Books and books about books

A combination of things (several rail journeys and flights including two long haul, waits at airports due to snow, an unexpected 2 day diversion to a hotel outside Istanbul again due to snow,  a few days illness after Christmas, and a power cut lasting a whole morning) have all meant that I have spent more time reading than usual.  Now it is not that I do not want to read, and it has always been one of my chief pleasures, but as an academic, paradoxically, for many years my reading has narrowed to the next report, thesis or paper to review shutting out not just reading for pleasure, but any academic book or article that was not immediately necessary for the next deadline.

However, I have been wonderfully forced by circumstances back to the page.

I have already written about one of these “The Shadow of the Wind” while I was travelling, itself a book about books, and while travelling I also read Kathryn Harrison’s “A Thousand Orange Trees” (an eye opening but unrelentingly depressing vision of women’s life during the Spanish inquisition), Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes” (a sometimes depressing, but also glorious account of a hard Irish childhood), Jodi Picoult’s “Change of Heart” (on the death penalty and religion) and Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Ruth” (a wonderful book about the small mindedness and great generosity of the human spirit, especially remarkable when seen against its time).

… and then I had some new books for Christmas …

At first Keith Gray’s “Ostrich Boys” seems like a classic boy’s book with three friends ‘kidnapping’ the ashes of their friend Ross in order to give him a proper send off at Ross in Scotland.   Like all journey stories, a mixture of going on against the odds and self discovery, not in the league of Cynthia Voigt’s “Homecoming“, but more likely to be read by boys wanting a good adventure and being stretched in the process.

Mal Peet’s “Tamar” is clearly for ‘young adults’, a claustrophobic tale of war time resistance in 1945 cut through with a ‘modern day’ tale.  This parallel tale is a hard genre, and, like Joan Lingard “Natasha’s Will“, I felt Peet managed the 1945 tale better than the current day one1. Although Peet is writing for an older audience, I was reminded of the way Nina Bawden manages to get me to identify, however unwillingly at times, with the flawed characters in her children’s novels.

Susan Hill’s “Howards End is on the Landing” is, like “The Shadow of the Wind“, a book about books, but whereas Zafon’s Novel is set against a fictional library, Susan Hill tells us about her own bookshelves, which seem to coat and fill, like windblown snow, every wall and nook in her house.  She decides to spend a year reading only the books she already has on her shelves, a decision that coincides with a resolution to minimise use of the internet:

Too much internet usage fragments the brain and dissipates concentration so that after a while, one’s ability to spend long, focused hours immersed in a single subject becomes blunted.  Information comes pre-digested in small pieces, one grazes on endless ready-meals and snacks of the mind, and the result is mental malnutrition. (p.2)

This reminds me a little of Andrew Keen’s “The Cult of the Amateur” except Susan Hill says it more succinctly and elegantly.

Hill’s reading is both eclectic and catholic, encompassing Ian Flemming along with Trollope and Chaucer.  She takes Enid Blyton and J.K. Rowling seriously for their contribution to literacy (although unlike me does not re-read the former), and is happy to say that she never feels comfortable with Austin.  As she describes the titles she finds, sometimes lost between unlikely bedfellows, I am inspired to read them all and also to look to my own shelves:

A book which is left on a shelf for a decade is a dead thing, but it is also a chrysalis, packed with the potential to burst into new life. (p.2)

Susan Hill’s knowledge is amazing and the book is filled with anecdotes about authors she has met, known and corresponded with, giving hints of the inside story of many 20th century writers.  Sometimes I am surprised at her choices or rather not what she chooses, but more what she rejects.  In her list of books she has not read she includes:

Buddenbrooks. Thomas Mann

I want to read this . I mean to read this. I really do.

but also:

Romola. George Elliot

I do understand how I can have not read it.  (p.70)

Why?  Does she mean she can understand why it has not crossed her path, or that she does not want to read it? It is a book I have re-read several times, although always wishing the ending could be different.  I know she does not like “A Tale of Two Cities” feeling that Dickens is at his best when dealing with (for him) the contemporary; maybe she fears the same is true of Elliot?

However, Hill never assumes that her tastes are her readers’ tastes, she does not select the ‘good’ books, but the books she wants to read.

Sadly she does not supply a list of all the books she read during the year, but at the end she gives a ‘top 40’ list, with some I know well such as “The Mayor of Casterbridge“, some I know of but have never read, such as “A Passage to India“, and some I have never heard of such as “Flaubert’s Parrot“.  An instant Amazon Wish List!

Top of her top 40 are the Book of Common Prayer and the Bible (King James Version) — in the text (p173/174) deliberately in that order, but for some reason in the list at the end the Bible comes first, did she rethink after writing, or is it an editorial decision to make the list look neater?

This reminds me that I need to retrieve my battered school bible from underneath the pew where I left it after the Christmas morning service.  Also, the last of my Christmas reading (helped enormously by the enforced internet blackout due to the power cut), a book of Fiona’s “Whose Bible Is It?” by a biblical scholar and champion of inter-faith relations Joroslav Pelikan.  It is a book about a book, or rather a book about books, as Pelikan reminds us that the word “Bible” strictly means “little books”. I know some of the history of the forming of the modern Bible, but Pelikan’s encyclopaedic and detailed knowledge shines through.  I had not realised that it was the Greek Septuagint rather than the Hebrew Tanakh (Old Testament) that is quoted by the New Testament writers, making odd the decision of the early Protestants to excise the ‘Apocrypha’ (the writings in the Septuagint but not in the Hebrew).

It is a short and very readable book, but at times I found myself wanting to know a little more on some points.  When discussing the dates of the Gospels Pelikan notes that Mark is usually dated at 70CE, but doesn’t explain why.  Previously I’ve seen the same date quoted with the reason being that the Gospel appears to predict the fall of Jerusalem which happened in 70AD and therefore must have been written after.  This argument seems to presuppose that prediction is impossible and by analogy would inevitably lead to future historians excising or re-dating  several of Vince Cable’s statements prior to the 2008 financial crash. Maybe there is a better reason, or maybe, like other academic disciplines, biblical scholarship is a servant of its assumptions.

And now … no more power cuts and the internet is flawless, but trying not loose momentum with Sheila Stewart’s “Pilgrims of the Mist“, Mike Parker’s “Map Addict” and George Basalla’s “The Evolution of Technology” all on the go … maybe another post in a couple of weeks.

  1. Try also Susan Cooper’s “Victory” for a story that blends past and current narrative with equal conviction.[back]

book: The Shadow of the Wind, Zafon

I’ve been reading “The Shadow of the Wind” by Carlos Zafon.  It is actually a gift from Sinterklaas as I had the joy a few weeks ago to be with Mari-Carmen, Theo and Andrea in Utrecht at ‘Sinterklaas‘ (5th December, St Nicholas Day), the day when Santa delivers presents in Holland (maybe his dry run each year to get into shape ready for the big run on Christmas Eve).  I hadn’t expected Santa to remember me in Utrecht as he will be visiting Tiree this week.  However, to my joy I also had gifts including this book1.

What can be more enchanting than a book about books, a book that starts with the finding of a book, where the protagonist is brought up in a bookshop, has parents who met in a bookshop and who falls in love during the reading of a book.

Zafon creates an entangled plot where the characters in the book and the characters in the book that is in the book sometimes seem to almost merge into one another; a whodunnit ranged around dusty bookshelves, tattered undelivered letters, the lonely, the haunted and the deranged, all set in the rain-soaked streets of post-war Barcelona.

The Shadows of the Wind is full of wonderful phrases, often wry or ribald, but always perceptive, which cry out to be quoted:

On Latin: “There’s no such thing as a dead language, only dormant minds

On the impact of TV: “Humans will return to living in caves, to medieval savagery, and to the general state of imbecility that slugs overcame back in the Pleistocene era.

On courtship and gender: “you’re the man, and must take the lead … One has to pay some price for being able to pee standing up.

On the sound of teachers: “Years of teaching had left him with that firm didactic tone of someone used to being heard, but not certain of being listened to.

On action: “destiny does not do home visits. You have to go for it yourself.

Just as The Shadows of the Wind starts with a book and a secret, so it ends with a book and a secret, stories repeat, but sometimes get rewritten.

  1. I strongly suspect that Mari-Carmen helped Sinterklaas by advising a good choice of book.[back]

book: How Green Was My Valley

After too many years I eventually read Richard Llewellyn’s “How Green Was My Valley“, which tells the story of growing up in a South Wales valley at the end of the 19th century.  I vaguely recall seeing the film of the book on the TV one Sunday afternoon as a small child.

You can read the book as a social commentary of a time past, or as a coming of age novel set around with stories of strikes and singing, madness and joy, requited and unrequited loves.   But above all it is a book of poetry, not in the sense of verse, but that form of prose that raises goosebumps down your back:

“… and I raised my arms and drew tight the muscles of my body, and as the blood within me thudded through my singing veins, a goldness opened wide before me and I knew I had become of Men, a Man.” (Chap. 24)

“My Valley, O my Valley, within me, I will live in you eternally … for part of me is the memory of you in your greens and browns, with everything of life happy in your deeps and shades, when you gave sweet scents to us, and sent for spices for the pot, and flowers, and birds sang out for pleasure to be with you.” (Chap. 18)

A recurrent theme through the novels is the gradual covering of that green, the burying of the valley sides and trees beneath the encroaching blackness of the slag, the coal tips, which as a child I recall still covering the valley sides north of Cardiff.  Indeed the novel is narrated by an old man thinking back over his childhood as he leaves his family home for the last time, a home itself now half buried as the slag spreads ever down the valley.

In the early days of coal mining the slag, the pieces of coal that were too small to burn, was left below the ground, rammed hard into the sides of the tunnels, strengthening and supporting them. But in the time of the book, and on throughout the 20th century, it proved cheaper and quicker to bring everything to the surface and separate there, the remains being spread upon the mountain sides in dark hills of their own, like welts upon a diseased landscape eaten underground by men.

“There is a patience in the Earth to allow us to go into her, and dig, and hurt with tunnels and shafts, and if we put back the flesh we have torn from her and so make good what we have weakened, she is content to let us bleed her. But when we take, and leave her weak where we have taken, she has a soreness, and an anger that we should be so cruel to her and thoughtless of her comfort. So she waits for us, and finding us, bears down, and bearing down, makes us a part of her, flesh of our flesh, with our clay in place of the clap we thoughtlessly have shovelled away.” (Chap. 42)

These are the thoughts of the elderly Huw looking back at the moment when he sat with his father part buried and dying after a roof fall.  Prescient today when we are at last beginning to realise how much we have taken from the earth and how little given back.

But, while the narrator is thinking of the toll taken on the miners underground by the thoughtless drive for profit and cheap coal, those brooding slag heaps remind me more of the dark repayment taken above.

One of the defining moments of my own childhood, was when, a few months after the Aberfan disaster, we drove up to Brecon along the valley road, and looked across the valley to a field of white crosses, like the images of Flanders on Armistice day, only no red poppies among the white graves, just white against green a ghastly mirror of the black upon green of the coal tip that rolled down the valley-side burying the school of Aberfan and taking the lives of  whole generation of children.



Qualification vs unlimited education

In “Adrift in Caledonia“, Nick Thorpe is in the Shetland Isles speaking to Stuart Hill (aka ‘Captain Calamity’).  Stuart says:

“What does qualification mean? … Grammatically, a qualification limits the meaning of a sentence. And that’s what qualifications seem to do to people. When you become a lawyer it becomes impossible to think of yourself outside that definition. The whole of the education system is designed to fit people into employment, into the system. It’s not designed to realise their full creativity.”

Now Stuart may be being slightly cynical and maybe the ‘whole of education system’ is not like that, but sadly the general thrust often seems so.

Indeed I recently tweeted a link to @fmeawad‘s post “Don’t be Shy to #fail” as it echoed my own long standing worries (see “abject failures“) that we have a system that encourages students to make early, virtually unchangeable, choices about academic or career choices, and then systematically tell them how badly they do at it. Instead the whole purpose of education should be to enable people to discover their strengths and their purposes and help them to excel in those things, which are close to their heart and build on their abilities.  And this may involve ‘failures’ along the way and may mean shifting areas and directions.

At a university level the very idea behind the name ‘university’ was the bringing together of disparate scholars.  In “The Rise and Progress of  Universities” (Chapter 2. What is a University?, 1854) John Henry Newman (Cardinal Newman, recently beatified) wrote:

“IF I were asked to describe as briefly and popularly as I could, what a University was, I should draw my answer from its ancient designation of a Studium Generale, or “School of Universal Learning.” This description implies the assemblage of strangers from all parts in one spot;—from all parts; else, how will you find professors and students for every department of knowledge? and in one spot; else, how can there be any school at all? Accordingly, in its simple and rudimental form, it is a school of knowledge of every kind, consisting of teachers and learners from every quarter. Many things are requisite to complete and satisfy the idea embodied in this description; but such as this a University seems to be in its essence, a place for the communication and circulation of thought, by means of personal intercourse, through a wide extent of country.”

Note the emphasis on having representatives of many fields of knowledge ‘in one spot’: the meeting and exchange, the flow across disciplines, and yet is this the experience of many students?  In the Scottish university system, students are encouraged to study a range of subjects early on, and then specialise later; however, this is as part of a four year undergraduate programme that starts at 17.  At Lancaster there is an element of this with students studying three subjects in their first year, but the three year degree programmes (normally starting at 18) means that for computing courses we now encourage students to take 2/3 of that first year in computing in order to lay sufficient ground to cover material in the rest of their course.  In most UK Universities there is less choice.

However, to be fair, the fault here is not simply that of university teaching and curricula; students seem less and less willing to take a wider view of their studies, indeed unwilling to consider anything that is not going to be marked for final assessment.  A five year old is not like this, and I assume this student resistance is the result of so many years in school, assessed and assessed since they are tiny; one of the reasons Fiona and I opted to home educate our own children (a right that seems often under threat, see “home education – let parents alone!“).  In fact, in the past there was greater degree of cross-curricula activity in British schools, but this was made far more difficult by the combination of the National Curriculum prescribing content,  SATs used for ‘ranking’ schools, and increasingly intrusive ‘quality’ and targets bureaucracy introduced from the 1980s onwards.

Paradoxically, once a student has chosen a particular discipline, we often then force a particular form of breadth within it.  Sometimes this is driven by external bodies, such as the BPA, which largely determines the curriculum in psychology courses across the UK.  However, we also do it within university departments as we determine what for us is considered a suitable spread of studies, and then forcing students into it no matter what their leanings and inclinations, and despite the fact that similar institutions may have completely different curricula.  So, when a student ‘fails’ a module they must retake the topic on which they are clearly struggling in order to scrape a pass or else ‘fail’ the entire course.  Instead surely we should use this this as an indication of aptitude and maybe instead allow students to take alternative modules in areas of strength.

Several colleagues at Talis are very interested in the Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU), which is attempting to create a much more student-led experience. I would guess that Stuart Hill might have greater sympathy with this endeavour, than with the traditional education system.  Personally, I have my doubts as to whether being virtually / digitally ‘in one spot‘ is the same as actually being co-present (but the OU manage), and whether being totally student-led looses the essence of scholarship, teaching1 and mentoring, which seems the essence of what a university should be. However, P2PU and similar forms of open education (such as the Khan Academy)  pose a serious intellectual challenge to the current academic system: Can we switch the balance back from assessment to education?  Can we enable students to find their true potential wherever it lies?

  1. Although ‘teaching’ is almost a dirty word now-a-days, perhaps I should write ‘facilitating learning’![back]

The Book Thief – Zusak

I have just finished reading Markus Zusak’s “The Book Thief“, about a small girl in wartime Germany and narrated by Death, as in the one who comes to take souls.  Amongst the hatred of Nazism and falling bombs, the story is of despair and love, cruelty and courage, hard words and big hearts, but told with wry humour and in a dry matter-of-fact prose so that it was only on the last few pages I wept.

Reflection in practice: Schön and science

I have just finished reading Schön’s “The Reflective Practitioner“. It is one of those books that you feel you ought to have read years ago, resonating so much with many of my own thoughts and writing about creativity and innovation. However, I found myself at odds slightly with the adversarial dualism between science and practice, but realise this is partly because it is a book of its time. I will return to this later.

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Total Quality, Total Reward and Total Commitment

I’ve been reading bits of Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman1 off and on for some months. It has had many resonances, and I meant to write a post about it after reading its very first chapter. However, for now it is just part of one of the latter chapters that is fresh. Sennett refers to the work of W. Edwards Deming, the originator of the term ‘total quality control’. I was surprised at some of the quotes “The most important things cannot be measured”, “you can expect what you inspect” — in strong contrast to the metrics-based ‘quality’ that seems to pervade government thinking for many years whether it impacts health, policing or academia, and of course not unfamiliar to many in industry.

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  1. Richard Sennett, The Craftsman, Penguin, 2009[back]

not quite everywhere

I’ve been (belatedly) reading Adam Greenfield‘s Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing. By ‘everywhere’ he means the pervasive insinuation of inter-connected computation into all aspects of our lives — ubiquitous/pervasive computing but seen in terms of lives not artefacts. Published in 2006, and so I guess written in 2004 or 2005, Adam confidently predicts that everywhere technology will have  “significant and meaningful impact on the way you live your life and will do so before the first decade of the twenty-first century is out“, but one month into 2010 and I’ve not really noticed yet. I am not one of those people who fill their house with gadgets, so I guess unlikely to be an early adopter of ‘everywhere’, but even in the most techno-loving house at best I’ve seen the HiFi controlled through an iPhone.

Devices are clearly everywhere, but the connections between them seem infrequent and poor.

Why is ubiquitous technology still so … well un-ubiquitous?

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understanding others and understanding ourselves: intention, emotion and incarnation

One of the wonders of the human mind is the way we can get inside one another’s skin; understand what each other is thinking, wanting, feeling. I’m thinking about this now because I’m reading The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition by Michael Tomasello, which is about the way understanding intentions enables cultural development. However, this also connects a hypotheses of my own from many years back, that our idea of self is a sort of ‘accident’ of being social beings. Also at the heart of Christmas is empathy, feeling for and with people, and the very notion of incarnation.

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