Not enough thought went into either reading or writing, of that he was sure. People churned out words like endless pats of butter, or snakes of sausage meat – and other people swallowed these words without chewing, or thinking twice about the flavour. ‘We need to slow down’ he noted, ‘or better than that, stop entirely. For a week, for a month, maybe even for a year, we should put down our pens. We need to take stock of everything that has been written already. To re-read what has gone before. To rethink our very attitude to the process of creating and consuming. Writing is a wonderful, wonderful thing, but we are in danger of losing sight of what it means, and of what it can do. We need to stop, in short, in order to start again’.
When I invest, I invest in books. A book is always there for you in times of need. One forms a relationship with a book which is deep, rich and rewarding; a relationship which evolves over the years, in ever-unexpected directions.
You cannot say the same for a power drill. A perfectly useful item, in its way, but with rather – shall we say – limited attributes. A power drill will not entertain, educate or enlarge your mind. It will not transport you to another world. Put it this way: I would rather be trapped on a desert island with a book than with a power drill.
This may explain why I have never invested in a power drill. When the occasion to utilize such an object arises, I fall back on more primitive methods. My tools are my hands. Indeed, I do not at present even own a hammer, all of which ensures that the process of screwing in a bracket is a slow, sometimes painful one. It is an adventure, no less; one which can last several days, creating as it does a fine collection of bruises and blisters.
There are, however, upsides. Weak old scholar that I am, I find I cannot stick to such tasks for very long. Screwing in a bracket to put up a blind – as I was doing this weekend – takes a lot of energy out of me, for which reason I tend to do it in fits and starts. I ascend the ladder, turn the screw a few times, take a deep breath, turn the screw a few more times, and then back down the ladder I go. Not to take a rest, I hasten to add, or to get myself a cup of tea. No, no, no. At the foot of the ladder I have placed a book of poems. To recover from the business of turning the screw, I turn to a poem. When tired of the poem, I return to the screw. The two activities feed each other: reading the poem prepares me for turning the screw, and vice versa.
The point of all of this is, of course, to serve as a reminder that reading works very well in conjunction with other activities. One might even argue that reading works best in conjunction with other activities (so Johannes Speyer would say). I’m not sure I would go this far. What I would say, though, is that short bursts of reading, taken in the gaps left by another project, are not to be under-estimated. I can quite honestly say that I got more out of my poems in this moment than I would have done had I been, for example, sitting peacefully in an armchair. Reading and life, it seems, are best taken together.
I hope you will believe me when I say that I am not naturally inclined towards material of a scatological nature. No doubt my wife would disagree; all I can say in my defence is that I have never sought out culture of this kind, but that – being an expert of obscure European literature – I find it inevitably surfaces, as doth the stubborn turd, from time to time.
To put it another way, I’d rather not dwell on the relationship between defecation and creativity, were it not that I felt duty bound, on occasion, to do just that.
This is undoubtedly one of those occasions. After all, anyone who has read the latest published excerpt from my ground-breaking memoirs will have noticed that an entire section was devoted to this very indelicate subject. The subject, that is, of reading ‘in lavatorio’, also known as ‘bogging’, ‘restroomeading’, and ‘shiterature’. In short, letting the words go in whilst the waste goes out (and the curious benefits therewith).
Today, however, I would like to shift the focus onto a second form of defecatory creativity, which, for the purposes of this discussion, we may as well call ‘urinal reading’.
One’s regular sojourn to the standard urinal does not last terribly long: this much we know. Hardly long enough, you’d fancy, to get any serious reading done. Where there’s a challenge, though, there’s almost always an obscure European writer willing to take on that challenge. Enter, in this case, Egor Falastrom, author of the vaguely popular Dark Dreams of Delirious Dog-Catcher (and like-minded titles). Seeing a gap in the market, Falastrom has just released a series of poems designed to be read whilst standing at an urinal. Poems for Pissing, by all accounts, is already something of a success in his native country. ‘Falastrom has transformed the very nature of a piss,’ writes one critic, ‘changing it from a rather tedious task to a moment of transcendent, gushing, illumination’. For the first time in local history, men have been seen queuing for the toilet.
As for women, well, it seems they will have to wait. As yet, Falastrom is only posting his poems above urinals. He hopes to expand the art form, however, before too long. ‘I see myself, in future, on the back of all toilet doors in Turkey’, he told one magazine. Does this mean that he will be competing with Tosca Calbirro, originator of the toilet-paper novel? Not at all, claims Falastrom. His poems are designed for ‘pissing people only’. The ‘poo form’ he leaves to other, more experienced, practitioners.
Hardly the perfect conditions, you might think, in which to make sense of a highly complex theoretical text. Ah, but reading – as Speyer tells us – is a funny old thing. There is the book, there are your eyes following the line of words on the book, and there is your mind, perched on high like an eagle on a rock, trying to make sense of the landscape below. Some days the eagle catches a juicy mouse of wisdom, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the words just pass before your eyes. Yes, reading is a peculiar process. You can’t second-guess reading. You lay out your traps and your cages, but you never know which of them, if any, will take. Which is why, as Speyer never fails to remind us, you have to mix it up.
J-P Sertin writes again:
I returned to your house last night. It’s not a bad place, all told. A little damp for my liking, but that’s par for the course in this part of the city, is it not? It might also have something to do with the windows. Forgive me for pointing this out, but I do worry about your books. Don’t you think it might be better for me to look after some of them whilst you are away? Granted, my own flat has had its fair share of disasters (three months since the latest fire and counting) but at least they’d go down being read. There’s nothing sadder than a great collection of books sitting in an empty house. It is too cruel of you to have abandoned your babies! If you listen hard enough, you can hear them whimpering away. They miss their owners. They want to be read again; to be held again; to have their spines caressed by your fat stubby fingers.
Needless to say I am doing what I can to soften the blow of your departure. I have always been the consoling sort: you know that. If I see a book, or a woman, in distress, I put on my consoling hat, my comforting jacket, and my calming shoes, and I step forward into the fray. You cannot hold me back when a little light consoling is required. One loves to soothe, does one not? Oh yes, you have left your book collection in a fine pair of hands, dear Georgy. I will cradle your books. When they ask for solace, I shall provide. When they scream for relief, I shall come running. ‘Succour’ is my middle name. Jean-Pierre Succour Sertin. It has a ring to it, has it not?
As I march around your dear deserted house at night I like to think of myself as an officer in the foreign legion, defending a fort in the dark. And lord knows there is much to defend! Perhaps you should have employed an armed guard to ensure that your collection does not fall into enemy hands? We wouldn’t want anyone to get their grubby hands on your complete compendium of early twentieth-century Castilian comics, would we? And that peculiar sculpture of which I spoke last week. The more I see it, the more I am convinced that it is a masterpiece. I mean to say, it’s a horrible piece of work. But this is horribleness of the very highest order. It is the sort of thing which will not, nay cannot, be understood within our lifetime. It is too great for the times – which is why it needs to be looked after carefully. Future generations will thank us, profusely, for having the foresight not to throw it out, however much we feel we should. I only have to glance at it and I feel compelled to smash it to pieces. And yet I resist, if not for my own sake, than for the sake of future generations (god bless their little unborn souls).
When you gave me the key to your house (still lost, by the way: wherever could it be?) I must confess that I wasn’t too excited. By and large I don’t enjoy doing menial tasks for friends. My brother once asked me to water his plants for him whilst he took a holiday. I bowed out after the first day. It wasn’t the job for me. But this one has turned out rather differently. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I am actively enjoying my role as guardian of your property. I am not only enjoying it: I am somewhere close to taking it seriously. It’s not often that one is given the opportunity to snoop around a friend’s house. And to snoop at one’s leisure, over the course of several weeks! This is too good to be true. You have spoilt me, dear Georgy!
I can only hope that you are enjoying yourself as much as I am (though I doubt it, having left all your good books back in England). You must write, you know, and tell me of your adventures. How is your dear wife getting on? How are you coping with her continuing success as a poet – and your enduring lack of progress as a writer and researcher? I simply must know!
Ever yours, in theory,
P.S. I suppose you are wondering whether I have tracked down your memoirs, as requested? The truth is that I haven’t yet found the time to step up my search. I’ve been looking, in a casual sort of way, but nothing systematic as yet. Maybe later in the week?
[see Sertin’s earlier letter here]
You take the damp book with you and move towards the building, tiptoeing around the selection of books strewn across the ground. Every now and again you stop to examine one. You do not put it back where you found it.
Much the same rules apply inside as they did outside. There are books aplenty, though not in their usual places. One or two sit on a shelf – a nod to olden days – but they are very much in a minority. No point throwing out tradition wholesale, nor is there much to be said for clinging onto it. The Perfect Library seeks to keep readers on their toes.
There are books hanging like winter coats from hooks on the wall, or like light-bulbs from the ceiling. There are books piled up on the floor: leaning towers of literature which readers are encouraged to topple and reform. No disrespect is intended. Visitors are not encouraged to mistreat book; simply to put aside preciousness. ‘Muck in’ reads a sign on one wall. ‘Get involved’ reads another.
You jump up high, to see if you can catch one of the hanging books. You get nowhere from a stationary position, but with a short run you succeed in pulling down a hefty novel. You feel as though you have just caught a large fish. Hunting for books: you like this.
The Perfect Library makes you work – but work has rarely been this fun. Up the stairs you find a series of rooms in which books are subjected to ‘experimental treatment’. In one room they have been lined up in troughs of dried lavender. In another they have been partially submerged in warm, dungy compost.
Coming out of one room you see a book nailed to the door-frame. You pull out the nail, releasing the text. You’ll take this one back with you too. When you bring it back, one or two weeks later, you’ll find for it a new place. Maybe it can go in the garden. Up a tree, perhaps. You save the nail. It can go through another book next time.
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.