"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Book hunt

Yesterday I went on an adventure. With notes and map in hand, I traversed unfamiliar territory and came back with nine items of treasure. Books, that is. As a new student of literature, I have much to read, and I thought a tour of the local bookstores would be a nice way to get to know the area and acquire the tomes on my reading lists.

So I set out in the bright, cold morning and arrived at my first destination full of hope. The moment I stepped inside the door of the first store, I realized the enormity of my task. I was standing in a room full of books. Well, that's not quite sufficient to describe it. There were bookshelves, I guess, but they were obscured by stacks and rows and piles and bunches and columns and messes and masses of books. I looked for a pattern in their arrangement, a method to the madness. Couldn't find one, really.

But as I said, I was still full of hope and energy at that point, so I didn't want to give away the pleasure of the search by asking the owner if he had any of the books on my list. Nor could I imagine that any one person would know this immense and disorderly stock by heart (I later learned this was a misguided doubt, because I later did resort to asking him, and he knew instantly that he had none of my books). So I began making my way around the room, picking up piles of books to see the books underneath. When I got tired of that, I left to try my luck elsewhere.

The next store was the same deal, with less piles but more mustiness and spines that looked like they might disintegrate at my touch. I didn't spend much time there.

I tried the bookstall at the open-air market next, which was an interesting experience even though it yielded no purchases. They had their books organized in the most remarkable way. First I thought I was looking at a fantasy section, a crime/thriller section, a romance section. Then I saw that what I had dismissed as romance was actually "Female Authors A-Z, which stood across from a separate section called "Male Authors A-Z." What? Do people really go to look for a book and think, hm, I really want a book written by a man today, I don't even need to look at the women writers? Or - more annoying - do they assume that women will browse on one side of the store and men on the other? Oh, and turns out there was a separate romance section in addition. 

At that point, I figured I needed some sustenance, so I headed for the bakery. But before I could be lured in by the amazing cakes and pastries in the window, I noticed a bookstore right next door! An uncharted bookstore, which I thought I had glimpsed somewhere in the area a few days before but wasn't sure I could find again. That's were my luck turned. They had, inexplicably, a whole shelf of Wordsworth Classics for 2 pounds each. Not even used books. So happy. These books have beautiful cover art and feel like silk. I picked out The Great Gatsby and Age of Innocence.

My only regret was not needing to buy more of them. I also snagged a copy of Henry James' The Ambassadors at that store, not as schnazzy as these books, but still wonderful, especially since it's one of those books whose pages turn beautifully.

Having finally procured a croissant, I wandered over to the next shop, and stopped along the way at the cathedral, where I saw a really wonderful printmaking and calligraphy exhibit. My next find was Absalom, Absalom!, which is surprisingly hard to find in English second-hand stores. Actually most things are hard to find, aside from Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope. I suppose maybe literature of the American south doesn't have much readership here, and I can't say I blame them, because I have yet to learn to love Faulkner. Although he keeps turning up on my reading lists. He's very persistent.

Anyway, I found this very bright red copy, so at least if I start falling asleep while I'm reading, I can just glance at the cover to shock myself awake. Really, the design of book covers is fascinating. I would love to shadow a cover artist or designer on the job or sit in on a meeting between them and the author, if such meetings actually occur.

Later I found another rabbit-warren store, and this time I just cut to the chase and gave my list to the guy behind the counter. He produced an old copy of The Trial, nothing special, but no problem since it was only 2 pounds and I have a nicer copy in German.

And then I relinquished my goal of buying all my books second-hand and headed to Waterstones, which is a chain but which also has a nice café and a giant dalek randomly sitting amongst the bookshelves and lots of copies of The Casual Vacancy that I could peek at and resist buying.

There I found 2666 by Roberto Bolano, which is immense. It's so big. I thought it was several books stacked up until I reached for it and realized it was one book. But it has this wonderful little punched out spot in the cover that you can use to spy on people while you're reading it, and it looks very impressive on the bookshelf.

I found a copy of Lolita that I really like, It's a little smaller and more compact that your average book, with a simple cover design, not too creepy but suggestive.

And The Bell Jar. That one looks a little creepy, actually. I'm not sure I'm looking forward to reading it.

There was also copy of The Crying of Lot 49, but I didn't really care for the cover, and I thought I might find it cheaper online and with a better design - or one that suited me better at least.

And finally, The Emigrants by Sebald. I don't know anything about it, but it looks pretty.

So off I went home with my bag full of books and collapsed in my chair to read another book, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, which I will review soon, maybe tomorrow after we talk about it in class. Then I can impart to you the wisdom of others as well as myself. Or maybe before class so I can think my thoughts through on paper before the discussion. We'll see.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Small talk and big ideas in the literature department

The first week of classes is over, and it's the weekend, and I just feel like one giant OOF. That was exhausting. I didn't even do that much this week aside from talk to a lot of people and read a lot of words.

It was mostly the talking that made it so tiring. I find it quite difficult to make small talk, and judging from my conversations this week, I believe 90% of other people do as well. Maybe there's a select few charismatic people and natural politicians who, when they arrive at a cocktail party or a drinks reception, spread their wings gleefully and launch into an easy stream of greetings and polite smiles, people who always have one sleeve stuffed with interested questions and the other with chuckle- or thought-inducing anecdotes. But the rest of us, it seems, must slog awkwardly through the too-long pauses and the I-don't-know-where-to-look moments.

My personal response in those situations is to pull out various phrases or observations I've made a million times before. For example, if you ever mention Tanzania to me, you will undoubtedly get the response: "I've heard it's very beautiful there." I don't know anything else about Tanzania, and in the terrifying situation of small talk, I can never summon the energy to ask a question or learn something new. There's two things about meeting new people. 1st, they all ask you the same questions, and 2nd, they haven't heard your stale answer before. So I can mostly get away with my scripted responses, but it still feels kind of, well, stale. I don't like it.

One thing I have been asked a lot this week is why I chose to come study at this particular school in this particular country - usually this is a reaction to my having said I'm from California. Most of the people I've met would love to do the reverse of what I've done, and travel from their homes to California, where the sun is always warm and the people are always chill. For a while, I floundered with the Why-are-you-here? question and all of its variations - Why are you studying literature? Why are you doing a master's degree? What do you hope to get out of this year?

Combined with this slightly intimidating questioning at the hands of students and professors and people I sit next to on the bus, I've been feeling a little cowed by my fellow students of literature. When we introduced ourselves in class, they all seemed to have an "interest," that is, a special area of literature or line of inquiry that fascinates them. In other words, they have the seeds of specialized academic careers, whether or not they choose to cultivate them.

I on the other hand, am here to study literature. I'm not here to indulge my special interest in representations of madness and antique science or treatments of body and space in modernist writing. I like books and I love writing and I want to read more books and learn to be a better writer. But it sounds a little silly to sit in a classroom full of graduate literature students and announce that I like books.

It also, I often feel, sounds silly to announce that I'm a writer. I guess I sort of assumed that everyone in the room must harbor the same aspirations to write and that to set myself apart as a writer would be presumptuous, especially since I'm not a very prolific one. But then I started really thinking about what my focus is. If person X is reading books in a search for a brilliant representation of madness, what am I searching for?

I believe I'm searching for clues on how to write and how to live. When I like something and underline it in a book, it's either because I want to be able to recreate that in my own writing or because it resonates with something I've felt or experienced or know to be true. In other words, I do have an angle when I read, just not a theoretical one. I have likes and dislikes, but I only really know how to talk about them in terms of the mechanics of writing or the effect on the reader.

So now I know why I'm here. I'm here to learn a new vocabulary and become a more versatile reader, to get the historical and social and theoretical context and add another dimension to my experience of books. And that in turn so that I can be a better writer, editor, critic.

Too bad now I finally have an answer, the cocktail parties are all almost over.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Arrivals II

This is my second arrivals post, since I have now landed in the place I'll be living and studying for the next year. So although I went through passport control and walked past the "Nothing to Declare" sign at the airport about 2 months ago, I still feel like I'm embarking on the adventure. I'm starting to settle, but I haven't quite stopped ruffling my feathers in attempts to get more cozy in my new nest.

When I arrived at school, I was overwhelmed by new people and places and the sense that I had landed in a much bigger pond than I was for my undergraduate degree. Actually, I still feel that way a little. But there have been bright spots during the last week or so that promise a future sense of warmth and familiarity that will gradually replace the homesickness and confusion.

First, when I showed up at registration with my important documents in hand, the first thing they did was offer me a free novel. Could there have been any better sign that I've come to the right place to study literature?

Then there was the nice bookshop owner who special ordered in a copy of a book I have to read by Monday and recognized me when I came in the following day to pick it up. There was the relief at finding that my share-house actually does have both washer and dryer and I won't have to struggle to get my clothes to dry in the cold English winter. The wonderful Italian deli with free samples and delicious panini; the discovery of a nature reserve right next to my house; the news that Ian McEwan is coming here to talk about his latest book, and subsequent pleasure of tearing through said book over the weekend, letting everything strange and confusing melt away for a few hours every day as I leaped back into the story to pursue that most basic of goals: to find out what happens next.

I guess (not to be existential or anything) that that kind of sums up my life right now. I'm not really sure what to expect from this new city, new school, new community, so I'm just waiting to see what happens next, what strange encounter or new discovery I stumble upon each day, and how each little thing affects the way I see this place and anticipate the coming year of study.

So, here I am. Stay tuned for more travel observations and - judging from my reading lists - lots and lots and lots of book reviews.