An irregular, irreverent, post-modern account of the surreal, the ordinary, and the bizarre happenings on and around the Felia lavender farm in Crete

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Reading a novel by the bits

I have just finished reading my first novel on an electronic or e-reader. The novel was Tibor Fischer's excellent Good to be God and as I had expected it is another carefully written and clearly expressed examination of what it means to be a modern human being in a complex society such as ours - Tibor seldom disappoints and I would happily recommend any aspiring writer to read his stuff rather than the fluff that comes out of modern creative writing courses.

Reading a bitstream book on an e-reader is a very different experience to reading a cellulose based book. First up let me admit that most of my novel reading is done in bed last thing at night and the Sony e-reader is both lighter and easier to hold than a medium sized paperback. It's a lot lighter and easier to handle than a 4 or 5 hundred page hardback! The screen is clear and crisp and the page turning is simplicity itself. I love the fact that when I switch it on it goes straight to where I left off reading. It is good that it switches itself off if I fall asleep and do not turn a page for half an hour - that has been known to happen.

I love cellulose books and have done since before I could read. I think I first fell in love with the smell of books - old books don't smell like new books; hardbacks don't smell like paperbacks.   Dust jackets are wonderful - almost as good as old LP covers. The heft, the feel, the texture: every cellulose book is different whereas I suspect that every bitstream book is the same in sensory terms.

The thing I wasn't expecting to miss with a bitstream book was the thing that I had clearly absorbed so deeply about cellulose books that I didn't consciously know it was there - so I suppose I couldn't reasonably have expected it to shock me but the very first time I settled down and got past the title page, the dedications and the fluff I felt a massive sense of loss. Architecture!

A cellulose book has an architecture of that has a lot to do with the layout of the text and a lot to do with the physical form of the artefact itself. Most strikingly missing from a bitstream book is the right page: when you read a cellulose book you have two pages visible at one time; if you are reading the left page you can see what is coming ( a full page, a chapter end, a set of endnotes, whatever); if you are one the right page you can see where you came from. Moreover you can with a cellulose book, and at any time, know how much you have read and how much more there is to read. The e-reader tells you your current page number and how many pages the book has but as a measuring device it is like making a comparison between a watch with a face and a watch with a digital display - the quality of the imparting of the requisite information is simply more satisfying and profound with the analogue version. 

I recall, as a youngster the introduction of the CD and remember hearing that the length of a CD had been determined by making sure it could hold a complete performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Now this may or may not be true - apocryphal tales abound but I sure as hell wish that the makers of e-readers had decided that any device would, with fully charged batteries, see the average reader through the full length of a long novel - say "Infinite Jest" - but mine needed recharging 200 pages into my chosen novel and you could hardly call 279 page a long novel!!!

Cellulose and bitstream reading are different. Cellulose books have limitations imposed by the physical architecture but many people will never realise it. Bitstream books have limitations imposed by current implementations and "standards" and many of them can easily be removed but many of the implementors don't even know they have problems. Don't even talk to me about pagination on e-readers - it just sucks.

I'll carry on with both - probably for the rest of my reading life but we shall see how the comparison.contrast stacks up in a few years time.


Monday, January 24, 2011

Cousin Mary

Cousin Mary was a pretty little girl when she was young but age has hardened her and has etched an ugliness into her face that comes straight from her soul. She was a morose child though and then a deeply melancholy teenager.  She grew into a depressive young woman and at the age of 22 she tried to kill herself by hurling herself from the roof of her mother's house. She succeeded only in shattering her pelvis, breaking her spine and breaking both legs in multiple places. A paraplegic now, Cousin Mary can no longer climb onto the roof. Her wheelchair confines her body to the ground floor and her failure confines her mind to meanness. Cousin Mary is a tyrant in the ancient Greek sense and a martinet in the more modern French sense.

Grandma Alice was beautiful baby, a beautiful child, a gorgeous teenager and now she is a radiant old woman. Though her skin is that strange translucent shade that we associate with extreme old age and she gives every impression that a strong wind could blow her away her inner beauty shines through her pale green eyes. Grandma Alice is Cousin Mary's mother though I suspect that Grandma Alice would rather that Cousin Mary were not her only surviving child.  Three dead sons, one dead daughter, 2 still births and a living daughter have, over the years, leeched iron into Grandma Alice's soul. She loves Cousin Mary but she does not like her one little bit.

Let me explain some relationships - Grandma Alice is not my grandmother. She is in fact the baby sister of my mother's mother. She was born a year after my mother as I was born a year after Cousin Mary. Uncle Theo is my mother's baby brother so he genuinely is my uncle and he is also a  government scientist of some description.

My mother? My mother is, like Grandma Alice, an old woman now but she is spry and but for her eyesight dimming of late she would be cheerfully old but she fears not being able to read and she detests the idea of no longer being able to drive. She cherishes her autonomy and worries a lot about becoming dependent. My mother, like Grandma Alice has the genes for thinnness. Not so Uncle Theo.

Uncle Theo is a rotund, orotund joker. His baritone voice is strong and clear and so his numerous jests and puns boom out above any amount of modern background din. In these days of commonplace obesity he is more cuddly than fat or gross. You could say that I favour my uncle in terms of body shape and in some ways I favour his demeanour too. I am happy with almost everything apart from my body shape and I do not, I fear have his wicked way with words.  Last Xmas, over Xmas dinner in fact, Uncle Theo dubbed Grandma Alice's family as "the auto-destructive end of the gene pool" where my father's side of the family, coming as they originally did from a tiny, remote hamlet in the countryside he described as "the shallow end of the gene pool".

All three of Cousin Mary's brothers, in point of fact all four of her live born siblings committed suicide before they reached thirty. John, the first born, laid his head on a railway track when he was just in his majority. Paul overdosed on morphine in a London squat - a hyperdermic syringe hung from his groin. Tommy, little Tommy, slit his wrists with an old fashioned single sided razor blade in a warm bath in his mother's upstairs bathroom -  a large glass of whiskey, a full ashtray, 4 unsmoked Gauloises in a crumpled pack. and a copy of Joannes Zonaras' Compendium of History laid face down and open at page 284 were found with him. He was 18. Alice, named for her mother and the first born daughter starved herself to death at 15.

Grandma Alice's house is laid out on three floors: a cellar where wine and provisions are stored; the ground floor where Cousin Mary rules with a rod of pure titanium wheeling around in her chair from the library where she sleeps to the kitchen where she interferes with the cooking and provisioning of the house and picks constantly at snacks and biscuits. Cousin Mary does not have the thinness gene. The drawing room features on her circuit too but only in order that she can assure herself that it remains locked at all times.  Grandma Alice has her bedroom on the top floor in the same room that she and her husband shared. He is long gone. He may be dead. We cannot be sure. He left the year after Cousin Mary's suicide attempt saying that he would not be dictated to by his own daughter. Grandma Alice was not sad to see him go. Grandma Alice's house is permanently silent. A funeral parlour atmosphere lives in this house.  Cousin Mary has had a bathroom installed in part of what was the library before her father left. There is a hoist that serves both to get her in and out of the bath and also in and out of her bed. Uncle Theo once told me in confidence that Cousin Mary's quarters reminded him of Catherine the Great's bedchamber but he smiled, tapped the side of his nose and refused to explain why when I asked why.

Grandma Alice has a piano. Actually, Grandma Alice has two pianos. As a child she showed precocious talent as a pianist and composer and her parents encouraged her by employing a tutor. Grandma Alice lived for the piano. The family, close and distant, would gather at holidays and the high point would always be a recital by Grandma Alice, sometimes solo and sometimes with a local boy who played violin passably well. Her talent blossomed and the tutor believed she had a concert pianist under her tutelage but made a terminal mistake by entreating Grandma Alice's parents to enter her at the Conservatoire Frederic Chopin in Paris. He had badly misjudged her parents who had no intention of allowing their youngest daughter a career. The tutor was peremptorily dismissed and within the year Grandma Alice had been married off to an eligible bachelor notary in the nearby town. He was 12 years older than Grandma Alice when they married; that is why we now assume he is dead.   

Grandma Alice's day to day piano is invisible to all but Grandma Alice. Perhaps not entirely invisible - there are traces to be detected. In the middle of the kitchen is the huge farmhouse table, a pitch pine rural monstrosity, that serves as a food preparation area, a desk, a work bench and a reading station. Grandma Alice always sits with her back to the south facing window over the stone sink and if you were to look very closely, forensically closely, you would or you might find evenly spaced fingerprints along the edge and if you closed your eyes and visualized the pattern of those fingerprints then like a Polaroid photograph developing in your hand you would or could. if you tried really hard, perceive a piano keyboard. Mother tells me that in the early days Grandma Alice used to spread tea towels that mother had bought for her printed with piano keyboards along this surface and play silently for hours - the tea towels wore out in time and Grandma Alice never replaced them. I suspect that she never needed them - the real keyboard is inside her head and her hands.

Grandma Alice's other piano is a Steinway grand. The very same Steinway on which she practiced in her youth. The Steinway that replaced the old upright that she learned on as a child.  It has not been tuned in years. Grandma Alice has not seen it in years. It lives, or perhaps it rests, in the drawing room. The drawing room is always locked and Cousin Mary has the key to the room. She wears it on a chain around her neck.