Meme I

Pearsall has handed me the book stick. Thanks, Pearsall (how do you pronounce that, by the way?)

1) Total number of books I’ve owned
About 2000. Certainly there are at least 2000 books in the house at the moment. Several hundred of those belong to my wife; our children have got at least a hundred between them; and there are another hundred or so waiting to be disposed of, mainly review copies from my Red Pepper period. (I don’t count most of these; I only ever ‘owned’ them in the sense that they came into the house in a jiffy-bag with my name on it.) But set against those all the books I’ve got rid of over the years and the books which are still at my mother’s house, and I think 2000 is about right.

2) The last book I bought
Perhaps not surprisingly, I hardly ever buy books these days – for fiction, in particular, I rely on libraries. (Which have their limits. One of these days I’m going to go mad on Abebooks and completeextend my John Sladek collection…) The last book I bought – with Christmas money – was Paul Morley’s Words and music. I’ve admired Paul Morley’s criticism since he was working for the NME; his interviews were particularly good, as were his imaginary interviews (which, remarkably, the NME also printed). He treats music with fannish enthusiasm, bordering on religious awe; he’s endlessly curious and genuinely open-minded; he has a superb ear and no conception of taste. Plus he writes like a dream – I think he’s a really good writer, masquerading as a really clever one.

Having said that, I’ve only got about forty pages into the book. (He likes Kylie.)

3) The last book I read:
I’m currently reading Barbara Vine’s The Minotaur and re-reading The Lord of the Rings, which I read all of thirty years ago (when I was much, much too young for it, I hasten to add). The last book I finished was probably Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel, A pale view of hills. Ishiguro’s a fantastic writer, with an elegantly plain style which allows his books to do a lot more work than they let on. I especially loved The Unconsoled, which was his Pompidou Centre – the machinery was on the outside, so that you couldn’t ignore what he was doing with the novel form. But he does something similar, I think, in all his books; certainly A pale view of hills is recognisably by the same writer.

4) Five books that mean a lot to me:

Claudio Del Bello (ed.), Una sparatoria tranquilla
A quotation to explain the title:
“What’s going on?”
“Well, the police didn’t want to let us pass, so we went round – there wasn’t a real clash.”
“But they’re shooting…”
“Yeah, but they’re just firing at the wall, the same as us. Really it’s all quiet… it’s a quiet shoot-out.”
Una sparatoria tranquilla is an oral history of the Movement of 1977. Il movimento was the culmination of five years of activism; 1977 saw anarchist, autonomist and left-libertarian ideas and tactics diffused on a mass scale. (Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! gives a faint and distorted echo of this period.) The ‘constitutional’ political parties were intransigent in their opposition (the Communist Party most of all); by 1978 the movement had been branded ‘terrorist’ and driven off the streets. (There was a massive rise in left-wing armed activity after the initial crackdown.)

The memory of the movement has been repressed ever since. In the 1990s, that memory was given its due, by this book and a couple of others – notably Nanni Balestrini’s novel Gli invisibili and the monumental L’orda d’oro, a history of ‘the great creative/revolutionary/political/existential wave, 1968-77’, co-written by Balestrini and Primo Moroni. If you read Italian, these books are essential reading. (If not, you could learn.)

Edward Thompson, Writing by candlelight
Robert Wyatt was once asked about his political beliefs and replied, “I don’t have beliefs, just certain loyalties”. I learned a lot from Edward Thompson’s loyalties, and from the hatreds that went with them. Thompson was a good hater. Elsewhere he passionately hated both Communism and American imperialism, but in this book he primarily hated the encroachments of state authority and the arrogance of the middle class. Democracy, for him, was both a condition yet to be achieved and something sketchily produced through ancient institutions such as jury trial; either way, it had to be defended fiercely against everyone who would limit or bypass it.

Guy Debord, The society of the spectacle
In the early 1980s, some time before I encountered Thompson, I came across Debord’s “Preface to the fourth Italian edition of The society of the spectacle” in a bookshop in Coventry, in a translation by BM Chronos (thanks, Lu). There I read this:

The workers of Italy – who can be held up as an example to their comrades in all countries for their absenteeism, their wildcat strikes that no particular concession can manage to appease, their lucid refusal of work, and their contempt for the law and for all Statist parties…

Debord was right about the workers of Italy, of course, but what particularly appealed to me was the calm, magisterial tone in which he commended absenteeism and wildcat strikes. Hardly anyone on the Left writes with Debord’s confidence – no hyperbole, no outrage, no evasions or apologetics. Hardly anyone apart from Marx, that is.

The society of the spectacle itself is Debord’s masterpiece, and one of the outstanding works of the twentieth century. If you know half the sources Debord borrows from, it will blow your mind. If you don’t know any of them, it will still blow your mind. (I know – I’ve read it both ways.)

Raymond Williams, Drama in performance
I read quite a bit of Williams when I was at college. Another confident writer; another writer with loyalties. This book is a personal choice; Keywords, Marxism and literature and The long revolution are more important books, but this is the one that really told me what Williams was talking about. Picture a play – lines, stage directions, acting styles. Now picture the stage it’s produced on – the dimensions, the equipment, how it faces or projects into the audience. Now picture the audience – who are they and what brought them into the theatre? Finally, picture society in this period: who’s in charge, who are they in charge of and how do they do it?

Now, how do all those levels fit together? (Because they do fit together.)

John Berger, The foot of Clive
I don’t know why I read this novel (in 1980, in the summer break at the end of my first year at college); but I’m glad I did. I started reading it in a state of weightless, directionless late-teenage depression. When I finished it I felt involved, engaged, embodied. Berger embeds the trivia of everyday experience in a political narrative – and grounds politics in the experience of everyday life. I went on to read other – better – works by Berger, but none of them turned me round the way this did.

(Plus five books which are also things of beauty: Alasdair Gray, Unlikely stories, mostly; B.S. Johnson, House Mother Normal; Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire; Tom Phillips, A Humument; Edward Tufte, The visual display of quantitative information.)

5) Tag five people and have them fill this out on their blogs:

I was planning to nominate Ellis Sharp and Brian Barder, but other people have got there first. Which leaves three. Paul, Clare, Shelley! I choose you!


  1. Pearsall Helms
    Posted 8 June 2005 at 23:10 | Permalink | Reply

    It’s peer-sol (well, I say peer-sawl, but the drawling second syllable is strictly an American option).

  2. orcmid
    Posted 13 June 2005 at 16:02 | Permalink | Reply

    Wow, more Italiana.  I figured to sharpen mine struggling through Kant e l’ornitorinco, and then I found an English translation, not so well-printed and bound, and allowed laziness to prevail.  So where do you operate in Italian? Dove fai l’italiana?

  3. Brian
    Posted 15 June 2005 at 10:16 | Permalink | Reply

    The books meme, tig, whatever: now see my rather pretentious-looking attempt at (Thank goodness we weren’t told that we should take it for granted that the two most important books to us were the Bible and Shakespeare!)


  4. Phil
    Posted 15 June 2005 at 21:27 | Permalink | Reply

    Ciao orcmid… The boring answer is that I learned – or at least dramatically improved – my Italian for my doctorate, which is now (praise be) finally complete; I’m tempted to rest it & concentrate on statistics. (I still read la Repubblica‘s RSS feed & Pietro Speroni’s blog, though.)

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