As we tread our way to the end of November, with the finish line for Twenty Eighteen nearly in sight, I feel the urge to begin a series of retrospectives—as is traditional for this time of year. This brief post (as brief as anything I ever promise to write) is intended as a snapshot of where I am just now.
First things first, however. The Classics Club blog has just revealed the Classics Spin number for the title members have to read over the next two months, and that number is…
Thanks to the Classics Club blog I (along with many others) have until Tuesday 27th November to create a post listing twenty books of my choosing that remain ‘to be read’ on my Classics Club list. I have to read just one of these twenty books on this ‘spin list’ by the end of the spin period.
They invite me to try to challenge myself by, for example, listing five Classics Club books I’ve been putting off, five I can’t wait to read, five I’m neutral about, and five free choice (favourite author, re-reads, ancients, non-fiction, books in translation — whatever I choose). In the absence of any alternatives of my own to offer I aim to follow this schema as much as possible.
On Tuesday 27th November, a number between 1 and 20 will be posted. The challenge is to read whatever book falls under that number on my spin list by 31st January, 2019.
But wait! There’s a twist (apt enough for a Spin):
This is an extra special, super-dooper CHUNKSTER edition of the Classics Club Spin. We challenge you to fill this spin list with 20 of those HUGE books you’ve been putting off reading because you didn’t have enough time. With this spin we are giving you the time – nearly 10 weeks in fact – to tackle one of those imposing tomes on your classics shelf.
Erm … I’m running out of those CLUNKING HUGE books on my list, so I’ll just have to fill in with teenier ones (eg 10, 15 and 20), to which I may add a related title or two to make up the bulk.
No, this is not a post about the month marking the start of spring in the northern hemisphere. Nor is it about walking determinedly from A to B. So what am I referring to?
I’m talking about a liminal space. ‘March’ in this sense is related to the Latin margo, “edge”, giving us the words “margin”, “marginal”, and so on: it can be a buffer, a No Man’s Land or Demilitarised Zone between two states; rulers of such spaces were typically termed margrave, marchese, marqués, marquis or marquess in medieval Europe.
Marches fascinate me. It helps that I live in the Welsh Marches, the lands that straddle the centuries-old fluctuating border between Wales and its bigger neighbour, England. Just like Scotland with its Borders and Ireland with The Pale the Welsh Marches have a long history of disputed control, first between the Britons and the incomers of Anglo-Saxon Mercia (“the land of the border people”) and later with powerful Norman lords asserting themselves against both the king of England and independent Welsh princes.
Here was built the mighty earthwork of Offa’s Dyke to demarcate Mercian territory from Wales; here briefly flourished the heroes who fought against English rule, historic figures like Owain Llawgoch and Owain Glyndŵr, here nestle sites traditionally associated with the legendary King Arthur.
I love words. (You may possibly have noticed.) It’s one of the delights of reading, not just the storyline or characters but the way that sentences and phrases break down before being reassembled, the collocations or how their constituent words are juxtaposed or arranged.
I’m partial to commas, colons, brackets and semicolons (again, you might have noticed) because the more that words and phrases are put together in different relationships the richer the language becomes. So much nicer than the jumble of clichés that we customarily read, hear, write and say, at least to my way of thinking. (Of course, it’s almost impossible not to avoid those habitual collocations — as, for example, erm, my way of thinking.)
And let’s not forget the secondary meaning of ‘collocation’, literally ‘the positioning of things side by side’. I present above a conflation of both definitions, a collocation of dictionaries. You’re now itching to know the background to those volumes, are you not?
You may remember among the photos I included in a piece about Lamb House in Rye, East Sussex, the picture of some bookshelves as Henry James might have seen them (sadly the books pictured are not James’ originals).
I thought I might also share with you some images of other bookshelves I saw on a recent visit to places in East Sussex and Kent, shelves associated with a couple of other literary figures. You may care to imagine, as I did, the authors in these places scribbling away or reading the latest publication sent their way.
I have always enjoyed reading, but I’ve never been sure how to select appropriate material. There are so many books in the world — how do you know which one will match your tastes and interests?
Thus writes the titular character in chapter 32 of Gail Honeyman’s excellent Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (2017). A Latin graduate, she clearly has no problems with factual works but fiction confuses her.
The covers are of very little help, because they always say only good things, and I’ve found to my cost that they’re rarely accurate. ‘Exhilarating’ ‘Dazzling’ ‘Hilarious’. No.
For her, I suspect, novels may provide clues as to how ordinary minds work, because Eleanor is no ordinary person. The thought processes of most people are largely a mystery to her.
The only criterion I have is that the books must look clean, which means I have to disregard a lot of potential reading material in the charity shop.
I sort of understand that squeamishness. Luckily for me the secondhand books in the charity shops I frequent are often as good as new, but that’s not always the case.
I don’ t use the library for the same reason, although obviously, in principle and in reality, libraries are life-enhancing palaces of wonder.
Eleanor is anxious about library books touched by unwashed hands, read in the bath, sat on by dogs, or body effluvia and excess food wiped on pages. I’ve worked in suburban libraries in the past and can understand those worries, though she does exaggerate them: “I look for books with one careful owner.”
Is that the case for you too? What are your tolerance levels for pre-owned, even pre-loved reading materials? Is your motto secondhand bad, firsthand good? Or is the book’s condition a matter of indifference to you?
If, as Alice Hoffman is everywhere quoted, “Books may well be the only true magic,” then she is only following a tradition that has been acknowledged in all literate cultures: writing is magic, and magic is the written word.
We can point to the beginning of St John’s gospel to see this concept expounded:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Without getting into a theological discussion of what exactly John meant by Logos (‘the Word’), I just want to point out that the spoken word (and later the written word) is seen as the act of creation, and the creative act is magic, in its purest form.
All our language surrounding the concept of words, spoken or written, is closely bound up with magic.