Speaking freely

Quote from Milton’s ‘Areopagitica’ as it appeared in many Everyman editions

“This is true Liberty where free born men
Having to advise the public may speak free,
Which he who can, and will, deserv’s high praise,
Who neither can nor will, may hold his peace;
What be juster in a State than this?”

Euripides, ‘The Suppliants’ (transl. Milton)

Social media, mainstream media and politics are all full of news, discussions, assertions about and denials of freedom of speech. But arguments surrounding it are nothing new, because John Milton – yes, that John Milton – waxed lyrical about it nearly four centuries ago.

Areopagitica; a Speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, to the Parlament of England. Milton wrote his tract Areopagitica after the passing of the Licensing Act of 1643, which had given Parliament the power to censor books before publication, a power he did not approve of.

Not a text I remember anything about when I was studying the Tudors and Stuarts for Advanced Level at school, I only really registered Areopagitica when reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop (1978): she quotes a key sentence from the tract – “A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life” – as justifying the availability of books expressing varying opinions. It remains a clarion call in 2022.

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When books beckon

10 Books of Summer 746books.com

1st June. As summer beckons Cathy (of https://746books.com/) encourages – nay, entices – us to select 10, 15, or 20 books to complete over three months.

I usually shilly-shally over this, not because I don’t think I’ll get through any of these amounts – on past form that’s never a problem – but because I am a notoriously fickle reader, relying on the whim of the moment to decide which title I fancy at any given time.

But it’s good to commit to a wishlist, is it not, whether or not I actually get round to read them all, or indeed any of them! Herewith then that list of ten, which may expand to fifteen or even twenty before summer’s end.

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Hasten slowly

© C A Lovegrove

Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore
by Robin Sloane.
Atlantic Books, 2014 (2012).

For any nerdy bookworm this must surely prove a delightful read, whether it’s digital, on audio or, indeed, through the medium of print. It’s also entertainingly meta on several levels, and at times with details so convincing I had to do a bit of research to establish what was factual and what was made up.

It’s about books — naturally — but also about not judging a book by its cover; it has a gauche but engaging narrator who likes fantasy, though this novel isn’t a conventional fantasy; there is a villain of sorts who, oddly, doesn’t command an evil empire; and there is an assortment of characters, all highly individual, quirky even, who demonstrate that it takes all sorts to make life interesting without any one of them being treated as a social pariah.

In addition, for a novel that was published a decade ago — since when so much has advanced, technologically speaking — it seems to me, despite being a natural technophobe, that a lot of what’s described in it as possible in terms of computing power feels just about feasible nowadays, remembering that all the action is taking place during an alternative timeline.

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The last flight

Waterstone’s bookshop, Edinburgh (photo: C A Lovegrove)

I’ve just got thirteen titles left on my original Classics Club list of fifty classics I opted to read in, um, the Cretaceous period and which I subsequently revised to exclude books I never would read. About half of these would be rereads (RR) of works I read before this century, with at least one example — Kipling’s Kim — first completed way more than a half-century ago!

Here are those 13 laggards, in author alphabetical order.

  1. Petronius Arbiter: The Satyricon RR
  2. Frances Hodgson Burnett: A Little Princess
  3. Charles Dickens: Oliver Twist RR
  4. George Eliot: Middlemarch
  5. Hermann Hesse: The Glass Bead Game RR
  6. Charles Kingsley: Hypatia
  7. Rudyard Kipling: Kim RR
  8. D H Lawrence: The Princess and other stories
  9. Niccolò Machiavelli: The Prince
  10. L M Montgomery: Anne of Green Gables
  11. Mervyn Peake: Gormenghast
  12. Mark Twain: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer RR
  13. Horace Walpole: The Castle of Otranto RR

A fair old mish-mash this, with children’s classics, short stories, a couple of Gothick romances, a statesman’s handbook, tales set in the Roman Empire, and a couple or so written when Britain still had its own ill-gotten empire. Where to start on that final flight of literary stairs?

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A Year of Reading Randomly

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I seem to start every January deciding that this will be the Year of Reading Randomly … what I want and when I want, unconstricted by outside influences. Reading for pleasure, in fact, not reading under pressure. This for example was what I put for my 2021 reading goals on the page ‘So many books‘:

I’ve subscribed again to the Goodreads Reading Challenge for this year, pledging to read at least 66 books in 2021. This will be regardless of whether they are first-time reads, rereads, library books or whatever.

And that’s it. I’ve decided that this year I shall read for pleasure. If I join in any reading event it will probably be last-minute and on a whim!

And yet every December this wannabe Epicurean finds that such hedonistic intentions have rapidly fallen by the wayside. Not only have I joined in reading events at the last minute but I’ve also signalled my intentions to participate well in advance — and even gone into details!

I could say it’s all the fault of you lovely bloggers of the bookish fraternities and sororities coming up with readalongs and reading months, and author-based events, but I’d be disingenuous. The fact is …

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2022 and All That …

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Yes, I know, it’s a bit early to be thinking of what I could be reading next year; after all, not only are there still two months to go before 2021 is wrapped up for good but there are already plenty of prospective events coming — Witch Week for example, Novellas in November and SciFiMonth to name just three, plus Narniathon21 which starts in December (and then runs through 2022).

But I like to have a medium term vision of what might constitute my bookish choices, and what better than a literary anniversary or two, or even twenty-two?

Interesting centenaries and half-centenaries are in the offing for 2022, and as it happens I’ve either read, even reviewed, some of the titles or authors to be celebrated, or happen to already have a few appropriate titles waiting on the shelves. What follows is a mere selection of what has caught my eye, not to be regarded in any way as comprehensive!

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Epilegomena

Sign welcoming visitors to Hay-on-Wye © C A Lovegrove

Prolegomenon

Despite my plan to discard books
(which then are destined, once completed,
for recycling) few spare nooks
are now appearing. Seems I’ve treated
this most worthy fine endeavour
not as fiercely as I sought to,
buying books as fast as ever,
not One In, One Out as ought to.

Epilegomena

The Ancient Greek for ‘things that have been chosen’ — epilegomena — applies to my outsize book collection, each title selected because, once upon a time, they somehow appealed, every one for which I entertained the intention of eventually reading. Yet a recent visit to nearby Hay-on-Wye — the World’s First Book Town — plus a trip to Bristol for babysitting duties found me in ensconced in bookshops behaving like a child in a sweetshop, a youngster whose eyes inevitably prove larger than their stomach’s capacity.

This of course is a litany you’ve heard me chant before, a psalm that has grown tedious in the repetition. Is there a worthy reason — or even an excuse — for this compulsive behaviour, or is it sheer greed that accounts for this seeming avaricious acquisition?

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Around the world

© C A Lovegrove

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, they say. That’s as may be but, even though I don’t believe in hell, good intentions have certainly paved my route to reading more widely in world literature of late.

If ‘Around the World in Eighty Books’ as a popular meme smacks of hubris, Around the World in a Few Books seemed more realistic as far as I’m concerned. I therefore picked a couple or more flags to wave just to signal my intentions this year. One was Gilion Dumas’s European Reading Challenge, and another was Lory Hess’s Summer in Other Languages (whether works read in the original language or in translation).

As we approach the three-quarter point of the year Twenty Twenty-one dare I pause to take stock of where I’ve got to and what I’ve achieved? Well, of course I dare, hence what follows!

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Perilously inebriated

@perilreaders

Autumn. Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. And of things that go bump! in the night. (No, I don’t mean falling leaves.) In the Fall one’s fancies turn to thoughts of … Frights, Fears, Foul Secrets and Fouler Deeds. Which is why Readers Imbibing Peril, if the XVI following RIP is any guide, has proved so popular for so very long.

Mystery
Suspense
Thriller
Dark Fantasy
Gothic
Horror
Supernatural

I think I may be able to muster up a few titles as likely suspects for my own reading, but whether I’ll actually get round to reading any of them (or indeed none of them) is beside the point. The point being that it’s usually fun to consider one’s choices.

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Aperçus

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Just because a book is written by a woman or is about women doesn’t mean it has nothing to offer men. It opens their eyes to what it’s like to live as a woman, the first step to learning empathy. And it may help to burst the bubble many men have been inadvertently living in, allowing new thoughts and insights to germinate. Isn’t that what the arts are for?

M A Sieghart

In the Guardian Review for 10th July earlier this year Mary Ann Sieghart’s piece ‘Bookshelf bias’ quite rightly bemoaned the results of a research she’d commisioned which showed that “men were disproportionately unlikely even to open a book by a woman,” and that of the “top ten of bestselling female authors only 19% of their readers are men,” the rest being women, while male authors had a more evenly split readership tilted slightly towards males.

I mention this because as a male I have in recent years been trying to ensure I get a better gender balance in the authored books I tend to read. This year, for example, of the 54 titles I’ve read so far 27 are by women and one is a collection of short stories by both male and female writers. And my intentions in so doing were for the very same reason Sieghart exhorts men to read women: to learn empathy. This then is the first bookish aperçu I want to share with you today.

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Romancing the novel

Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan as Tarzan and Jane
Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan as Tarzan and Jane

When, in the early 70s, I spent a year or so as a library assistant (not ‘assistant librarian’, as I was firmly told) life seems in retrospect to have been a lot simpler. Information technology was in its infancy, microfiche was cutting edge for library users, and fiction was arranged on library shelves according to a simple fourfold system: Fiction (by author, in alphabetical order), Detective, Western … and Romance. (Teenage reading, what we might now call Young Adult, was still shelved under Children, hived off in its own ghetto and marked Juvenile. How fashions change.)

‘Fiction’ — that is, the works shelved by author surname from A to Z — is such a broad canvas: I’ve seen it referred to as mainstream (that is, ‘popular’), literary (niche, that is, not so popular), commercial (makes piles of money, usually in inverse proportion to its literary worth) and contemporary (probably published in the last year or so, certainly excluding classics like Dickens, Hardy and Austen). In truth these are categories with very fluid boundaries, often overlapping.

(To my mind there are in reality only two types of fiction, fiction you like and fiction you don’t, but you can’t plan a public library based on personal preferences.)

Where, then, does the Romantic Novel — the last genre we looked at in the creative writing class — sit?

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Writer’s block

© C A Lovegrove

I’ve just read and reviewed a novel which centred around an author who struggled to follow on from a successful first novel. He was offered a strategy to help deal with his writer’s block: write two thousand words of any old nonsense at set intervals. In Diana Wynne Jones’s fantasy this seems to have worked for him.

This fictional premise reminded me of an incident in the 1960s when I was in my teens. Around the age of sixteen and inspired by Treasure Island I began a novel set in 18th-century Bristol, having done some desultory research by cycling round the city’s historic sites. Unfortunately my parents got hold of the unfinished first chapter and made some really patronising comments, as a result of which I abandoned all attempts to write any fiction. That is, until I joined a creative writing class in my late 60s.

You’d think all those exercises I wrote — they eventually led to a Certificate of Higher Education in Creative Writing Studies from Aberystwyth University — would have stood me in good stead, and that the sluicegate holding back all those imaginative juices would have been opened—but no. Instead I pour all my energies into blog post after blog post—reviews and such—perhaps in the firm belief that I’m still learning the craft from the masters.

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Foraging for food for thought

© C A Lovegrove

We’re just about at the end of a few days break in Bristol and, pending a book review, I’m just posting a few items of bookish news for now.

First off, in between visits to friends and old haunts I’ve taken in a few bookshops. Let me list them: one Oxfam bookshop, The Last Bookshop (which, paradoxically, was the first one I went to on a second outing), a second Oxfam bookshop, and Bristol’s remaining Waterstones — it used to have three — or, as I still prefer to think of it, Waterstone’s.

Also, since I’m currently rereading Diana Wynne Jones’s Archer’s Goon, I revisited some Bristol sites that I’m certain inspired a few of the fictional places in the fantasy. After a review I shall be putting together a few photos and speculations for a related post.

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Classics Club Spin 27

© C A Lovegrove

The Classics Club people are in a spin again: by 18th July we’re invited to number off twenty titles on our personal lists of fifty classics, so that whatever random digit comes up we aim to read the corresponding book by 22nd August.

As it happens, I have ‘only’ 13 titles remaining on my list and therefore I’ve had to arbitrarily allocate repeat titles for the last seven. I’ve used wherever possible simple criteria for my choices with this septet: (1) children’s classics (2) shortish classics. Heck, I don’t want to make it hard for myself!

  1. Petronius Arbiter: The Satyricon
  2. Frances Hodgson Burnett: A Little Princess
  3. Charles Dickens: Oliver Twist
  4. George Eliot: Middlemarch
  5. Hermann Hesse: The Glass Bead Game
  6. Charles Kingsley: Hypatia
  7. Rudyard Kipling: Kim
  8. D H Lawrence: The Princess and other stories
  9. Niccolò Machiavelli: The Prince
  10. L M Montgomery: Anne of Green Gables
  11. Mervyn Peake: Gormenghast
  12. Mark Twain: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
  13. Horace Walpole: The Castle of Otranto
  14. Frances Hodgson Burnett: A Little Princess
  15. Rudyard Kipling: Kim
  16. L M Montgomery: Anne of Green Gables
  17. Mark Twain: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
  18. Niccolò Machiavelli: The Prince
  19. Petronius Arbiter: The Satyricon
  20. D H Lawrence: The Princess and other stories

I’m sort of hoping Middlemarch or Gormenghast will get picked as I desperately need a proverbial kick up the pants to return to one of these stalled titles. But we’ll see what pans out.

In the meantime I’ve been steadily deleting ephemeral posts that are long in the tooth — previous Classics spins, irrelevant observations, reblogged posts — so it’s possible that you may find the odd link to them no longer works. Apologies. This one too will almost certainly self-destruct soon after it ceases to be relevant.


Update

No 6 it is: Charles Kingsley’s Hypatia.

Archipelagos and islets

Burgh Island, Devon. © C A Lovegrove

Sharp-eyed followers of my posts will have realised I have a thing about maps, real as well as fictional, and any that are a kind of halfway house too. In addition they may have noted that a few of my reviews have been as much about islands as they’ve been about lands.

In fact I even considered what I might include as my Desert Island Books, should I ever be cast ashore on a sea-girt piece of earth with a climate which didn’t rot the binding, curl the pages, or fade the print.

I was curious about which islands I’d actually visited on this blog, and which if any I’d be happy to be a castaway on. So here is a rapid tour of a selection of some of them, some of which you may have sojourned on yourselves, and I shall end with an attempt to settle on my ideal. (Links will mostly take you to my reviews.)

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