Tumblr round-up, August 30th

I think my favourite thing I posted to Tumblr this week was this Minoan coin from Knossos. It has a minotaur on it!

I thought this article about the dropping of the case against Dominique Strauss Kahn and the differences between the French and US legal systems and legal cultures was interesting.

A flapjack octopus — a spiny flower mantis — some cephalopodsanatomy — crystals of gypsum and kapellasite — Shoebill skull

The Grindelwald Glacier — a Californian canyon — the Grand CanyonChartreuse Arch

Shoe warehouse trade card — Mexican film posterstained glass in India — natural historyinfrared Congo

Thesaurian spam

The spam filter caught this reply to my post with the title ‘The stupidity of big books (and the joy of cheap paperbacks)‘:

wooow, take a fancy to your things concerning Heraclitean The stake » The vapidness of swollen books (and the felicity of of small account paperbacks

Yup, the spambot has just run the post title through a thesaurus.

The idea of course is to generate fake comments which are genuine-sounding enough to avoid being deleted. It’s an ingenious idea, even if the results are a bit peculiar. I guess it might have worked better if the original post title was something shorter and less elaborate.

If nothing else, ‘the vapidness of swollen books’ is quite a nice line of iambic tetrameter.

The stupidity of big books (and the joy of cheap paperbacks)

I’m currently reading Only Yesterday, S.Y. Agnon’s novel about Jewish settlers in Israel before the first world war. And so far I’m enjoying it, apart from one thing. It’s in a handsomely made edition published by Princeton University Press, on high-quality paper, with large type, set with a generous amount of leading and plenty of white space. In other words: it’s fucking enormous.

There it is with my old Penguin Classics edition of Tristram Shandy for comparison.

Ah, but, I can hear you saying, you’ve used the wide-angle effect of the camera to exaggerate the difference in size! And there’s a degree of truth to that, so here’s a different angle:

The Agnon is 5.2cm longer, 4.2cm wider and 1.6cm thicker. The result is that it is nearly three times the volume, and over three times the weight (930g; i.e. over two pounds).

Ah but, I hear you say, you are still being unfair! Clearly the Agnon is a much longer novel!

You might think so, but no, it isn’t (thank heavens; Tristram Shandy isn’t exactly a pamphlet). It’s hard to compare exact word counts, but Tristram Shandy has 659 pages; Only Yesterday has 652. And they have the same number of lines per page and at least roughly the same number of words per line. I counted.

Seriously, though, whose idea was it to inflict these ludicrously big books on us? I spent a large chunk of my youth with one Penguin Classic or another tucked in my jacket pocket; the Agnon isn’t just too big to fit in a pocket, it’s close to being too big to read comfortably at home on a sofa.

The pointlessly large paperback seems to be a particular weakness of American publishers — insert your own joke about obesity or steroid abuse here — but I think it’s part of a general trend. I have a load of old Penguin Classics from the 80s and 90s, and at some point they changed the format. Inevitably they got bigger, by about 2cm in each direction. That’s not as gargantuan as the Agnon, and thankfully they’re still printed on nice thin paper so they’re not any fatter, but it’s probably too big to fit in a pocket.

And if you’re wondering, yes I do dislike hardbacks for exactly the same reason. They’re less comfortable to read, and they take up too much room in your bag or on your shelves.

I think I understand the logic for the publishers, mind you; they need to charge a lot of money for these books, particularly if they’re not expecting to shift a lot of copies. And physically making the book is a fairly small part of the overall costs, so why not spend a little extra producing an object which feels substantial and high quality; that way people feel more like they are getting their money’s worth. The list price for Only Yesterday is $32.50; at that price perhaps people want a lot of paperback for their money.

But it’s madness. Why can’t publishing learn from the tech industry? A book is nothing if not a mobile device; and just as each generation of the iPhone is advertised as thinner and lighter than the one before, why aren’t publishers advertising ultraportable novels?

It’s a silly time to be making this argument, of course, because the decision is being taken out of publishers’ hands. There is an ultraportable format of books: it’s called digital. I don’t often carry books around with me any more; instead I have books on my phone. It isn’t the ideal way to read, but it’s zero extra bulk to carry.

But if ink and wood pulp are going the way of the horse-drawn carriage, I just want to say: what I will miss is not big glossy hardbacks, however beautifully designed and printed, but small format mass-market paperbacks printed on flimsy paper. If the invention of the printing press changed the world by democratising knowledge, then the paperback was the apotheosis of that project; the cheapest, most convenient, most accessible way of communicating ideas and literature ever devised.

Tumblr round-up, August 23rd

I spent a while this week roaming through the British Museum’s various C19th Indian paintings; many of them, like this one, painted for European patrons or the European market. And many of them, like this one, painted on thin sheets of mica. This is a gourd of some kind:

 

Also painted on mica were an eagle, an LBJ, and an orchid.

Some more romantic scenes: a lady playing a musical instrument to a gazelle watched by an attendant; two lovers playing with fireworks; a girl waiting for her lover under a tree on a stormy night.

Some religion: a foot decorated with auspicious symbols; Krishna standing on the hood of the serpent Kaliya; Shiva pursues his Enemy –and although he assumed the shape of an Elephant yet Shiva crushed him to death.

Miscellanea: a pretty cakea multicoloured tree — a spectacular snowstormSoviet architecture — a Tahitian mourner’s costume — a tiger with an elephant’s head — a salt landscapeparsnipchameleon anatomy — Swedish book covers (1, 2)

Daily Life in Victorian London by Lee Jackson

This is an anthology for the Kindle compiled by Lee Jackson, proprietor of the website The Victorian Dictionary, which anyone who has some interest in either Victoriana or London will surely have stumbled on at some time or another.

If you have visited the website, you’ll know what a great resource it is, and you won’t be surprised to hear that Jackson has compiled an anthology full of curious and interesting snippets about such subjects as a ‘B’ meeting, a baby show, a balloon ride, bar-maids, bathing, bazaars, bed bugs, beggars, bicycle races, Billingsgate Market, black eyes, blackmail, the Blind-School, Bloomerism and burglars. And that’s just the Bs.

It’s a bargain at £1.84 or $2.99.

Mama Lily and the Dead by Nicolette Bethel

Mama Lily and the Dead is my book from the Bahamas for the Read The World challenge. It’s a collection of poems which tell Lily’s life story, running from ‘The Scotsman Gives Lily Her Name (1904)’ to ‘The Granddaughter Sings Lily Home (1994)’. I know Nico a bit via the world of internet poetry, and I’d read some of the poems before, or earlier drafts of them, so I had a pretty good idea of what to expect, but it’s still rather different to have them in actual printed paper form and read the whole lot in order.

Incidentally, if you’ll excuse a slight detour, it still seems weird to me to say I ‘know’ someone when I’ve never met or talked to them. Even if I have interacted with them online over a period of years. I feel like we need a new verb for it. Like: “Do you know Bob?” “Well, I knowontheinternet him.” Or: “I’ve had a couple of Twitter exchanges with George Michael, but I wouldn’t say I knowontheinternet him.

Anyway. As I was saying, I’d never read the whole sequence of Lily poems together before, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. At their best they have a sharp in-the-moment-ness, a vivid sense of being a particular point in time. And that brings with it a sense of place, emphasised by the use of Caribbean-inflected grammar.

One thing which struck me as interesting, reading them, is as much a point about me as about the poems. Nico* has a particular stylistic quirk of using neologistic compounds — like, for example, using ‘bonechill’ as a verb — which just slightly makes my critical self uneasy; not because I object to neologising, but precisely the opposite: I have exactly the same tendency myself when I write poetry [perhaps I should say when I wrote poetry]. All the times I have come up with compounds and then cast a jaundiced eye on them trying to decide if I was being self-indulgent have apparently programmed a warning flag into my brain which pings up whenever I see them.

I was going to type out an extract but actually there’s no need, because various of the poems have been published in internet poetry journals; so if you want to read some, just put Nicolette Bethel Lily into Google and it will offer you a variety to choose from. You could start with ‘The Preacher Man Saves Lily’s Soul (1914)’, for example.

And a quick note on the actual physical book, which is rather lovely. It’s a numbered edition; my copy is 35 of 200. As you can see above, the cover is letterpress printed† on handmade Indian paper with bits of flowers in it. What you can’t see above is that it has endpapers, also handmade paper, in a sort of translucent acid yellow with thready bits running through it; or that the pages themselves are printed on high quality cotton paper.

It struck me, when I opened the parcel and saw the book for the first time, that this is one future for printed books in a world of e-readers: to celebrate the physicality of them, to make them into covetable objects in their own right. Although, nice as it is to imagine a flowering of artisanal, boutique publishers producing books which are exquisitely designed and made, I guess it’s a red herring really. The point of books is the words, not the packaging. Any defence of printed books purely on the basis of their appearance is straying into the territory of interior designers who buy leather-bound books by the metre because they make a room look cosy.

And actually I don’t think small publishers would be the winners in a world where books were bought for their beauty. I’ve read a lot of books from all kinds of small presses as part of the Read The World challenge, and Poinciana Paper Press is an admirable exception; much more often the books are rather badly designed. Which is understandable; a small press on a shoestring budget has to focus on what they’re good at, which is hopefully choosing, translating and editing texts.

* And this is where the fact I knowontheinternet her comes in again, combined with the generally informal tone of blogging: ‘Nico’ sounds a bit offhand and casual, in the circumstances, but ‘Bethel’ would sound weirdly formal. Especially since I have actually mostly known her over the years by an internet pseudonym. Ah, netiquette.

† Letterpress printed in, of all places, Camberwell. Not that I have anything against Camberwell; my sister lives there. And I think I had some art classes there as a child, though I don’t remember much about them except making some kind of collage out of bits of magazines, and eating pear drops. It’s just a long way from the Bahamas.

Tumblr round-up, August 15th

The London riots have been on my mind a lot this week, and I posted various links to pieces which I thought were interesting: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Perhaps indirectly related, an article about poverty in the US; and one about extreme wealth in the US which serves as a companion piece.

That’s a C19th robe from Central Asia. I also posted a couple of others (1, 2), all from the Smithsonian’s collections, but this one’s my favourite. That slightly fuzzy appearance comes from ikat weaving, where the thread itself is dyed in patterns before weaving. I also posted a rather lovely woven raffia mat from Benin made using the same technique.

Oddities: an iPad cover made from Bernie Madoff’s trousers — jugs with lipssycamore goblets — an axe with a spinemelon bowls — a guinea pig masquerading as a hippo.

The geometry of butterflies, drawn by Nabokov  — a ladybird spider —  an Audubon swan — some elegant kelp.

I found an online copy of Illustrations of Himalayan Plants from 1855 and I thought the illustrations were particularly beautiful even by the standards of botanical illustration. I posted the title page and several of the plates, but rather than see them on Tumblr, check it out on archive.org.

The cup that cheers but does not inebriate

I can’t tell you how much it cheers me up to know that coffee has never been convincingly linked to any terrible long term health risk. Unlike booze and salt and fat and all the other little indulgences. It’s a shame I don’t seem to be able to drink it after about 3pm if I want to be able to sleep, but you can’t have everything.

And yes, I know, ‘the cup that cheers but does not inebriate’ was originally applied to tea. But despite all my other reflexive Englishnesses, I’ve always been a coffee drinker, really.

Riots, again

There was a story on the front of the Times today (I’d link to it, but it’s behind a paywall), about a young woman, recently graduated from university, who was passing a looted store on the way to get some McDonald’s, and on impulse went and stole a TV. And then three days later, unable to live with the guilt, she went and turned herself into the police. So she had a degree, she was planning to be a social worker, she didn’t even need a TV… and yet in that moment she couldn’t resist a bit of looting.

I find it a very intriguing story, and the lesson I am tentatively inclined to draw from it is this: the stuff that happened over the weekend in London, the mob craziness; these are not normal events. And if you assume you can understand people’s behaviour according to your normal, everyday expectations — if you apply ‘common sense’ — you are likely to mislead yourself.

But perhaps that’s not surprising. If there’s one thing that experimental psychology has demonstrated over the years, it’s that our intuitions about human behaviour are surprisingly rubbish at the best of times. Our intuitions about behaviour in the middle of a mob are sure to be even worse.

Not that you even need that much of a mob, really; there’s always what you might call the Bullingdon effect. David Cameron would no doubt say it was cheap political point-scoring to draw a parallel between smashing up a restaurant in the course of a riotous evening out with the Bullingdon, and smashing the window of JD Sports in the middle of an outbreak of looting; but it’s not exactly radical to point out that young people under the influence of alcohol, adrenaline and peer pressure will do things — stupid, reckless, anti-social, criminal things — which in the calm, sober light of day, they would like to think were completely out of character.

I don’t know what point I’m trying to make, really. I guess I’m still irritated by David Cameron’s line ‘this is criminality, pure and simple’. When has human behaviour ever been pure or simple?

London riots

I suppose I ought to make some kind of comment about the fact that London seems to have suddenly gone nuts. But I don’t know what the fuck to say. I certainly didn’t see this coming, so I can hardly claim any insight into the causes.

I mean, it’s possible to step back and paint a broad picture which makes rioting seem inevitable: the third year of a shitty economy, a financial system bailout paid for by cutting benefits and services, a country with terrible social mobility where the gap between rich and poor has been increasing for decades, the most unequal city in the western world, where we help Russian oligarchs to avoid tax while cutting spending on homeless shelters and youth clubs, the rightward shift of the Labour party leaving the poor with even less of a mainstream voice in British politics, an Old Etonian prime minister from a family of bankers… these seem like the kinds of things that create the conditions for social unrest.

But all that was true last week, and I certainly didn’t expect to see London in flames. And maybe it isn’t all that stuff anyway. Smashing in the windows of Curry’s and nicking a TV isn’t exactly an overtly political gesture. It’s just too easy to spin a narrative and think it’s an explanation.

Maybe it’s better understood as a failure of policing, whether community policing before the event or the response once it started. Maybe new-fangled communications really are important, at least in terms of how it spread and gained momentum. Maybe the country really is in a moral decline. Maybe it’s just some random confluence of events, the flap of a butterfly wing in China. The hardest thing to do in situations like this is to try and remain open-minded, to hold on to the fact that actually you just don’t know.

» Ealing riots – the aftermath is © Erik Hartberg and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

Tumblr round-up, August 8th

It’s that time of the week again. Let’s start with what might be my favourite image of the year, a long-exposure shot of star trails with fireflies. Go to NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day to see it larger or super-big.

Two ancient Persian drinking horns: shaped like a wild cat — shaped like a wild goat [maybe a Nubian Ibex?]. A Greek wine-cooler decorated with soldiers riding dolphins. A medieval Russian church gate. A C14th painting of a Tibetan abbot.

Acrobatic weaver birdstunicatesshark with lionfish — a flashy bustard.

Articles: Sperm whales have culture. Fish form shoals the size of Manhattan.

Beautiful corsets: C18th SpanishC19th American. A Jean-Paul Gaultier jacket. American typography: Lectures on Ventilationlibrary pastered stamping ink. Curious buildings: LaosMaliPortugal.

All at Sea, Claire Partington 2011. Egon Schiele’s bedroom, 1911. Aurora Borealis, Frederic Edwin Church 1865. Île-Saint-Denis, Willy Ronis 1956. Allegory of the Planets and Continents, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo 1752.

C19th email scams & adulterated booze

Some less political stuff from P.T. Barnum’s The Humbugs of the World. This is one of several mail scams:

The six letters all tell the same story. They are each the second letter; the first one having been sent to the same person, and having contained a lottery-ticket, as a gift of love or free charity. This second letter is the one which is expected to “fetch.” It says in substance: “Your ticket has drawn a prize of $200,”—the letters all name the same amount—“but you didn’t pay for it; and therefore are not entitled to it. Now send me $10 and I will cheat the lottery-man by altering the post-mark of your letter so that the money shall seem to have been sent before the lottery was drawn. This forgery will enable me to get the $200, which I will send you.”

And Barnum on booze:

It is a London proverb, that if you want genuine port-wine, you have got to go to Oporto and make your own wine, and then ride on the barrel all the way home. It is perhaps possible to get pure wine in France by buying it at the vineyard; but if any dealer has had it, give up the idea!

As for what is done this side of the water, now for it. I do not rely upon the old work of Mr. “Death-in-the-pot Accum,” printed some thirty years ago, in England. My statements come mostly from a New York book put forth within a few years by a New York man, whose name is now in the Directory, and whose business is said to consist to a great extent in furnishing one kind or another of the queer stuff he talks about, to brewers, or distillers, or wine and brandy merchants.

This gentleman, in a sweet alphabetical miscellany of drugs, herbs, minerals, and groceries commonly used in manufacturing our best Old Bourbon whisky, Swan gin, Madeira wine, pale ale, London brown stout, Heidsieck, Clicquot, Lafitte, and other nice drinks; names the chief of such ingredients as follows:

Aloes, alum, calamus (flag-root) capsicum, cocculus indicus, copperas, coriander-seed, gentian-root, ginger, grains-of-paradise, honey, liquorice, logwood, molasses, onions, opium, orange-peel, quassia, salt, stramonium-seed (deadly nightshade), sugar of lead, sulphite of soda, sulphuric acid, tobacco, turpentine, vitriol, yarrow. I have left strychnine out of the list, as some persons have doubts about this poison ever being used in adulterating liquors. A wholesale liquor-dealer in New York city, however, assures me that more than one-half the so-called whisky is poisoned with it.

Besides these twenty-seven kinds of rum, here come twenty-three more articles, used to put the right color to it when it is made; by making a soup of one or another, and stirring it in at the right time. I alphabet these, too: alkanet-root, annatto, barwood, blackberry, blue-vitriol, brazil-wood, burnt sugar, cochineal, elderberry, garancine (an extract of madder), indigo, Nicaragua-wood, orchil, pokeberry, potash, quercitron, red beet, red cabbage, red carrots, saffron, sanders-wood, turmeric, whortleberry.

In all, in both lists, just fifty. There are more, however. But that’s enough. Now then, my friend, what did you drink this morning? You called it Bourbon, or Cognac, or Old Otard, very likely, but what was it? The “glorious uncertainty” of drinking liquor under these circumstances is enough to make a man’s head swim without his getting drunk at all.

Actually the list is quite interesting, because although some of those are definitely scary things to have in your food, like sulphuric acid, lead, turpentine and tobacco, others are still used as food additives, like annatto, burnt sugar, and cochineal. Although there shouldn’t actually be any need to add extra colour to things like bourbon and stout. And some of the additives are normal ingredients in gin, like orange peel, coriander, liquorice, and grains of paradise.

» The beetle is a caricature of P.T. Barnum.

‘The Miscegenation Hoax’

I was browsing around Project Gutenberg and stumbled on a book with this magnificent title: The Humbugs of the  World. An Account of Humbugs, Delusions, Impositions, Quackeries, Deceits and Deceivers Generally, in all Ages. And it’s by none other than P. T. Barnum.

So I thought, that could be interesting. And one of the things that caught my eye from the contents was ‘The Miscegenation Hoax‘. Barnum explains:

the history of Ancient and Modern Humbugs would not be complete without a record of the last and one of the most successful of known literary hoaxes. This is the pamphlet entitled “Miscegenation,” which advocates the blending of the white and black races upon this continent, as a result not only inevitable from the freeing of the negro, but desirable as a means of creating a more perfect race of men than any now existing. This pamphlet is a clever political quiz; and was written by three young gentlemen of the “World” newspaper, namely. D. G. Croly, George Wakeman, and E. C. Howell.

The design of “Miscegenation” was exceedingly ambitious, and the machinery employed was probably among the most ingenious and audacious ever put into operation to procure the indorsement of absurd theories, and give the subject the widest notoriety. The object was to so make use of the prevailing ideas of the extremists of the Anti-Slavery party, as to induce them accept doctrines which would be obnoxious to the great mass of the community, and which would, of course, be used in the political canvass which was to ensue. It was equally important that the “Democrats” should be made to believe that the pamphlet in question emanated from a “Republican” source.

This is in 1864, during the Civil War, so of course the Republicans are the abolitionist party. It carries on a bit later:

The first stumbling-block was the name “amalgamation,” by which this fraternizing of the races had been always known. It was evident that a book advocating amalgamation would fall still-born, and hence some new and novel word had to be discovered, with the same meaning, but not so objectionable. Such a word was coined by the combination of the Latin miscere, to mix, and genus, race: from these, miscegenation—a mingling of the races. […] Next, it was necessary to give the book an erudite appearance, and arguments from ethnology must form no unimportant part of this matter. Neither of the authors being versed in this science, they were compelled to depend entirely on encyclopedias and books of reference. This obstacle to a New York editor or reporter was not so great as it might seem. The public are often favored in our journals with dissertations upon various abstruse matters by men who are entirely ignorant of what they are writing about. It was said of Cuvier that he could restore the skeleton of an extinct animal if he were only given one of its teeth, and so a competent editor or reporter of a city journal can get up an article of any length on any given subject, if he is only furnished one word or name to start with.

I won’t quote the whole thing, intriguing though it is, but I can’t resist this bit:

Although, of course, the mass of the Republican leaders entirely ignored the book, yet a considerable number of Anti-Slavery men, with more transcendental ideas, were decidedly “sold.” The machinery employed was exceedingly ingenious. Before the book was published, proof-copies were furnished to every prominent abolitionist in the country, and also to prominent spiritual mediums, to ladies known to wear Bloomers, and to all that portion of our population who are supposed to be a little “soft” on the subject of reform.

Apparently spiritual mediums and ladies known to wear bloomers were the 1860s equivalents of latte-drinking tree-hugging Volvo drivers.

Anyway, archive.org has the original pamphlet online: Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races, Applied to the American White Man and Negro. It’s hard to recapture the sense of shock apparently provoked at the time, although I suppose even now it would be fairly radical to suggest that we should be actively working to eliminate black and white as distinct entities. In fact far from being shocking, a lot of it is frankly boring, especially all the C19th racial pseudoscience; but it has its moments, like this bit of mischief:

THE SECRET OF SOUTHERN SUCCESS

The North is wondering — the world is wondering — at the marvelous success of the Southern people in statesmanship and war. The discretion, endurance, energy, and heroism they have shown in sustaining for so long a time a rebellion supposed to be feeble and short-lived, have elicited the admiration even of their enemies […] The truth may as well be understood, that the superiority of the slaveholding classes of the South arises from their intimate communication, from birth to death, with the colored race. Like Anteus, sent to his mother earth, they have risen reinvigorated. […]

On this point we might quote many pro and anti-slavery authorities, but the extracts would scarcely be fit for general reading. It is a notorious fact, however, that, for three generations back, the wealthy, educated, governing class of the South have mingled their blood with the enslaved race. These illicit unions, though sanctioned neither by law nor conscience, and which, therefore, are degrading morally, have helped to strengthen the vitality and add to the mental force of the Southerner. The emotional power, fervid oratory and intensity which distinguishes all thoroughbred slaveholders, is due to their intimate association with the most charming and intelligent of their slave girls. The local history of New Orleans, since its occupation by the Union army, proves what has often been suspected, that unions between the slaveholders and their slaves have often had, in the eyes of the parties themselves, all the sanctities of marriage. These facts give us an inkling of some of the sources of Southern power.

If you can ignore, just for a moment, the high stakes of the political issue at hand, and the many decades of overwhelming human misery caused by the slavery and segregation which the pamphlet was surreptitiously supporting… well, you almost have to admire bits of it as an example of proper, old fashioned trolling. These guys would feel right at home on the internet.

AN OMEN.

The statue of Liberty which has just crowned the capitol at Washington, stands as a symbol of the future American of this continent. It was meet and proper that while slavery exercised its baneful sway at the seat of Government, that the great dome of the capitol should have been unfinished, and that the figure of Liberty should not have unveiled its awful form upon the topmost summit. The maker of that statue has “builded better than he knew.” In order to insure it against the storms and variable temperature of a Virginia atmosphere, it has been washed with an acid which has caused a slight oxidation, producing a rich and uniform bronze tint, which no rains can discolor and no sun bleach. When the traveler approaches the city of magnificent distances, the seat of what is destined to be the greatest and most beneficent power on earth, the first object that will strike his eye will be the figure of Liberty surmounting the capitol ; not white, symbolising but one race, nor black typifying another, but a statue representing the composite race, whose sway will extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean, from the Equator to the North Pole—the Miscegens of the Future.

Anyway, I just thought it was a fascinating little historical detour, not least the origin of the word ‘miscegenation’ as a faux-politically correct euphemism for ‘amalgamation’. It’s striking that ‘miscegenation’ is still a very loaded term, while ‘amalgamation’ has, as far as I know, lost any association with racial mixing at all. And also: isn’t it amazing how much stuff you can find on the internet these days.

Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich

Voices from Chernobyl was written in 1996, ten years after the reactor meltdown. It is an oral history of the disaster; that is, it’s presented as a series of ‘monologues’ by people who were involved in some way, with titles like ‘Monologue about War Movies’, ‘Monologue about the Shovel and the Atom’, ‘Monologue about Expensive Salami’. I’m actually a bit curious about exactly how they were collected; they are presented as verbatim transcripts, although I’m sure they’ve been tidied up somewhat. What you don’t get is any idea of what questions or prompting came from the interviewer. It’s quite an effective device, keeping the journalist out of the spotlight and letting the voices speak for themselves, but I assume there’s an element of artifice to it. I don’t think it detracted from the book, I’m just curious about the process.

The result is, anyway, an extraordinary book. The stories come from all kinds of perspectives: local farmers, soldiers, scientists, officials, construction workers, wives, children. And the material is fascinating: people’s accounts of being evacuated, of working on the reactor site, of nursing dying relatives. There are people who refused to leave, and people who came back because it was home, and people who, having fled conflicts elsewhere, moved to the area because there were houses lying empty. And overlying it all is the extraordinarily inept and chaotic government response, which included, for example, failing to distribute iodine or breathing masks because they thought doing so might cause panic.

And as well as the material being so interesting, it has a very literary quality; bleak and fatalistic, but laced with dark humour and absurdity, sometimes earthy, sometimes poetic. That poetry comes both from the real poignancy of the human situations and the surreal quality of many things that happened: the soldiers sent into the Zone to kill all the cats and dogs; the people whose job it was to dig up soil and bury it in pits; the fact that they were told that drinking vodka would help fight radiation poisoning, so everyone seems to have been rolling around in an alcoholic haze.

It really is a fabulous book. Here’s a little excerpt, from a man who has moved to live in the evacuated zone:

It’s easy to find books here. Now, an empty clay pitcher, or a spoon or fork, that you won’t find, but books are all over. The other day I found a volume of Pushkin. “And the thought of death is sweet to my soul.” I remember that. Yes: “The thought of death.” I am here alone. I think about death. I’ve come to like thinking. And silence helps you to prepare yourself. Man lives with death, but he doesn’t understand what it is. But I’m here alone. Yesterday I chased a wolf and a she-wolf out of the school, they were living there.

Question: Is the world as it’s depicted in words the real world? Words stand between the person and his soul.

And I’ll say this: birds, and trees, and ants, they’re closer to me now  than they were. I think about them, too. Man is frightening. And strange. But I don’t want to kill anyone here. I fish here, I have a rod. Yes. But I don’t shoot animals. And I don’t set traps. You don’t feel like killing anyone here.

And here’s a bit by someone else, who moved back:

Sometimes I turn on the radio. They scare us and scare us with the radiation. But our lives have gotten better since the radiation came. I swear! Look around: they brought oranges, three kinds of salami, whatever you want. And to the village! My grandchildren have been all over the world. The littlest just came back from France, that’s where Napoleon attacked from once—”Grandma, I saw a pineapple!” My nephew, her brother, they took him to Berlin for the doctors. That’s where Hitler started from on his tanks. It’s a new world. Everything’s different. Is that the radiation’s fault, or what?

Voices from Chernobyl is my book from Belarus for the Read The World challenge. If you’re thinking ‘hang on, Belarus, that doesn’t sound right’, well, you’re right, the plant itself is in Ukraine, but it’s just by the border with Belarus and so Belarus was one of the worst affected places.

A quick namecheck for the translator, Keith Gessen, who I’m sure deserves a lot of credit for how well the book reads in English; and just to reiterate, I think this is a really good book and I strongly recommend it.

» There’s a whole load of photos around the web taken by tourists to the contaminated zone. Lots of pictures of the deserted town of Pripyat, particularly of peeling, empty schoolrooms. But after reading the book, they just seem too unpleasantly voyeuristic, so instead I grabbed a map of the contaminated area from Wikipedia.

Tumblr round-up, August 1st

I haven’t posted that much to Tumblr this week for the same reason I haven’t been posting to the blog: possible incipient RSI. But here’s some of my favourite things from this week.

Sagra buqueti, a beetle so extraordinary I resorted to Google to check it wasn’t photoshopped:

A gruesome squid dish — a cactus pouffe — an outfit by Alexander McQueen — a good joke — a Madonna by Lorenzo Lotto — Wulfenite with Mimetite and Barite — a painting of Halley’s comet

The Cuban vine Marcgravia evenia uses a specially shaped sonar reflector to attract pollinating bats.

Penguins use bubbles to give themselves a speed boost underwater.

Dolphins use what used to be whiskers to detect electric fields.

Canadian cod numbers are finally starting to recover nearly 20 years after fishing them was banned.

EDIT. Whoops, nearly forgot:

Spitalfields Life has a great post about an annual east London coracle race.

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