Pete Saubers has come across an old trunk buried in the woods. He opens it. Inside among other things — envelopes stuffed with hundred dollar bills — he finds notebooks, over a hundred of them. He opens one at random. It is in cursive and headed Chapter 27. It must be a novel, he thinks. ‘With that many pages, its pretty much got to be’. He starts reading and finds it interesting. ‘He wouldn’t mind hunting through the notebooks and finding the one where it started. Seeing if it really was good.’
And then ten-year old Pete raises a really interesting question: ‘Because you couldn’t tell if a novel was good from just a single page, could you?’
What do you think?
Can you decide from reading a page at random whether a book is worth reading?
Have you ever chosen a book from this principal?
my friend, a self-declared literary elitist and devotee of Proust [in translation], Nabokov and Updike, told me about his encounter with Stephen King, a writer he previously abhorred [though he had not read him]. He rhapsodised about ‘Mr.Mercedes’ and ‘Finders Keepers’, the first two novels in a planned crime trilogy. I could not believe it when I, a devotee of short stories and novellas [ of which King had written a few], began reading the self-same novels and was hooked.
While waiting for the bank to open, I noticed two columns of ants on the wall alongside the ATM. One column was climbing up, the other down, side by side, almost brushing. There were hundreds of them. All of a sudden, one ant pulled out from the up column as one pulled out from the down. I wasn’t sure but it looked as if they gave each other high-fives. Then they began talking, maybe exchanging pleasantries or passing on a piece of gossip. The thing is, how did they recognize each other from all the other ants? From their smell? Their appearance? Did they even have individual features like bushy eyebrows, hooked noses and little pot bellies? Even nick names like ‘Shorty’, ‘Ginge’ or ‘Spike’?
I bent down trying to eavesdrop on the conversation but they saw me and were off, joining the others. Where were they off to? Some convention in Antopolis? A Big Day Out for ants? Whatever it was they were on the go. You never see ants standing still, doing yoga, chilling out on the beach, reading newspapers on a park bench, standing around watching girl ants go by.
‘What is a truly awful novel like?’ Phyliss Rose poses this question in the last chapter of her book ‘The Shelf’. The candidate she selects is William Le Queux’s ‘Three Knots.’ . Has anyone read it? I want to but, fortunately, there are now very few copies in existence. After giving a run down on the plot, Rose identifies the attributes that a truly awful novel possesses.
She says, ‘It is like a bad dream. Things happen that make no sense and are never truly explained.’ Scenes shift abruptly and giddily. Characters have no inner consistency. The book ‘features a detective adept at disguises’, Rose tells us, ‘but she has nothing to do with solving the mystery. There is an old man with a dark past but he is irrelevant too. The murderer turns out to be someone in plain sight all along’ but who is so uninteresting and insignificant that the reader passes over him.
‘How can a book be so bad?’ Rose asks but has no ready answer.
What is one of the worst books you have read?
‘It is the rare human who doesn’t wish to change something about his or her brain.’* I thought about this, about what I’d like to change and came up with a few things. I would like to readily understand higher mathematics, be able to learn Chinese, to discriminate more readily between paths that are mutually exclusive and be able to access early childhood memories in particular the primal episodes, the ones where fears come from. As a writer I would like to be able to write effective horror stories beyond 3000 words. Is that asking too much? What would you change?
* Elif Batuman: ‘Electrified’ [ new Yorker, april 6, 2015]
How depressing it is to put up a new post on your blog and no one responds to it, not straight away, not even in ten minutes. You feel like a fisherman who has cast his well-baited line in the water only to have it ignored, while other anglers cheerfully reel in their catch. You fume and fluster, blame the bait, blame yourself, the time or the currents. So what do you do? You fling the line petulantly out of the water, rebait, then cast it in again and say, this time, this time …. for bloggers are much like fishermen and fisherwomen, stubborn and optimistic.
Outside the art gallery a pop-up installation:
‘Autumn’s Litter’: leaves — russet, golden-brown —
diamond-shaped, swept together by the wind.