Post-apocalyptic

As a young lad, I used to enjoy a film often shown those days on television – an adaptation from the early 60s of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine. It’s been a long time since I last saw that film, but one scene in particular stays in the mind. The protagonist, played by Rod Taylor, has, with his time machine, travelled into some far distant post-apocalyptic future, and the people he encounters there appear uncommunicative. Eventually, he asks if they have some books that would help him understand their culture. “Books?” says one. “Yes, we have books.” And the protagonist is led into a long-disused library in which vast shelves of books are crumbling into dust. Yes, he reflects bitterly to himself, that tells him all he needs to know about their culture.

Back in the present, our local library appears to have a policy of selling off books that have not been taken out  over a long period, and I have, over the years, bought from these sales some very fine hardback volumes, in often pristine condition. I have bought for the princely sum of two pounds each the Everyman editions of the Complete Essays of Montaigne (translated by Donald Frame) and George Thomson’s translation of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, the Collected Fictions of Borges (Andrew Hurley’s translation), and many others. These books had never been taken out of the library, the shelves of which are now are groaning with celebrity cookbooks, misery memoirs, and the like.

I wonder what this tells us about our culture.

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24 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Mark on October 2, 2014 at 10:35 am

    Hi Himadri,

    Not forgetting the shelves and shelves (and shelves) of crime fiction that you see in public libraries today. I know it’s popular, but so much of it is production-line tosh. How many world weary, divorced and alcoholic detectives does the world need?

    I grew up in the same part of the world as Jeanette Winterson. She often speaks, with her usual evangelical zeal, of how the public library essentially saved her life: “English Literature A-Z”. Is English Literature A-Z still possible today?

    Similarly, for me, brought up in a bookless household, the library was my gateway into the world of reading, and from there I went on, against expectations, to a degree and PhD in English literature.

    Libraries do still hold serious books on their shelves, but browsers might be hard pushed to spot them amidst the ephemera. But hey, who needs Borges when you’ve got Michael McIntyre, right?

    Great post, Himadri.

    All the best,

    Mark

    Reply

    • Accrington? My late father used to work at Blackburn Royal Infirmary, and during my student days, I used to return to my parents between terms to that part of the country. I have fond memories of the library in Blackburn, as I do of the library in Bishopbriggs (where I spent my schooldays). It was these libraries that opened the doors to all sorts of things. I am sorry to say that I do not see public libraries nowadays that are as well stocked as the ones I remember – although I am sure there are exceptions. I don’t think I am romanticising the past: libraries have always catered for lighter reading, and that is as it should be. But it’s when works as important to our culture as the Essays of Montaigne or the Oresteia get sidelined to make room for populist books of ever declining quality, one can’t help feeling that something has gone badly wrong.

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

    • PS Mark, what was your Ph.D. thesis on? (Mine was entitled “Interactive Multi-objective programming” – Manchester University 1986 – but I am sure yours was far more interesting!)

      Reply

      • Posted by Mark on October 6, 2014 at 3:02 pm

        Hi again Himadri,

        “Accrington?” Yes, well a village not far away from there. I borrowed from the libraries in Accrington, Blackburn & Haslingden regularly. At one point, as an older teenager, I had a job in a small independent supermarket next door to Haslingden library. This was in the days before smart phones of course. I worked in the stock room most of the time and as well as discovering English (and American, Russian and French) literature I was in the process of discovering the riches of the English language. I used to listen to Radio 4 as I worked – another recent discovery for me – and if they used a word on air that I didn’t know I would wait for an opportunity then “escape” out of the back delivery entrance and run next door to the library. Inside I would hare up the stairs into the reference room where all the old guys were nodding over the day’s newspapers, dash to the relevant volume of the OED, look up the word for its meaning and its etymology, and then tear back down the stairs and back to my cases of beans and pet food. I never got caught – not once!

        As for my PhD – I began planning it as an undergraduate. It was going to be “Byron and the Condition of Exile” or some such – and I had worked out all kinds of clever versions of exile to include, say, “moral exile” and “existential exile” as well as literal exile. But then, just before I formally submitted my proposal, I read Crash by J. G. Ballard, a writer I’d had no previous interest in. I was utterly smitten by this bizarre and inscrutable book and started devouring his novels and stories like a possessed man. At the last minute, winging it somewhat, I changed my proposal and ended up writing a thesis on “Atrocious bodies” and “Affectless subjects” in Ballard’s work. It was uncharacteristically impulsive of me. I don’t regret it – I think Ballard is one of the best guides we have to the perversities of the modern world – but occasionally I mourn my lost Byron project. And then I dream of all the other theses I could have written on some of my favourite, more obscure writers – Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Denton Welch – and then I remember that writing a PhD is utter, utter agony!

        One last thing, I didn’t study at Manchester, where you did your own postgraduate work, but I lived there until last year, and even now I live only 7 miles from the city. We’ve obviously shared some of the same stomping ground.

        all the best once again,

        Mark

  2. Great finds at library my only recent buy book wise at our library was will self liver

    Reply

    • Great finds, yes … but I really felt guilty buying those books! Those books should have been the pride of the public library, and available to everyone. Instead, they are in my private library, and available only to me. It’s not the way it should be!

      Reply

  3. I remember that movie! I was a fan of Rod’s ever after, lol.

    Before the days when library records were kept on computers, all the books (in the U.S.) had a pocket in the back and a card with the book title, author, etc. We used to sign our name on the card and the library kept that until we returned the book. I always thought it was so sad to see great books that hadn’t been checked out in years.

    Reply

    • Ah yes – I remember those little pockets! In the UK, those pockets used to be on the fly leaf at the front of the book, and used to contain a card with the name and title and the ISBN number of the book; and when you checked the book out, they’d put that card inside your library ticket, which was also shaped like a pocket. Happy days! .. 🙂

      Reply

  4. I have often noticed that it is to my advantage that I only like classics or good non fiction. They’re so much cheaper at used book stores and library sales than the popular dreck…I mean… “literature.”

    Reply

    • Hello Sharon,

      I actually do have a great respect and regard for good popular literature. I should … given I’m a devotee of the Sherlock Holmes stories! in addition, I love creepy ghost stories, adventure stories by the likes of Stevenson and Buchan and Rider Haaggard, the American thrillers by the likes of Chandler and Hammett and Highsmith and Cain, the novels of PG Wodehouse … and, more recently, the Flashman novels of George Macdonald Fraser, the single Patrick O’Brian novel I have read (I really should read the others!) and so on. I am sure there are still writers of popular literature whose writing is of a very high standard. What is depressing, though, is that there is so much popular writing that is, as you say, “dreck”; and no-one seems to want to say so!

      Reply

      • Now wait a minute, Himadri. Holmes, Stevenson and Haggard are classics to me. I have everything written by the first two, just King Solomon’s Mines by the last and I admit I never finished 39 Steps but I saw a great performance of the play. I’ve also the complete Jeeves and Wooster.

        In fact I’m devoting the month of October to reading scary books. I’m going through a couple of anthologies of ghost and vampire stories. They include stories by Benson, Jacobi, Blackwood, Crawford and my very favorite of all: M.R. James.

        I guess that’s a discussion for another post. What exactly makes a book “Classic”?

      • To me, a “classic” is simply any book that has lasted over time, so yes, Conan Doyle and RL Stevenson et al are certainly classic writers – I agree fully. But they did aim for a popular market. And that, to me, indicates that literary quality is not a negligible feature when it comes to popular writing. This is true not merely of popular works from the past: I am a great admirer, for instance, of the Flashman novels of George Macdonald Fraser, and the single Aubrey-Maturin novel I have read by Patrick O’Brian was also very impressive. There are many more, I’m sure.

        All this makes it depressing and frustrating in equal measure that there are so many books flooding the popular market these days that are so execrably conceived and written, and, further, that no-one seems to mind. This is why, I think, it is important to assert that popular literature is not exempt from criticism on literay grounds, and that to say or to imply, as many appear to do, that literary standards don’t matter when it comes to popular literature, is indeed the worst from of snobbery.

  5. Posted by Jonathan on October 2, 2014 at 8:20 pm

    I find it strange that a library will sell off hardback copies of classics as they probably ending up having to buy new copies again when they realise they haven’t got any left. My library is pretty good; there’s a lot of dross but there are some gems amongst them.

    Reply

    • Hello Jonathan,

      I don’t think our library has replaced the copies they have sold off. “Not much call for those kinds of books,” as I’m sure they’d say.

      The last few times I went to our public library was pretty dispiriting; yes, there were certainly a handful of very worthwhile books, but vapid celebrity books dominated, and there were many of that rather unsavoury genre “misery memoir”. I’m sure, though, that some libraries are better than others in this respect. However, books of cultural worth belong to all, irrespective of how small the proportion of the public who are interested, and i do find it depressing to think they’ve been classed as “unwanted” and sold off.

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

  6. Your articles have a habit of bringing back memories for me and this is no different. I remember well many a Saturday afternoon with Rod and his odd-looking time machine. By the way, have you seen a smashing little movie called ‘Time After Time’ with Malcolm McDowell as H.G. Wells and David Warner as Jack the Ripper? (Lordy, I hope that my memory isn’t playing tricks with me.)

    My own library is in Oranmore, County Galway and it is a gem. It’s small but the incredibly helpful, lovely staff will source almost anything you ask them for, within reason. It’s also aesthetically pleasing, being converted from an 1801 church.

    I won’t get into a discussion about what constitutes a classic, but one great regret I have is that I didn’t pick up Robert E. Howard’s ‘Skull-Face & Others’ when it was in Ayr Library, Scotland back in the early seventies. In my memory it was this lovely pristine hardback and years later I wondered if it had been an Arkham House edition. and yes, I did look for it years later–but alas! Long gone.

    Bloody Hell, Brady; you went off on a hell of a tangent there. Proves my point about your pieces!

    Reply

  7. Mark:—I really hope that you haven’t wasted too much time regretting your decision to write on Ballard. Those titles you gave make my mouth water and I’d love to have read what you said about him.

    To my mind he is one of the greatest British writers of the twentieth century. It was ‘The Drowned World’ that turned me onto him, ‘The Crystal World’ that made me an addict and after that I just went through his entire works like a dose of salts.

    Just reading about your proposal makes me feel like going back and working right through him again, from the beginning!

    By the way, I believe that ‘High -Rise’ is being filmed at the moment. I THINK I read that it has Jeremy Irons in it?

    Reply

  8. Posted by Mark on October 6, 2014 at 8:15 pm

    Hi Charley. I trust Himadri doesn’t mind us chatting about this on his splendid blog. Thanks very much for your comments. Of course I agree with you about JGB – he was a marvel. Several of his novels are masterpieces and his short stories put him in the top tier of post-war short story writers in my view. Writing that PhD rewired my brain for the better, I think, so I certainly don’t waste much time with regrets.

    Also, big thanks for the heads up about the film of High-Rise. This had passed me by, which is doubly strange as I see it is a Ben Wheatley-Amy Jump project and Ben Wheatley is a young British director I admire very much. I thought Kill List and A Field in England were both excellent, deeply creepy films in their different ways, so this has real potential. Actually Ballard has been served better than most contemporary writers by film adaptation. There’s a really interesting low-budget film of The Atrocity Exhibition from a few years back. You’ve probably seen it, but, if not, it’s worth obtaining the DVD as Ballard provides a commentary. A little sad, though, to hear his unmistakable voice now that it has been silenced.

    all the best,

    Mark

    Reply

  9. My turn to say thanks for the heads-up, Mark, as I’m completely unfamiliar with Ben Wheatley—which is surprising as his stuff sounds like my kind of thing.

    You’re quite right: Ballard has certainly been served better than most writers and I know the version of ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’ that you’re talking about. By the way, he was so pleased with Cronenberg’s version of ‘Crash’ that he later wrote a killer review for his ‘A History of Violence’. He has a line in it where he says that: ‘To some extent we are all living in a witness protection programme.’

    Do you know, I have no idea what that means and yet it’s such a typically Ballardian line.

    Anyway, like yourself I hope that Himadri doesn’t mind us having a chat because I’m going one better with a shameless plug by giving you an old review of ‘Cocaine Nights’.

    http://www.charleybrady.com/cbsays/?p=989

    Goodnight!

    Reply

  10. Of course I don’t mind you chatting! This is just the sort of thing I was hoping the blog would lead to!

    I’m really knackered tonight, and I’m off to bed now … I’ll answer you both when I’m a bit more awake.

    Cheers for now!

    Reply

  11. Posted by alan on October 8, 2014 at 9:35 pm

    ‘To some extent we are all living in a witness protection programme.’
    I assume that means we have become voyeurs who don’t act on what we see or face any consequence for not acting.
    Isn’t that part of what Ballard was talking about in Crash?
    I’m sure we’ve all met people who have talked about how they were deeply affected by something but never expressed any view that any action or change of behaviour would result. Wasn’t Ballard in part suggesting that was a defining feature of the film and televisual age?

    Reply

  12. Alan: I found that to be a very satisfying interpretation, mainly because in Ireland at the moment we have just had yet another tax inflicted on us: a tax that in fact is in addition to a tax that we already pay…namely, the contentious ‘water tax’. And yet people are encouraged to believe that whatever they do will not change anything.

    And in a move that Orwell, never mind Ballard, would have recognised, our national broadcasting service– a service that continues to prove to us just how unbiased it is– simply fails to report on or plays down the deep unrest that is being shown throughout the country.

    As it happens I looked up the review in question and send the link:

    http://www.theguardian.com/film/2005/sep/23/jgballard

    You’ll see I had in fact paraphrased Ballard, something that I’ll put down to the fallible memory and the fact that it is (to my shock) over nine years old!

    This is a superb piece and a nice little overview of David Cronenberg’s output as a film maker in general. Which given the title of Himadri’s original short article, may not be straying too far from the subject.

    If ever two artists were meant to collide (heh) it was these two with ‘Crash’, to my mind a modern masterpiece. It was of course initially banned outright in Ireland. And in fairness in a lot of other countries as well. It didn’t surprise me when the director said that he could have easily substituted his own name for Ballard’s as to the main character.

    The only time that I felt lost as to what Cronenberg was doing was in last year’s ‘Cosmopolis’. Although it may be time for another look now. After all, art isn’t usually fully comprehended in a single viewing or reading.

    Just to lighten things a little…when ‘Crash’ eventually appeared uncut the posters carried the tagline ‘Restrictions Lifted.’ Perhaps just my sense of humour.

    Reply

  13. Posted by Mark on October 10, 2014 at 8:52 am

    Charley – just to round off my contributions to this thread. Yesterday was “Super Thursday” in the world of publishing, when several hundred books are published on the same day – most of them celebrity memoirs of the type we were all deploring with regard to libraries before this discussion somehow mutated (my “fault”, I think) into a discussion about J. G. Ballard. Anyway, I dutifully went to the bookshop to buy a Super Thursday title – I picked up Consumed, the debut novel by David Cronenberg. It’s perfectly obvious from the reviews and from skimming through its pages that Cronenberg’s experience of filming Crash has left its scars – as several people have observed, the book is deeply, deeply Ballardian. All the best.

    Reply

  14. I love this bloody site. I had no idea that Cronenberg had a novel out. Many thanks Mark and stay well.

    Reply

  15. Sorry Mark, Charlie and Alan, that i couldn’t join in this conversation, but I enjoyed reading through it, and am now curious to read some Ballard for myself. However, a trip to Sicily is coming up shortly, and I have Lampedusa and Verga lined up for that – so Ballard may have to wait till after that.

    Cheers, all!

    Reply

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