Posts Tagged ‘books’

Long-s versus short-s

Saturday, December 18th, 2010

Tim Spalding notes an interesting detail in Googles books ngram viewer:

Google can’t tell between an f and an ſ, the “s without a bar” more properly known as a long, descending or medial s. … If nothing else we can now follow the demise of the ſ with precision.

So, I was curious. Some arbitrarily selected graphs:

curse vs. curfe

stall vs. ftall

search vs. fearch

In all three cases, there’s a general trend of ſ-dominance from approximately 1700 to 1800, but the pre-1700 period appears a lot more mixed. Some example results explain why:

All ſ, all correctly identified as “s” and not “f”. Why, I wonder, and why does it break down later? Are Google just better at training their OCR on “older” typefaces? Is there a threshold setting somewhere to look for unexpected “f”s and turn them into “s”s, which is mostly disabled for eighteenth-century and later material? And why do all three ſ-variant graphs show the same 1570-1610 step?

Questions, questions…

The Secret Battle

Thursday, November 11th, 2010

I was delighted recently to discover that A. P. Herbert’s The Secret Battle, a somewhat neglected First World War novel, had been digitised by and was made available as public domain. The 1919 British edition is here; Open Library links to a few more.

I talk about this book a lot. It’s mostly unknown now; it received some mild critical acclaim before falling prey to the fact that in the early 1920s, no-one really wanted to talk about the war. It wasn’t until five or ten years after it was published that the boom in war writing really began, by which time it was mostly old news and its author had become firmly established as a light humorist – dredging up a novel he wrote as an impassioned and scarred twenty-six year old was not high on the publishing agenda. It was the first novel to focus on Gallipoli as well as the Western Front, one of the first to openly challenge the practice of execution for desertion, and an early example of the trope of the veteran as a damaged victim of the war, rather than a hero emerging from it.

I am going to write down some of the history of Harry Penrose, because I do not think full justice has been done to him…

The protagonist, Harry Penrose, leaves Oxford in the summer of 1914 and enlists in the ranks, later taking a commission; he serves at Gallipoli as a junior subaltern, and on the Western Front. There, for years, his spirit is worn down; he wants to be a good soldier, and tries hard, but he is relentlessly put upon by circumstances. One day, he breaks a little more than usual and turns back in the face of shellfire. And the System then breaks him, completely and without feeling.

A court-martial is ordered, and it finds the bare facts of the case; he was leading his men to the front line, they were fired upon, and he turned back. Desertion in the face of the enemy, a clear and unarguable conviction. As an honest man, he cannot challenge the facts, and as a sensitive one, he cannot quite convince himself he is not, after all, actually a coward. Justice, such as it is, is served; a week later, a decision is taken by some high authority to “make an example”, and one fine spring morning he is taken to be shot, for the good of the nation’s moral fibre.

It is crushingly sad, all the more so when you realise that Penrose is – in surprising detail – drawn from the author. He knew of a case where an officer in his division had been shot like this, in similarly dubious circumstances, and asked himself – had I stayed on the front lines longer, had I not been sent home, wounded, to a safe job, would I have cracked like this? What would have become of me? But, of course, he feared he already knew the answer.

Churchill wrote that “like the poems of Siegfried Sassoon it should be read in each generation, so that men and women may rest under no illusions about what war means”, and as so often he seems to have put his finger on it. Penrose’s war is not glorious, not romantic, not successful, not admirable – but it is real, and stark, and honest, and final.

…[and] that is all I have tried to do. This book is not an attack on any person, on the death penalty, or on anything else, though if it makes people think about these things, so much the better. I think I believe in the death penalty — I do not know. But I did not believe in Harry being shot.
That is the gist of it; that my friend Harry was shot for cowardice — and he was one of the bravest men I ever knew.

Book review: The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch

Sunday, April 4th, 2010

Locke Lamora is a Gentleman Bastard. So is this book, on the whole: on the one hand, there is the Tolkienesque worldbuilding, the ancient mythical race, the ancient high-fantastical city and on the other hand, there is the unexpected dialogue, which is all piss and vinegar and people saying fuck, shit and arse. Together they make a kind of alchemical steampunk, a believable mess of well-though through fantasy and likeable, engaging characters.

The plot, let’s be clear – it’s a heist movie. Locke Lamora is a thief, his gang of Gentleman Bastards are thieves. They steal from the rich and they don’t give to the poor. Their schemes to get rich are complex confidence tricks, and the joy the author must have taken in thinking them up shines through the pages, and rollicks the story through the first few hundred pages – after that the novel darkens and the body count rises, and it becomes less likeable, but no less good a novel. The main plot is interspersed with interludes from the main characters’ backstories and details about the world in which they live, and while I think the placement and distribution of these is clumsy, they’re enjoyable for all that.

There are the usual first-novel flaws – sometimes the prose is too flowery, sometimes the dialogue is wooden or could be easily elided – but in my mind, the greatest issue with this book is its distinct lack of female characters. There basically aren’t any of note – there is a woman who never appears but conveniently exists for Locke to pine over, there is another woman who makes a couple of token appearances before being summarily killed in aid of male character development, there’s another who is the usual fantasy-world prostitute. The situation improves slightly as the novel progresses – it even passes the Bechdel test, a mere ten pages from the end – but generally it does read a little like boys’ own fantasy in this regard, which is offputting.

But – it’s fun. And I shall read the next one with interest.

The joy of indices

Friday, March 19th, 2010

Today’s light entertainment: an old article from the Independent on the delights of book indices (indexes? You know what I mean, anyway).

One of my favourite sets of indices is from A.P. Herbert’s various collections of Misleading Cases, which if anything get more opinionated as time goes on. A short extract from Wigs at Work:

Barracuda, compared with surtax, 148
Big Ben, lying, a bad thing, 193. See also ‘Summer Time’
Blackmail, defined, 73. See also ‘Collector of Taxes’
Burglar: how much can a, be killed?, 165, 168, 169; use of garden fork against, commended, 165

Eggs: as negotiable instruments, 67; correct handling of, 71
Eton, regrettable incident at, traced to study of classics, 57

Haddock, Albert: [a full column of close-set type]
Intoxication, premature, attributed to Summer Time, 199
Jonah, wife of, her comments, unrecorded, 87
Lying, everyone presumed to be, in divorce court, 85

Right, first time: British Courts have little hope of being, 92
Rylands v. Fletcher: applies to computer, 209; does not apply to snails, 35
Swan, deplorable episode, 56. See also Leda
Thermometers, why not falsify? See ‘Summer Time’
Ultra Vires, to be pronounced in the good old English fashion, 128
Virtue, tax on, 97. See also Income Tax Acts
Wedding guests, harsh lot, 16

The enemies of books

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

Another old book on books, this time from Project Gutenberg:

The Enemies of Books, by William Blades [1888]

It breaks down the various threats to the survival of books by topic (fire, water, neglect, vermin, collectors, children…) and then lists a succession of anecdotes about collections destroyed in this way. Surprisingly interesting, in some cases, if a bit depressing; it’s interesting to know what has been lost over the years but is still known about. I wrote last month about the monastic libraries being dissolved at the Reformation; here is a contemporary writing about what happened to their contents:

A greate nombre of them whyche purchased those superstycyouse mansyons reserved of those librarye bookes some to serve their jakes, some to scoure theyr candelstyckes, and some to rubbe theyr bootes. Some they solde to the grossers and sope sellers, and some they sent over see to ye booke bynders, not in small nombre, but at tymes whole shyppes full, to ye wonderynge of foren nacyons. Yea ye Universytees of thys realme are not alle clere in thys detestable fact. But cursed is that bellye whyche seketh to be fedde with suche ungodlye gaynes, and so depelye shameth hys natural conterye.

I knowe a merchant manne, whych shall at thys tyme be namelesse, that boughte ye contentes of two noble lybraryes for forty shyllynges pryce: a shame it is to be spoken. Thys stuffe hathe heoccupyed in ye stede of greye paper, by ye space of more than these ten yeares, and yet he bathe store ynoughe for as manye years to come. A prodygyous example is thys, and to be abhorred of all men whyche love theyr nacyon as they shoulde do. The monkes kepte them undre dust, ye ydle-headed prestes regarded them not, theyr latter owners have most shamefully abused them, and ye covetouse merchantes have solde them away into foren nacyons for moneye

Book review: Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

This is a collection of short stories: four or five stand-alones, and then three connected stories at the end that together are about novella-length.

On the whole, this is very familiar territory. Believe me, I wrote that sentence intending no pun whatsoever; the “unaccustomed earth” of the title is the immigrant’s land, both a new world and the New World, and in Lahiri’s case, it is invariably Boston and New England. Her immigrants arrive on the eastern seaboard from Calcutta, another coastal city, and they speak Bengali, and they become professors at Harvard and MIT. They are simply, evocatively depicted, the details of their lives lovingly and, in my limited experience of the same narrative, accurately rendered. Lahiri’s style is always, always engaging, the simplicity of it turning from mundanity to devastation in a quiet sequence of sentences.

And each story is, alone, both lovely and deeply affecting – the title story gives us a young mother being visited by her father after some time apart, and how he plants her a garden; “Only Goodness” is an unflinching look at how easy it is to destroy a family; the linked Hema and Kaushik stories track a son’s life after his mother dies young – but it’s taken all together that they start to worry me. These familes, their stories, they have two things in common: they are immigrants from India, settling themselves down on that unaccustomed earth, and they are unhappy. Each story has that awful, echoing, hollow sense of loss, with time taken over the lines and caverns of that empty space, care taken to describe the ubiquity of that despair. Here is what worries me. Lahiri’s protagonists marry in her stories, some in arranged marriages, some marrying white Americans, and all are loveless and unloved. Some lose their families to death and to distance, and there is no redemption for them, either. There is always a sense that something, somewhere, is irreparably breaking. I ask not for the saccharine happy ending, but for the notion, however obliquely expressed, that there is hope for the Indian disaspora, that all is not lost at the moment of leaving – and this is not something I can find, here.

Perhaps it really is the author’s opinion, that the immigrant experience is fundamentally a heartbreak, and in that case this is an honest book – but it is neither happy, nor hopeful, and I hope that it is not true.

On the love of books

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

A book of which I am greatly fond is the Philobiblon of Richard de Bury, an early fourteenth-century clergyman who was Bishop of Durham and Lord Chancellor under Edward III. For a text written by such an imposing figure, it is remarkably sweet; Philobiblon is literally “the love of books”. de Bury collected an immense amount of literature during his life – according to his biographer, “more than all the other English bishops put together”.

People, of course, found this a little odd, so he had to do something about it:

…we have resigned all thoughts of other earthly things, and have given ourselves up to a passion for acquiring books. That our intent and purpose, therefore, may be known to posterity as well as to our contemporaries, and that we may for ever stop the perverse tongues of gossipers as far as we are concerned, we have published a little treatise written in the lightest style of the moderns; for it is ridiculous to find a slight matter treated of in a pompous style. … And because it principally treats of the love of books, we have chosen, after the fashion of the ancient Romans, fondly to name it by a Greek word, Philobiblon.

The first section is devoted to explaining the importance of reading and learning, as it appeared to him.

Books delight us, when prosperity smiles upon us; they comfort us inseparably when stormy fortune frowns on us. They lend validity to human compacts, and no serious judgments are propounded without their help. Arts and sciences, all the advantages of which no mind can enumerate, consist in books. How highly must we estimate the wondrous power of books, since through them we survey the utmost bounds of the world and time, and contemplate the things that are as well as those that are not, as it were in the mirror of eternity. In books we climb mountains and scan the deepest gulfs of the abyss; in books we behold the finny tribes that may not exist outside their native waters, distinguish the properties of streams and springs and of various lands; from books we dig out gems and metals and the materials of every kind of mineral, and learn the virtues of herbs and trees and plants, and survey at will the whole progeny of Neptune, Ceres, and Pluto.

He explains the merits of reading:

…what pleasantness of teaching there is in books, how easy, how secret! How safely we lay bare the poverty of human ignorance to books without feeling any shame! They are masters who instruct us without rod or ferule, without angry words, without clothes or money. If you come to them they are not asleep; if you ask and inquire of them they do not withdraw themselves; they do not chide if you make mistakes; they do not laugh at you if you are ignorant.

and the terrible temptations of power:

…we were reported to burn with such desire for books, and especially old ones, that it was more easy for any man to gain our favour by means of books than of money. Wherefore, since supported by the goodness of the aforesaid prince of worthy memory, we were able to requite a man well or ill, to benefit or injure mightily great as well as small, there flowed in, instead of presents and guerdons, and instead of gifts and jewels, soiled tracts and battered codices, gladsome alike to our eye and heart.

After a while, it becomes apparent that what we’re reading is, in its way, a text on basic librarianship, filtered down from the fourteenth-century collector with an eye on the future.

He discusses collection management, explaining why he has collected books of poetry (because it is hard to understand the great authors if one cannot understand their allusions) and downplayed civil law; why he has preferred the classical authors but not neglected modern writings. He explains the need to provide standard reference works – Greek and Hebrew grammars, and perhaps even Arabic (for the “numerous astronomical treatises”); indeed, if they’re not available, to commission them and make them available.

He even deals with weeding and stock replacement, in a more direct way than we normally have to:

But because all the appliances of mortal men with the lapse of time suffer the decay of mortality, it is needful to replace the volumes that are worn out with age by fresh successors, that the perpetuity of which the individual is by its nature incapable may be secured to the species; and hence it is that the Preacher says: Of making many books there is no end.

But then we come to probably the best part: his lengthy rant near the end about The Scholars Of Today, and How They Are Just Really Vile.

But the race of scholars is commonly badly brought up, and unless they are bridled in by the rules of their elders they indulge in infinite puerilities. They behave with petulance, and are puffed up with presumption, judging of everything as if they were certain, though they are altogether inexperienced.

You may happen to see some headstrong youth lazily lounging over his studies, and when the winter’s frost is sharp, his nose running from the nipping cold drips down, nor does he think of wiping it with his pocket-handkerchief until he has bedewed the book before him with the ugly moisture. … But the handling of books is specially to be forbidden to those shameless youths, who as soon as they have learned to form the shapes of letters, straightway, if they have the opportunity, become unhappy commentators, and wherever they find an extra margin about the text, furnish it with monstrous alphabets, or if any other frivolity strikes their fancy, at once their pen begins to write it. There the Latinist and sophister and every unlearned writer tries the fitness of his pen, a practice that we have frequently seen injuring the usefulness and value of the most beautiful books.

Other hazards, apparently, included people filling books with pressed violets, dropping cheese into them, cutting the margins and flyleaves off to write letters on, laymen holding them upside down, children grubbying the illustrated capitals by touching them, and the vague horror of the “smutty scullion reeking from his stewpots”. (I have never had problems with people cutting the margins off, but every other one of these is familiar in some way…) Not quite the image of the silent, austere, medieval monastery we have in mind most of the time!

He then explains why he has collected these books – “to found in perpetual charity a Hall in the reverend university of Oxford, the chief nursing mother of all liberal arts, and to endow it with the necessary revenues, for the maintenance of a number of scholars” – and includes, presumably so it wouldn’t get misplaced, a copy of the charter for its library.

It’s quite an interesting set of rules, as a historical document; a committee of five was to run the library, three of whom could agree to lend out anything the library had a duplicate copy of, if they were given a pledge of equal value in response, and the borrower’s name was carefully written down. Once a year books were to be brought back so that they could be seen by the librarians, and they were not allowed to be taken outside of the city or its environs. And, every year, the librarians were to check every volume was accounted for… which, to my great amusement, is recommended to happen in the first week of July, high summer and – these days – prime stock-checking time.

Sadly, de Bury’s excessive collecting took its toll – he died in exceptional poverty, and his personal library was broken up and sold to pay his debts. The college at Oxford was formed – the plan completed by his successor – and lasted until the Reformation, when it ceased to exist; a small amount of its buildings are now absorbed into Trinity College, if you look carefully enough. His library never made it there, and its catalogue is now lost; we only know of two volumes from it, one at the Bodleian and one at the British Library.

The book survived, though; given its appeal, it’s not hard to see why. The full text was digitised by the University of Virginia Library or by Project Gutenberg, and is worth an hour’s reading; the edition I have, a lovely pocket-sized hardback from 1902, has also been digitised by the Internet Archive with page images, if you prefer that sort of thing.

Book review: Juliet, Naked, by Nick Hornby

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

This is a better book than A Long Way Down. Admittedly, every book ever published is probably better than A Long Way Down. This is quite a good book.

To put it another way – well, I have read all of Hornby’s novels save Slam, which suggests I’m a fan, doesn’t it? I read the first three in a breathless teenage rush, thinking grand thoughts about transformative and meaningful and zeitgeist, and then I read How To Be Good much much later, and changed my mind with almost the same rapidity. Hornby writes well, but I rather think he thinks too much of himself, tries too hard to be both funny and profound, and it comes across as forced, particularly the grand-hollowness-at-the-centre-of-middle-class-existence schtick. His characters certainly do suffer from that sort of hollowness, but that’s because they’re characters in a Hornby novel and not real people. Nowhere does this manifest more than in A Long Way Down, which has a wonderful idea at its heart, and an excellent first few chapters, and then quickly becomes a plotless, heartless mess.

So I wasn’t surprised to pick up Juliet, Naked and find myself thoroughly enjoying the first couple of chapters, but I was more surprised when I carried on enjoying it after that. The plot centres around Annie, a middle-aged woman living in a northern seaside town, and her live-in boyfriend of fifteen years, Duncan the feckless nerd. Duncan has been obsessed for a decade with one obscure, reclusive singer-songwriter, Tucker Crowe; when he releases a new album and it’s not that good, Annie suddenly realises she wants out. Having wasted fifteen years of your life, though, is not something you can throw off in a hurry; somewhere in the American Midwest, Tucker is thinking the same thing.

And that’s…. it, really. Hornby isn’t good at plots, but here he works that to a positive advantage, taking his time over the very simple progression of events, and taking pleasure in getting you to like Annie and loathe Duncan a little bit. (He’s a little bit of a caricature, but not much of one; I certainly admit to having met this particular kind of obsessive, strident, hiding-in-internet fan.) And Tucker, too, is drawn well, likeable even if his interior monologue does seem to contain a lot of faux-profundity, and all the supporting cast have their time in the sun, too.

In the end, it’s a little bit of a fairytale. I suspect it’s not supposed to be one. I suspect it’s meant to be a savage attack on middle-aged loneliness and the evils of the internet, or else a maundering on the ways in which people waste their lives. It’s meant to be depressing. But, you know, it’s not the nineties any more, and this is a nice little book about some people falling in love.

Book review: Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

Sunday, December 27th, 2009

“I was born twice.” It’s an epic beginning for a novel, which is in itself epic in its twists and turns. Middlesex is the story of Cal Stephanides, a forty-year-old man who was born a girl called Callope; at the age of sixteen, his hermaphroditism was discovered. A second birth, as he explains it, and a large chunk of the novel is the story of Calliope’s trials and tribulations as she’s socialised into a gender that doesn’t quite fit.

But to get to that point, we have the story of the previous two generations of the Stephanides family, Greek-Americans living in Detroit by way of a tiny village in Asia Minor. It’s also the story of how Cal came to have the requisite genetic condition and surrounding circumstances for such a transformation. It’s a long story, entwined with a great deal of history: the Turks’ burning of Smyrna, the Second World War, the 1967 race riots, the Nation of Islam, all forming a backdrop and context to the family’s story. They move through the burning of the harbour, speakeasies and hot dog stands, moving to the suburbs, and I recognise the greater narrative, the story of an immigrant family and their identity, their homesickness and their difference, their gradual assmilation, and finally, their loss of what’s left behind.

There are discordant notes in this grand tapestry, of course – sometimes the inner life of the teenage girl isn’t particularly well rendered, and occasionally things get a little too soap-operatic – but on the whole, it’s an achievement. I could have done with a little more about Cal’s life post-“second birth”, actually – a little more on how he deals with a life lived male, and how he deals with the family secrets he inherits, but as it is, it’s a substantial, solid achievement – a warm bath of a novel, just the right level of comedic, and full of insight into identity.

Film novels

Thursday, December 24th, 2009

Way back in the mists of time, Jurassic Park was released. I was… let me see, ten. It should not be surprising that I loved it uncritically. Move forward fifteen years, and I happened to watch it again; it was still a pretty good film, even if parts began to look faintly dated. I ferreted out a copy of the novel and, all in all, not bad. Not quite my thing, a little heavy on the Clever Scientific Concepts – I like my fiction without detours into chaos theory – but it was enjoyable and rattled along nicely for an afternoon.

Yesterday, feeling particularly cold, I ducked into a charity shop; the only thing on the shelf that looked even vaguely interesting was, unexpectedly, a copy of the sequel, The Lost World. So, I paid a pound for it, and went back out into the snow to catch my bus home.

All I knew about this novel was that it was a sequel, it was somewhat hastily written to respond to the ravening demand for one, and that it would have been written with the expectation of being turned into a film. So, you’d expect a bit of sloppiness in the plotting, a few sections in need of editorial help, the usual signs of a book that did not quite get the attention it deserved. And we had them; moments where the plot leapt ahead without quite making logical connections, a character who seems entirely unsurprised to run into someone he thought he’d murdered three chapters earlier, and a Big Clever Scientific Explanation near the end which doesn’t quite make sense. (The entire plot doesn’t make sense in the context of the previous book’s events, either, come to think of it – but I can let that one slide.)

Despite this, it’s the film aspect that really leapt out. There are chase scenes in this; passages which don’t really work, seeming fast and clumsy, but when you re-read them you realise they’d look impressive on camera. Exposition is done in monologues in preference to narrative text. Characters are flat and hard to distinguish from their written speech alone. An obligatory pair of annoyingly competent children are shoehorned in, without any real attempt to explain how or why or if it makes sense. It all feels very forced, very much an attempt to make it punchier and more glossy at the expense of what plot there was before.

(It could have been worse, of course. Wikipedia notes, with what seems to be restrained amusement, that “the novel does not feature an adult Tyrannosaurus rampaging in San Diego, unlike in the film.”)

It’s a pity, really; it’s easy to dismiss this sort of quasi-tie-in novel as going to be terrible anyway, but we can see from the previous iteration that there was scope for something decent here. I wonder if it holds for other such sequels? The only example I can think of offhand is 2001 – where the first novel was written almost simultaneously with the film – but that’s such an odd case it’d be hard to draw any conclusions from it. 2010 was invariably going to seem brasher and punchier than 2001, because so would virtually anything else…