This month on the Ark Review, taking inspiration from Mark Grief’s recent book “Against Everything”, we are going to try and write against everything. Collectively though, and one subject at a time. So really more like Against ________. As in, fill in the ________.
STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING AND READ THIS!
For God’s sake! this sentence seems to scream: STOP! Just STOP! And read this.
Now, contrary to what you might think, this is not a catch phrase from a famous bumper sticker, neither is it a bill board message from an oversized marketing display on Times Square. This is in all it’s simplicity the colourful title of a book I stumbled upon in Foyles in London a few years back.
Ever since I picked that book down from the its homely shelf life in the “Literary essays” department and read it, I have thought of this sentence and smiled every time people ask me for another book recommendation, or when I enter a new and unknown bookshop just to browse through. And now that we’ve named the theme of this month’s Ark Review Against _____________, it seems natural to set it all off by addressing the concept of book recommendation; letting others’ tastes in literature guide your next bookish adventures.
… sharing stories with others is quite a different pleasure game compared to the thrill of the innocent discovery of a book I just happened to stumble upon … Kind of like a that time, when you accidentally discovered a new favourite ice cream flavour.
Of course, recommendations are what bookstores are all about. Bookstores stock and present stories that are interesting, funny, challenging, mind blowing and enjoyable (preferably!) And as we enter those doors to paradise (cf. Borges), we trust that our shelf findings, whatever they may be, have made it through some sort of enlightened validation from first the editor and/or publisher and then the picky bookseller – just by the very fact that the books there have been given precious and sometimes costly shelf space.
And so it might seem peculiar to bring into question this core feature which we love about bookshops. But as much as I love reading and recommending books to other readers, sharing stories with others is quite a different pleasure game compared to the thrill of the innocent discovery of a book I just happen to stumble upon (on my own) as my eyes meticulously search shelf after shelf looking for something new and literary to devour. Kind of like a that time, when you accidentally discovered a new favourite ice cream flavour. Nothing really beats it. Why? Because, my friend, it gives you a sense of destiny: that it was meant to be. Or at least, that is the perceived romance of bookstores (and ice cream).
The best stories you’ve never heard!
So, in honour of the Ark slogan and intuitive bookshelf picking, I will share with you some of the best stories I had never heard – even though the review theme speaks against that very same thing (but how can I help it?) It’s a romance in 10 short chapters, I have tried to narrow the list down to what seems readable within the frame of this review. Also note that I have tried to sort the readings by geographical point of pick up, so that you (if you wish) can also read this as a bookshop recommendation, if you – like me – are the type of reader that googles “favourite local indie bookstore” when you do your global travel planning. Lastly, I will encourage you to try maybe just once in a while to pick out a book at random and see where it takes you. And. If you are curious for more, you are as always more than welcome to come peruse at the store in Møllegade – the best stories you’ve never heard: it’s our specialty!
So. STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING AND READ THIS! – if not for God’s sake, then most definitely for your own.
STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING AND READ THIS
Randomly picked up at: Foyles, London
As mentioned, this little gem was waiting for me in the Literary essays department, and as my index finger touched one book after another by Eco, Barthes, Benjamin, Eagleton and the gang, something made me stop at this colourful spine. It is a compilation of essays from the pens of various well-known literary personas, and as it says in the Foreword: “This book is a manifesto. In a year of rude awakening to low levels of literacy and a widespread apathy towards books and reading, this book demands an interruption.” This is the book that introduced me to the wonderful work of The Reader Organisation (Jane Davis) and gave me insights into Zadie Smith’s “Library Life” while growing up. Entries also by Michael Rosen, Jeannette Winterson, Nicholas Carr, Mark Haddon, Blake Morrison, et. al. All essays in the book each in their own way highlights the importance of books and reading as vital ingredients for our general sanity and mental survival. So, actually this one is a matter of life or death. Just sayin’.
An Everywhere: A Little Book About Reading by Heather Reyes
Randomly picked up at: Shakespeare & Sons, Berlin
Sometimes books just strike a chord in you and this book is no different. As you may know, I am the type of reader that reads with a pen: I am so fond of margin doodles, exclamation marks in particular! And the margin doodles in my copy of this book are quite telling for the level of connection I felt when I first read this brilliant travel guide to the wonderful world of literature, which is also a truly a story of personal transformation as facilitated by books in the face of terminal illness. Almost every page in my copy has at least two or three exclamation marks next to one another, which is my way of stating: “YES, I know!” or “So true!!” You will know Heather Reyes as a London publisher-and-writer, also the co-founder of Oxygen Books, and in this book, her brutally honest and captivating account of her fight against cancer mixes so beautifully with a long list of very relevant literary name dropping and eloquent discussion, as she uses her impressive knowledge of literary history as a walking stick-slash-road map through harsh chemotherapy treatment and subsequent recovery in the splendid Italian exteriors. So beautiful. It comes highly recommended!
I’m Your Man – The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons
Randomly picked up at: The surprisingly well-assorted book section next to the LPs in HMV, Oxford Street, London
This-is-a-book-about-Leonard-Cohen-therefore-I-must-own-it. Basically, that’s it! Want to know why? Read this declaration of my Cohen Crush.
Also note how he’s greeting the reader/listener by his lifting the hat gesture that is so typically Cohen’s. How could I not buy this book??
The Art of Stillness by Pico Iyer
Randomly picked up at: Word on the Water (The London Bookbarge) somewhere on the Hackney canals, London
Sometimes, it’s your index finger that leads to new bookish friends, sometimes, I must admit, it’s TED. A little more than a year ago, I was fighting my way back after a short sick leave due to stress, and as so often before when you’re too tired to read (it does happen, I’m afraid), the Internet will prove your friend. Having spent many days browsing through the ever-intriguing TED talk library, I was especially pleased, when on a cool but beautiful spring day along the Hackney canals, I found the textual manifestation of Pico Iyer’s insightful TED talk The Art of Stillness. It is a lyrical celebration of the counterintuitive need of going nowhere in a world where globalisation urges us to travel everywhere. So, something about a bookstore floating on water and the art of stillness in perfect harmony. A destiny moment right there. Check it out – both! :)
The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard
Randomly picked up at: Our very own Ark Books, Copenhagen (no link needed, eh?)
I once wrote an eloquent paper on American Realism and Henry James’ novel The Portrait of a Lady including a discussion of his The Art of Fiction-essay, which is basically an outline of his central metaphor of literature as a house. Since then, I have thought a lot about the idea of literature not only as that place where I feel completely at home, but also as an architecture, something more tangible than a set of ideas mediated on paper. And since Bachelard’s book had given me the tempting buy me now-stare for quite some shifts at Ark, I decided to finally take it home home. For it is exactly the idea of home that is the centre of attention in this lyrical, yet quite philosophical exploration of rooms and homely spaces as concepts. From cellar to attic, anteroom and corridor, the book altogether shows how our perception of ‘houses’ and ‘shelters’ inevitably shape our thoughts, memories, and dreams. A light heavy-weighter, but definitely worth reading!
Creativity, Inc. – Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull
Randomly picked up at: The Book Grocer, Melbourne
Okay, so Buzz Lightyear is on the front cover – need I say more? Actually, I don’t, but I would like to.
This bright red book was placed front up on a huge table in the midst of a lot of really white and shiny books at The Book Grocer’s in Melbourne, so it was practically calling my name, begging for attention. At the time, I was restlessly in-between books and my better half was reading the Steve Jobs biography. So besides from the Buzz Lightyear-thing, I thought it would be fun for us to co-read and talk about two very different accounts about the Apple-Pixar-Disney affair, while on our Australian adventure. But this book proved so much more than an account of how Pixar came about. This is by far one of the best books on innovation and creativity management (!) I have ever read. It is extremely well-written, insightful and gives a deeply honest and inspiring account of how creative minds can work together to create something greater than themselves. Go read. Seriously!
The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland by Robert Douglass-Fairhurst
Randomly picked up at: Lutyens & Rubenstein’s, Notting Hill, London
I will not challenge you to try and pronounce the name of this London gem of a bookstore, but I will encourage you to swing by the next time your path takes you to Notting Hill. Here, bookish aesthetics permeate every inch of the place, from the interior design to the cover of this beautiful book on a Lewis-Carroll favourite of mine.
This is a behind the scenes-story: Who was Alice? How did the story come about? and so many more interesting features and fun facts about this childhood classic. Curiouser and curiouser, said Alice…
The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth
Randomly picked up at: The Strand Bookstore, New York
From the author of The Unknown Unknown – one of my favourite books on the subject of bookshops – this book is a celebration of everything to do with linguistics [God rays halleluja]. Through his usual wit and humour, Forsyth takes you on an informative and highly entertaining journey through the body rhetoric and begins by stating that Shakespeare was not a genius! There’s a statement. Also, the cover is soft velour, so this touch of eloquence in both literal and thematic terms is bound to get your bookish high on.
The Natural Navigator: The Rediscovered Art of Letting Nature Be Your Guide by Tristan Gooley
Randomly picked up at: City Light Books, San Francisco
One of the most hyped bookstores on my must see list is City Light Books in San Francisco. It is mentioned almost everywhere readers recommend bookstores to one another. And after my recent visit, I can understand why. I usually have high expectations for the bookstores that everyone name drops, because I would expect the package of well-stocked selection + interior design + atmosphere + knowledgeable staffers + location to be out of this world. City Lights didn’t quite meet my expectations, but this is not to say that I was disappointed. Quite on the contrary, I had just pictured it differently. So, the first thing I noticed was the explicit political activism. On the face of it, the store is not much of a shingle, it doesn’t look like much, but if you spend more than 10 minutes, you’ll quickly realize that the hype is justified. Interior-wise it reminded me of The Strand in New York. Lots of shelves heavily packed with books, only in smaller scale. Add to this humour in the many different book signs, the good and friendly atmosphere between staffers, plus the accute awareness that reading is also about taking active choices about who you want to be and – more importantly – what you can do to change and effect society, hence the political profile. Having randomly stumbled upon The Natural Navigator in the basement section, the bookseller handed me a bookmark that read “Pedagogies of Resistance: created as an immediate response to the November election, Pedagogies of Resistance is designed to act as an educational course in revolutionary competence.” And somehow it seemed the natural thing, that the bookstore is and should be that place where we pick up the knowledge that leads to revolution. Here’s a bookstore that dares to make a statement, but lets you navigate the options yourself. I’m a fan!
Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom
Randomly picked up at: A publisher’s stock warehouse, Denmark, a long time ago
Not only does the last book on this list represent my first experience with random book picking, it is also perhaps THE most important book I have ever read. I didn’t pick it up in a bookstore, though, but that’s not really important. The main issue is that I came about it while randomly browsing several metres of shelves and there it was. I was 16, I had just started a job at Borgens Forlag, a Danish publishing house, and one of my first tasks was to clear the stock warehouse of books as the archive was to be removed to a different location with much less space. I literally spent 3 weeks during that summer throwing out books. Of course that hurt and I ended up taking home two books for every one book I threw out. But if there ever was a moment where I was meant to pick out a book at random (or save it from the harsh fate of shredding rather) this was the one. And as I passed it on to my parents and family to read, it has since become the book we always refer to, whenever life gets tough or we need a bit of perspective to whatever hardships we may face. It is nothing big or literary, really, it is a very simple story about a sports reporter, who reconnects with his old coach and sociology professor, who’s dying from ALS. They meet every week and talk about everything big and small concerning life, death, love, freedom, regrets, family, emotions, marriage, forgiveness, anxiety, money, culture, etc. It’s based on a true story and there’s also a movie starring Jack Lemmon, which I can highly recommend as well, although it does have a kind of cheesy Oprah intro, if you dig out the version on YouTube. Cheesy movie intro, yes, but the book is not! For, even though the story is simply told, it is nowhere near banal. Morrie, the coach, is so vibrant and full of life although he is dying. The contrast hits you straight in the heart. And as he passes on one comforting and life-confirming aphorism after the other, the reader is reminded of the simultaneous beauty and fragility of life, as we follow Morrie coming nearer and nearer to the end. It is so quietly intense and beautifully written, and it basically changed the way I think of adversity, setbacks and hardships and how I work to overcome them when every once in a while they strike hard. This has a lot to do with this quote from W. H. Auden’s September 1, 1939 which makes up Morrie’s life ethos and which the book takes for its mantra and main aphorism. Auden also just happens to be one of my all time favourite poets. Talk about destiny.
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.