‘Gatsby? What Gatsby?’

A new film is upon us from the man who visualised Shakespeare’s Mercutio cross-dressed and gyrating on the sweeping Capulet staircase to ‘Young Hearts, Run Free’ in a white diamante bra and choker. Baz Luhrmann’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ has burst onto our screens with much the same panache and beat as his 1996 ‘Romeo and Juliet’. As Luhrmann revealed in an interview for Sky Movies, he first envisaged creating a film out of Fitzgerald’s classic as he travelled on the Trans-Siberian railway after filming ‘The Moulin Rouge’, enjoying the novel in audio book format as he dozed off with a glass of red wine. Just like the fantastical ‘blue gardens’ and ‘yellow cocktail music’ of Fitzgerald’s imagined world, Luhrmann has conjured up a vision of ‘The Great Gatsby’ that cavorts as if it is haunted by the cancan dancers and clownish entertainers of that infamous Parisian nightclub, born out of train journey slumbers and wine-fed dreaming.

gatsby 1

Luhrmann’s inspiration is apt, as the novel really is all about dreaming. Nick’s dream of Gatsby, Gatsby’s dream of Daisy, Gatsby’s dream of Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s dream of  Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s dream, or perhaps nightmare, of America. Hemingway claimed that Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda used to encourage her husband to drink whilst writing. Perhaps, much like the stumbling narrator Nick , who sits ‘within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life’, Fitzgerald wrote his novel through a haze of ethanol, in a state of wakeful dreaming. He shaped the black ink on the page with a mind blurred and fluid at the edges, at liberty to fantasise, to fashion the synaesthetic party scenes in which the senses queasily intermingle. Even after all the bloodshed, the smashing up, the loss, there is a small place within Fitzgerald’s imagination still enchanted by a faith in dreaming that he has shown to be futile. He is in part charmed by the ‘orgastic future’ that we ‘stretch out our arms farther’ to reach, despite its eluding us ‘year by year’. It is Fitzgerald’s ambivalence that defines Gatsby’s ‘greatness’. Like the sublime, he is a figure who unnerves as much as he attracts, just as his dream is as romantic as it is dangerous.

Gatsby himself, with Luhrmann's flamboyant touch

Gatsby himself, with Luhrmann’s flamboyant touch

It is this instability that Luhrmann fails to capture. He dreams with the carelessness of the party- goers and the wild romanticism of Gatsby himself, and doing so, the caution and nuance of the author’s craft is lost. The word author is etymologically related to authority, seen in the close relationship between the medieval words ‘auctor’ and ‘auctoritee’. The hold of an author over their work has always been problematic from literature’s foundations, with writers such as Chaucer struggling to establish clear power. He prefaced his works with vocalisations of modesty which instructed readers didactically as much as they apologised for any shortcomings and shook off culpability for dangerous misinterpretation. With the invention of the printing press in the 1450s, private manuscripts became available for public readership. Popular anthologies such as Tottel’s Miscellany encouraged a collaborative authorship, with readers actively taking to the page with quills and amending sonnets, circulating new versions and subverting the original poet’s power. Clearly the authority of authorship has always been contentious, but it is difficult to lose ourselves in the film’s contrived and off-piste opening, as a washed-up, bearded and morose Nick talks softly to a psychiatrist as snowflakes dust around the sanatorium. Luhrmann’s portrayal of the story’s narrator provides a painfully unsubtle metatextual experience, as Nick’s words clunkily etch themselves across the screen in typewriter font. Suddenly, the famously unreliable voice careers off with such autonomy that even as Fitzgerald’s powerful cadence draws the film to a close, Nick must wrap it all up in a ring binder and in a moment of casual afterthought asterix ‘the great’ onto the title of his manuscript, ‘Gatsby’. Giving such deliberate power to a narrator who oscillates so infamously between repulsion and attraction in the novel, Luhrmann re-shapes Fitzgerald’s tale with a carthartic neatness, a ‘once upon a time’ frame that counters its original sense of emptiness, negating the force of the ‘foul dust’ and ash that swirls through its pages and drains away any prospect of redemption.

The original 1925 book sleeve, rather less sparkling

The original 1925 book sleeve, rather less sparkling

Of course, it is important to recognise that a film is a work of art in its own right. But for dedicated Fitzgerald fans, Luhrmann’s emphasis seems to usurp the ultimate dreamer, the author. The novel’s greatest moment of loss is given a sense of rose-tinted fatefulness in the film. Gatsby’s death is romanticised by his desperate belief that Daisy is the one at the end of the trilling receiver, a point in the plot that Fitzgerald fashions with devastating sparseness. Nick can only imagine that Gatsby looks up at the ‘unfamiliar sky’, detached from the ‘new world, material without being real’, a man who had ‘paid a high price for living too long with a single dream’. Lying not far away is Wilson’s body and ‘the holocaust was complete’.

Nick is a man who is glad to compliment Gatsby before he dies as better than the ‘rotten crowd’ he associates with. But in all the glitz and glamour, we must not forget that he is also a man who freely admits in the same sentence that ‘I disapproved of him from beginning to end’. Dreams are not always beautiful, but they are always enigmatic. This is what Gatsby is, how Fitzgerald writes, how Nick observes. It doesn’t seem to be how Luhrmann directs.


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Filed under Books, Culture, Film, Writing

The 2013 Vintage

‘Definitely something you could wear on a winter’s day at the races’.

These were the words my boyfriend said to me as I pirouetted in front of the speckled mirror of a vintage shop last weekend, balancing a felt trilby poked with a pheasant feather upon my head. I dismissed his enthusiasm with some comment about frivolity and expense as I ran my hands over and through the whirligig of silk scarves near the counter. The shop had that very vintage feel, brown carpets, brown clutter, brown counters, an array of brown leather bags and tortoiseshell aviators. The shopkeeper had done very well to make it say ‘old’. The only thing that was missing was some schmaltzy jazz crackling on a gramophone and perhaps I would have been endeared to purchase my trilby and step boldly from the door, ready to turn heads.

A typical vintage array

A typical vintage array

‘Vintage’ is a term that we have adopted to cover a loose range of essentially bric-a-brac concepts. Clothing, quaint tea rooms, Bakelite kitchen appliances, cars, cake stands, jewellery, notelets, cosmetics. The Victorian chemist in Haworth, Yorkshire is one particular example. Beautiful and frou-frouey as it is, lit with soft light and staffed by ladies in crisp white petticoats, it is difficult to imagine Emily Brontë popping her head round the door at the peak of her consumption for a scoopful of lavender bath salts. ‘Vintage’, like any other word, is drained of signification when overused, a process not too distant from economic hyperinflation. As its value has been manipulated, it is increasingly becoming an equivalent term for ‘shabby-chic’, ‘pre-loved’ or simply, ‘second hand’. ‘Vintage’ in the sense of something being an old model or style, particularly of a vehicle, was first coined in 1920s. Surely then its proper application as a term should be to art deco items and beyond. And yet we seem to appropriate it to a much greater timeline.

Writing my dissertation this last term on Thomas Hardy’s ‘Poems of 1912-13’, an elegiac sequence written to commemorate his wife, my thoughts have been deeply preoccupied by how we process memory, time and time’s passing. It is interesting how much a moment in the past can mutate with each day. In retrospect, memories seem to change, to become resurfaced with a gloss, with a strange new emphasis. For Hardy, this emphasis is disturbing, awakening feelings of guilt and remorse, a failure to value and understand the then present when his wife was living. In a vintage shop however, the effects of looking back only seem positive. As we hold a pair of 70s sunglasses we are flooded with feelings of nostalgia. Putting a felt trilby on your head gives a rose tinted reflection in the mirror. Drinking tea from an ornate teacup as you sit in your lounge done up with chintz seems to transform the little ordinary details of our lives into something romantic, golden, perfected. Or does it? Originally coined for a year’s crop of wine, one of ‘good or outstanding quality’, ‘vintage’ is meant to label the very best of the best. But we have absorbed it as the buzzword to talk about anything pre 2000, be it sparkling or shabby.

The real vintage?

The real vintage?

I attended a talk recently at Pembroke College by Martin Rowson, a political Cartoonist for The Guardian and The Independent. As an English alumnus, he had ploughed his way through my syllabus, digesting the greatest works of literature week by week. It is what he did with all that he had read later however, that I found most intriguing. As well as his work on newspaper cartoons, he has spent considerable time transforming Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Eliot’s The Wasteland into graphic form, dredging up the famous narratives of the past and sketching them with the same thick black lines of a modern day political satire cartoon. As a satirist, Rowson said his job was to break things up into smaller particles in order for us to process them more easily. The awful was in this way made more bearable. What was remarkable was how well the graphic form suited Sterne’s rambling and boisterous tale. Perhaps the people of the past that we look back at with dewy eyes didn’t think very differently to us. Sterne and Rowson certainly seem to have the same sense of humour. Through Rowson’s adaptation, a satirist of the present and a novelist of the past work in symbiosis to create something utterly novel. It seems that the past should not endlessly impose itself upon the present in the form of dress shops stuffed with fur, pearls, beads and Bakelite and old fashioned tea rooms decorated like a scene from a home front documentary. Instead, we should work to see how the present can enter and redefine the world of the past, be it through modern film adaptation, theatre or graphic novels.

Martin Rowson's book cover

Martin Rowson’s book cover

On my coffee table sits a chunky graphic edition of Vanity Fair, a Christmas gift that I am yet to fully peruse. But as I flick through the pages, the story is punctuated with punchy black and white illustrations drawn in the style of a superhero comic. Personally, I feel this manner of delivery suits the novel’s intrigue perfectly without marring, changing or romanticising the original story. In this way, unlike the somewhat synthetic concept of ‘vintage’, past and present can collaborate so that re-visioning the past works as a ‘seeing again’ but not a ‘seeing again’ that manipulates what was ordinary and everyday then into a false ideal now.


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The Mozart Effect

When my Aunt was pregnant with my cousin, she was every bit the conscientious first-time mother, equipped with a state of the art pram and a seemingly unending wodge of dribble cloths in a range of gender-neutral tones. However, what particularly interested me were her reports that she had been listening to classical music in an attempt to make my growing cousin more intelligent. This rather pleasantly arty hypothesis has become an internet phenomenon, guiding tentative expectant mothers to indulge in some cultural bonding with their imminent bundle.

The idea that listening to classical music can somehow increase the intelligence of a developing child is an extension of what has been simply named ‘The Mozart Effect’, a term first coined in 1991 by Alfred A. Tomatis, who claimed that Mozart’s music had the capacity to heal and encourage brain development. Later in 1993, psychologists claimed that it had been shown to improve spatial-temporal reasoning. And with the Austrian composer’s oeuvres stirring the concert-goer and the scientist in equal measure, it came as no surprise that websites were set up for eager parents to download Mozart tracks to nurture the neurones of their developing offspring. Indeed, according to the website www.babycentre.com, a Governor of Georgia, no doubt inspired by the laboratory hype, mandated that a CD of Mozart’s piano sonatas should be given to all new babies on their leaving hospital.

‘The Mozart Effect’ has since been dismissed, with mother-baby websites instead promoting Mozart’s work as merely mood music, as a means to soothe the fretful baby and introduce it to the classical canon from a young age. Nevertheless, whilst it may not manifestly increase a child’s intelligence, the intriguing scientific and psychological potential in music suggests it may have something to teach us about human nature.

This prompted me to think about the way that we listen to music today. Whilst in the past our desire for music would have been satisfied by a maiden at a harpsichord or a trip to a velvety concert hall, we can indulge our ears today with whatever tones we yearn for, whenever we yearn for them. You Tube and Spotify have opened up vast empires for auditory exploration, conquerable by a few taps on a keyboard. And this is a privilege that we must cultivate. Just in writing this blog, I have listened to a miscellany of melodies that I have accessed with minimal effort, filling my head with sounds that invariably syncopate the steady metronome of my typing. At this late hour, I find myself believing that music can stimulate the brain’s creative capabilities.

However, with such a diverse portfolio of music available to us, perhaps we are all too ready to choose music moulded to our mood, rather than letting ourselves be moulded by music’s own powers. Indeed, I recently came across the website www.stereomood.com, a site that allows you to enter your mood into a search bar and have melodies matched to your current temperament. Mood categories ranged from ‘dish washing’ to music to ‘snuggle’ to. Whilst Buddhist chanting might be requisite for yoga, the notion of mood music can surely become too dictatorial. Music is, after all, an art form and the way that we react to aestheticism is always driven by subjective impulses. Classical music of the Romantic Period was written to emote. And emotions are unpredictable, personal and private. It is our individual response to music that makes listening to it in a group or community so valuable and interesting, and is certainly a way to support public performances.

Perhaps we have something to learn from the premise of ‘The Mozart Effect’. There is some value in listening to music neutrally and experimenting with its effects, allowing people to enter the imaginative world of a piece and read it, as one would a book or poem. My ongoing study of Thomas Hardy’s elegiac poetry sequence of 1912-1913 for my dissertation drew my attention strongly to the fundamental link between music and poetry. As a keen musician himself, Hardy frequently employed ballad and hymnal forms to structure his work. Responding to the tones and textures of a piece of music is like reacting to the details of language in a poem.

I am organising an event in my College of Jazz and Blues music to brighten up the notorious work slump that is ‘Week 5 blues’ in the Cambridge term. Some of us might associate such instrumentals with chill-out hour, others with the glamour of Gatsby’s parties. Frank Zappa once said that ‘Music, in performance, is a kind of sculpture. The air is sculpted into something’. It is the diverse ways that we respond personally to music as an art form that makes it such an interesting canvas on which to learn about humanity, whether in the whitewash of the laboratory or the plush comfort of the theatre row.


Filed under Music, Uncategorized

A Night at the Opera

With her deep upturned pout, ragged blouse and tangled locks, intertwined in the French flag as black and white bleed into red and blue, the face of Cosette is instantly recognisable. Les Misérables’ ceaseless popularity is testament to a particular musical taste that has been fostered since it first opened in the West End in 1985. Victor Hugo could never have imagined that his novel would be seeing in the new year of 2013 with the release of Tom Hooper’s much anticipated film of the stage musical. What is it about this French revolutionary drama that has so captivated the minds and hearts of the world? The catchphrase of Hooper’s film catalogues basic human passions: ‘Fight. Dream. Hope. Love’. For me, this very aptly encapsulates the essence of the musical. There is little more harrowing than Fantine’s impassioned and desperate reminiscence of a life that could have been in ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, a performance  delivered with much raw sincerity by Hathaway in the teaser trailer of Hooper’s film.


Yet personally, these four words of ‘Fight. Dream. Hope. Love’ are equally relevant to a form of theatrical music that glows much more dimly in the vivid forum of world entertainment. And that is opera. Whose voice can be more dreaming than Madame Butterfly’s in ‘Un Bel Di’? More full of love than Isolde’s in her ‘Liebestod’? More hopeful than ‘Nessun Dorma’, an anthem so inspiring it was used as the theme for the 1990 FIFA World cup?

Why is it then that comparative to musicals, we seem to be less roused by opera? Perhaps it is because we associate it with the velveteen hues, cut glass chandeliers and gilt of an expensive night out at the theatre. Zachary Woolfe’s article (@zwoolfe) in ‘The New York Times’, ‘How Hollywood Films are Killing Opera’, notes that it is only the use of famous divas in America that guarantees audiences. This prompts us to ponder whether the quality of operatic music in itself is no longer enough to secure profits. Woolfe also points out that the Hollywood glamorisation of opera has done little to help its credibility as an artform. Citing Vivienne’s trip in ‘Pretty Woman’ to see La Traviata as an example, his point becomes crystal clear. She is taken on a glitzy date escorted by helicopter, peering out of the box with her opera glasses, a bold vision of diamonds, white gloves and a full, sweeping red gown. Much as she is moved by her experience, it seems superficial and frivolous: all she can say is  ‘It was so good I almost peed my pants!’ Julia Roberts’ fame, beauty and cinematic presence inevitably leaves the impression that a night at the opera is an elite evening of entertainment enjoyed only by the glittering and the fabulous.

Vivienne indulging in the opera

Vivienne indulging in the opera

The use of opera in the advertising world is similarly problematic. Two recent adverts for Jean Paul Gaultier’s Le Male aftershave shows a changing room of half clad athletic men pouting, perfuming and preening as they change into sharp tailored suits, no doubt preparing to attend a decadent party. In the second, a man and a woman in a similar state of undress awake in a sumptuous boudoir. The male, playing the quintessential ‘man in uniform’ as a sailor,  mysteriously disappears, leaving only his scent to linger in the love nest. By coupling opera with such scenes of modellesque beauty, rose tinted light, silk and indulgence, we cannot help but feel it exists in a world of perfection, a world of high fashion. It is not something that we can immediately relate to.

The mystique surrounding opera frustratingly veils it from stirring emotions within us just as powerful, if not more so, as any resounding chorus of an Andrew Lloyd Webber classic. Certain companies and productions are working hard to unclothe opera of its supposed pretensions, stripping it down to accentuate best its movingly human qualities. Opera North’s 2011 ‘Carmen’, for example, set the saga in the mellow grounds of a Spanish wine bar complete with fairy lights and rickety tables. To the audience, it was a scene not too distant from a favourite Mediterranean summer holiday. As a classically trained singer myself, I was a member of the chorus of Leeds Youth Opera for four years. In my time there, I was a Germanic huntress in Weber’s ‘Der Freischütz’, a medieval crusader and harem girl in Verdi’s ‘I Lombardi’ and a Greek wench in Mozart’s ‘Idomeneo’. As a company, we always aimed for diversity and to challenge our audience’s expectation. With this in mind, Hades in our production of Offenbach’s ‘Orpheus in the Underworld’ was transformed  into a seedy underground nightclub and the sopranos, myself included, played burlesque dancers in fishnets and platform heels. Finishing off the party in the final act was a drunken performance of the famous Can-Can dance to disco lights, as energetic and frolicsome as a girly hen do.

Leeds Youth Opera's chorus for 'Idomeneo'

Leeds Youth Opera’s chorus for ‘Idomeneo’

It is staging and costume that prove vital tools to ground opera in a way that all audiences can access and enjoy. Indeed, as part of Cambridge’s Festival of Ideas, a newly composed opera ‘Lost’ was performed in the Fitzwilliam Museum. It involved both audiences and performers moving through the galleries parallel to the narrative’s progression, becoming themselves lost and immersed in the art work. It is this sort of intelligent innovation of operatic performance and reception that inspires and fosters emotional and intellectual connections between the listener and the music. The passions of ‘Fight. Dream. Hope. Love’ are allowed liberation from the cobwebbed traditions of more conventional theatrical performances and simultaneously escape the romanticised associations of the media and film industry, invigorating a diverse multitude of people. Opera is supposed to be a dramatic work set to music. And so we must keep experimenting with where that drama can take us.

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Filed under Art, Film, Music, Theatre

The Writer’s Toolbox

I’ve been writing a diary every day for nine years now. I don’t remember ever specifically wanting to start  a diary, but a Christmas gift from my Grandma triggered an enjoyment in journal keeping that has become an obsession, a love of looking back over my life at memories that I can read and re-read again and again. But I have a confession to make. I’ve let my diary writing fall by the wayside for the past week or so. Just as I have let my blogging. As I survey my surroundings whilst I sit and type, it’s not difficult to see why. Scattered around my room is a mosaic of sodden laundry that I vainly hope will dry. Coffee mugs adorn every available surface. Everything is haphazard to a slightly unacceptable degree.



What I am also surrounded by are words, but these words are not my own. Scraps of paper scribbled in quotations, critical voices resounding from tea-stained library tomes, photocopies and extracts. It is these fragments of opinions, these quips and epigrams of literary characters that have been swirling in my mind for the past week or so, immersing me in the bounds of books.

What I relish in blogging however is that it allows us to speak and listen beyond the pages of fiction or the monochrome columns of a newspaper. For those of us hurrying past the newsagents with little time to stop, blogging keeps us connected, and particularly in a journalistic capacity, dramatises momentous news stories in an intense real-time framework. As an arts student, the Oxford English Dictionary always proves an invaluable tool in bolstering an essay’s argument and revealing new layers of meaning to words.  Of course, stylistically, online blogging is not the same as essay writing, but a quick definition search of ‘blog’ provoked some interesting thoughts about what is expected of bloggers as they log into WordPress and compose a witty snippet. ‘Blog’ is defined as ‘to write and maintain a weblog’. For me, the idea of ‘maintenance’ is particularly interesting. It seems that blogs need to be up to date, current, recent. The blogger’s voice should freshly echo what is unfolding in society.

Blogging in a journalistic field therefore becomes particularly valuable. Cambridge’s Varsity newspaper certainly made use of the excitement and vitality of a ‘live blog’ unfolding alongside the tensions of the recent Presidential election. Online media allows writers indefinite opportunities to upload, edit and refresh. And this creates a culture that must forever be up to date. Our yearning to be kept in the know is kindled even more by the interactivity of reading in an online format. As journalists link their pieces to Twitter, we can enter a world once confined to offices of broadsheet, tweeting comments and questions to writers in response to their articles. Of course, the interactivity of the reader has implications for the ethics of online writing. Bloggers and journalists are always accountable for their work.  The force of ‘click to share’ could become dangerous, spreading poor, misinformed or offensive opinion and perpetuating a negative online presence for writers involved.

But is a cantankerous voice resonating online worse than not being heard at all? Certainly Oscar Wilde stated that ‘the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about’. Perhaps, the endless renewal and updating of online pieces and blogs mixed with carefully crafted tweets, gives those who have made a slip of the tongue a chance for redemption. Yet maintaining our writing online in the heady world of technological progress proves challenging. With Twitter’s bemusing and alien lexicon of ‘retweets’, ‘modified tweets’, ‘hashtags’ and ‘trending’, many voices may find themselves lost in translation.

As technology advances, all that writers like me can do is hope that they can keep up, maintaining their voices and satisfying eager and inquisitive readers. This is where sites like Mashable become so handy. It might not be the first place we think of, but in providing the ‘how to’ for social media, this is where all aspiring writers should start.  A handbook for anyone challenged by the hashtag, Mashable provides a catalogue of helpful articles ranging from ‘5 better ways to network on Twitter and LinkedIn’ and ‘A Totally Serious Beginner’s Guide to Memes’. It is a tool box I have rummaged in from time to time, helping me navigate the haze of bitlyed links and retweets and better understand how to speak to those who might want to listen. In breaking down the giant that is social media into its clear components, Mashable provides a handy map for anyone wanting to scribble their thoughts upon the canvas of cyberspace. In this way, even when my little emerald green leather-bound diary lies unfilled by the inky splashes of my mind, my words might just fill someone else’s mind across the distances of the globe for one little moment.


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Filed under Books, Writing


I have been absent from the world of blogging for the past couple of weeks for a simple reason. Books. And what could have been more apt than for me to discover, just as I turned my mind to blogging again, that books were not just something enveloping my time and interest as I began back at Cambridge , but were something grabbing attention beyond the heights of the University Library’s dusty shelves.

Tomorrow, the winner of the 2012 Man Booker prize will be announced. This is the 44th year of the competition which started in 1969. The ceremony will take place in London’s Guildhall to be covered by the BBC. The winner receives £50 000 and the six shortlisted writers £2, 500.

The winner also receives a specially commissioned and artfully handbound edition of their book.

It was this last snippet of information that stayed with me the most. The writer, who probably began his or her novel with ideas jotted down on scrappy post-it notes, has taken their creation through the void of black and white Times New Roman on a cut throat journey of  editing and rewriting to come to this final moment. They may well wish never again to open that file on their computer. Yet I imagine as they are handed a beautifully bound copy of their work, with a waxy, embossed cover and starchy leaves that crackle as they are turned, that the monotonous tapping of the keyboard that has been the pulse of their day to day life for so long must seem worth it. The special commissioned copy of the winner’s book will sit on their shelf to reflect their public success in the competition and the sterile word document will be transformed into an object living and breathing with personal value and memories of struggle and inspiration. Often it seems, it is not what we read, but how we read it.

The way that we can read books today is changing. Cambridge is a patchwork of artisan and antique book shops nestled down crooked alleyways. All sorts can be unearthed from the higgledy -piggledy shelves, be it a fully illustrated gold embossed collection of ‘Tales from the Arabian Nights’, or more simply, a mouldering pocket edition of ‘Wuthering Heights’. Sometimes, the book seller can be a little liberal with the term ‘antique’. My brother is an avid collector of old books and on one grey and foggy November evening we travelled to a book seller housed in what turned out to be a dilapidated warehouse tilting at a drunken angle. The smell of mildew and creosote, coupled with the atmospheric tinny drip of rainwater was a far cry from the squishy chairs and the squealing costa coffee machines of Waterstones. Clearly ‘antique’ had become ‘decrepit’. Yet old books can be little fragments of history. Dates in the cover. Names scrawled over the title page. Notes in the margin. All these little details bespoke a copy so that it takes up a unique place on a shelf.

A jumble of old books

Even if the pages are tea stained and raggedy and the ink has melted grey at the edges, these more unusual editions of literature are surely more valuable than the mass printing of chunky volumes piled up in a jenga on the Waterstone’s special offer table,  automatically branded with the bright neon ‘three for two on all classics’ sticker. A shelf full of beautiful and historical books becomes a work of art that is being continually developed and perfected. I recently acquired a copy of John Donne’s poetry in French so old that some of the pages had not yet been cut. As I slid the knife through the pulpy fibres I felt I was reawakening a lost tradition that celebrates as much the way that a book is crafted and put together as it does its contents.

Patterns of reading however, are continually evolving. We often read quickly and in transit. E-books entertain us as we stand wedged on the tube or sunbathing on a beach. I find myself often reading for a specific purpose, searching frantically for quotations and themes to fit the essay titles that I have been set in a race to meet the deadline. Computer formats of literature are invaluable for this. Yet my degree and current study of 18th century literature has found me a compromise between  new and old ways of reading, allowing me to pick up the mass produced modern classics at a slashed price and still feel I am getting a beautiful book onto my shelf. 18th century readers  kept ‘commonplace’ books in which they collected their favourite quotations into exquisite journals. I too have been keeping a form of reading log in a little embellished notebook that I bought at a vintage market stall, which I look back through to refresh my memory of the best bits the written word has to offer.

This is one way to keep books beautiful, by etching our favourite words onto some uniquely bound pages that we can place on the shelf as personal to us. That way, when my latest edition of a cheap Austen is donated to the library book sale to make space for the new Waterstones BOGOF I’ve quickly picked up in town, I can keep reliving my favourite moments of literature bound into beautiful covers by a pen in my hand.


Filed under Books, Writing

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My friend sent me a letter the other day. True to her haphazard, artistic and lapsang-drinking form, she had enclosed it in an envelope crafted by her own hand out of a scrap of magazine and 70s sticky tape, which she had made because she had ‘run out of envelopes’, as a scrawl on a white patch of the magazine print indicated. My family were perplexed and intrigued by this deformed rectangular package that was lodged, damp, in our mailbox. It was the microdot ‘I love Frankie’ on the envelope lip that gave it away as a few words cobbled together, homemade and decorated by biro doodles, just for me.

The letter lived up to its exterior as two pieces of crinkly A5, frayed at the edges as she had torn them hastily from her notepad. They were etched  in a familiar script and embellished with pink highlighter borders and red squiggles. Parentheses mirrored perfectly her rambling speech, capitals dramatised her statements and a hand drawn map of her summer travels gave a personality and vitality to her words, an immediacy, that transported me in a moment to her university room and evoked that faint scent of lapsang, of course. I felt privileged that with me in mind, she had formed a little puddle of ink into something to be read and re-read with that same sense of the present even in future years to come.

That is what is so sacred about something written by a pen. It is the autograph of a dear one whose lines and grooves you can trace in the page. Yet more importantly, it lasts. Compare it to the cursor. The tiny blinking line begins its life with such instability. It can create poetry just as quickly as it can be destroyed by a ctrl+a sweep of blue and a tap of the delete key. Something typed can be rewritten, tweaked, edited, re-coloured, emboldened, italicised, underlined, inflated and deflated. A document on a computer is not a forever, but rather a maybe, always able to be mutated and perfected as the creator’s whim takes. Blogging itself is defined as adding new material to, or constantly updating a forum where opinions are recorded. But the edit button is never out of reach.

We do not have this same editing mentality as we hold a pen between our fingers. Inking on a page can be covered up by scribbles, smudged by water, but never fully erased (assuming of course that there is no dramatic period drama style tableau of flushed faces and letters thrown on fires.)

Our modern age of flux is perhaps very well suited to this changeable way of cataloguing experience.  As society evolves, what seemed the present suddenly becomes the past, and the way we communicate ideas and opinions needs to keep up as society edits itself. We are both private and public creatures. Composing a letter to someone on a few crisp sheets, perhaps spritzing them with fragrance and paperclipping on a photograph is for me a very personal way to share myself with another. Yet the internet allowing me to share myself that little bit further is what amazes me about the written word. People want to read and write in a way that allows them to edit, develop, alter and evolve their opinions to suit the rapidly changing society around them.

Not only can an online personal presence take you down unexpected career avenues, as @mashable Mashable Business’ article ‘Students, Here’s How to Kick-Start Your  Personal Brand Online’ demonstrates, but this constant sharing of information transforms the internet into a community. It is a very human organisation that connects like-minded people. The web takes the little blinking cursor and elevates it beyond its clinical black and white flicker, transforming it into a modern Hermes that carries messages across a digital landscape. Just like letters and postcards, blogging and article-sharing maps out for writers and readers the exotic places that their opinions are reaching, assuring them that their voices will never be lost in translation.




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