28 June, 2006

Recent acquisitions

I haven't listed these for a while - and I'd like to take the opportunity to thank those who gave me books for my birthday two months ago, when I received
  • Samuel Beckett's Complete dramatic works
  • Hilary Rose's Alas poor Darwin: arguments against evolutionary psychology
  • Stephen Jay Gould's The hedgehog, the fox and the magister's pox: mending and minding the misconceived gap between science and the humanities
  • and Edward Said's Orientalism, a classic which I've been wanting for ages.
From Tlon, my new favourite local bookshop, I've acquired a lovely Routledge copy of Grimm's fairy tales, and a nice battered Penguin copy of Jane Grigson's superb Vegetable book, which should help me deal with anything my organic vegetable provider sees fit to throw at me (when I get round to setting that up, of course.)

Last week, as an impulse purchase on the way to reading poetry in a pub with some friends, I acquired Billy Collins's Taking off Emily Dickinson's clothes. Billy Collins is a fantastic contemporary US poet and any of my readers not familiar with his work should get hold of some - quiet, simple, romantic and very beautiful poetry.

And last but not least, the splendid Bloomsbury Oxfam bookshop yesterday sold me Stephen Jay Gould's Leonardo's mountain of clams and the Diet of Worms, his eighth collection of essays from the magazine Natural History, Primo Levi's collection of essays Other people's trades, and Doris Lessing's post-apocalyptic novel Memoirs of a survivor.

Three short extracts

I was always on good terms with my father and went along with his socialism. I am told that this is an abnormal relationship psychologically, making one uncombative and lacking in self-confidence. I cannot say that it had any such effect in my case. On the contrary it made me more confident to have a secure family background. It is a curious thing to be a hereditary dissenter. On the one hand, you reject established views - religious in earlier times, political and social in our own. On the other, you have no inner conflict in doing so. Indeed you would have a conflict only if you accepted them. On a committee I usually put forward subversive ideas and at the same time insist that the existing rules must be rigorously observed until they are changed.

AJP Taylor, from Accident prone, or what happened next, in From Napoleon to the second International: essays on nineteenth-century Europe.

When writers close themselves off to the documents of scholarship, and rely only on seeing or asking, they become conduits and sieves rather than thinkers. When, on the other hand, you study the great works of predecessors engaged in the same struggle, you enter a dialogue with human history and the rich variety of our intellectual traditions. You insert yourself, and your own organizing powers, into this history - and you become and active agent, not merely a "reporter." Then, and only then, can you become an original contributor, even a discoverer, and not only a mouthpiece.

Stephen Jay Gould, from the preface to Leonardo's mountain of clams and the Diet of Worms.

How is it possible that something that can teach you so much about the world, about nature and the universe, and, for more religious people, about God - that something that is so clearly able to teach you so many things can serve as a means of escape from precisely those things? And this is a fascinating thought, for me, about the effect of music. Whenever we talk about music, we talk about how we are affected by it, not about it itself. In this respect, it is like God. We can't talk about God, or whatever you want to call it, but we can only talk about our reaction to a thing - some people know God exists and others refuse to admit God exists - but we cannot speak about it. We can only seak about our reaction to it. In the same way, I don't think you can speak about music. You can only speak about a subjective reaction to it.

Daniel Barenboim in Parallels and paradoxes:explorations in music and society.

An Israeli conductor and a Palestinian intellectual

Daniel Barenboim's Reith lectures were absolutely fantastic: witty, intellectual, thoughtful and profound, and reminded me to buy the book he co-wrote with Edward Said, Parallels and paradoxes: explorations in music and society. I say co-wrote, but it's actually a collection of their conversations - some in front of an audience and some in private. They discuss Beethoven and Wagner; the Israel-Palestine conflict; musical education; the way an orchestra works together; the transcendence of music; what music can teach us about the world. I don't know enough about a lot ofthe music they discuss (particularly Beethoven and Wagner) but the book makes me want to know more.

I particularly liked some of what Edward Said says about the growing specialisation of society and the way that the connections between music, art and literature, history and politics are being lost in the modern day world. Later I'll try to find a passage to reproduce here. Wonderful to read about people wanting to increase access to the arts not by making the arts more 'accessible', whatever that means, but by improving the public's education in the arts in order to ba able to present these to a wider audience.

27 June, 2006

Thrilling discoveries

Atkins' book on the British spy novel has introduced me to a great new (to me) thriller writer, Eric Ambler, the precursor of John le Carré but the first British thriller writer to write about the mundanity and unheroicness of the spying world. So far I've read two of his novels: The night-comers, a rather dramatic but taut description of a military coup in a fictitious South-east Asian country, and The Levanter, an excellent thriller about the way a Middle-eastern businessman is blackmailed into helping a Palestinian terror group mount an attack on Israel. The prose is workmanlike, the plots are plausible and intelligent, and the characterisation is perhaps a bit macho but realistic and moving. Ian Fleming paid tribute to him in one of the Bond novels, incidentally - in From Russia with love, Bond whiles away a long train journey reading Ambler's The mask of Dimitrios. The nice thing about Ambler is that although many of his novels are currently out of print they had long print runs in cheap paperback imprints up to the 1970s, so they are perfect to collect from second hand bookshops and charity shops.

Having discovered him and bought The Levanter from Waterstones (reprinted as a commemorative run celebrating his publishers' thirtieth anniversary), I came across The night-comers in a second hand bookshop in Elephant and Castle shopping centre in a gaudy retro paperback edition, for 40p.

The Elephant bookshop, called Tlon, is one of my latest discoveries and I'm delighted by it. I'd always passed it by assuming (for some reason) that it was a Bible bookshop. I'm absolutely delighted to discover that on the contrary it's a proper community second hand bookshop - no collectors' editions costing pounds, but instead lots of decent quality paperback copies of recent literary fiction and classics, an excellent history and politics section, and everything reasonably priced - a far cry from the Gower Street Waterstones second hand section in which the most unremarkable of Penguin paperbacks is carefully priced to undercut the price of any new edition by only a couple of pence.

I've also discovered the Bloomsbury Oxfam bookshop, just round the corner from Tas Bloomsbury on Bloomsbury Street, which is another bookshop aimed more at the paperback reader than the collector of exquisite folios. They also seem to do a good line in art and cookery books, although I have my eye on a nice hardback edition of JB Priestley's Angel pavement, one of my favourite novels and my favourite London novel, priced at three quid. A friend has also recently emailed me his recommendations for second hand bookshops in South East London, so my book purchases may spiral wildly out of control in the next couple of weeks.

20 June, 2006

Fame at last

My letter to the Guardian got printed!