Why re-read?

book-1975830_640Some people never read a book more than once, arguing that there is no enjoyment if they already know the ending. Others have their favourite books that they return to time and time again. Some people read Lord Of The Rings every year. I’ve met someone who appeared to be reading Fifty Shades constantly (must be some S&M thing).

I have a long list of new books to read, but I still find myself re-reading older ones. So why?

I think there are three possible reasons.

Familiarity and comfort

HitchHikers_DouglasAdamsI’ve read Hitch-hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy so often that now I only have to look at the page and the words flow from my memory. And every so often, I will binge re-read the Discworld books. I know what’s coming, but I still enjoy the storytelling and the humour. They make me smile, no matter how many times I read them.

We enjoy comfort, and that includes mental comfort. So re-reading a book we know we enjoy can be a settling experience, especially when other aspects of our lives might be going through changes. Familiar books are something steady we can cling to.

Sometimes, it is not so much the book but the memories connected with it. I’ll always associate Tolstoy’s War And Peace and Louis de Bernieres’ Birds Without Wings with caravan holidays, and Asimov’s original Foundation books remind me of my grandparents’ house. And Thomas Hardy, strangely, puts me in a summery mood, simply because I can recall reading some of his books on an old Sony Reader in our garden one summer, when it was warm enough to wear shorts.

Reading familiar books can be like listening to a favourite song or re-watching a favourite film. It’s a break from reality, but one that makes us feel relaxed and comfortable.

Re-assessing

Over time, everyone changes. We grow, we take on new ideas and we reject old ones. We see the world through different eyes, coloured by the experiences of our on-going lives.

ET_WilliamKotzwinkleIt can be interesting revisiting books we enjoyed when we were growing up. Sometimes the books seem too childish, and we wonder if we were ever really taken in by them. Sometimes we are disappointed by the book (as I was when I re-read the original Star Wars novelisation a bit ago). And sometimes we see new things. When I revisited ET recently, there were things I was sure I’d missed before, simply because I’d been too young to understand what William Kotzwinkle was hinting at.

I read a great deal of horror as a teenager, and it’s been interesting re-reading some of my favourites from that time. Some stand up well, like The Shining‌—‌although obviously a story of a family cut off from the rest of the world is going to have a different impact on a father than it does on a teenager. Others were a disappointment, like James Herbert’s The Rats. I can see why I enjoyed this before, but for the adult me it was nothing special (apologies to any Herbert fans, although I did enjoy Ash when I read that a couple of years ago).

I don’t watch many films now, but in the past these have given me the nudge to re-read certain books, and the visuals have enabled me to see the words in a different light. One strong example of this is Fight Club, a rare phenomenon where both book and film are excellent. On re-reading, I could hear Ed Norton’s voice, and it made for a great reading experience.

So re-reading with fresh eyes can alter the perception of a book, for better or for worse.

Digging deeper

At first, this might appear to be the same as revisiting, but there are subtle differences. I’ll revisit a book when I’m not sure what I think of it, or when something triggers a fresh look. But certain books have depths that I know I have not yet mined, and I will re-read them because I want to uncover more of their secrets.

ZenMotorcycleMaintenance_RobertMPirsigZen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance is the most obvious example. This book is a journey into ideas, set against a father-and-son motorcycle ride across America. At times the thoughts and questions it poses are almost too dense, and every time I read it I pick up on something new. Between my first and second readings, I spent a bit of time reading Plato, and this influenced how I understood Prisig’s inquiries into the meaning of quality. Later, the relationship between the father and the son had a greater impact on me, simply because I was able to relate to that situation. And having recently found out that Prisig’s son was murdered some years after the book came out, the next time I read it I am sure that will colour what I take from it.

Yet there are still things to uncover in the ideas in the book. It doesn’t lecture, but guides, and what I bring to the reading is as important as the words itself.

In contrast, I’ll re-read American Psycho because I want to understand how that book works on a technical level. I think it’s a classic. There are so many different ways of interpreting it (comment on consumerism? Study of sociopathy? Discussion on desires?). There’s no clear story, and at times it seems to drift along as random thoughts (two pages on the pros and cons of Huey Lewis and the News, anyone?). But it works, and it’s clear that Bret Easton Ellis knew exactly what he was doing. So I’ll re-read it, paying attention to how he uses words and phrases, and how he structures it.

I suppose this is more of an intellectual enjoyment than an emotional one, but I’m re-reading with the same purpose‌—‌to delve deeper into the book in order to discover more of its secrets.

* * *

So, three reasons why I will re-read a book. There are probably more (like re-reading a book simply because I’ve forgotten that I read it a few years ago), but these will do for the moment. I’m sure there are people who will argue that I am wasting my time‌—‌for all I get out of re-reading, wouldn’t that time be better spent reading one of the thousands of books I have yet to read? They might have a point, but I’m never going to read everything I want to anyway. And I don’t see reading as a tick-list activity. It’s about enjoyment and entertainment, and if I can get that from re-reading, there’s no reason to stop.

The Problem With Accents

I listened to a free audiobook of Dracula a while back. The narrators were all volunteers, and each took a separate chapter. Of course, the quality varied‌—‌some went for a drawn-out reading to heighten the dread, others went with a more conversational tone. There were some interesting mispronunciations, too, which might be down to a 19th century book by an English novelist being read by American narrators‌—‌language changes over time and place, after all.

Then there were the accents. Most of the narrators read in a single voice, but some used accents for occasional characters. This was most usually Van Helsing, and I believe his lines are written with a hint of his Eastern-European pronunciation.

The main characters in the book are ‘educated’, and all speak with proper diction (with the exception of Van Helsing), but they occasional encounter ‘locals’, who would naturally speak in dialect (mainly in the sections set around Whitby, so we’re talking Yorkshire accents here). For one of these, Stoker writes the dialogue as the character would speak.

nosferatu-1-615x349The narrator for this chapter did his best, and I don’t mean to mock him. I know I could do no better with, say, a Texas accent. I don’t even know if the narrator had ever heard a Yorkshire accent before attempting to read Stoker’s text. But the accent he narrated in didn’t work. You know Dick Van Dyke’s ‘cockney’ accent in Mary Poppins? Imagine that combined with the occasional Scottish twang, and you’ll have a rough idea what this Yorkshire character sounded like.

Again, I want to stress that this was a free audiobook, narrated by volunteers. They all did a far better job than I could do.

But it got me thinking about accents in books.

The standard advice for writing is to be careful with accents. If you have to ‘write accents’, don’t overdo it. The aim is to convey a flavour of the voice, but the text always has to be understandable. Add too much authenticity, and things go wrong.

This might sound counter-intuitive, but spoken and written language are two different things. Just listen to how people normally talk, and then imagine this written down. How many times do people ‘umm’ and ‘ahh’? How many sentences are left unfinished? How much is repeated? Even when people are telling a story of what happened to them, their words will not translate perfectly to text.

“So, like, I says to him, um, ‘you want this or not?’, right, and he’s all like ‘I don’t know’, and so, um, I say ‘but it’s your favourite’, and he’s still, like, unsure, um, so, like, I don’t know, is he winding me up or I don’t know, why doesn’t he want it, I don’t know.”

You get the idea.

So the advice with accents is to be sparing.

“Aye, they came up from the South, like they allus do.”
“You talkin’ to me, son?”

The odd word, the occasional missed letter. It helps give a flavour of the accent while still being readable.

Too much can be hard to read, and I think this is down to how we are taught to read, and the way our brain decodes the written word. Initially, we learn letters, and use these letters to make up words and parts of words. We learn that ‘ough’ is sounded ‘oooh’ in words like ‘through, and ‘ohh’ in words like ‘though’. Gradually, out brain starts to decipher these combinations automatically, and we no longer have to sound out individual letters and sort them into groups. Instead, we glance at a word and instantly understand it. This is when we really start reading.

But with words written in accent, we have to go back a step. The words look wrong, and our brains have to resort to mentally sounding a letter at a time. The odd dropped letter (walkin’, ‘ope), especially when signalled with an apostrophe, isn’t too bad. Bu’ a rendrin ah th’slurrd word a slip aht in t’heat o’normal torkin is allus a buggr t’unnerstan’. Even with apostrophes.

That’s why too much ‘accent’ in writing is a problem.

But there are authors who use this to great effect.Trainspotting_IrvineWelsh

One obvious example is Irvine Welsh, especially in Trainspotting. The story is set in Scotland, and is told through a series of incidents from different characters’ points of view. At first, it is hard to read. Welsh doesn’t only render the dialogue in accents, but also the prose. At first glance, a page can look like it is written in a different language entirely.

But with a little perseverance, it becomes easier to understand. And the language fits the story. We’re in the heads of these characters, and Welsh uses the accented language to see the world through their perspective. It makes the book far more immersive than it would have been if he’d ‘written properly.’

FeersumEndjinn_IainMBanksAnother book comes to mind here, and although it’s not written ‘in accent’, it is still relevant. That book is Iain M Banks’ Feersum Enjin. Take a little time over that title, and you’ll get an idea where I’m going with this.

(I haven’t read this book for a good few years, so apologies for being a little hazy here.)

The story is split between a number of viewpoint characters. One of these is written almost phonetically (and this is shown in the title‌—‌Fearsome Engine, while being ‘correct’, just doesn’t work as well.) Banks also uses ‘text-speak’, using numbers and symbols to replace letters (so ‘into’ becomes ‘in2’, and ‘at’ becomes ‘@’).

Here’s the first line from this character’s sections, to give you a taste of it:

Woak up. Got dresd. Had brekfast. Spoke wif Ergate thi ant who sed itz juss been wurk wurk wurk 4 u lately master Bascule, Y doant u 1/2 a holiday? & I agreed & that woz how we decided we otter go 2 c Mr Zoliparia in this I-ball ov thi gargoyle Rosbirth.

(Incidentally, that was a pain to copy out. I’m used to typing, so deliberately mis-spelling things slowly me down.)

Why does Banks use this style of writing? Again, it is down to character. This character is young, with a naive outlook on life. The language reflects this, unhindered by convention and free to view things in an intuitive and original manner. Language is used to provide insight into the character.

And, as with the Scottish dialogue Welsh uses, it does become easier to read as you go along.

There are those who say that all writing should be like this. Every so often there are rumblings about written language being too tied up with rules that, on the face of it, make no sense, and that words should be spelt out as they are sounded.

I’m not going to get into a major discussion on this, but I will point out one of the major problems with this approach to spelling, and it comes back to accents. A word like ‘out’ might be spelt ‘auwt’, or maybe ‘owt’. But ‘owt’, in some parts of the country, is a word that means ‘anything’ (as in ‘you doing owt today?’). So if we came across a word spelt ‘owt’, what is the meaning of it? We’d need to decipher the surrounding words, using context to gain meaning. But if we see the word ‘out’, we know what it is because we have been taught that this combination of letters reflects a certain concept.

And this is the problem with phonetic spelling. Spoken language varies from country to country and from region to region, even when the language is ostensibly the same. The English language is spoken in many flavours across the world. If written English reflected that, its universality would be greatly reduced.

This is the thing to remember with writing accents‌—‌we write to be understood. If the accent gives an insight into the character or the setting, or brings a scene to life, then it has its place, if used carefully, like a dash of seasoning. But overuse creates a barrier, like heavy seasoning can mask other flavours. And then, the reader is pulled out of the story, just as I was listening to that strange accent in Dracula.

AllusionistLogoNote: I listen to a lot of podcasts. One of them, The Allusionist, is all about words and language, and it just so happens that the latest episode is all about accents. You can give it a listen here.

 

Why Ideas Are Not (That) Important

I’ve got an idea for a story. It’s great. It’s got this wonderful twist, one that turns everything on it’s head. See, what happens is….

But I don’t want to tell you. Not yet. See, you might take it and use it yourself. Then it wouldn’t be anything special when I write it. I don’t want to let this idea go. It’s that good.

Okay. I’m excited. I’ll tell you. See, it’s set in our world, but there’s an alien race living amongst us. They have been for years.

What do you mean, it’s been done before? I haven’t got to the good bit yet. See, this hero character stumbles upon the truth, and it looks like this alien race are trying to take us over. They do stuff like rig elections, and make sure there are all these dodgy additives in food.

Okay, okay, so that’s been done before. But you still haven’t let me get to the proper bit yet. There’s this twist.

You going to shut up and let me finish?

Thank you.

So this hero’s being guided by some secret organisation, and they’re trying to fight these aliens. They don’t want to be taken over. But our hero, he stumbles upon something. And it changes everything.

See, these aliens know that humans are dying out. They’ve known for years. And they came down, not to take us over, but to help us. Instead of wanting to destroy us, they are trying to save us.

Neat twist, right?

light-bulbs-1125016_1280Maybe. But the idea doesn’t make the story. It could be turned into something amazing, or end up run-of-the-mill, or even terrible. It could be a success, but it could just as easily be a failure.

Why? Because ideas are not important.

Okay, that’s an over-generalisation. Obviously, it is important to have an idea before writing, or before creating anything. You need to know, or at least have an inkling, where the story is going. You need to have a starting point, be that an interesting character, some event, or simply a concept (what if we used scent as our main means of communication? Oh, The Simpsons got there first – ‘Smell ya later!’).

But the idea in itself is nowhere near as important as the execution.

Don’t believe me? Think of any story you like — book, film, TV show, doesn’t matter. Now boil the story down to a single sentence, the idea around which everything else hangs.

Here’s one. Young person forced to leave home and fight, eventually triumphing over evil.

Sound familiar? It’s Star Wars, right? Or maybe (if you take ‘person’ to mean ‘person-like being’) it’s Lord Of The Rings. Or countless other stories.

Now think of a concept for a story. Try this one. The world is an illusion.

Cool-sounding concept. It’s The Matrix.

Or is it The Wizard Of Oz, where everything turns out to be a dream? Maybe it’s The Truman Show.

Three very different stories, but they could have come from the same initial idea.

The initial idea isn’t that important. It’s what you do with it that matters.

light-2674160_1280But even that only goes so far. Imagine two writers have the same initial idea, and map out identical story outlines. They have the same characters and settings. But the finished stories would be different. One might be heavy on poetic descriptions, where the other is filled with fast-paced dialogue. One might have a gritty edge, and the other might go for a softer, more family-friendly approach. One might stress the outer struggle of the characters while the other focused on their internal dilemmas.

Same ideas, different outcomes.

There is something else to consider when thinking about ideas. And that is the sheer abundance of them.

Don’t believe me? Coming up with ideas is easy. Look around yourself, or think about the things around you. Pick two different objects. Now combine them.

I’m going to pick a train set and an exercise bike for this example, as they are both things that are (sometimes) in our conservatory. My first thought on combining these is this; the power from the exercise bike is fed to the train set. While I pedal, the train runs. When I stop, the train stops.

Not a great idea, but let’s run with it. Imagine this train set is somehow a real railway system. When I pedal, I enable real trains to run. Obviously, that would take more than one person using an exercise bike. So there’s a whole bank of us, all pedalling furiously, so that the trains run on time. Our hard work enables all those business bods to get to work.

We can’t afford to stop, because then the transport network grinds to a halt. It’s not only about commuters. There are goods to transport as well. And, in this imaginary world, rail is the major transportation system. So those of us pedalling like mad are truly keeping the world running.

It’s a sweatshop.

This idea has legs (like the ones pedalling round and round). It raised so many questions. Are we pedalling through choice, or because we are forced to? Who is overseeing the pedal stations? What happens when the cyclists revolt? What happens when someone realises that pedal power could be used for other purposes?

Another example, again from our conservatory. There’s a plant in a pot on a table, and another in a pot on the floor. Which one is superior? The one on the table possibly has a ‘higher’ starting position, but the one on the floor is larger, and takes up more overall space. They are at different sides of the room. Is this because they can’t stand to be near each other?

So now my mind’s going off in all kinds of directions. Plants are intelligent. Maybe they have the ability to move themselves. Maybe the plants have been planning a takeover, rebelling against their treatment at the hands of humans. Eventually, they will start selective breeding programs, producing humans with more pleasing features, or ones that grow quicker. Maybe they will find a way of breeding humans through budding. Then some mad plant scientist will create a hybrid, part plant and part human. Fauna sapiens or something.

Sounds like it might end up as a comedy, but again that depends on the execution. Compare Day of the Triffids to Little Shop of Horrors.

See? I came up with a cool idea, and others have already beaten me to it. But that doesn’t matter, because the idea is only the starting point.

It’s what I do with it that is important. And that’s when the real work starts.

What do you read?

What do you read?

I’ve never been a fan of that question, and my standard response is to say ‘I read books.’ Yes, this answer is glib, and it’s also inaccurate, or at least incomplete. Ignoring the whole issue of what a book is (is it a physical thing, or are we ready to accept mobi and epub files as books?), I read other things. There are posts and articles online, and magazines. When I get a new CD I’ll read through the accompanying booklet. And I’m one of those strange people who actually reads instructions when they get something new.

But when people ask what you read, that isn’t what they want to hear. Usually, they mean to ask ‘what kind of fiction do you like to read?’

I find this really hard to answer.

Loads of books!

I could say I enjoy speculative fiction, but many are unfamiliar with that term. This means I have to explain that it is fiction that stretches the imagination, often in alternative settings. It encompasses fantasy and science fiction, as well as horror. But this includes a plethora of sub-genres, and there are many books in this wide-open field that I have not enjoyed. To be honest, some high fantasy bores me, and hard military sci-fi often veers towards a gung-ho attitude I struggle with. And while I am drawn towards darker fiction, I appreciate the occasional blast of humour, and a light-weight ‘fun’ read can be an excellent mental palate-cleanser.

But I enjoy other types of fiction too. I picked up one of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe books a few months ago, and greatly enjoyed it. James Clavell’s Shogun is another recent read that impressed me, especially in the way the romance is handled. Then there are all the fantastic classics. Wuthering Heights is a favourite, and I enjoy Thomas Hardy’s novels. And there are the ‘literary’ authors on my list of favourites; Iain Banks, Cormac McCarthy, Douglas Coupland, Chuck Palahniuk.

Then there are newer authors, ones I have come across because of the e-book revolution. Chris Ward, Barry Hutchinson, Sean Platt & Johnny B Truant, Mark Dawson, Rick Gualtieri. These are authors whose writing I enjoy, and who tell good stories. What particular flavour or story, what genre, isn’t important to me, because I trust them to entertain me. Maybe they’ll make me laugh, or maybe they’ll make me think. They might take me on an exhilarating thrill ride, or they might make me shiver with dread.

I think I’m drawn to characters more than plot, but I’ve read Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse books a few times, and it is the mystery in each that draws me in. I might say story is important, but American Psycho is wonderful because of the way Bret Easton Ellis uses language, and the way he writes such a compelling but nasty character with only the barest of linear structures. The story is secondary (at best) to the character, and the ideas behind the writing are more important than the narrative drive.

I enjoyed Umberto Eco’s The Name Of The Rose, but I’m not sure if this was because of the mystery, or the amount of information it contained, or the challenge of reading something that made me think. Or maybe it was because the book is one of those ‘must read’ books, and I wanted to know what I thought of it.

So you see my problem with the question ‘what do you read’. I read different books for different things. I am drawn in by exciting stories just as much as well-crafted sentences or wonderfully-drawn characters. Sometimes I want a roller-coaster read, other times I want to drift into a new world. Sometimes I want to be challenged, other times I want popcorn. I can forgive clumsy prose if the story pulls me along, but I also appreciate artistic use of language.

Every book is unique. Every book that appeals to me does so for its own reason, and each book I read gives me something new.

So maybe saying ‘I read books’ isn’t such a flippant answer after all.

When Novelisations Work

A few weeks ago I wrote about the problems of film novelisations, using Star Wars as an example (and you can read that post here). It’s time to redress the balance, and write about a book-of-the-film that works.

ET_WilliamKotzwinkleI first read William Kotzwinkle’s novelisation of ET: The Extra-Terrestrial when it came out, back in 1982. I remember enjoying it, and I can also recall thinking that it felt like a ‘grown-up book’. It had some rude words in it, and for a young boy this was a definite plus-point.

As far as I can tell, it is no longer in print, and my copy disappeared long ago. However, I came across an audiobook version on Youtube a few weeks ago, and gave it a listen. And I really enjoyed it.

I think the ‘rude words’ I remember occurred in a scene where Elliot and his brother are arguing, and one of them uses the phrase ‘penis-breath’ as an insult. Nowadays, that’s not too shocking, but this was the eighties, and I wasn’t yet a teenager. It was one of those phrases that contained the proper biological term, so it was almost okay, but it still pushed the boundaries. It’s a phrase I can imagine children using. They might not understand why it could be insulting, or what it implied, but it was definitely not something you wanted to be called. It wasn’t a phrase many parents would allow their children to use.

In the book after that insult is thrown out, Kotwzinkle gives us a glimpse into the mother’s thoughts. She wonders where her children could have picked up such a phrase, and worries about what else they might be exposed to. And underlying this (and much of the mother’s musings) is a feeling that she’s losing control. She’s a single mother of three children, holding down a job and trying her best, but maybe that’s not good enough.

This moment highlights why Kotwzinkle’s ET is more than just a reminder of the film. He gives us rich insights into the characters’ thoughts and emotions. He doesn’t simply describe what happens on screen, but translates those subtle facial expressions into an interior dialogue that breathes life into the pages.

Kotzwinkle does this for the character of ET as well. In the film, the alien comes across as child-like — he’s smaller than the children, and he shows a bemused wonder at much of the world around him. At times (such as when he samples beer and becomes drunk), he’s there to provide comic moments. But in the book he is an ancient scientist, specialising in Earth’s plant-life. He is intelligent, and he cares greatly for plants and all other life. When he becomes drunk, he is confused, and we feel for him.

He also feels drawn to Mary, the mother. This might be hinted at in the film (it’s a long time since I’ve seen it), but in the book he becomes infatuated with ‘the willowy one’. When he is dressed up (a ‘comedy moment’ in the film), Kotzwinkle has him wondering if Mary will accept him if he looks more like a human. This interior dialogue turns a light-hearted break in the action into an internal struggle, and draws us closer to ET.

The film, like many of Spielberg’s others, is a ‘children’s film for all ages’, and I can’t help but think that Kotwzinkle was aiming this book at an older audience. Where the film saw things through the eyes of the children, especially Elliot, the book focuses more on ET and Mary. It’s a subtle shift, but one that helps make the book more rounded. Children can still read the book, and enjoy the story of ET and Elliot. But older readers are able to understand Mary’s worries, and are presented with a far richer story.

Kotzwinkle has written many children’s books, so he must have known what he was doing. And I would imagine he was given the freedom to go where his writer’s instinct led him. Whoever commissioned this novelisation must have known they were hiring someone with literary credentials, and they let him do what he had to do.

Yet he doesn’t stray the events in the film. Like the Star Wars novel, it’s almost a scene-by-scene rendition. But it takes the visuals and the dialogue as a starting point. It delves into the characters, using the palate of words rather than visuals and sound. It uses the strengths of writing to turn Melissa Mathison’s screenplay into a proper novel.

Maybe the Star Wars novelisation is an anomaly. I haven’t read enough books like this to draw any firm conclusions, but I did listen to the Dark Star audiobook recently. This was written by Alan Dean Foster (who also wrote the Star Wars novelisation), and much of this book is concerned with the characters’ internal struggles. It manages to turn a surreal film with a minimal plot into something intriguing and engrossing. In the film, characters stare off into the depths of space. In the book, we delve into their thoughts, their desires and their fears. It still retains the humour of the film, but adds a rich underbelly, much as Kotzwinkle’s ET adds another layer to Spielberg’s film.

Both books show that movie novelisations can stand up as novels, and can even, in many ways, surpass their source material.

Oh, the audiobook version of ET I found is on the ‘Audiobooks for the Damned’ channel on Youtube. If you have any interest in 80s films (from blockbusters like Back To The Future and Terminator to cult classics like Scanners and the aforementioned Dark Star), and a few hours listening time spare, check it out.