Tuesday, August 31, 2004

[Note: The quotation immediately below marks the beginning of an attempt to work systematically through all the unread books in my room, starting at the top left hand corner of one wall and working shelf by shelf to the bottom right of the next. There will be another of these stand-alone notes when the project is completed -- or abandoned.]


"Although the great Gothic cathedrals had been erected, the Roman arch remained the norm for stone bridges. Although Stonehenge and the pyramids had been standing for millennia as monuments to mechanical advantage, Galileo was just asking anew questions that the Peripatetic philosophers had raised but not fully answered. By the end of the seventeenth century, not only would Newton and Galileo have laid the foundations for modern science and engineering, but the lead pencil would achieve its present form." -- The Pencil, Henry Petroski.

Can you, too, detect traces of a 'more importantly' after that 'but'?

[The Pencil, by Henry Petroski (Knopf, 1989). Makes a case for the importance of its subject by parallelism -- the history of pencil development is a model for the history of engineering -- rather than by claiming that pencils changed the world or by attempting a big narrative arc. Which is admirable. But it reads at some points like a graduate thesis and at others like a poor translation of Lucretius.]

Saturday, August 28, 2004

The good and bad of Jonathan Coe

I can give you it in one quote, a single sentence, from the section in The Rotters' Club dealing with the affair between Bill Anderton, a British Leyland shop steward, and Miriam Newman, a typist there: "They checked into The Talbot Hotel as Mr and Mrs Stokes (a little tribute Bill had decided to pay to the current chairman of British Leyland)."

The good: That detail fits Bill Anderton's character perfectly, adds to it, and helps make a militant union official conducting an affair with someone he has power over sympathetic.

The bad: Coe has to tell you the significance of the name, and throw in "current", which makes the tone suddenly journalistic. He does this kind of thing a lot.

[The Rotters' Club, by Jonathan Coe (Viking, 2001). Historical novel of the 1970s, looser structurally than his earlier work; this gives the characters more space but makes the occasional implausibilities harder to accept. Rereading, for obvious reasons. It stands up.]

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

The strange life of English literature

"Important writing, strange to say, rarely gives the exact flavour of its period; if it is successful it presents you with the soul of man, undated. Very minor literature, on the other hand, is the Baedeker of the soul, and will guide you through the curious relics, the tumbledown buildings, the flimsy palaces, the false pagodas, the distorted and fantastical and faery vistas which have cluttered the imagination of mankind at this or that brief period of its history" -- George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England.

Perhaps. It's hard, though, to find books that are both guileless enough to be informative and sufficiently well-written to be read without the aid of either a publisher's advance or a grant from the AHRB. Many of them spell "faery" like that, and without Dangerfield's excuse of mocking a poem he's just quoted.

[The Strange Death of Liberal England, by George Dangerfield (Harrison Smith and Robert Haas, 1935). Political history from the school of Lytton Strachey - somewhere that might do with reopening. You could certainly still steal this one's structural tricks with profit. A sense of inevitability (un-Stracheyish, and in the suburbs of Marxist) also gives it a tremendous shove.]

Monday, August 09, 2004

What not to wear

"Outside in the blinding sunlight, antiquated trams spew out agile targets for the Mercedes taxis. Dark-skinned young men with long black hair parade along the water's edge in bikinis almost big enough to conceal a comb." -- Harry Lime hits Beirut, early in Len Deighton's The Ipcress File.

I've asked the OED, and 'bikini' meant the same in 1962 as it does now -- and as it had done then for more than a decade. So that's either how you get homosexuality into a pre-legalisation thriller, assuming you're a mite homophobic, or a Deighton blind spot. Or both.

[The Ipcress File, by Len Deighton, Hodder & Stoughton, 1962. Has dated interestingly, if not exactly well. Much more expository dialogue than I'd like to think he could now get away with.]