Phew! Books aren’t dead after all

Lately my son has begun actually ‘going down’ for sleeps during the day and I’m actually able to put him to bed like a regular little baby – it’s great!*  Gone are the days of pacing round the loungeroom with him in the Ergobaby trying to rock him to sleep, or waiting for him to pass out in my arms and then debating whether to sit still for two hours or try and transfer him to bed.  The latter was never a success!  Anyway, as I’m now feeding him in bed while he goes off to sleep, I have a lot of time to read blogs on my trusty iPhone.**

I’m absolutely loving keeping up to date with the latest news, and I’ve totally shunned my pregnancy/parenting/baby blogs now and I’m right into the books/reading/writing ones.  I especially enjoy the updates from the Guardian, and from the wonderful Allen & Unwin blog Alien Onion, all class.

So I’m happily reading away, getting all inspired, occasionally making little notes to myself about ideas for the books I’m writing (yes, there’s more than one), and all of a sudden I realise all may not be well in the land of publishing!  It seems the printed book as we know it is doomed.  Say what now?  Yes, that’s right.  When my son is at uni, he’ll be reading all his books on his hand-held device apparently, and they’ll all be e-books that have never been published in hard copy.  And he’ll probably not have to pay for them.  That scares the crap out of me!  Books are so important!

At first when I read a couple of articles about the demise of the printed word, I thought, meh, what do they know, it’s all speculation, just like the millennium bug or some such garbage.  But then I read this article from the Guardian and I really began to worry.  I began to believe it.  In 25 years there will be no more books.  No more bookshelves.  No more pages.  No more bookmarks.  No more margins to scribble in. No more folding and crinkling and spilling and bending and feeling all those chunky good words in the thickness of the leaves.  This is scary, not just because I intend to be a published novelist at some point, but because books are important to me.  I’m sentimental about books, and I think even if I didn’t like them much I’d have trouble throwing them out or giving them away.  My mum isn’t sentimental about books and there have been many occasions where I’ve ‘saved’ books from being given to charity for no particular reason.  Saved for no reason, that is… my mum constantly gives things to charity, on the premise of having ‘a clear out’, although she buys so much from second-hand shops that it all evens out in the end.

After reading all this doom and gloom about books, I began to imagine how that sentimentality about books will just dwindle.  Once we loved our records; we’d await the release of a new and wonderful album and look forward to seeing the image in its centre, holding that vinyl up to blow the dust off and squint across the grooves.  The joy of having the right touch, placing that needle at the right point, or watching the automatic turntable do it at the touch of a button.  I loved turning the record over on the little stories I had on records.  Tapes were so compact and seemed so efficient, and you could salvage one when the ribbon got caught in the tape player and you had to wind it back into the plastic case with a pencil.  Something satisfying about that.  My first tape was Roxette – Look Sharp.  Or actually I think it was Billy Joel – Glass Houses.  CDs were once exciting too.  I’d love to sit and listen to a new album, sometimes right through, but usually just the tracks I’d already heard, and then pore over the album artwork, the lyrics or imagery in the little booklet.  I got the best of The Eurythmics with my first CD player.  I remember the moment of surprise and delight when I was distracted for long enough to leave the CD playing and after a few minutes of nothing, Mystify began at the end of The CranberriesNo Need To Argue… a hidden track!  No such thing now really, is there?  Does dad download Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and put it on his daughter’s iPod now?  Or does she never get to hear the brilliance because people don’t listen to albums any more?  Books will be going in the same direction, cheaply produced digital word fodder for consumption by a mass audience of average Joes who just want to skip to the ‘good’ bit.

Today I read this article which made me breathe a sigh of relief.  It was all just a bad dream.  At least I hope so.  Maybe I’m showing my age but I can’t imagine a world without books.

*Slight exaggeration – he does go to sleep, eventually, but it’s not for very long, and it takes just as long to actually get him to sleep and creep away without him stirring and waking! Ah the joys of new parenting.  Surely this gets easier.  I swear I have a really full on baby, they can’t all be this hard to calm down!

**Actually, it’s not that trusty.  It’s a 3G that I bought in October 2008, so it’s had a good run, but bloody hell is it slow!  And the latest update from Apple?  Nope, doesn’t apply to the 3G.  It seems Apple think no one owns one any more.  Or, more realistically, they think everyone has a spare thousand bucks to shell out for their latest product!  I’m so not buying another iPhone, I’m going with something generic next time…

The reading journey of a desperate writer

This post has been sitting in drafts for ages, four months actually, so now I have a few moments I decided to finish it; but when I went to do so, I realised I’d only written a title and nothing else!  That’s so typical of my writing.  As a kid I used to beg my parents for a nice new exercise book (the thickest one in the newsagent, a while 320 blank pages to fill, oh how fantastic that fresh thickness is!)  I’d go home, having been thinking long and hard about the title of my new book, and finally I’d open that book to the first page, find a good pen, and write my title.  Usually something along the lines of, ‘The Adventures of Isabelle Bentley’ or some such childish thing, fantasy character included.  I’d calculate that, as there were 320 pages, and I wanted to make 16 chapters in my book, each chapter would be 20 pages long.  So I’d draw up a nice contents page, showing those chapters, and then I’d go through the entire exercise book, writing ‘Chapter 1’ and ongoing, every 20 pages.  Finally my book was ready.  Problem is, I didn’t really have a story to write!

Anyway, I digress.  This post is meant to be about what I read.  At the moment I don’t get to read a lot, because a three-month-old baby doesn’t give you much opportunity to read, or at least this one doesn’t.  At the moment I’m reading Hilary Mantel‘s Wolf Hall, which is brilliant, but I knew it would be.  Prior to that I was reading a self-published work by Elizabeth Egan called The Sun on Distant Hills, only because I’d agreed to review it for the NSW Writers’ Centre and they’d kindly sent me the copy to review.  Aside from the other books for review, before I had my son I read a lot of interesting things.  The most recent of these was Portia de Rossi‘s Unbearable Lightness.

When I had my baby shower thing, the friend who organised it asked that everyone bring a children’s book for the baby, which I thought was a brilliant idea, so I’ve got lots of different ones to choose from.  It was interesting to note who gave which book too.  The one that stands out most (aside from the Women’s Weekly Birthday Cake Book – can’t wait to make those cakes!) is Roald Dahl‘s The BFG.  What a classic!  My mum hated Dahl, I think because she thought his stuff was a bit inappropriate for children, with its witches and man-eating giants.  There’s always something a little grizzly about his books, it’s true, but I absolutely adored them as a kid, and I borrowed them from the library and read them whether she liked it or not!  I distinctly remember the first line of The BFG: ‘Sophie couldn’t sleep.’  As I was rocking my son to sleep in the Ergobaby the other day, I thought of that book, so I grabbed the fresh copy off the shelf and began reading.  What sheer brilliance!  There are no wasted words in Dahl’s writing, it’s so fantastic.  Even as an adult, and having read it a hundred times as a child, I found it very hard to put down.

It reminds me, I was thinking the other day, should I be writing for children or young adults?  That’s the kind of stuff I enjoy.  Even in highschool I found a lot of adult literature difficult to get into and I would happily re-read Alice in Wonderland over and over than try anything for my age group.  Despite the amount of cliché and the ordinary quality of the writing, I really enjoyed the Twilight series, although I know that the author is just lucky to have decided to write on the topic at the right time.  It’s all about timing and marketing, after all.  One book that really got to me was Ruth Park’s Playing Beattie Bow, I think because it involved one of my favourite things: time travel.

I think I’ll talk more about things I read when I’m in the right head space.  For now, I’m going to ponder on writing for children and young adults…

Inspiring book spines and high standards

Replicated from my SheWrites blog, 19 January 2011.

Apart from the records my dad played on Saturday afternoons, one vivid and early memory that sticks with me is the background ‘wallpaper’ of my parents’ bookshelves.  I remember when learning to read, browsing the spines of the books, noticing the colours, their thickness, which ones stood out and which ones I suddenly noticed for the first time. I was particularly intrigued by a book I assumed was some sort of thriller or mystery (judging by the need to use only the author’s surname on the cover) about a prehistoric dinosaur type creature with perhaps metaphysical or psychological overtones: Roget’s Thesaurus (The Saurus – get it?)

To this day, some 25 years later, I can picture the book spines: Colin Wilson – a thick magenta book with green block writing; Xavier Herbert – Poor Fellow, My Country; Franz Kafka – MetamorphosisThomas Mann – Death in Venice (I think?); Germaine Greer – The Female EunuchAlex Haley – RootsJames Joyce – Ulysses… the list goes on.  I rarely pulled the books out of their shelves, as the spines alone were enough, their colours and designs, fonts and styles either pleasing to my eye or putting me off, and their titles often like tongue-twisters for my young brain (The Aquarian Conspiracy was one – I used to repeat this over and over in my head).  Strangely enough, of those books I’ve named, I only ever read one, and that was the Kafka.  But I feel like the influence of all this prolific writing somehow seeped into me over time, and I wish I could go back and look over those shelves again, but sadly they will never be what they once were as my parents divorced when I was nine and the books were broken up into piles, moved about, lost, thrown away, left in boxes in garages…

I know that my writing is stalled by my lack of motivation and my inability to complete a story.  But I think there is also still this element of not putting it out there.  So I always mean to enter competitions or submit articles or stories for publication, even in free ezines or obscure sites, but I never manage it.  The one time when I did successfully write and publish pieces online was when a very creative and motivated film phd student friend pushed me to do it.  In fact she gave me little choice in the matter.  The deadline was set – and the faster I wrote, the more I’d be published.  I ended up writing, I think, six film reviews in the space of about a week, and it was the most fantastic experience.  Not only did I get to review some amazing documentaries for the LIDF, but I even got to meet some of the directors of the films in person who actually praised me formy reviews!  Can you imagine!  They were grateful for what I’d written and felt happy I’d understood what they were trying to achieve.  I was bowled over.  I knew I didn’t necessarily belong in the ‘film world’, but I lapped up the praise.  My friend who got me into it in the first place kept remarking how amazed she was at the quality of the writing and how quickly I churned out the reviews, given I’d never reviewed a film in my life.  I certainly was on a roll at the time, just pumping out chunks of writing, refining as I went.  I did watch the films and do most of the writing while I was meant to be working though…

This all leads me to believe that there is something about doing ‘unimportant’ writing that is easier.  I didn’t worry about how these reviews reflected on me – I was just interested in providing something of quality for the benefit of the directors and for the audience to read before they saw the films.  It was external to me.  So perhaps that’s where the motivation is, in writing with an external focus.

The great history versus fiction debate

I’ve just finally read Kate Grenville’s The Secret River – I say ‘finally’ because it’s been sitting in my ‘to read’ pile for months now, and been on my list for much longer.  I can’t believe I left it so long!  It was such a great book, I devoured it in a week (which, for me, is a short amount of time to read even a small book).

It’s just the kind of writing I like and want to explore further, just fantastic.

Since finishing, I thought I’d look Kate up and see what background reading might be online about the book and her other work.  I came across her official site which has some great info on it about all her work.  It also contains some retorts from Kate on a couple of critical essays from historians.  I can’t believe they accused her of writing history when clearly the book is not intended as a work of history but more historical fiction.  One doesn’t have to glean this, it’s pretty clearly spelled out.

Anyway, rather than blab on about how unfair I think these historians have been to a clearly wonderful writer, I wanted to say that what I’d love to read about is the elements of the book that these historians consider fiction, rather than historical fact.  So of course we know the characters are fiction based on some historical characters, what we can’t be clear about is whether the sorts of environments, tools, weather, and general hardships experienced by the characters are true to history.  For example, did convicts’ wives really make the voyage with them?  And if so, were said convicts ‘assigned’ to their wives, as Thornhill was to Sal in The Secret River?  What about the places back in London that Grenville names – are they real?  Did convicts really get given their own bark hut as the Thornhill’s did?  And did it actually take a day to sail from Sydney to the Hawkesbury back in 1815?  These are the kinds of questions I’d love to hear historians answer.  I fully accept Kate has written a fiction based on historical events, so that’s all the more reason why I’d like to read essays from those ‘in the know’ (ie. colonial historians) discussing the truths and fictions of this book and more like it.

I read this book because I’m a) interested in good writing, b) interested in Australia, c) interested in historical fiction and d) interested in history; so I want to hear both the fictional and non-fictional account.  I think Kate has gone about things the right way, stating up from just what she wanted to achieve with the book and giving us a wonderful story with some historical elements woven in.  Where’s the criticism of books that try to pull the wool over our eyes – Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram is a good example.  Is it because he didn’t write about long-ago history and more his own ‘story’ that no one bothered to criticise in the same way?  His was more of a work of fiction, only very loosely based on fact, yet he didn’t even bother to clarify his intent, instead just letting us naive readers be drawn into the story, only to find out (after some research) that it was all just a silly story…

Nice work Kate – can’t wait to read more!