Archive for October 12th, 2010

October 12, 2010

Pradeep Sebastian, The Groaning Shelf

The Sunday Guardian (who will get their website up and running soon so I can finally link to them) carried my review of Pradeep Sebastian’s The Groaning Shelf this weekend.


If you’re the sort of person who likes books, collects books, or spends more time and money on books than you can really afford, there’s something very attractive about the genre of books-about-books. Because what these ultimately are, are books about readers. Quite apart from the rather egocentric pleasure of reading about oneself, it’s comforting to know that one is not alone.
The Groaning Shelf is a collection of short personal essays by Pradeep Sebastian, covering various aspects of book love. The book contains pieces on unusual bookshelves, book theft, first editions, the art of reading and specific books or authors.

The collection as a whole is somewhat inconsistent. Particularly in the earlier pieces Sebastian seems unsure of what audience he is addressing. At times he addresses the reader as a fellow bibliophile, or at least as someone reasonably well-read. At others the reader is assumed to know nothing; it is hard to warm to an author who says things like “As we bibliophiles say”. In an essay on titles, for example, Sebastian refers to a friend who preferred not to title her work even before she read e e cummings. The reader who is familiar with cummings has no trouble understanding this. But surely even the reader who has never touched a book in his life (it’s hard to see what such a reader would be doing with a book about bibliophilia) can work most of this out from context? Apparently Sebastian thinks not, and a paragraph later he is explaining that cummings published a book with no title. Similarly, while quoting a friend who draws an analogy between marginalia and Ariadne’s thread of Greek myth, he feels the need to retell the entire myth.

I suspect that this particular problem arises from the fact that many of these essays are edited versions of Sebastian’s columns in various papers. It is understandable that those particular pieces might originally have been pitched toward a more general audience rather than a circle of Serious Bibliophiles (though the tone seems rather patronizing even then) but surely they could have been brought to some consistency?

The newspaper connection might also be the source of another issue I had with the collection. Each piece is only a few pages long, and when Sebastian tackles broad subjects like book covers or first editions there simply isn’t enough room for him to go into any depth. The grouping together of the essays by theme does help with this, but it’s not quite enough.

It would be interesting if the individual essays in this collection had dates on them, as it’s not clear whether this is all recent work or a collection of writings over a period of time. The later pieces are far superior to the earlier ones. Presumably subject matter has something to do with it. Sebastian is at his best when he is dealing with more specific subjects. His enthusiastic pieces on Amitava Kumar and Pico Iyer (in whose cases I share his opinions) and on J.D. Salinger are far more fun to read. The chapter in which he attempts (albeit unsuccessfully) to garner critical respectability for the movie version of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead is hilarious. A piece on Sherlock Holmes rewrites and pastiches is probably the best thing in the book – Sebastian leaps gleefully about, from Chabon to Bayard to Gilbert Adair. This is book-love, made far more visible than in the earlier pieces about things like cover-design and shelves which are, after all, ultimately extraneous matter. But then, perhaps, that’s one of the fundamental differences among book-lovers that Sebastian notes.
Sebastian’s book is uneven in tone and occasionally pompous, but among the essays included are some absolute gems. It wouldn’t be an essential part of my collection of books about books (if I had one; Sebastian does) but it is an enjoyable read.
October 12, 2010

Garner love

For many months now I’ve been promising myself a reread of Alan Garner’s magnificent book The Owl Service (and a rewatch of the very good BBC adaptation alongside). I’ve written about Garner on this blog, though never enough to express quite how vital he has been to me, and to how I read.

Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (which I only read quite recently, in 2008) is now fifty years old, and The Guardian have an interview with him up here. And though I’ve linked to it before, here is an essay by Garner that I am particularly fond of.