Tag: Books

Reading! Studying! Learning! Yes!

(I make that a ‘rule of three … plus one’ there)

I had a seminar today – my only one of the day – that was really rather inspiring. I know that statements like that are tossed around all the time by university admissions people to make idiot students sign up for their courses in Beyoncé studies, but this time it actually worked – I left the seminar wanting to go home and read and work on essays and generally be a productive student.

The seminar itself was relatively unspectacular, just the three of us students sitting in our professor’s room and listening to them talk for the majority of the hour. But I think that’s why I found it so useful; at university, and at least on my course, there’s always a performative element, as lecturers stand on plinths to tell us about Romantic literature as if they’re channeling Old Norse skaldic poets or speakers to the Roman senate. This isn’t an inherently bad thing, but there’s a disconnect between my real life of sourcing cheap vegan milk and figuring out how to pay utility bills and my academic life of ‘isn’t this a pretty metaphor?’ – I know that art reflects life, but art rarely is life. This seminar was the total opposite, however; I didn’t feel like we were working through a list of prepared ‘intelligent’ ideas to consider, but were four people interested in a thing rambling on about that thing. Seminars are, of course, pitched to us as all being like this, but rarely are.

And after four months of writing blog posts and playing Dragon Age, I feared I wouldn’t be able to get my teeth into academia again; guess I was wrong.

Some Kickass Old English Words

(sadly I can’t find a word for ‘kickass’)

In my ‘studies’ (i.e. flicking through the glossary of Peter Baker’s Introduction To Old English in pursuit of funny words instead of actually translating ones I need’) of Old English, I’ve stumbled across some rather awesome words, that I will now share with you (instead of actually learning Old English vocab).

Ānmōd, united in purpose – It’s probably just me, but I hate the Modern English construction of things being ‘united’, but consisting of separate words.

Ælfscīne, of Elven beauty – Old English, creating fantasy compound words way before Tolkein.

Bealuwaru, dweller in evil – I quite like the idea of evil being an almost geographical concept, that anyone can fall into like a pit, rather than an individual trait that people either inherently are or can adopt.

Befēran, overtake – For all the Mario Kart that Beowulf and Wiglaf play outside of the poem.

Fyrngeflit, ancient quarrel – Because the kids these days need to be taught a thing or two about real quarrelling.

Gefaran, traverse / die – Old English, the only language where walking across the street and being mauled to death by a bear can accurately be described with identical sentences.

Gifan / Gīferness, to give / greed – There’s only one letter and a letter-topping line between the roots of these two opposite words; gives me the impression that there is more common ground than we think in the giving and receiving of things, and the only difference is an artificial linguistic perception we, as people, have put onto them.

Hlagol, inclined to laugh – This is literally a mispronunciation and an extra syllable away from being ‘lol’ in Old English.

Inwidhlemm, hostile wound – As opposed to all the friendly ones you receive in battle, obviously.

Nihtstapa, walker in the night – A compound invented by my friend, this is one of those common examples of Old English wisdom, that they have a word to describe the nocturnal stumbling habits of twenty-first century university students a good thousand years before such people existed.

Ofhrēowan, cause pity for someone  – This makes pity into a thing we impose onto others, rather than a purely individual and internal response of a victim or sufferer. It’s a pretty depressing concept, but if we can force negative emotions onto people as well as positive ones, it opens up far more interactions and relationships than you get on even Sims 4.

Sencan, submerge – For all those submarines the Weather-Geats built.

Sigebēam, tree of victory – Literally the best metaphor I’ve ever laid eyes upon. Either that, or it’s another bit of Old English hat Tolkien turned into The Lord Of The Rings (I’m thinking the Ents here?).

Sigewong, field of victory – A close second to the previous word, a big part of my affection for this one comes from the use of ‘wong’. Hehehehe.

A Small Epiphany About Context

(fun fact – I learned the word ‘epiphany’ from the Simpsons movie!)

My biggest weakness as a student of literature is my almost total ignorance of literary history; because I never really read for fun, seeing reading as an, albeit enjoyable, form of work, I was never particularly motivated to read beyond set texts and syllabuses, only branching out into Inferno and Middlemarch because I thought it’d help with my English interviews, because it all seemed a bit like work. As a result, I became – and I’d argue still am – pretty good at close reading and language analysis, but suck at actually having a conversation about books, because I kinda know bugger all.

And this never bothered me; I was happy in my ignorance, because I know that there’s more to life than a single interest even if that interest is something cool like reading, and felt that books can be appreciated in their own right, and knowledge of a wider context is only necessary to view those books within that context, instead of being an intrinsic part of getting to grips with the words on the page. Basically, knowing literary context was an optional in-app purchase compared with the free download of the book itself that is enjoyable in its own right.

But then that changed last week as I sat in a seminar on Rousseau’s Confessions, trying to not fall asleep in two straight seminars after a night of like four hours in bed (yet again); my mind drifted to my rather more expansive knowledge of American hardcore punk – from Minor Threat and Bad Brains on the East Coast, to Pennywise and Bad Religion on the West Coast, then the more recent north-south divide between pop-punk groups like Bowling For Soup in the south, and Rise Against in the north – and I suddenly realised that this knowledge is exactly the same as what knowledge of literary history would be. Essentially, I know the context of punk, but not the context of literature. I then realised that a lot of my enjoyment in listening to punk, especially new bands, comes from appreciating this context, and placing them as an individual group into the much larger stream of people with guitars who are pissed off at things, making them seem more relevant and influential than just their own songs.

It then hit me that literary culture is basically the same thing; close reading is all well and good, but it doesn’t really build up a wider understanding of culture, that I always assumed was one of those bullshit terms they use to sell A-level English to GCSE students caught between taking that and Economics, but might actually be something worth engaging with and enjoying for its own sake.

It remains to be seen if I’ll actually stick to this though, and how much I’m actually interested in this context malarkey; it’s one thing to plan to do a thing, like read all the Romantic poems over summer, and another thing entirely to actually do it (as my failure to complete NaNoWriMo continues to hauntingly remind me to this day).

But even if I don’t go out and read all the books I really should have at least heard of by now, I’ll be more aware of my ignorance, and the damage it’ll be causing; thank the gods for knowledge.

Pre-Nostalgia

(they don’t write blog posts like they used to)

Since hearing a rendition of Bowling For Soup’s 1985 at karaoke last week (as part of the more successful part of that two-legged party I went to), I’ve been singing it to myself for days now, and only now have I realised that I’m basically nostalgic for a period of time I wasn’t alive for, or am even interested in; if the song were entitled ‘1983’, and was about Minor Threat and Bad Brains, I could at least claim to have remorse for a thing I actually liked, but I don’t really care for U2, Blondie, or indeed, music on MTV.

But I still feel like I’ve been wronged by modern music in some way when listening to the song; why don’t they make songs like Hanging On The Telephone anymore? I’ll ask myself, completely oblivious to the fact that I’ve heard that song like three times, and was only introduced to it by the Rock Band iOS game from about 2011. I’m worried this is just part of the wider culture of nostalgia that our society’s full of, that we look back at things in the past and assume they were better just because they were in the past, instead of possessing some kind of intrinsic value. I know that bands like Minor Threat were awesome for their novelty back in the early 1980s, but it’d be completely incorrect to suggest that all aspects of their music are better than modern versions; production quality, for instance, has come a long way since 1983, regardless of the simplistic assertions that better-sounding tracks are indicative of the increasingly false music industry.

And we do this with everything from games – can anyone honestly tell me that the original Bowser’s Castle theme is a better piece of music than Leaving Earth? – to books – JK Rowling I’m happy for you, and I’mma let you finish, but Terry Pratchett wrote one of the best wizards-at-school stories of all time! – as if ‘the past’ is better than the present simply because it’s the past, instead of the more accurate description that it’s a dark, desolate place filled with, in chronological order, war, disease, poverty, more war, intolerance, even more war, the threat of even more war, some more intolerance, then a shit-load more war.

Perhaps nostalgia is just a form of escapism; we all like to imagine ourselves in situations other than the one we’re in currently, even if we’re very happy with our lives at the moment, because its these dreams that form the basis of motivation, providing a goal to strive for, or at least continue living for in hope, that keeps humanity trundling along. But if there is an absence of creativity or originality in that escapism, perhaps that distance between reality and aspiration is created by using an area separate to reality, that we don’t need to create: and if you watch some old Blondie music videos, you’re right back into a different world and you don’t have to do any of the confusing, messy world-building yourself.

I’d argue that this combination of a desire for escapism and a reduction in individual creativity in a world where culture is so oriented around explaining every last detail of a thing to us so that there’s no room for speculation or user interaction beyond idle admiration, has led to endless and mindless nostalgia, to the point where we long for things that we claim to have lived through, or once been a part of, whereas in reality we’re kids who’ve not yet figured out their own culture, let alone are in a position to piggyback onto another.

Characters Create Worlds

(that title should be read in the voice of someone going ‘ohh!’ in a manner of great realisation)

When I’m writing, I think I’m far better at, and certainly gain more enjoyment from, creating worlds than populating them with characters and stories. This is why I’m interested in sci-fi, fantasy and apocalypse genres, because they basically let you play around with whole little universes – species, fictional histories, social conventions – in a rather convenient way; but writing the Twelve Stories Of Christmas, particularly day one which doesn’t really fit into any of those genres, made me realise that world-building can be done without stepping completely away from the real world, that convincing societies can be constructed as much through a subtle change to our current world as it can be through a complete separation from that world, and building something from scratch on a spaceship or whatever.

But now, in finally getting around to writing up an idea I’ve had for like three years, I’m seeing another way to create worlds, one through character. My current project is a military sci-fi one, heavily influenced by Mass Effect and, in turn, Battlestar Galactica; and while there are a load of complex political situations and relationships involved in this idea, the piece I’m currently writing is intended to serve as a short, almost introductory, preface to this universe (because I think of all my half-baked ideas as if they’ll be made into twelve-volume epics).

As a result, I don’t want to overload the reader with facts about this fictional universe when the action of this first part takes place exclusively on one planet; and ‘action’ is an important word, because this preface type-thing is mostly action and combat, with political stuff only being hinted at. I tried to mention these political concerns early on, but found it clunky and unnatural, I was basically dumping some political facts into the middle of a battle scene, which distracted from the action and meant that it was the narrator, not the characters, who spoke the most, which isn’t a good idea when it’s the start of a thing and you’re trying to introduce take establish those characters.

But now I’ve found a solution (admittedly one I’ve been too busy to actually write, but what the Hell), which is to make individual characters representative of those wider political ideas; I have an aggressive, blunt character, and a splinter group of humanity known for their violence and independence – wouldn’t it be helpful if I were to introduce this character in all their obnoxiousness, then explain it through the introduction of that splinter group and their history? I think that’s a way better approach than political statements made in a vacuum; I know that part of reading involves the reader making associations and interpretations for themselves, but it might be asking too much to not link this character with this theme like this, because there are literally no other indicators the two things are linked.

It’s like the endless array of characters you interact with in Mass Effect (apologies if the upcoming references mean nothing to you): Grunt, and Wrex, are representative of the entire krogan race, their ideas, beliefs and actions; Garrus represents the turians, with the race’s history explored through anecdotes from his battles; Mordin reflects the steadily changing views, yet uncompromising demeanour, of the salarians; and Liara, Samara and Morinth show the two extents of asari society – modern and politically influential on one end, and deeply spiritual on the other. It helps to make a world real and believable if lore is based on character in this way, as it creates a world in which people are living (present tense) instead of whole swathes of people being represented with the same interesting, yet broad and impersonal, brushstrokes that I’m used to painting with.

So there’s something else I’ve learned by writing things; a writer may create a world, but it’s characters both make it real, and introducing that world through them makes it believable and worthwhile. Now if only I could fix my complete inability to write dialogue, this writing thing may not be such a hopeless failure.

I Have A Book Called Space Cowboy

(god, aren’t I interesting?)

Another day of crappy phone posting here, so I thought I’d tell you about perhaps the greatest book title known to man: Space Cowboy.

I’ve read most of the book, although several years ago now and intend to reread it as part of my plan to read like two books a month outside of my course for the rest of the year, but the premise is still fresh in my mind: there is a cowboy. And he is in space.

And we’re not talking space cows here (I think), just regular, mooing cows, herded around by a guy in chaps on horseback, that just so happens to take place on the planet of Aletha Three, as opposed to the state of Texas.

The book is written by Justin Stanchfield, who ought to immediately win every trivial writing award known to man (like the Booker Prize) for his effort, and I can already recommend the novel to you simply on its fantastic name alone; because the story may turn out to be total shit, but it’ll always be prefaced with an awesome title, which is something that can never be taken away from us.

Ultra Book Guilt

(apologies if this post makes no sense, by the way, I’m speed-writing it after spending a solid three hours finishing today’s Twelve Days Of Christmas story)

IMG_0074

This is the big-ass pile of books in my room at home (because I’ve moved home for Christmas) and a few plushies I wasn’t bothered to move for the purposes of framing this shot; but the books are the focus here, because I want to make the point that I have, like, ultra book guilt.

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of book guilt, allow me to introduce you to Kristina Horner, blogger, vlogger, actor, and general Internetter, who mentioned this idea in this video; essentially, the idea is that we buy a load of books, and then never get around to reading them, and end up feeling horribly guilt that we’ve spent money, but more importantly registered interest in a world or a narrative, but never followed that interest up by actually reading the damn thing, which means we’re basically teasing our own minds by going ‘Here’s a thing you’re interested in, buddy! But I’m never gonna let you find out what happens to those characters or to that world!’

I know a lot of the books in the picture are unhelpfully turned to one side (the Internet won’t judge me for my choices of literature, at least), but I’ll run through a few highlights of what I’m missing out on: first is the almighty red tome of Christopher Paolini’s Eldest over on the right, the second in the Inheritance Cycle, a series of four books that starts with Eragon, which is very like the Percy Jackson books in that the text is fun, but the film adaptation sucks donkey balls.

And while I’ve read Eragon, I was but a young warthog, so need to reread it, and I never got through Eldest because I was a child at the time and books that size tended to be Bibles or Final Fantasy instruction manuals, so I developed an irrational fear of thick books, which as stopped me from getting into a story with dragons and farms and small beginnings and shit, which is a problem.

Next is the Alex Rider series, a great couple of books by Anthony Horowitz about a fourteen-year-old reluctant spy, who has a level of maturity – both in terms of being a freaking spy at fourteen, and the fact that he has enough worldly knowledge to want to fit into society and have a normal life, prompting the series’ defining line ‘most schoolboys dream of being spies, here we have a spy who dreams of being a schoolboy’ – I don’t really have at eighteen. I’ve read the series horribly out of sequence, reading something dumb like the first, second, sixth, fifth, then seventh books in that order, despite having like all ten. A whole-series (re)read is badly needed.

Fans of particular editions of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy series will notice all five books in the series off to the left of the screen, all in one edition; I’ve only read the first book in the series, loved it, and so logically never touched another one, including the sixth bonus book by Eoin Colfer, so I need to get on with those at some point.

Speaking of Eoin Colfer, his most well-known work, Artemis Fowl, can be seen six books from the top of the right-most tower, which is another series I started, read a few of the books out of sequence, and abandoned, much to my annoyance. What I do remember about the titular Artemis, though, is that I’ve basically felt increasingly relatable to him as my life has progressed: first, he was the smart, but small individual pulling the strings behind a much larger and more elaborate plot, much like scrawny thirteen-year-old James was, lonely and constantly scheming about intricate ways to bring about the end of mankind; then he was the evil prick who wasn’t particularly charismatic but was still interesting and likeable enough to weave a narrative around, which was basically sixteen-year-old James, who was also a dull prick but was personable enough to actually start making friends; then there’s the fact that he’s named after an Ancient Greek goddess, which experimental eighteen-year-old James can relate to as he becomes increasingly infatuated with, jealous of, and considering trying out the awesome pink hair of Ariel from Icon For Hire.

But the big source of guilt is Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, an eight-book epic I’m five books through, and have all eight (in a few weeks when the seventh actually arrives in the mail) in these piles somewhere; the series is immensely long, mind-probingly complex and thoughtful, but unbearably slow in places – the fifth book, for instance, is like Tristram Shandy, or Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy: it takes 600 pages (or three films) to say what could be said in a hundred pages (or, like a two-part TV special at the absolute longest). And what with the bajillion things I keep telling myself to do for no apparent reason and at the frequent detriment to my health at the moment (seriously, I’m now taking two-hour ‘writing naps’ in the middle of the day after a writing session, after which I wake up, get buzzed on Red Bull and Diet Coke, then bang out 2,000 words an hour for the rest of the evening), I don’t think I’ll have a lot of time to get through them. I’m sure I’ll have time in Summer though (along with getting a job, writing a novel, relearning bass guitar, earning a driver’s licence and maybe interrailing).

Let me know of any book guilt you may have too, so we can bask in each other’s failings as human beings!