Law of Unintended Consequences, Tory Division

Are they idiots? Do they think? Wait a minute, let me rephrase that: why don’t the idiots think, apart from the fact that they are idiots? OK, so they didn’t realize that pensioners (the voting-est segment of the community) would be upset to have their pensions hacked away. And they didn’t realize that if they capped tax-relief on charity rich people would (d’oh!) give less.

Now we find that in their enthusiasm to remove any semblance of civic society, our luverly government has ensured (unintended, I have no doubt: they strike me as the kind of people who move their lips when they watch television) that if the libraries they have devastated reconfigure themselves as volunteer institutions, they will be breach copyright regulations when they lend books, and that PLR payments (the pennies paid to authors per book-loan, to compensate for lost sales) are not permitted on any books that they loan.

Nice one.

Philistines inside the gates, part 2,037,047

This is just bile, so you may want to move on — move along, move along, says the mental policeman, nothing to be seen here that isn’t seen every other day.

But if you want to stick with me for a moment, nothing I am about to say will surprise you. In Britain, the Tories have decided today that the roads of the country should be sold off. There isn’t enough money to repair them, but there’s enough money for a commercial company to take profits out of them. Yes, you work that one out.

And while you’re doing it, spare a thought for Nicholas Hoare, one of civilization’s beacons. He owned three bookshops in Canada — OK, so it’s not a cure for cancer, nor did he discover life on Mars. But he created three points where people who wanted to think, to reflect, could come together; where people could explore more than their own small worlds. In effect, he created three small spots of mutual respect and decency.

This is not a story of changing reading habits, or the velociraptor that is Amazon. This is a much sadder, and more brutal story. Two of the three shops, faced with rent hikes of 72%, will now be forced to close. And who is this rapacious landlord? Well, it’s the government, the National Capital Commission, the crown corporation that ‘looks after’ (I use the inverted commas advisedly) federally owned land.

And the government is permitting — probably egging on — these shocking price hikes. Nothing to do with us, guv, their spokesman says. We can’t help it, can we, if the land has become more valuable. No discussion, no mediation, just pay up or piss off. We don’t care what kind of shop you have — we can probably get a fast-food place in there, or maybe even that holy grail, a mobile-phone shop. Then we’ll be laughing.

I have, here, nothing clever, nothing funny to say. Just shame on you, Canadian government. Shame on you, NCC. I hope, when you go home after a long day closing down businesses that people value more than in just dollars and cents, when you go home at night, and your children want you to read them a story, you spare a thought for Nicholas Hoare.

Ikea dooms the book

You don’t have to be Nostradamus to recognize that when Ikea says no one wants books anymore, no one, perhaps, wants books anymore. Word is just out that Ikea has redesigned its famous ‘Billy’ bookshelves. Why is this interesting? Well, because it uses the word ‘book’ together with ‘shelves’, but it doesn’t really mean it. Apparently, the new Billy (excuse the first-name terms: we’re very informal in Sweden) is deeper, the same height but – brace yourselves – the shelves are closer together, so that standard paperbacks no longer fit.

Yup, that’s it: Ikea thinks (knows?) that people don’t actually put books on their bookshelves. So what do we rename these things? [Book]shelves? Place-to-put-my-stuff-shelves? Tchotchke-holders? Whatever, they sure as hell ain’t bookshelves.

We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Not even, sadly, in literate Stockholm.

Women’s reads, or reading women?

One for the sisterhood. A complaint to W. H. Smith has brought about a change to the way some books are labelled. Books by and for women – ‘Women’s fiction’ – will no longer be labelled as such. Books by and for women, in W. H. Smith, are now, ahem, ‘fiction’.

This separation, this discrimination and ghetto-ization, of course, originally came from good intentions – it was, as the US military would say, ‘blowback’, the law of unintended consequences.

Women were being squeezed out of the market, with books by men predominating. So ‘women’s fiction’ shelves were created. But did that mean that Charlotte Brontë and Mary Shelley, or even Joan Didion and Anne Patchett, were moved there? No, the first two went to ‘Classics’, the second to ‘literature’, or even ‘poetry’. Toni Morrison to ‘Fiction by women of colour’. Others went to ‘Gender studies’. Until, finally, of course, ‘Fiction’ was entirely inhabited by white males (usually heterosexual: don’t forget ‘Gay fiction’).

And ‘Women’s fiction’ had pink covers, lots of gold embossing and the odd picture of a pair of shoes.

Women write more books, women read more books, they make up the audiences at readings by possibly as much as 10 to 1. But they get less space: physical, in the bookstores, and mental, in reviews, both as reviewers and reviewed, and I suspect from a quick look (subtext: don’t hold me to this one, please), many literary festivals.

W. H. Smith has taken a step towards, if not giving them more space, at least removing them from a tokenist shelving ghetto.

Contempt for skills, Part 2 million

OK, let’s get today’s rant over with, we’re all busy people. According to the Local Government Association and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, libraries are now to be ‘saved’ by putting them in doctor’s surgeries, churches, and other community centres (and let’s not forget their previous genius idea, putting them in supermarkets).

Apart from the multiple reasons that this is a terrible idea, the real reason it’s a terrible idea is that these libraries will no longer be run by librarians. (I know, I know, but bear with me — we need to spell things out for the barbarians not only no longer at the gate, but sitting on our front doorsteps.)

All it takes to realize how necessary librarians are to (duh) libraries, is to look at Google Books. Just look at it. (Go on, I’ll wait.) Do a quick search. Type in almost anything — oh, I don’t know, Moby-Dick. The first title that comes up is, miracle of miracles, Moby-Dick. Or is it? It isn’t (God forbid) the first edition. It is a 2008 reprint published by ‘Forgotten Books’. Its preamble is hugely encouraging:

Forgotten Books take the uppermost [sic, sic as a dog] care to preserve the wording and images from the original book. However, this book has been scanned and reformatted from the original, and as such we cannot guarantee that it is free from errors or contains the full contents of the original.

So, Forgotten Books takes so much care that they can’t actually say if the whole book is there or not. Good choice for the number 1 slot, Google algorithm!

Number 2: another reprint, volume 1 only.

Number 3: an issue of Life magazine from 1956, with an article on ‘How to read Moby-Dick‘ (something you won’t be able to do so far if you’re relying on Google Books).

Number 4: another reprint, volume 2.

Numbers 5 on down: An article in Indianapolis Monthly (really, I’m not making this up) on whale-watching; an essay called ‘Fathering the Nation: American genealogies of slavery and freedom’; an issue of Popular Mechanics from 1950…

I’m at the end of page 2 of Google books, and so far there is not a single reliable copy of Moby-Dick. Let’s ignore that I’ve found Henry James in a search that includes the term a ‘contemporary’ classic; or Hemingway under Edith Wharton; or or or…

Google had a load of cash, and thought that all that was required was unskilled labour. The local councils have no cash, and are relying on unskilled labour too. Are we expecting more than old copies of, if not Popular Mechanics, then its 2011 equivalent?

What I don’t understand is, why are the elements around the act of reading regarded as something anyone can do? The phrase, ‘I would write a book if only I had time,’ has become a sick, sad cliche. No one says to Philip Glass, ‘I would write a symphony if only I had time,’ or to Magdi Yacoub, ‘I would ditto a cranial haemorrhage if only ditto.’ (At least, I’m guessing they don’t.) So why are writing, and reading, considered unskilled? Yeah, let’s ask nursery groups, and doctors’ receptionists, and boy-scout leaders, or even the scouts, to run the libraries. After all, you don’t need to know anything about anything to do that, do you?

I’ll be in my surgical scrubs and operating behind the produce counter at Aldi at 1 p.m. Anyone with stroke-like symptoms, line right up.

Bad writing against the law?

Turkish publisher Irfan Sanci is facing jail for publishing William Borroughs. He has already been prosecuted for publishing Guillaume Appollinaire (no, truly). Now he is being prosecuted because the ‘Prime Ministerial Board for the Protection of Children from Harmful Publications’ has condemned Burroughs’ The Soft Machine as a book that ‘lacks narrative unity’, being ‘written in an arbitrary fashion devoid of cohesion.’

These seem to me to be literary judgements, and I’m not at all clear from the AP report what makes the Board qualified to pronounce. Even if it were qualified, it’s the linkage it is making that is surprising. Apparently, according to the Board, the book being written in this incoherent style makes Burroughs’ depiction of ‘coarse, sleazy, vulgar and weak aspects of humans’ create ‘an attitude that allows the justification of criminal activities in the readers’ minds’.

That’s giving what it has already announced by fiat to be bad writing a hell of a lot of power. Might it possibly be the case, therefore, that the writing isn’t bad at all? Or is the Board suggesting that only bad writing has this power, and therefore must be outlawed?

It is no joke for Irfan Sanci, but one is led by this to ask, when is the Turkish government going to outlaw woolly thinking? Because it would appear to me from their statement that the members of the ‘Prime Ministerial Board for the Protection of Children from Harmful Publications’ would all be in jail if that were the case.

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