Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Calling time on our Libraries

In these times of austerity I am saddened to hear that another blow to literacy is coming, and approaching fast. The library system in the UK is under threat [like in many other countries] as reported today in The Bookseller

Library campaigner Tim Coates has warned between 600 and 1,000 libraries could close over the next 18 months amid a media blitz on last week's declining library visit numbers.Last week The Bookseller reported figures from the Department of Culture Media and Sport that revealed the proportion of adults visiting a library decreased from 48.2% in 2005/06 to 39.4% in 2009/10.The story has been picked up by the mainstream press over the past 24 hours with them also reporting on Ed Vaizey's library support initiative, which proposes cutting costs by giving libraries to communities to run amid other measures.

This is very sad, in these days of anxiety the need for a refugee [such as only a library can provide] for enquiring minds – has never been so important.

The BBC reports that maybe the solution is that the library system needs to evolve –

Meanwhile, Culture Minister Ed Vaizey has announced plans to help the library service take a more central role within local communities.

Ten submissions have been chosen from proposals put forward by local authorities.

"A strong library service, based around the needs of local people, can play a key role in our ambitions to build the Big Society by providing safe and inclusive spaces for people to read, learn and access a range of community services," Mr Vaizey said.

He said he wants people to think "imaginatively about where libraries could be" as there are a number of closures being threatened across the UK.
A pub in the Yorkshire Dales is currently being used as a library after the villagers of Hudswell bought it to save it from closing.

The books are from North Yorkshire County Council but the lending is run by the volunteers.

Other suggestions that are about to be trialled in parts of the country are to have library services in supermarkets, shops or run by volunteers.

In Doncaster three libraries have been earmarked for closure and five are under threat in Lewisham.

The whole library closure issue is close to my heart, as my memory reminds me of the little boy who sought refuge and enlightenment in the 1960’s and 1970’s sitting in the library, and having the same access to knowledge as the kids from wealthy families. I recall my parents being bemused by my weekly trips to the library [returning with carrier bags filled with knowledge, and enlightenment about the confusing and dangerous world that surrounded me]. My library card was my access point to the world, and at that time my most treasured possession.

Technology may well be at play here; as the attention spans in our children becomes eroded, and the Soundbite and Facebook updates dominates the extent of their curiosity. The term ‘use it or lose it’ comes to mind, and it looks as if we’re losing it.

Photo © 2009 Ali Karim - Steven T Murray [aka Reg Keeland] signs Stieg Larsson books at Bouchercon Indianapolis 2010

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

I have seen the future, baby: it is murder

Call me Cassandra, but everyday, the drip, drip, drip of bad economic news is worrying me; especially what is happening within publishing and literacy. I understand the need to make fiscal cuts to reduce the borrowings in the UK, but cuts of > 25% and more in UK library budgets are worrying. As a child, our family lived on a very tight budget and the library was a refuge for me, a place of escape and a place to help a developing mind understand the world.

It seems that many writers feel the same.

From Library Journal [US] annual report

"I'm a writer because of libraries," asserted best-selling author Dennis Lehane. "Libraries say to working-class and poor kids that they matter, that they can read the same books as the children of the hedge fund managers."

Jeanette Winterson at Herald Scotland agrees

The author of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, speaking in Edinburgh at an event to celebrate the 25th birthday of the publication of her most famous book, said she is worried about future young readers, who, unlike her when she was growing up in Accrington, Lancashire, may not have access to literary classics such as Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters.

Winterson said that as a child her one escape from her oppressive home life was to go to her local library.

Yesterday she said she would “start at A and read Jane Austen and move to B and read the Brontes and go on from there”.

Winterson, 50, said she had been dismayed to visit her old library in Accrington to find it stocked with DVDs rather than books, and said that the less well off, less well-cared for children would not have the same experiences as she did. She said she also feared for libraries under the “Cameron cuts” in Government expenditure and the future of literature as it changes in the digital age.

I know I ‘bang the drum’ about the importance of reading, and how oppressive regimes use illiteracy to control populations – but in these days where the march of technology combined with the economic woes we face, form a perfect pincer-movement against literacy.

We need people of influence, who understand the importance of reading to speak out, like Jason Pinter pointed out in his recent article at The Huffington Post –

As Lev Grossman states in his TIME profile of Franzen, the quotes were taken somewhat out of context, and Franzen did in fact thank Oprah during his acceptance speech at the National Book Awards. Because after all, in our sound bite, knee-jerk culture it was easier to cherry pick the juicy quotes rather than try to understand that, at the time, Franzen was a relatively obscure writer coming to terms with suddenly being a literary post-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio. And so now Franzen appears on the cover of TIME, is profiled in Vogue, and has riled up the literary community in a way that would make you think he'd spent the last nine years GTL'ing on the Jersey Shore rather than penning his next novel.

So why the animosity? Why the jealousness? Why are people taking potshots at Franzen rather than celebrating the recognition of a writer who is being put out there, front and center, to represent the importance of the written word, to tell people that his profession is worthy of recognition alongside the most important issues of our time?

The sad truth is, with few exceptions, writers are not recognized by the mainstream population or media. My guess is one hundred people could identify Snooki over every one who could identify Toni Morrison. The celebration of being famous for being loud and sloppy has usurped being famous for the act of actually creating. For once, someone who has created something, who is one of us, who not only knows the value of a book but has devoted his life to them, is being presented to society at large as our representative. And some people scorn this, as though they would prefer writers as a whole to remain anonymous, who seem to believe there is some odd nobility in remaining chained to the same desk chair in which you write your books. Or they would rather feud over who deserves what and why until the whole literary culture is fragmented into tiny crumbs that can be ignored and swept under the carpet.

Read More from Jason Pinter Here

When the written word is only available in digital platforms, and our libraries closed, bricks and mortar bookstores closed, then the gap between the “haves” and “have nots” will become a chasm that no one can traverse.

Then it will be too late, but we’ll all be singing this song below – Unless you do something!

Talk about books to your friends, colleagues, contacts, be seen reading a book, always have a book on you, pass books to friends - Reading is important in making people think for themselves, not be 'directed' by forces beyond our control.

All together now –

The Future © Leonard Cohen
Give me back my broken night my mirrored room, my secret life
it's lonely here, there's no one left to torture
Give me absolute control over every living soul
And lie beside me, baby, that's an order!
Give me crack and anal sex
Take the only tree that's left and stuff it up the hole in your culture
Give me back the Berlin wall
give me Stalin and St Paul
I've seen the future, brother: it is murder.
Things are going to slide, slide in all directions
Won't be nothing
Nothing you can measure anymore

The blizzard, the blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold
and it has overturned the order of the soul
When they said REPENT REPENT
I wonder what they meant
When they said REPENT REPENT
I wonder what they meant
When they said REPENT REPENT
I wonder what they meant
You don't know me from the wind you never will,
you never did I'm the little jew who wrote the Bible
I've seen the nations rise and fall
I've heard their stories, heard them all
but love's the only engine of survival
Your servant here, he has been told to say it clear,
to say it cold: It's over, it ain't going any further

And now the wheels of heaven stop you feel the devil's riding crop
Get ready for the future: it is murder
Things are going to slide ...
There'll be the breaking of the ancient western code
Your private life will suddenly explode
There'll be phantoms
There'll be fires on the road and the white man dancing
You'll see a woman hanging upside down
her features covered by her fallen gown
and all the lousy little poets coming round
tryin' to sound like Charlie Manson and the white man dancin'

Give me back the Berlin wall
Give me Stalin and St Paul
Give me Christ or give me Hiroshima
Destroy another fetus now
We don't like children anyhow
I've seen the future, baby: it is murder

Things are going to slide ...
When they said REPENT REPENT

The Future © Leonard Cohen

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Trapped in Inception, Marienbad & Morel’s Invention

It’s amusing how patterns form around the paths that our conscious, as well as our subconscious mind weaves when we think about specific things in detail. I spend a huge amount of my day ‘thinking’ as well as ‘reading’. Recently I spent time with my friend Roger Jon Ellory at the Harrogate Crime-Writing Festival. At one point we discussed why we [and many others] read so many books, be it fiction, fact or combinations of both, such as Roger’s CIA / Serial Killer conspiracy thriller A Simple Act of Violence. Roger’s answer was “Because in the inquisitive, is a need to try and understand what reality is actually about?” Good answer I thought – because at my core I am an analytical chemist, and someone who just loves detective stories, so that would explain the inquisitive part of my nature. The problem then is something that has bothered me for sometime, and something that Martin Rees [Lord Rees of Ludlow, astronomer royal and master of Trinity College, Cambridge] summed up disturbingly at his stint presenting the 2010 BBC Reith Lectures

Some of the greatest mysteries of the universe may never be resolved because they are beyond human comprehension, according to Lord Rees, president of the Royal Society.

Rees suggests that the inherent intellectual limitations of humanity mean we may never resolve questions such as the existence of parallel universes, the cause of the big bang, or the nature of our own consciousness.

He even compares humanity to fish, which swim through the oceans without any idea of the properties of the water in which they spend their lives.

“Just as a fish may be barely aware of the medium in which it lives and swims, so the microstructure of empty space could be far too complex for unaided human brains.”

Rees’s thesis could prove highly provocative to other scientists, especially those who have devoted their careers to understanding such mysteries.

Read More from The Times Archive

That is a depressing thought, that perhaps we will never truly comprehend what existence is actually all about, but then again the more you read, the more mysterious existence becomes. It still does not put me off trying to decipher what I see around me. I know at times I can get obsessed when an idea, piece of art, or an image engages. And that neatly sits right at the core of a film that has lead me along a surreal path this week.

With my family away in Dublin, I took some time on Saturday to spend with my elderly parents. Later that day, I took myself off to the cinema to view Christopher Nolan’s INCEPTION. To say that the film blew my socks off is an understatement.

If you peruse my Facebook page you can see exactly how deep this particular rabbit hole of mine really is. While viewing INCEPTION, I was reminded of the imagery of the 1961 Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s impenetrable French New Wave Existentialist classic ‘Last Year at Marienbad’. When I got home and searched the internet, I found I was not alone to see the connection –

Like Alain Resnais’ aggressive mind loop, “Last Year at Marienbad,” “Inception” revolves around memories of a past love, which may or may not be “true.” Memory is fallible, dreams are malleable. Charmingly, Nolan has said he’d only ever seen that feat of bold parallel editing after completing this James Bond-scaled movie, but he felt all the other films that had been influenced by “Marienbad” had influenced him. What other influences rest lightly on Nolan’s shoulders?

Though Nolan stated that

"Everyone was accusing me of ripping it off, but I actually never got around to seeing it. Funnily enough, I saw it and I’m like, Oh, wow. There are bits of “Inception” that people are going to think I ripped that straight out of 'Last Year at Marienbad.' Basically, what it means is, I’m ripping off the movies that ripped off “Last Year at Marienbad,” without having seen the original. It’s that much a source of ideas, really, about the relationships between dream and memory and so forth, which is very much what 'Inception' deals with. But we have way more explosions."

The idea had been seeded in my mind, and so I followed it back in time. The curious thing was that [apart from ‘Last Year at Marienbad’] I had also admired Alain Resnais’ startling documentary ‘Night and Fog’ [original title ‘Nuit et brouillard’] due to my interest in modern history and my curiosity about the [limitless] depths of man’s inhumanity to man. While tracking back Resnais’ writer on Marienbad - Alain Robbe-Grillet, I soon discovered that Grillet appears to have been influenced [or even inspired] by an obscure quasi-SF novel ‘The Invention of Morel’ by Adolfo Bioy Casares. This little known novel has been referenced by the writers of the TV Series ‘Lost’. I quickly found this slim novella / novel remains in print and is available, so I quickly ordered it. If you want to follow me down this rabbit hole - the introduction can be downloaded as a .pdf here. I strongly recommend this slim mind-flipping little book.

Then the really weird coincidence appeared, considering my enthusiasm from Inception, Last Year at Marienbad, The Invention of Morel, Lost – while researching I discovered that Alain Resnais directed a film with Marienbad star Delphine Seyrig, entitled “Muriel ou le temps d'un retour”, literally translated as “Muriel, or the Time of a Return”. This film was released in 1963 as ‘Muriel’ in the UK and US. The peculiar aspect is that my wife of 20 years is named Muriel; and I was born in 1963, the same year that Resnais’ film ‘Muriel’ was released – spooky!

OK – I admit I have read far too much Philip K Dick but when one gets trapped in the riddle that is Marienbad, perhaps it does things to one’s mind, but then again, like Leonardo DiCaprio’s screen wives in Shutter Island and Inception, perhaps reality is more mysterious than the alarming views of existence that these films present.

But to prove that I haven’t lost my sense of humour and that my sanity remains intact – click here for an amusing spoiler from Inception that has done the rounds on Twitter – Warning click if you’ve seen Inception [especially the last frame].

I strongly recommend the films Inception, Last Year at Marienbad as well as Shutter Island, if you like mind-bending movies, as well as the weird novella / novel ‘The Invention of Morel’ by Adolfo Bioy Casares, but a warning - they do mess up your mind. As we may be fish swimming in a reality we don’t comprehend, that’s to be expected I guess, according to Lord Rees of Ludlow.

But don’t worry, you’re probably dreaming.

Friday, August 13, 2010

You Are What You Read

I stumbled upon this interesting piece from John Meacham at Newsweek, which opens with this interesting observation about books and friends –

A friend I thought I knew well startled me the other evening with a sweeping literary judgment that led me, for the first time, to question how much I truly understand him. The subject was mysteries and thrillers. “Oh, I can’t stand books like that,” he said, flatly, leaving no room for argument.

My failure to detect such a colossal character flaw before that moment bothered me, but then—reminding myself that we are always to look outward, toward others, focusing not on the devices and desires of our own hearts—I realized that I should reach out constructively rather than simmer silently.

And since argument from example is often the most effective means of persuasion, I thought I would offer a summertime defense of the mystery-thriller genre.

Now like Meacham, I’ve attended many dinner parties and encountered people [mainly men], who discount reading fiction as “….a waste of time as it is all made-up….” I usually counter the argument by explaining that reading fiction helps us in our daily lives –

[a] In work by enhancing the imagination, which in turn helps resolve the constant flow of business problems that many of us have to confront and overcome.

[b] Understanding the random nature of life and also the motivations within people we interact with by giving greater empathy, especially due to reading fiction [this has been proven by New Scientist]

[c] Seeing and observing the world through another person’s eyes and their value system.

[d] Making one inquisitive and not accepting the world as it is presented by a narrow-ranged [and directed] media.

The reason why I so much enjoy attending literary events such as Bouchercon, is that I am with people who value books and reading, unlike those who enjoy the trivial aspects of our lives, such as what car we drive, the brand label of our suit or what celebrity z-lister of the week is doing today.

While some people [who read novels] use the old chestnut of dismissing reading thrillers as ‘down-market’ and ‘irrelevant’ compared to reading ‘literary fiction, however Meacham makes some interesting points -

Mysteries and thrillers are not the same things, though they are literary siblings. Roughly put, I would say the distinction is that mysteries emphasize motive and psychology whereas thrillers rely more heavily on action and plot. Some mysteries are thrillers and some thrillers are mysteries, but not all mysteries are thrillers, nor are all thrillers mysteries.

It has long been intellectually fashionable to dismiss such books as inconsequential. Thomas Jefferson once joked that he defeated insomnia by trying to write such a tale.

The appeal of both genres for me is precisely the appeal of any other piece of fiction, from Jane Austen to Peter Taylor, or George Eliot to John Cheever. The narratives give us a glimpse, however fleeting, of what William Faulkner called the “old verities and truths of the heart…?love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”
Nero Wolfe is no Elizabeth Bennet, nor is Miss Marple another Dorothea Brooke. But Wolfe and Marple—and James Bond and Lee Child’s Jack Reacher—are characters at work in a dark and confusing and fallen world, a world in which murder and betrayal and treason are constant threats and frequent foes. One would like to think of such novels as fantasy, but the fundamental forces with which they deal are all too real.

As dangerous and arbitrary as lists are, here is what I am going to suggest that my agnostic friend (note I forbore referring to him as heretical, or faithless) explore: Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series (Archie Goodwin, who is forever “hot-footing” it up or downtown, is worth the price of admission); anything by P. D. James (her poet-detective Adam Dalgliesh is a model for all repressed men). I am indebted to my friend and colleague Anna Quindlen for recently putting me onto Denise Mina, who writes tough novels about Glasgow; next door in the British Isles, Benjamin Black, a pseudonym of John Banville’s, writes about a compelling 1950s Dublin pathologist with—surprise!—a problem with the drink. Tana French has written three novels, and the first two (In the Woods and The Likeness) are, to me, quite superior to the newest one that is now out, Faithful Place.

In this summer of
Lisbeth Salander, no discussion of such books would be complete without a stop in the colder European climes. I like Henning Mankell and just lately began to read Arnaldur Indriðason, whose fictional universe is set in Reykjavík, Iceland.

On the thriller front, my taste runs to the provincial. Daniel Silva’s first novel, The Unlikely Spy, is a masterpiece, and I love his series about Gabriel Allon, an Israeli assassin with a passion for art restoration. The aforementioned
Jack Reacher collection, by Lee Child, is great fun. David Ignatius writes brilliant novels about the CIA, and I am an admirer of Charles McCarry’s, especially his Shelley’s Heart. In recent years I have become a fan of Alex Berenson’s nascent CIA series about the post-9/11 world.

Read Meacham’s full piece from Newsweek here

In a world where people lie about what novels they have read, while the ranks of the ‘proudly illiterate’ seem to be massing around us; writers and readers need to make a stand at those who really mean that ‘reading is just too difficult and requires too much cognition’, hence why the knob for reality TV and z-list celebrity culture is thriving around us. Beware the dumbing down of our culture; it’s exactly what the men behind the curtain want. The real threat is from ‘The Blind Commissioner’ and the illiterate and under-educated mob.

Totalitarian regimes burn books, as it helps them prevent the population from developing the cognitive skill of thinking for themselves; and thus more malleable to directed propaganda.

I don’t give a shit if you read on a screen, or on paper, what matters is that you read, because you are what you read. Next time you’re at the dentist, doctor, hairdresser, check out who reads the junk magazines and who reads the novel while waiting.

Top Photo © 2009 Ali Karim “Sunday Morning at Bouchercon Indianapolis Book Giveaway”