Category Archives: General

So long, and thanks for all the fish…

My Year of Random Reading is over – I tried to prolong it, but it was a project designed for a single year, and that was how it worked best. It coincided with a period of injury and recovery, and now I’m back working as usual.

That means that I’m just not reading as much, or as generally. I’m reading for research (nobody ever read The Chicago Manual of Style for fun – or did they?), and that means that when I read for pleasure, I’m reading what I choose to read not what the dice select.

Admittedly, that means detective stories (working my way through Donna Leon, want to move to Venice), histories (or maybe Renaissance Paris), or cookery books (want to tour all Michelin-starred restaurants). At least the latter choice is reflected in my food blog, Twelve Miles from a Lemon.

And of course I’m still blogging about my everyday work as a writer and editor, for anyone who really cares about words and grammar and punctuation – I know it’s not just me and Stannis Baratheon – on my website at katesanton.co.uk.

Whither Year of RR?

A couple of people have spoken to me recently, either virtually or really (I know, I know, face to face, it can happen), asking whether I was back to reading, as I hadn’t been posting on here. I’ve never stopped, managing to prop books up on things and even somehow reading during physiotherapy, but it has been problematic, I must admit.

And I’ve been a bit lazy.

However, it made me think. During the Neck Nonsense I lost the thread a bit and, while my neck will never be 100% and I will always have some problems with my balance, I am amazingly better. This is entirely due to a sensible neurologist, a persistent and brilliant physio (aged about 10, but hey), and a series of vile exercises developed to get fighter pilots back in the air during WW2.

And I’ve been a bit lazy.

So what to do about this blog? Well, it originally started as a means of encouraging me to read not only the books I’d had on my shelves for ages, but also those I might otherwise ignore or skip over. I made a plan, numbering bookcases. I threw the dice and got a number, then threw again for a shelf, and then threw again to get the book on that shelf. By using this method I did manage to re-read some things I’d forgotten, but I also got quite a lot of things which I couldn’t really blog about, didn’t particularly want to read again or which were purely reference works (Collins Field Guide to Insects, Y Geiriadur Mawr, The Domestication and Exploitation of Plants and Animals, Histoire et mémoire du nom des rues de Paris and Paris pas cher 2005 – incidentally, why have I still got this?). This led to a certain amount of what could only be described as cheating.

Lazy. Should really have blogged about all of the above. Hm. Really can’t see much general interest in a somewhat antiquated Welsh-English dictionary, though I could probably riff for ages on the likelihood of me ever needing to know the Welsh for ‘supertax’ (‘uwchdreth’, I could probably have worked that one out), or the English for ‘gwaddoliad’. Mind you, that is interesting, because it means ‘endowment’, but it’s related to marriages as well as mortgages – a gwaddol is a dowry. The link never struck me before; but of course it applies –– see? Better that I cheated, really.

AHEM.

What to do? Well, I’ve decided. I enjoyed doing the blog in the first year, and then it became a bit too difficult. That’s no longer the case, so I’m going to slap myself around the head and start it up again. I’m going to adopt a conscious randomness, as it were. I’ll choose, rather than letting the dice do the selection, and that will remove the need for cheating. And I will make a deliberate effort not to choose things I’ve read recently. And I will also make a deliberate effort to go for non-fiction more than fiction (not too hard, given my selection), and to talk more about my illustrated books, which do tend to get overlooked. Heavy, you see – have to be propped up.

And no dictionaries. Promise.

On not being able to read (comfortably)

readingTo sort-of quote Arnie, I’m back.

I can say that with some confidence because I have finally shed my nasty neck collar – which I was only wearing for some exercises, admittedly – and now have what the physio described as ‘a good range of movement’. Painful movement, sometimes, but movement. And I am no longer getting dizzy all the time when I look down. Some of the time, still, but it is soooo much better. For the first time in months I have been able to sit in a chair and read. Am putting out the bunting now…

I’ve been trying not to grumble because I know that, neck injuries being neck injuries, things could have been a lot worse. It seems churlish to chunter about not being able to read anything other than a light paperback when my fall – wet walking boots + wet slate = not good – could have been so much worse, involving the air ambulance and a quick trip to Stoke Mandeville. I have also gained enormous respect for neurologists. It seems to me the medical discipline most close to quantum physics, mixed with a healthy dash of philosophy, alchemy and the doctrine of signatures. Very strange and very amazing.

What I have not gained any respect at all for is the ******* Kindle. Just as awkward for the neck-injured me as a book but without any of the sensory appeal, and – well, let’s just say that people gave up scrolliing through books centuries ago when printing got going. They gave it up for a reason. Grumble. I can see the advantages of using one if travelling or stuck in hospital, but happily I was neither. Very glad to return it whence it came.

The whole experience made me consider something I really take for granted, as do – I suspect – most of us who enjoy reading. It’s just there, right? You don’t really need to think about it. Well, we are very fortunate indeed. Since everything clicked at the age of four and the world of books made it possible for me to run away from home without actually leaving (not that there was anything wrong with home, she added hastily; I just fancied other possibities), I’ve read everything and almost anything. I used to read the back of my father’s newspaper while he read the front; cereal packets held a deep fascination; I could find myself boating with Swallows and Amazons, going through the back of a wardrobe, sitting at the Round Table (who says girls can’t be knights, eh?) or fighting off goblins whenever I wanted.

I never lost that. Admittedly the adventures changed – I stood beside Jonathan Harker and watched Dracula crawling down a castle wall rather than hunted after the Holy Grail beside some Monty Python numpty in armour – but the allure of being able to escape into a book never, ever faded. I no longer needed to read under the bedclothes with a torch, though there have been times when using a torch seemed useful (where’s that Kindle?). And a book can transport you like nothing else, through time as well as place, and into worlds that, strictly speaking, don’t exist and (possibly) never have. I could climb the rigging on a ship of Nelson’s Navy with Jack Aubrey, reluctantly listen to Mary Bennet play the piano or walk the night-time streets of Ankh-Morpork with Samuel Vimes if I wanted. I could read David Simon on crime in Baltimore, Patrick Leigh-Fermor on walking through pre-War Europe or Cecil Woodham Smith on the Great Hunger. I could look at a whole range of Ottoman Carpets, photographs by Magnum members, check out the history and folklore of plants.

And then, suddenly, I couldn’t.

After a few days it became apparent that I was going to have to adapt. If I watched broadcast television all the time my brain was going to melt and run down my nose, and using my laptop was difficult, so I worked my way through my DVDs. The risk of brain liquifaction – another re-run of Escape to the Country when I finished them? I think NOT – was becoming all too real. So I managed to rig up a sort of reading platform I could use lying down, with lightweight books (and the damn Kindle) supported by pillows. That meant paperbacks, and it worked – I could read, not for long, but in relative comfort, and so I did. After a little while I noticed that my apparently unconscious choices had started to develop a clear theme. Novels were, by and large, out. I had to read something I could put to one side, something which wouldn’t lead to me ignoring the pain and just reading on to see what happened, but with one exception. Crime. It had to be familiar crime, though, crime where I knew who did it, roughly, even if I couldn’t remember exactly why. This stage went on for a while, until ‘they’ finally worked out what had happened to me and decided what they were going to do about it. Not surprising, that timing, perhaps – a problem, solved.

Then there were the travel books. I have a lot and I read almost all of them. I developed a particular fondness for the ones where the authors end up in revolting / dangerous / overly smelly / ludicrous situations. Chased by wild bears, hanging off a mountain by your fingernails, being very ill in some yurt? Oh, yes. Travelling around the UK? Nah. Once I’d read through my own selection I hit the local libraries and worked my way through theirs too. And then I moved on, into history. There are some books which blur the boundaries – like The Cruellest Miles by Gay and Laney Salisbury on the original dog-sled relay to Nome which led to the development of the Iditerod race – so that was to be expected. And then, joy of joys, I discovered I could manage a hardback, which added more to my repertoire since I’d abandoned the ***** Kindle – why pay for something you already own, anyway? (The first ones? Ah, Terry Pratchett’s latest Discworld books from Going Postal to Snuff, Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa and Iain Banks’ Raw Spirit, on whisky – and I can contemplate alcohol again; the physio must be working!)

Next, I’m going to be testing illustrated books. I can’t bend my neck completely without the vertigo returning, but I can manage with it slightly bent. So it’s down to whatever can be balanced safely on a crossed leg or a little table without slipping, and there are plenty of those. But I’m going to give the ‘throw the dice, see what it gives you and then blog about it’ thing a rest. I shall blog about what I’m rediscovering without the element of alleged chance. I know how my life works. If I threw the dice I’d just get the travel books again…

Walking away…

CLEAR WATERS RISING: A MOUNTAIN WALK ACROSS EUROPE by Nicholas Crane, published in 1996

Bookcase 10, shelf 8, book 1

What a hiatus – lots of work meant that I was only reading recipe books, and they don’t make for the most exciting posts. Oh, all right, some of them do – Claudia Roden’s fabulous Jewish Food, for instance, which is as much about social history as it is about stuffing your face. But they’re outside the scope of this project – for one thing, I’d need three dice to get as far as the cookery books, and I’ve only got two. But the two dice I have got gave me a lovely read to make up for the increasing sameness of cookery books.

Clear Waters Rising is a wonderful vicarious walk from one end of Europe to the other, from Cape Finisterre and Santiago de Compostela right through to Istanbul, following the watershed over various mountain ranges as much as possible. It was undertaken in the mid-90s by a thoroughly entertaining writer, Nicholas Crane. Some people will know him from the BBC’s Coast series, always accompanied by an umbrella on his back and a TV crew. This comes from before then, and indeed starts even before the acquisition of the umbrella (though that is bought early on). When he undertook this solitary walk he hadn’t been married for long, fortunately to a very understanding person, another traveller. He’d done many other difficult journeys, but never anything by himself – and that was exactly what he decided to do in this project, which he optimistically thought might take a year.

Keeping in contact by phone – phone boxes assume a lot of importance; this is before ubiquitous mobile technology – and with some pre-arranged meetings (either with his wife or others) enabled NC to travel comparatively light in a journey that spanned the seasons. Its length, both physically and temporally, paint a changing picture. As he sets off, for instance, the mountains he travels through begin to fill with other climbers and walkers then gradually empty as the time wears on. Mountain cafés and campsites empty:

‘This is the last meal I cook at Cortalets this year,’ he announced.
‘You are going to the valley, then?’
‘Tonight…’

and rough camping (it saves him money, plus is more enjoyable – generally, except when wet, snowed upon or being thoroughly spooked in the Vercors) becomes more and more difficult. There are detours – a quick sideways trip to climb Mont Blanc, for instance – and an always entertaining commentary on the places and people he encounters. It’s a very well-written book; In some places it’s straightforwardly amusing; in others it catches a universal feeling…

‘Darkness had fallen when I walked into St Maurice Navacelles. Water shone in the light cast from a window. Inside, an elderly couple were pulling up trays of food before a fire. The warmth and sheter of their secure little haven … was on the other side of an unbridgeable gulf. I was comfortable with my tramp’s life, for it brought freedom and full-time relief from restlessness, but it was still difficult to pass a lit window at dusk without wanting to be in on the warmer side of the glass.’

And the photographs are good, as well.

As Crane moves eastwards, the nature of the people he encounters changes: there are more shepherds, for instance, and fewer people walking in the hills for pure enjoyment. And if this sounds a little like Patrick Leigh-Fermor’s journeys across pre-War Europe, then that’s hardly surprising. Their tracks converged in Vienna, where Crane’s resolve really wavered for the first time. The thought of the young Leigh-Fermor was one of the things that kept him going: as he says, ‘he wouldn’t approve’. Plus, of course, there was consistent support from his family, not least his wife, and he did manage to do most of the journey by himself, except when obliged to take a companion by the authorities in the Ukraine. One was fine, a kindred spirit; the other was not, but the problem resolved itself. And there was really only one occasion (apart from the mystery sounds of footsteps approaching a shelter in the Vercors, footsteps with no apparent owner) when he felt in any danger.

Clear Waters Rising is such a good read. There’s not a cat in hell’s, or a ghost in the Vercors, chance that I would ever be able to do something like this – certainly not now, Achilles tendon injuries being what they are, and probably never. I’d have given up at the first campsite, I suspect. But books like this broaden horizons as well as entertain, and sometimes they bring you up short with a realisation about something you may have taken for granted.

(As a spinner, I had to use this double-page spread – even though I can’t spindle-spin and never wear headscarves or – phew – socks with sandals)

Ahem. Take art, for instance. I’ve known about the glorious painted churches in Romania for years, but the sheer impact they might have had on their original audience never really occurred to me. NC, however, having been on a journey ‘where “art” had been an occasional iconostasis or the pattern on a flute barrel’, was utterly blown away by them. ‘Christianity in freeze-frame covered the entire exterior and interior … saints and priests and claocked philosophers (Plato crowned by a reliquary of bones) floated in ranks above an earthly landscape of mesas and buttes, cityscape and forests…’ In short, a ‘carnival of the grotesque, the allegorical and the saintly, reaching as tall as the trees…’. It must have felt a lot like that many centuries ago, too. And without Clear Waters Rising, I’d not really have given that fact a second thought. Not just a walking book, not just a mountain book, not ‘just’ a travel book – but a damn good read, and a very thoughtful one.

Can I go back to the beginning and read it again?

Roll the dice

Like many people, I have too many books. Let’s put the whole question of whether that is a dubious concept – can you have too many books? – for the moment, and take it as a given. My shelves are full. There’s no more room. I’m already a bit like a mad cat lady but with paperbacks. And hardbacks. And strange things with spiral bindings. I haven’t ventured into Kindle territory yet, but if I had one, I’d have filled it.

But they don’t get read enough. And I’m still buying more – or I was until I decided I’d had enough.

So now I’m going to read my stash, and not buy new. And I’m going to let fate decide. I’ve got a little drawing of my bookshelves with them all numbered. I’ll roll a dice – two dice will be needed – and go to the bookshelf chosen by fate. Then I’ll roll for the specific shelf, and for the book on that shelf.

I’ll give myself a little leeway, though. I can count from either end of the shelf, and if the dice give me a three and a two, that could be five, or it could be thirty-two or twenty-three. And I’m confining myself to books in English.

I could get fiction, or I could get a cookery book, an art book, something about the history of Wales, a book about gardening or smallpox or the history of carpets or refugees. Let’s see!