Humorous delivery of genuine advice on how to find the next book you’re likely to enjoy reading.
Which book should you read next?
You already have a reading list for the next few years, ah, excuse me, please skip this blog post.
You’re still here? Good, let me explain myself. WordPress bloggers regularly ask strangers on the internet for reading advice. And assuming bloggers aren’t an entirely exceptional race, it’s a dilemma pressing on a nontrivial percentage of human minds.
Unless you’re entirely inexperienced with books (in which case you should say so), or you’re asking advice on choosing between specific books, for a specific reason, where you can expect a reasonable, meaningful, non-random answer: why ask anyone at all? Sure, you could ask your childhood librarian friend who knows you better than you know yourself. But the librarian internet is not to be trusted to bounce back friendly answers every time. Better search for the answer yourself, trust me.
Indeed, here’s my proposed method to narrow down the book universe to your next literary companion.
Describing the intangible. On meditation, happiness, and the habits of a thinking mind.
In The Quantum and the LotusMatthieu Ricard speaks about meditation, and how the effect of meditation on the mind can be described.
Quote: For example, some authors say that thought is initially like a frothing waterfall, then like a stream with occasional eddies, then like a large river with the odd ripple running over it, and finally like the ocean, whose depths are never disturbed.
A simile is a figure of speech that compares two seemingly disparate objects. It describes by analogy. The word simile itself comes from the Latin word like, and used to also mean likeness, resemblance, similarity (in examples such as: there is no simile between the two). Imitation is a basic learning mechanism. Our acts, words, ideas are first seen, repeated, then modified by circumstance or will. We start by emulating our parents, our friends, our teachers; later on we emulate ourselves, learning and improving on what we have done. The mutual similarity and the gradual alternations of our actions allow for (a perceived?) continuity of personality.
“Average at life; average at truth; morally average,” says Julian Barnes in The Sense of an Ending. Tricolon with a twist makes the quote tick.
Quote: Average, that’s what I’d been, ever since I left school. … Average at life; average at truth; morally average.
This is Tony speaking, the protagonist of Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, which won the Man Booker Prize for 2011. He, Tony, is brooding over a life lost to muddling about, to getting by, to letting go of aspirations and dreams.
The full quote gets the point across explicitly, familiar example included.
Average, that’s what I’d been, ever since I left school. Average at university and work; average in friendship, loyalty, love; average, no doubt, at sex. There was a survey of British motorists a few years ago which showed that ninety-five per cent of those polled through they were “better than average” drivers. But by law of averages, we’re most of us bound to be average. Not that this brought any comfort. The word resounded. Average at life; average at truth; morally average.
What makes the Quote quiver?
Word-hammering of average with the word-order change.
Diane Ackerman describes our senses, vividly, with humour and humility. Studying her writing for clues what makes her prose sing.
Quote: White clouds shoot out in all directions, in a dust storm of flame, a gritty, swirling Sahara, burning from gray-white to an incandescent platinum so raw it makes your eyes squint, to the radiant gold so narcotic you forget how to blink.
It has become trite to label a book wonderful, as if the word has been bleached of meaning, and left only with a wash of lukewarm approval. A shame. I rather prefer and, in this case, mean: full of wonder; such as to excite wonder or astonishment; marvellous. Truly.
Let me dole out a bit more of her prose, as precious proof, how non-fiction can stir an image as much as fiction can. The Quote above continues as follows.
The air is full of bee stings, prickly and electric. Your pores start to itch. Hair stands up stiff on the back of your neck. It used to be that the launch pad would melt at lift-off, but now the 300,000 gallons of water crash from aloft, burst from below. Steam clouds scent the air with a mineral ash. Crazed by reflection, the waterways turn the color of pounded brass. Thick cumulus clouds shimmy and build at ground level, where you don’t expect to see thunderheads.
(In The Emperor of Scent (2003) Chandler Burr tells how Luca Turin, a French-Italian biophysicist, originated the vibrational theory of olfaction and struggled to be heard within the scientific community. Exciting non-fiction book, lively prose, highly recommended.)
Metaphors, by their non-literal nature, are built on disparate knowledge.
Here is the full quote:
“Metaphor is the currency of knowledge. I have spent my life learning incredible amounts of disparate, disconnected, obscure, useless pieces of knowledge, and they have turned out to be, almost all of them, extremely useful. Why. Because there is no such things as disconnected facts. There is only complex structure. And both to explain complex structure to others and, perhaps more important—this is forgotten, usually—to understand them oneself, one needs better metaphors.”
All sorts of knowledge come in handy: deep and shallow, dispiriting and uplifting, morbid and pure. Indeed, staying away from the nasty, reading just about the nice, would leave us few verbal and mental tools — perhaps even leave us an unexercised imagination — with which to fight the daily melancholy of our own lives, let alone some fiercer trouble. Facing demons within the safety of literary worlds is practice, and the only kind of practice we can get before reality strikes unreservedly, untempered.
PS (added on 5 May 2017): I just noticed that Ian McEwan said in his 2002 interview for the Paris Review: “We need to play out our fears within the safe confines of the imaginary, as a form of hopeful exorcism.”
E. B. White shows us how to summarise for humour in his essay Mr. Forbushe’s Friends.
I see him, again, concealed in the lowest branches of a spruce on a small island off the Maine coast—a soft, balmy night. He is observing the arrival of Leach’s petrels, whose burrows are underneath the tree—eerie, strange birds, whose chuckling and formless sounds might have been the conversation of elves.
Edward Howe Forbush wrote Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States (1927–29), a book E. B. White cherished and returned to over the years, and subsequently wrote about in the aforementioned essay calling it “a three-volume summation of the avian scene”. Through his own writing, White transmitted Mr Forbush’s enthusiasm and even found merit in his rich prose occasionally touched with purple but never with dullness or disenchantment — high praise from the co-author of Strunk & White, where Omit needless words is a dictum carved in stone.
A rather dull topic for those not interested in birds, isn’t it?
You don’t have to write literary fiction to justify using figures of speech. Metaphor and oxymoron in China Miéville’s short story.
Quote: The disappearing body quickly became shorthand. Anything lost was considered pocketed by our ambulatory corpse on its way home. Unexpected noises in the corridors were the incompetent creeping of the revenant.
This is China Miéville’s disappearing body from The Design, published in his collection of short stories Three Moments of an Explosion. A body has disappeared from the dissection room where medical students study anatomy, and we are hearing about the atmosphere that developed thereafter. A morbid setting, but these are students of medicine, who have learned, perforce, to joke about their environment.
Figures of speech at the heart of Richard Morgan’s cyberpunk murder myster, Altered Carbon.
Quote: The only problem [the lawyers] had, as they cruised sharkishly back and forth across the cool marble floor of the court, was in drawing the fine differences between war (mass murder of people wearing a uniform not your own), justifiable loss (mass murder of your own troops, but with substantial gains) and criminal negligence (mass murder of your own troops, without appreciable benefit).
There you have former UN elite soldier Takeshi Kovacs assessing a group of military lawyers in Richard Morgan’s debut novel Altered Carbon. It’s a hardboiled cyberpunk murder mystery (and a mouthful if you say it like that). Before anyone points out that the Quote is either philosophically inaccurate or unpalatably blunt, let me repeat what I said: hardboiled, cyberpunk, murder mystery.
It’s also set in the 25th century. We have colonised other planets, and consciousness can be downloaded into a cortical stack, stored, and plugged into another body (also called a sleeve) as many times as the owner can afford it. Despite coming that close to immortality, mankind still fights wars, perpetuates crime&cruelty, and strives — ineffectually — to crush the depravity of the human condition.
It makes for a fine book, if you care for the genre. The strong, well-developed first person narrative of the anti-hero Kovacs and the deep, detailed world-building carry the reader along like a turgid river a tiny raft.
What makes the Quote quiver?
Gradation of similar phrases and parenthetical delivery.
Čitanje je oslobađanje reči, a neki spojevi su eksplozivni.
I am unaware of an English translation, so I attempted a translation myself. (Any professional translators out there with a better version, please let me know!)
Note on translation: a curiosity.
Serbian has a tiny coordinating conjunction word a, which often translates to either the English (cumulative) conjunction and, or the English (adversative) conjunction but, depending on the context. Here’s an example:
Dan je, a mračno je napolju.
It’s day but it’s dark outside.
Dan je, a to znači da ne može napolju biti mračno.
It’s day and that means it can’t be dark outside.
Serbian also has the equivalent of the plain, old and, which is given by another single letter: i.
Alberto Manguel on metaphors and quotations from “A Reader on Reading”.
On metaphors, quotations, and the continuity of literature, while the world and the times change. From one of the best books about books, A Reader on Reading, by Alberto Manguel.
Metaphor builds on metaphor and quotation on quotation. For some, the words of others are a vocabulary of quotations in which they express their own thoughts. For others those foreign words are their own thoughts, and the very act of putting them on paper transforms those words imagined by others into something new, reimagined through a different intonation or context. Without this continuity, this purloining, this translation, there is no literature. And through these dealings, literature remains immutable, like the tired waves, while the world around it changes.
Ross MacDonald on what it feels like to be a thief and why his quote works.
Quote: But I remembered how it felt to be a thief. It felt like living in a room without any windows. Then it felt like living in a room without any walls.
In Find a Victim(1954) by Ross Macdonald,we hear this thought of the main character, private detective Lew Archer as he is witnessing an interrogation of a thief. He tells us his own experience in two well-crafted sentences of parallel structure.
Analysing why John Banville’s opening line of “The Infinities” works so well.
You have settled down next to a window, a night lamp, or a tablet. You have turned to the first page of a book, and …
Quote: Of the things we fashioned for them that they might be comforted, dawn is the one that works.
This is the opening sentence of John Banville’s The Infinities (2009). Even though the blurb, the book cover, the book reviews, the comments from friends and social media sites and the kitchen sink may have had their say by the time the poor reader reaches this sentence, it is still the starting point of the author’s tale. And what a starting point!