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Books I Haven’t Read (part the tenth, maybe)

In which we criticise a Great Writer, at least by volume


With such a big pile of books each for Christmas, there was bound to be something that I wouldn’t be able to make it through. The ironic thing, though, is that this Book I Haven’t Read is probably, in one sense, the easiest read on the pile. Unseen Academicals, by Terry Pratchett.

Back when I was a teenager, I read an awful lot of Pratchett. I must have read every Discworld book at some point by now, and I’ve got copies still of most. The Parents, being unusually observant, picked up on this: and at some stage they started buying me a copy of his latest book every Christmas. As he’s kept on producing books, this kept on happening.

Now, at one time, I did enjoy Pratchett’s books. Back when I was a teenager. He’d published about ten, fifteen or so; so there were plenty to get through without it seeming too daunting. Moreover, he hadn’t run out of ideas, and the Discworld series hadn’t started to reach critical mass. Back then, Pratchett didn’t worry too much about making his world consistant, and presumably his readers didn’t worry about it too much either.

It’s something to do with that sort of fan, though, the sort that tends to be a fan of Pratchett, that they crave consistancy and reliability. They want the world to be as solidly-built as our own, even when the fraying at the edges is fairly obvious; even when its development over time is extremely obvious.* Even if the author doesn’t worry about tying up loose edges and gluing bits of geography together, assiduous and energetic readers will start doing it for him. And they did. A lot of effort started to be put into making the whole thing “make sense” in some way, to the extent that Pratchett ended up writing entire books apparently just to make incoherency a coherent part of his universe.** That should, really, be the point where you realise that a good idea’s been taken too far.***

All of that, though, is by-the-by compared to why I didn’t manage to read this specific book. I gave up on Unseen Academicals because, well, it generally isn’t very good. It’s not a book that gave me any sort of urge to keep reading at all. The characters are rather flat and lifeless, and the Deliberate Air Of Mystery surrounding the Mysterious Characters seems, well, all too deliberate, as if someone had written it all according to the How To Write A Discworld Novel manual. If I was a fan, I might have managed to finish it. Not being, I didn’t.

All novels, as you know, like to have review quotes in their blurb. For writers starting out, it may well be from a better-known writer who has taken a shine to this novel. For better-known writers, it will be an impressive quote from a review in a Top Newspaper. You can tell a writer who’s gone too far, though. They have what Unseen Academicals has: a quote from the writer themselves, about how great their own book is.**** It’s not a good sign, when you think you’re your own biggest fan.

* Note for non-Discworld readers: the Discworld started off as a parody of swords-and-sorcery fantasy. With the sixth book it started to expand to cover parodies of other literature, and by now has covered just about every aspect of Real Life of the past 200 years or so. As a result, it’s not actually a “fantasy” world any more, apart from magic used for comedic effect.

** Well, at least one. I’ve read it, and it does read like it’s largely filler.

*** And, yes, I know I complain about consistancy in Doctor Who. But the annoyance there is more the selective consistancy; the have-your-cake-and-eat-it grab-stuff-from-anywhere approach that Russell T Davies tended to take with the programme’s backstory.

**** Douglas Adams, I have to admit, did manage to get away with this once, by not sounding serious about it.

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Books I Haven’t Read (I’ve lost count which part)

In which we compare two David Crystal books with the inside of FP’s head


Yesterday’s post, about how we can’t stop ourselves buying books, segues quite nicely into today’s. We didn’t just buy books on Saturday; we bought more on Sunday, from the weekend bookstall outside the Watershed that I remember mentioning not that long ago. I picked up a copy of By Hook Or By Crook by David Crystal; and then, thought to myself, should I really be buying a David Crystal book when I already have a book of his on the shelves that I haven’t yet read? I didn’t pause for long, because “you’ve already got one by him” is hardly a very good reason for not buying a book, but it’s true that the one Crystal book already on our shelves is one that I’ve never been able to get very far with. It is: The Stories Of English.

I find the language fascinating: both in use and in history. It’s such a playful thing, can be twisted and swerved, can be squeezed and stretched, and can be bent into truly awful puns. I love playing with it, I love its richness and I love its history, its constantly fluctuating and mercurial history. And so, I thought – rightly – that The Stories Of English would be an extremely interesting book. Crystal, moreover, is a very engaging and lighthearted writer. He’s very easy to read, very interesting, and clearly knows what he’s writing about very thoroughly.

So why, then, is it that I’ve never managed to get past the Middle English chapters? I’ve tried to read it several times, I’ve always enjoyed the sections I have read immensely, but I’ve never been able to get through Middle English. Every time, my enthusiam’s petered out somewhere in the fourteenth century, I’ve not come back to the book, and its later chapters have remained untouched. And so – given the number of times I’ve made an effort to read it – it definitely counts as a Book I Haven’t Read, even though it’s actually very good.

There’s one thing, only one thing, I can put my finger on. It’s quite a non-linear book. There are excurses and diversions. There are lots of box-outs. This is understandable. All histories can be highly non-linear, and The Stories Of English is deliberately written in a non-linear way, to take account of the parallel histories of different dialects of the language. I’m used to reading non-linear texts, or in a non-linear manner when I’m online,* or when I’m researching something: flipping between tabs in my web browser, or shuffling through several open books on my desk, comparing pages and stopping to take notes.** But when I sit down to read a book for pleasure, I’m not used to doing that. I expect my books to have a beginning, middle and end; a linear structure if not a linear narrative; flipping back and forth, both physically and mentally, needs more concentration. Crystal’s straightforward writing style, in this context, is deceptively easy to read. Especially when you reach the Middle English period, and the stories of English really start to get complex,*** it needs a lot more mental effort to keep track of things than you might think you’d need when you open the book.

By Hook Or By Crook, by contrast, is structured in a linear way, but one that’s orthagonal to its linguistics. It’s a road-trip book, essentially, with Crystal musing on anything of linguistic interest – or of any interest to him at all – which he comes across on the way. And it’s ideal for me to read, particularly because that’s the way my own brain works.**** I’m racing through it, and I’ll probably have read it by the weekend; and I’ll probably read it again and again over the years. Its mode of writing complements my own favourite mode of reading, and my own favourite mode of thinking.***** The Stories Of English, by comparison, is something I have to concentrate on to get my head around. That, I suspect, is why it’s a Book I Haven’t Read. Yet.

* Wikipedia particularly

** only the other week I could be found in the city reference library comparing between several books on railway history and taking notes on the development of Great Western Railway wagon handbrakes, for example.

*** which is not so much due to a lack of complexity in Old English as due to a lack of texts in Old English – complex diversity requires a certain amount of evidence in order for the diversity to be visible.

**** I am, like him, the sort of person who would do an emergency stop and jump out of my car to photograph a mis-spelled sign at a level crossing.

***** It must also help that I know some of the places he writes about. When I first opened it, at random, for example, I saw: a photo of the toll house at Boston Lodge, apparently taken from either the works or a passing train.

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Reading list

In which we discuss books and the French Revolution


One thing about yesterday’s post: it gives you a good look at the state of one of our bookshelves. Not a good enough look to make out what most of the books are, though, unless they’re books with distinctive spines that you’re already familiar with – like Peter Ackroyds’s London, for example.

Over on top of that pile on the left, though, is a book I mentioned here a few months ago. Shortly after restarting the regular blogging cycle, I mused aloud as to whether I should restart the Books I Haven’t Read reviews, and predicted one book that might fall victim: Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down. It’s there on top of the pile, in the blue cover. And, I have to say, so far the prediction’s been right. But not because of the book itself; because there’s been too much else to read. Below it on the pile there’s Graves’ White Goddess, also mentioned as a potential Book I Haven’t Read. I still haven’t read it. Further up, though, there’s a biography of Robert Graves, which I picked up on a bookstall outside the Watershed cinema. I thought: if I’m going to write about The White Goddess, I need to know more about him to do it justice. Coming across the biography by chance, I bought it. I started to read it. I still haven’t finished it.

Elsewhere in the house there are many more books I haven’t finished reading. Amazingly, though, yesterday, I finished one, and it was a book I only made a start on a few weeks ago.* Fatal Purity, a biography of Maximilien “The Incorruptible” Robespierre, by Ruth Scurr. A shy, fastidious man, who I find very intriguing; someone who found himself trying to impose morals by whatever means necessary, because his cause was justified. He was shortsighted both literally and figuratively, and was a logical man who became trapped in his own logic. He was willing to execute his oldest friends, because he thought his cause, the Revolution, was more important.

I’m not sure I read the book properly, because it left me feeling I’d stepped through a lacuna at one point: I wasn’t sure at all how he went from being the people’s leader, to giving a speech that he apparently could see was to try to save his own life. One thing I definitely learned about, though, was Robespierre’s inability to ever, at all, admit that he had been wrong, even after his stance had changed, or when condemning people he had earlier supported. I’m still not entirely sure whether, for that, he should be applauded, or condemned himself.

* Because it was a Christmas present from K’s brother.

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Failure and Success

In which we muse what book FP will next abandon reading


Getting this website going again, and posting things regularly, I was thinking that maybe I should resurrect Books I Haven’t Read, an ongoing series of posts in which I reviewed books that I hadn’t managed to finish reading, and briefly discussed why. This was on the grounds that reviews of bad books are often more interesting than reviews of good books;* many book reviewers probably get away with reading the whole thing; and if I’m going to talk about something, I may as well be honest about whether I’ve read it or not. Hence, Books I Haven’t Read, which annoyed at least one author who discovered it and couldn’t resist responding.**

The problem, though, is that it’s been a while since I’ve managed to fail to finish a book. The only candidate at the moment is Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, which has to be described as a masterpiece, even though in many ways it is mistaken and wrong-headed.*** It’s also a very hard read, and I’ve got such a small way into such a long book that I feel I can hardly do it justice.

Everything else I’ve started reading, I’ve finished reading. Books that I’ve already told you I haven’t read, I’ve since completed. I’ve even got to the stage where I’m considering going back to some of the books I’ve written about here, getting them out of the library, and finishing them off. Which is a good thing, I suppose; but it leaves me at a loss for things to criticise. Maybe I should try to be a lazier reader.

Things might be solved by a book I came across in the local Oxfam bookshop the other day: Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During The English Revolution. I’ve always been slightly confused by the history of the Civil War – or the Great Rebellion, or the English Revolution, or the Wars Of The Three Kingdoms – see even the list of names it’s been called are confusing, or whether there’s an “it” to start with. I’ve also never really got on with Marxist historians that well, so I’m thinking that there’s a good chance it’s going to completely baffle me sideways and leave me ranting about Ranters and Levellers.**** Let’s see how far I manage to get.

* For the ultimate good review of a bad book, the exemplar has to be Slacktivist‘s ongoing page-by-page and scene-by-scene reviews of the Left Behind books and movies, which many of you have probably already heard of.

** not to mention, a second response about how I was too pathetic to deserve a response. Hurrah!

*** much like Graves’ Greek Myths, which is somewhere close to being a standard work on the subject – even though much of the author’s commentary on the myths is now extremely outdated and based on a poor understanding of what was, to begin with, flaky archaeology. Which wasn’t the author’s fault, because at the time it was pretty up-to-date archaeology; carbon-dating, and particularly, calibrated carbon-dating; and new paradigms of cultural change mechanisms, came along and replaced or disproved it.

**** Now I have heard of Levellers – but not, I suspect, the ones that were around in the seventeeth century

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Books I Haven’t Read (part eight)

In which we fail to read “House Of Leaves” by Mark Z Danielewski


Books I Haven’t Read has come round once again. I considered leaving it for a while, after the last Book I Haven’t Read – the Author I Hadn’t Read managed to find it, and left a comment calling me “pathetic”. Ah, well, if you’re going to ego-surf, you have to be prepared for what you might find.

No risk of that happening with this post, though, because there’s already so much on the internet about this installment’s author, he’s unlikely to get around to discovering this place. Today’s Book I Haven’t Read is one that I’ve already warned you* would be coming. It’s House Of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski.

When I mentioned I’d be writing about House Of Leaves, I invited people who had read it to own up and tell me how they managed it. Nobody did. Whether that means noone has managed it, or, more likely, not very many people read this site, I’m not sure. No responses, though. I’m not the sort of person to get rid of books,** but a few years ago when I was very short of cash I did try taking some down to a local second-hand bookseller to see what I could get. House Of Leaves was turned away, unsellable. I ended up using it as a doorstop.

It has some good ideas in it, but in the end it’s just too hard a read. There are too many things packed in, too many different layers. It has to be unpacked like an onion; like an onion there seems to be nothing solid in the centre, but it has no flavour to make the unpacking worthwhile. Take the endless academic footnotes, for example. Flann O’Brien’s Third Policeman famously includes a parody of academic footnotes, long ones, telling a whole story in themselves. It’s done with a light, delicate, comedic touch, though. Danielewski’s parody of academic footnotes, with notes going on for page after page after page, is dull and heavy-handed.***

If you have managed to read House Of Leaves – all of it, without skipping bits – then I’d still like it if you let me know. I’d like to know if it’s worthwhile getting to the bottom of it all, if there is anything lurking to find in the middle. I strongly suspect there isn’t, though. I strongly suspect that was supposed to be the point.

* if you’re a regular reader

** Heresy! Heresy!

*** although the list of buildings in footnote 146 – which is spread out over eight complex and densely-typeset pages – does include one building that I used to live next-door to. Mind you, the list is so long, every reader of the book has probably lived within 100 yards of one of the listed buildings at some point.

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Miscellany

In which various things happen, and FP listens to Thought For The Day


First Christmas present bought already, but I’m still going to have to devote the weekend to running around the county hoping desperately to find something inspirational. I’m not saying what I’ve already bought. It’s for my dad, and I don’t think he reads this place, but you never know.

When I get up in the morning, I have Radio 4 on in the background. I like Radio 4, but I normally try very hard to avoid listening to Thought For The Day, in case of the very real risk that it will make me want to throw the radio through the kitchen window.* Today though, I caught a quick flash of it. I can’t remember the exact phrase I heard, but it was something along the lines of “lots of Christians use phrases like ‘God willing’ and ‘if God wishes it’ all the time”. Which left me rather puzzled, because even though I’ve known a large number of devout Christians over the years, none of them have ever said any such thing in normal conversation. Maybe one of the good aspects of Thought For The Day is that it makes you realise there are people out there whose view of the world is so partial and skewed, that they really do believe they are standard conversational phrases, just because that’s what all their friends say.

I was talking to someone last night about the next Book I Haven’t Read that I’m going to write about: House Of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. “Oh, I don’t think anyone’s read that all the way through,” she said. “I don’t think you can.” So maybe I should invite additional contributions to the next Book I Haven’t Read post – if you have read House Of Leaves all the way through without cheating, let me know.

Big Dave says he’s found a flat now. A “one-bed studio flat”, or what people Up North** still call a bedsit. At least this means he has the weekend to do his Christmas shopping in, rather than worrying about property-hunting trips down to Barking and Beckton.

* especially if Anne Atkins is the writer/presenter.

** apart from if you’re a property developer, of course. Or you live in Leeds, probably.

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Books I Haven’t Read (part seven)

In which we fail to read “Victorian Railway Days” by Francis Bennion


I haven’t read Ian McEwan‘s novel Atonement. It is fetching a lot of publicity at the moment, because McEwan has been accused of copying phrases from the biography of wartime nurse and romantic novelist Lucilla Andrews. He, of course, says the claims are ridiculous, and that all he did was normal research. Other people have said the same thing, noting that he has acknowledged his large debt to Andrews.

I haven’t read Atonement; nor have I read No Time For Romance, the book he is accused of cribbing from. This post, though, is about neither of them. It’s about another book they reminded me of, a book that I read some time ago, but was unable to finish, because I felt the author had gone rather closer to his source material than he should have. It’s not a book you’re likely to have heard of, either. It’s by a top lawyer and Oxford don* called Francis Bennion, and it’s called Victorian Railway Days.

It’s an episodic novel about the social changes wrought by the arrival of the railways in the 19th century, owing quite a bit in its style to Charles Dickens’ Mugby Junction stories. I found it in my local public library when I was a teenager, and took it out. I didn’t get very far into it, though, before I found a passage that I recognised, about the importance of the railway station to rural village life. It’s quite long, and I’m not going to quote it. But I am going to quote something very very similar.

The Jones’s who don’t associate with the Robinsons, meet there. Mr Jones would not like the stationmaster to touch his cap to the Robinsons, and pass him without notice, so he sends the stationmaster a hare. The Rev Mr Silvertongue is always wanting to take a party somewhere at single fare for the double journey, or some other concession, so he honours the stationmaster by conversing with him, as an equivalent for concessions. The old lady with her dog would not, on any account, have the little dear put into that dreadful dungeon of a dog box when she travels, so she sends the stationmaster a basket of plums once in the year […] ‘My lord’ knows he has no right to bully at the railway station, so he brings a brace of pheasants, and thus adds Mr Station Master to the train of his servants.

That quote is from an obscure Victorian autobiography called Memoirs of a Station Master, by Ernest Simmons. Obscure, yes, but republished in the 1970s by Leicester University Press courtesy of the historian Jack Simmons.*** It’s the sort of thing that would be vital research material for anyone writing a book set at a Victorian railway station. Moreover, the same passage was also quoted in a well-known book about railway history, The Country Railway by David St John Thomas;**** and that book is definitely one I’d expect Bennion to have read when researching his own.

So, when I came across an extremely similar passage in his novel, I was rather disappointed in it. It was extremely similar indeed. I can’t remember, now, if it was indeed a word-for-word copy, but the basic structure was very clear, and it closed in a very similar way indeed. I wish I’d been able to find a copy of Victorian Railway Days to write this post, so I could put them side-by-side for a comparison.***** I was so disappointed to read something which seemed to my teenage eyes to be such a blatant lift, that I stopped reading immediately, and put the book aside. I’m not going to accuse Professor Bennion of the P-word. For all I know, his echoing of Simmons’ words may have been entirely unconscious. It was enough, though, to make me stop reading. Victorian Railway Days remains another book I haven’t read.

*with a long list of personal achievements – drafted the constitution of Pakistan, formerly ran the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, drafted the Sex Discrimination Act, managed to put Peter Hain on trial for his anti-apartheid protests, and get him convicted, and chaired Oxford United FC, among other things.

** because I don’t actually have a copy of it to hand

*** no relation, as far as I know.

**** originally published in 1976 by St John Thomas’s own publishing company, David & Charles, although the copy I have is a Penguin paperback edition from 1979.

***** I suppose I could always buy one from Bennion’s website and revisit this post another day.

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Books I Haven’t Read (part six)

In which FP fails to read “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson


As I said last time this series popped up, it was originally supposed to be a bit more regular than this. This entry, too, feels slightly like I’m repeating what I’ve said before. Not only is it a science fiction book like the last one, it’s by an author who has cropped up previously. Today’s Book I Haven’t Read is Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson.

I’m not sure what it is about Stephenson books that makes them hard to get through on the first attempt. I certainly didn’t have any problem with the first one I read, Cryptonomicon, but for some reason the others have gone past much more slowly.

It’s not that it isn’t a good book; it’s just that it demands to be read slowly. The terminology, the language, the realised world, all demand effort on the reader’s part. I’m a lazy reader, especially if I’m reading last thing at night; the book was too difficult to make me care about it.

Now, I’m reading it again, as a lunchbreak book instead of an evening book. And, I’m appreciating the start of it much more on second reading. There are awkward passages; but not enough to distract a SF almost-novice. It’s a fast-moving book; which conflicts with its density. It’s still not an easy read, but this time I think I’m going to finish it.

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Books I Haven’t Read (part five)

In which we fail to complete Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross


Books I Haven’t Read was supposed to be a regular sequence of articles, but has been on pause since – ooh, last November, by the look of things. It fell by the wayside because of a post I never wrote, about a book I couldn’t finish because I came across a passage in it which seemed to have been blatantly lifted from an obscure Victorian memoir. I’ll manage to write about it, one day. In the meantime, here’s another book I haven’t read. Iron Sunrise by Charlie Charles Stross.

I’m not someone who reads much SF, but I do read some selected things. Iain M Banks, for example, because I liked his Iain Banks books* and wanted to expand. Neal Stephenson, because I liked his historical novels and, well, ditto. And Charlie Stross, because – although I don’t know him – we used to drink in the same pubs.

So, last July, I was heading down to London for work, for a week. Planning it all in advance, I bought an unread Stross book – Iron Sunrise – to read on the train. I was catching the train down to Kings Cross on Sunday, July 10th.

I got onboard my train at Doncaster and opened the book, hoping that it would distract me from worry. Unfortunately, it opens with a mass terrorism attack, one which destroys an entire planet. I struggled to read it until Peterborough, and gave up. I haven’t looked at it since then.

At the time, I didn’t even make the connection as to why I couldn’t read it. The planet-destroying opening was distressing for me to read, with characters in the midst of planning their lives, suddenly realising that their world is being completely destroyed. I didn’t draw the parallel, though, between the characters in the book, and the friend I was worried about.*** The thought would have been too raw at the time. Looking back, though, the connection is obvious.

I’m planning to go down to London again in a few weeks, and I’ve bought a different Stross book to read this time. Hopefully, I’ll be able to. Hopefully, too, I’ll be able to finish Iron Sunrise one day. I’m not sure I’m ready to try reading it again, though.

* in case you’ve never heard of him: he writes his SF books with his middle initial,** and his “literary” ones without.

** although you might think it would be easier to write them with a word-processor.

*** The characters in the book – at least, the ones who were worth writing about – realised exactly what was happening to them. I still hope, whenever I think about her, that the friend I’m talking about here didn’t know what was happening to her. Back on that train, it seemed certain that she must be still alive and in hospital unidentified somewhere.

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Books I Haven’t Read (part four)

In which we have trouble reading a catalogue


This week’s Book I Haven’t Managed To Finish Reading is something I don’t actually have a copy of myself. I bought it for my dad, a few years back, as a birthday present. He didn’t manage to finish it. I tried myself, and didn’t manage either. This week’s book is Revolution In The Head: The Beatles’ Records And The Sixties by Ian MacDonald.

My dad turned 18 in 1970; being of that generation, he’s always liked the Beatles. He’s not really much of a music fan, but he does like listening to a lot of bands from his teenage days, so I thought, naturally, that he’d enjoy this book. What stumped both of us, though, was its structure. Rather than being a normal biography, it lists every song the band ever recorded, in chronological order, with a few paragraphs about each one. There’s a great wealth of information, and I’m glad he’s now got a copy on the shelf as a reference book, but it’s not something that’s an easy or a light read. I might be a bit of a music geek sometimes, but, when you come right down to it it’s really just a list of songs. And even I’m not that geeky.

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