The web page of the ABPress based in Oxford and Sibiu, soon open for business: muses and misspells on its books. Randomly decrepit, stiff joints, possibly neo-bankrupt: so out of touch it needs help, but so analogue it cannot be helped. Nonetheless temperamentally enthusiastic, moderately irascible.
This selection is made from the Albion Beatnik Press’ book Fifty Shades of Re(a)d (an attempt to curate a vital book collection). These books attempt to take us outside of our perhaps pedestrian world and let us take on a wider, bigger picture, a literary vista of imagination. Alongside the book’s publication was a collection of alternative book covers designed by Oxford based artist Stella Shagckerchi.
Bible [King James Version] : God, the Maker of My Despair
The Bible’s glow is immense. It lives on in Milton, it is the key player in Shakespeare, it breathes fantastically through Blake, its sophistry informs the world of Middlemarch, its disappointment ebbs and flow in Eleanor Rigby. At any time in our Albion timeline, stop the watch and you will see how the Bible underpins our world view. Yet today we tend to express chagrin at the remnants of Christian thought, Peter Hitchens and Songs of Praise its last resting points perhaps. In a psychedelic haze of marijuana, the Maharishi and their wealth of millions, The Beatles trudged eastward, and since then we pay Christian ideal lip service only. Shame, say I.
That the Bible is still a holistic source of nourishment is obvious for all to see and, our multicultural vistas notwithstanding, it remains the focal point of our civilization. The Bible should be compulsory reading. Its storytelling, especially in the bold and unforgiving Pentateuch, is astonishing; its astonishing reverie in The Apocalypse of John so absurdly eschatological as to be surrealist and poetic; its poetry in The Psalms so full of bright warmth as to shine as a star bright enough to steer any ship through the darkest night: shine on. Amen, say I.
Moby-Dick : Herman Melville
“Nobody had more class than Melville. To do what he did in Moby-Dick, to tell a story and to risk putting so much material into it. If you could weigh a book, I don’t know any book that would be more full. It’s more full than War and Peace or The Brothers Karamazov. It has Saint Elmo’s fire, and great whales, and grand arguments between heroes, and secret passions. It risks wandering far, far out into the globe. Melville took on the whole world, saw it all in a vision, and risked everything in prose that sings. You have a sense from the very beginning that Melville had a vision in his mind of what this book was going to look like, and he trusted himself to follow it through all the way.” – Ken Kesey interviewed by The Paris Review in 1994
Melville’s career is a study in decline. After early success in the 1840s followed a precipitous career drop, and he was all but forgotten when he died in 1891. After the First World War the avalanche of Modernist hybrid aesthetic ensured that Melville’s kaleidoscopic vision was recognized for what it was: sharp shards of genius. Moby-Dick wrestles from the English language every nuance and meaning, with such a rich repertoire of technique, and to an effect so grand and all embracing that it makes its readers cry with overwhelming shouts of both joy and despair. It is the finest book written in the English language.
Lanark : Alasdair Gray
Gray began the writing of this monumental book in 1954 while a student; Book One was finished in 1963 but failed to find a publisher and the book was finished in 1976; it was published in 1981 and received praise immediately. It is a portrait of his home town of Glasgow, dystopian and surrealist.
Alasdair Gray is a fascinating writer. Only Anthony Burgess or John Fowles can be said to rival him for scope, and certainly not for originality. He draws on a rich tradition in British literature – Mervyn Peake, Wyndham Lewis, David Jones, Denton Welch, Joyce Cary – of using art as inspiration or even including it in the creation of the novel: Gray uses his own drawings and skillful use of typography as features of his books; he started life as a scene and portrait painter. Will Self has referred to him as a “creative polymath with an integrated politico-philosophical vision;” Gray described himself as a “fat, balding, increasingly old Glasgow pedestrian.”
Ulysses : James Joyce
Ulysses (the Latinate name for Odysseus) was published in serial form from 1918, and by Sylvia Beach in Paris in 1922. It is the vade mecum of the Modernist school of writing (stream-of-consciousness flow, experimental prose full of riddle and pun), and it was a precursor of Fox Network’s 24, though I doubt agent Jack Bauer was modelled on Leopold Bloom. 16th June 1904 is Bloomsday. 265,000 words is its length. 30,030 is its rich lexicon. The Modern Library, the American litmus publisher for definitive sound judgement, lists it as first in its 100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century.
It has been said that the first edition contained 2,000 errors; as each subsequent edition appeared, attempts to correct only incorporated more of its own (indeed Joyce had laid his own booby traps, his own deliberate errors). Its textual history has spawned rafts of dispute; Gabler’s ‘corrected edition’ of 1984 has itself been blitzed over its fundamentals and not just its footnotes, and most publishers have reverted to its 1960 (or original 1922) text.
After a year’s break, Joyce set to on Finnegans Wake. No rest for the wicked.
Nineteen Eighty-four : George Orwell
Orwell is the twentieth century version of Shakespeare: so much of his writing has strayed into common parlance. The adjective Orwellian is a policy of control by propaganda, surveillance and misinformation. In Nineteen Eighty-four Orwell described a totalitarian government that controlled thought by controlling language. Newspeak is an obfuscatory language designed to make independent thought impossible; doublethink means holding two contradictory beliefs simultaneously; the thought police are those who suppress all dissenting opinion; prolefeed is homogenized and manufactured media used to control; Big Brother is a supreme dictator who watches everyone.
Orwell argued for clear speech and thought, a John the Baptist figure who forewarned of the terrible plagues of political correctness and identity politics that infects our modern day life; he would no doubt have found it difficult to tolerate much errant thought of today, an era where power is pursued for its own sake, where political leaders have no rationale. Moreover today we have no idea who Big Bruv is, but we know he exists.
The Poverty of Historicism : Karl Popper
Dedicated to the memory of “the countless men and women of all creeds or nations or races who fell victim to the fascist and communist belief in Inexorable Laws of Historical Destiny,” the book is a criticism of the poverty of the idea of historical prediction, which can be (in the words of Wikipedia) split into three areas: “fundamental problems with the idea itself, common inconsistencies in the arguments of historicists, and the negative practical effects of implementing Historicist ideas.” Clever stuff, but the book basically destroys the myth that you can foretell history, and it destroys Marxist fundamentalism, for instance, and allows each of us to take huge and confident breaths of deep self will. Shakespeare made the point rather more simply, Cassius in Julius Caesar declaring: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves…”
This book is a great template for all reconstructive thinking, and Popper’s two volume The Open Society and Its Enemies was another masterpiece concerning political thought, whilst earlier work rattled the cages of scientists (who should be kept in their cages until fed to the lions). Popper is out of fashion these days, but in his day he was a freethinking original.
Atlas Shrugged : Ayn Rand
Rand had achieved success in 1943 with The Fountainhead, an ambitious novel; Atlas Shrugged in 1957 made her a household name, although the book itself was dense and in places unreadable and attracted damning review. Through depiction of a dystopian United States, and with elements of science fiction, mystery and romance, this is Rand’s most extensive fictional statement of Objectivism, her philosophical advocacy of reason, individualism, capitalism and the failures of governmental coercion. Rand has never gained a foothold in academic philosophy and her views are now largely derided, although nearly always by people who have never read her! That she is a philosophical contrarian and that she sought to portray her thought via fiction as well as academic tome – like B.F. Skinner, whose Walden Two is a revealing account of his theories of behavioural modification – make her appeal dramatic and fascinating.
Contrarian thought has been wonderfully expressed in book form, and the likes of David Icke, David Irving, David Duke and many other Davids make fascinating psychological study.
Cosmos : Carl Sagan
Christmas of yesteryear was a far more bookish festivity than it is today. A town like Oxford would once have housed few Christmas trees that didn’t have packaged underneath them at least one book for every member of the household. Our digital taste (and the low concentration level required to service it) has moved this on recently to a DVD under each tree. Television may be the architect of the dumbing down of the modern world but, at its best, it can open doors of intelligent thought unimaginable to previous generations.
Sagan’s Cosmos, shown first in 1980, is the most widely watched (and perhaps most influential) of all television series, Delia Smith notwithstanding. It covered an impressive array of clever scientific stuff – the origins of life to a holistic perspective of our place in the universe of life. If you can mute the Vangelis soundtrack, it was highly visual and entertaining.
The last episode – Who Speaks for Earth? – took on New Age concerns, the stuff that keeps hippies awake at night after they’ve come back from Tescos in their Rolls Royce, unpacked their E-numbers, and counted their pocket money.
This year, apart from unnecessary things like world peace, a time warp wish list for Christmas could include a book under the tree for each member of the family and a return to tactile values. Bring some good cheer to your bookseller, for books remain much better value than cheap socks or naff perfume.
The Complete Works : William Shakespeare
Shakespeare dedicated The Sonnets to “Mr W.H,” and some say that he was the Earl of Pembroke (William Herbert), colourful and portly, the sculptured chap who holds court in the Bodleian Library Old Schools Quadrangle, that expensive bit of kit by Rubens. The First Folio of Shakespeare is dedicated to him and his brother – and Pembroke was stark contrast to Sir Thomas Bodley, the earlier éminence grise of the Bodleian, a drab and holy man who forbad Shakespeare’s manuscripts ever entering the Library, no doubt because theatrical meant ungodly, but also because for all his intention and enterprise Bodley was just so dull, a man you would not wish to sit next to at a garden fete. But not until Bob Geldof (the only man ever to have gotten both Pepsi Cola and Coca-Cola to sponsor the same event) was there such a deal broker: Bodley it was who got the Stationers’ Company in London, at that time the King’s censorship unit, to send a free copy of every manuscript submitted for publication to the Library. (It hasn’t paid a penny for its books since then.) So should we wish to be Pembroke or Bodley? The first was a bit of a brag and a lot of a rake, but also open and warm, and he had Shakespeare in his life; Bodley is a man who married for wealth ahead of beauty, and to wake up each morning next to a trunk of bank notes is probably not fun in the end, certainly if an experience untamed by Shakespeare.
The Bard is writ large in our every day, in very common or uncouth sentence, and every wise saying. He is the fountainhead of our language, the geezer who made it rich and varied, colloquial yet highfalutin, exact yet vague when we need it to be.
Ethel the Aardvark Goes Quantity Surveying : anon
Marty Feldman is one of those curiously lost figures from a great era of British comedy, overshadowed now by Monty Python. His bookshop sketch, from the At Last the 1948 Show, is a highlight of the time (and often borrowed by the Python team in their roadshows). In this sketch he is a terrible and tedious customer (in a era that predates ours, when people were not routinely so stupid) in a well groomed bookshop (ditto). He asks for books that seemingly don’t exist. Well we imagine that they don’t. The shop assistant’s ears pounce on Marty’s request for Ethel the Aardvark… because he thinks he has it! But when it is found Marty Feldman hasn’t the money to buy it, and nor can he read it, he can’t read… Of course we see Marty as the Fool on the Hill, the man who, despite what others think of him, is really wise. The Fool on the Hill could be anyone of us, and that book we’ve been searching for all our life but don’t know the title… Yes it was written, and written just for you… So next time you are found in a bookshop, do remember that there is a book with a huge world picture, and it is there to change your life.