to read Hermione Roddice's voice described as "sing-song" one more time. If I read that one more time, I thought, I will crack up, I will break down. I'm not giving Lawrence up forever: just until I get a grip on myself, I thought.

So, remembering my thrill upon discovering Margaret Drabble earlier in the year, I picked up Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook. The problem here, I told myself after just a few pages, really, was the size of the book: it didn't slip easily into my handbag, it was hard to hold open with one hand. I couldn't go on; I would simply have to come back to it later, when I was feeling more physically able, when my strength had returned.

The perfect antidote to this problem was bound to be Paul Harding's Tinkers - a slim, modern book, just 191 pages long, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, a first novel by a man who holds a creative writing MFA. And it turned out to be not bad, not bad at all, but not right, not quite right. I'm not giving this one up forever either: just until it's what I need, which might be next week or might be next decade.

You never know with books, is the thing: sometimes it's just right to read something and sometimes it's not. It's a lazy way of reading, yes, and I know too that my inability to commit to one book is more a symptom of my currently unpredictable attention span than anything else. But the problem for me is that reading is a competitive sport, not an idle pastime; I feel the effects very keenly, and the desire to leap up off the chair and begin writing something of my own, or to go for a vigorous walk along the river while I contemplate what I've just read, is often so strong that I have to suppress it every two or three pages. In the pub, the living room, the park, you can see me glancing up every few minutes, like a startled meerkat, staring at the world and seeing it anew, over and over again. So the fundamental pleasure of reading is enhanced by reading something which is personally timely; the problem is identifying what is personally timely. Who would have guessed that I would happily consume all of Amsterdam in one sitting a few weeks ago? I certainly wouldn't; I picked it up simply because it was there, on the coffee table.

But the other night I went calmly over to a shelf in our lounge and pulled Leviathan from between The Complete Novels of Jane Austen and Toby Young's How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, where it had been inexplicably resting for several years. I don't know why I haven't read it sooner, or why now is exactly the right time to read it, but I am utterly transfixed by it, which is a good feeling, a refreshing feeling. And I'm reminded that reading is part of the job, yes - as much as eating or having a drink with a friend, both of which I also count as work - but, like those things, it is also not just a part of the job.

Down the Rabbit Hole of Distraction

For the past few weeks I have been trying to capture the leaves falling from the trees outside my study window on video. This is harder than it sounds; they come off in bursts, because of a gust of wind, and by the time I realize it's happening it's already happened. This is like Autumn itself: I always think how much I love it, the way the leaves glow and the air goes crisp, and how much I'm going to take advantage of it this year, really go for walks, really explore and enjoy it. And then one day I am at my desk, trying to capture the last yellow leaves as they come down, and I realize that I've missed it! Again! Already the tree nearest me is bare, save a single red leaf on the tip of a single branch, and soon the cherry trees too will be naked.

So I still have no satisfactory video footage of the leaves falling from the trees outside my study window. I do have lots of short video clips of nothing happening. Someday I will find them and wonder why they're there. I will wonder this for about ten seconds, and then I will delete them because they're taking up space, and who wants ten short video clips of the view they see every day?


Trying to capture on video something which I cannot capture on video is just one of a number of things I've been distracting myself with lately. (By the way, is that the correct phrase - "on video"? It seems curiously analog for a process which involves nothing more than tapping the screen of my iPhone). The problem is that I do actually have something I need to be concentrating on (namely, writing the book which is actually going to be published). I don't mean that I can't concentrate (I can concentrate, I sat in the same chair for several hours on Sunday and read Ian McEwan's Amsterdam in its entirety - not a long novel, but certainly an act which requires a certain degree of concentration). I just mean that I can't see the connections between what I'm concentrating on very well. So on the one hand I have the thing that I'm mostly working on, the thing where all of my attention should be but isn't, quite. (Is all of anyone's attention ever on just one thing? At least part of mine is always on worrying about whether or not I'm paying the thing I need to pay attention to enough attention instead of the thing itself.) And then on the other hand I have these other things on the fringes, which are infringing on my ability to think clearly about anything.


One day, convinced that nothing in the world could compel me to do good work, so why bother, I watch an old episode of Silent Witness over lunch. I'm still at my desk, which makes it seem like I haven't thrown the towel in quite yet, or at least, I haven't thrown all of the towel in, I'm still clutching on to one corner, like it's a lifeline. Last week was particularly busy, I tell myself, so I deserve this hour (which turns inevitably into three). But for how long can you honestly say you 'deserve' something like that? When has the debt been repaid?

Anyway, watching old episodes of anything is a dangerous game for me. When I'm in the throes of a TV show obsession I am worryingly unable to cope with real life. And as a matter of fact I've been spending quite a lot of time watching old episodes of Silent Witness recently. After that first sneaky hour a number of others follow, until they are not sneaky anymore. I am watching an episode at lunch, an episode after lunch, an episode before dinner, an episode during dinner, an episode after dinner. I could pretend that I'm trying to find something relevant in it; that any distraction can actually be warped by willpower into something tangentially but unmistakably useful. I'm studying character development, storytelling through cinematography, whatever. But in the interest of being honest, I'll tell you the truth, which is that I mostly watch it for the pretty faces.

Last night (or maybe this morning, at about 2 am, just before I fell asleep and had fitful dreams about solving a crime which culminated in two exactly identical bodies lying on the mortuary slabs - not twins, just two versions of the same body) - it occurred to me that I also actually just like the show. There's no shortage of unrealistic television dramas about people who solve crimes and cut up dead bodies and do vaguely sciencey shit - CSI, the other CSI, the other CSI, and so on - but this one, for whatever reason, is my favorite. It doesn't make me squeamish, which it should (paper cuts make me squeamish, let alone fake autopsies). It doesn't frighten me, particularly. It walks a fine line between being too ridiculous to be worth watching and representing very finely some aspects of the human condition - elements of the soap opera combined with elements of an Ian McEwan novel, perhaps.

Between episodes, I spend some time thinking about what it means that there are so many of these kinds of shows out there and so many people watching them. I'm not qualified to speculate on this, of course. I'm sure someone somewhere has done a study on it, or written an article. But in my concentration, I don't think to look it up. The crime element explains some of the apparently endless appeal (a number of these kinds of series have been running for over a decade) - we're drawn to mysteries, aren't we, they're easy to make compelling even in an hour-long slot. But beyond that is the question of whether it is morbid or wise to surround ourselves with all of these fictional representations of mortality all of the time. These shows may not be subtle, they may not be what astute critics would sneeringly call "good television", they may stretch the limits of our willingness to suspend disbelief, but at the core is the simple truth of life ending in death. Blah blah blah.

But yeah. Basically what it comes down to is this: I like the show because when Tom Ward and Emilia Fox smile at each other over a microscope or a corpse, it makes me smile, too.


To try to trick myself into thinking about the thing I should be thinking about (that's a retrospective excuse, of course), I start a side project. Or, at least, even though it isn't fully formed as an idea in my head yet, I describe the latest thing that's distracting me from the thing I really need to concentrate on as a "side project" in order to validate it (everyone needs a hobby, right? So why can't the side project just be my hobby?). I try not to make it seem too concrete, because the point at which it becomes concrete is the point at which I need to acknowledge either that it is A Thing I'm Going To Run With or A Thing I'm Going To Put On The Back Burner or, worst of all but probably most likely, Not Really A Thing At All. I try to use words that are so ambiguous that stringing them together adds no meaning: loosely speaking, I say to myself, it's about death, depression, anxiety, memory, and purpose(lessness). It's really very funny to me, but I don't know why. I haven't yet been able to pinpoint precisely what it is that makes me laugh about this.

Then, of course, I find this piece about how to write funny by Steve Almond. "As a rule," writes Almond, "the sadder the material, the funnier the prose."

That's it, that's the thing, the idea that's distracting me, or at least that's the idea that happens to be distracting me in the moment I read it. Take Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies, which for an unrelated reason has been heavily on my mind lately. No matter how many times I read it (I've lost count, I'm afraid to say), it always makes me laugh. That's a good sign: if its jokes (which seems woefully the wrong word here) relied solely on something theatrical, circumstantial - misunderstandings, Shakespearean situations - surely their funniness would, gradually, start to diminish. One can generally only be delighted by an engineered joke for so long (wordplay is another matter). But the funniest bits of Vile Bodies are the saddest bits - and the book is a tragedy, really.

There's also Geoff Dyer, who's at his funniest when describing - well, anything, but particularly those things which on the surface appear quite serious: anxiety, depression, aging, loneliness, ruin(s). Here he is writing about having a nervous breakdown in Detroit. It's one of the saddest and funniest things I've ever read:

It was raining outside. Not a howling storm, just steady drizzle. The kind of rain that yields no sense of when it might ease up, that seems to be keeping itself in reserve so that it can, if necessary, keep going till the end of time. 'It was raining outside.' Gore Vidal derides someone for writing a sentence like that, feigning surprise or relief that it was not raining inside. But that day in the Clique I looked down and saw that it was raining inside as well as outside. My egg-smeared plate was becoming wet. Drops of water were falling on to my toast, moistening my eggy hash browns. As I looked it rained harder and I could not see. I was crying, not sobbing, just this steady leak of tears. And then, as I realized I was crying, I felt that I was in danger of sobbing. I got a grip on myself, stopped the leak, staunched it. I ate my wet eggs and looked at the rain outside, hoping that would take my mind off the rain inside. I'm having a breakdown, I said to myself, I'm having a breakdown while having breakfast. I said this to myself to calm myself down, to try to familiarize and render ordinary the extraordinary turn of events that had led to this internal rain. I stifled my sobs and ate my breakfast which did not taste any worse because I was having a nervous breakdown. When I had finished the eggs I wiped my knife with a napkin and spread butter and apricot jelly on the whole-wheat toast. I finished the rest of my coffee. I calmed down. I was no longer leaking tears but I was no less distraught now than when I was having a nervous breakdown, which I was still having even though I had, to a degree, managed to regain control of myself.

Why is it funny? You might ask that; I've asked myself that. But you might just as well ask why it's sad. The tragedy is in the comedy and the comedy is in the tragedy. That's right, isn't it? Like Lorrie Moore (who Almond also mentions in his article). What makes A Gate at the Stairs so funny? Certainly not its wretched outcome - or maybe that's precisely why it's funny. Funny for not being funny, like everything else. When I was about six years old my best friend broke her arm trying to do a back handspring in our living room. For some awful reason I began to laugh. I ran into my room with our other friend, another witness, and we giggled inconsolably, behind a shut door. I did not find it funny that my friend was scared, in pain. But something about the inevitability of the situation, perhaps, something about the irreversibility of it, elicited an involuntarily hysterical reaction - like the scene in Outnumbered where Sue submits to a fit of laughter at a funeral.

"So why are these books so funny?" Almond asks, after listing his own favorite funny books - The Catcher in the Rye, Money, Birds of America. "To begin with, because their authors reject the very premise that suffering should be treated only as an occasion for sorrow. They view suffering as something more like an inevitable cosmic joke, one that binds us all...Their characters make us laugh because they tell us the truth at a velocity that exceeds our normal standards of insight. And because they continually violate the normal boundaries of decorum, by confessing thoughts and feelings the rest of us spend our lives concealing. We're both shocked and gratified at their candor, and so we laugh."


I wish I could connect this to what I started writing about here, but as I've said, the bit of my brain that makes connections between things isn't doing its job. You could blame all the TV or the navel-gazing or the short days or the pleasantly dull routine I've settled into or whatever, but I don't really think it's symptomatic of anything; it's just the way things are at the moment.

Anyway that's more or less what's been going on in my head/life for the last few weeks.

A Life in Letters

On Monday evening we went to Mayfair for the launch of P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters by Dr. Sophie Ratcliffe.

I had the immense pleasure of working, a little, on the book. About two years ago, Sophie asked me if I'd like to be her research assistant. She was heavily pregnant with her first child, and I would show up at her house in the early afternoon to do some Wodehouse. It was a very hot summer, and sometimes we'd take a break to drink elderflower cordial and watch Wimbledon; Andy Murray was doing very well, I seem to remember, until he one day he wasn't.

Then this little creature - a baby boy - materialized. The thing I always think about babies is how suddenly they appear, even after nine months of anticipation. Where there had been no one, there was someone: a son, an actual human being. It sounds stupid - of course you know this is how birth works. But when I returned to recommence the Wodehouse work, I kept thinking: last time I was in this house this child did not exist. And now this child does exist.

I think books might be a little the same way: not as momentous, but equally surprising, even after all that time. My involvement was ad hoc, part time, and only spans the last two years; but this book has been in the works for nearly six years. There were a lot of letters, and consequently, even after editing (I can tell you with some confidence that once you've read one of the elderly Wodehouse's letters listing various physical ailments, you've basically read all of the elderly Wodehouse's letters listing various physical ailments), it's a big book. ("I have been looking through my diary," Wodehouse writes to Denis Mackail in 1946, "and I realize that I must be one of the world's great correspondents. This is the 43rd letter I have written this month, and my monthly average for the last year has been over thirty"). So its presence now on my desk seems miraculous to me, even though, not so long ago, I delivered the manuscript to Random House (it was so big I had to carry it in a rucksack) after Sophie had made some final edits, and it seemed at that point a very real thing.

Anyhow, I didn't know the first thing about babies, and to be honest I didn't know all that much about Wodehouse, either, but Sophie was kind enough to believe in my ability to pick up on the basics of both, and I spent many happy hours pushing a pram, making tea, steaming milk bottles, leafing through old copies of Punch and The Captain at the Bodleian, researching obscure silent film stars, transcribing letters, reading and re-reading passages from Robert McCrum's epic biography, formatting footnotes. It was easily the best, most enjoyable and ultimately satisfying work I have ever had the honor of being allowed to do.

In fact I've spent the last two years feeling a little like I'm living in Wodehouse's backyard, like I have this view of him that no one else has. I'm not even sure I like Wodehouse, as a man, all the time, but I feel close to him, or to his words, anyway. Perhaps the joy of letters is not just their historical and academic importance, but the way you can sometimes be made to feel that a letter was, in a way, meant for you - how comforting as a writer, for instance, to read the insecurities of such a great author. "Gosh, Bill, will one never learn to write?" wonders Wodehouse in 1954, even after so many successes. Gosh, I tell myself, often, and after very few successes: will one never learn to write?

I first read Wodehouse in my teens; I was lonely, and obsessed by the discrepancy between what I perceived to be the beauty of the early 20th century, as embodied by the tragic decadence of, say, Brideshead Revisited, and the ugliness of these very early days of the 21st century. I had voluntarily exiled myself from the community of my peers; I forced them to reject me by rejecting them first. Instead of joining in, I chose to live simultaneously in the past (I wrote by copying the cadences of Agatha Christie and Evelyn Waugh - something I'm not sure even now I've been able to fully correct) and the future (I worked hard in high school so that I could get into college so that I could be successful in whatever my chosen career was, which seems comic now).

What appealed to me about Wodehouse, of course, was the nostalgia. "Let's face it," Wodehouse writes in 1973,

"the world I write about, always a small one, - one of the smallest I ever met, as Bertie Wooster would say, - is now not even small, it is nonexistent...This is pointed out to me every time a new book of mine dealing with the Drones Club and the lads who congregate there is published. 'Edwardian' the critics cry, and I shuffle my feet and blush a good deal and say 'Yes, I suppose you're right.'...But sometimes I am in a more defiant mood. Mine, I protest, are historical novels."

Someone better versed in 20th century British history than myself might argue that the world Wodehouse wrote about had never existed at all, but I'm not sure matters. The nostalgia for it is as fresh now as it was in 1973 or 1933. On Monday I found myself face-to-face with Norman Murphy, a man of seemingly limitless knowledge about Wodehouse. He is old and bright eyed; he approached me after the speeches, caught me starting my second glass of wine, leaning against a stack of books on a table, trying to look nonchalant and friendly at the same time. He asked who I was; I told him, or at least I said my name, and my reason for being here.

"Ah," he said. "Now, what did you read, and where did you read it?"

I did not point out, but I could have pointed out, I guess, that Wodehouse never went to Oxbridge, either. I suppose in a sense I had passed a test simply by understanding what he was asking (later, I told the story to a friend of mine who really did go to Oxford; "I don't get it," he said). I felt revolted by the antiquated assumption that, in order to contribute to anything worth contributing to, one must have read a subject at an appropriate institution (I was educated in Boston, but not even at Harvard!). But a part of me felt also comforted, or at least sympathetic: it was an act of nostalgia, I felt, to ask such a question, in such a way. After all, I had felt so initially drawn to Oxford as a place because it placed me as near a thing that doesn't exist (the Oxford of literature) as I could be; my living here, in England, was in a way also an act of nostalgia.

To be contrary (but also truthful), I told Murphy that I had grown up in California ("I think Californian scenery is the most loathsome on earth," Wodehouse wrote while living in Hollywood). I told him I was writing a book about a rock n' roll band. I disagreed when he suggested that Beerbohm's fictional Judas College was based on Christ Church. And he was, I flatter myself, delighted and horrified in equal measure.

The question people often ask, when confronted with this book, or a book like this, a book of correspondence, is what will happen next. Will there be any more lives in letters? Is this one of the last? "A Life in Email," after all, doesn't have the same gravitas.

I find the question doesn't really interest me. Perhaps the teenage me, speeding through the loathsome, beautiful California landscape, wanting to be a part of the modern world and reject it at the same time, would have come down on the side of the doubters, the ones who say that because tweets are disposable, the art of correspondence has died. Now, though, I remain hopeful that there will nearly always be enough contradiction in the world, and enough nostalgia, to keep correspondence - whatever that may come to mean - alive. And in the meantime I mean to further develop my relationship with Wodehouse by reading his letters again, in their final form, and seeing what narrative makes itself apparent this time.

In My Country: Notes on Hearing Geoff Dyer speak about Americans

Last week I went to London to hear Geoff Dyer speak about Americans. I didn't have any particular desire to hear Geoff Dyer speak about Americans, but I did - almost desperately - want to hear Geoff Dyer speak, and I did want to know what The School of Life's secular sermons are like, so I travelled from the Cowley Road to Conway Hall early on a Sunday morning. It was one of those lukewarm September days. I sat at the front of the hall, perhaps wanting to be noticed, to be (perceived as) bold. A woman in a red and blue military-style jacket (like a drum major's uniform, perhaps, if I knew what a drum major's uniform looked like, or even really what a drum major was) stood before us. She wanted us to sing; this really was a sermon, and there were hymns. She said she had changed a little bit of the first hymn - Sinatra's "New York, New York", lyrics printed in our pamphlets - and invited Ed, her small blond pianist, to play a few bars so that we could practice the modified verse.

We sang. It still sounded like a hymn, like an English hymn sung in an English church on a rainy English sunday. It had that hymn-rhythm; which is to say, no rhythm at all. I don't know much about singing, but I'm pretty sure that the way the English sing their hymns makes virtually no sense unless you've grown up singing them that way.

After we sang, I felt good; singing in public always makes me feel this way, as if I have achieved some kind of victory (in preschool I was once admonished to the point of tears for mouthing the words to a song rather than singing them out loud). But there was something unnerving about the whole thing, too. There was something strange about this woman, in her drum major's jacket, with her Shirley Temple curls and her peppy voice, imploring us to loosen up a little, shake our limbs a little. I did not want to shake my arms or my legs like a chicken; I certainly did not want to do so repeatedly, and I most certainly did not want have to pay the bald man sitting next to me a compliment, not because I didn't think he was worthy of a compliment, but because the compliment would inevitably be forced, even if meant - I like your shirt, I like your blazer, you have a nice smile - and therefore quite meaningless. Moreover, the first thing that had popped into my head was, "I like your hair," which was definitely not something you could say to a bald man you had never met before. So I just looked the other way; it was easy, I pretended I was on the tube, trying to avoid looking at the person across the aisle whose knees were touching mine.

And the bald man turned to the curly-haired man behind us and said: "I like your hair." And the curly-haired man said to the bald man, "That's a great shirt!" And it was a great shirt; I hadn't noticed before, but it was a great shirt now that the curly-haired man had mentioned it.


Then Geoff Dyer - who, even though he makes frequent reference to being tall and thin, is much taller and thinner than you imagine he is - was on the stage, at the pulpit, preaching, or, rather, speaking. He sounded a little like he might be suffering from the onset or aftermath of a mild early Autumn cold; occasionally he paused to sip from a tall glass of water. He told some anecdotes, about Americans, about the British, about the time he went to Big Sur and stood in silence on a bluff overlooking a bank of fog so thick it obscured the sea, everything, and thought how peaceful it was until an American man appeared on the scene and boomed into the quiet: "Sure is peaceful, isn't it!" I knew I'd remember that anecdote, not because it meant anything much but because I, too, have been to Big Sur and been impressed by the way the fog rolls in and covers the coast but allows you this God-like view over it, this view that makes you think that virtually anything could be going on below you but you are above it, on the sun-bleached hillsides, in the sun. Well, yes, I thought: that is my country.


But then, I don't really know my own country. I've probably seen more of England - percentage-wise, at least - than I have of the USA.

Last summer, on our way to Toronto, we had a layover in Minneapolis, and so, for the first time in a long time, I was in my country - though of course I had never been there before, to Minneapolis, to anywhere near Minneapolis.

I passed through immigration. The officer, who looked about my age, did not seemed inclined to interrogate me, but neither did he seemed inclined to let me through without at least making an attempt to understand the apparently complicated circumstances under which I found myself now here, in our country but his city.

"So you live in the UK?" he said, flipping through passport pages, looking at faded stamps and expired visas.

"Yes," I said.

"But you're going to Canada."

"Yes. For a wedding. But not mine," I added. I laughed, he didn't. Maybe he was thinking it was perfectly plausible that I was flying to Toronto via Minneapolis for my own wedding to an Englishman. For some reason I started to think, what would happen if I just made a run for it? Would they catch me? Would they detain me? Would I go to jail? How would I explain it?

"So you live in the UK and you're going to Canada and you're not staying in Minneapolis?" he summarized.

"Yes," I said. And he stamped my US passport, and I was home, geographically if not emotionally.

Thirsty in the departures lounge, I bought a bottle of Aquafina water with two stray dollar bills in my wallet. It reminded me of being in high school, buying bottles of water from the vending machine outside the gym during the long, hot volleyball season, which always began in an Indian summer. We would sweat our way through two hours of scrimmages and sprints and inspirational speeches. I was 14 on 9/11 and I remember that afternoon, though we'd spent all day in front of television screens, which they'd produced as if by magic and hauled into all the classrooms, it was business as usual. Drills and sit-ups and bottles of Aquafina from the vending machine. Sometimes it was so hot that we would go across to the pool after practice and leap in. Then I'd spend the long drive home wet, my t-shirt stuck to my sports bra, my hair smelling of chlorine and perspiration.

So Minneapolis is not where I’m from, but in a way, it’s part of where I’m from. The truth is that when I say "my country", what I really mean is "my parents' house," "the farm my best friend grew up on," "the bit of Boston I used to live in," "the other bit of Boston I used to live in." All of these tiny, disconnected places, forming a patchwork map, my map. I love my map. I love those places. I feel patriotic about street corners, particular coves and hilltops, parks and benches and cafés and long winding roads. But I don't know what Americans are like; I don't know what America is like. I don't know what to think of my country as a whole. I don't even know how to see my country as a whole.


I guess the trouble with being an American abroad is that you never know where you stand. Everything depends on politics, and politics cannot be counted on.

In his sermon, Dyer alluded to a period - four or five years ago, when the pound was worth twice what the dollar was worth, when animosity towards George Bush was at a high - during which Americans were treated with a much chillier, more patronizing attitude. I remember that period. That was when I first came here. I was defensive, yes, but I always imagined that people looked at you a bit differently if you were American. It was polite in those days (it may still be polite, in fact) to ask if someone was Canadian if you discerned a North American accent. I remember an aggressive and insecure compére at a comedy show, mistaking my sarcasm for genuine insult, telling me I was just another one of these Americans, spending a few weeks here, pretending to know everything, and why didn't I just go back to where I'd come from? And then, later, realizing his mistake, he was so apologetic ("the cult of the apology," Dyer called it, this unmistakably British instinct - "the human equivalent of birdsong") that I couldn't help but feel some kind of perverse sympathy for him.

But here we are now, and things have changed, and authors are giving talks in praise of Americans. And in a few years, or a few weeks, something else will change, attitudes will shift, and I, who has not moved, will stand somewhere else.


Then there is the issue of friendliness. The American smile. Updike's quip: "America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy". I started to think about this. As I thought, I realized that I was probably, even in that moment, quite happy to be in London on a sunny Sunday morning listening to one of my favorite authors dole out praise for my countrymen, scowling. I am nearly always scowling. When I work, when I sit, relaxed and reading or listening, my face contorts in a way that is comfortable for me but uncomfortable for everyone else; I'm often asked if I'm okay. Yes, of course I'm okay, I say, can't you tell?

Needless to say, I don't have an American smile. I was not invited to join the cult as a child, I missed the meetings where the mechanics of the smile were discussed and practiced until they became an instinct.

I used to work at a school in Oxford. About half of our adult students were Americans doing a semester abroad; the other half came from all over the world to study English. One of my many menial tasks was to print student photos onto ID cards. Even before you checked the files, you could always tell the Americans from the rest, especially the girls: they were the ones with shiny grins as big as the moon, wide eyes, flat hair, heads cocked at a flattering angle. They were not prettier than anyone else - very often the opposite - but they always gave the impression of being prettier than everyone else.

As I listened to Dyer speak about the charm of Americans, I wondered if maybe it wasn't real charm, not always; maybe sometimes it was the illusion of charm, like those girls smiling up at me from their ID cards, pretending to be prettier than everyone else and therefore convincing me, convincing all of us, that they were.

Even I am charmed when I go back to the US; I am always amazed that shopkeepers want to have such long and involved conversations with me, that cashiers want to make eye contact with me, that the girl at the bank is so genuinely curious about my weekend plans. But I feel like I don't know how to trick myself into being charming. I feel, frankly, like I'm not a very good American, with my scowl and my shyness and my sorries (I may not be part of the cult of the smile, but I am definitely part of the cult of the apology).

Lately, though I've been practicing being more American. I've been trying to accentuate my accent, for instance, or to raise my voice above a whisper in the pub. I suppose that the longer I'm here the more strongly I feel the compulsion to assert the fact that I'm from there, to solidify my standing as an outsider even while I feel increasingly like I am part of something.


After the sermon was over, after we sang a final hymn, I stood in line to waiting to ask Geoff Dyer to sign a book. I hate asking authors I love to sign books. I'm always hoping that, somehow, perhaps by looking deep into my eyes, they'll discern that I'm special, that my appreciation for their work is special, that we could be friends, even. At the same time, I know it's a pointless thing to do: I'm not trying to increase the value of my library, and I'm under no illusion that because an author has scribbled "to Miranda" on the title page, we have any kind of relationship.

But as I stood there before him, presenting my book and my nervous smile, I made a conscious effort to try to be more American than I might ordinarily be. I began to smile and to speak. I gushed about how much I liked his work. I said my name so quickly (perhaps, I hoped, so American-ly) that he had to ask me to repeat it. He signed my book. I said, "have a nice day!" And then I sped off with my heart thumping for no obvious reason, sure I'd made a fool of myself.

Later, waiting for the bus home, sipping a too-large chai latté like I used to do in college, the sun shining limply over Notting Hill, I forgot to care about whether or not I had made a fool of myself. I thought of this, by Jawaharlal Nehru: "But in my own country, also, sometimes, I have an exile's feeling." I figured that really, the only country I could claim any ownership of was the one that's made of memory.


I've been talking about collaborating with my lovely musical friends Little Fish for a while now. Like most good ideas, it was born in a pub after a few pints, and now it's an actual real thing: I'm writing a book! With them! It's called The New Original Little Fish Paper Club Handbook™, though it isn't exactly a handbook. The subtitle is "essays on a rock n' roll band", which is the closest we've come to describing it succinctly, and it's being published through Unbound, which means that you - and anyone you know - can help make it happen.

I wrote about Unbound just after they launched in May, and I'm thrilled to be working with them for all of the reasons I outlined in my original post. But I'm particularly pleased to be working with them on this project, because there's a lot of overlap between the reasons that Unbound was set up and the reasons that Little Fish - who've toured all over the world supporting acts like Supergrass, Placebo, Alice in Chains, Courtney Love and Blondie - chose to leave their label earlier this year, settle down in Oxford, and pursue an independent career. The intention of our book is not to cast the music industry as the big bad wolf, or to suggest that everyone should take a more DIY approach. But we do intend to explore the implications of independence, and the questions it raises, particularly for a band - questions like, "why do we play music?", "how do we make a living doing this?", and, indeed, "what is a living?". (These questions, by the way, are totally transferable: as a writer, I ask myself variations of them every day).

We officially launched the project on Monday evening at an event in Notting Hill with a short pitch and a performance by Little Fish. You can watch the pitch video, read more about the project (including a short excerpt) and pledge your support (if you decide you want to) on the Unbound site. A million very heartfelt thanks to everyone who has supported or intends to support the project, or encouraged us in any other way, however small. It means a lot to me and to Little Fish.

Here's an excerpt from the pitch and then I promise I'll shut up about this for at least five minutes:

The New Original Little Fish Paper Club Handbook™ is a book about Little Fish, but it's also a book about making it work, making your own way, and making stuff - music, comics, t-shirts, fishy paper squares, stickers, badges, vinyl, stop-motion animations, even books. It's about declaring your independence and rewriting the myths you live by.

You can be part of the Little Fish story by pledging your support. Supporters will get access to a shedful of updates, photos, videos, and free exclusive downloads. And Little Fish will get the chance to share what they know - and don't know - about what it means to be a band.

The Future of Memory, the Memory of Place

One night I went for a walk, to dislodge some words that had got stuck at the very back of my head, in the least accessible place. I took my camera and walked down the Iffley Road at sunset. It happened to be a very fine sunset, with pink bleeding into the horizon and gold clouds over the track where Roger Bannister ran his sub-4-minute mile. I took a few photos. I thought maybe it would help if I tried to look at the city, or even the world, from a photographer's point of view, but apart from the sunset I was having a hard time figuring out what to take a photo of. It didn't help that the city was basically empty; it made everything feel static. Very few people seemed to be out enjoying the dregs of summer as I was out enjoying the dregs of summer.

Anyone who was outside, though, was also taking photographs. I began to feel a kind of camaraderie. A camera-raderie, maybe. On Magdalen Bridge a girl on a pale blue Pashley paused to pull a camera from her handbag. In Radcliffe Square, the big Camera dwarfing my little camera, bells began to ring, and I stood taking pointless beautiful photographs, listening to the bells ringing. A family wandered past; I got their silhouettes in some of my shots. They were also taking photographs, naturally: they were tourists, or at least, I imagined they were tourists, because they looked tourist-like, whatever that meant. But I had to stop myself thinking like this when I saw that I could also seem to be a tourist, and in a way I still was a tourist, even after four years, and I would still be one after forty, too. The family skirted around me and went to stand for a long time outside All Souls, though there is nothing much to see there; I have often looked through the gates of All Souls and never seen a soul.

Some girls were taking photographs under the Bridge of Sighs. Three of them stood in a line and jumped up obediently as the fourth took a photo, and then they changed configuration, so the one taking the photo could also be in a photo. I thought it was funny, and a little sad, that no matter how many times they did this, one of them would still always be missing from the photograph.

I went down Queen's Lane, liking the sound of my rubber soles on the street, which was notable for being the only sound I could now hear. When I first started riding a bicycle in the city I had crashed twice in the same spot, trying to squeeze through a narrow gate. Now I had been cycling for years, and I had forgotten what it was like to walk here.


Outside the Grand Café, I considered the cocktail menu. I did not want a cocktail. I thought about having a glass of white wine, though I can never see the point of drinking a glass of wine you don't love unless you've got food to go with it. I wasn't at all sure they would have a white wine that I would love, particularly when I didn't even really feel like having white wine. In fact I didn't know if I wanted to go in at all. Nevertheless I went in, and ordered a Kir Royal, and sat in front of a big mirror, on a wicker chair, and read from Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. A party in Venice, cocaine, champagne, sex. I read for the duration of my Kir Royal and then felt obliged either to order another or to leave, even though it was still practically empty, just a couple sitting by the window and a pair of girls at the bar. I might well have been on my own, I thought. I did sort of want another, I could have stayed in Venice for longer, but in the end I brought my empty glass to the bar and left.


I crossed the road thinking I might like to take a bus home, but I had just missed one and I did not immediately see another coming, so I put some music on and walked home, where I finished the Venice section of the book and moved on to the India section: not just a change of scenery, but also a shift in perspective, a change from "he" to "I". I read:

"Every atom of the air is saturated by history that isn't even history, myth, so a temple built today looks, overnight, as if it's been there since the dawn of time. Every morning is the dawn of time, I wrote in my notebook. Every day is the whole of time."

I made a note of it, because in a way it corresponded to a thought I'd been having, or trying to have, about memory and place. It made me think, in fact, of the epigraph to another Geoff Dyer book, The Missing of the Somme:

"Remember: the past won't fit into memory without something left over; it must have a future"

That was something by Joseph Brodsky. In Jeff in Venice, Dyer writes that "Jeff had never read Brodsky" - but of course Geoff must have, or must at least have read that particular bit of Brodsky and identified it as relevant. I guess sometimes it's better to have a quote without context; it's more malleable, it's why epigraphs work. I love epigraphs in books, but in fact I rarely read them; I always think the epigraph is a representation of the private relationship the author has with a text, and kind of irrelevant to the relationship that the reader will develop with that same text. It's like saying, "hey, in my head this complements what you're about to read. In your head it may have nothing to do with it. Whatever."


Maybe it's like writing about place: the place is actually irrelevant to everyone else. I used to like reading about Paris, before I had ever been to Paris, just to see the names of streets and squares that meant nothing to me. I don't think it much mattered that when I first read A Moveable Feast I didn't know where the Place Saint-Michel was, hadn't yet sat in a café there with my lover, both of us poor and a little hungry, sucking down café au laits in the late summer heat. But then I went through a phase of thinking that context was paramount, that to really read a book, it was essential to know the place it was about, to have a map of memories in your head (to "anchor you", I thought).

But then every time I read a book about Oxford and came upon a passage about the Radcliffe Camera or the High Street or the Grand Café or the Cowley Road I would have to go back through my own catalog of experiences, find a corresponding situation, consider the gap or overlap between one writer's view and my own. And that can be tiring.


Every day is the whole of time - the thought I had been trying to have was simply this: places trap memory by accumulating it. Like rain collecting in a bucket with infinite capacity. Like Tennyson - "I am a part of all that I have met." And part of a memory is also the future of that memory. Places are haunted by ghosts, but also by those who are still alive.

Before bed I wondered how much of our description of place has nothing to do with place, and everything to do with the "I" or the "he". I've never been to India, but I've been to a place where "every atom of the air is saturated by history that isn't even history, myth". But maybe I haven't; maybe that is just a state of mind, a state of mind you could be in wherever you were in the world.

In defense of youth

Proof that the grass really is always greener: Martha Southgate writing about age over at The Millions. "The next time a literary magazine wants to bestow a mantle," Southgate concludes, "here’s hoping the requirements will be: 'Applicants must be over 40 and have published at least one book.'" I've long had an uneasy relationship with age. I've always been younger than the people I spend time with (I am an only child, I skipped a grade, I graduated early from college) and so have often felt that I'm running to catch up, which maybe in part has led me to feel, unlike Southgate, that youth is - despite what fashion magazines and plastic surgeons might say - actually undervalued. Or rather that it is, rightly or wrongly, valued aesthetically but not intellectually. That it's possible to diminish any achievement of the young simply by saying "oh, but he's still young".

My reaction to The New Yorker's 20 under 40 list last year was to heatedly point out to anyone who would listen that only two of the twenty (Téa Obreht, 24, and Karen Russell, 28) were in their 20s; the remaining eighteen were in their 30s. I understand why, logically, there are likely to be more older writers than younger writers on a list like that (if there's a statistic to prove or refute that, please let me know), but it seemed a shame that The New Yorker could find only two 20-somethings worthy of inclusion on the list.

I don't think that 20-somethings write better. I understand very well Southgate's point that "with any luck, your later novels will be better than your first". And I will happily admit that there are pieces of mine I wrote just four or five years ago now that seem at best trite, at worst abominable, to me now. But I do worry that perhaps we have a fear of transparency, of visualizing or exposing growth and change, whether of a manuscript or of an author herself. I worry that we think literary heroes are better left on the pedestal, and if their early work shows less promise than their later work, we ought to learn from this, to encourage new writers to wait, possibly indefinitely, for the right time to say something.

If we encourage this, we may indeed end up with fewer, better books by slightly older authors. But what do we lose?

Alain de Botton's first book, Essays in Love, was written and published when he was in his early 20s. It is arguably not as substantive as his later work, but I'm glad it was published, partly because it gives us a point of reference, an enhanced understanding of de Botton himself, but more because it gives us a sense of immediacy. "Most hot young things," wites the 36-year-old author William Giraldi, "have nothing of value to say." Maybe. But it depends on how we define value. I would venture to say that most hot young things probably do have something of value to say about youth, for instance, because they are there, in the thick of it. What they write about it is valuable as a piece of documentation. There is value in writing about something as it happens, just as there is value in waiting and reflecting.

Moreover, writers have a habit of hating their own work. In a 1959 preface to Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh regretted the "rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a full stomach I find distasteful". And no doubt if an author lived forever, he'd consider his early work, published when he was just a hot young thing of 200, to be ill-informed and empty.

I guess as with everything, there's a balance to be struck.

Notes on Reading Geoff Dyer in Devon

1. I've been reading Geoff Dyer's Yoga for People who Can't be Bothered to Do it. I love Geoff Dyer. I have a literary crush on him in the same way I do Alain de Botton. Maybe even an actual crush; I like his photo on the backs of his books and the way he describes himself, in Tripoli - "grey hair, bulbous nose, scrawny neck...I have often ben disappointed by my appearance, but I have never looked so utterly repulsive as I did then." And I think it would be hard to read anything he had written and feel truly sad, because at the end of the day (or the book), no matter what the subject matter, there remains the fact of someone living in this world who writes the way he does.

But it is also hard for me to read this book and not, at times, feel sad - or, more precisely (if we're going to talk about precision), on the edge of sad. There is a preoccupation or flirting with ruin; in Rome he reflects, "I was well on the way to becoming a ruin myself, and that was fine by me." There is the theme of Keats' "season of mist and mellow fruitfulness", the Autumnal whiff of decay - the sense of vertigo, of tumbling; of simultaneous helplessness and resistance to something as natural as gravity or seasonal change. In Amsterdam he writes: "I was happy to be here in this chair-intensive café in the autumn of my drug-taking years, with my soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend, Dazed, who a few weeks later would succumb to one of her periodic bouts of severe depression, and my old friend Amsterdam Dave, whom I had met only the night before and who months later, would himself - like the author of the present memoir - go completely to pieces." So I read the book with the feeling that I am with him on the edge of a precipice; that the fall will be both inevitable and survivable; that it will nonetheless hurt.


In Libya, though, Dyer visits some ruins - Leptis Magna - and observes that, "ruins do not make you wish that you had seen them earlier, before they were ruins - unless, that is, they have become too ruined. Ruins - antique ruins at least - are what is left when history has moved on. They are no longer at the mercy of history, only of time." And even in Amsterdam, he realises: "I have just described exactly the place we're in. I'm already in the place I want to go to."


I have this preoccupation with nostalgic places, places where memory seems to be a stronger motivator than anything else. Oxford is, to me, very obviously one such place; its essence is not actually (for instance) in the happy days of men in boaters punting down the idle Cherwell in the calm after one war and before another, or the mahogany rooms in stone colleges, the sounds of bells and port being poured - it's in the memory of these things, or, more specifically, a sort of shared, made up memory of these things, an irrational yearning for them.

The reason I feel at home in nostalgia is that it is the only lasting thing. It is comforting. We are all so very much at the mercy of history and time, and nostalgia is the forever-feeling, the feeling that lasts after a thing goes. It is the only safe space, really. You do not wish you had seen ruins before they were ruins; they have transcended the forces that will eventually render you yourself obsolete. And similarly I do not wish I had seen Oxford at any other time, because I know that Oxford at any other time would be just like it is now - constantly looking backward towards those days: "Oxford, in those days, was still a city of aquatint," Evelyn Waugh writes in Brideshead Revisited; "Oxford in those days," observed William Morris some fifty years earlier, "still kept a great deal of its earlier loveliness".


Then there are places on the uncomfortable edge of nostalgia.

One Sunday, while my parents are visiting from California, we drive to Ilfracombe, which is not a place I know anything about. We drive down motorways and then through rainforests along narrow roads. We arrive in early evening and the fierce rain that has followed us from Oxford begins to subside; the sky spits and fizzes, then goes quiet. I am left feeling exactly as I always feel in these sort of seaside towns: as if I have arrived just in time, although nothing has changed for a very long time.

On the walls of our hotel, of every hotel in Ilfracombe, probably, there are photos of the place in happier days: Victorians standing on the shoreline, Edwardians mounting a hill to view the ships below, men holding on to their hats in what is, the photograph manages to imply with its impressionistic blurriness, a mild and welcome breeze, not at all like the angry winds now whipping through the town. The hotels then, I think, would have seemed grand. Or perhaps they are only meant to make us feel like that, perhaps they have always been as grim as they appear now, and the miracle of them is their ability to convince you that in those days they really were something. Women with parasols would have walked out to the water, and there would have been a cheer if not a warmth in the air, where now there appears primarily to be nothing: nothing open, nothing of note, nothing to do, nothing to say, except to sigh and wonder if the fat cat curled up in the alleyway has a home and whether the seagulls are deliberately targeting your car or if the dappling of guano on the windscreen will start to feel normal, soon.

As we walk down the High Street my mother remarks that this is the sort of place that only had its heyday so that we could reflect on it later, that it was built with ruin in mind. Maybe this is true; we pass the empty chip shops and derelict pubs, the charity shops, the vacant storefronts, and the nightclub, open till 3:30 every night, next to the Indian restaurant and across the street from a cashpoint. We eat dinner in a restaurant nearish to the sea; the interior has been recently renovated (so recently, in fact, that all the tools and materials are still stacked up in the back near the toilets). There are straight-backed chairs and fake antlers hung from the walls, and it is full of people looking like they are on their big night out, in dark jeans, with slicked back hair, eating fancy food that is utterly devoid of taste. Even the wine tastes of nothing; I drink a large glass of it without noticing that it is not my water. Across the street is an antique shop selling wooden ships trapped in glass bottles and RAF commemorative china and rusty basins, which sounds nice written down, sort of poetic and eccentric, but looks sad, perhaps because the shelves in the window are so sparsely populated.

But everyone has such a brave - or rather indifferent, which I think is much the same thing - face! Or at least, everyone we see, which is about two people, seems to be the picture of pleasantness. And the proprietress of our hotel is so cheerful and accommodating that she moves two cars just to make room for ours and neglects to ask for a deposit or a card number or any indication, in fact, that we might have a means of paying her.

In my hotel room, trying to mollify my angry tastebuds after a cheesecake the flavor and consistency of ice and a glass of distinctly un-port-like port, I make hot chocolate and listen to the seagulls. Two towels have been neatly folded on my bed, a chocolate resting on each, although I am sleeping alone tonight. There is wifi and a flatscreen television. The chalky taste of the hot chocolate is familiar, and the seagulls, too, remind me a little of my childhood, in the sense that I lived somewhere as a child where you might hear seagulls from time to time.

The problem is that everything is so earnest, and so earnestly awful. I like these seaside towns, I like the crumbling facades and the empty shops and the faded shutters and the ice cream aesthetic. But I like them in a very ambivalent way: I like them in the same way, maybe, that I like Geoff Dyer's recognition of his own deterioration. And I'm as unfair on these places as we are on ourselves - affectionately, resentfully bemoaning our "bulbous noses", while the reality is, we're not so bad after all, we like ourselves really, we're just surprised, sometimes, by what we see, and in our surprise a little cruel.


So when I wake up the next morning it seems to me that maybe the places on the uncomfortable edge of nostalgia are only uncomfortable because they are - like certain ancient ruins - "too ruined". After breakfast (heavy pieces of wet white toast, sopping up the yellow egg yokes) we drive to a nearby village, from where we embark on a coastal walk which takes us up and down along the cliffs and affords us great views of the blueish sea and the purpleish sky and the green and brown place where the land begins, and I see that maybe the towns only look tired in comparison.

A Short London Walk

I love the South Bank. My understanding of the geography of London is pretty disjointed; I can never really see how one area relates to another (I know the names of lots of places in London, and have been to lots of places in London, but my mental map of the place is disturbingly blank, like there are lots of small areas bobbing in a sea of cheap suits, angry black cabs and Pret a Mangers). And I barely know how the South Bank fits into the rest of London (I only just discovered that the London Eye is south of the river!), but I have this weird fondness for it. I think maybe it's because I went there with Xander once, right after we first met. It was warm and sunny and this was before iPhones (which makes me feel SO OLD until I remind myself that iPhones only really came to prominence a few years ago) so he had an actual copy of an actual A-Z, hardbound in black leather. I distinctly remember him bringing it out and me being impressed, though in retrospect I can't think why we needed it, as all we did was get on the Bakerloo line at Paddington and get out at Embankment and then walk across the bridge and look at Antony Gormley statues standing like suicides in the sunshine on the edges of buildings. Then we sat outside and had a beer and watched people and it was pleasant.

Anyway it seems to me that it is always sunny and Saturday on the South Bank, even if it isn't Saturday and even if it isn't really very sunny. So it was very nice to find that this Saturday it was both actually Saturday and actually sunny and we were strolling along the waterfront eating pork sandwiches and ice cream and on our way to see Joanna draw on the walls of the Tate Modern bookshop as part of the launch of her fabulous new book London Walks.

By the time we actually got to the Tate it was late afternoon and Joanna found a spot for us on the shop window (near a fashion blogger and a few portraits down from Boris Johnson) and Xander and I stood semi-still for awhile while she drew us. And now, we're on display! In the Tate! We've been temporarily immortalized (the plan is for the drawings to stay up all summer), so do say hi to our window-selves if you happen to be strolling past.

Notes on the Launch of Unbound

This weekend I've been at the Hay Festival, and last night I went to the launch of Unbound. Attempted one-line encapsulations of Unbound so far include "crowdfunded publishing project," "Kickstarter-Byline hybrid" and "'democratic' publishing venture". To me it's just a really good idea.

I guess I should say that I know these people. I knew about the idea before it was officially launched. So yes, I have a vested interest, in a way. I should also say that it isn't really my place to talk about publishing, about the need for innovation in a stale industry or the need to adapt to changing technologies and tempos (though there is that). But I love Unbound and I want to tell you why and I want you to love it, too.

Here's what I know:


It's exciting to see writers get excited about writing, and readers get excited about reading. And last night people were excited. People continue to be excited. This is good.


As a writer, everything about Unbound makes sense. It feels sustainable and uncluttered. Like maybe you'd just be writing something because you want to write it and people want to read it. And maybe you'd be writing in the first place because what you want is to write and to make a living - whatever that happens to mean to you - from writing - whatever that happens to mean to you. And you'd cut out this heavy, sloppy layer of distraction: the voices (both external and internal) saying what genre is that, exactly? Is it fashionable? Is it marketable?


I think Unbound could encourage authors to use the online space in a way I feel they should be using it but maybe haven't always: as a space for sharing. As a space for interactive creation, even.

I don't mean to say that I think every author will do this or that I think every author even should do this. But the thing is, I like looking at the artistic process. I'm interested in what the web has done to expose it, or at least to make it exposable. I want to play with this idea, and I want to see other people play with it too (remember when I wanted to post my half-formed, impulsively written 'novel' on Tumblr?). I don't know if Unbound is precisely the right mechanism for this, but I think the author's shed could be the start of a movement towards creative openness, towards adding a layer of exploration, engagement and exposure to the act of writing a book. And this aspect of Unbound has more than just the obvious potential to transform the publishing industry and the profession of writing: it has the potential to also transform both the creation and the consumption of literature.


I can see this being dangerous for my bank balance, if rewarding for my mind. I've already supported a few projects (Jonathan Meades' book about places sounds especially delicious) and the idea of patronage is so compelling that even if I ignore (as best I can) the writer-me, and the me that knows some of the people who had this idea and who have helped to make it happen, I still want Unbound to succeed, because I want to see what happens next.

The Anxiety of Adulthood: Notes on Reading Margaret Drabble's A Summer Bird-Cage

I've been reading Margaret Drabble's A Summer Bird-Cage, which is ostensibly about a bunch of breathlessly, oppressively clever middle-class Oxford graduates adrift in the great sea of Reality. But the thing about it is that I haven't read something that summarizes quite so nicely what it is to be in one's 20s for a long time. And if it was meant to be a portrait of modern life for the female in 1963, it seems that rather shockingly little has changed. In a way I'm sort of miffed about the book (which, by the way, I'm enjoying) because I feel like it's a book I could write (or, more precisely, a theme I could write), except that we're not allowed to write books like this anymore, even if they would be just as relevant today as they were in 1963.


Sarah, Drabble's young protagonist, pondering the nebulous state of her engagement (or not-engagement) to the man she loves, who's away at Harvard doing postgraduate study, considers that even "had I been never so happily engaged, all the problems of jobs and work and domesticity would have remained. The days are over, thank God, when a woman justifies her existence by marrying." And Sarah's friend Gill, recently separated from her husband, says to Sarah, when they meet for the first time in months, "You don't know...what a difference it makes not to have meals provided. To know that if you don't start peeling potatoes there won't be any potatoes. You haven't been out long enough to know."

Gill might as well be anyone I know, experiencing for the first time the full weight of adulthood. And Sarah's understanding that even if she had been settled down with a man she would not necessarily know any better what to do is precocious, hints at what I always think of as being a very contemporary sentiment: that one is never justified by love (and subsequently marriage, children, etc) - only (ideally) bolstered by it. That the great freedom and great burden of being a modern woman is to be able to be in a relationship and grow without growing out of the relationship itself.

The thing that bothers me about all this is that I'm not sure you ever really get good books about it nowadays. It's as if the subject - which is really just "youth" - is passé somehow. Young people who write books don't seem so inclined to write books about people our own age. Neither childhood nor old age seems as remote to us, as foreign, as our present situation does.

I mean to say that I don't think it would necessarily occur to a 24-year-old writer, which is how old Drabble was when A Summer Bird-Cage was published (and how old, coincidentally, I am going to be next week), to write a very simple story about what it's like to come from a position of relative privilege into The World. It certainly wouldn't occur to anyone to publish it, I don't think. Perhaps it's not representative of enough of us anymore, not relatable to a great enough audience. Or perhaps youth today really is very much more complicated than youth in 1963 was. Anyway it seems to me that nowadays it's all about quirkiness - people with unusual names and histories picking up and running away to the join the invisible circus and never being seen again (ha, ha) or MFA writing-workshop-worthy tales of growing up in rural Georgia with distant parents and overcoming a bad bout of Religious Fervor before escaping to the wilds of Williamsburg.

I suppose I have some respect for people who can write stories like that. I certainly never could, they're too far out of the realm of my limited imagination, bear no relation (really) to anything I've ever felt.


And the thing I'm obsessed with feeling at the moment is to do with the introverted question of identity that, I suppose, a privileged few have the dubious privilege of considering. Consider this - a conversation between Sarah and a friend of her brother-in-law:

"'So you're going to be a don's wife?' [says the friend] 'No. I'm going to marry a don.' [says Sarah] 'And what will you be?' 'How should I know? I will be what I become, I suppose.' 'You don't find that a problem?' How could I tell him that it was the one thing that kept me strung together in occasionally ecstatic, occasionally panic-stricken effort, day and night, year in, year out?"

A few months ago I came across this quote by Alain de Botton: “I explained that I was looking for the sort of books in which a genial voice expresses emotions that the reader has long felt but never before really understood; those that convey the secret, everyday things that society at large prefers to leave unsaid; those that make one feel somehow less alone and strange.” I've heard de Botton speak, too, on a lack of good literature about work. And in a way I think A Summer Bird-Cage is like that, it's like a portrait of something really mundane that lots of people (not all people! probably not even most people! but still, lots of people) do and feel every day, which is strike out on their own.


I know I'm being deliberately blind to make a point here. Probably people are actually writing about this all the time and I'm too self-absorbed to notice. But what I feel is that people my age are being pushed to feel younger and less qualified to expound upon our own experiences than we actually are. We've either lost the ability to take ourselves seriously because we feel too young, or else we're too self-conscious about the awkwardness of this period to really want to write about it. We'll write about bad sex and the discomfort of growing up, but something about the state of being newly grown-up is still too distasteful or confusing to address.


Sarah and her sister Louise put it this way:

"'Oh, one can't have everything,' said Louise. 'It's either lovely food or lovely company.' 'Of course one can have everything,' I said. 'Have one's cake and eat it. I intend to.' 'I daresay you do,' she said. 'So did I.' She paused, and then said, in a different tone, a tone of intention rather than expectation, 'and so do I. So do I.' I didn't see what she meant. Not for ages. Not until I learned myself how difficult it was to get anything, let alone the everything that is showered on one in garlands and blossoming armfuls until one faces the outside world."

I don’t actually believe that one can’t have one’s cake and eat it, but I do know the way you assume you can before you have to start paying your own rent and peeling your own potatoes, and the way that the assumption changes after that.

So even though I know how difficult it is to get anything, I keep thinking that the answer to getting everything is just to keep going through life like this. And writing about it.

Ways of Reading

On a day late in December of 2007, I shipped all of my books across the Atlantic. The day previous had been spent considering each book, determining if it was necessary to my journey, if it was worth the effort and expense required to send it all the way to England - in retrospect a stupid thing to consider. Of course each book was necessary, worth the effort and expense; and so most of them were boxed up, and those that I left unceremoniously in a paper bag outside my apartment with a note that said "please take" I regret leaving. So when I read Alexander Chee's excellent essay on the e-reader, "I, Reader," when I read that he has filled his partner's New York City apartment with 22 boxes of books, I felt very sympathetic to the idea that "collectively, they’re the autobiography of my reading life."

I have a history with all of the books I shipped, and with all of the books I have subsequently obtained. I know how and where I acquired each of them, even though, if you could poll the books, who would give honest answers, you would discover I haven’t actually read each of them (often I will say I’ve “read” a book when what I mean is I’ve skimmed a few arbitrary paragraphs and think I know more or less what it's about because I read a review somewhere). I like knowing that each book has a story beyond what's contained between two covers.

I live with someone who understands my compulsion, who is also an accidental collector of books. Not rare or even very special books, mind, but paperbacks, mostly. For reading, not for display. Though neither of us could possibly have time to read so many books, as we’re nearly always busy acquiring more. And inevitably there are now so many of them that there is no space in the house for anything but books to be on display, apart from a little wooden rocking horse that does not belong to us but which we feel we can’t remove from its shelf without changing the whole feeling of the house. So we have run out of shelves but steadfastly continue to buy books, convinced that the piles we have made in each room add a sort of messy, erudite charm to our home.

So yes, our books are the autobiography of my reading life, and his reading life, and our reading life together. They're a record of something, and so, on an emotional level, they are priceless. They're a representation of the possibility of all the knowledge we could acquire, the thoughts we could have (and an account of the knowledge we've already acquired, the thoughts we've already had).


And yet I have resisted the the obvious attraction of the e-reader for some time. For someone like me, an iPad or a Kindle makes all the sense in the world. They're portable, so that when I travel, for instance, I don't have to worry about leaving behind a book I might need to refer to, or incur overweight baggage charges because I can't decide between Romantic Moderns and Landscape and Memory. And an e-reader would allow us to increase the number of books in our possession without necessitating new furniture.

But, equally, for someone like me, this is a terrifying prospect: books without their bodies? To what would I attach my memories, my notes; what object represents the awful weight and great joy of possibility, if there is no object?

I read Chee's account of his relationship with the e-book, and I was impressed by how steadily, how fairly, he represented several sides of himself: the lover (or hoarder) of books in their physical form as well as the blogger, the obsessive reader of online news, the open-minded adapter of technology. I thought, I see myself that way - split in a way by my devotion to both the book and the screen. But it was not until Chee picks up Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West that I really saw myself in his essay; or rather, that I really saw the potential for myself in his essay.

Perhaps it's because I, too, stole Black Lamb and Grey Falcon book from a family member to add to my growing collection of books I might someday read. I was 16, and I only moved it from my mother's study upstairs to my bedroom downstairs. It's been there ever since, unread, mostly untouched, never even selected to make the move first to Boston and then to England with me. It was one I knew I wouldn't read, and its heft made it an easy choice to leave behind.

Chee rediscovers his stolen copy lying underneath his iPad and falls into it unwittingly. "When I paused to make coffee," Chee writes, "I admitted to myself I had finally started reading the book. But also, I was reading again in the way I'd always known, previous to the internet, previous to the vigil. I wanted to cheer a little but I also didn't want to disturb it either, and so instead I kept reading, which was perhaps the only right way to celebrate this. If I had in fact remapped my brain with my e-reader, which I suspected, the map I'd found had led me back here."


The reason I have so steadfastly resisted even considering an e-reader, let alone actually buying one (because there are a million reasons to resist buying one, even if they sound illogical when you write them down: a lack of money, the ridiculousness of bringing another gadget into the house, the potential that you might not, after all that, actually use it) is because reading is sort of a physical sport for me. It requires equipment - I take a pen with me to the bookshelf like a fencer takes a rapier to a match, I carry a notebook with the book for extended reactions. I underline, I make notes. Halfway through a paragraph I realise that this reminds me of that, and I scurry off down the corridor to find it, whether it's in the kitchen stacked on top of the broken microwave, or in a place of honor on the desk in my study (where the books I refer most often to live).

An e-reader, I've always argued, doesn't allow me the same possibility: it requires me to simply sit and read, to not make my own contributions to the text. Worse, it doesn't then give me a record of having read the book! What are those notes I make, really, but markers of a journey, little bread-crumbs to help myself find my way back to the state of mind I was in when I read a particular book?

In fact, the way I read a book is the way I read an article online - pausing to make notes, to copy and paste quotes, to begin to formulate my own response, which I will then post on my blog, or else let languish in a folder called "to work on". And when Chee writes that he is reading in the way he'd always known - "previous to the internet" - I realise that this is not a bad thing. I am so hung up on defending the intellectual potential of the internet, so hung up on refuting those who suggest it has made us shallow, that I have forgotten to consider that the way I read is not necessarily, not always, the best - the most pleasurable - way to read.


The truth is, I make work for myself when I read. I paddle upstream, I kick and scream my way through every sentence. I argue in my head with authors who are long dead, formulate elaborate letters that will go unsent to those who are alive. I don't want to give this way of reading up entirely - part of it is pre-internet, after all, part of it is simply my way of reacting to a text. But suddenly I think that I, too, could benefit from remapping my brain with an e-reader - or at least, I think that remapping my brain with an e-reader would not be the worst thing, would not be detrimental to my ability as a reader and writer to understand and interact with things.

I don't think one way of reading is better than the other. In fact I think both are necessary to good thought (at least for me). And I'm not going to buy an iPad tomorrow (because it's expensive, because it seems unnecessary, because, because), even if I'd kind of like to. But I am also not going to sit around thinking that an e-reader is absolutely not for me anymore, because that just isn't true.

And maybe, once in awhile, I am going to try to just sit and read a book (passively, sans rapier and inquisitive attitude). No matter what format it's in.

Notes on Links

I'm coming to the conclusion that everything I write has its roots in the words of somebody else. I feel incapable of thinking anything worth saying without using another artist for direct inspiration. This is not a bad thing - look at Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel, for instance, or Tom Hodkginson's How to be Idle, both of which rely at least partly on the presentation and then transformation of existing texts. But it does seem a very internet-age thing. Intertextuality is everywhere; isn't that what hyperlinks are a manifestation of? Even in the first paragraph of this blog post I've referenced, and linked to, two other websites, and two other books. The Internet doesn't work without links; the web falls apart if we don't constantly keep building it.

When Julia Kristeva coined the term “intertextuality” in the 1960s, she was using it to describe how "any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another." A few years ago I started writing a book which is based entirely on this idea; the words and the story were all mine, but they were nothing without the framework given to me by the excerpts and ideas of others, from Dorothy L. Sayers to Gustave Flaubert.

I use the internet a lot. At work, at home, in between. I exist almost constantly in the online space even as I concurrently exist in the physical world. And what I can't tell is this: do I write the way I do because we're in a digital era? Or do I so enjoy the digital era because it adheres to the way I think ideas should function?

Chicken, egg. Either way, I think that hyperlinks and intertextuality - whether online or in print - are what makes ideas come alive.

Ways of Saying: A Defence of Writing, Whatever That May Mean

Writers have it pretty hard. I'm not talking about money or status or the sheer hassle of it all - though there's that too. I'm talking about the way in which they are talked about. To look at the discussion around writers and writing as a writer is to see yourself adrift in a sea of impossibility. Literature - by which I only mean consumable words, be they in books or articles or blog posts - polarises people, and because it's consumed so voraciously, so constantly, and so publicly, opinions are expressed vociferously, and often as articulation of fact, not belief.

The question as a writer - and indeed as a consumer of writing - becomes: who do you trust? The critics who say writing should be about writing? The critics who say that it's all about telling a damn good story? The critics who say it's all about message and meaning? Or or the ones who say a piece of writing must have all of these components, and more?

Surely it shouldn't matter - write what you want, says the voice of reason, and let the world be judge only after - but the truth of it is that it does matter. I've written about this before. It's easy, even natural, to feel compelled to take some opinion or advice under consideration. No man is an island, as the saying goes, and what another man feels can be integral to the development of a piece of writing. The difficulty comes in discerning what, after all that, you actually feel about your own work. The storm that results when two opposing opinions converge upon a paragraph of yours obfuscates your own beliefs.

I've been thinking about this a lot recently. In a Books blog post on the Guardian website from 13th May, Andrew Gallix examines the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet, writing, "The reality of any work of art is its form, and to separate style from substance is to 'remove the novel from the realm of art'. Art, Robbe-Grillet reminds us, is not just a pretty way of presenting a message: it is the message" (a sentiment which calls to mind Marshall McLuhan's famous assertion that "the medium is the message"). In this case, simply by choosing to write, the author is making a statement - and a commitment to that statement.

Gallix ends his piece with these thoughts: "Whenever an author envisages a future book, 'it is always a way of writing which first of all occupies his mind,' which leads Robbe-Grillet to state - provocatively - that 'the genuine writer has nothing to say. He has only a way of saying.' Creative writing classes should always start and end on that note."

There are several interesting points in these concluding sentences, the most obvious of which is Robbe-Grillet's "provocative" suggestion that writing itself - not the message or the story - is the true form of art. I'm not sure how provocative this is really - when we read books and poems in school, aren't we (ideally) taught to look at phrasing, structure, word choice? Literary criticism itself rarely begins with what an author is saying, but rather discovers what the author is saying by first investigating the author's method - Joyce's stream of consciousness, for instance, becomes a window into his work.

But it is provocative enough - even radical - in the context of popular culture. Story is often heralded as the be-all-and-end-all of "good" writing (good writing on its own being empty of meaning), or at least publishable writing. So perhaps to be reminded of Robbe-Grillet's statement that "the genuine writer has nothing to say" is alarming indeed, for it indicates that we have lost our sense of what makes a novel a novel, or even a poem a poem or an essay an essay.

The key is in the second part of the assertion, that, "He [the genuine writer] has only a way of saying." A way of saying. Superficially, a voice. But contained in that way of saying, that voice, is much more. Meaning, story, urgency. Recently I read a review in the Observer. "There are poets who have nothing to say but a feeling for words," begins the the author. "There are poets who have something to say but no capacity to say it. And then, rarely, you read poems…that have a tremendous, unshowy intent. The feeling is that they needed to be written." As one commentator on Gallix's piece writes, "Style over substance? Affect over story? Count me out."

For my part, I certainly would not be inclined to argue that we should write simply because we like the sound of our own voices, or that we find a particular phrase too pretty not to share - but to ignore the importance of pretty phrases in the context of a writer's way of saying would be an enormous shame, because it would be to ignore the medium entirely.

A further interesting point in Gallix's conclusion comes with the seemingly arbitrary inclusion of "creative writing classes" in his final sentence. In a way it reads as a glib jab at those would-be writers who want to "improve their craft" - a phrase which, by the way, I generally despise, but feel is appropriate here. Certainly the very first commentator on the post, who simply quotes Gallix's "creative writing classes should always start and end on that note" and adds, "can't they just end?", seems to have read it that way. This interpretation seems to be validated by Gallix's own response to the aforementioned comment. "That would be a more radical solution!", he writes.

The meaning is appropriately ambiguous - radical in a positive or negative way? a solution to what? - but it does bring up some interesting ideas about the study of writing itself. Classes and courses around creative writing are easy to dismiss as pointless, even harmful. "Can't they just end?" is a common enough sentiment, often spoken with a tone of intellectual superiority - which may be deserved, I don't know. The implication here is, again, that writing should come naturally, that it shouldn't matter what others say about it - write what you want in the way that you want, and it will either be good enough or not good enough.

But this is rarely the case. Good writing - whatever I may mean by that, and however you may interpret it - is rarely a completely isolated enterprise. On top of the fact that we are often heavily influenced by circumstance, context, experience, and other writers, there is also the simple fact that any author will edit and revise his work, often a number of times, and for better or worse, before publication or presentation. Sometimes, amidst all this, advice - an exchange of ideas, a reminder that we are not alone - can be immensely useful, especially before we have learned to completely trust our own instincts. Moreover, practice itself is valuable, and there are those (myself included) for whom a class or a writing group or a degree is a way to grant themselves permission to practice.

I have my own reservations about creative writing classes - and I say this as someone who holds a masters in the subject. But my reservations are different, mostly rooted in experience. It can be dangerous, for instance, to let too many vultures feast upon the carcass of your confidence. Helpful suggestions are not always helpful when they come too frequently, and too frequently unmediated. Furthermore it is not always productive, as an artist or an advocate or whatever else a writer may be, to overthink things. Too much time wallowing, too many conflicting opinions shared liberally, too much consideration, will ultimately only help you produce a work which is ambivalent at best. So I understand reservations about creative writing classes - I live those reservations.

But still such classes are not something to be eradicated. Consider what Gallix has written about Robbe-Grillet: "Every novel, according to Robe-Grillet, is a self-sufficient work of art which cannot be reduced to some external meaning or truth that is 'known in advance'. 'The New Novel,' as he put it, 'is not a theory, it is an exploration.'" And if we start to look at writing as an exploration, it starts to make sense that some of us choose to explore our writing in an exploratory context.

What this all really means is simply that, as a writer, you'll never win. You'll never be immune to hard-hitting criticism (though why would you want to be?). If you're too rooted to the past, too ahead of your time, if a sentence is out of place or a particular word not exact enough, you'll have someone saying so.

The interesting space is the space between these criticisms - and this, I think, is probably why we should write. Between one extreme and the other is a whole world ripe for exploration. It may be that Robbe-Grillet's "New Novel" has progressed again - "far from representing a rejection of the past," Gallix writes, "the quest for a new novel was…very much in keeping with the history of a genre which, by definition, must always be renewed". The new "New Novel" is not necessarily the novel itself but the area around the novel; indeed, the novel has been flattened, expanded, and democratized. Maybe it's the internet - I can go online and read a blog about a French writer and filmmaker I'd never before heard of and in a matter of hours create and "publish" my own response. We all have a say now; we're all in a creative writing class, and even those of us who wish such classes could "just end" are participants in it.

So I say again: writers have it pretty hard. They (we?) are standing at the centre of a battleground. It's noisy and nerve-wracking - but I can't imagine a more exciting place to be.