Friday, August 19, 2022

Half full and half empty

In one way or another a work of fiction is always subject to the gravitational pull of the time in which it is made. Whether we're thinking of its material form as Ozeki does, or whether we're thinking of its subject matter, shape and substance are important. A print book has a particular heft and the 550 pages of The Book of Form and Emptiness lend it a certain weight. The extent to which that weight is simply ballast could be what distinguishes good writing from the rest. The Book of Form and Emptiness faces a challenge common to much contemporary fiction that directly addresses the current milieu. To put it simply, issues like environmental catastrophe, the inequities forced on us by global capitalism and the rise of national populism do not readily present us with opportunities for resolution or narrative closure. The predominant cultural story, if it's not straightforward disaster porn, is one of unsustainability and collapse rather than one of noble decline or a utopian back-to-nature simple life. Ozeki piles on the tragedies, both personal and social. I'd not encountered the term 'psychic diversity' before, but it takes its place alongside disability, mental health issues, substance abuse and poverty. If loss and grief act as a pivot for the book, hoarding, self-harm and even gender fluidity also play a part. Nearly all the principle characters are in some way lost, confused or misguided. Exceptions are the author of the fictional book-within-a-book 'Tidy Magic', Cory the children's librarian, and the unnamed woman in the library who is always typing away on her laptop - perhaps typing the book itself. Reading all this was a lot to digest, particularly since it included the post-modern device of having the book itself addressing the characters and the reader and even reflecting on the nature of books themselves. Served up with a side dish of new materialism, there was a lot here on the agency of objects, enchantment, vibrant matter and so on - as if Ozeki had taken a crash course with Jane Bennett. As a result I could have done without the potted biography of Walter Benjamin and quotations from his essays - and the Borges garnish that was liberally applied.

The Zen that the author claims suffuses the book is hard to see amongst all this clutter. Its most overt appearance is in the figure of Aikon, the Marie Kondo like author of Tidy Magic who dispenses advice on how to fold your t-shirts and underwear. At times I longed for an Aikon editor who might clear a path for the characters and events that were building some momentum. But perhaps that's unfair. The prophetic old Zen master may be a stereotype, but he is important in his own way. And Benny's koan is the question 'What is real?' which forms an interesting counterpoint to the critique of consumerism that flavours the book. They come close to being brought together when Ozeki asks 'What gives things the power to enchant and is there a limit to the desire for more?'. To combine these thoughts with the idea that things, both made and unmade, have agency sets an almost impossible question...and if a book, too, is agentive what then? And how do you square a critique of consumerism with Benjamin's obsession with collecting books? Perhaps these are just meant as a collection of ideas to think about. All told, books and libraries have a central place in this fictional world, but there are unresolved tensions even here. Early on Ozeki observes that within this 'social hierarchy of matter, we books lived on top'. But the past tense is telling. Benji's mother, Annabelle, is laid off as media goes digital, and towards the end something similar is happening with the thinning out of library shelves. There's some print nostalgia at work here, but Ozeki is up front about this. In the end perhaps, The Book of Form and Emptiness is a timely reflection on the ways in which books shape our lives in different ways.

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Travelling with Tolstoy

The passenger sees the world from a particular point of view. Separate, like a spectator, a world unfolds through the frame of the window. The framed scene outside is textualized, having a cinematic quality, as the passenger moves through the world without engaging with it in any other way than simply viewing it. There is a quality to this experience that prompts reflection, and it turns up time and again in literature. Towards the end of Anna Karenina Tolstoy uses this reflective experience to conjure up Anna's troubled state of mind. He sets the scene, "Sitting in the corner of the comfortable carriage, barely rocking on its resilient springs to the quick pace of the greys, again going over the events of the last few days, under the incessant clatter of the wheels and the quickly changing impressions of the open air, Anna saw her situation quite differently from the way it had seemed to her at her home." This introduces the reader to the reflective quality. What Anna thinks and feels is interspersed with the noise and movement of the carriage and the changing scene through the window, to the "incessant clatter of the wheels" and the "quickly changing impressions" outside. Her attention is drawn to the urban environment she is moving through "...she began to read the signboards. 'Office and Warehouse. Yes, I'll tell Dolly everything..." The signboards are particularly interesting conveying a familiar modern street scene. Later, on her return journey she looks at passers-by "'This one is pleased with himself,' she thought of a fat, red-cheeked gentleman who, as he drove by in the opposite direction, took her for an acquaintance and raised a shiny hat over his bald shiny head and then realized he was mistaken, 'He thought he knew me. And he knows me as little as anyone else in the world knows me'" Anna's mental state is captured in stream-of-consciousness writing that predates Mrs Dalloway by nearly fifty years - but it is the way in which Tolstoy juxtaposes the Moscow streets with her reflections that again captivates us. "Twitkin, Coiffeur...Je me fais coiffer par Twitkin...I'll tell him when he comes,' she thought and smiled. But at the same moment she remembered that she now had no one to tell anything funny to." Anna, as passenger, reads the world outside. Her grief only hits home when she thinks that she has no-one to share it with.

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Texting characters

In the study of writing we often overlook the fact that the most commonly spoken language in the world is Chinese. Using characters - a form of logographic writing, is the most obvious choice for a population of over 1.5 billion. And so associating literacy with the alphabet is both limiting and inaccurate. In fact, there is no better illustration of how political and economic power intersect with the development and propagation of writing than the character-based system of Chinese writing. The technologies of writing that developed with industrialisation from mid-nineteenth century telegraphy, the invention of the typewriter through to the personal computer have all favoured alphabetic writing. Jing Tsu's wonderful book Kingdom of Characters - A Tale of Obsession and Genius in Modern China traces the struggles of inventors and language reformers who have fought against alphabetic domination. The inequities of telegraph tariffs, the design challenge of Chinese language typewriters and the innovative development of the 'digital sinosphere' are carefully charted. Understanding that an educated Chinese speaker can recognise and reproduce somewhere between two and three thousand different characters, gives an impression of the magnitude of the challenge. The massive take up of mobile communication has resulted in a sort of compromise. It seems as if the majority now use pinyin (a modified alphabetic system) to write, supplemented by the software's predictive text which translates their message into characters. If I had one criticism of Jing Tsu's book it's that she doesn't give enough space to the complexity, innovation and variation of text messaging in Chinese - (and Japanese-) speaking communities. The prevalence of mobile instant messaging in these communities and the heavy use of WeChat and WhatsApp means that this is now an important site for semiotic work.

Saturday, February 05, 2022

Literacy practices in libraries

The public library was an important landmark in my childhood. It was in safe cycling distance, it was always warm, and it was the context for a ritualized, and mildly intimidating, interface with the adult world. I can clearly recall the heart-thumping point at which I would offer up my chosen books to be date stamped. I was in awe of the librarians who to my childish mind held the power to refuse me, point out my errors or even fine me. Invariably they were friendly, but they represented a powerful bureaucracy, an arm of local administration, that was strong and ought to be taken seriously. A successful visit to the library was rewarded by a subsequent rush of excitement - checking out was an experience like the end of a school day, clearing passport control or leaving a shop with just the toy you had in mind. But the pinch point at the library desk held all the power. It was the power that charged the anticipation as well as the release. The point where everything seemed to hang in the balance. With repeated visits and growing confidence I gradually became more and more interested in what happened at that point. The way in which a book's identifier - the book card, was deftly removed from a paper pouch glued to the endpapers, date stamped and then slipped with ease into my personal library card, snuggly held in alphabetical order in the custom-built wooden card index. As time went by I learnt more and more about the library system. Ways of classifying books, using card indexes and even requesting books that weren't in my particular branch. Home from my travels, in 1972, I was delighted to find that my mum had put in a request form for Herman Hesse's Magister Ludi - The Glass Bead Game. A postcard arrived at our home address on the 5th August that year with a hand franked two and half pence stamp. I know all this because the form dropped out of a book the other day. Evidently I used it as a bookmark and then forgot all about it. But the card is a fascinating record of a set of social and material literacy practices that were very much alive at the time, in libraries - and elsewhere too. The card - a reservation slip, a standard 6 x 3 inch postcard, serrated on one of its narrower edges at the point where it was detached from the counterfoil. One side with four pre-printed and indented rows of dots (for the address), the other with clearly labelled positions for the book's details - author, title, publisher and so on. The local branch name is ink-stamped on (oh, those ink stamps, so often the seals of officialdom!). All the specific details are captured in the distinctive flourish of my mother's handwriting. And one other feature that deserves a mention: two small holes and an impressed line in one corner, the scars of an earlier stapling, which tell something about a prior process of attachment. Such an efficient system, a marker of a sophisticated analogue literacy practice in its heyday, at a time when public libraries were generously funded. I could go on, but as I nostalgically turn this yellow-edged card in my hands I realise it's also charged with all those memories - returning home, my mother, reading Hesse, the smell of the public library, date stamps, stationery. It is slowly becoming other, its original and specific meaning is tucked into a card pocket in a much larger multidimensional catalogue. 

Saturday, December 04, 2021

Powerpoint fiction....anybody?

If you'd told me that the novel I was about to read contained over 60 pages of Powerpoint slides using some of the standard insert graphics you get, I think I'd change my mind and pick something else. Haven't we all had enough of Powerpoint? Surprisingly though, Jennifer Egan makes this device work so well in A Visit from the Goon Squad that I actually found myself really enjoying it. It's one of the many small triumphs in this Pulitzer Prize winner - a work that is packed full of insights and intrigues. I'd missed it when it won in 2011, but came to it late through the first chapter, Found Objects, which appeared as a short story in the New Yorker. It could be argued that the freestanding piece Found Objects has the edge. After all, it's tightly written and only hints at the broader landscape of events. In that sense it's more open for the reader. You can speculate all you like about Sasha, the focal character, about what is lost, found or stolen in her life and the fragmented dialogue with her therapist works very well in prompting this sort of perspective. I like the economy of the short story form for some of these reasons. I think George Saunders writes about making every word count in a short story - and that's why Found Objects works. Egan's stand alone tale raises all sorts of questions most of which are answered in the novel, so I suppose if you're the sort who hopes for some sort of closure in fiction you'd prefer A Visit from the Goon Squad; but both are very good. After several unsuccessful attempts to surf the wave of enthusiasm for Richard Powers, Egan has re-established my flagging confidence in American fiction.

Saturday, October 02, 2021

Going slow

It's been a while. Perhaps it seems as if I'm a blogger on a go-slow, but really it's just the sign of a changing relationship with what I write. Recently posting has become a way of rehearsing thoughts that later become more extended pieces of writing - but somehow or other I didn't need to do that for the book Stacking Stories (out soon!). So that's where my energies have gone, writing that. But I still like the blog. I like it for its continuity, or to be precise for the way it maps change. Colin and Michele once described it as a 'wunderkammer' in their typology of blogs, but it long since changed direction. Gradually it became more performative. I tried to capture where I'd been, what I was reading and what was getting published. In other words it surfed the breaking wave of self-promoting academic identity performance (yuk!). Even quite recent posts - up to and including this one - seem to draw attention to what I've been up to in my professional life (such as this!). But I've also tried to stay faithful to the notion of capturing the main gist of what I'm thinking about, what inspires me. And it perhaps goes without saying, writing in one way or another always seems to come to the top of the pile. Producing it, consuming it, the two inextricably woven together. Everyday notes, graffiti, literature, sky-writing, logos, subtitles, digital, non-digital - the lot. That has to be the next (the last?) major project, translating that fascination into something that is both insightful and readable. Will I get round to it? I think so, although my current fascination with the Uruguayan writer Mario Levrero might be trying to tell me something. His short book Empty Words and the bible-sized tome The Luminous Novel are masterpieces in exploring the many ways you can avoid writing what you really want to write - or, how that avoidance can itself become a thing of fascination. Following that model I should probably post regularly about how I'm not getting round to starting work on that substantive topic. But I don't want to make a promise that I don't think I could keep.

Friday, June 25, 2021

Works in progress

I've come to think of all work as work in progress. A busy couple of months have seen me mulling over what things in the literacy world look like after lockdown, and several things are out there already including this bulletin and this contribution to a UKLA symposium. At the same time I've been working for the Journal of Early Childhood Literacy on our pro-Black initiative and wanted to show my appreciation to the wonderful Susi Long who has been convening an important group. One of the most significant aspects of this discussion for me is the idea that returning to normal is not a viable option if normal involves perpetuating old injustices and inequalities. Bettina Love is an uncompromising and forthright campaigner for this perspective, and of course she's right. I'm not yet sure how my writing intersects with this - that too is work in progress. In the mean time I'm helping to bring an old project to print, a project that operationalises the stacking stories idea that Cathy and I have been working on for a number of years. There's a lovely bit in this collaborative work that evokes rich memories for anyone who has ever taught. 'Most teachers can relate to the experience of arriving in a classroom, perhaps at the start of a school year - four walls, a cupboard if you're lucky, and a collection of desks and chairs - of rooting around in store rooms and drawers, sifting though resources of variable age and quality, shunting furniture about to create pleasant spaces or groupings, and playing with texture and colour for a less institutional feel.' Some of the resources you find in dusty cupboards and dingy stock rooms have their own histories. In the second school I taught in I found a class set of books called 'An Introduction to the King's English'. Which king, I wondered? Could that be George V? The book was published in 1932! This certainly wasn't work in progress; it was a museum piece. As a seasonal gesture, one of the book's colour plates is shown above. It's entitled 'At the Seaside' and it shows an English holiday scene - an idealised portrait of family life between the wars. Dad reads a broadsheet and smokes a pipe whilst mum keeps an eye on the children making a sandcastle. The page opposite informs us that dad is Mr Jackson, mum is Mrs Jackson and the children are Tom and Kate. Students of the King's English practice sentences rehearsing words like 'father', 'mother', 'sister' and 'children'. It perhaps goes without saying that not all families looked like that in Hyson Green in the 1970s.