Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The need to forget

I noticed the other day that a lot of the books I have read in the last few weeks were written on or around 1895. I wondered idly to myself how many books must have been published in 1895, and how many are now completely forgotten, and lost forever. I then wondered how many were published in 1995, and how many of these would also be forgotten and unread, but preserved forever in digital form.
The 1895 books have been through a winnowing process: the best have been reprinted, re-read, republished, filmed, and, in all the cases I am thinking of, recorded for LibriVox. They have had the opportunity to be forgotten, but enough people remembered them to preserve them, and keep them alive.
Modern works, by contrast, if preserved digitally, will be preserved in amber for future generations. Forever. Without going through the winnowing process. Without any democratic process on the part of the public.
At a rough guess, if I read a book a week for the rest of my life, I will manage another 2,500. There are so many great books in the world, in different languages, from different ages, that there is literally a work of genius for every week of the rest of my life. Why would I want to waste my time reading something that had not been road-tested?
Think of past generations modding-up a book, so that it survives a century, or more. The more mods, the higher up the list the book climbs. Shouldn't we start at the top of the list, and work down?
The Library of Alexandra contained many great, now lost works. Of the ninety plays of Sophocles, only eight or so survive. Would the world be any different if we had all ninety? Should not our best guarantee of the superiority of his surviving plays be that they were copied, and stored at other locations, and the others were not? Is it any surprise that so many books from the classical period are works of genius? They are the survivors.
I realise this is all sacrilege. Perhaps I am worried that future generation will have trouble finding our best work, and think that sit coms are the best we had to offer.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Review: What Men Live By and Other Tales by Leo Tolstoy

According to Woody Allen, "Tolstoy is a full meal. Turgenev is a fabulous dessert. Dostoyevsky is a full meal with a vitamin pill and extra wheat germ."
All I had read of Tolstoy in the past was "Childhood", his first work, which I enjoyed (until the very dark and almost throw-away ending), but which did not suggest a main course more weighty than Turgenev. So I approached these four short stories with a light step and a full stomach, expecting, well, a light dessert. This opinion seemed well founded at first: the stories are fables, written in the style of fairy tales, dealing with moral questions. I took these to be religious parables, and the first of these was sentimental enough to lull me into taking it as a straight Christian ethics lesson. The second was, again, well told, but well within the compass of a child.
The third story made me realise that I was dealing with a different man altogether, and made me doubt my smug estimation of the previous two tales. In it, Tolstoy as good as calls all religions equal, in so beautiful and simple a way that it seems utterly obvious. Which is quite a trick. I started wondering why more people hadn't read this, and finally remembered that Tolstoy's religious ideas were an inspiration to Gandhi.
The final tale is the pick of the bunch. "How Much Land Does a Man Need" is suspenseful, funny, exciting, deeply moral, and has a finale that is as dark as, well, a Russian winter.
I was so jolted by this that I was forced to reassess the first half of the book. It seems that Tolstoy's spiritual world is a complex one, and these simple fables, like all good fables, require some meditation and digestion. Like a full meal.

Next: A Princess on Mars by E R Burroughs.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Review: The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

I have never read a book quite like this before, which surprises me: I have read some stream-of-conciousness novels in the past, and generally found them confusing and opaque (COUGH-Virginia Woolf-COUGH). However, what impressed me here was its clarity, even in the midst of highly poetic language, and overall the relentless, painful honesty. This is the quality, which, for me, raises the novel to its greatest heights: its ability to accurately read the passing thoughts and impressions of an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances. I laughed with recognition more than once: how nature can seem indifferent and heartless one minute, and maternal and lovely the next, depending on a passing emotion. All these changes are recorded by the author without comment, judgement or passion.
The other recognition came in its depiction of the relationships between men, and the motivations of men. How men can bicker and brawl, be always on the lookout for weaknesses to exploit even in close friends, but, when the chips are down, how they are capable of great self-sacrifice. Uncomfortably, this book would remind the reader that these self-sacrifices are not often made for the purest of ideological motives: the hero is driven to heroism because he overhears his regiment being labelled 'mule-drivers'.
The novel is ostensibly about war, but like all great works of art, it is really about being a human being, or at least a male human being. Self-justifying and self-decieving, true, but only because to acknowledge the absolute truth of the situation would be too much for anyone to bear. We need to create fictions about our motives, and about out enemies, because otherwise
the total futility of almost any act would be overwhelming. But if we keep throwing those carrots up in front of our own noses, why, we can charge the enemy with nothing but a flag.

Next: What Men Live By and Other Tales by Leo Tolstoy

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Review: The Invisible Man

H G Wells: Did you know that he invented table-top wargaming?
'The Invisible Man' was a strange book. Another iconic story, but all I had before this was a few scenes from a black and white movie. So I didn't know what to expect, and at first the prose sounded very flat and pedestrian. (Probably a Joseph Conrad hangover) The first third of the novel is frustrating: I grasp the concept of an invisible man easily enough, but have to wait while some comical rustics have humourous adventures discovering the monster in their midst. It is unfair to blame Wells for this, as the first readers needed some coaching, no doubt, but I wanted things to develop more quickly.
I was rewarded from the moment the Invisible Man himself starts to make his confession, so to speak, and Wells is at his best, given a brilliantly thought out description of the experience of being invisible. The delight is in the detail; I never thought, that because his eyelids were transparent, that he would have difficulty sleeping, that he would have to take care after eating, that his undigested food didn't give him away. That he would always be cold and unable to move about in rain or snow.
It is interesting that Wells makes the invisible man an evil sort of chap, even before he was invisible. The recent film (which I have not seen) suggested (I believe) that being invisible would make a person immoral: that without the eyes of the world on us, we would run riot. I was keen to explore this idea in the book, but it is not there: Wells makes him go mad, but he was fairly unstable to begin with.
Would being invisible make us immoral? Would we use the power to spy on loved ones, and steal consumer electronics?
The only thought I had was this: When the internet was young, it seemed like an anonymous sort of place, where your acts were untraceable. So we all started using Napster, proving, to some, the immoral-if-invisible argument. However, for that to have worked, we also all had to have GIVEN AWAY all our music, in order for the system to be populated. A Napster full of thieves would have had no music. Perhaps being invisible makes us altruistic, as long as it's free.

(The two super powers I always hankered after were flight (classic extrovert) and invisibility (classic introvert). What would it mean to have both at once?)

Monday, January 22, 2007

Audiobooks versus Books

What are the competing benefits of audiobooks and normal books?

Book advantages

• Can be read quickly.
• Greater choice. (Too much choice?)
• Are not free, but require no further equipment.
• Can be picked up and read easily anywhere.

Book disadvantages

• Can invite over-analysis. (You know - following up on every footnote, needing reference material nearby, such as Atlas and dictionary. Note taking causing a loss of thread in the story)

LibriVox Audiobook advantages

• Your body is free to do what you will while listening to an audiobook. (suggested by kri)
• You are forced to read a book at half the speed you could read it yourself. You can detect rhythms and aural patterns more easily.
• Choice limited, preselected by people who are prepared to go to great lengths to make sure other people hear them, this being a powerful form of recommendation.
• Free. (presuming access to computer and/or iPod and/or pre-burned CDs. So, not utterly free.)
• Force one to allow confusing (but perhaps ultimately unimportant) detail to wash over you, and be forgotten in the bigger picture. This can be very liberating, and very helpful when approaching the 'Classics', which, coincidentally enough, make up the majority of the LibriVox catalogue.

LibriVox Audiobook Disadvantages

• Need some 'quiet time' to be enjoyed. In iPod form, can be risky to listen to in the bath.
• Can be distracting wondering what the weather is like in Oceanside, Cal-If-Or-Nia.

If anyone has their own suggestions, please comment, and I will add them.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Review: Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

The first thing to say about this book is that it is a work of genius. It is simultaneously a tale of adventure, a masterful display of technique (like a modernist building, the structure is on the outside), and a profound study in human nature. You will notice that I feel it is three novels in one: the author himself seems very taken with the number three.
The book falls naturally into three parts: The first section, with a traditional narrator, a second, which is a verbatim record of a long anecdote given by Conrad's repeated character Marlow (also hero of 'Heart of Darkness' and 'Youth'), and the third, a long letter from Marlow, concluding the tale. Also, Conrad often describes things three times, rising to a crescendo: "This was one of those cases which no solemn deception can palliate, where no man can help; where his very Maker seems to abandon a sinner to his own devices.".
This tendency was the first thing that reminded me of William Faulkner. (For example, from Absalom, Absalom: "...out of the biding and dreamy and victorious dust"). After this initial hint, a torrent of connections struck me. Both authors use the technique of breaking up the chronology of the story. Both use unreliable and untrustworthy second-hand reports, rejecting the concept of an objective 'true' story. In fact, in 'Lord Jim', the hero (in my opinion, a kind of 'anti-Kurtz') is always described as being seen through a mist, or a cloud. Both have the ability to write hypnotic prose, which works like a piece of music: taken word by word, it can make no sense, but taken as a whole, it weaves a rich tapestry.
Conrad is ironic when writing about human behaviour, like the far-travelled and world weary man he was. But, although he accuses the hero of Lord Jim of being 'a romantic', he cannot hide his own romantic nature. This is a wise and thought-provoking book, with themes that will stay with me for a long time.
I was put off Conrad as a young man, as I found the prose dense and unrewarding. I am delighted I was so superficial: I have saved him up until such time as I am better able to understand his world view. I also want to listen to 'Heart of Darkness' all over again.

I know I said I would not be reviewing readers, but for solo recordings I feel I must sometimes make an exception. Stewart Wills manages to make his reading sound like he is not reading at all, but rather is just telling an anecdote, in an ironic and sometimes humourous way. His knowledge of the text seems absolute: this can be a complex book, but his reading always makes it seem natural and accessible. If you know someone who has not yet heard a LibriVox recording, and doubts the value of the project, this may well be the recording to prove him or her wrong.

Next: The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells

Thursday, January 18, 2007

How you know that you live in a backwater...

When someone on LibriVox posts on the forum, asking how to pronounce the name of your home county. (Yes; county - kind of a British 'state'. Known by Londoners as 'the provinces'. Without a trace of condescension)

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

What's in a Voice?

I came across a forum thread the other day, where kri was discussing the suitability of voices to texts. This was interesting to me, as the first LibriVox recording I heard was her recording of 'Heart of Darkness' by Joseph Conrad. Now, Conrad was Polish, English was not even his second language, and he was a man. kri is neither a man or Polish (I think - judging by the voice). In fact, she sounds young, and American. Also, I have grave doubts about her ever having sailed up the Congo river.

I had downloaded the recording, put it on my iPod, and set off to work, when her voice came over my car speakers. I didn't know what to expect from LibriVox, and my heart sank. How could this voice do justice to 'Heart of Darkness'? Of course, after 2 minutes or so, all these concerns evaporated. I was hooked.

It reminded me of an experience I had when I started work at my first job. I had lived in South Africa for 14 of my then 18 years. You may not know this, but in 1987, when this happened, race was a hot topic in that part of the world. Apartheid was still in full swing. I was not, nor was I ever, a racist, despite the best efforts of the South African education system, and media. I was, however, acutely AWARE of race.

Now, I started work at a theatre in Manchester, which was about to put on a production of Brecht's 'Mother Courage'. They had a policy of auditioning people according to ability, and not race. Thus, if you were best for the part, you got it, regardless of whether your on-stage mother was white or black.

When I heard about this, I was amazed. How could you expect the audience to accept this? It sounded like political correctness gone mad. In fact, when I saw the production, after 2 minutes or so, all these concerns evaporated. When you are sitting in an auditorium, watching a play, you are already suspending, without any effort, so much disbelief, that this detail is quickly lost in the drama. And it helps if the actors were chosen because they were the best.

So to kri's recording. LibriVox recordings, to me, are the same as a friend, coming to your home, sitting down next to you, and reading you their favourite book. What makes their voice 'suitable' to the text, is not how closely their voice resembles that of the author, or the narrator, or anyone else. What makes it 'suitable' is the fact that they chose to do it, and to give it away. The care put into a reading (and if you are going to record a whole book, you have to care about it), seems to me to be worth a lot more than a Polish accent.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Quality and Librivox

The question of the quality of Librivox recordings has been raised, and as a heavy user, I wanted to wade in.

The policy of Librivox, as I imperfectly understand it, is not to criticise the recording of a text, by comparing it with a professional recording. The very effective idea seems to be, that if you think you could do better, and please do, and we all benefit.

So, some recordings are not as well read as others. Or, rather, some recordings closely resemble professional audiobooks, and others do not.

My feelings are this: The readers, by recording a text (a painstaking and lonely task, I should imagine), and giving it to everyone for nothing, are due thanks and gratitude, and nothing more. As I sit listening to yet another recording on the way to work, I am sometimes amazed: this person, from the other side of the world, has done a very difficult, very kind thing, for ME, a complete stranger, without ever expecting anything in return. How rare is that? When was the last time the same thing could be said about me?

The most amazing thing of all, for me, is that the quality of the recordings is so ridiculously HIGH, given the circumstances. After someone has recorded (having passed all the technical hurdles), someone else has to proof-listen, someone else has to move the files around, dozens of people have to be coordinated - its a logistical nightmare. And yet, so often, the result is a match for the best you could buy. Better: Librivox recordings are not truncated or abridged. Better than that: they are free. Best of all: They are a labour of love, something that is apparent in the voice of the most nervous reader.

I am half way through 'Lord Jim' at the moment. This is one of the rarer audiobooks on Librivox, which I could choose to buy unabridged, if I wanted to. However, I find it impossible to believe it could be any better than Stewart Wills magnificent rendition. Truly, I believe no hired hand could match him.

This blog is about trying to show my appreciation to the people at Librivox, who have given me so much pleasure in the last few months. It pains me to think that some of the volunteers might be discouraged by what they feel is criticism, aimed at them. Please be assured that you are appreciated.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Orson Welles

Not Librivox, I realise. However, I wanted to mention a great site I found which has all of Orson Welles' 'Mercury Theatre on the Air' recordings, including the infamous 'War of the Worlds' broadcast.


Saturday, January 13, 2007

Review: Dracula

Dracula is a story which I am more familiar with as a film. This is not surprising: there are many versions, and wikipedia states that the book was only a fairly ordinary success until a filmed version took the story to the level of modern legend.
The story both loses and gains from the editing process a film requires.

In the gains column:
Van Helsing: A prototype for Yoda, he has paragraphs of grammatically dubious, and self-conciously 'mysterious' exposition. The other characters are given to cry out 'Please explain clearly, Professor!". The reader is also tempted.
Sentimental Scenes: Characters in peril are given to religious speeches expressing boundless selflessness. Strong men weep, but only in the presence of women. Regrettably, the euphemism chosen for this event is for the individual to be 'unmanned'. Sounds painful. In fairness, the softer scenes are contrasted with really quite cold. graphic moments of Gothic horror. The author probably wanted to hold on to his more squeamish readers.

In the lose column:
Technology: The heroes are relentless users of the latest in Victorian technology. They telegram each other all the time. One keeps a diary on a phonograph. The rail service is exploited ruthlessly. If the story were writted today, the characters would all have iPhones. They quote the latest theories of criminology and psychology. Quite a switched on team, I wonder how they came across to their contemporaries.
A digression: at one stage, Mina is telegrammed while on board a train. I had no idea this was possible at the time. I am sure it is impossible now. How was it done? Did each train have a telegraph office on board? Did stations along the route have to flag down trains with telegrams for the passengers? It got me thinking about how early technological breakthroughs are communal, and develop towards the individual. At first, books were only kept in libraries. Then, the very rich could own them. Now, most can afford a good sized library in their homes. Does this hurt libraries? Today, we would text Mina on the train. If she had no mobile phone - tough. There would be no way to communicate with her. In fact, public telephones are under threat because of our technological individualism. Even the train system is now weaker, because most of us own our own cars. Does this make it harder, or easier to travel to Transylvania? It is easier to get in touch with certain people, but harder to get in touch with people we are not already close to. I found myself envying the Victorian infrastructure reading this book.
Post Modernism: The novel is written as a series of diary entries, letters, newspaper reports, etc. Around halfway through the story the various characters get to read the others diaries, to compile a complete report. Thus, the characters get to read what we have already read, and detect clues we have missed, or have been waiting for them to notice. In fact, there are elements in the book of Sherlock Holmes stories.
Mina Harker: The original girl geek, Mina is the real hero of the novel. Always the one to organise the men surrounding her, she is in total command of her environment; taking shorthand notes of other peoples disorganised diaries, typing them up, and memorising train time tables (she calls herself a 'train fiend' at one point). Fearless and indomitable, not above using her charm to get what she wants, she is more than a match for the Count. If Mina had completed her transformation into vampirism, the Count would have had a hard time keeping control of his backward little corner. I often felt that the author is secretly more afraid of this sort of empowered woman than he was of vampires.

In conclusion, a fascinating book, but not always for the plot, which is familiar, in outline, to many. A real debating point for me, is how in the century since the book was published, that Hollywood have yet to present a Mina Harker in film, who is even half the match for the Mina in the book. We still need women to be the victims, it seems.

Thursday, January 11, 2007


This page will list my audiobook exploits. You may wish to sit down.
Seriously, I have been an avid listener to Librivox.org audiobooks for the last few months. In fact, I can list what I have listened to at the bottom of this post.
I have tended to listen to these recordings driving to and from work, a journey of 40 minutes each way. Where before I wasted my time listening to the radio, I now have nice people read me stories. I have two young children, so reading time at home is at a premium. I have found the experience of being able to 'read' for over an hour every day very uplifting.
After a while you get to recogise the voices. The other day I punched the air when Gordon Mackenzie introduced himself. I listen for the sunny, happy tones of Kara, from, what seems to me, the sunniest and most exotic place on earth - Oceanside, California. And R. Francis Smith, whose voice is so deep that I would cause myself physical pain by impersonating him. Hugh McGuire, who always seems to be trying to make himself sound less excited than he is, and Kristin Luoma, whose astonishing reading of Heart of Darkness got me so excited about Conrad, and Librivox. Before, I thought that Conrad could only be read by a male voice, with a Polish accent.
So - I started nosing around the forums, and found the nice people who read stories are also nice people generally. I started visiting their various blogs before going to bed.
I became aware that I was not really helping much at the moment. This troubled me. Since - for the next couple of years at least - time is so precious, I could not contemplate recording. I can't even proof listen, as propping the source text on my steering wheel seems antisocial.
So I thought it might me a small comfort to let Librivoxers know that someone is listening outside of their charming circle. And I read about a 52 books a year challenge. Once the rules were changed to allow audiobooks, I thought I could review them here - just the text, mind, not the readers, as that would seem rude. Also, if time allows, I will supplement the audio experience with reading the text from a copy I have found, or on the Internet. It would be unfair to praise some readers, and ignore those I have not heard.
I will start with Dracula, which I have just finished.

Since September 2006, I have listened to, in order:

Heart of Darkness - Conrad
Psmith in the City - Wodehouse
Call of the Wild - London
The Secret Agent - Conrad
Poetics - Aristotle
Childhood - Tolstoy
The Warden - Trollope
White Fang - London
Silas Marner - Eliot
My Man Jeeves - Wodehouse
The Diary of a Nobody - Grossmith
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow - Irving
The Black Cat, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Telltale Heart - Poe
The Nice People - H C Bunner
The Duplicity of Hargreaves - Henry
Pigs is Pigs - Ellis Parker Butler
The Children of the Zodiac - Kipling
Markheim - Stevenson
Raffles - Hornung
Dr Jeckell and Mr Hyde - Stevenson
King Solomon's Mines - Haggard
Free Culture - Lessig (OK, not Librivox, but nearly)
The Prisoner of Zenda - Hope
Universal Access to Knowledge - Brewster Kahle (OK - also not Librivox, But close.)
Dracula - Stoker

Next: Lord Jim - Conrad