When, as described in my last post, I found a Pilger on the 08:54 from Cannon Street, I was immediately certain that it was a rejected book. After all, the author was John Pilger, a sort of Pied Piper for political half-wits. Had it been another title I’d might have entertained the possibility that it was left by somebody who hoped that somebody else would pick it up and love it.
Last night I went to a very interesting session with a panel of fiction authors and academics discussing whether and how the Internet is a threat to reading. One of the nominees for the Commonwealth Writers Prize, Jeremy Page – author of Salt – was there. By coincidence – we were discussing the influence of the Internet on reading habits and practices – he mentioned the phenomenon of “releasing books into the wild” and tracking them across the world using the Web.
The idea is that you register your book a site – one such is Bookcrossing – and generate a code. Like a migrating bird, you tag your book with the code by writing it and the address of the site on its inside cover. Then you release your book into the wild. If the person who ‘catches’ it has a shred of romance or curiosity in their body (and if they have access to the Web), they go to the site and find out the provenance of their new book. If they’re playing the game then they read the book, respond to your initial post with a post of their own, and then release the book as you did originally. Then somebody else finds the book and it goes on.
Nice, hey? A copy of Jeremy Page’s book has been ‘journalled’ by 6 readers but the releases were ‘controlled’ (come on, surely that’s just called ‘giving somebody a book’).
Going to this thing last night made me realise how artisticly impoverished my life has become. I don’t read like the people there said they read. The last work of fiction I read was a tiny fraction of Midnight’s Children before coming to the conclusion that I didn’t have the time. These days I read for arguments and understanding, not to be transported.
But tomorrow from Barkingside Library I’ll collect an inter-library-loaned copy of the out-of-print Redemption by Tariq Ali, which satirises the reactions of a number of European and US Trotskyists, some of whom like Alex Callinicos and Vanessa Redgrave are still around, to the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. I was part way through last year but left it dangling around Chapter 6. It’s very funny, and Trotskyists would be the first to admit that humour is a deficiency in the business of Socialism.
The last work of fiction which truly transported me was Marlene van Niekirk’s Triomf, about an abjectly poor Afrikaner family and their shared, insular and bewildered subsistence in Johannesburg in the last months of apartheid, months for which the characters are a metaphor. The family members – three related older adults – are, irresolvably, criminally and foully defective, personally repugnant and at the same time incredibly touching. You read in horror, revulsion, and some parts startle you by making you smile, but most of all the reason I love this book is that it held me through the most disgusting episodes – somebody who finds the notion of catharsis incomprehensible, who’s abnormally over-sensitive to dramatised violence, who had to pull their hat over their eyes during the fight scenes in Lord of the Rings. I think that Triomf is the best work of fiction of all time.
My favourite genre of fiction is the stuff of the American South, black authors and white authors. One book I recall with a shudder is Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain which I read in 1999 when I was a member of Stoke Newington Library reading group. I remember weeping uncontrollably on the front seat of the 242 going up through Dalston just to get it finished in time.
As my nerves seem to poke out on longer and longer stalks in this respect, I’m hoping for a return to emotional understatement in drama and fiction. I can do the work quite adequately for myself without this: