Literature


LarkinAbsence makes the heart grow fonder, or so the cliché claims. It can be true. Being an expatriate, though, could have done little for emotions I feel towards my country. I have missed my loved ones, and my hometown, but there have been times in which my attitude towards England has dimmed. From the news that is my most reliable source of contact with the place, it seems to be characterised by mendacious politics, societal unease, declining institutions and bad TV. Even the cricket has been dreadful. Without regular contact with nice places and people I could have been very jaded.

This is not to imply that pessimism is irrational. To judge a nation by one’s experiences in a small place with a small number of people would be sillier than judging it by its current events. Still, the happy times I have in England remind me of the goodness that is there, and it is sad to be without that. I have found a replacement, though, in a book. To respect baggage restrictions I had limited myself to three (supplemented, at the last minute, by  Herman Hesse’s Siddartha, which was so small as not to count). Two of them were classic novels and the third was a volume of poetry, or, to be precise, Philip Larkin’s Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse.

This book has been a good friend to me. It was purchased from a second-hand bookshop in Exeter and, thus, has the old book smell: that strange, comforting mustiness that evokes grass and pipe smoke, ice cream stalls and dusty shelves. Someone should bottle that.

Then there are the poems. As Larkin noted in his preface, his selection is broad rather than deep, and includes everything from The Waste Land to J.B.S Haldane’s cheerful ode to his disease. (“I wish I had the voice of Homer/To sing of rectal carcinoma.”) The bias towards plain speakers is apparent but I appreciate the range of voices that are offered. There are poems to suit one’s every mood and opportunities to discover poets and follow one’s enthusiasm elsewhere.

It’s all here: the history, the countryside, the culture, the wit. In the power of Eliot, the wonderment of Hughes, the tenderness of Larkin and the humour of Haldane is so much that I value about home and about life. Describing visceral experiences involves offering one’s dignity on a plate but, still, reading great poems, for me, is somewhat reminiscent of being slapped: being slapped out of the haze of one’s trivial concerns and forced to recognise those facts and questions that transcend them; that which is abiding and important. It is as bracing as experiences come.

I attempt to write poems but it is a hard craft. A poem displays its faults. They sit upon the page like blemishes upon the skin. For now, I am content with this portal into profundity; with knowing that a few lines of text can make that which bewildered comprehensible; that which exasperated promising; that which escaped me significant. When it fails, you can try and fill the gap yourself.

JK RowlingI spent too much of my teens whining about the ubiquity of JK Rowling’s wizards to revisit those opinions. She gave children joy and that is an achievement. Her adult novel was as far away from being my thing as books can be – catering, it seemed, to middle class masochists – but it has come and gone now, so I won’t pick a scab.

Lynn Shepherd is a novelist who has taken against Ms Rowling for a reason that I would never have thought of. She is, she assumes, making it hard for writers to be successful…

By all means keep writing for kids, or for your personal pleasure – I would never deny anyone that – but when it comes to the adult market you’ve had your turn. Enjoy your vast fortune and the good you’re doing with it, luxuriate in the love of your legions of fans, and good luck to you on both counts. But it’s time to give other writers, and other writing, room to breathe.

I am not a writer. I am worse. I am a wannabe. My second novel – after an unpublished and, indeed, unsubmitted first attempt – has just passed twenty thousand words and I would dearly love for it to find a home between the fingers of a large, curious audience once it is finished. My chances are slim, of course, but that is no excuse for not trying.

On the other hand, I am not owed an audience. Nobody is. Fiction is for its readers, and, perhaps, if one adopts a more idealised perspective, our culture at large. One might criticise Ms Rowling as a lover of books, perhaps, but as an author? That seems wrong. For one thing, to do so commits a sort of “lump of literature” fallacy. There is no fixed amount of attention given to books every year and if Rowling enters one’s genre I suspect that it brings eyes to other books therein. Yet even if this were not so, to demand that she stands aside is not only a rather sad admission of one’s failure to achieve success by one’s own merits but prioritises the least important interests in the equation.

As the decline of conventional publishing imperils the careers and career ambitions of real and would-be writers there is a strange theme of entitlement emerging. Brigid Delaney, for example, wrote in the Guardian that if novelists find it difficult to make ends meet they should be subsidised by the state. Dickens was a journalist, Williams was a doctor, Larkin was a librarian and one can barely count the institutions that need funding before hard-up wordsmiths. Besides, the idea of justifying my novel to a bunch of target-meeting, box-ticking, tape-wrapping bureaucrats fills me, for one, with horror.

I fear that the attention we have devoted to creative writing as a practice has encouraged people to want to be writers more than it has led them to want to, well – write. Me, I tell myself not to think of it as an avenue that leads one towards a profession. I have a job and beyond it I am trying to write the finest novel that I can. It may still be trash, of course, but I do hope that you will get a chance to decide for yourself.

CamusWould that one could wish Albert Camus a happy hundredth birthday this week.

He is known, outside of France, as an author for moody students who have managed to graduate from Plath and Salinger. Hunched behind an ever-present cigarette, the French-Algerian absurdist scribbled books about meaninglessness, alienation and revolt. What even vaguely bookish teen could resist these charms?

But let us reclaim him from such superficialities. Camus is known elsewhere as one of the more esteemable observers of post-war Europe: one whose loathing of violence and authoritarianism allowed him to grasp the nature of the vengeful fury that swept through France as the Nazis were being driven towards Berlin, and of Soviet tyranny as Eastern Europe bled and starved.

He is criticised for his pained vacillation over the Algerian conflict. I am no expert on the war, but it seems that he was gripped by a dogmatic naivete: one that led him to a hope for mutual accord that was attractive in every sense except its failure to be aligned with the facts. He is somewhat reminiscent of liberal Zionists who write that if Israelis and Palestinians would just stop fighting they could learn to get along.

Regardless of the debates that will continue to rage over this matter, though, I still admire his distaste for the attribution of virtues to violence. The twentieth century – and, indeed, the twenty-first – provide great cause for sympathy with this perspective; a perspective that may seem trite until one thinks of how often it is defied, in thoughts as well as deeds.

I also value the man for writing not merely on how to live but why to live – a subject that is often overlooked, despite what I would consider to be to its importance in answering the former question. Without his atheism I have no need, as yet, to accept absurdity, and it sometimes feels as if his view of it fails to account for the burdens that life imposes on creatures, yet everywhere I look I see smiling Sisyphuses so it is an attitude of considerable merit. The odd nobility of human struggle is a great delight, and I wish Camus had not died as an example of the boundaries of its powers.

MurakamiI had come in from a run when the phone rang.

“It’s Munro,” said a woman, who I didn’t recognise.

“Who?”

She laughed.

“You know.”

There was a click.

I put the phone down. The woman had sounded like my ex-girlfriend Kiyomi, who had had beautiful feet and sung The Beatles during sex. It would not have been Kiyomi, though. She had died after being struck by a limousine.

After I had had a shower I put on a jazz LP and dropped a handful of noodles into boiling water before cutting up some mushrooms to stir fry with beef and onions. Outside, the moon hung like an old man at a party.

A cat walked into the room.

“It isn’t going to happen,” it said.

BierceAmbrose Bierce is largely known in Britain, when he’s known at all, as an aphorist in the derisive tradition. His The Devil’s Dictionary, published in 1911, collected witticisms that were and largely remain as sharp as a piranha’s teeth. Here is a selection…

Absurdity, n. A statement or belief manifestly inconsistent with one’s own opinion.

Bigot, n. One who is obstinately and zealously attached to an opinion that you do not entertain.

Critic, n. A person who boasts himself hard to please because nobody tries to please him.

Comparable joys are to be found under letters as varied as “e”, “l” and “x”. Bierce’s aphorisms are delightfully incisive, but I also love his streak of cheerful absurdism…

Harangue, n. A speech by an opponent, who is known as an harrangue- outang.

He was not the satirist of panel shows and comic roasts: displaying black humour as a peacock shows its plumage. He was fundamentally irreverent: irreligious; sceptical of elites and mass politics and pessimistic in his view of human nature. I say pessimistic, but according to HL Mencken, who he was acquainted with and who resembled him in thought, he delighted in the apparent lunacy of our species. Life, to him, was “squalid rib rocking buffoonery”.

Some of us are doomed to care, both for others and ourselves, and the heart and the ego are forces of such unreasonableness that we will remain a source of pleasure to those who see life as an epic farce. One might, perhaps, be too admiring of men of ridicule, for in scorn they assume a position of eminence. It is worth remembering that laughter may be prompted not by one’s emperor being underdressed but by an especially snobbish taste in clothes.

Yet even if one retains hope for man, for civilisation and for the sacred one can embrace this lusty form of peer review. An honest cynics can defend us from the frauds of our societies and our minds, and it is worth listening to their howls, to gauge the justice of their mirth. Bierce’s laughter continues to echo, and much of it remains fair.  Who could deny the insight of his disdain for revolution as “an abrupt change in the form of misgovernment”, or for celebrity as the condition of one who is “conspicuously miserable”.

It was Bierce’s transcendence of sentimentality, as well as his formidable talents in deploying the English language, that made him such a fine writer on humanity in wartime. He was not inclined towards recasting the morbid absurdities of conflict as something more noble or, indeed, more reasonable than it was. Stories like “Killed At Resaca” and “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” are hard, truthful and, despite Mencken’s claims for Bierce’s callousness, sober. He may not have torn his clothes and wept before a dead young man but he seems to have felt inspired to remove his hat.

Bierce’s fiction, like his essays and his aphorisms, examined that which man avoids discussing. “The Damned Thing”, for example, explores the limits of our comprehension of the world around is with a Gothic relish, as a man is driven mad by the belief that unexplained natural phenomena must be the work of a being who dwells beyond the human senses.

It is a shame that these tales have drifted into the boundaries of our awareness. While The Devil’s Dictionary remains in print in Britain, Bierce’s stories have been neglected. Short stories are little read – except for those by Conan Doyle, Wodehouse and science fiction writers – and like others cursed by wit, such as Dorothy Parker, Bierce is quoted more than he is read. Anyone who admires the grim truths of Hemingway, or the grotesque comedy of Heller and Vonnegut, should aid the rectification of one of history’s minor sins.

Bierce died in his seventies: disappearing without trace while observing the revolution of Pancho Villa. I am tempted to add “or did he”, if only to inspire a story as sinister and amusing as those of his own creation.

There have never been more people learning to be journalists, but it remains a poor time to learn how to be a good one. The single exception is that of the foreign reporter, for whom a changing, conflicted world may be travelled with the aid of a bounty of resources that turn Walter Cronkite green. Otherwise, though, imaginations are warped by the struggle to distinguish oneself among one’s competitors, and style is corrupted by the habits of skim-reading, deadline-meeting and jejune polemic.

I have few journalistic ambitions, but it struck me to wonder what books – rather than blogs, Tweeters and content-aggregators – might help a young hack to appreciate their craft and to refine their own style. Here are a few suggestions.

OrwellGeorge Orwell Essays – Many journalists have aspired to be George Orwell, and it would do some of them good to actually read him. The great pleasures of the man are not found in his books but in his essays. There he could inflict his opinions on the reader directly, and what a pleasure it is to be the target of them. His spare prose was not a vehicle for one of the greatest minds but one of the more unique consciences: one obsessed with justice and offences against it, whether writing to oppose the exploitation of the poor or the monstering of the innocent naif Wodehouse, yet rooted in his affection for nature and community. For all of the strange deification, and distortion, there remain few more inspiring literary experiences than reading him grapple with the world, his peers and himself.

MenckenH.L. Mencken A Mencken Chrestomathy – Mencken was a callous snob whose Nietzschean leanings and bleak materialism steered him, sometimes, towards misanthropy and nihilism. He was also an incisive sceptic; a noble advocate for unpopular causes and a writer of amusing, elegant prose. I am hesitant to recommend opinionated commentators as they can infect their readers with overmuch confidence in their own worth and disdain for that of others. What inspires a willingness to break this rule is a suspicion that Mencken’s jolly bumptiousness, which rarely subsided into the collegiality of a Hitchens, will provoke readers as much as it will endear him to them. Among his castigations of the foolishness of democrats, moralists, Marxists, traditionalists, Southerners, zookeepers, chiropractors, sportsmen and the poor is bound to lie something to provoke ire as well as thought. It is an essential challenge for any serious person to have clever people to argue with.

Tell Me No LiesJohn Pilger Tell Me No Lies – The Australian muckraker’s collection of the highlights of the noble field of investigative journalism offers a bounty of treasures, among which one finds Martha Gellhorn’s writings from Dachau; Seymour Hersh’s reports on My Lai and Paul Foot’s exposé of the Lockerbie investigations. There is an obvious bias behind the selection, and I am unsure of why Edward Said’s Covering Islam is excerpted; not merely as it is not very good but as it is not investigative journalism. Nonetheless, the courage, gumption and humanity of the best pieces in this book make it inspiring to read; whether you wish to head off into the Syrian warzone or the archives of the CIA.

IrrationalityStuart Sutherland Irrationality – After reading such opinionated people as are found in the first books, it would perhaps be a smart idea for an aspiring journalist to be reminded of the limits of the human consciousness; of the dangers of presuming that one’s little brain has figured out the mysteries of the universe, or, indeed, of one’s own community. Stuart Sutherland’s entertaining volume exposes the follies of man, as provoked by our biases, and offers cause to question one’s ideas and intuitions. This not only illuminates one’s own vulnerabilities but helps one to empathise with the failings of others.

TurkelStuds Terkel Working - A great journalist must be empathetic. They need not be compassionate – though I feel that it would help – but they must understand the people about whom they write: their circumstances, their values and their ambitions. They must try to grasp the consequences of events on people. They must strive to appreciate what leads a politician to declare a war, and what might cause a plumber to rise from his bedsheets in the morning. They must listen. If listening were an art, Studs Terkel would have been its master. This genial old New Yorker tramped across the United States, settling down in front of car salesman, auditors, baseball players, soldiers, executives and librarians, and captured the rhythms and melodies of everyday lives. He is as good a cure for solipsism as a stiff drink is for an Autumnal evening.

Moby DickI disagree with Peter Hitchens on the merits of The Great Gatsby but I was amused by a classically bold and terse description of its enduring appeal…

It survives because it is on a lot of school and college reading lists, mainly because it is short.

Hyperbole, yes, but it strikes me that Hitchens is right to say that literature that tends to be promoted to young people is often brief: Gatsby, yes, and also Lord of the Flies, The Catcher in the Rye and Of Mice and Men. Such books all have features that appeal to young minds but I don’t think it is being overly cynical to propose that they have virtues for educators such as easily summarisable plots and limited casts of characters. What is interesting, though, is that from genre novels from those of Tolkien to King to “Young Adult” works such as those of Rowling or Meyer, the books young people tend to choose to read are big, thick, messy banquets for the imagination. This inspired me to ask myself which of the heftiest offerings of literary fiction might appeal to teenagers.

Let us not hurl people into the deep end. I remember grappling with Proust when I was doing GCSEs but I got no further than Michael Palin in the Python sketch. Finnegan’s Wake also found its way into my palms but my interest died like a blown lightbulb. Young people are often ignorant and impatient; which is the inevitable flip side to being keen to learn.

Dickens is worth a mention. He is, of course, no stranger to the syllabi but some of the selections from his ouvre have been questionable. We were set Hard Times in GCSE English, which, for all of its merits, felt like wandering into the middle of an argument between strangers. The vivid sprawl of Great Expectations might have been more inspiring. Moby Dick is a tome I would offer for consideration. Its language is hard to comprehend at first, of course, but this has never stopped kids from reading A Clockwork Orange, and half of the fun of discovering Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was looking up what all of its strange terms meant. Its visionary verve always excites me, and I can’t help thinking that its study of anthropomorphism could be interested to those who have been raised on Pixar.

Catch-22 is a predictable offering. Young people love the “sour jokes” that once turned off critics. As they become older and more knowing, I would be tempted to recommend Earthly Powers. Much of Anthony Burgess’ voyage through the twentieth-century would fly over their heads – no shame in that; it still does over mine – but the comic richness makes it a pleasure to travel with and the in-jokes and name-dropping offers one the chance to follow other paths of exploration into great lives and great books.

I am departing from my mandate of literary fiction, but a final book that I would recommend is The Bible. I was a Christian until the age of 15 yet I rarely looked at the thing. Perhaps I assumed that it was like reading a manual after you have already worked out how to use the computer. As a nonbeliever, I would hope that people approach religious texts in the company of their critical faculties but it remains true that the King James Version is the most ambitious feat in the English language, and that its stories and teachings have inspired more thought than those of any other text. I remember of friend of mine, who was no more a fan of literature than he would have been of the Church, turning pages of Revelation and saying, “This is wild stuff.”

The Big SleepRegardless of the absence of copulating transsexuals, I enjoyed reading Chandler’s noir classic The Big Sleep. It left me with a question, though: why is the reader left aspiring to be like Phillip Marlowe? I risk miring myself in embarrassment in making this admission, but I spent the day after completing it devising grim witticisms, glaring out of windows and inwardly wishing that I had not given up tobacco. I find it hard to believe that I am alone in this.

Why might this be? Marlowe is, after all, a miserable loner with an evident dependence upon alcohol; a habit of witnessing grotesque crime scenes and a tendency to commit acts of private violence against bedsheets. What makes him attractive? It is not, unlike his trashy counterpart James Bond, his sexual adventurism. Marlowe is apt to refuse sex even when it’s offered to him. It doubtless helps that he is attractive to women but this alone is a mediocre explanation. Carmen Sternwood seems to be attracted to everyone except the butler and Vivian Regan’s apparent fancy for him is compromised by the knowledge that she lies through her teeth.

I think that Marlowe’s appeal can be found in the respect that he is able to command. Whatever the beauty of the face that stands before him, or the size of their wallet or pistol, he has an insolent remark and incisive revelation that forces his interlocutor to admire him as an ally or fear him as an opponent. He might have no money and a mild alcohol addiction but he appears to have pride and this can seem enough to compensate for all the lonely nights in dingy apartments.

Chandler was too good a writer to compose escapism, of course, and Marlowe is not the cold fish that he presents himself as being: brooding on missed chances for romance; fretting about death and purging his frustrations at the expense of his own furniture. What is interesting is that he craves respect and is keenly aware of its absence. Here is a nice bit from Farewell, My Lovely (Rembrandt is on a calender)…

My foot itched, but my bank account was still trying to crawl under a duck. I put honey into my voice and said: “Many thanks for calling me, Mr Marriott. I’ll be there.

He hung up and that was that. I thought Mr Rembrandt had a faint sneer on his face. I got the office bottle out of the deep drawer of the desk and took a short drink. That took the sneer out of Mr Rembrandt in a hurry.

It seems to me that men have evolved to value respect: the dignity of individual ownership and achievement. There has been a great deal of chatter regarding the nature of masculinity in the twenty-first century. There is no one problem faced by the British male: some of them are struggling to cope with an indefinite role within their families; some of them just need a bloody job; some of them are too fond of drugs and some of them are, well, fine, thank you very much.

I suspect that an absence of esteem and, thus, pride is a detrimental force in our society, though. Working lives are often spent in awkward, artificial submission before clients, customers, managers, committees and public officials. Love and esteem, meanwhile, is directed not towards people who embody virtues they are expected to represent but a bunch of preening dullards on the television. Life, then, can mean obscure indignity – escaped from via a television on which fathers tend to be portrayed as ineffectual dimwits.

Respect is not one’s birthright, of course, and must be earned – I have no wish for us to heed demands of thugs who often abuse peaceful citizens for paying insufficiently obsequious homage to their existence. There must be the hope for respect, though: as a good father; a good husband; a good citizen. If virtue does not seem valuable, some men are going to think it pointless to achieve.

Hand penSo, it turns out that this cottage has Internet access, and, with an empty hour looming, I thought I would write a post. As I am on holiday, though, I have avoided politics. It is, like philosophy and late-night television, compulsive yet depressing. Instead, I thought that I would write a bit about my novel. Before you rush to close this window lest you face a tidal wave of self-indulgence, it should be clarified that I will not discuss the novel itself but the process of creating it. I could not tell anyone how to create a novel but I can shed light on some of the obstacles and curiosities they might be faced with.

1. If you work at a computer you are bound to find that the path of productivity is flanked by side roads that lead off to curious places signposted with names like “Facebook”, “Twitter”, “Youtube” and “Reddit”. These can lead even the most determined travellers off-course. Tempted by glimpses of entertainment, they assure themselves that they are taking a mere diversion en route to work yet later find that they have lost their inspiration and remain far from their daily target.

I found it helpful to imagine that there was a sinister plot to distract me, in which Mark Zuckerberg, Eric Schmidt, the writers of Boing Boing and whoever devised the concept of “memes” were all conspiring, the bastards. Every half an hour spent without veering onto the ‘net was a little triumph in the face of their evil.

2. One solution is, of course, to use a pen and paper. Where to write, though? I tried a library, with some success, but the collection of people in its study area was so curious – with everyone from students hunched over papers in bug-eyed desperation to homeless men basking in its centrally-heated warmth – that I was tempted to discard my plot and set a novel there. One could write in a café, though this seems a bit clichéd. One could write on trains (though who rides enough trains to get much done?). I would like to write a novel solely composed in toilet cubicles, though I suspect someone has been there and done that. Michel Houellebecq, perhaps.

3. One can become so familiar with the world of one’s work that the fact that others are to be thrust into it without such an extended period of acclimatisation is forgotten. The novelist is well-acquainted with his or her characters, their homes and their favourite lemon-based mojito but readers, boringly, will require a proper introduction. The temptation is to add details like an MC drops rhymes but this might leave them flipping through the pages with the nasty feeling of having entered a conversation half-way through.

4. While one is creating a work of fiction one seems to grow more conscious of people, sayings, habits and events that evoke intriguing or entertaining implications. One is akin to the child who starts to build a go-kart and becomes aware of the potential of the scrap their eyes once thoughtlessly observed. The problem is that one can develop a cold, monomaniacal approach to hoarding memories for creative use and forget to reflect on what they actually said about the people they involved. “Quit bawling,” one might think as a dear friend weeps their way through a drunken confessional, “I need to get this down so I can use it in my book”. Aside from those of us named “Hunter” or “Truman” our lives are not mere mines of inspiration.

5. Perhaps this is only true of me, and I am making a confession that will isolate me as a freakish narcissist, but between fits of inspiration I would fondly think of what I might put in the “thanks” or dedication pages. Who had aided me throughout this arduous struggle? Family? Friends, perhaps? God? Jack Daniel? And who could I dedicate it to? A loved one, a hero or an intangible quality of man or the universe?

I left this pleasant task for after the last word was written yet once this had been achieved I felt no desire to do it. Nabokov wrote that finishing a novel made him feel like a mother after birth. Well, I am not Nabokov, and this novel cannot be equated with even an undergrown and malformed infant, but it is true that after the completion of a book one can lose ideas of dedications, advances and appearing on BBC4 like one’s ambition to having kid who open the batting for England. It is not simply a text onto which to project one’s fancies but a thing – a thing that one has made but that one hopes has independent life.

I also felt a keen desire to go and make a better one, which I hope would not be my reaction to my firstborn.

BooksIt would be churlish to deny the formidable benefits of e-books. They make it possible for one to carry numerous volumes in a device that is less of a burden than a pamphlet; make the rarest of publications available to anyone with a few quid; allow enterprising authors to take control of their own works. Oh, sure, I see the positives. Yet, for the moment, they aren’t for me.

For one thing, I read in the bath and taking anything electronic near a large body of water is like dangling a baby above a crocodile. For another, I read in public and how the hell can you incite discussion with the back of an e-reader? Most importantly, though, I love books as things. I love the look, feel and smell of everything from hardbacks fresh from Waterstones to battered texts extracted from the bargain bins of old charity shops.

I love acquiring books as well. Bookshops are small places, enormous with implications. One can pass one’s eyes across the shelves and wonder what fantastic stories and extraordinary ideas lie behind the diverse colours, fonts and images that are displayed upon the covers. Their idiosyncracies also seal the occasion in one’s memory: allowing one to think of the times and places, as well as the books, that have contributed to the formation of one’s consciousness.

Perhaps this is overly and prematurely nostalgic but I can still recall everything from the HMV – remember them? – in which I bought Fear and Loathing… and remembered that words can be fun even outside the NME to the charity shop in Yorkshire where I bought Poor Folk and learned that dead Russians might be as interesting as people had claimed. The following are not among the greatest texts that one can read but their eccentric charm make them a fitting tribute to the places I have bought and inherited books.

The Case for Astrology by John Anthony West – This, which was an entertaining anomaly in the philosophy section of a cramped bookshop in Topsham, is one of many books that I have wedged into a pile of texts that I have bought from this or that shop and failed to read. If memory serves, it contained detailed charts of star systems and some fantastically irritable barbs aimed at Martin Gardner. It is good to have an eccentric assortment of books lying around for that idle afternoon where spontaneous mental exercise is demanded. Perhaps it will be this (if the stars decree it, naturally).

Walk on: The Spiritual Journey of U2 by Steve Stockman – Everyone has books among their collections that are bewildering reminders of enthusiasms and ideologies they have left behind. This is one of mine: a curious artifact of a more naive, even innocent period of my life. I speak, of course, not of my evangelical Christianity but of my passion for U2. Hard to believe that it was the same person.

Fast Fury by Freddie Trueman – As a child I bought every cricket book that I could lay my hands on, from Frank Tyson’s memoirs to a book on batsmen that was written in the 1990s and contains a tragic passage on what a great man Hansie Cronje was and what a bright future he had. This unsentimental text is a bit more special as it was retrieved from my great-uncle’s living room after his death: a man whose house gave off the sweet aroma of pipe smoke and whose bookshelves had long been an object of fascination. Books can be rich in heritage.

The Psychology of Nuclear Conflict ed. Ian Fenton – This extremely bleak collection of musings on everything from the notion of “time” in the arms race to the rate of drug use in the US military and the fearsome possibility of a stoned soldier launching nuclear war is just one example of the kind of startling ideas that one can find within the most unprepossessing paperbacks. It is also a charming example of a book published with absolute indifference to salesmanship. The cover is entirely black and the title sounds as attractive as a foundation-rocking belch.

The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton – This is far more famous than the other books yet it remains the oddest. Robert Burton, a 17th Century English scholar, took the loose theme of gloom and expelled his thoughts on everything from pride to magicians to mountain birds in beautiful, humorous and erudite prose. It is not a book to live by but it is great to live with. What it is nice is that I had no idea of its contents when I plucked it from a shed behind a little bookshop. Buying books might not be as exciting as digging for buried treasures on Pacific islands but it is an adventure nonetheless.

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