Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Book weak

Books in transit by Pants

Norm Geras over at the always edifying Normblog has posed a book challenge. It isn't one of those god-awful meme things. There's not much to thank Twitter for but hiving off the parlour game element of blogging certainly deserves some kind of humanitarian award. Anyway, Norm has put this poser out there for anyone who chooses to take it on. You can go over to Norm's place and take the challenge yourself by emailing him with your solution. Here is the question, 

I would really like to hear from you on how you would react to being offered the following choice. You are going to some distant and lonely and low-tech place where you will have to spend the rest of your days, and you can:

- (a) either take 100 books you have already read and which you may then re-read without limit, those being the only books you will ever get to see;

- (b) or not take any of the books you have already read, however much you may love some of them, but instead have a free and regular choice from all the books in the world you haven't yet read, to be supplied to you by the Mobile Library for Isolated Readers in Distant Places.

Would you go for (a) or (b)?

My initial response was to plump for (a). I'm not generally a big fan of multiple variables, especially if there's a chance of their impact being a compound and (b) has more unknowns than a politician's conscience. I would want to nail down the exact meaning of 'free and regular'. Once a fortnight is 'regular' but if I'd picked a duff bunch, fourteen days without a desirable book might not seem such an attractive timescale.

I'm not seeing 'unlimited' anywhere either. It's not one of those mean-spirited lending services that only lets you have three fiction and a non-fiction at a time is it? And mobile library? My sister works at a library and their mobile bus is always breaking down. Would there be a replacement bus? I'd want to know that. A hundred books in hand is definitely going to be worth more than an infinite number of hypothetical undeliverables.

And would I get an updated list of every available book in the world I haven't read? I see a potential problem here in that I don't always remember the books I've read, or even bought. That's how I ended up with three copies of Elizabeth Jolley's Foxybaby. Does someone responsible know this stuff and will they promise not to sell my personal information to marketing companies? And, would I get definitive information on new books - The TLS or NYRB for e.g, preferably both and preferably by airmail?

Okay, so let's assume I can have any number of unread books I want and that the flow will be reasonable and reliable. I'm in a low-tech, isolated place. Is there CNN? In a news-free environment, and I'm not saying that's a bad thing, new books might be a good way to keep up with what's happening out there. It might be useful to know how the whole climate-change scenario pans out. I'd be leaving with the Himalaya thing unresolved and I'd truly like to find out how 'Himalaya' is actually pronounced. Does J.K. Rowling get a new idea? Does Dan Brown get an original idea? Does Katie Price get an actual idea?

Assuming this isolated place meets basic livelihood needs including an adequate wine cellar and decent bookshelves and I pick my own hot hundred, I could have a great future. I might not want to know what happens in the rest of the world. So often in recent years, I've threatened to lock myself up with the knowledge, (or at least keys to it), I've been able to scrape together so far and try to get to grips with the 42 conundrum. 

Of course it would require a lot a strategising. The ratio of fiction to non-fiction would be the first consideration. As a rough guide, I might want to take half fiction, a quarter science/history and the last quarter good art books with lots of pictures. And there would inevitably be heartache over size. What novella is going to win a desert island showdown against A la recherche du temps perdu?

Put like that, over a whole lifetime - and there is exemplary longevity in the Pants family, the canon might struggle. I am a loner and there's no doubt that even, and perhaps especially in a low-tech world, I'd welcome the opportunity to step aside and absorb myself in what we are and have been up until now. But there's always the chance that I would look at a book and think, 'why did I pick you and not x'. Can you imagine what that would do for a book's self-esteem?

I choose (b), even without the surety of quality or quantity. The possibility that one day the greatest book ever written might land on my hand-crafted sea grass doormat, would be enough to get me up in the morning.