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There Are Worse Prisons Than Words

Contains spoilers

When I finished The Book Thief for the first time, I swore to myself that I would never find a book like it in all my life. I don’t know what I expected, because I did not stop reading and people did not stop writing, and it so happens that I have found another Book Thief.

I got The Shadow of the Wind from a friend. It follows the story of Daniel, a boy who stumbles across a book which also happens to be called The Shadow of the Wind. The book is by a mysterious and now apparently defunct author, Julian Carax, and is the last copy in print. Just to add to the ambiguity, a sinister and faceless character is known to devote his life to burning copies of Carax’s work. After becoming enthralled with the book, Daniel finds himself on a harrowing quest to find out what happened to Julian Carax, and is soon tangled up in the poignant stories of the people who Carax left behind.

As it always is with truly good books, that brief summary does not in any way do it justice.

I have never read a book before where the stories of two sets of characters are so closely and cleverly intertwined. The life of Daniel and the life of Julian appear to have come from the same set of blueprints – and as i observed Daniel’s slow discovery of what Julian has lost, the ending of the book and Daniel’s fate loomed with more and more dread. Carlos Ruiz Zafon made the reader believe that Daniel was Julian, right up until the very end – at which point Daniel is shown to save what Julian was always condemned to lose.

This was a clever, harrowing and at times terrifying book, but more so it was a poignant one. I have always thought of literature as being a constant, a permanent. Part of the reason why I write is to add substance to memories or feelings that I don’t believe will be around forever. The thought of a writer being so horrified with the place that writing has lead him to that he would be willing to devote his life to burning his work is one which really held resonance with me. What I loved most of all was that fire was presented as the metaphor for hatred. Julian is burnt in the fire and physically scarred – an accurate representation of how hatred has destroyed the person he used to be. And that beautiful moment when Daniel walks into the mansion to find Bea, and she addresses him as Julian. Because what is Daniel if he isn’t the Julian who never needed to write?

This book might not count as a classic piece of literature. I doubt this jumbled set of paragraphs even counts as a review, as I am forever plagued with an inability to write critically about books which I adore. But I am going to post it anyway in my Classic Lit tag, because I think that The Shadow of the Wind deserves to be there.


Was it good for you, too?

From an article last September, in discussing Obama’s choice of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending as bedtime reading material:

Having the president of the United States read your novel is the ultimate test of the principle that good writing makes every reader think it’s about them. In this case, that inclusionary principle washes back over the president. Barnes’s exquisitely tempered novel is a long way from the White House – the protagonist is a Brit who has failed at most things – and yet there it is, the common strand, the arc of empathy: the story of a man going back over his life, weighing the choices he made and their long-range consequences, wondering, at the end of the day, if he did the right thing

Everyone has a different feeling about what constitutes good writing. For me, it is the writer’s ability to tell the truth, no matter what the genre. It’s that moment in any book – whether wild fantasy or romance or vampire chick lit or anything else – which makes you say, ‘That’s it!’ A moment of language or dialogue or observed behaviour which is true to us.

That, and the ability to tell a good story.

So what makes writing good for you? That elusive sense of truth? Empathy regardless of your own position? Skilled or innovative use of language? Or something else entirely?

To Kindle or Not to Kindle?

It’s a fairly innocuous object, the Kindle – flat, grey and quiet. It doesn’t scream division. But it’s deceptive.

I’m an oldfashioned kind of book addict. I love the hush of a good bookshop or library. Some find piles of books messy, but to me they’re comforting. As a child, I went to bed with a book rather than a teddy bear. The closed covers of a book contain the escape of story, for me; a deeply familiar excitement every time.

So the Kindle in all its plastic electronic gimmickry is wrong on so many levels. How can such a dead object ever think to replace the texture of printed paper under your hands? How can a brand name dream of ousting an elegant hardback? A book is innately physical. It has a weight, a presence in your bag or by your bed. A Kindle is a book crushed flat with its beauty made hollow.

And yet, as a booklover, I should only be pleased that the Kindle is renewing interest in reading and taking novels to a wider audience. Many who wouldn’t usually read are enticed by the idea of an easily accessible tablet, similar to an iPad. You can fit a million books onto a Kindle, whereas an actual real book will push your holiday luggage entitlement way over the allowance. There is now a Kindle family, according to Amazon. Imagine: an extended family as a byproduct of an expensive gadget. Grandma will be delighted. She’ll be even more excited about the fact that she can read ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ in public with anonymous pleasure.

But at what price do these glories come? Isn’t a story cheapened by its vehicle? Jane Eyre’s longing for Rochester loses its romance once it’s computerised. Atticus’ honour lacks depth on a tablet. And, worst of all, the race to Poirot’s revelation loses its excitement when there’s no pages to turn. If the Kindle juggernaut continues pace and a book eventually becomes an anachronism, a thousand libraries will lie in ruins and Waterstones will atrophy with dust.

Maybe I’m overreacting?

What do you think?

Empathy Continued

‘You never really understand a person until . . . you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’ Harper Lee

Empathy is an almost forgotten art. I call it art because it’s a skill, and any skill performed well can become art. It’s a skill because it takes practice, and sensitivity, and thought, and instinct.

It’s almost forgotten because so few people practice it. It’s rare to hear someone take the time to say, ‘Well, let’s think about it from their point of view.’ It’s rare to hear anyone try and rationalise what their opponent or peer is thinking, or what motives lie behind their behaviour.

It’s hard to do. We all have a certain appearance on the outside, but we’re trapped inside our own minds, and obsessed with our own experience. Events around us, people’s behaviour and things that are said come to us through a thick filter, arriving at a wholly self-centred ego which interprets everything through its own needs. It’s hard to forcibly step outside of that, and to make our minds imagine the thought patterns of others. Even more difficult is the process of feeling as others feel – putting aside our own ME ME ME experience for a moment, and climbing into another person’s skin.

Literature is one vehicle by which we access empathy. A story takes us away from ourselves, and allows us to look into someone else’s experience. It’s easier when it’s done for us – when a writer takes us by the hand, and shows us how that someone else feels. Atticus teaches Finch about empathy, and by doing so Harper Lee teaches us, too.

It frightens me that To Kill A Mockingbird was published in 1960, and today, in 2013, fifty-three years later, we still have a lot to learn about empathy. One novel certainly doesn’t change the world, of course; but we understand the universal truth Lee spoke. We understood it then, and we understand it now. Believing in the power of empathy or optimism is often seen as naive, but cynicism is dangerous.