They Might Be Giants

They might be giants. Yes they might. This is a relatively obscure way to start a post – and am I quoting the US band They Might Be Giants who began life in 1982 and are still extant and still, beyond rock-music aficionados, obscure. Though in the Top Trumps of obscure bands with giants in their title the Young Marble Giants, a Welsh band formed in 1978, must be the winner. And I bet that for the very small percentage of you reading this who are familiar with them that an even smaller percentage of you are aware that this group are still going too?!

They Might Be Giants

For some of you reading this They Might Be Giants might have resonated differently conjuring up the 1971 film directed by Anthony Harvey and starring George C Scott and Joanne Woodward. Actually those of you in this camp might likewise Top Trump this having first thought of the play of the same name that this film was based on, both written by James Goldman. If you are not familiar with it I can do no better than quote one line from Wikipedia describing its premise as:

a millionaire who retreats into fantasy after the death of his wife,
imagining himself to be Sherlock Holmes, the legendary fictional detective.

If that doesn’t make you want to track it down well I don’t know what to say!

All this being what it is, it is the US group They Might Be Giants that I was alluding too.

Obscure though I describe them a larger number of you may be familiar with their song ‘Birdhouse In Your Soul’ as a title not easily forgotten and though its chart success was modest, both in the US and UK, it did enjoy its fair-share of radio play. For it was catchy in a novelty song kind of way. You may or may not care for it but once heard you might not be able to forget it even f you wanted to.

Its word were pretty obtuse too, see sample:

Filibuster vigilantly
My name is blue canary one note spelled l-i-t-e
My story’s infinite
Like the Longines Symphonette it doesn’t rest

But it is still not their best known song. For even those of you who steer a wide-birth of rock-music may have been subject to another of their songs and on a very regular basis.

That is if you or your children or your partner or all of the aforementioned are/were a fan of the US comedy Malcolm In The Middle which ran for seven seasons between 2000 and 2006 and subject to endless re-runs ever since.

Malcolm in the MiddleFor the song that heralded and farewelled each and everyone of its 151 episodes with its refrain ‘You’re not the boss of me’ was from the catalogue of They Might Be Giants and titled perhaps inevitably ‘Boss of Me’. As a way to get a high profile to one of your songs this has to be hard to beat.

This song was not a single or album-track that someone involved in the show’s production heard and thought would be apt for its theme-tune rather it was written especially for it.

The song begins with the lines

Yes, No, maybe,
I don’t know
Can you repeat the question

Before launching into the refrain at great speed and frequency.

You’re not the boss of me now

And quite a subversive sentiment given that the show was ostensibly a family based comedy and not in the way that The Family Guy is a family-based comedy!

It was tea-time viewing but Malcolm Wilkerson and his family was no more a fantasy cartoon than Bart Simpson and his family – both dysfunctional and all the more real for it.

I watched an episode of Malcolm in the Middle recently but can no longer watch Malcolm’s father Hal and see him as a cuddly good-natured father figure. I can only think of Walter White.

Walter White being the actor Bryan Cranston’s latest incarnation. If you don’t yet know what I am going on about then you clearly have not been watching the US TV series Breaking Bad.

Breaking BadThe Walter White character is a father in Breaking Bad too.  He is diagnosed with a terminal brain cancer. Initially and naturally we sympathize with his plight. They also have one teenage son, Walter White Jr, who has cerebral palsy, and now in their late-forties they are about to welcome their second child in to the world.

Walt White Sr is just another everyday saint. Later we will discover that he is an unreconstructed sociopath, perhaps he always was or perhaps his life-threatening condition tipped him into this dark domain.

And the writer’s have played a trick with us because just as with serial-killing Dexter Morgan from the US show Dexter we find ourselves on the side of the anti-hero, or just plain villain, even as the death-count in both cases ever increases at their own hands and for ever more tenuous reasons. The killing has become a habit and the viewer has become an idle non-judgemental witness to it all. There but for the grace of….we are being encouraged to think.

Breaking Bad production photoWalter White you see will need to pay for all this expensive cancer treatment and on his modest salary being as he is a teacher of Chemistry to high-school students this is never going to happen. Instead he decides to put his chemistry knowledge to use in a more lucrative way – as a producer or cook of Methamphetamine!

He having taken a libertarian stance – it is not for him to protect people from themselves and though it might be against the law is it really against any moral laws? The law-of-our-lands allowing us to take other killing substances like alcohol and tobacco, so for this crystal meth we have just a modern day prohibition fuelled by fear more than anything else?

Meanwhile the carnage piles up about him and pity his poor wife Skyler wanting to divorce him but now embroiled in the laundering of more money than any of them could ever spend in a hundred lifetimes, and the threat of death hanging over her and their two children. And yet we find ourselves wanting Walter White to prevail. Well I do anyway. Perhaps I should speak just for myself!

At an earlier point in the proceedings a former boss, Gustavo Fring (known as ‘Gus’), assigns him a new cook in preference to his own choice Jesse Pinkman because Jesse unlike Walter is also a sometime meth-user and consequently a tad unpredictable. He has no formal chemistry training either, rather an acolyte of Walter’s. Gus would prefer Jesse to disappear, literally, and hence the arrival of a new cook, chemistry degree-educated Gale Boetticher.

Gale reads to Walt White a poem by Walt Whitman, ‘When I Heard The Learn’d Astronomer’

When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

This was Gale’s way of explaining to Walt his love for chemistry.  And it resonated for Walt. But not enough to save his life from him!

And what about the similarity of the names Walter White and Walt Whitman; the show’s creator Vince Gilligan is drawing what parallel between them we are left to wonder?

Walt WhitmanThe collection from which it comes from ‘Leaves of Grass’ was first published in 1855 but was a life-long work for Whitman being revised by him right up to his death in 1892.

It is now available for free on Project Gutenberg which likely means you can download it on Tablets and Mobile phones. That is unless you prefer your poetry on paper.

This life-work may suggest to you it is a huge tome and indeed it is. Divided in to 35 books – some poems are brief but most are long.

How should we approach such a work? Chronologically, earnestly determinedly working our way through? Or a lucky dip approach – random choose a poem and if it resonates with us we explore further, but if not and as long as it did not turn us off completely we return again at a later date and random dip again…

There is also a 2009 US film titled Leaves of Grass which I have not seen but it is not Walt Whitman based or inspired (that I can establish anyway) directed and written by Tim Blake Nelson. This is one of these films about identical twins yet not identical – in this case  an Ivy League professor is lured back to his Oklahoma hometown, where his twin brother, a small-time pot grower, has concocted a scheme to take down a local drug lord.  Clear Breaking Bad parallels there!

Leaves of GrassNot inspired by Walt Whitman perhaps but Tim Blake Nelson is a bit of a polymath as there is a film due for 2014 release about another American poet called Bukowski about – who do you think?! What do you mean you don’t know Charles Bukowski?!

Not directed or written by Tim Blake Nelson here rather his involvement is as an actor (he also sings!) where he is playing Henry Bukowski. Now details on this film are sketchy so I do not know whether this is Henry his father or Charles himself as he was born Henry Charles Bukowski (well Heinrich Karl actually because he was German-born American naturalised).

This film is not about his poetry in particular though or his life biography rather a period described by IMDB thus:

The story of writer Charles Bukowski’s formative years from childhood to high school

and his struggles with an abusive father, disfiguring acne, alcohol abuse, and his initial attempts at writing.

But Charles Bukowski has been on film and behind film before. He wrote the 1987 film Barfly with the great tag-line:

 Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead.

BarflyThe barfly in Barfly was played by Mickey Rourke going by the name of Henry Chinaski but this is clearly autobiographical. And indeed upon Bukowski’s death in 1994 the New York Post used a photo of Mickey Rourke in this Barfly role!

I have only seen this film once and this was with my father. And perhaps this is not the sort of film to see with your father.

Reading this synopsis of the film I now want to see it again. And alone!

Henry Chinaski never cared for the American dream, the thought of needing to become ‘something’ and fit into the system disgusts him. He believes that life is free and yours to live like you see fit, and if that in some cases involves copious amounts of whiskey then so be it. Henry spends his days drinking and listening to the radio, and he spends his nights drinking and fighting against Eddy who he thinks personifies shallowness and shameless self promoting…

Perhaps better than reading poetry is hearing it recited. Perhaps better still performed by the poets themselves.

With Bukowski we can hear such performances and one such was his poem ‘Bluebird’.

Below I share it written then after spoken.

There’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I’m not going
to let anybody see
you.

there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I pour whiskey on him and inhale
cigarette smoke
and the whores and the bartenders
and the grocery clerks
never know that
he’s
in there.

there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out but I’m too tough for him,
I say,
stay down, do you want to mess
me up?
you want to screw up the
works?
you want to blow my book sales in
Europe?
there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too clever, I only let him out
at night sometimes
when everybody’s asleep.
I say, I know that you’re there,
so don’t be
sad.
then I put him back,
but he’s singing a little
in there, I haven’t quite let him
die and we sleep together like
that
with our
secret pact
and it’s nice enough to
make a man
weep, but I don’t
weep, do
you?

Whitman’s poems make you want to read more of his poems, Bukowski’s make you want to write your own poems?

They might be giants.

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Letter from An Unknown Woman

Letter from an unknown woman

By the time you read this letter I may be dead.

I have so much to write and perhaps so little time

This is a review of the 1948 movie Letter From An Unknown Woman. It starred Joan Fontaine has the unknown woman Lisa Berndle and Louis Jourdan has the object of her passions Stefan Brand. The screenplay was by Howard Koch and the director was Max Opuls. It was based on a 1922 Novella of the same name by Austrian writer Stefan Zweig who was also involved in the story telling for the movie.

I say that this is a review but that was made-up. I have already told you a story!

It is the full text of the letter from the unknown woman to a well known musician. I looked for the text of this letter online but could not find it. I don’t mind if a copy does exist already though as writing out the letter myself introduced new cadences and subtleties to me. I have recorded it verbatim, at least word-for-word, hopefully the spirit too. Though really you need to hear this letter read out by Joan Fontaine. Well really you should watch the film. But I thought the letter was worthy of being recorded too, as if I had traveled back in time with my pocket sized copier and scanned away undercover of the night. But no need for the science fiction as movies are science-fact time travel. Except that this movie is eternal. In movies like this past present and future is all as one.

The letter punctuates the film so if I presented it as it is some of its meaning would likely be lost. Equally I do not want to give too much distracting context to it either so have tried to be as spare as possible. The orchestral accompaniment by David Tamkin adds to the letter’s narration too. If only we could all live our lives with scored music punctuating key events!

By the time you read this letter I may be dead.

I have so much to write and perhaps so little time

Will I ever send it? I don’t know.

I must find the strength to write now before it’s too late.

And as I write it may become clear that what happened to us had its own reason beyond our poor understanding.

If this reaches you, you will know how I became yours when you didn’t even know who I was or even that I existed.

I think everyone has two birthdays, the day of his physical birth and the beginning of his conscious life

Nothing is vivid or real in my memory before that day in spring when I came home from school and found a moving van in front of our building.

I wondered about our new neighbour who owned such beautiful things.

I didn’t see him that day or for many days thereafter but I could listen to your playing.

Yes I was blushing.

Her first encounter of him

And hard as it may be for you to realize, from that moment on I was in love with you.

Quite consciously I began to prepare myself for you.

I kept my clothes neater, so you wouldn’t be ashamed of me. I went to dancing school, I wanted to become more graceful and learn good manners for you.

And so I would know more about you and your world I, I went to the library and studied the lives of the great musicians of the past.

Letter from an Unknown Woman - at Music Library

Though I was not able to go to your concerts I found ways of sharing in your success.

And as the months went by I began to know your friends, many of them were women, most of them.

But I really lived for those evenings when we were alone

And I pretended you were playing just for me.

Letter from an Unknown Woman - Stefan playing piano

And though you didn’t know it

You were giving me some of the happiest moments of my life.

Then came a great day for me

In the building where we live Thursday was rug-beating day.

She uses it as an opportunity to return his rug to his apartment and to look around it in his absence.

In the next scene her mother advises her she is re-marrying and they will have to move away – and a significant distance (Vienna, Austria to Linsk, Poland).

‘What is there to keep us here’ the mother’s unintentionally cruel and not-at-all rhetorical question.

Suddenly I knew I could not live without you.

I did not know what I had in mind or what my parents would do when they found me missing.

All I wanted was to see you once more

To be near you again, to throw myself at your feet and to cling to you.

And never leave you. Nothing else. Nothing else mattered.

She returns to her old home without her mother knowing.

These rooms where I had lived had been filled with your music and now they were empty.

Would they ever come to life again. Would I?

Only you could answer and so I waited. Waited. For what seemed endless hours I sat outside your door. And tried to keep myself awake.

Afraid I might fall asleep and miss you.

But then.

He returns with a woman. Holding hands. Laughing.

And so there was nothing left for me. I went to Linsk.

You who have always lived so freely.

Have you any idea what life is like in a little garrison town?

I was eighteen now and was expected to take my place in society.

She is introduced to its society.

The Lieutenant was right. Linsk was a musical town.

So twice a month that summer we listened, the Lieutenant and I.

The Lieutenant proposes marriage to her. Not as awkward and hopeless as that of Parson Mr Collins to Miss Elizabeth Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice but as successful. She rebuffs him by telling him she is engaged. She is not. She returns again alone to Vienna this time with her parent’s knowing and reluctant blessing.

My poor parents, to them this was the end. Only it was a new beginning.

Vienna when I saw it again seemed to have taken on a new splendour.

All the time I had been away I had thought of it longingly as your city. Now it was our city.

Madame Spitzers is where I found work. It was the kind of establishment where one learns many things.

A Haberdashery. Madame Spitzer commented that she was not like most young women she had known.

Madame Spitzer spoke the truth, I was not like the others.

Nobody waits for me. Off I went. Not home.

To the only place that ever seemed like home to me.

Night after night I returned to the same spot and you never noticed me.

Until one night.

He notices her, they talk. Or they try to among all the other people who want to talk to him. They then eat out together, he talks a lot about himself, she does not say much about herself. He is known about town, she is almost a shadow. He buys her a single flower, a white rose and asks ‘Is it your flower?’ She answers ‘From now on it will be’. They head for the park under cover of the dark, but it hosts a fun-fair which is awake and which they join and talk some more. As the night progresses she listens less and asks more questions though still shares little about herself – ‘Tell me when you climb up a mountain’ she asks ‘what then? ‘Well, you come down again’ he answers. They then dance. And dance and dance. And dance.

They then return home and eventually embrace and kiss and scene fades to darkness and we can imagine what we may.

Letter from an Unknown Woman - Lisa and Stefan together

Next scene he appears at the shop and informs her he is going away for a short while.

Two weeks. Stefan how little you knew yourself. That train was taking you out of my life.

We now see her in hospital having had a baby. Their baby. He does not know. He is also married. She won’t tell the hospital the father’s name but has given his name Stefan to their baby.

And I wonder why I never came to you for help. I wanted to be one woman you had known who asked you for nothing.

My deep regret is that you never saw your son. There were times during those years I prefer not to remember.

This I can assure you, whatever the cost he repaid me a thousand times. You would have been proud of him too.

And he was almost nine and as much for his sake as mine I married.

You know who my husband is. Johann Stauffer married me knowing the truth about us and our child.

The course of our lives can be changed by such little things. So many passing by each intent on his own problems.

So many faces that one might easily have been lost. I know now nothing happens by chance. Every moment is measured. Every step is counted.

And at an Opera showing of Mozart’s The Magic Flute Stefan Brand comes to her attention again but now known not for his concert tours but his pleasure trips. They say of him that his talent was not enough or even that he had too many talents. They are both shown sitting in separate opera-boxes in the dark.

Suddenly in that one moment everything was in danger. Everything I thought was safe.

Somewhere out there were your eyes and I knew I could not escape them. It was like the first time I saw you, the years between melting away.

She exits her box but he has seen her and follows her though he does not fully recognize her now, saying to her ‘I feel that you understand what I cannot even say’. She returns to her husband and they ride by coach to their home. Her husband takes the opportunity to remind her of decency and honour fearing she will return to Stefan Brand and advising her against ‘all this romantic nonsense’.

Next scene sees her nine year old son going on a fortnight’s vacation (notably traveling alone on a train). But they had first mistakenly entered a quarantined carriage and were advised to move to another one. Quarantined from typhus it transpires. We see someone later being stretchered from the train. Meanwhile she has made a late visit to the father Stefan’s home. ‘Is it too late for supper’ he asks, adding ‘You are here and as far as I am concerned all the clocks have stopped’.

He lifts her veil, they kiss. But it is clear to her that he still remembers her only from the night before at the opera and earlier memories are still not stirred. So while he is in another room fetching champagne she leaves.

I had come to tell you about us and to offer you my whole life.

But you didn’t even remember me.

I don’t remember where I went.

Time moved past me. Not in days and hours but in the distance it put between us.

When I could think again I went to my son. But it was too late. He died last night of typhus without even knowing I was there.

Now I am alone. My head throbs and my temples are burning. Perhaps God has been kind and I too have caught the fever.

If this letter reaches you, believe this, that I love you now as I have always loved you.

My life can be measured by the moments I have had with you and our child.

If only you could have shared those moments.

If only you could have recognized what was always yours.

Could have found what was never lost…

If only.

The final page of the letter from the unknown woman

The film reprises ‘If only you could have recognized what was always yours. Could have found what was never lost’.

Letter from an Unknown Woman - Stefan final scene in tears

We see him leave his home and turning around see her. Her ghost or a flickering memory.
Letter from an Unknown Woman - final credits

Looking life in its face …

Edith WhartonWhy do we do what we do? Or rather why do we do the work that we do? Because we have to or because we want to? The jobbing or careering means to the (material) end or the (vocational) end in itself…

I am currently reading Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence. It was written in 1920 and the decade the subject of its interest was the 1870’s, but since this post is not a review of this novel I am not going to elaborate too much more. The subject of this post is a more timeless one.

Not a review then but a reflection on one of its passages, a mere paragraph too, but a lingering, impressing one.

Between one of its main characters Newland Archer and – so far at least – a minor character Rivière. Archer is American, a New Yorker, a product of the then new world of the 1870’s, where Rivière is French, a product of the European and old world therefore – but that is not the distance and difference between them which leaves an impression on Newland Archer. Or on me.

Nor is it even their different professional and marital circumstances.

Newland Archer is married with an appearance of domestic bliss but there is trouble in paradise between him and his wife May Welland. He works a leisurely professional pace and life as a Lawyer. His life is a clear map ahead as far as his heart can see.

Rivière on the other hand is unattached – to a partner and to a professional practice. With struggle and without safety. Not even that his map is unclear but that there is no map at all. Or need for one. Grounded as he is in the here and now.

No the divide between them that impresses and lingers in both the mind of Archer and this reader is that Newland Archer is dreaming of the life he wants whilst living another one, a safer, easier, more comfortable one. Whilst Rivière, for all his lesser wealth and circumstance, is not dreaming of any other life than the one he is living, he is living his dreaming where Archer is dreaming his living.

Rivière is at liberty. From the enslaving effect of personal wealth, if that is not getting too Buddhist on your ass. Endless material possessions and endless material distractions. From ourselves. From each other.

You see Monsieur, it’s worth everything, isn’t it, to keep one’s intellectual liberty, not to enslave one’s powers of appreciation, one’s critical independence?

Ah! To do what we love and to get paid for this too. But what if what we love to do does not pay or not enough anyway, not enough to feed and shelter us and to deal with the other demanding utilities of everyday life?

We take other employment. Hopefully temporary but it can stealthily blossom into permanence, its end ever just beyond the tantalizing horizon, the ever elusive rainbow of our desires… we continue to toil so as to continue to do what we love most in our unpaid time.

We have less of this time it is true, but better than no time at all and fading memories of a life once lived, once dreamed.

It was because of that that I abandoned journalism, and took to so much duller work, tutoring and private secretaryship. There is a good deal of drudgery, of course, but one preserves one’s moral freedom, what we call in French one’s quant-à-soi

When we can continue to enjoy the company that we keep, whether it be our own or other kindred spirits.

And when one hears good talk one can join in without compromising any opinions but one’s own; or one can listen, and answer it inwardly.

Professional platitudes and civil banalities. Or words and ideas that mean something. To us.

Ah, good conversation – there’s nothing like it, is there? The air of ideas is the only air worth breathing…And so I have never regretted giving up either diplomacy or journalism – two different forms of the same self-abdication.

To never give up on yourself. On your dreams. To live life without compromise, or at least as little as possible, to ration out the ever-accumulating small surrenders that chip away at your self, your spirit – to live life on your own terms and that others will live their lives on their terms too…

He fixed his vivid eyes on Archer as he lit another cigarette. “Voyes-vous, Monsieur, to be able to look life in the face: that’s worth living in a garret for, isn’t it?”

And what of fame, it passes too. And may also be visited upon you not in your life-time but a posthumous discovery and approval. And what of that too? – mere plaudits from the pundits of the ever-changing ages.

Instead that we lived our lives and lacking only one thing at our last breath, regret.

Imagine – Books: The Last Chapter?

Books: The Last Chapter?With the rise of electronic books is the final chapter about to be written in the long love story between books and their readers?

So asked Books: The Last Chapter? –  the questioning title of a seventy-minute episode of the BBC 2 series Imagine from December of last year, posed by the program’s human incarnation Alan Yentob. Adding

Will the app take the place of the book?

Anecdotally both my sister and her husband bought Kindles for each other’s Christmas 2011 present and both loved them and both are forty-somethings and if not technophobic then certainly technoskeptic. And well as we know there is no evidence quite as compelling as anecdotal evidence.

Books: The Last Chapter? Imagine - web pageImagine is the BBC’s flagship Art series – I think that means it is expected to aim for a viewing figure at least comparable to a midweek midnight episode of a British Bowling regional meet – Art Programs for Art Programs sake. Imagine was I presume the BBC’s alternative – or complement as we are civil Arts types after all – to ITV’s South Bank Show the brainchild/lovechild of the ubiquitous Melvyn Bragg. Or it was until that show and or Melvyn Bragg were axed with its final broadcast in December 2009. Channel 4 have plenty of shows about classic and contemporary artists but perhaps surprisingly no regular series devoted to it. A gap in the market perhaps. And Channel 5 – be serious!

I am sure I read somewhere that the real name of Imagine’s presenter (and creator/writer/producer) Alan Yentob is Alan Botney but that he reversed his last name to make it sound more exotic! But now wonder whether this might be one of those urban-myths propagated pub-to-pub as afterall if your first name is the modest-sounding Alan I would think you should be going the whole-hog and reversing both names – Nala Yentob certainly sounds exotic – if perhaps to these ears female. Moving on!

The program starts with examples of analog technology – a crackling vinyl copy of David Bowie’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, a film camera, a land-line telephone, even a letter! before cutting back to Alan Yentob with iPhone in hand – commenting that

Technology expands the mind but shrinks the world

and

Making things that were once pleasurably different more or less the same

He portends that books are to be next with the profoundest change since Guthenberg as they ‘become consigned to the dustbin of history’!

Books: The Last Chapter? First book...We then get a potted history of the book. We start before the printing press, before even the physical object of a book, in the form of a scroll. A very long scroll. A second century AD roll of Homer’s The Iliad housed at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England. Then we move forward three centuries to a very early example of a physical prototype of the modern day book in the antique form of Eusebius’ Chronicles.

A book very much more convenient to hold and to read than the scroll it was to replace but for all that still only marginally more accessible as this book was literally the ‘one and only’ of its kind. Mass production of copies was not yet upon us. Nor indeed was typography. These original books were all hand-written.

Books: The Last Chapter? CaxtonUntil William Caxton. With him appears the first book published and mass produced in the English language.

This technology propelling the producing and publishing of ever greater volumes of books in ever shorter periods of time. All the way to the modern day. With books at the digital threshold or precipice. Which is what this program will then take its remaining time expounding on.

Books: The Last Chapter? - Alan Bennett Uncommon ReaderWe are at the here and now and the here being at a book reading by Alan Bennett of his The Uncommon Reader.

Alan Yentob then remarks that

we made books and books made us

It is not yet clear to me how the aunt and uncle of an analogue book is able to shape us where the niece and nephew of the digital book with same content just different form will not be able to make us also. Let us hope this program is more than a curmudgeon’s moaning about the passing of all things.

This program takes some curious detours in its narrative. We are advised that books are 99% water 1% fibre so that like their readers they are organic too!

Books: The Last Chapter? Moma Book SmellingWe then detour further from the reading of books to the smelling of books – yes you read that right! – this might sound like some surreptitious sniffing activity undercover of darkness but no there are people who do this and get paid for doing so. We meet one, librarian Rachael Morrison of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She records her verdicts of the books she samples and smells into a ledger. I write samples but in fact she at one time or another smells each and everyone of the library’s books, each and every three-hundred thousand of them! Olfactory overload!

Her comments are in the same spirit as a professional perfume-smeller or wine-taster. And the prose as purple. There is a ledger column for ‘Olfactory Essence’ –  and entries such as ‘burnt Tortilla’ (for The Order of Things by Michel Foucault!) and get this ‘a hug with an elderly relative’ – this ledger it seems is worthy of publication in itself or at least as pretensions of.

She explains this last entry with the quite subjective experience that her parents usually wear and smell of wool (I was not even aware that wool had a smell, I guess I just have a base olfactory system!) and that her grandfather smokes and the way that his smokes sticks to his woollen clothes! For this librarian at least it is not just the physical tactile nature of a book that no digital version can provide but also its very peculiar aroma. During this curious sequence it was never asked why the Museum of Modern Art felt the need to take note of the smells of individual books let alone studiously record them. Was this something particular to MOMA I mused or standard practice of all libraries?!

Alan Yentob himself then mused that there might be a special Smell App for all those book-readers who find themselves seduced to read The Importance of Being Earnest on a Kindle or Nook but nostalgically miss its literal (as oppose to literary!) pungency.

He then alludes to Apps again as

a bland little word like Tweet, Blog and Search that are all quietly changing our world

Books: The Last Chapter? The ElementsAnd by way of ‘is it a book, is it an app’ we move onto The Elements by Theodore Gray. Formerly a glossy coffee-table book it has now become a content-rich multimedia application which since its application incarnation inception eighteen months ago has seen sales of over a quarter-of-a-million copies – nothing to smell here he notes except the ‘sweet smell of success’. Ta da!

Books: The Last Chapter? Theodore GrayAnd so Imagine – Books: The Next Chapter? As we then meet its publishers (or perhaps producers) Touch Press whose speciality is in touch screen versions of  books such as The Elements. The company was established by a former TV producer (Max Whitby) and a scientist (Stephen Wolfram) and by the aforementioned author Theodore Gray among other illustrious founders and we see them in a development meeting with author – and again do the usual descriptions break down here? content producer? Multi-media magician?! – Simon Winchester. They are discussing his latest app Skulls, this one specifically for the iPad. Simon Winchester is there in the meeting or rather he is ‘there’ – being as he is a disembodied video head on a laptop screen – quite fitting of course.

Theodore Gray clearly has no attachment sentimental or otherwise to the printed book – referring to its readers as ‘fetishisers of the printed page’ (well really!) – and adding that

it’s kinda annoying to have to hold the book open!

Speaking as someone who owns and reads books on an iPad I can tell you the paperback, even a hard-back Russian novel, is kinder on the wrists!

All this tiresome physical interaction with the external world. A future of cerebral interaction only where Megamind’s flourish, our craniums expanding as our limbs and torso diminish…

The program then explores the current publishing model in more detail. It is noted that a publisher is focused on getting books on shop bookshelves. The author of books should not be impacted too much by the ‘digital switchover’ but those involved in its physical manufacturer distribution and sale most certainly will be. And indeed already are. Most notably and iconically the book shop.

Books: The Last Chapter?And not just to paraphrase the You’ve Got Mail universe where the Kathleen Kelly small book shop resists succumbing to the Joe Fox corporate chain of books but where both are at the mercy of the online retail behemoths, most notably Amazon, laying the likes of Borders and many other casualties in their inexorable wake.

Publishing consultant – when there are more consultants than there are professionals they are consulting on you know an industry is in trouble – Mike Shatzkin notes that we are a literal crossroads as five years ago most book sales were in store whereas five years from now most will be online, though he notes that that does not mean online sales are only digital as with Amazon itself hard and paper back sales still match those of their Kindle equivalents. For now.

Most bookstores we are reminded are limited by their physical space, whereas an online store is usually a portal to a global distribution network – all that you could want, all that you could need.

Books: The Last Chapter?

The program then cuts to a meeting with the old guard of the book industry – agents and publishers – as they discuss where they find themselves currently and where they are likely heading within the next decade.

Generation Y gets ifs first mention – also known as the Millennial Generation – those born after Generation X and vaguely dated as being born some time in the last quarter of the last century – as those who consume (I hate that word – not even food should be consumed) near three-quarters of their textual information (another urghh phrase!) online. They note that the three main publishers in ten years time for books are not going to be Penguin, Harper Collins and Faber & Faber but Google, Amazon and Apple.

Concern is then expressed about the discovery of new literature for readers asking that with no face-to-face local presence of book stores are we are all then just cast adrift in a sea of information, where finding books becomes evermore hit and miss?

I am not so sure about that. One of the notable aspects of buying a book on Amazon or other online stores is the review process, more specifically the feedback of previous readers. Their own reviews can provide a more informed and authentic review of a book than the more usual hype of the publishers and their cherry-picked favourable reviews? And the algorithms they employ which suggest that as you recently bought this you may like this are pretty impressive I have to concede no matter how complicated and difficult to understand I like to consider myself!

We then come to the issue of copyright and whether all digital information will become free or should become free – inevitable allusions to Napster are quickly made. If you live in a country with Libraries like Great Britain then to an extent, a tax-subsidized extent, books have always been free. Will this be their digital destiny too? Will there be a Spotify for books for that matter, that allows us to read (stream) books freely for a limited period of time funded by relevant targeted and or irritating advertising?

But will that itself become an academic desire as the very concept of digital ownership fading cost to zero establishes itself? Another way to say that books will become worthless? At least economically. Worthless perhaps but not valueless. The program itself wonders what we will pay for if not content. It proposes this will be context and community. Not entirely convincingly I thought. The suggestion was that an author will be paid to read their work in person or that readers will subscribe for them to discuss their work as they go – I like this idea but not quite buying that an author needs to ‘turn up on the page’ – their writing should be speaking for itself and we the reader will take from it what we will based on our own experiences and beliefs – I am not sure either author or reader would want this extra if you like meta-story on the page.

Books: The Last Chapter? Gary ShteyngartWe now switch sides as it were. Following the digital reading utopia of Theodore Gray we now go to the digital reading dystopia of Gary Shteyngart and his book Super Sad True Love Story referred by Alan Yentob as working on his new novel in upstate New York

far from the tweeting crowd

Another grand comparison was made to EM Forster’s ‘only connect’ plea from his 1910 novel Howard’s End

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.

where his plea is ‘only disconnect’. Shteyngart makes great play of being off the digital grid, forced free from the ever widening deepening web. Though disappointingly for me when I googled him I noted he had a Facebook page – well who knows perhaps it was an impostor account – I wonder if I will ever be famous enough to have impostor social media accounts!

He talks of ‘the party in your pocket’ of your smart-phone that is

binging and pinging and clinging and singing and dinging

But not ringing! I noted though he did have a Television – so a selective disengagement or perhaps just a slow weening. Like in turn those who make great play of not having a TV in their homes – so what do you do with your evenings? Oh, you know, we listen to the radio!

He thinks in generalisations which makes him entertaining if not always insightful demurring that ‘we live in a culture where youth is the only thing that is important’.

He is quick to add though that he is not against progress rather its speed. Though at the risk of speaking in generalisations myself I don’t think we can equate all progress as positive or negative. Whatever works. For us.

Books: The Last Chapter? Institute for Future of BooksNext we are introduced to someone from the Institute for the Future of the Book – yes, really! – its co-founder and director Bob Stein and back on the other side of the digital divide. His line was it is the message we should seek to preserve not fuss overmuch over whatever medium happens to be carrying it at any given time, at any given place – the book just a mechanism for the transmission of ideas – so to get hung-up on any one particular format is silly and obstructs us from grasping all the other exciting formats available for its propagation.

The program then puts forward the view that the digital format takes books from the private to the public, from an intimate one-to-one with a paperback to a shared digital experience – we can read a book together and annotate and comment on it together. I guess! Whereas our highlighting of passages in books is for own benefit only (leaving aside striving to impress (upon) others that we may want to lend the book too!) – with a Kindle for example all of our individual highlighting is recorded and stored in Amazon’s database so that we can see the most commonly highlighted phrases of any particular book of interest to us.

Books: The Last Chapter? Marshall McLuhanWe then arrive at McLuhan. Marshall McLuhan. Of the Medium is the Message. Primarily he was referring to Television as against its predecessor of the mass-printed and mass-circulated word but the program suggests that digital technology and the world wide web is even more revolutionary. The program discusses the overload of information. Its overwhelming force and presence. It is commented that in this context the word becomes more emotional and collective where on the paper page it remains more solitary and analytical.

Books: The Last Chapter? Douglas CouplandSwiftly we move on – or back – to Generation X and its Canadian author (and visual artist) and proponent Douglas Coupland.

Books: The Last Chapter? Coupland Twelve StatementsHe thinks that McLuhan’s medium is the message is now more prescient with the web than with TV too. He then comments that human attention span is now the length of one Beatle song – dating himself as very much of Gen X by so doing! – and that the Web even perhaps unintentionally panders to this in a way that the analogue world of books and vinyl never could. It is much easier on the web for us to flit about from one  object of interest to another – very easy for you dear reader to have left/fled this piece many many words back! He casually throws in that Artificial Intelligence is not ‘ever just beyond the blue horizon’ – well he did not quite say this but I am paraphrasing! – but already with us – the web our collective memory, presence, consciousness. Where does it end and we begin, where do we end and it begins…

Remembering too though that Marshall McLuhan did not approve of these changes – he saw TV as the enemy even in its black and white infancy broadcasting a handful of channels only.

We now find ourselves in San Francisco and to meet an entrepreneur and inventor and who is like an anti-McLuhan. And who believes

that friends are electric

We now hear inevitably Tubeway Army.

Books: The Last Chapter Brewster KahleAnd this is Brewster Kahle founder and digital librarian of The Internet Archive – whose mission is to scan every book that has ever existed and make them free to all comers on the web – subject to copyright. Unlike Google who also do this they seek to preserve the original ink too – an analogue back up. Alan Yentob prior to meeting him ponders what book to bring for the man who likely has every book there is to have and decides on Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 – the temperature at which books burns – as an appropriate choice as it describes a world where books are banned and burned and an underground establishing itself to preserve them as heart-learnt human memories – though I am assuming such a book would already be in such an archive but it makes a good poetic point for the program.

Kahle likes the gifted Ray Bradbury book though comments it is not the burning of books but the proliferation of books and information that is a greater problem. Adding too that we become the books we read – how we invest in them emotionally, intellectually, and how we can then recite them back. He then plays a game of ‘if we could be any book what would it be’. He himself thinks he would be either Euclid’s Elements or Ben Franklin’s Autobiography – so not committing to one then! Alan Yentob thinks he would be Voltaire’s Candide. I am not going to play along though – I cannot be constrained and described by any one book – urgh!

Books - The Last Chapter? Internet Digital ArchivesThe building use to be a Christian Science temple which I only note as we are shown a part of this Digital Archive where we see clay figures sitting in temple pews. And who are these figures? Everyone who has ever worked at the archive or is still working for five or more years! Imagine that as an incentive to stay with a company! In the very same room are all the digital servers stacked up to the church ceilings each blue bleep a digital download or upload of a book (and audio and video) somewhere in the world. Millions of books ‘up there’, ‘in the cloud’.

What will tomorrow’s cloud be the program then wonders. How much more of us, of humanity will be existing digitally, ethereally in some San Franciscan server?! How much of us will remain on earth in analogue, not digitally stored and cloned in the buzzing ether?

Finally or perhaps by way of a nostalgic post-script we are taken to a cyber-cafe on its premises where alongside drinking your simmering caffeine concoction an analogue book can be printed off of any contained in their vast digital archive – taking as long to print off as your coffee takes to brew. The program ends with Alan Yentob drinking an Expresso while reading a freshly pressed copy of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

Books: The Last Chapter?The show ends with the disclaimer that no books were harmed in the making of this program!

Imagine – Books: The Last Chapter? dispenses with a traditional beginning middle and an end. This story rambles. Its tale is inconclusive. The current chapter still being written. There is no The End. Perhaps it is a post-modern tale but perhaps too the same as it ever was. Story never-ending.

Related articles

A Book on One Page…

A Book on One Page - BronteA Book on One Page invites us to overturn a conventional wisdom and to judge a book by its cover. Well, sort of.

A Book on One PageA book on One Page is an idea, concept and website courtesy of Spineless Classics. I don’t think you need me to spell out the idea – okay a cheap pun but at least I did not follow it up with a winky emoticon!

They came to my attention via a Tweet back in December – okay Christmas Day – yes I was on Twitter on Christmas Day! The tweet was from Wired Magazine – Wired being a print and online magazine about technology and its place in our lives or in their own words ‘the first word on how technology is changing the world’ – yes I know we live in an always-on never-sleeping connected world but what’s the deal with always having to have the first word anyway, or indeed any word – sometimes silence is all that needs to be said – but I have digressed!

A Book on One Page - Wired TweetThe tweet as you can see was a link to a more detailed article on the Wired Website.

I could in fact simply include one such image for you to understand all that needs to be understood about said A Book on One Page site and service but I like to let you know my thoughts and feelings about things too. I just cannot help myself. That is why I blog – to unburden myself on the unsuspecting blogosphere – okay moving on!

In essence what this site is providing is full text novel posters. As with many ideas on the web they are copied quickly and there are other websites offering similar services. Of those that I have seen A Book on One Page produces the better art in my view – yet other sites dispense with the art altogether reproducing only the text in poster form.

This site and company was set up by the aforementioned Carl Pappenheim. The Wired article explains how he came to set it up

Pappenheim created the first Spineless Classic as a last-minute Christmas present for his mother. Having watched “architectural drawings roll off the presses at a friend’s printing company,” he figured that he could fit 100,000 words on each poster-size sheet. The reaction to the resultant poster led to the creation of the company, and posters are now available to be shipped worldwide.

I noted on LinkedIn he describes himself as Owner at Spineless Publishing Limited and does not detail much about his art background. Perhaps because he has customized his CV as it were to a particular audience. He has also his own website which works as a hub and portal to his other online endeavours. However I could not find much more in the way of his artistic output.

The advertising strapline for his A Book On One Page site is

Imagine a whole book on a single sheet. A bold art print on which, up close, you can read the full and complete text of your favourite classic work, right from “It was the best of times” to “a far, far greater thing”.

Further and greater detail about them can be found on their website – on their About Page, no really!

A Book on One Page - categories

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies I’m not even going to comment on!

The collection of books on show covers best-sellers and classics but is still quite a modest store. Chances are your favourite book if you wanted to buy it so framed in this format is not available. They are though adding to their library all the time, additionally we can suggest new books via their site contact form.

You might consider that the books so chosen would concentrate on the slimmer volume end of the literary canon but you would be mistaken. Large volumes such as The King James Bible, War and Peace & The Wealth of Nations are among their tomes – though as you might imagine the larger the volume the higher the price tag.

Choosing an image to illustrate a book is no easy task. How to alight upon just one that captures the complex narratives and ideas of a book.

A Book on One Page - Ascent of ManA case in point is Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species – there are two versions available on this site – one with a single finch and another with the Ascent of Man theme – the latter works better for me not just because a more familiar and iconic image but because it is a more striking and resonating image. The finch on the other hand feels a less compelling image and work of art. You of course may feel quite the opposite. As said it is subjective which is why the choice of image as noted is no easy task – I guess though this being a web-store more than an art-gallery it will be commercial sales that will determine which images will endure rather than the preferences of the artist himself.

This Ascent of Man image is one of the poster books which actually is not A Book on One Page but A Book on Two Pages – and works well like that too – as long as you have the wall-space!

A Book on One Page - F Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby

The Complete Robert Burns is also available – it is illustrated by the Scottish St Andrews National Flag – he is a poet very much of the Scottish national (ist) consciousness but the flag inclusion here feels a too obvious and cheap choice out of place with his body of work – Scotland was at the heart of him but there was much more to him than that. As a piece of art too it feels tending towards opportunistic tourist gift-shop knick-knack ‘art’.

Not all of these books on one page include art images at all – the Complete Works of Shakespeare for example includes the words of every one of his plays and every one of his sonnets – it is not available on one sheet either or even two rather five – should you want to purchase this bard’s work you will definitely need a large room to hang it.

I include images of other Books on One Page that I think did work and would consider ponying up the readies for.

If the prices are beyond your respective purses and wallets there are also versions available as jigsaws and postcard-sets. I don’t do jigsaws but understand near-completing them only to find a piece is missing is a source of quite substantial angst compounded even more then if you are wanting to finish your Complete Robert Burns jigsaw so as to then read its poetry and prose!

I guess this alternative range of mediums may be extended in time – if not to the usual mugs and bookmarks then perhaps to duvet covers and rugs – even wall-paper?!

These works are available to purchase online but if you prefer to see close up and smell and touch the art you are buying first they are for sale at retail locations. Currently though you would need to be resident or visiting in just three countries – the United Kingdom, Australia and South Africa.

Any literary works you would like to see done this way?

A Book on One Page - MilneA Book on One Page - Robert Louis Stevenson

The biggest book you’ve ever read?…

Book shelf

Stock photo – not my collection!

I am now at a tipping point in my life where I have a somewhat ominous feeling that there are more books that I own that I have never read than I have read. There are still many more books that I want to own or borrow too. Indeed courtesy of Listal I keep a wishlist of such books. However there is too the sighing realization that most of these books I will never get round to reading.

I am always reading books too. I am though quite a slow reader – I like to enjoy the words I am reading rather than rushing from page to page pulled along by the plot with not too much attention to the prose itself. I am saying all this by way of leading up to the point of this post. Which is that I have a tendency to read shorter books – slim volumes by for example Muriel Spark and Henry James with mid-size books from Jane Austen or a Bronte sister tending to be my outer size limit. Big books – let us say of at least 500 pages – I seldom venture in to.

I then wondered if I was alone in this or it was quite a commonplace. How many of us habitually polish off a Joyce, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky tome?

What is the longest book that you have ever read, and I mean from the first page to the last page?

And the longest of your own choosing, not some edifying educational text that you had to study in school or university. Nor do I mean a collected volume or related series of books either.

And I do mean that you have read not that you have bought but which sits unloved, patiently waiting your attention on your bookshelf for far too many years that you care to remember. Or that you acquired as a vanity purchase to invite admiring glances from visiting family and friends for your clearly demonstrable scholarly erudition – but which in truth would get more use if it were deployed as a door-stop.

No I mean the longest book you have read of your own free will that you made it through to the end – no matter how long it took you!

Don Quixote - CervantesLooking through the Flowers Library – ahem! – the longest novel I have managed to the end was a Wordsworth Classic paperback edition of Don Quixote by Cervantes. It ran to 760 pages.

I cannot pretend it was a labour of love and I almost certainly bought it because of its somewhat iconic literary reputation than because I have any penchant for tales about knights and their adventures – or as in this case their misadventures – or that I had any previous familiarity with any of his other work.

Nevertheless having began it a few years back I did stick with it to the end – it took the best part of a couple of months it must be said. And I stuck with it because I was entertained by the absurdity of Don Quixote and his companion Sancho Panza – curious to know where their haplessness would take them next. The characters were difficult to get a hold of and the plot meandered – neither had I any emotional investment in the eponymous character either yet despite all of that I did care enough to remain as loyal as Sancho Panza himself to Don Quixote and stay along his side to find out his ultimate fate.

I enjoyed the writing too, its playfulness and good humour. But perhaps equally tellingly it is not a book I would recommend to anyone else and this is due to its length. Perhaps because subconsciously I feel the longer a book is the better it needs to be if is going to claim the very many hours the reader will need to put aside for it. The longer it is the more presumptuous such a recommendation feels…

In thumbing through my own collection I noted my Penguin Classics copy of George Eliot’s Middlemarch with its just shy of 900 unread pages – but the longest novel I own but have never read will have to wait for another post!

So how about you? What is the longest novel you have ever read?