Books

Archiving

Thinning out, tidying up. Books to Oxfam, books to booksellers. Analogue to digital.

Here’s something I’ve long wanted to consign to my outboard brain. In a book bought eight years ago and now on its way out, these words, attributed to an unnamed headmaster (but I think I know who it is — they’d be utterly characteristic of him):

… four questions to ask myself in any situation:
What are the facts?
What are the issues?
What am I going to do?
Who do I have to tell?

Teaching’s changed over the course of my life, becoming suppler and subtler, gentler and wiser. Kinder. Looking back, there was a lot of focus on “facts” and not always much sensitivity to issues. Facts often seemed to be the issues.

Schools, like families, are crucibles of intense engagement. Those four questions are a great way of collecting yourself in the rush of a crisis. They’ve been of help and they can live here now. The book can go.

This archiving business, though … Opening up the book to get that bit and put it down here, I found forgotten notes on index cards — one about the book, but others to do with a job interview I had nearly 10 years ago — and a post-it with a rather good quotation on it from … ? And now that it’s so easy to digitalise and store, what do I keep? When should you forget? What should be put clean away?


Bonding with the reader

Another cardboard package, but without the Amazon name. And inside:

'Tree of Codes'

What a pleasure to find a book wrapped and presented like this. Visual Editions.

'Tree of Codes'

'Tree of Codes'

From the publisher’s microsite for the book: ‘With the story literally carved out of another book, Tree of Codes has a different die-cut on every single page. Telling the haunting story of “an enormous last day of life”, it is a book that looks every bit like it feels: unlike anything else.’

'Tree of Codes'

'Tree of Codes'

If you’ve not yet looked inside a copy for yourself, you can read more about it, take a peek at the publisher's photo set on Flickr or watch this video by Jonathan Safran Foer — ‘I hope the Tree of Codes in some ways contributes to this conversation that we’re now having about what’s possible with literature and what’s possible with paper’:

I use Amazon a lot for books. With Amazon, I’m in the world of the utilitarian and the books I get often bear all the marks of having been handled with a complete lack of interest in the object, the thing itself.

The experience of buying, receiving, opening, reading and learning about Tree of Codes is another thing entirely. (It makes me think — again! — about what a book is for and what you can do with one, what publishers are for and the varying reasons why you might want to follow their work. And … paper!) Few publishers have ever sent me a book presented with as much care and love.

I was nervous, trying to video flicking through the book, lest my thumb caught on the paper and snagged or tore it. But what a pleasure to handle this:


Waking Up in Toytown

John Burnside’s second volume of memoirs is published this week. Of A Lie About My Father, Hilary Mantel, writing in the LRB, said:

To move from the interiority of this memoir back to what passes for ordinary life is like surfacing from under the sea, reshaped by its strong and unforgiving currents.

From yesterday’s Guardian review of Waking Up in Toytown (‘the important narrative is interior and episodic, a curation of carefully examined moments … the supple product of a sustained and quiet looking’):

… he fetched up near Guildford, to begin a “long and solitary ceremony of self-erasure” in garden centres and train timetables and dead-end jobs and cups of tea, a fantasy of latter-day monasticism whose sole point was to deny his awareness of liminal worlds, to shut out the voices with reruns of old movies, to replace the call of drink with fetishised routine. To discover in practice what he already knew theoretically, and most people glimpse sooner or later: that they are building ramparts against the dark and trying to believe in them, however flimsy they may be. And though it works, for a little while, it’s never going to be that easy. Darkness creeps in around the edges: sleep is elusive, and no amount of willed shut-down can rid his empty flat of the presences that animate it. Death stalks him …

… the answer turns out to be not a cycle of denial and fall, but a daily negotiation; what he calls, in A Lie About My Father, “the long discipline of happiness”. And it involves a turn to solitude and nature rather than drugs and alcohol; a sober, thrilled meditation on "the roads, and the places just off the roads, all that God-in-the-details of the land: the sway of cottonwood in the wind, the black of a secluded lake, the monumental quiet of a Monterey cypress near a roadside motel on the way from nothing to nowhere", or the "gloaming just beyond the hedge, where the night begins".

One day, late in the book, he finds himself travelling in Norway, far inside the Arctic circle. Arriving early at the small local airport, he sits and gazes out at the whiteness of the airfield. “I sat a long time, that day, waiting for my flight – and some of me is sitting there still, enjoying the stillness, becoming the silence, learning how to vanish. Every day, in every way, I am disappearing, just a little – and it feels like flying, it feels like the kind of flight I was trying for, that first time, when I was nine years old – but it has nothing to do with the will, and it has nothing to do with trying. If it happens at all it happens as a gift: and this is the one definition of grace I can trust.”

‘My misery is infinite with respect to my will, but it is finite with respect to grace.’ — Simone Weil (Notebooks).

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Adrian Hon

Last Thursday, Adrian Hon came in to talk about Six to Start, games design and story-telling.

We’re about storytelling and play.

Storytelling is a huge part of the world’s culture, and great stories have always had the ability to move and excite us, whatever the medium. 

Play means a lot to us, too. We draw inspiration from video games, boardgames, casual games and playful applications and services.

Play helps us learn, grow and deal with new experiences – and when play and storytelling are combined, they give us the opportunity to deeply engage with our audience and get them to do things – as a large single group, or individually. Great storytelling and great gameplay are at the heart of what we do.

Adrian began by looking at the role of story-telling in human society, the reception of the first European novels, the ways in which our strong identification with literary heroes and heroines has been elicited and the great role now played in our lives by online text. You can get a good sense of what Adrian said from his posting earlier this year, How we Tell Stories.

This brought us to We Tell Stories ('six stories, written by six authors, told in six different ways — ways that could only happen on the web … released over six weeks'), pausing briefly to look at amillionpenguins.com. In particular, Adrian talked us through Charles Cumming's The 21 Steps and Mohsin Hamid's The (Former) General. The latter grew out of an idea for a CYOA with a difference, but emerged as something very different — a "still life": 'while it does have branching, it doesn't allow the reader to affect the outcome of [the] story — only their own experience of it'. You get an excellent sense of the excitement surrounding this project from Six to Start and Penguin Books launch We Tell Stories and, of course, We Tell Stories received great acclaim, winning both the Experimental and Best of Show award categories at this year’s SXSW Web Awards. More about We Tell Stories on the Six To Start site (and there's a screencast). I'm looking forward to using We Tell Stories with my Year 9 class this year.

A number of our students have been playing Smokescreen, Six to Start's new game, developed for C4.

there is no better way to inform and educate people about online security and privacy than through a web-based game. — Smokescreen: Why Interaction Matters

Adrian describes Smokescreen as ARGish. Unlike Perplex City (designed and produced by Adrian at Mind Candy), a massive treasure hunt lasting 18 months and playable just the once, Smokescreen is replayable and each mission can be played in 10–20 minutes. The game is also marked by a strong story — and you might argue whether it is more an interactive game or an interactive story.

At the time of the talk, just 6 of 13 missions were out. My murky slides (sans flash, in a darkened room) give a sense of the realism of the game — Gaggle, fakebook, tweetr — and two, short, Six To Start videos follow:

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I think we might use at least some of Smokescreen in this year's ICT course (also Year 9).

Questions followed — about platforms, episodic games, recommendations, the time he gives to games (books claim pride of place), his role at Six To Start … We're very grateful to Adrian for taking the time to come and talk at St Paul's. These words give some indication of how he set the bar higher for us:

I feel there are two, equally mistaken, views of games. One is that stories in games are basically mediocre, and will remain mediocre, due to business reasons. There is no doubt that many publishers are demanding juvenile and  dumbed-down games, and that this makes it difficult to write a good story, but it shouldn’t make it impossible. The other view is that the stories in games are already more than a match for books and TV. I would disagree with this as well. … I think a good story in a game relies on having writers who have independence, and the trust and respect of game designers. … Writers are important. When a game’s graphics grow old, and the game mechanics become dated, all that’s left to remember is the story. As designers and writers of games, we all need to set a higher bar for ourselves. …

When I compared videogames to the development of books and novels, I was being serious. Historians will look back hundreds of years from now, and they will say that the explosion of narrative and game forms that we have now was a momentous time that transformed the way that people think and see the world.

It’s hard to imagine a world without books; without Lord of the Rings, or Catch 22, or Pride and Prejudice, or Great Expectations. Equally, it’s already hard to imagine a world without games. Just imagine where we’ll be in a few decades time. We have the opportunity to make those new types of games and stories that will changes people’s lives in the future, and there are so many possibilities. We just have to open our eyes to them. — How We Tell Stories


Colin Banks

In the same graveyard, beside the Grigsons, lies Colin Banks, son-in-law to Geoffrey Grigson.

Colin Banks

The gravestone is the work of Incisive Letterwork:

Colin Banks bought our dual text slate ‘Inceptis Gravibus’ at our exhibition The Ground Beneath our Feet in 2000. He had apparently had his eye on it since the Spirit of the Letter show at the Crafts Council in 1989.

We first met his wife Caroline when we went to fix the slate on their garden wall in Blackheath, memorably for us, in the pouring rain. We were really honoured to see it there as we had long been admirers of Colin’s typographic work.

After Colin died Caroline contacted us to discuss the possibility of making his headstone. He is buried in the churchyard at Broad Town in Wiltshire next to their daughter Frances whose greenslate headstone had been carved at the Kindersley studio. Caroline wanted a companion stone but not a facsimile. This meant taking into account the proportion of the stone, tall and narrow, and the overall feeling and spirit of the place and Frances’s memorial. When we delivered the stone to the church rain was again bucketing down.

In 2006 Caroline asked us to carve a stone for her mother, Geoffrey Grigson’s first wife Frances, who is buried in the churchyard at Pelynt in Cornwall. Caroline’s grandfather is buried close by and his memorial was carved by Eric Gill. She suggested that we use the same stone, Delabole slate, and the same shaped top to imply the family relationship. Many years previously Colin himself had made a preliminary drawing for this stone. Caroline felt she would like something of its flavour to be expressed here and provided a copy of his original drawing for us to look at. We used his lettering style but made it bolder for carving purposes. The layout was started from scratch. After trying to make the stone look like Gill’s and not succeeding because of the wording, it almost inevitably grew into a tall and narrow memorial. We simplified the top and used a carved line to echo the moulding on the Gill stone. In the end the relationship was there and the stone has a contemporary look rather than being a copy of something from the earlier part of the twentieth century. On seeing the stone in place Caroline wrote to say that Colin would have approved. — Brenda Berman and Annet Stirling: Threads of lettering 

The Independent’s obituary placed Colin Banks in that disciplined tradition of designers, ‘a craftsman schooled in hot metal type’, opposed to ‘quick-fix tactics’, ‘greatly influenced by the traditions of the Arts and Crafts movement, whose principle typographers were stonemasons’: ‘His death does not so much bring down a curtain on an evocative era of well-crafted British graphics but serves to remind us of the continuing relevance of typographic standards and social compassion in design today’.

It was in a printing class at Maidstone that he met his future business partner, John Miles. "We took up typography," recalls Miles, "because we thought we'd make the world a better place. There was a huge amount of idealism in the early 1950s and Colin was very idealistic indeed." … Banks made many trips to India, working with local agencies on schemes for rural sanitation, cooking, schooling and low-cost artificial limb manufacture, always ready for the next challenge, always eager to show how design can be a force for good. He also lectured widely in Eastern Bloc countries before access was easy.’

Three years ago, my neighbour, formerly the printer at Libanus Press, moved to Cornwall and asked me if I’d like to buy a large book (folio) he no longer had room for, London’s Handwriting. The book was the work of Colin Banks (I knew very little about him then), honouring the work of Edward Johnston, and subtitled, ‘The development of Edward Johnston’s Underground Railway Block-Letter’. I still haven’t really digested this monument of a book, very beautiful in itself and the result of such evident attention, passionate knowledge and close observation. I love the simple dignity of Wikipedia’s current opening to Johnston’s entry: ‘Edward Johnston, CBE (11 February 1872 – 26 November 1944) was a British craftsman’ … Johnston would surely have admired the craftsmanship of London’s Handwriting.

The book bears an epigraph from Firmin Didot, ‘the punch-cutter in 1783 of the first true ‘modern’ face Roman type’:

For we must not confine ourselves to perfecting the art in the sphere of luxury … but rather we ought always make it serve the public good.

Colin Banks must have invested so much in London’s Handwriting. For one thing, his love for his subject is so clear: ‘The wider importance of Edward Johnston’s work is based on his single-handed rediscovery of the medieval techniques involved in writing with a broad-nibbed reed pen. … His book Writing & Illuminating, & Lettering (1906) became the vade-mecum for all future letterers and typographers.’

He touched many future designers by a laying-on of hands from generation to generation: we are all his children. This unbroken human chain was all the more important as his philosophy of his work was not collected together and published until 1986, forty-two years after his death. This philosophy is exerting considerable pull on the current revival and interest in crafts and deserves a separate study.

We lingered in the churchyard that afternoon, talking and thinking about what these people have come to mean to us, and about this place.

Towards the Broad Town White Horse


The particular and the peculiar

Geoffrey Grigson

I find I’m seeking out older guide books about the areas of England I particularly like. In the good ones there’s a wealth of knowledge and an intensity of observation that’s very rewarding to work with — and of course they’ve become an object of cultural interest in their own right. So I’m pleased that Geoffrey Grigson’s The Shell Country Alphabet is back in print after 43 years. (That and The Englishman’s Flora are two books of his I’m glad to have to hand.)

I found this on the web (linked to from Wikipedia’s entry on Geoffrey Grigson):

His worldview is clearly evident in the enthusiasms he championed: brightly burning poets of the countryside such as John Clare; visionary artists from Samuel Palmer to his contemporaries and friends, Ben Nicholson, Paul Nash, John Piper, Wyndham Lewis. Grigson revelled in finding the extra-ordinary in the seeming ordinariness of a rural life that twentieth century short term thinking was beginning to eradicate. Flora, fauna and rural lore were presented in inspirational compendia and essay collections such as the Shell Country Book, The Englishman's Flora, Freedom of the Parish and the Shell Country Alphabet. For the Festival of Britain in 1951 he edited the series of About Britain guides, penning the text of the volumes on Wessex and the West Country. Grigson also wrote books to lead children into an appreciation of the countryside, poetry and the visual arts; later he became an 'anthologist's anthologist', with a seemingly endless train of collections of epigrams and epitaphs, nonsense verse, 'unrespectable' verse. He revealed much light to be found in apparently dark and (at that time) neglected and disdained periods of literary history, the Romantics, the Victorians. He revived interest in forgotten poets such as William Diaper.

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You can get a flavour of the Country Alphabet book from the large page spreads Penguin’s put online. Penguin’s done an attractive job with the presentation of this book (published under their imprint, Particular Books) and has this to say about it:

In the 1960s Geoffrey Grigson travelled around England writing the story of the secret landscape that is all around us, if only we take the time to look and see. The result is a book that will take you on an imaginative journey, revealing hidden stories, unexpected places and strange phenomena. From green men, ice-scratches, cross-legged knights and weathercocks to rainbows, clouds and stars; from place-names and poets to mazes, dene-holes and sham ruins, via avenues, dewponds and village greens, The Shell Country Alphabet will help you discover the world that remains, just off the motorway.

I like what Toby Barnard says about Grigson: ‘Geoffrey Grigson resurrected the minor, the provincial and the parochial ... [he was] an erudite and unrivalled topographer … ardent in promoting informed awareness of the distinctiveness of place’. That’s well put: ardent in promoting informed awareness of the distinctiveness of place.

I’ve been out a couple of times recently to Broad Town, where Grigson and his third wife, Jane, lived and are buried. The farmhouse that was theirs, where they both worked and wrote and where, it’s said, Edward Thomas once learned to make hay ropes, is close to Christ Church, the church that serves Broad Town. Locked when we went, the church itself seems undistinguished, but the churchyard is a spacious, sunny and quiet spot that looks out towards the Broad Town White Horse. The Country Alphabet tells me this was cut in 1863.

Last month I read Joe Moran’s excellent On Roads. Reviewing this, Craig Brown wrote:

Joe Moran is a young academic (and if his lecturing is half as good as his writing, I’d advise any young student to make a bee-line for the cultural history department at Liverpool University). Unlike most academics he is excited by the particular and the peculiar, and is obviously happy to spend time ferreting out odd information that more po-faced academics would dismiss as merely anecdotal. … Reading On Roads, I felt as though I was being introduced to a place I thought I knew well, and seeing it for the first time. Moran has the poet’s ability to find the remarkable in the commonplace.

And before On Roads, I was reading Roger Deakin’s Notes From Walnut Tree Farm. The things he sees, feels, hears, touches and then writes about — and that stick in my mind! (Too much to choose from … ‘There are 243 beams in this house, proportions natural, set by the size of the trees and their girth. … Trees are the measure of things. … The first measures of length must surely have been cut on sticks. … Trees have given proportions to things too. … The standard width of a timber-framed house or barn, between sixteen and twenty-one feet, is the distance a single beam from an oak will normally span.’ ‘People ask how a writer connects with the land. The answer is through work. … And when we work on the land, what is our connection with it? Tools, and especially hand tools. Much can be learnt about the land from the seat of a tractor, the older and more exposed the better, but to observe the detail, you must work with hand tools.’)

I was fortunate to be taught Biology at school by a fine field biologist, Arnold Darlington. I was a poor student and am still learning to have my eyes wide open, but he set me off on a course I’m still on, observing and naming as best I can. There’s a thread here that connects all these writers and it’s why I really liked this article in the NYT, Reviving the Lost Art of Naming the World:

We are, all of us, abandoning taxonomy, the ordering and naming of life … losing the ability to order and name and therefore losing a connection to and a place in the living world. No wonder so few of us can really see what is out there. … we barely seem to notice. We are so disconnected from the living world that we can live in the midst of a mass extinction, of the rapid invasion everywhere of new and noxious species, entirely unaware that anything is happening. Happily, changing all this turns out to be easy. Just find an organism, any organism … and get a sense of it, its shape, color, size, feel, smell, sound. … Then find a name for it. Learn science’s name, one of countless folk names, or make up your own. To do so is to change everything, including yourself. Because once you start noticing organisms, once you have a name for particular beasts, birds and flowers, you can’t help seeing life and the order in it, just where it has always been, all around you.

Once you start noticing … once you have a name for (the) particular … you can’t help seeing life … just where it has always been, all around you.


Amongst poets

Adam Foulds came in to school on Thursday and read from The Broken Word (Sunday Times review here, Guardian here). Earlier this term, I read the poem in one sitting: it’s not difficult to do this, but it was, in any case, simply not a poem I wanted to break off from reading. It is very disturbing, not least because of the contrast between the quality of the telling and what it has to tell. Hearing so much of it read affected me greatly and, in winding up the reading, I slipped and called Adam ‘Robin’ — as his reading had melded in my mind with Robin Robertson’s also dark reading from earlier in the term.

Adam talked afterwards about the LRB review which lies behind the poem. You need a subscription, but the review, Bernard Porter: How did they get away with it?, discussed two books, David Anderson’s Histories of the Hanged: Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire and Caroline Elkins’ Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya. Adam spoke about how Porter’s review, and then the two books themselves, shook the sense he had grown up with that, on the whole, and despite some shortcomings, British colonial rule had been a good thing. He had, he said, shared the ambient complacency about British rule. Porter’s review put it like this: “The accepted view of Britain’s decolonisation hitherto has been that it was done in a more dignified, enlightened and consensual way than by other countries – meaning, of course, France. It will be difficult now to argue this so glibly.”

Ambient complacency is a potent phrase, is it not?

Something else — unrelated — that Adam said after the reading also struck me: novels ‘take a group effort’. (His previous book is a novel, The Truth About These Strange Times.) They are so long — they can grow so ‘thin and wispy’ — a writer needs the collaboration of others to bring a novel into the world.

Of course, every author is different. Writing in The Observer’s Book of Books (a slim volume, given away free with the paper in May this year) about how he works as an editor (and drawing on his lengthy experience in publishing), Robin made just this point. His short piece should be read in full, but I can’t find it online. Here are some excerpts:

… an editor’s eye shouldn’t pass over a text too often for fear of losing the very objectivity the writer lacks. During a first read … I’m always watching myself for the first signs of inattention; any time that I’m stopped or distracted means there’s probably a problem in the text … If any changes do need to be made, I’d always ask the author to make them. After all, it is their book, and at this stage it’s still a thing in flux … You have to encourage the writer to see the problem, not just tell them there is one. Editing is about reading and listening attentively … I’ve always considered editing to involve quite a large degree of pastoral care.


Life in hypertext

My laptop needed some repair work. Limping by on a school machine during the day was made more than bearable by having the use of an iPod touch the rest of the time and access to an N810. None of these are my own. Of the three, the iPod touch is a revelation — so easy to use, the Gmail interface is (as of now) outstanding and surfing the web on it is often a joy. I don't yet know the N810 well enough to comment about it, but one thing that lets the iPod touch down is the laboriousness of entering text. I look forward to putting the N810's keyboard through its paces, but somehow I doubt it will prove as comfortable to use as the E70's thumb keyboard. The E70 is simply the best device I've ever owned for texting.

As ever when my laptop's down, I learn things. One thing I learned this time: wireless, mobile computing is getting pretty enjoyable all of a sudden. Like everyone else, I now want to try the Asus EEE. These are all devices we need to trial in school.

Meanwhile …

William Gibson (my bold):

One of the things I discovered while I was writing Pattern Recognition is that I now think that any contemporary novel today has a kind of Google novel aura around it, where somebody's going to google everything in the text. So people--and this happened to me with Pattern Recognition--would find my footprints so to speak: well, he got this from here, and this information is on this site.

(Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page, The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine — 1998, pdf: "Google is designed to provide higher quality search so as the Web continues to grow rapidly, information can be found easily. In order to accomplish this Google makes heavy use of hypertextual information consisting of link structure and link [anchor] text. Google also uses proximity and font information. … The analysis of link structure via PageRank allows Google to evaluate the quality of web pages. The use of link text as a description of what the link points to helps the search engine return relevant [and to some degree high quality] results. Finally, the use of proximity information helps increase relevance a great deal for many queries.")

II  Adam Greenfield:

… the book is an obsolete mediation between two different hypertext systems. For everything essential is found on the del.icio.us page of the researcher who writes it, and the reader who studies it assimilates it into his or her own blog.


On not rushing to disparage the internet

Vint Cerf in last Monday's Guardian:

It is not often that a technological innovation changes fundamentally the way people communicate. In the 15th century the printing press made it possible to distribute the written word. In the 19th century, the telegraph enabled rapid point-to-point communication over long distances. Then there was the telephone. And we're still coming to terms with the social effects of radio and television.

It takes decades if not generations to fully understand the impact of such inventions. We are barely two decades into the commercial availability of the internet, but it has already changed the world. It has fostered self-expression and freed information from the constraints of physical location, opening up the world's information to people everywhere.

Shelley Powers, responding two days ago to Doris Lessing's bleak assessment of the internet's impact on culture, education and reading:

The internet is no more culpable for people 'wasting' time away than the television was, and the radio before that, and the electric light before that–on back through history marked by one invention or another. Technology does not change culture, as much as technology and culture impact, equally, on each other. …

… Amazon has grown fat on the profits of selling that which we supposedly disdain: books. Entire web sites spend most or all of their space providing reviews of, what else, books. The Gutenberg Project actually makes books available online for free. Ms. Lessing mistakes our assumptions of easy access of books for indifference to books. A very romantic thought, but not a very logical one. …

As for the banalities of this space, among the items I've read this week were [detailed summary of online reading, viewing and web-led book discoveries follows] … I would be curious to know at what point in all of this reading is the moment where I stepped over the line from spending time in banal pursuits, to spending time usefully? What makes one piece of writing more important and therefore more worthy than another?