Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Annotated Sherlock Holmes

The manufacturers of worlds

with 2 comments

For the last few days, as part of a deliberate break from writing, I’ve been browsing contentedly through my favorite book, The Annotated Sherlock Holmes by William S. Baring-Gould. It was meant to be a comforting read that was as far removed from work as possible, but science fiction, unsurprisingly, can’t seem to let me go. Yesterday, I was looking over The Sign of the Four when I noticed a line that I’ve read countless times without really taking note of it. As Holmes leaves Baker Street to pursue a line of the investigation, he says to Watson, who has remained behind: “Let me recommend this book—one of the most remarkable ever penned. It is Winwood Reade’s Martyrdom of Man. I shall be back in an hour.” Toward the end of the novel, speaking of the difficulty in predicting what any given human being will do, Holmes elaborates:

Winwood Reade is good upon the subject…He remarks that, while the individual man is an insoluble puzzle, in the aggregate he becomes a mathematical certainty. You can, for example, never foretell what any one man will do, but you can say with precision what an average number will be up to. Individuals vary, but percentages remain constant. So says the statistician.

This is remarkably like what Isaac Asimov writes of psychohistory, a sociological version of the ideal gas law that can predict the future based on the existence of a huge number—perhaps in the trillions—of individual lives. And it seemed worth checking to see if this passage could cast any light on the origins of the imaginary science that I’ve spent so much time exploring.

It pains me to say that Holmes himself probably wasn’t a direct influence on the Foundation series. There was a considerable overlap between Sherlockians and science fiction writers—prominent members of both camps included Anthony Boucher, Poul Anderson, Fletcher Pratt, and Manly Wade Wellman—but John W. Campbell wasn’t among them, and Asimov was drafted only reluctantly into the Baker Street Irregulars. (He writes in I. Asimov: “Conan Doyle was a slapdash and sloppy writer…I am not really a Holmes enthusiast.”) For insight, we have to go back to Winwood Reade himself, a British historian, explorer, and correspondent of Charles Darwin whose discussion of the statistical predictability of the human race appears, interestingly, in an argument against the efficacy of prayer. Here’s the full passage from The Martyrdom of Man, which was published in 1872:

All phenomena, physical and moral, are subject to laws as invariable as those which regulate the rising and setting of the sun. It is in reality as foolish to pray for rain or a fair wind as it would be to pray that the sun should set in the middle of the day. It is as foolish to pray for the healing of a disease or for daily bread as it is to pray for rain or a fair wind. It is as foolish to pray for a pure heart or for mental repose as it is to pray for help in sickness or misfortune. All the events which occur upon the earth result from Law: even those actions which are entirely dependent on the caprices of the memory, or the impulse of the passions, are shown by statistics to be, when taken in the gross, entirely independent of the human will. As a single atom, man is an enigma; as a whole, he is a mathematical problem. As an individual, he is a free agent; as a species, the offspring of necessity.

At the end of the book, Reade takes his own principles to their logical conclusion, becoming, in effect, an early writer of science fiction. Its closing section, “Intellect,” sketches out a universal history that anticipates Toynbee, but Reade goes further: “When we understand the laws which regulate the complex phenomena of life, we shall be able to predict the future as we are already able to predict comets and eclipses and planetary movements.” He describes three inventions that he believes will lead to an era of global prosperity:

The first is the discovery of a motive force which will take the place of steam, with its cumbrous fuel of oil or coal; secondly, the invention of aerial locomotion which will transport labour at a trifling cost of money and of time to any part of the planet, and which, by annihilating distance, will speedily extinguish national distinctions; and thirdly, the manufacture of flesh and flour from the elements by a chemical process in the laboratory, similar to that which is now performed within the bodies of the animals and plants.

And after rhapsodizing over the utopian civilization that will result—in which “poetry and the fine arts will take that place in the heart which religion now holds”—he turns his thoughts to the stars:

And then, the earth being small, mankind will migrate into space, and will cross the airless Saharas which separate planet from planet, and sun from sun. The earth will become a Holy Land which will be visited by pilgrims from all the quarters of the universe. Finally, men will master the forces of nature; they will become themselves architects of systems, manufacturers of worlds. Man then will be perfect; he will then be a creator; he will therefore be what the vulgar worship as a god.

Reade was inevitably seen as an atheist, and although he didn’t like the label, he inclined many readers in that direction, as he did in one of the most interesting episodes in this book’s afterlife. The scene is World War II, which tested the idea of psychohistory to its limit, and the speaker is the author of the memoir The Enchanted Places:

The war was on. I was in Italy. From time to time [my father] used to send me parcels of books to read. In one of them were two in the Thinker’s Library series: Renan’s The Life of Jesus and Winwood Reade’s The Martyrdom of Man. I started with The Life of Jesus and found it quite interesting; I turned to The Martyrdom and found it enthralling…There was no God. God had not created Man in His own image. It was the other way round: Man had created God. And Man was all there was. But it was enough. It was the answer, and it was both totally convincing and totally satisfying. It convinced and satisfied me as I lay in my tent somewhere on the narrow strip of sand that divides Lake Comacchio from the Adriatic; and it has convinced and satisfied me ever since.

I wrote at once to my father to tell him so and he at once wrote back. And it was then that I learned for the first time that these were his beliefs, too, and that he had always hoped that one day I would come to share them…So he had sent me The Martyrdom. But even then he had wanted to play absolutely fair, and so he had added The Life of Jesus. And then he had been content to leave the verdict to me. Well, he said, the church had done its best. It had had twenty-four years’ start—and it had failed.

The author adds: “If I had to compile a list of books that have influenced my life, high on the list would undoubtedly be Winwood Reade’s The Martyrdom of Man. And it would probably be equally high on my father’s list too.” The father in question was A.A. Milne. And the son was named Christopher Robin.

My ten great books #1: The Annotated Sherlock Holmes

leave a comment »

The Annotated Sherlock Holmes

Note: Four years ago, I published a series of posts here about my ten favorite works of fiction. Since then, the list has evolved, as all such rankings do, and this seems like a good time to revisit it. (I’m not including any science fiction, which I hope to cover in a separate feature later this year.) I’ll be treating them in the order of their original publication, but as it happens, we’ll be starting today with the book I love the most.

I first encountered the best book in the world in the library of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. At the time, I was seventeen, and of course I was already in love with Sherlock Holmes—I’d even been exposed to the subculture of obsessive Holmes fans through the wonderful anthology A Baker Street Dozen, which I still think is the most inviting introduction to the subject for the general reader. What I found in The Annotated Sherlock Holmes by William S. Baring-Gould was something much more: an entire universe of speculation, whimsy, and longing grown from the rich soil of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories. As the narrator relates in Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”:

Two years before I had discovered…a superficial description of a nonexistent country; now chance afforded me something more precious and arduous. Now I held in my hands a vast methodical fragment of an unknown planet’s entire history, with its architecture and its playing cards, with the dread of its mythologies and the murmur of its languages, with its emperors and its seas, with its minerals and its birds and its fish, with its algebra and its fire, with its theological and metaphysical controversy. And all of it articulated, coherent, with no visible doctrinal intent or tone of parody.

The rules of the game were simple. Holmes, Watson, Mycroft, and the other vivid figures who populated their slice of London had been real men and women; Conan Doyle had been Watson’s literary agent; and the stories were glimpses into a larger narrative that could be reconstructed with enough patience and ingenuity. Given the scraps of information that they provided, you could figure out which building had been the model for 221B Baker Street; piece together the details of Watson’s military record, the location of his war wound, and the identities of his three, or perhaps four, wives; determine the species of the speckled band and whether “The Adventure of the Three Students” took place at Oxford or Cambridge; and pin down, with considerable accuracy, when and where each of the other adventures took place, even as Watson, or Conan Doyle, tried to divert you with “mistakes” that were deliberate misleads or red herrings.

The result of Baring-Gould’s work, which collects nearly a century’s worth of speculation into one enormous, handsomely illustrated volume, is the first book I’d save if I could own only one, and for years, it’s been living on my desk, both as a source of inspiration and as a convenient laptop stand. (Leslie Klinger’s more recent edition is lovely as well, but Baring-Gould will always be closest to my heart.) And it’s taken me a long time to realize why I care about this book so much, aside from the obvious pleasure it affords. It represents a vision of the world, and of reading, that I find immensely seductive. Each story, and often each sentence, opens onto countless others, and if Conan Doyle didn’t mean for his work to be subjected to this level of scrutiny, that’s even better: it allows us to imagine that we aren’t following a trail of clues that the author meant for us to find, but discovering something that was invisibly there all along. “Never has so much been written by so many for so few,” as the great Sherlockian Christopher Morley once said, and it’s true. All these studies are spectacularly useless, and they’re divorced from any real academic or practical value—aside, of course, from the immense benefit of allowing us to spend more time in this world and in the company of two of the most appealing characters in fiction. It’s a way for the story, and the act of reading, to go on forever, and in the end, it transforms us. In the role of a literary detective, or a tireless reader, you become Holmes, or at least a Watson to more capable investigators, thanks to the beauty of the stories themselves. What more can we ask from reading?

The thousand and one footnotes

leave a comment »

Arabian Nights by Sir Richard Francis Burton

In recent years, whenever I’ve bought a movie on Blu-ray, it’s been with as much of an eye to the special features as to the quality of the film itself. The gold standard remains the special edition of The Lord of the Rings, which is practically a film school in a box, but when I look at my shelves, I see plenty of titles—ranging from The Lovely Bones to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo—that I don’t think I’d own at all if it weren’t for their featurettes and supplements. These days, with sales of home media falling everywhere, bonus content is one proven way of convincing consumers to pay for a physical disc, and it appeals to our natural interest in commentaries, ephemera, and glimpses into the creative process. In some ways, you could see them as an updated version of the original bonus feature: the footnote. Footnotes and endnotes originally evolved to meet a utilitarian end, but as everyone from the compilers of the Talmud to Nicholson Baker have long since realized, they can provide peculiar pleasures of their own, a kind of parallel narrative to the main work that allows for asides and digressions that don’t fit within the primary argument. A long footnote is often more interesting than the text to which it refers, precisely because it feels so superfluous, and an entire industry has sprung up around copiously annotated editions of our favorite books, of which The Annotated Sherlock Holmes remains the undisputed champion.

I got to thinking about this after scoring a copy of what amounts to the most extraordinary collection of footnotes in the English language. It’s the sixteen-volume translation by Sir Richard Francis Burton of the Arabian Nights, or rather The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night, which I picked up for a song this weekend at the Newberry Library Book Fair in Chicago. I’ve coveted this set ever since I first saw it in the library at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, and when I see it in my office now, I feel like pinching myself. Much of the book’s fascination emerges from the figure of Burton himself, an unlikely combination of James Frazer, T.E. Lawrence, and Indiana Jones who comes as close any real historical figure to the Most Interesting Man in the World from the Dos Equis commercials. He was a British adventurer, soldier, spy, and explorer who spoke close to thirty languages; he was among the first Europeans to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, in disguise, under constant threat of discovery and death; he searched, unsuccessfully, for the source of the Nile; he survived a spear through the face in Africa. His legend tends to obscure his real achievements, but as Jorge Luis Borges notes in his fine essay “The Translators of the Thousand and One Nights,” it’s the legendary Burton who survives. (Burton was clearly an enormous influence on Borges, and you see echoes of him everywhere in the latter’s stories, particularly in his lists of arcane facts and exotica.)

Sir Richard Francis Burton

And while I’m not sure I’ll make it through all sixteen volumes, I have every intention of reading every single one of Burton’s notes, which have a well-deserved reputation for raciness. Burton notoriously embraced the sexual and scatological elements of the original stories, to the point where the set was originally published in a private limited edition designed to get around the obscenity laws of the time. And there’s little question that his readers saw the annotations as a major selling point. Burton’s challenge, as Borges puts it, was “to interest nineteenth-century British gentlemen in the written version of thirteenth-century oral Muslim tales.” And in order to appeal to “the respectable men of the West End, well equipped for disdain and erudition but not for belly laughs or terror,” he loaded up his work with special features:

The text’s marvels—undoubtedly adequate in Kordofan or Bulaq, where they were offered up as true—ran the risk of seeming rather threadbare in England…To keep his subscribers with him, Burton abounded in explanatory notes on “the manners and customs of Muslim men.”

The result was the nineteenth-century equivalent of a deluxe box set with a commentary track and a fat disc of supplements, and I suspect that many of the set’s original purchasers, like me, were more interested in Burton’s special features—with their vast repository of sexual, ethnographical, and anecdotal material—than in the stories themselves.

As Borges concludes: “At fifty, a man has accumulated affections, ironies, obscenities, and copious anecdotes; Burton unburdened himself of them in his notes.” And boy, did he ever. Among the translation’s unique characteristics is an entire index devoted to the footnotes alone—presumably as a convenience to readers who just wanted to get to the good parts—and browsing through it feels like a trip to a bazaar of indescribable, vaguely dirty riches. (A few of the entires, chosen at random, include: “Female depravity going hand in hand with perversity of taste,” “Hymeneal blood resembles that of pigeon-poult,” and “Women, peculiar waddle of.”) Borges rightly observes that Burton’s commentary “is encyclopedic and seditious and of an interest that increases in inverse proportion to its necessity,” which is true of all footnotes, but especially here. A brief reference in one story to contraception, for instance, inspires two long paragraphs on the history of the condom, complete with prices and advice on usage, and the appendix includes what was then the longest discussion of homosexuality ever to appear in English. A lot of the material seems to have been chosen for its appeal to the idealized male reader of the time, in a sort of anticipation of the articles in Playboy, and as calculated as it all feels, it certainly works. It’s the richest collection of bonus features ever published, and thanks to Burton’s legacy, it comes across as even more. As Borges says, it’s like listening to a commentary track recorded by Sinbad the Sailor himself.

My ten great books #1: The Annotated Sherlock Holmes

with 2 comments

The Annotated Sherlock Holmes

(Note: For the next two weeks, I’m going to be chronologically counting down the ten works of fiction that have had the greatest influence on my life as an author. It isn’t necessarily a list of my favorite books, or even my favorite novels—for a slightly dated ranking, please see here. It’s a celebration of the ten books that I’ve found myself unable to forget after a lifetime of reading, and which continue to appear in disguised form in every word I write. And although I’ll be treating them in the order of their original publication, as it happens, we’ll be starting today with the book I love the most.) 

I first encountered the best book in the world in the library of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. At the time, I was seventeen, and of course I was already in love with Sherlock Holmes: I’d even been exposed to the subculture of obsessive Holmes fans through the wonderful anthology A Baker Street Dozen, which I still think is the best introduction to Holmes and his world. What I found in The Annotated Sherlock Holmes by William S. Baring-Gould was something much more, an entire universe of speculation, whimsy, and longing, like the Orbis Tertius of Jorge Luis Borges, built on the rich soil of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories. The rules of the game were simple. Holmes, Watson, and the vivid figures who populated their slice of London had been real men and women; Conan Doyle had been Watson’s literary agent; and the published stories themselves were glimpses into a larger narrative that could be reconstructed with enough patience and ingenuity. Given the scraps of information that the stories provided, you could figure out which building had been the model for 221B Baker Street; you could piece together the details of Watson’s military record, the location of his war wound, and the identities of his three, or perhaps four, wives; you could determine the species of the speckled band and whether “The Adventures of the Three Students” took place at Oxford or Cambridge; and you could pin down, with considerable accuracy, when and where each of the other adventures took place, even as Watson—or Conan Doyle—tried to divert us with “mistakes” that were deliberate misleads or red herrings.

The result of Baring-Gould’s work, which collects nearly a century’s worth of speculation into one massive, handsomely illustrated volume, is the first book I’d save if I could own only one, and for years, it’s been living on my desk, both as a source of inspiration and as a convenient laptop stand. (Leslie Klinger’s more recent edition is lovely as well, but Baring-Gould will always be closest to my heart.) And it’s taken me a long time to realize why I care about this book so much, aside from the huge obvious pleasure it affords. It represents a vision of the world—and of reading—that I find immensely seductive. Each story, and often each sentence, opens onto countless others, and if Conan Doyle didn’t mean for his work to be subjected to such scrutiny, that’s even better: it allows us to imagine that we aren’t following a trail of clues that the author meant for us to find, but discovering something that was invisibly there all along. “Never has so much been written by so many for so few,” as the great Sherlockian Christopher Morley once said, and it’s true. These studies are spectacularly useless, and they’re divorced from any academic or practical value, aside, of course, from the immense benefit of allowing us to spend more time in this world and in the company of two of the most appealing characters in fiction. It’s a way for the story, and the act of reading, to go on forever, and in the end, it transforms us. In the role of a literary detective, of a tireless investigator, you become Holmes, or at least the Watson to so many more capable readers, thanks to the beauty of the stories themselves. What more can we ask from reading?

The oops file

with 2 comments

After thirty yards, the road curved and the shade trees vanished. To his left, the hedge continued as before. On his right, the houses disappeared, replaced by a pond trimmed with reeds and pitch pines. Ospreys floated on the calm surface of the water.

This description comes from Chapter 6 of The Icon Thief, when Ilya is casing the mansion where he and another thief will shortly stage an elaborate heist, and it strikes me as a nice image, one that clearly evokes the setting, a peaceful neighborhood in the Hamptons. It isn’t flashy, but the writing is efficient and clear. The trouble, unfortunately, is that it contains a mistake, as a reader pointed out to me in a terse email, which read in its entirety: “Ospreys do not rest on the water; they rest in trees (preferably dead ones).” Well, I hope he liked the rest of the book. But I can’t deny that it’s a definite error on my part. In the months since The Icon Thief was first published, I’ve noticed a few factual lapses like this, some of which I’d rather not mention, although I’d like to correct the record to reflect that the woman to whom I refer, in passing, as “a dead patron of the arts” is actually very much alive.

And yet I’m strangely relieved that there aren’t more mistakes. The Icon Thief contains hundreds of factual statements that, even outside the context of the story, can be independently checked, verified, or disproved, and so far, the errors I’ve been told about or seen on my own amount to only a handful. I’ve been especially gratified to hear from a number of readers in the art world, including two experts on Duchamp, who would be more than capable of pointing out any inaccuracies. So far, if they’ve found any serious ones, they’ve been too polite to say so—allowing, of course, for the occasional liberties I’ve taken in the interest of constructing a fictional narrative. (I should also confess that my readers caught a number of similar mistakes before the book was published, which only demonstrates the necessity of subjecting any manuscript to thoughtful critical review.) But I’ve put a lot of effort into making sure, within human reason, that this book is correct in its details, even in points that are likely to elude the attention, or interest, of even the most diligent reader.

In this regard, I was motivated throughout by the example of the ferociously observant readers of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Arthur Conan Doyle was not what we’d call a great researcher, and he had trouble keeping even his own continuity straight. The most delightful aspect of the field of Sherlockian studies is the energy that these readers invest in both fact-checking and justifying any discrepancies they uncover, which include issues ranging from the location of Watson’s wound to the species of the speckled band to whether the weather in London was, in fact, drizzly and gray on a particular morning in 1895. (Sometimes they go a little too far: I’ve gone on record as saying that The Annotated Sherlock Holmes by William S. Baring-Gould is the best book in the world, but if it has one shortcoming, it’s that the editor rearranges the stories into his own eccentric chronology, ignoring narrative logic and character development to order them based on, say, contemporary weather reports.) And whenever I go back to check my own work, it’s with an eye to such a reader: highly intelligent, endlessly skeptical, and blessed with a seemingly unlimited amount of time.

Of course, the odds of my novels ever receiving even a fraction of the attention of the Holmes stories is pretty remote. All the same, the habit of reading your own work with this kind of audience in mind is a useful one. As I’ve noted before, all novels, especially in the suspense genre, tend to use factual information and accuracy in small details as a kind of synecdoche for the credibility of the plot as a whole, and any lapse will throw not just the disputed passage but the entire story into question. Even the tiniest mistake will pull the reader out of the fictional dream. As a result, I’ve found myself checking weather reports for the day in which a certain scene takes place, usually with the assistance of the invaluable Wolfram Alpha, and poring over maps and photographs—or, better yet, visiting locations in person—to make sure the action is plausible, or at least physically possible. While writing Ulysses, James Joyce wrote a letter to his aunt asking her to verify that an ordinary man could climb over the fence at No. 7 Eccles Street, and it’s that kind of diligence toward which we should strive. And all the while, we should remember that, unlike the Navajos, there’s no need for us to weave deliberate flaws into our blankets—they’ll have plenty of flaws of their own.

Written by nevalalee

October 17, 2012 at 10:00 am

In the dozy hours: the joys of the bedside book

leave a comment »

People have been reading in bed ever since there were books, if not beds, but the essential idea of the bedside book was perhaps first articulated by Thackeray, who wrote in his essay “On Two Children in Black”:

Montaigne and Howell’s Letters are my bedside books. If I wake at night, I have one or other of them to prattle me to sleep again. They talk about themselves forever, and don’t weary me. I like to hear them tell their old stories over and over again. I read them in the dozy hours, and only half remember them.

Despite its informal tone, this strikes me as an important moment in the history of literary criticism, because it describes a kind of reading that we all intuitively recognize. Our libraries are filled with one kind of book, our nightstands another, and although most bedside books have certain things in common, above all else, they’re a reflection of the reader’s personality. In some ways, what we read just before going to bed, or in the middle of the night, expresses more about who we are than the books we display for others—or ourselves—during the day.

So what makes a good bedside book? Ideally, given its specialized role, it should be a book that you can pick up casually and put down after a couple of minutes. As such, bedside books tend to have a miscellaneous quality: they’re often collections of short pieces, anthologies, or essays, rather than sustained arguments or narratives. They’re also books that you can open at random in hopes of finding something interesting. As a result, they might be books that you’ve read before and enjoy revisiting, or reference books with entries that don’t need to be read in any particular order. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of overlap between the bedside book and the bathroom book—although you may want to keep them in two separate stacks.

Apart from these considerations, the ideal bedside book tends to be whatever else you’re reading at the time, so there are often two levels of books on the nightstand. The pictures shown here, of my own bedside table, are uncharacteristically tidy: usually, along with the more or less permanent occupants, there’s another pile of books I’m currently reading. Since my move, though, I’ve had to reconstruct my own bedside library from scratch, so what you see here is something of an idealized version of my nightstand. Note, too, that these pictures are missing the best bedside book in the world, William S. Baring-Gould’s original Annotated Sherlock Holmes, which has been promoted, or apotheosized, to a permanent position on my desk.

Instead, we have Leslie Klinger’s more recent New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, which is a charmer in its own right, along with Baring-Gould’s Annotated Mother Goose. We also have books on film, including David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary and Have You Seen? and Pauline Kael’s 5001 Nights at the Movies; anthologies, including The Limits of Art and the incomparable Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics; and, of course, books specifically designed to be read in bed, notably J. Bryan III’s Hodgepodge, Frank Muir’s Irreverent and Thoroughly Incomplete Social History of Almost Everything, and The People’s Almanac. These last three are resolutely old-school, but if you want something more contemporary and twee, Schott’s Original Miscellany will probably do.

The rest of the books reflect my own interests and tastes: A Pattern Language, one of the great books in the world, which I’m reading again as I settle into my new house; World Tales by Idries Shah; Dilys Winn’s classic Murder Ink; Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat, which I’m going to finish one of these days; Bill Simmons’s Book of Basketball, which is great bedside reading even if you aren’t a sports fan; The Essential Jesus by John Dominic Crossan; and the two volumes of Isaac Asimov’s original autobiography. (There should also be a copy of The Whole Earth Catalog here somewhere, along with The PreHistory of the Far Side, but these are still packed away.) And, of course, the iPad. You might think that the latter would make the rest obsolete, but that isn’t the case. Even after all this time, there’s something about reading a book in bed that technology can’t match, especially late at night, in Thackeray’s dozy hours.

The Adventure of the Novelist’s Back

leave a comment »

If alcoholism is the greatest occupational hazard of a novelist’s life, back trouble can’t be too far behind. As my doctor—not named Watson, unfortunately—reminded me last year, anyone who spends most of his time at a desk is going to have back problems, and the issue is especially pronounced for writers, who may need to work intensely for hours at a stretch. (This is less of a problem, of course, for those of us with writer’s block.) I’ve had back pain on and off ever since starting to write for a living, five years ago, and while I’ve managed to address most of the issues that were causing the trouble, it’s something that still bothers me from time to time.

Really, though, I have no one to blame for myself. I wrote most of the rough draft of my first novel—not The Icon Thief, but its unpublished predecessor, a long novel about India—while seated cross-legged on a couch in the living room of my old apartment, hunched over the laptop beside me. This position was comfortable at first, but after writing a quarter of a million words, it blew out my back in ways that I’m still paying for. I learned two things from the experience: 1. Don’t write a first novel that is 250,000 words long. 2. If you’re going to write anything at all, do so at a proper desk.

Since then, I’ve done my best to develop better habits. The first step was the purchase of a good chair. My luxurious old Aeron was, alas, a casualty of my move from New York to Chicago—although my brother is hopefully putting it to good use—and I’ve since replaced it with a less expensive but still pretty functional alternative. I’ve spoken before about the Symphony pillow from Tempur-Pedic, a must for anyone with back trouble, which I’ve since supplemented with a contoured pillow for my knees. As a result, I sleep much better, even though the combination sometimes makes me feel like an old man.

Finally, one needs a properly elevated workstation. After checking my own posture, I determined that my laptop had to be raised by about four inches to allow me to work comfortably. I could have invested in an expensive laptop stand, but casting an eye around own my bookshelves, I determined that the one-volume edition of William S. Baring-Gould’s Annotated Sherlock Holmes, elsewhere acclaimed on this blog as the best book in the world, fit the bill admirably. Ever since, I’ve been writing on Holmes, in more ways than one, and I’d like to think that my work is better for it. My back certainly is.

Written by nevalalee

July 28, 2011 at 9:41 am

%d bloggers like this: