Saturday, June 21, 2008

Adam Hochschild: Bury the Chains

From: Bought at Borders to get context for paper on Atlantic slave literature.
When: Early in Trinity term 2008.
Verdict: Worth Consuming
Fate: Second hand/ Charity.

Hailing from a Northern European country technically speaking more colonized than ever imperialist, I knew very little – shockingly little – about the Atlantic slave trade, and had never been exposed to slave literature in school (it is apparently a common stop on the curriculum in both British and US educations). In fact, I had never heard of it as a genre until it popped up in the Romantics period paper at university.
Since my brain is like a sieve if deprived of historical information to attach the cultural stuff onto, I went to the book store in search of context. There I found this book, which proved so useful, exciting and inspirational that although I had mined it for exams, I decided to read it properly immediately after Finals.

Bury the Chains tells two main stories, and from a PC perspective it could perhaps be construed as a little problematic that its red thread is a "white" story – that of the unrelenting abolitionist activists without whom the cause against slavery would probably have moved much slower. This same story is, on the other hand, the strength of the book: Hochschild takes us back to the roots of the modern political movement and the small group of men (and some women) who basically invented the tools of the mass campaign. The power of a few individuals to change minds on a massive level is convincingly argued and, I believe, the point of the book. The kinds of challenges now faced by humanity require change that many would consider unthinkable – but then so was ending the slave trade, necessary perhaps and morally right, but economically and practically "impossible". Yet, as Hochschild shows, a surprisingly small number of people (both those he chronicles and those he only nods at) changed the minds of the western world in only a generation.

The hard-working Quakers and ardent Anglican campaigners make for an appealing group of heroes, and Hochschild turns on the storyteller to create for the reader a vivid idea especially of family life and customs in England in a time of revolutions. If he fares less well with bringing to life the other story, that of the "Sixty Million and more" to whom Tony Morrison dedicated Beloved, that is also because the reader resists the information. My mind at least recoils at the scale and depth of the torture the slave trade involved: the uprooted millions, the torments of the passage, the cruelty and lawlessness of the majority of slave owners, the economical structures that made it all possible. (The same out-of-sight-out-of-mind-mechanic which of course enables us to be blind to slavery today).

There is nothing pleasant about reading those harrowing sequences, whereas it is very pleasant indeed to read about Granville Sharp's family orchestra in a barge on the Thames, and this places an uncomfortable imbalance at the heart of the book. For a reader like me, though, who came to the topic with only scant information, there is more than enough on conditions, practices and policies to feel that I now have at least some idea of the atrocities – if only on a level primarily useful as general background for, say, the US elections or news from Haiti.

Hochschild uses sources – legal and literary, journals and eye-witness reports – to fluently aid his description, but few of the slaves whose names are now remembered lived long enough to get to stay with the narrative for the many decades it covers. The "celebrities", as it were, are there, of course, and this is not at all a bad book to read for context on a writer like Olaudah Equiano (in some editions of his work known by his slave name of Gustavus Vassa). Hochschild does what he can with the available material, but inevitably, the panorama is one of blacks who struggle for their lives and lose, and whites who struggle against the system and ultimately prevail.

Knowing a fair deal about the period and, by the time I returned to the book, about British slave literature, I sometimes felt that the way Hoschschild presented especially literary sources was imprecise. I found myself going "Yes, that's true, but on you should also say…" – but I guess this is how all popular history works, and true by necessity of any work this wide in scope. Bury the Chains served my purpose very well and I recommend it as an introduction to the topic of slavery and abolition. That it is also an inspirational read for anyone wishing to change the world is an added bonus.

OK, I know you wanna see a picture of the Sharp Family Orchestra on their barge, and naturally my favourite museum, the National Portrait Gallery, has one.

Buy Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery on Amazon.

PS. I'm pretty sure I still have another book by Hochschild, in Swedish - Kung Leopold's Vålnad (King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism), an award-winning bestseller on atrocities and eccentricities in colonial Congo. Having narrowly avoided having it sent to me from the historical book club, I succumbed in the same year when the hard cover was cheap at the sale of the student book store at the Frescati campus of Stockholm University. Now I quite hope I haven't given it away; if Hochschild's formula is mixing "Greed, Terror and Heroism" I already know it'll be both thought-provoking and a good read.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Tom Wolfe: I Am Charlotte Simmons

From: The English Bookshop i Århus, while actually buying Christmas gifts for my family members.
When: December, 2007
Verdict: Vivid but flawed (or perhaps just pessimistic).
Fate: Second hand/ Charity

I wanted to read this book since it was published, and the wait has been especially hard since my copy has such a satisfying cover, with the title laid out as a swooshy print on a midriff-baring t-shirt on some faceless coed hottie. Having read the book, which incidentally felt about two hundred pages too long, I'm not so sure about that cover anymore. It seems to suffer from the same unease about gender roles that plagues the novel as a whole, and which may be brilliant but is probably just pessimistic. Possibly I came to the book with the wrong expectations, but I should say that this was hardly my fault, since the expectations were based entirely on the cover, the title and the first few chapters.

Charlotte Simmons is poor – a child of the working poor – a scion of a rural village so tiny and remote that no-one's ever heard of it. But Sparta, North Carolina, is always audible in her speech, visible in her dress, the foundation of her attitudes; in the unforgettable phrase of the team of writers currently performing as "Cecily von Ziegesar", she is "a Podunk loser, a Wal-Mart frequent shopper".

Charlotte also happens to be really, really, really bright, to have access to a good teacher, and a chance for a place in any of the Ivies. The book follows her fledgling career as a full-scholarship girl at the fictional Dupont university, and her first contacts with peer pressure, sex, alcohol, drugs, the casual cruelty of the privileged, and especially their laziness, which seems to surprise and annoy the author as much as it does Charlotte. Tom Wolfe has no patience with way many of the very expensively educated choose to view college as a four-year fuck-about, a carnival environment in which to blow off steam until the real world arrives with its demands, duties and expectations.

I myself went to Oxford as a 24-year old who already had a career, an identity and a serious boyfriend, so my situation was very different from Charlotte's, but, admittedly, I do recognize myself both in the outsider perspective on an elite institution and in the range of reactions of the students in general to its traditions. Perhaps this is also why the book ultimately felt so disappointing and, for lack of a better word, dirty. I had expected to identify with the main character, but ss the book progresses Charlotte rapidly loses definition as a person, a fictional character and a female of the species. Described as they are as contributing to her doom, I found it almost impossible to transfer my allegiance onto any of the other characters.

Although it's set up as a story about different kinds of capital – cultural, economic, social – I Am Charlotte Simmons isn't really about class. It's about three models of masculinity, represented by Charlotte's three boyfriends: the obnoxious frat beefcake, the bumbling super-jock celeb, and the ambitious ultra-geek. The story requires Charlotte to date all three, but this set-up feels entirely contrived. Wolfe explains the development with Charlotte's combination of sexual attractiveness and innocence, describing it in language which veers between nostalgia and voyeurism and often makes me physically uncomfortable. In the process, the title character becomes a servant wench to the structure of the novel. As the phrase "I am Charlotte Simmons" loses its meaning for the protagonist, rapidly subsumed in the push-pull of the college universe around her, it also loses its meaning for the reader, and the novel flounders.

I admit that might be the point. I admit Wolfe might be saying that no matter what kind of masculinities Charlotte interacts with, a bright young woman aspiring to a the social elite will have to compromise to be accepted. To sacrifice at least some of her brilliance and independence and most of her core values not to be considered unattractive, and to become both entirely predictable and entirely forgettable in the process, much like Charlotte does within the book. This kind of meta trickery is ofl course also possible to reconcile with the journalistic method of the novel as a whole, since it is indeed a fact that a lot of people of both sexes who go to really good schools end up disappointing themselves and everyone else. It is, however, a stunted and bitter conclusion to a novel about the next generation of world leaders.

The craft involved is still impressive. When Wolfe writes the characters' most secret thoughts, it makes me wonder whether this, too, is interview material. Does he empathize and understand this well, or is he – as astonishingly – able to create such trust in the interview situation that it becomes like therapy to the people who will be his characters? I don't know anything about his method, but this book makes me curious to find out, and I'm likely to spend time with both his journalism and his other novels in the future.

Buy I Am Charlotte Simmons on Amazon.

PS The kind of partying-induced slacking off described in the novel is harder to pull off at Oxford or Cambridge, where you meet your tutors weekly. The independence and anonymity of a normal type of university education – like that offered at "Dupont" – is a destructive companion to a cultural expectation that higher education is inseparable from constant intoxication.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Alan Moore's Writing For Comics Volume 1

From: Bought at the Helsinki Comic Book Festival.
When: Unclear. In the 00s, but almost certainly before I was ever asked to be a scriptwriter for comics myself.
Verdict: Mostly for fans; moderately useful for the beginning scriptwriter.
Fate: Gave it as a gift to Rachel, a classmate who wants a career in graphic novels.

This book is very strange in that most of it is written in the 1980s, but a last chapter glued onto the original fanzine content in the mid-90s documents Alan Moore's changing attitude to his own work and methods. He essentially says, that while everything in the booklet is sound advice, he himself would under no circumstances work in the described fashion any longer. Once you've mastered a style, it is time to move on, and some of the devices from the Swamp Thing years described and recommended in the first part were becoming clichés even as he wrote about them. (In my glorious master Moore's defense, although he does not say so, they were becoming clichéd because both instantly recognizable and widely copied).

To me, Writing For Comics is more interesting as a window onto a writer's thoughts about his method than as a tool of figuring one out for yourself (and, anyway, the kind of pseudo manga I work with is very, very different from graphic novels of this type). As far as I can tell there is no "Vol 2", but I quite wish there were: Alan Moore's work has changed so much, and he has spoken so very interestingly of it in interviews, that I can't imagine he wouldn't have a whole deal more to share should he wish to. In fact, for most readers, turning to the following Salon interviews, from 2004 and 2000 is probably a more sensible use of time than reading the book. Nevertheless, I passed my copy on to a mate who has graphic novelism as her career goal.

Buy Writing for Comics: 1 at Amazon UK.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

One Additional Exception

My best friend Jaakko admitted that he had considered buying me any number of books for my birthday, then stopped himself, then considered buying them anyway and claiming to have done so before the Embargo, then not done so because he was actually a supporter of the Embargo, then threw his hands up in despair and asked whether the rule really, really had to apply to comics and graphic novels?

About a week in, I was starting to feel desperate myself, and said that he could, absolutely, give me comics. In retrospect, it was just book greed, but at the time I felt that it was reasonable, since comics are generally read faster, and I'm allowed to buy single issues anyway. Since I am actually in the industry, I could have added that all comics also qualify as necessary research, except that it's not really necessary, and I have plenty of comics I haven't had time to get around to on account of my Oxford Finals.

But the exception has been made, and it stands.

"Good idea, anyway, this Embargo," Jaakko says; he is an expert in all kinds of guilt and understood exactly how I felt. "But it requires its own blog."

So here we are.

Monday, June 02, 2008

The Rules of the Book Embargo

These are the rules of the Book Embargo.

Until the end of the year 2010, I will buy no books for myself (gifts to others are OK). I will respectfully ask my closest friends and relatives – those likeliest to give me books as gifts – not to give me any either.

The cut-off date has been chosen to fit an MA degree, since I know from my BA years that the discipline of reading study materials will actually make me manically stock up on novels and contemporary affairs books that "to read later", as though there will be no bookstores later, and as though those same books would not be cheaper to buy later.

These are the exceptions to the Book Embargo

1) People who have bought me books before being told can give them to me.

2) People can gift me with books that have a deeper, personal significance than "I like you". These kinds of book gifts range from, say, my gran making sure I get her copy of Scarlett, or my grandad giving me his personal copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

3) I can buy or receive books that are necessary for work or study and cannot reasonably be expected to borrow from a library, either because I will need them for long-term use, or because I will need to write in them.

4) In emergencies, like being trapped in a transit area waiting for a trans-Atlantic flight that is 14 hours late and having read everything in the carry-on, I can buy a book. But after having finished it, I must immediately give it away.

(People have been very critical about exception four, although I can't actually imagine a situation where I could use it. Even in the example above, I could totally read a Vanity Fair and then watch movies the whole flight).

5) My boyfriend can give me books.

Actually, we haven't talked this through in any systematic way, but basically, he will buy books and some of them will be for me, and I am too weak-willed (and smitten) to turn down any kind of love gift.

My family received the Rules fairly gracefully. For my thirtieth birthday, I received only one book, and that was a coffee table book from my godfather whose work featured heavily on its pages (entirely acceptable under exception 2).

My best friend practically cried, until I had agreed to one more exception.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Need For the Book Embargo

Two weeks before my thirtieth birthday I sent out an email to my loved ones. I was only beginning to recover from the traumatic process of collecting my possessions, spread out in five apartments in four countries, into a sixth apartment in a fifth country – my new home where I was to make a life with the love of my life. He knew, of course, that I am a bibliophile with a literature, but I suspect he had not entirely understood what that ultimately entails. At the time of the email our life together was starting to seem practically impossible: much as I love him, I was not entirely certain there was space for him in our apartment. My boyfriend is very tall.

I had made a radical cull of my book collection in Sweden, given boxes of books to charities in Finland, and sold a back-breaking load of text books back to Blackwell's in Oxford, from which I scored a fortune in cash (nowhere close to the cost of mailing the remainder to Denmark). Now I was sitting in Århus with books for several lifetimes, chuffed-looking postmen delivering additional boxes daily, a desperate dearth of shelf space and an overwhelming sense of guilt. Guilt about the money I'd spent on these books, and about all the books I'd been given as gifts and had hardly looked at, ecological guilt, and something more profound relating to my life-style choices during the past fifteen years, which made me feel equally awful about the time I'd spent reading and the time I'd spent doing anything else. This is when I thought up the embargo.

I asked my boyfriend for his views, and he agreed to it on two conditions: that he would still be allowed to buy books for himself, and that he would still be allowed to give me books as gifts. Secretly relieved, since I saw in this a convenient loophole, I immediately agreed. Then I made up some rules, and emailed my family an apologetic email. Everyone I love also loves books, and I was worried that they would not understand how suffocated I was suddenly feeling. I guess I worried that they'd somehow take it personally. They all have great taste in books. I wrote to them that this, exactly, was the POINT – that I wanted a chance to read the books they'd already given me.

I'd already gotten rid of every book, even the good ones, that I felt fairly certain I would never want to read again. The goal of the embargo would be to continue this process, and gain some kind of equilibrium, in which the total amount of books in the apartment would in the future be lower rather than higher.

Equilibrium: I only realized it as I wrote the word just now, but although libra means balance, librarius means relating to books. This connection is what had become skewed in my life.