A Minor Relocation

I hereby announce that I, Georgy Riecke, ex-German, long-time resident of North London and owner of prime real estate in Vladivostok, will be spending the next year on the East Coast of the United States of America. I would love to say that this is because a major American University has offered me a lucrative fellowship on the back of my dedicated research into the origins of Eastern European folk-tales. In fact, it is because a major American University has offered my wife, Doris Boshchov, a lucrative fellowship on the back of her services to Lithuanian poetry. I am just going for the pizza.

More on this, inevitably, later.

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A Small Mass of Sand

Whitman had two studies where he read: one was the top of an omnibus, and the other a small mass of sand, entirely uninhabited, far out in the ocean, called Coney Island. (M. D Conway, 1866)

From which we can draw the following conclusion: Walt Whitman was very much the Active Reader. Not for him the cosy, well-upholstered armchair! Not for him the yielding mattress! Not for him the smart grass of a prominent public park, safely in sight of other impressionable readers! No, Whitman sought more daring habitats. The moving bus, with its interrupting jolts and bumps; with its fellow passengers mumbling nonsense to one another; with its torn and dirty seats. Or the ‘small mass of sand’ on the remote, windy island. Sand that gets into your shoes, into your ears, into the spine of every book you own.

Uncomfortable reading: the way reading should be.

Reading Kills

Here follows a short list of fatal book-related accidents:

1. Jon Birgurismir, killed in a book-hurling context (book-hurling being a traditional sport amongst Icelandic academics during the late nineteenth century)

2. Marcius De Roeber, squashed between two bookshelves after a small ground tremor in a poorly planned library just outside Barcelona. ‘It is how he’d have liked to go,’ said his wife, idly flicking through a magazine.

3. The Bishop of Wenchester. A victim of ecclesiastical greed, Wenchester commissioned the most expensive Bible to have ever been made, only to trip over it whilst administering communion.

4. Nicolas Clam, a victim of the Polperro Ink Disaster of 1977, in which a small publishing company mistakenly printed five hundred copies of a literary magazine in toxic ink. Only five copies were sold, and Clam was the only reader to have inhaled the ink in fatal quantities (he made his debut, as a poet, in the magazine).

5. Princess Gloria of Stanberg. Rumour has it that the Princess was so engrossed in a particular novel that she forgot to eat, thus dying of starvation. Others have argued that she died of shock, claiming that the book in question was one she herself had written, fifteen years before. Opinion differs as to whether she resented her early talent, or regretted the publication entirely.

The Critic’s Work

The critic’s work is never done; none believed this so much as Johannes Speyer, to the extent that he spent the vast majority of his career actively avoiding the act of criticism. As Wolfgang Heizler’s biography has pointed out, Speyer was first and foremost a critic of criticism. His life was one in which he limbered up, stretched his mind, and prepared himself methodically for a task that he never had any real intention of completing. Rather than write about books, he wrote, at some length, about the (im)possibility of writing about books: the problems and the pitfalls, the complications and contradictions. He criticised himself out of existence.

Chapter Six, Part Three.

Flowers in a Wind

From whence did it spring, this belief in books as worlds unto themselves? Books were always well considered in the house in which I grew up, but never worshipped as such. It was recognised that books at their best were a glorious invention: that a stack of pulped wood, sliced into pages and covered in tiny black letters could conjure up such an array of fascinating characters, scenarios and concepts was, as anyone must accept, something to be marvelled at. Once written, it is true, a text does take up a life its own: it goes out, like a ruddy-faced schoolboy, into the world, and gets into all manner of shaping scrapes. The words may stay the same, like your DNA, but the meanings never stop shifting, like flowers in a wind, caressed by breezes, or blown apart by stiff winter storms. A book is not a static thing. It is, as Speyer noted, a world unto itself.

And so on, and so forth…. Chapter Six, Part Two.

Don Demarko’s House of Dictionaries

If a recent study is to believed, Don Demarko is a Dakota-based eccentric whose main claim to fame is that he lives in a mansion built entirely of dictionaries. Other sources suggest that Demarko (age 75, unmarried) started collecting dictionaries in the early 60s after taking a course in linguistics at a local college. His collection grew rapidly, soon filling up all the space in his house. Visitors to the early Demarko residence speak of ‘dictionaries piled up in front of windows, blocking out light’, ‘dictionaries in the bath’ and ‘dictionaries doubling up as seats’.

From living amongst dictionaries, it seems it was only a short step to living in dictionaries. Demarko soon discovered that dictionaries functioned perfectly well as building material. Two or three dictionaries laid side by side could successfully withstand the elements, and a fine range of furniture could be manufactured from the same material. Demarko started building ‘Dictionary Mansion’ in 1978 (strictly speaking, it’s more of a bungalow) and finished about eight years later. Close friends have described the building as ‘habitable’ and ‘not a little damp’.

When asked why he had embarked upon this project Demarko replied, rather surprisingly, that ‘he was at a loss for words’.

I Gloss, I Glance, I Glaze Over

I met Jean-Pierre Sertin this morning, riffling through the asparagus stalks at a mid-price grocery in North-West London.

‘I hear your blog has got a new look’, says he, fondling a broccoli.

‘Yes indeed,’ say I.

‘Concessions to your readers?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, you know. The old layout was terribly hard to read. Glaring white text on a deathly black background. Luminous orange hyperlinks. All very disconcerting.’

‘I see. Yes, I suppose the new layout will make things more comfortable for my readers’

‘Then again,’ says he, idly caressing a carrot, ‘that sounds remarkably unlike you. Making things easier for your readers! I would have thought this was against your philosophy’.

I smile, as is my wont. ‘I do not seek obscurity for the sake of obscurity,’ I remind the poor man, ‘nor do I bend to the will of the majority. Whither I go, there I am’.

‘Which means what, exactly?’

Changing the subject, I ask him whether he has been reading my blog in recent times.

‘Oh no,’ he says, his hand on a potato. ‘I glance at it every now and again, but I rarely take the time to read it. I’ve never found the internet very conducive to reading. I gloss, I glance, I glaze over.’

‘Oh,’ said I. And I left him alone with the celery.