Sunday, June 12, 2005

I don't do memes, do I... 

Not until today, anyway. But I’m glad Jean passed this one on to me, even though I’ve sat on it for over a week – there are some patterns to my reading I’d not spotted before, which intrigue me.

Let me own up to something first. I’m not what you’d call a literary type. My bookshelves support a wildly eclectic mix: ancient physics text-books from university days alongside paperback popular science; academically-founded counseling rubbing shoulders with guru-inspired self-help; organizational dynamics; coffee-table art, architecture and photography; a particularly large selection of climbing, mountaineering and travel memoirs; reference books of every kind… But amongst the “classic” sci-fi and handful of novels there do sit some that a taxonomist might put into the class of literature.

Total number of books I’ve owned -

Goodness only knows. I’d guess getting on for a couple of thousand. Right now there are probably over five hundred out on shelves around the place and a couple of hundred more gathering dust in boxes in the attic.
I probably had almost as many books in my late teens as I have now, estimated by the length of shelf space available, but most of those are long since gone. They stayed boxed up in my parents’ house for years, moving with them from one attic to the next, and there they stayed, until my father died and my mother moved into a retirement flat. I had no spare space, so many of them had to go, but I kept those that had special meaning for me, some of which I wrote about in this series of posts.

Last book I bought -

The Good Soldier Svejk, by Jaroslav Hasek, translated by Cecil Parrott.
This has been on my reading list ever since I browsed it in a Cambridge bookshop when this translation first came out, over 30 years ago. Expert procrastinator, me… I’ve only read the first few pages, so no comments yet.

Last book I read -

Conquistadors of the Useless by Lionel Terray, translated by Geoffrey Sutton.
I have many books written by mountaineers, mostly accounts of major expeditions and autobiographical climbing memoirs. I strongly relate to the environments and situations, the desires and struggles and the inner force that drives them on; there’s comfort in the vicarious experience even though I’ll never be able to emulate the more extreme exploits they describe. Terray’s book had been on my list for a while, and when we were away camping at Easter I realized I’d forgotten to take anything with me to read by head-torch-light in the tent in the evenings. I didn’t really expect to find such a relatively obscure title in such an out-of-the-way place as Wasdale Head, yet although it’s just a hamlet, not even big enough to be called a village, it boasts a remarkably well stocked outdoor equipment shop with a better selection of climbing literature than you’ll find in many a large town. And there, on the end of the shelf, was the book I was looking for.

Terray, a French mountain guide, climber and champion skier of the post 2ndWW era, had an exceptional string of successes to his name, including the second ascent of the Eiger North Face and a key role in Maurice Herzog’s expedition that made the first ascent of Annapurna, the first of the “8,000-ers” to be climbed. Yet in spite of the rock-solid (sorry!) self-belief necessary to realise these achievements, he retained a modesty and professionalism that earned him immense respect throughout the climbing world. For many climbers, climbing can be an almost spiritual experience, and although he doesn’t make a big deal of it, time and again throughout the book there are little snippets that reveal Terray’s philosophy, his appreciation of mountain worlds and of the people he met amongst them.

Living doing what one most loves, and in the process testing oneself to the limit, seems to have rewarded Terray with an unusual degree of self-knowledge and fulfillment – unless, that is, cause and effect were round the other way and it was his capacity for self-knowledge that led to him being such a successful climber. Perhaps it’s this that gives his simply-written account such directness and honesty – he knew he was a brilliant climber, yet was able to say so without any hint of arrogance.

Five books that mean a lot to me -

Pincher Martin by William Golding.
Christopher Hadley Martin is a Lieutenant on board a 2ndWW destroyer accompanying the North Atlantic convoys, whose ship is torpedoed. He is washed up alone on a tiny rock in the north Atlantic, and we share his ultimately unsuccessful struggle for survival - an intense, brutal, second-by-second subjective narrative of traumatic human experience.

I balked a little at using that word “brutal”. Stories of human brutality sicken me, especially when the reader is forced to confront every barbaric detail, so I’ll usually avoid such tales. But here it’s the brutality of the elements and of the circumstances of war, and the story is of the struggle – the heroic struggle, you might say – against a brutal but impersonal foe.

The writing is extraordinary; we share Martin’s world in intimate microscopic detail, every event mediated through his shattered senses, felt through the lens of his own exhaustion, determination, desperation, rising panic and ultimately delirium as the struggle turns inwards and his foe becomes himself, his own mind. It’s this aspect – mind at the end of its tether – that fascinates, even as it appalls.

Then of course there’s the twist in the very last line, a twist that forces a complete re-evaluation of everything that has gone before, sending mind back over the narrative, turning it over, seeking clues, forcing me to think, hard, about what Golding was really saying.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
One of those seminal works that doesn’t easily fit into any one category but spans several, making it difficult to know where to find it in a bookshop. It’s a story, but is it filed under fiction? Autobiography? Philosophy? It’s all of those, and more. It appealed to me on so many levels – it is intellectually stimulating and challenging, it has a master storyteller’s sense of dramatic tension, and it’s all held together by a finely observed narrative thread – or rather by two interwoven threads, building to a common climax.

It was the view deep inside the workings of another’s mind that made this book special for me. A rather frightening view though – I could appreciate only too well how Pirsig’s obsession with a philosophical idea – quality – could by degrees lead him further and further out of balance until his mind tipped over an invisible edge, for a while severing connection with the world inhabited by the rest of us, and becoming lost in a nether world populated only by himself and his Idea. It’s not every day you get to see inside the mind of a man who the world, at one point, labeled insane; and thus seeing, to realise that the territory is not so unfamiliar. The back cover review from the Times Literary Supplement sums it up perfectly: “Disturbing, deeply moving, full of insights… this is a wonderful book.”

An Equal Music by Vikram Seth
Perhaps it was because much of the novel is set in a London that is very familiar to me; perhaps it was because the story comes from the soul of a musician; lots of other perhapses… Whatever; in spite of the enormous differences between Michael, the central character, and myself, I could identify with him so completely that I nearly lost myself inside the novel. It only occurred to me afterwards how contrived some of the elements of the plot were. But isn’t that part of what skill in writing is about – coaxing you to believe the unbelievable?

Jean rightly guesses that photography and the countryside – and especially remote and mountainous landscapes – are two of my passions, but perhaps more enduring than either of these is my love of music. So it was gratifying to see inside the mind and the world of a musician – albeit a fictional one - and find reflections of myself there.

I remember thinking as I read: if I could write, this is the kind of writing I’d like to produce. Vibrant, finely detailed and intensely personal.

South by Sir Ernest Shackleton
“Boy’s Own” stuff: sheer unadulterated adventure, inspired leadership, and stunning photography. I’m thinking here of a very specific edition, edited by Peter King. I think he may have abridged Shackleton’s full account very slightly, but more importantly he has added editor’s notes in the margins giving details from others’ accounts that give an alternative view of events or add details that Shackleton glossed over. Added to this are Frank Hurley’s truly astonishing photographs, taken – and processed - in the most extreme conditions and with equipment unbelievably cumbersome by today’s standards.

It’s clear from reading the editor’s notes that Shackleton’s organization and decisions were far from perfect, yet perhaps what distinguished his remarkable leadership was his ability consistently to rise above his own flaws. Why should I be so fascinated by leadership? I’ve never been in any significant leadership role, like as not never will be, and I have no aspirations in that direction. Only once have I ever served under anyone I’d call a good leader (organisations seem to prefer to appoint effective administrators; leaders make too many waves), yet I have a huge admiration for the human quality of leadership. Perhaps I harbour a secret hope that, should the need ever arise, some latent leadership talent deep within me will surface and save the day…
For scientific discovery give me Scott;
for speed and efficiency of travel give me Amundsen;
but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone,
get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”

- attributed to Sir Edmund Hillary

Captain Correlli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres
Just a darned good read – by turns joyful, mischievous, harrowing, heart-rending and ultimately uplifting. Reflecting the brightest and the darkest in human nature as well as every shade and blend in between, and all, of course, with the kind of writing that immerses you in the sights and sounds, the touches and even the smells of a beautiful Greek island. Impossible to read without tears on several occasions.

Which five bloggers am I passing this to?

All memes fizzle out at some point, and it was tempting to claim that I’d sat on this one for so long that it was getting well past its sell-by date. But the truth is, I struggled with this part because I realised how I’ve been drifting away from engaging with the community of bloggers – or, to be honest, from any community anywhere. I’ve maintained a few tenuous connections, but stayed rather at arm’s length, so identifying 5 bloggers to pass this on to turned out to be the hardest part of the exercise. Rather than sitting in a quiet corner and almost anonymously throwing words out into the wide blue yonder, I’m faced with standing up and making a direct personal request, which makes me strangely nervous. Story of my life…

Anyway, here goes:
Euan – to help him with his commitment to use his own voice rather more…

Stormwind – I’ve known Stormwind through Personal Tangents almost since I began blogging, yet I’ve no idea what she likes to read…

ntexas99 – because I’d like to give her the offer, if she’d like to take it up, of trying out something for the new direction she was looking for lately.

Fred – Now, Fred’s becoming established as a writer (not to mention broadcaster and photographer), but I don’t know what he reads – all that inspiration must come from somewhere…

Christy – well, if her last post is anything to go by, life is very full of exciting new directions at the moment. So, Christy - the offer’s there, but I won’t be offended if you turn it down.

No obligation - feel free to take it or leave it just as you please - and if you do choose to write something, certainly don’t feel any need to be as verbose as I have ended up being.


Several things struck me in the course of writing this:

Every author I’ve mentioned is male. I’m a little ashamed to admit that the overwhelming majority of books on my shelves were written by men. I don’t think I’m excessively biased towards the masculine; I did an online psychometric test a while back – I think one with a reasonable scientific basis, coming as it did from the BBC - this time to identify masculine or feminine ways of thinking, and the result suggested that I have a good balance– equally strong in both. So I don’t read any particular significance into the male bias in this list; nonetheless, it is curious…

I realize that there is a common thread running through these choices; seeing inside another’s mind and finding there a reflection of my own. Not exactly identifying with the character; I’m certainly no Terray or Pirsig or Christopher Hadley Martin or Michael or Shackleton or Dr Iannis. Yet I see the common ground, I see the character they are, I admire their strengths, forgive their weaknesses and in so doing gain a little more understanding of myself – a little more acknowledgement of my own strengths, a little more tolerance of my own weaknesses.

Making a list of candidates for the five books, for some reason I started putting the approximate year I read them beside the title. Before long a very clear pattern emerged; my reading has been through three distinct cycles. The first peak was in teenage years when I used to read late into the night, then set my alarm early to continue in the morning, as well as sometimes spending whole weekends just reading. Then came a long gap which correlates with getting married, having children and watching them grow up. I did though spend many a truly happy hour reading stories and poems to them; just about every night in fact, often three sessions one after another, one for each child to ensure equal and individual attention. The best of those books undoubtedly deserve to be counted as great literature, managing as they do to touch the soul with such simple, brief language.

The next peak occurred in my early forties when I became interested first in organizational dynamics, then in personal effectiveness, self-help and counseling. For five years or so I was commuting by train, giving one to two hours of dedicated reading time every working day.

The third peak, I’m glad to say, is still ongoing - and I guess I have blogging to thank for that.

Sorry this has taken me so long, Jean, but as you can see by the length of the post, I got rather carried away!

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