Writing in the Sky

He was a great influence on my work, but the fact remains that Johannes Speyer was not always on speaking terms with ‘the truth’. That is to say, he and ‘the truth’ sometimes fell out. They didn’t always return each others’ calls. They often passed each other in the street without tipping a cap, or asking about the weather. He and ‘the truth’ were not bound together, like bosom buddies. They reserved the right to differ on certain matters; to go their separate ways when circumstances demanded it.

In the penultimate section of my brilliant memoirs, Conversations with Speyer, I dealt with an episode towards the very end of Speyer’s life, in which he recounted to me (and another man) a story about sky-writing. I have always doubted the veracity of this story (also covered here) for various reasons, not least the issue of impracticality. I doubted, in short, that a sky-writer (under Speyer’s orders) could write a full sentence in the sky.

Now I have seen this. Granted, this is present-day skywriting (not 1980s skywriting), patronised by a much more wealthy man. Nevertheless – disregarding the content of the piece – there is no denying that looks good. Which begs two questions: one, was Speyer telling the truth after all? And two, if sky-writing looks this good, why aren’t more writers doing it?

The second question is, I think, the more important one. Indeed, in light of this recent incident, I fully expect Jonathan Franzen’s next novel to be written in the sky. Paper is a thing of the past. Everything, from now on, should be written in the sky. Including this blog.

The Perfect Library (1)

Keen readers are not always keen library-goers. Many readers find libraries distasteful, even disturbing. They hate the idea of picking up, let alone reading a book which has been pawed by countless other readers. They hate the very atmosphere of libraries. To confront fellow readers: what exquisite pain this gives them! Or, in a public library, to find oneself confronted by the tastes of the masses; by the shelves and shelves of cheap crime novels, quirky romances and short novels with needlessly long titles (‘The Daughter Who Threw Her Bathrobe into the Canal’, ‘The Wonderful Story of The Runaway Devonshire Threshing Machine’, ‘The Continuing Adventures of Chainsaw Jim’ etc). Many readers would rather enter a chamber of torture than a public library.

Johannes Speyer’s hatred of libraries took a slightly different course. He resented their ‘tiresome allegiance to staid organisational methods’ – which is to say he disliked the way they ordered their books alphabetically by genre. The perfect library, in Speyer’s opinion, would be open to different ways of ordering books. For a start, the books would be taken off shelves. They would not be grouped by genre, and they certainly wouldn’t follow ‘that straitjacket we call the alphabet’. The perfect library would be a large warehouse where the visitor did not find the book he/she wanted, but stumbled upon them instead. It would be something of an eccentric experience.

More on this shortly…

Variety is the Spice of Active Reading

I had cause to write, the other day, of the tradition of baking books. In doing so I was, of course, extending a conversation that I have been having on this blog for several years now.  The subject of that conversation is Active Reading; the means by which the adventurous reader breaks out of the standard ‘sitting in an armchair’ mode and embraces all manner of other reading methods, whether it be reading on a bike, reading up a tree, or reading whilst hand-gliding.

The expert on this matter was none other than Johannes Speyer, my late mentor (see here for more of him). For Speyer, reading was not an activity to be taken lightly. When you take up a book, you are engaged in a serious creative activity; one which requires a certain amount of mental, even physical, preparation. There was never anything off-hand about Speyer’s reading habits. This was a man who planned ahead.

Which leads me to a more general question. How do we (or, indeed, should we) prepare for reading? Under what conditions might we enter a book – and how do those conditions affect our reading of that book? Or, to put it another way: how does one approach reading foreplay?

What do we do to books, and to ourselves, before we slide into the first page? Speyer did all manner of things to get him, and his books, ready for reading. He sprinkled them in dirt, he soaked them in wine, he hung them upside-down in smokehouses. He tied them up in ribbons, which he removed, one by one, before opening the covers. He read whilst naked, or clothed in fourteen layers of silk. He meditated for eight hours before turning his mind to a text, or set his alarm to wake him in the night in order to read a single sentence before slipping back into sleep.

Variety was the spice of Speyer’s reading habits. He stuck to nothing; resolved to trying out new methods, regardless of success. Others have been less patient, developing a practise which they repeat over and over again. One man I know goes on a five mile run before starting any novel. Another showers several times before picking up a newspaper. Still others will only read at night, under the covers, by the light of a torch. I went through a period of only reading on an empty stomach. Whatever gets you in the mood.

Twenty-Second-Hand Bookstore

‘I don’t care for second-hand books,’ said Johannes Speyer one evening, brushing a greenfly from his beard.

‘Why?’ said I. ‘You like your books fresh, untrammelled, orderly?’

‘Absolutely not,’ he snapped. ‘I like my books to have lived not a little, but a lot. A second-hand book is far too fresh for my liking. To have only passed through a reader or two: how very dull! The perfect book has passed through the hand of many readers. The perfect book has been through the wars. It has been bought and sold a dozen times, left on a park bench, blown by the wind, hidden under a floorboard, sent in a parcel across the sea, lost down the side of a bed, given as a present to someone who’d rather have had something else, put out with the garbage, rescued, read, re-read, re-rescued and sold again for less than a quarter of its deserved price. The perfect book is not a second-hand book. It is a twenty-second-hand book’.

I grinned. ‘If I should ever open a bookstore,’ I said, ‘I will call it the Twenty-Second-Hand Bookstore’.

I have never opened a bookstore.

On Truth, Again, and Magpies, Once More

I have responded to Lars Groot and, whilst I think it impolite to copy out a letter before it has received its intended correspondent, I am happy to inform you as to its general import.

I started by thanking him for his insightful missive, and confessed my amazement that there existed in this marvellous world a lexicographer with extensive experience of throwing books at birds. Such experience was, I hinted, invaluable, and was very gratefully recieved.

However, I continued, I did feel that his insistence on the impossibility of Speyer’s actions was put across a little too forcefully. Whilst it may be true that magpies have, over the course of history, been infrequently killed by flying lexicons, I do not see this as a reason to doubt my dear friend’s words. As Groot himself noted, perplexing things have a habit of happening; things which cannot be explained by experience, science, or commonsense. A bird being hit by a large book strikes me as but one of a series of bizarre occurences that have blighted humankind over the centuries. Who are we to say it couldn’t have happened, when it so clearly did?

In the final section of my letter I entered into shadier territory (indeed I am not wholly convinced that I should have gone down this particular path, but such is the way of long letters!) What I said was this: confident as I was in the truth of my tale, I nonetheless felt that truth, in this case, was not the most important thing. The title of my memoir, I reminded Groot, was Conversations with Speyer, not Absolutely Verifiable Anecdotes Relating to the Life of Johannes Speyer of Dreiseen. No, the point of my writing was to put down onto paper, to the best of my ability, things which Speyer had told me. Whether or not these things made sense to the mind of a modern lexicographer was neither here nor there. These were things which Speyer said, that was all. Take them as you will.

I closed my letter, not too soon, by thanking the man once again for his response, and wishing him well in his work. Though curious, I resisted the temptation to ask him why it was he had, over the course of his career, thrown so many books at birds. Some things, I thought, are better left unexplained.

On Throwing Lexicons at Magpies

A letter, recently arrived:


In my professional capacity as a lexicographer (a role I have held for some forty-seven years) I am obliged to inform you that your much-repeated tale concerning one Johannes Speyer and the murder of a largely innocent magpie [see here] bears the unfortunate mark of falseness. Far be it from me to confirm that you are hell bent on deception: mad things do happen in this world of ours, and maybe (just maybe) this was one of them. The chances, nevertheless, are slimmer than a Slovakian sausage. Let me tell you why.

First, I put to you a question: have you ever had recourse to fling, throw or toss a lexicon? If so, you will know that, of all books, they are not especially conducive to being projected. Pitch a paperback, by all means. Cast forth a work of classic fiction. Hurl and heave your average hard-back, should you please. It can be done. But a lexicon? To launch a lexicon is no easy feat. I have lobbed many a lexicon, in my time, and trust me: it takes all the guile and might that a literary man (or woman, for that matter) can muster.

Provided you have the requisite strength to send a lexicon flying, there remains the issue of direction. Is it really possible to sling a lexicon at something in particular? Say, a bird? This, now, is really testing the boundaries of one’s imagination. Magpies are, I think it is fair to say, quick on their feet. What’s more, they have wings. For these reasons, and more besides, it takes more than a good aim to hit a magpie, let alone to hit one with a lexicon. In the course of a long and mildly illustrious career I have impelled no less than fifty lexicons in the direction of a quick-footed bird – and I have never hit, let alone killed, a single winged creature. On several of these occasions I was, admittedly, somewhat intoxicated. On others, however, it is fair to say that I had will on my side. I sought to destroy those birds, and could not complete the task. I could not even come close.

And here you are claiming that Speyer, a mere lexicon owner, murdered a magpie with his first shot! The idea is a proposterous one. I sincerely doubt he got within three feet of the blessed bird. He’d have been lucky, I suggest, to have grazed a feather. Only a highly-skilled lexicon dislodger could have acheived such a feat, and I think it very unlikely that Speyer was one of that number. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that I think the whole story a fanciful concoction, dreamed up by a feather-brained professor with nothing better to do.

Yours in eternal doubt,

Lars Groot, (Chief Lexicographer, Babel Library)

I am, needless to say, considering my reply carefully.

Books on Bikes

As noted in the most recent excerpt from my glorious memoir ‘Conversations with Speyer’, Johannes Speyer was probably the first critic to fully explore the concept of ‘read-cycling’ – that is, reading books on bikes.

Certainly, there are easier – and less perilous – ways of consuming literature than this. Having tried it itself, I can confirm that even the most talented ‘read-cyclers’ are likely to suffer a few bumps and bruises along the way. I know at least one man who broke his ankle whilst reading Scott Fitzgerald on a mountain bike. Another unfortunate reader was so engrossed in the latest novel by Fjona Uu that she cycled straight into a lake.

Reading and cycling are not natural bedfellows, whichever way you look at it. But that is the point of the activity. ‘Read-cycling’ puts the risk back into reading. Your experience of a book changes drastically under certain circumstances. Reading a poem in an armchair is one thing; reading that same poem whilst pedalling furiously with both feet is quite another. I heartily recommend taking this risk. (I also recommend wearing a bicycle helmet. And shin-pads. And some sort of upper-body protection).