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Books At Bedtime: Quietus Writers & Friends Reading For Pleasure
The Quietus , June 30th, 2019 10:56

In a new semi-regular series, Quietus writers and friends talk about the books they read for pleasure and the rituals and habits they keep to while reading, with Ed Dowie, Nina Allan, and Robin Allender

Image credit: Frances Castle, Claypipe Music

Ed Dowie is reading Lint by Steve Aylett

I almost always have two different kinds of books on the go: a Main Book, and a Side Book. The Main Book is the one that you take everywhere: you read it on the bus, it has forward momentum, a destination, an intention. The Side Book sits on the bedside table and it has a less defined pace. It might take a long time to finish, maybe you never do. It is a map, a painting, a way to unwind, to get lost.

Lint, by Steve Aylett, is my current Side Book. It poses as a biography of the fictional SF author, Jeff Lint. It tells the story of his life, his baffling personality, and his run-ins with other twentieth-century figures, some of them real (Hemingway, Burroughs, Elia Kazan), some of them not. It is littered with delightful descriptions of his work, his innumerable stories with exquisite titles (‘The Kennel is For You’, ‘I Eat Fog’, ‘Jelly Result’) and their seductive synopses. His forays into TV and films are covered – the descriptions of the doomed uber-psychedelic children’s TV show, Catty & The Major is a particular highlight – and the legend that surrounds him, with descriptions of academic literature that dissects his immense back catalogue.

The text is rich with satire. There are countless laugh-out-loud moments. It feels like a hundred books in one, so brimming with ideas, most of them wonderfully absurd. The density of ideas mean that you can pick your pace. Sometimes I race through, maybe missing all the fun, maybe I don’t even understand it, but I enjoy the scenery. On other occasions I might pause on one sentence, letting a single word or phrase lead to to a meandering reverie. In honesty, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite so brimming with ideas, both beautiful and ridiculous. A perfect Side Book which will no doubt be by my bedside for quite some time.

Nina Allan is reading Notes to Self by Emilie Pine

For me as a writer there is no such thing as reading purely for pleasure. With no dividing line between the stuff I read for work and stuff I just read, all reading becomes part of my practice, and I don’t mean for it to sound like I regret that. Much of the joy and fascination of being a writer has come with the discovery that literally any written words I encounter contain the possibility that they will change my outlook, alter my ambitions, open new horizons. In fact it’s simpler just to say that any written words I encounter contain possibility.

My years of reading into the small hours are long behind me. By the time I get to bed, I’m simply too tired. I carve out dedicated time during the day instead, the only way of half keeping up with the reading I want and need to do. Nonetheless, the ritual of reading at bedtime remains important, an essential part of every day, and the advent of the Kindle, with its backlit screen and enlargeable typeface (when exactly did a .8 font or smaller become the acceptable norm for mass market paperbacks?) has added at least fifteen minutes to my nightly capacity. For nights in hotels or evenings on trains, where the lighting is usually pathetic to non-existent, my Kindle has become – literally – indispensable.

That the word ‘book’ for me still conjures up a print book remains a given.

When the book I am currently reading is pissing me off for some reason, the thought of going to bed is somehow spoiled. The only upside is that I know I’ll be asleep in under ten minutes.

At the moment I am reading Emilie Pine’s collection of essays Notes to Self, which is having very much the opposite effect. Last night I found myself reading it, fixated, for almost an hour. For the past twelve months and more I have been tampering with the ideas, outlook and techniques employed in autofiction. I have fallen crazily back in love with the personal essay. Reading Pine’s work is less robust, less challenging an experience than reading Kevin Breathnach’s Tunnel Vision, say, though this is most likely because some of Pine’s experiences of daughterhood lie uncannily close to my own. Our fathers are different – so different! – yet their behaviour in the context of family not so much. That story Pine tells, about her father phoning her while drunk and hinting he’s about to commit suicide. I feel angry, sympathetic, vindicated. I feel I want to write stuff down, and in the morning I do.

Robin Allender is reading Finnegans Wake by James Joyce

Two hundred pages left to go! I haven’t actually finished this yet because, well, it’s Finnegans Wake and I think I’ve understood less than five percent of it so far. Anthony Burgess called it “one of the most entertaining books ever written”, a strange choice of words for a book where the main character (if there is one?) is barely ever referred to by the same name twice. But, did I enjoy it? Yes! If you let the language wash over you get these wonderful, strange glimpses of meaning.

There’s an amazing passage at the end of Life, the Universe and Everything by Douglas Adams where the entire history of the universe is revealed to Arthur Dent in fast-forward, and through the impenetrable blur a pattern gradually emerges, which reveals that the entire course of civilisation has actually been an epic game of cosmic cricket. Finnegans Wake isn’t about cricket. But if you squint your eyes you do start to see the patterns emerge.

Its theme (the only theme?) is the cycle of death and rebirth. And you pick that up on a quantum (quarkic?) level, in the way the words are constantly transforming themselves, being reborn before your eyes – ‘corpse’ becoming ‘cropse’. However, while there are meanings bubbling away beneath the surface which are there to be explored (if you fancy spending the rest of your life decoding them), I enjoyed reading Finnegans Wake as a book about language, and as part of the continuum of 20th century subversive nonsense – from Captain Beefheart to Chris Morris. It’s also amazingly beautiful: “the false hood of a spindler web chokes the cavemouth of his unsightliness but the nestlings that liven his leafscreen sing him a lover of arbuties”, “Look, look, the dusk is growing!”, “Dark hawks hear us”. It truly is, “the Strangest Dream that was ever Halfdreamt”. Anyway, 200 pages…