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A Thousand Shades of Language

September 9, 2012

I am currently in the South of France. My wife and I have escaped for a couple of weeks to a converted barn in the middle of nowhere. Aquitaine actually. We both read – constantly – and this is an opportunity to catch up with some of the books I have bought over the past three months.

It’s easy to plough through a book and forget what you read within a week or two. This is why I sometimes review stuff in this blog, even if the book isn’t hot off the press. Yes, I hope that you, dear reader, will find something to your taste that you were unaware of, but if not, no matter. I don’t earn a penny from my book reviews, nor do I get click-through revenue from links to bookseller sites. The payback comes from looking back at the work and figuring out what it means to me.

I would say that my subject ratio is around five-to-one in favour of non-fiction over fiction. With my wife, it’s probably the other way round. This is good, because we often find common ground despite big differences in interests. A recipe for a long-lasting marriage, don’t you think?

So we share novels by the likes of Ian McEwen, Robert Harris and Julian Barnes, while at other times I get stuck into lengthy tomes on history, politics and society, and she hoovers up novels with strong narratives at an astonishing speed.

I love books. By that I mean big, chunky slabs of wood pulp – preferably with hard covers. I bought a Kindle about a year ago. I downloaded three books on to it in that time, never got beyond the first two chapters of any of them, and last month I gave it away to one of my daughters. Nothing wrong with e-books, nor with the Kindle. I’m not a technophobe – I have desktops, laptops, an I-Pad and an I-Phone. But a spindly index on a computer is no substitute for a physical library. Shelf after shelf of volumes to be scanned from time to time. An old favourite to be pulled out and lent to a friend or family member – no matter that I don’t always get it back, it’s being read, which is what counts. New volumes piled horizontally across full shelves, waiting for the periodic sort and purge. Stuff that seemed of vital and long-lasting interest twenty years ago shoved into the back of the car and presented to the local charity shop.

So what’s on the reading agenda right now? Well, I’ve just finished two big tomes. Robert Bickers’ Scramble for China, which I reviewed the other day, and The Popes – A History, by John Julius Norwich, which has taken me about a year to read in parallel with other stuff. Lord Norwich’s work is the kind of book that I read in bed late at night. Three or four pages about some idiosyncratic Holy Father and his efforts to shore up his temporal power by persuading all and sundry to make war on each other is, though fascinating and instructive, usually enough to send the head slumping to the pillow. It’s also been a useful accompaniment to one of my favourite recent TV series – The Borgias.

Next up is Bring Up the Bodies, the second in Hilary Mantel’s series of novels about Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s consigliore while the King was embarking on his career of serial polygamy. In the Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall, Henry divorces Catherine of Aragon and paves the way for Queen Number Two, Anne Boleyn, disposing – with Cromwell’s assistance – of Sir Thomas More, whose conscience would not allow him to countenance Henry’s rupture with the Church of Rome. In Bring Up the Bodies Henry discovers that Anne can’t do what it says on the tin, and provide him with a male heir. Once again, it is the lugubrious Cromwell’s job to return the goods, this time to the scaffold.

I am so jealous of Hilary Mantel. She has more descriptive ability in a fingernail than I am likely to find in a lifetime. If I should ever write a novel, she would be the benchmark against which I would measure my own efforts. I have been a fan since Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, set in the 80s Jeddah that she and I both knew (though I never met her at the time). How she produces work of such quality time and again, despite recurrent problems with her health, I know not.

Other stuff in the queue includes Paul Ham’s account of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, Capital, Johnl Lanchester’s novel, Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwen, and Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England, which follows on from his similar enjoyable effort on  medieval England.

My reading list may sound a tad niche, and “serious” to boot. I guess you could say that, but I reckon that there are so many books you can read in your lifetime, so you might as well go for stuff that leaves a lasting impression.

Some books I never finish, and others I never even start. I started an anthology of famous lies in history, and never got further than the chapter on Julius Caesar in Gaul, in which the author claimed that the Himalayas lay just across the Roman Empire’s German frontier. And by the time I got round to opening Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works, the scandal of his fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan had blown up, and his publisher pulped all unsold copies. Oh well, at least I have a rarish book to pass on to the next generation.

Speaking of passing books on to others, this is another reason for buying processed trees instead of bits and bytes. When you buy an e-book, you don’t actually buy it. You rent it, and your rights expire when you do.

So instead of leaving a library full of wit, wisdom and assorted nonsense, if all your books are e-, you leave precisely nothing. Perhaps a relief if your kids don’t share your taste in literature, because it saves them multiple runs to the charity shop. But if you’re Bruce Willis, and you want to share your reportedly massive investment in music downloads, to which the same restriction applies, it’s a bit of a pain to say the least.

My reading is not confined to books. As a blogger, I’m continually looking up other blogs. Some of my favourites are in the blogroll on the home page of this site. A while ago, I also published a critique of Middle East blogs that I admire. And then there are the news sites. Principal among them is the good old BBC, but also, since I live in the Middle East, I check out some of the English-language newspaper sites, at least until my gorge rises with a surfeit of, shall we say, “robust” content.

I’m a lucky person. I was brought up to read, and had the benefit of my father’s substantial library. As I saw him grow old, his reading increased as more time became available. He managed to keep his mental faculties intact to the end, which was a blessing. I wrote about his library here.

I hope I’ve inherited more than his reading genes, and that like him I can in turn stave off the curse of Alzheimer’s. Because no matter what bits drop off you or stop working, so long as you can understand, appreciate and gain mental sustenance from language, there is still a point in living.

Oh, and a last word. I’d rather be eaten alive by a drain-full of starving rats than waste a second of my precious life on fifty shades of anything. But then again, I wouldn’t have been too proud to take the royalties if E L James had been my pseudonym.

After all, most of us have a price, do we not?

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