Category Archives: Reading

Two old friends

Sometimes, when you go back and revisit something you once loved you are disappointed. But sometimes there’s no difference; you still like whatever it is. And sometimes you still like it, but find new things to enjoy, things you missed the first time round.

Now I know I said I’d be concentrating on non-fiction books, my true and deep love, but I have been tidying up lately (oh, surely not) and that has led me to some other rediscoveries. Hidden away on a top shelf, right at one end, as though I was ashamed of them.

When I was growing up, before I went to Uni, I loved science fiction. I scratted around dodgy second-hand bookshops in order to feed my habit and build up the world’s biggest collection of paperback novels by Philip K Dick. And Arthur C Clark, and Brian Aldiss, and and and…

Kraken WakesMost of these have, over the years, vanished, which is probably just as well, but there are a few survivors. I have no idea what inspired me to get a couple of them down, but I found myself reading books I’d not read for – oh – maybe 25 years. The first was John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes.

Wyndham is better known as the writer of Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos, but I prefer this book. I’ve always had a fascination with the way a familiar landscape can be changed by the weather – snow, floods – and the last third of Wyndham’s dystopian novel is set in a world terribly altered by rising sea levels. These aren’t caused by people driving too many cars – the book was published in 1953 – but by submarine alien invaders melting the ice caps. Nonetheless, the vision of a flooded world is extraordinary. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

There are three phases to the book, as the protagonists – a couple, and I’ll get onto that – experience the changing world. The first can basically be summed up as ‘what are those strange lights in the sky, plummeting into the sea?’ (anticipation, if you like). The second is the period of initial investigative attacks from below the sea – disappearing ships and raids on coastal communities, vividly described – and their consequences. And the third is the changed world, where sea levels have risen and society has (partly) broken down, but where the humans finally seem to be winning the battle.

It’s very well written. That was my first surprise; I think I remembered it as more ‘pulpy’, but I may have been remembering my reading as a whole rather than specific books. The second surprise was the almost complete lack of gender stereotyping. The protagonists are a married couple, Phyllis and Mike. They are both broadcast journalists, and – if anything – Phyllis is the better one, something openly acknowledged by Mike. Phyllis drives the story just as much as he does, maybe a little more. Perhaps this is a result of when it was written – the early 50s, with memories of the role of women in WW2 still very fresh. Perhaps, had it been written in 1963 instead, it would have been very different. Or perhaps John Wyndham was just a decent bloke.

AsimovThe other book I picked up was, in some ways, equally surprising.

I was a huge fan of Isaac Asimov: I always tended towards the ‘spaceships and robots’ type of SF, and I think this is why I hung on to some of his books. The Naked Sun is the second book involving his detective, Lije Bailey, solving a crime that involves (or appears to involve) a robot.

Asimov is now possibly most well known for coming up with the ‘three laws of robotics’: that a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; that a robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; and  that a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the other laws.  These are vital here, as they are in several of his other books: there are loopholes, loopholes which lead to murder…

The Naked Sun is set in the ‘Outer Worlds’. Earth is overpopulated, heavily polluted, with its crowds of inhabitants living in vast, teeming underground cities, fearing the outside to the point of agoraphobia. The colonised planets, on the other hand, are underpopulated and have no desire to be ‘contaminated’ (literally and metaphorically) by contact with Earth. They have the upper hand, and don’t need vast numbers of people because the work is done by vast numbers of robots (on Earth, robots are viewed with deep distrust).

The situation is at its most extreme on Solaria. Here people have very little contact with each other, to such an extent that being in someone’s actual presence can make people physically ill. They ‘view’ each other: a foretaste of Skype, only rather more sophisticated (The Naked Sun was written in 1958). But now they need help from the outside because someone has been killed. And so Bailey, an agoraphobic Earth detective, with previous experience of working alongside the ‘Spacers’, finds himself on another planet trying to work out how someone could be bludgeoned to death in a world where the merest degree of physical contact is next-to impossible.

The appeal of The Naked Sun lies mainly in its depiction of the alienated Solarian world (the equally distorted Earth is explored in its predecessor, The Caves of Steel), and not in the discovery of the murderer – that plot line, for me, is a little weak.  I don’t find it as engaging as The Kraken Wakes and it isn’t as well written; there is more stereotyping too, with mainly male protagonists and only two female characters, neither leading the action although one is a suspect. (Natch. And characters smoke, though not on Solaria; Bailey loves his pipe.)

But there is more to it than that. Earth and Solaria are similar but different; they both inhabit limiting extremes which will eventually lead to their destruction, an insight Bailey gains right at the end of the book. And, rather creepily,  modern readers can see something of Solaria here and now: in our growing presence in and dependence on the virtual world.

Science fiction, at its best, explores apparently exotic possibilities in a plausible way, and the predictive nature of these two books was what stunned me the most. In one, the consequences of a kind of global warming are foreshadowed; in another, the effects of living in a virtual world. It’s one thing to predict things when you are ‘closer’ to them, but these books are now around 60 years old. Maybe I should not have culled quite so much…


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.


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…