What books do best

I love films. I love music. I love games, comics, paintings, the lot. But most of all I love books, stories told in words. I’m not going to argue that my chosen favourite form of art/entertainment (if only there was one word that meant both and didn’t sound either pretentious or disparaging) is better than the others, because it’s not. They’re all means of telling stories, or saying interesting things, and they all work in different ways. The ones that work best are the ones that use the strengths of their form to the best advantage. In Watchmen, for instance, Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore deliberately used one of the advantages of comics to do something which can’t be translated into film — the fact that you can pack a lot of detail into each panel, and the reader can linger, and flip back and forth, to really absorb that detail. That’s why, when watching the recent film of Watchmen, I kept thinking, “But they’ve missed out… And what about… And where’s..?” All the way through.

But what do books do best? What are their strengths and weaknesses?

The weaknesses are obvious. Unlike all the other art-forms I listed above, they can only say one thing at a time — worse, they can only build up what they want to say one word at a time, which means you have to put a lot of work in just to get to the first thing they want to say. Music can be instantly impressive; the first shot of a film can just grab you; a splash page opening a comic takes you right into its story; but even “Call me Ishmael” has to be read one word at a time.

What are books’ strengths? I’ll take my answer not from a book, but a song:

Book after book
I get hooked
Every time the writer
Talks to me like a friend

— “Spaceball Ricochet“, Marc Bolan

Books talk to you, just like people do. Alright, you don’t see them waving their hands and pulling faces while they’re talking (books are more like telephone conversations, in that way), and they don’t allow you to talk back (or they don’t listen if you do), but although books are the least like our sensory experience of the world (mostly pictures and sounds), they are, I think, the most like our experience of people.

Some books (like some people) talk at you, and expect you to believe what they say because it’s they who say it. Such books are written by Authors, and their Authorship comes from them regarding themselves as Authorities — and that’s a little too close to regarding themselves as what Philip Pullman called The Authority in His Dark Materials, i.e., God. (Books written by Adults for children all too easily fall into this trap. Don’t they, my dearie wittle ones?)

The best books, though, are written by human beings, not Authors. They talk to you as an equal, as another human being, and don’t try to be clever or sophisticated or loud, or to put on airs:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson.

Idle reader: without my swearing to it, you can believe that I would like this book, the child of my understanding, to be the most beautiful, the most brilliant, and the most discreet that anyone could imagine. But I have not been able to contravene the natural order; in it, like begets like.

Don Quixote, Cervantes, translated by Edith Grossman

When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along to an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami

Ever since people started reading books silently (Saint Ambrose is recorded as the first to engage in this peculiar practice), when books speak, they do so inside your head. In this way, they can seem not so much to be speaking to you, as to be the result of your eavesdropping on someone else’s thoughts, their own interior monologue raised to the clarity of complete and artistically ordered sentences.

What goes on in other people’s heads is, of course, one of the great mysteries of life. We can be reasonably sure that if I see a red penguin and you see a red penguin then the sensory impression received by our eyes is roughly the same thing, but the thoughts that go through our separate heads (“A red penguin? Am I insane?!” and “Ah, the Red Penguin returns…”) can be as different as, well, two books on a shelf.

But it’s in books that we have the solution to this mystery. Books allow the most intimate contact with the inside of another person’s head, because the writer doesn’t have to talk to us like a friend, they can go one better, and talk to us as they would to themselves, either about themselves, or (if they’re pure narrator) about the story, situation or picture they see:

The Piano Teacher, Erika Kohut, bursts like a whirlwind into the apartment she shares with her mother. Mama likes calling Erika her little whirlwind, for the child can be an absolute speed demon. She is trying to escape her mother. Erika is in her late thirties. Her mother is old enough to be her grandmother.

The Piano Teacher, Elfriede Jelinek, translated by Joachim Neugroschel

Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls.

Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake

A-hind of hill, ways off to sun-set-down, is sky come like as fire, and walk I up in way of this, all hard of breath, where is grass colding on I’s feet and wetting they.

Voice of the Fire, Alan Moore.

A good book opens up a world and surrounds you in it. Because it starts inside your head, if read right, it replaces your senses and becomes your world, while you read it. One word at a time you go into all the strangeness, wonder, fear and peculiarity of being another human being. Which, you of course find, is just like being yourself. Only, with the furniture moved about a bit.

Stephen Fry and Alan Moore: They Got Rhythm

Recently re-reading Stephen Fry’s autobiography, Moab is My Washpot, (I’m in a memoir mood following Oliver Postgate’s Seeing Things — I’m now reading Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater), I found myself thinking that, at its most florid, Stephen Fry’s prose style has certain similarities to Alan Moore’s.

Moab is My Washpot by Stephen Fry

They come from opposite ends of the social spectrum, of course. Moore was born and raised in Northampton’s poorest area; Fry went (mostly) through the public school system. But this sort of contrast only makes the similarities between the two all the more interesting. Apart from a few superficials (both are tall men, both have been described as “National Treasures”), the main similarity, to me, is in the character of their writing and their all-welcoming generosity of spirit. Both have a gourmet’s love of language, gleefully discarding traditional ideas of writerly propriety, such as brevity or concision, for the uninhibited joys of wordplay. Both use the full resources of their (large) vocabularies, swooping effortlessly from the literary to the archaic, the scientific, and the crudest Anglo Saxon, with perfect poise. Both use long, complex sentences but are never unreadable. In fact, these things add to the life, the vigour, and therefore the readability, of their prose. As writers, both have that Chaucerian/Shakespearean ability to include all aspects and levels of life in their writing, from the low physical to the high spiritual, from art as Art to art as entertainment, and from life as poor comedy to life as high tragedy.

So, having formed my theory, I tried to find some corroborative evidence. Here, for instance is Alan Moore, from the start of what I think of as one of his best pieces of non-fiction prose, a review of the works of occultist Kenneth Grant, published as “Beyond Our Ken” in Kaos magazine issue 14 (which can be downloaded here):

As fascinating and ultimately mystifying as a giant squid in a cocktail dress, what shall we make of Kenneth Grant? I know few occultists without at least a passing interest in his work, and I know fewer still who would profess to have the first idea what he is on about. What he is on. To open any Grant text following his relatively lucid Magical Revival is to plunge into an information soup, an overwhelming and hallucinatory bouillon of arcane fact, mystic speculation and apparent outright fantasy, as appetising (and as structured) as a dish of Gumbo. The delicious esoteric fragments tumble past in an incessant boil of prose, each morsel having the authentic taste of magic…

I know the sound of both Moore’s and Fry’s speaking voices (which is certainly something that helps them come alive in my mind as I read them), so I tried reading a few of the more characteristic passages of Stephen Fry in the voice of Alan Moore. This, for instance, is Fry in full flight:

For the English the words healthy and hale, at their best, used to carry the full-belief weight of florid good cheer, cakes and ale, halidom and festive Falstaffian winter wassail. By the end of the seventeenth century, the hale health of pagan holiday was expelled from the feasting-hall along with Falstaff and Sir Toby Belch by the sombre holy day piety and po-faced puritanism of Malvolio, Milton and Prynne. “Health!” became no longer a bumping boozer’s toast but a quality of the immortal soul. Health no longer went with heartiness, but with purity. (From Moab is My Washpot, by Stephen Fry, p. 156)

Read as Alan Moore, it’s completely wrong. And the vice is as true of the versa. Moore’s prose (after that “As fascinating and ultimately mystifying as a giant squid in a cocktail dress”, which I can imagine Stephen Fry saying) just doesn’t fit even Fry’s gorgeously eloquent audiobook-friendly voice.

What’s going on? What is this magic of words that the best, most characteristic writers have, which brand them indelibly as their own and no-one else’s? What is “style”, which is at once so uniquely characteristic yet so infinitely variable? How can a writer write so many sentences, each different, but each sounding undoubtedly like them?

Whenever I read people trying to analyse “voice”, or style (and I love reading the attempts), it usually breaks down with resort to a word like “rhythm” — the “rhythm” of a particular writer’s prose — which always annoys me as an answer, because it seems to be cheating by shifting gears from literary to musical terms of reference. And besides, it implies it’s just about the pattern of syllables in a writer’s sentences, when it’s obviously so much more.

But when I try to come up with my own answer, I can’t help but do the same shift in gear. “Music” is the best I can come up with — the music of the way a writer uses his or her words. Not just the rhythm, but the melody and the harmony and the counterpoint, the characteristic key changes, the riffs and runs, and everything else. It’s the particular brand of humour, the breadth of curiosity and interest, the way a writer relates to his or her readers, their ability to link disparate ideas, the way they say one thing while meaning another…

Writing contains so much. It’s amazing to think how a single stream of words, read one at a time, can create such rich, multi-layered music, such magic, and how every writer who takes up the task of putting a sentence together does so in a way that is characteristically branded as theirs and no-one else’s. And when a writer surrounds you with their world, their way of thinking and looking, of laughing and feeling, it really is magic. It’s the magic of looking at the same world you always knew, but through another person’s eyes, and seeing just how different — different yet the same — it looks.

On Re-Reading Books

farnsworthIn the words of Futurama’s dithery Professor Farnsworth, “Good news, everyone!” — apparently, I am incredible. At least, I am according to this rather fatuous report, “Oops — I Read It Again!” (link from Neil Gaiman’s blog).

Why am I incredible? (You read my blog, yet have to ask?!) Because, it seems, I’m part of a rare 13% of the reading population — not just that 77% of it who admit to having “enjoyed a book* so much that they’ve gone back to read it again” (I’m not sure why “book” gets an asterisk — perhaps it’s a term that needs a more precise definition for the sort of people who read a site with a name like booktrade.info), but I’m part of the 17% who “have re-read a favourite tome more than five times” (surely not all of them were tomes, you lazy journalist, you — try scratching your head a few times before reaching for the thesaurus!)

Alright, so maybe reading a book — or several, I’ll not get into specifics yet — five times or more is odd, but surely it’s not “incredible”? But that’s just the word-geek in me getting picky. (To show how picky I can get, I also wonder why the report gives “C. S. Lewis” a full-stop after each initial, “J. K Rowling” only one, and “JRR Tolkien” none.) What makes this all the more distressing is that this is a report, I assume, from some sector of the book trade itself — as if the trade were so assured the wares it sells are so deeply worthless that reading them even once, after buying them, were to take things a bit far. (Certainly true in the case of sleb biographies and their like — maybe that’s the special meaning of book-with-an-asterisk I was looking for.)

Now that my incredible nature is out in the open, I might as well be frank about it. Not only do I habitually re-read books, I tend to regard reading a book for the first time as merely an opportunity to decide whether it’s worth re-reading — the re-reading bit being, for me, where the fun really starts. I tend to only keep books if I plan to re-read them at some time.

fantasy_100_bestI haven’t always been like this. I used to be un-incredible, at least most of the time. (Except as a kid. All kids demand re-reading of the books they like. They’re not stupid.) I can’t actually pinpoint when my incredible, perhaps even mythical, status kicked in, but aside from re-reading favourite Doctor Who novelisations (which, at one point in my life, were all I read), I tended to read books only once. What happened was something like this: I kept buying new books and finding they were bad. After a while, getting distressed that I hadn’t read anything good for a while, and worried that it was me that had gone wrong rather than the hallowed publishing industry, I decided to revisit a book I had enjoyed, just to make sure. To my relief, I found I enjoyed it even more. And then, perhaps, other new approaches to this whole business of “reading books” (that’s books-without-asterisks) started to suggest themselves. Such as the idea that books which have been around for a long time, and which have continually been published and read for decades, if not centuries, might actually be better than new books. Classics, as they’re sometimes called, even by people without thesauruses. This was when I started reading (and re-reading) books like Moorcock and Cawthorne’s Fantasy: 100 Best Books and Horror: The 100 Best Books edited by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman, and doing bizarre things like frequenting secondhand bookshops.

I know I’m probably still in a minority to re-read at least as much as I first-time read, but I do genuinely find it more pleasurable to re-read a book. Perhaps this is in part because I am, by nature, rather untrusting and over-critical as a reader. I want to know a book is worth investing in before I really go for it 100% in the reading — but if I am untrusting, it’s only because I’ve read so many bad and disappointing books that I’ve ended up that way.

murakami_sputniksweetheartThe main objection to re-reading a book is that there’s no point because you know what’s going to happen. But, to me, knowing what’s going to happen not only doesn’t matter, it actually makes it better. Exposed to stories as much as we are, we’ve all developed enough of a “story sense” to second-guess where a story is going anyway, and the real pleasure of a twist-in-the-tale is not so much the twist itself, as how skilfully it’s handled. My two most recent re-reads are both minor books by favourite authors — Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami, and The Violet Apple by David Lindsay. The first time I read Sputnik Sweetheart was when I’d just discovered Murakami. At the time, I’d only read his massive (genuinely tome-like) The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and in comparison found the slim Sputnik Sweetheart a bit disappointing, though with a strikingly weird bit in the middle (where a young woman gets stuck at the top of a Ferris wheel for the night and has an experience that turns her hair completely white), mainly because I wasn’t sure how to understand the end. Re-reading it, knowing how it ended, everything fell into place and made sense, and I had time to relax and understand other things about the book, like how each of the three main characters faces the same sort of strange crisis, but one evades it, one falls before it, and one — maybe — triumphs. With The Violet Apple, I found that knowing what was going to happen at the end only made the build-up much more poignant and emotionally powerful. (That’s how tragedy always works. Macbeth’s downfall was only a surprise for Macbeth himself.)

Another possible peculiarity of mine comes into play here, and this is to do with re-reading books by certain authors. The more you read of an author’s work, the more you get to understand them, and the more you get out of reading them. The first time I read the David Lindsay book, The Violet Apple, I was still under the spell of his most famous and impressive book, A Voyage to Arcturus, and so I read The Violet Apple with that other book in mind. But The Violet Apple is a very different book. It’s very un-fantastic, whereas A Voyage to Arcturus is almost nothing but fantastic; it’s also very human, whereas A Voyage to Arcturus is starkly inhuman. A Voyage to Arcturus could never contain a sentence such as “She could not bear that awful family loneliness and unsympathy”, but The Violet Apple does and, knowing Lindsay to be capable of writing such a sentence, I will in future re-read A Voyage to Arcturus slightly differently.

You don’t listen to a favourite song only once, do you? Why should books be any different, just because they take more time to re-experience? Human beings are memory-loving creatures. We treasure our experiences and go back over them, in our heads, again and again. Sometimes we do this to understand the experiences better, sometimes it’s just because revisiting them is so enjoyable. The reading of a book is an experience just like any other, and the reasons for doing it can be just the same.

fourtimesbooksTo end off, a not-necessarily-complete list of books I’ve read four times or more (with no explanations or apologies — though, to intensify my weirdness, I’ll say that at least two in this list are books I’ve re-read straightaway after reading them for the first time): Moving Zen by C W Nicol, The Belgariad by David Eddings, A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay, The Outsider by Colin Wilson, The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin, Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse, The Influence by Ramsey Campbell, The Drowned World by J G Ballard, V for Vendetta by Alan Moore & David Lloyd… Not to mention the countless short stories I’ve re-read many more times than four or five. Short stories are, after all, so much more re-readable. But simply reading short stories nowadays is enough to commit you to a very dark and dingy corner of the asylum reserved for book-readers. Catch you re-reading the things, and they throw away the key. Before you eat it, or do yourself an injury with it or something.

Comment imported from the old version of Mewsings:
Gavin Burrows

Hi Murray, My response here!


Alan Moore: The Complete Future Shocks

Moving back in time from the DC Universe Stories of Alan Moore, comes The Complete Future Shocks, recently released, whose first shock is — it’s not complete! Alright, so the two missing stories, “The Dating Game” and “The Killer In The Cab” were not Tharg’s Future Shocks or Time Twisters, being Ro-Jaws’ Robo-Tales, but as this volume does contain other one-off strips Moore did for 2000A.D., it’s a pity to have them missed out, as they’re unlikely to find a home in any other sort of collection. (But they are available online, at the 4ColorHeroes Alan Moore for Free page.)


The first thing that struck me about this nicely-put together volume was how some of the panels had stuck in my memory from when I read them originally in 2000A.D., even though the stories hadn’t. The one pictured above, for instance (from “They Sweep The Spaceways”, first published in July 1981). As soon as I saw it, I remembered coming across it for the first time and feeling vaguely disturbed at the thought of a lollipop getting stuck in someone’s beard. Well, I was ten years old at the time, so perhaps the idea of a lollipop getting stuck in a beard was important to me back then.

It’s interesting to trawl these short strips that mark Alan Moore’s first real steps in the comics world for signs of what was to come. The strip “Bounty Hunters!”, for instance, includes the idea that the shape-changing creature the titular bounty hunters are after may have transformed himself into the very planet they’re searching for him on. It turns out he hasn’t, but Moore went on to use that idea in the Tales of the Green Lantern Corps story “Mogo Doesn’t Socialize” — though the earlier tale used the idea in a more knowing way. Another early appearance of an idea later used when writing for DC is the story “Bad Timing”, which is basically a joke on Superman’s origins without actually being able to use the Superman character (Krypton becomes Klakton, etc.) The idea of “Superman’s” father being wrong about the destruction of his home planet is here a joke, but Moore later used it to serious effect in the Superman Annual story “For The Man Who Has Everything”. The idea of a life being lived backwards is used in “The Reversible Man” (a story that apparently had some of the secretaries at 2000A.D.‘s offices in tears when it first came out), and of course would be used again in 1995’s The Birth Caul.

I’m always interested in finding themes that permeate or emerge throughout a creator’s work. Moore’s oevure is incredibly diverse, which makes it hard to find such repeated themes (though the image of the transformed man emerging from flames, often naked but increased in power, occurs a lot in Moore’s more serious superhero work). Another theme I can see starting to develop in these early stories is super-intelligence, often going wrong. Moore has written a number of super-intelligent characters (Ozymandias in Watchmen is perhaps the apotheosis of this idea, a man whose cold rationality brings peace to the world at a price no merely feeling human being would ever countenance), but here we see super-intelligent characters who are rather too clever, and who get a corresponding comeuppance, such as Abelard Snazz, whose genius always lands him in trouble, and the Squonge-wearing humans in “Mister, Could You Use A Squonge?”, whose enhanced intelligence is plain faulty. Jack B Quick from the Tomorrow Stories comics is a later example from Moore’s work of over-cleverness leading to trouble.

Best tale of the bunch, for me, has to be “Eureka”, about how a mere idea can become a form of almost unstoppable alien invasion. The power and communicability of potentially transformative ideas, of course, could well be used to describe another of Moore’s interests that would develop later in his career — magic.