December 15, 2013

Charity Shop Find: Graphic Sayings

Graphic Sayings

Graphic Sayings, by David Kindersley

I love finding books that tie up little mysteries that resonate in your mind, and books that pop up in unexpected places. This book, ‘Graphic Sayings’, is one of them.

It’s been a stressful few months for me, which has involved many visits to my local hospital, at all times of the day and night. On the wall above the reception desk of the main concourse of the hospital is a round slate tablet, with the following inscription: ‘It Will Pass, Whatever It Is’. An enigmatic phrase, and one that always gave me a little piece of stoical comfort whenever I saw it.

The tablet stated that it had been carved by the Cardozo Kindersley workshop in Cambridge. The workship was founded by lettercutter, sculptor and inventor David Kindersley in 1946. There are many pieces of carving by the workshop across the city.

Every time I saw the phrase, I wondered where it originated. I had looked on the Cardozo Kindersley website a few times, but I could find no clues there. Then, one lunchtime, whilst browsing in a charity shop, I found this little book. First published in 1971, and reprinted in 1991, it contains 16 proverbs, each one in a different typographical style. David Kindersley wrote the following introduction:

‘The task of finding ‘sayings’ and ‘proverbs’, generally so difficult, was made easier by the kind permission of Idries Shah to let me quote from his books, from which all the designs are derived. One great joy is their humour and another that they tend to be the right length, matching both the size of paper and my limited power of sustained attention in their execution’.

Flicking through the book, I found ‘It Will Pass Whatever It Is’ on page 3. I would have bought the book anyway, but finding a phrase that had been lodged in my memory for a while was a bonus. Furthermore, who was Idries Shah? Had he wrote this phrase?

It Will Pass Whatever It Is

It Will Pass Whatever It Is

According to Wikipedia: ‘Idries Shah (16 June 1924 – 23 November 1996), also known as Idris Shah, was an author and teacher in the Sufi tradition who wrote over three dozen books on topics ranging from psychology and spirituality to travelogues and culture studies.’

‘It Will Pass Whatever It Is’ is similar to ‘This Too Shall Pass’, and according to Wikipedia: ‘The phrase appears in the works of Persian Sufi poets, such as Sanai and Attar of Nishapur. Attar records the fable of a powerful king who asks assembled wise men to create a ring that will make him happy when he is sad, and vice versa. After deliberation the sages hand him a simple ring with the words “This too will pass” etched on it, which has the desired effect.

There are 16 phrases and sayings in the book, each one drawn in a distinctive style. I’m generally wary of the kind of books that list little quotes and sayings, the kind that you find near the till in bookshops, but this one has made it onto my bookshelf. What is different about it is that it has been produced by a man with a passion, who turned this passion into a lifetime’s work, and has left this work in public spaces for people to draw inspiration and comfort from.

Hospitals are places where the slightest touch of comfort – a kind word, or a thoughtful gesture – can go a long way. I don’t know how or why this stoical little phrase made it on to the wall of the hospital, but I’m glad it did, and I’m glad I found this little book.

January 22, 2012

Book Review: Looking at London and Paris Sketchbook, by Ronald Searle and Kaye Webb

Looking at London and Paris Sketchbook

Looking at London and Paris Sketchbook

On 30th December last year, Ronald Searle, one of my favourite authors and illustrators, passed away at the age of 91. Many of the tributes to Searle mentioned his most famous works, the St Trinian’s and Molesworth series of books. Although both of these series are excellent, I’d like to highlight another couple of books that Searle, and his then-wife Kaye Webb, wrote and illustrated in the 1950s. They are called Paris Sketchbook and Looking at London.

Looking at London is a collection of portraits of ordinary, everyday London characters: lamplighters, railway-workers, bargees, the controllers of Trafalgar Square’s fountains, the keepers of the Kensington silver vaults, and lonely, downtrodden itinerant tradesman, such as John Weston, a 65-year-old ex-cabin-boy turned jobbing gardener. The portraits of these forgotten characters are engaging and charming. To quote from the foreword written by R. J. Cruikshank, “the warm-hearted style of Kaye Webb’s writing and the tender sympathy of Searle’s drawings are beautifully matched. London can be a lonely place, and this book takes the trouble to find out a little more about the faces that pass by every day”.

Paris Sketchbook is a similar work, with Searle and Webb turning their gaze towards the French capital. The subjects of this book are less personal than Looking at London. Instead, Paris Sketchbook is a journal of a husband and wife who, loving Paris, devoted a holiday  to recording some of the people and places they most wanted to remember.

Both books are enchanting snapshots of 1950s life in London and Paris. To the best of my knowledge, neither have been reprinted, but they are sometimes to be found second-hand on Amazon or in second-hand bookshops for about £20. If you are a fan of vintage Searle, and want to go beyond the legacy of St Trinian’s, the investment is well worth it.

January 2, 2012

Book Review: London Tales, by Greg Stekelman

London Tales

London Tales

I’ve been a fan of The Man Who Fell Asleep, aka Greg Stekelman, for some time. Before web 2.0 was a meaningless phrase, he created a surreal corner of the internet that I often felt drawn to. Now that social media is dominent, @themanwhofell is a reassuring, other-worldly presence on Twitter.

In November last year Greg published London Tales, a collection of 100 images and text contained in a beautifully produced, limited edition hardback book. I have copy number 126 of 250.

I read it on the last day of the Christmas holidays, wanting time to absorb it’s themes: of wanting to be someone else, of existential shame, of never letting go of a parallel life, of an obsession with the now, of worrying, of anxiety, of looking for clues, of the eternal tourist, and of killing the days with words and pictures.

In Greg’s own words, “it’s not really about London. Or at least, it’s not about anyone else’s London except my own. It’s mostly my own wanderings around the familiar streets of north London suburbia. [...] I’d like to think it walks the right line between self-analysis and morbid narcissism. Most of my writing walks a tightrope between silliness and self-pity. I try not to fall off.”

I found it absorbing and slightly voyeuristic to have a glimpse into another human beings thoughts and fantasies. I guess all works of art have this quality… but have you ever sat opposite someone on the bus or the Tube and wondered what they were thinking? I feel like I’ve been allowed into another person’s stream of consciousness, where some of the thoughts are comforting, some of the thoughts are bleak, but all of them help me to connect in some way with the author.

The text has a poetry-like feel, accompanied by snapshot-pictures of a London that is both familiar and strange. I hope that Greg does more work of this kind, and takes some comfort in the knowledge that when the 250 copies of his book are sold, he will have shared something of himself with a mixture of friends and strangers.

At £40, think of this book as a gift to yourself, and if they haven’t all sold, you can buy one from here.

October 31, 2011

What is W H Smith For?

I’ve been guest blogging again… this time a quick thought on W H Smith.

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October 20, 2011

My First Article as a Guest Blogger

I’ve just written my first ever article as a guest-blogger! It’s about the survival of independent booksellers. Check it out here at Anthony Haynes’ Monographer’s Blog.

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October 4, 2011

Super (Market) Thursday?

Jamie Bloody Oliver

Note the typo from the Graniaud.

Last Thursday was ‘Super Thursday’, the day on which over 200 new titles hit the shops, all of them trying to tempt the reader in the Christmas market. And of these 200 titles, how many got media coverage? About ten. And not many of them were, in my opinion, ‘super’.

Lets have a look a few books from the list that got the culture sections of the newspapers in a fizz:

1. Jamie’s Great Britain, by Jamie Oliver.

OK, so it’s hard to knock Jamie, with his cheeky-chappy personality and really rather nice food. But really, another book? After a quick look on Amazon.co.uk, I reckon he’s had about 20 cook-books out. Is there anything left for him to cook? And is it me, or is he starting to look a little like Ray Winstone? Seriously though, I like Jamie, and I like the way he chooses special papers and inks in order to produce environmentally conscious books. It’s just a shame that his dominance of the Christmas market leaves little room for newer cook-books from smaller publishers, like this one. As for the environment, I think I’m right in saying that, for all his ethics of print and paper, his books are printed in China and shipped half-way around the world. But don’t get me started on ‘book-miles’. The perfect gift book for anyone that hasn’t already given the early ‘Jamie’ books to the charity shop.

2. Red, by Gary Neville.

“No player has been more synonymous with the glory years of Manchester United Football Club over the past two decades than right-back Gary Neville”, runs the blurb for this book. That’s true, as long as you forget David Beckham, Bryan Robson, Peter Schmeichel, Ryan Giggs, Mark Hughes, and a host of others. To be fair, he may come out with some original and insightful revelations about the club, but will this book only be of interest to Man U fans? Was it ghost-written? Is this another charity shop shelf-filler?

3. May I Have Your Attention Please?, by James Corden.

No, James, you may not have my attention. Come back when you’re 66, not 33. You’ll be more interesting then. Perhaps that’s harsh. As with Jamie Oliver, I think it’s hard not to like James Corden. He’s a good actor and writer, but has he done enough in his 33 years to warrant a book of his life? I’m not sure he has. There are lots of actors and writers out there, is he special? Perhaps he’s got an appeal that I can’t see. Because he’s a writer, he may not have had this title ghost-written, and at least that’s something in its favour.

4. The Way I See It, by Alan Sugar.

Unlike James Corden, Alan is 64 and has lived a life. Also unlike James Corden, I think it is quite hard to like him. Personally, I don’t like him or his bullying business style, but he’s been a success and may have some interesting things to say. I should also say I’ve never seen The Apprentice, but I’ve seen the trailers, and that’s enough for me. Any of his apprentice’s books would be titled Excelsior Alpha Platinum Plus.

So that’s four titles out of the list, and I can’t say they’re very inspiring. Other titles on the list were The Inbetweeners Year Book, Jeremy Clarkson’s Round the Bend and I, Partridge by Alan Partridge. All good in their way, but books are a personal matter, and I have to say I’d be disappointed to receive any of them on Christmas morning.

Maybe they’re not aimed at me, and that’s fair enough. I am not their target market. They may not be stocked in the small independent bookshops that I like to browse in – they’re more likely to be stacked high in the supermarkets and W H Smith. And that’s fair enough too, because they, like the books I enjoy, will be read, and enjoyed. Anything that encourages reading is good, and anything that provides jobs for the publishing industry is good. Is it a shame that these books aren’t future literary classics or written by exciting new authors? Personally, yes. But are these books just as valid and important and worthwhile as any other title? Yes. Just because I don’t want to read them doesn’t mean it’s not a ‘Super Thursday’ for the publishers, the mass-market retailers, and those that think Alan Sugar is interesting.

July 11, 2011

Potterless for Bookshops?

With the launch of her Pottermore website, has JK Rowling turned her back on the institutions that have been so supportive of her over the last few years, namely bookshops?

Rowling has stated that her Pottermore project will be an interactive website where fans can “share, participate, and rediscover” the adventures of Harry and his friends, in what she describes as “an online reading experience unlike any other.” But where does that online reading experience leave the thousands of booksellers up and down the country who helped turn the Potter series into a publishing phenomenon? These are the booksellers who opened at midnight, dressed up as witches and wizards, and sold barrow-loads of books, swelling the coffers of Rowling and her publisher, Bloomsbury.

Since the launch of the Kindle and other ereaders, I’ve often thought that it would take a big publishing event to push these devices further into the mainstream. Just as the Coronation in 1953 helped to boost sales of televisions in the UK, will the clamour for digital-only Potter-product push the sales of ereaders up to the next level?

Perhaps I’m thinking too much like a 40-year-old about all of this, when I should be thinking like someone half my age. If the average Harry Potter reader was eight when the first book in the series was published in 1997, that same reader would be 22 by now. They would have grown up with the internet, be used to smartphones, and would most likely expect a sizable degree of interactivity in their leisure activities. Many of them will have younger siblings, who will have had the printed books passed down to them, and now they’ll be ready for new story-lines, new features and new ways to consume them. Will they kick books to the curb and demand interactivity in everything they read? I guess we’ll find out in October.

The bigger picture here is that without an easy, cost-effective way to offer digital Potter-product, high-street bookshops will, for the first time, be left out of the rush. There’ll be no dressing as wizards to promote this slice of Potter, and no queue down the high-street to buy it.

June 23, 2011

J K Rowling and Pottermore

I’ve just received a newsflash from The Bookseller that J K Rowling is to sell Harry Potter e-books exclusively from the Pottermore website. This seems to be what was suspected back in May – check out my post referencing an article in the Scotsman newspaper. There’s also been some talk about this on The Bookseller news pages. Interesting…

June 19, 2011

Flipback’s Launch in the UK

Hodder launches the Flipback in the UK... aimed at dogs?

On a visit to a friendly local bookstore earlier this week, I got my hands on a Flipback. I hadn’t heard of them before, but apparently they’re ‘the next big thing’, or ‘the next big little thing’, as publisher Hodder would have it. Flipback books originated in the Netherlands, where they were introduced in 2009, and Hodder have big plans to expand sales across Europe, with the small-format books being introduced into France, Spain and the UK later this month.

Flipbacks are sideways-bound books which incorporate a lie-flat binding. The pages are printed on very thin, Bible-like paper, and the small size means that the books easily fit in a pocket or a bag.  The thinness of the paper and the titchiness of the format even means that you can read one-handed, leaving your other hand free for, um, anything you like.

My first impression of the Flipback was that the size of the reading area is slightly bigger than a smartphone, and slightly smaller than a Kindle screen, with a typeface that mimics the sort of lettering found on digital devices. It was nicely tactile and easy to hold, and, as with any new format, I’m sure it’ll ignite a fair bit of interest in the casual book-browser.

There seems to be a bit of a print-based backlash against the digital book at the moment, with Lane Smith’s It’s a Book popping up in bookshops everywhere, and publishers aiming at book-lovers by producing deluxe versions of well-loved titles, such as Penguin’s Clothbound Classics. I think that the Flipback will join this backlash, and will be bought by readers who are keen to identify themselves as battery-free paper-based book-people, helping to keep ‘proper’ books alive. There will be 12 titles at launch, aiming at a wide demographic of readers, including Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy by John le Carré, The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg, One Day by David Nicholls, and Misery by Stephen King.

Now, I love printed books, and I love bookshops, but I’m not willing to mark myself out as either a digital or printed-book person. I think there’s space for both in the marketplace, and it’s a marketplace which is, for me, a full-time student on a limited income, dominated by price. And it’s price where I think the Flipback falls down.

Lets look at one of the launch titles, One Day by David Nicholls. My local independent bookshop has this title on sale, in paperback, for £7.99. Amazon has a new paperback copy for £3.98, including delivery. The Kindle edition is £4.99. The Flipback version is the most expensive of the lot, coming in at £9.99. As much as I genuinely like the Flipback format, I can’t really justify spending the extra pounds.  Add in the fact that most of the launch titles are already in the marketplace, available in second-hand bookshops and libraries, and the 10 quid price-point starts to look a bit silly.

Perhaps I’m being a bit tight on the Flipback here – it’s a fun new format that’s attractive, and it’ll get people talking about books and going into bookshops, which is no bad thing. But let’s keep things in perspective. The answer to the Guardian’s rather silly headline – “Could this new book kill the Kindle?” is a simple “no”.

June 10, 2011

Guardian live webchat – update.

Some good questions asked by all contributors, and some good answers by Patrick. Read the discussion here.

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