Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘William Makepeace Thackeray

In the dozy hours: the joys of the bedside book

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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.

Painting, writing, and the shape of fiction

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At the moment, along with about eight other books, I’m working my way through Sparks of Genius by Robert and Michèle Root-Bernstein. It’s basically an account of what the authors regard as the thirteen essential tools of artists and other creative types—abstracting, analogizing, playing, and so on—and while the book’s argument isn’t all that tightly structured, as a series of illustrations of the creative process, it’s great. Every page has three or four juicy stories or quotes from a wide range of artists, writers, and other thinkers, and it’s already proven to be a useful source of advice and inspiration.

I’ve just finished the chapter on imaging, which points out that many great writers have also been painters or visual artists. Along with Wyndham Lewis, quoted below, the authors list Thackeray, the Brontë sisters, Edward Lear, D.H. Lawrence, Marianne Moore, and G.K. Chesterton, who actually drew charming cartoons of the action he wanted to portray. As Wyndham Lewis notes, artistic training obviously helps an author with his or her observational skills, but I think it’s even more valuable in encouraging nonlinear thinking. After even a little experience in the visual arts, it’s hard not to see one’s novel—as Beethoven did with his symphonies—as a kind of sculptural entity, which can inform narrative structure in ways that aren’t obvious when the story is taken moment by moment.

My own art background is sort of a mixed bag. I’ve always enjoyed drawing, and was pretty good at it all the way through my twenties, but it’s been so long since I’ve picked up a pen that I don’t know how much of that early facility is left. In college, I took an intensive semester-long course on oil painting, and while most of the paintings I produced were fairly embarrassing, I welcomed the chance to learn the elements of an unfamiliar craft—making stretchers in the Carpenter Center woodshop, stretching the canvas with a staple gun and some cool pliers, mixing the paint, managing the palette. The background I acquired served me well for The Icon Thief, in which the details of painting construction play a small but crucial role, but it also allowed me to think about narrative in unexpected ways.

A painting, after all, is experienced all at once, while a novel is experienced one moment at a time. (An author’s skill, as certain critics like to point out, is generally judged on the level of the paragraph.) But when I think back to my own favorite novels, I don’t always think of individual scenes or moments, but of the entire book at once, as if I’m viewing it as a single plastic object. Stories have inherent shapes and patterns that only appear when you stand back, and while they may remain invisible to the first-time reader, they affect the unfolding story of the book in perceptible ways. (An early example of this is The Divine Comedy, which is organized along two distinct dimensions.) Some background in painting and other forms of visual composition—as well as the allied arts, like animation—is as good a way as any for a writer to get into the habit of seeing how his novel really looks.

(And of course a painting, in turn, can be experienced as a work of narrative, as The Mystery of Picasso so memorably demonstrates. Art, especially great art, refuses to fit into the obvious categories.)

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