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It was 1965, the year that ran from the last half of my junior year in high school through the beginning of my senior year. In between, I spent the summer traveling through Norway and Europe. I mention that last because it made that year quite distinct in my memory, and I can recall all the books I read that year. Or all I can remember; there may be a few I’ve forgotten. 

It was a year of promiscuous reading. I picked up most anything. I have a list of them. I couldn’t get enough. Schoolwork suffered because I was largely bored by my classes, other than my English classes. I rebelled against doing homework — nothing worse than the questions at the end of a chapter, a tedious exercise. But reading on my own, outside curriculum, held me rapt. 

That year marked a change in the direction of my reading. When I was younger, I buried myself in non-fiction. One subject after another would overtake me and I would immerse myself in it. When I was in the eighth grade, my mother got me a young-adult novel, thinking I would enjoy it. But I didn’t read fiction. I remember I told her, “I don’t want to read anything that isn’t true.” But history, biography, essays — even cookbooks — they were “true.” They wouldn’t clog my head with fictional effluvia. 

For some reason, that changed in 1965. I picked up novel after novel. Not those assigned in school, of course. That was dry, tired, musty old fustian. I wanted to read what was current, new, on the biting edge. There was James Purdy, John Updike, Hubert Selby Jr., Thomas Pynchon. Needless to say, all of them were well above my meager level of understanding as a 16-year-old. 

Some of the reading came in clumps. I read Saul Bellow’s Herzog when it came out, and followed that with Seize the Day and Dangling Man. To let you know how little I understood what I was reading, I reread Herzog earlier this year and was surprised — pleasantly — to discover it is a comedy. A very funny book. I’m afraid the thick layer of irony that makes the book such a delight was invisible to my adolescent mind. I think I saw it the first time as a window on the academic life I was planning to lead after I got out of college, after I got into college. 

I had a Kerouac streak, soaking up first Big Sur then Dharma Bums. When I was in Oslo, I found a British paperback of Lonesome Traveler, a series of essays. For a kid my age, this was catnip. When I got home, I finished off On the Road — which I have managed to reread every decade or so, the last time in its original scroll version with all the names undisguised. No, it doesn’t hold up, but what an effect it had on me as a wimpy pimply-faced kid. 

The series I probably read the most of was Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu. I ate them through like Mars bars. I can’t remember most of their actual titles, they were all sequels like “son of,” and “daughter of” or “return of,” and the plots were interchangeable, but I loved the adventure and the atmosphere of London’s Limehouse district, with its opium dens and insidious “Yellow Peril.” The racism of the books was not yet apparent to me, and when I tried rereading one of them a few years ago, I couldn’t wade through the Victorian-style prose. 

A few appealed to my burgeoning hormones and growing anti-bourgeois prejudices. Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg’s Candy was hot stuff to a teenager and so was Robert Gover’s One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding. Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit from Brooklyn was another one way above my pay grade in understanding, but I knew it was subversive. 

(In the same vein, among my other reading were two periodicals. I subscribed to both the Evergreen Review and Paul Krassner’s The Realist. Couldn’t wait for the next Phoebe Zeit-Geist. Such things were puerile, but then, I was a puer. A couple of years later, I was publishing a sophomoric underground newspaper at my college, called the K.M.R.I.A Journal. But then, I was a sophomore.)

There was literary fiction I read, beyond Saul Bellow. I tackled Thomas Pynchon’s V., although I have no recollection of what I might have made of it back then, but I knew the character names were clever. There was Louis Auchincloss and Walker Percy. 

Not all of it was high-minded. In Norway, I found a copy of Pat Frank’s Mr. Adam, a post-apocalyptic lampoon, and Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim. At that age, I also thought John Lennon was not only clever, but profound. At that age. 

There were memoirs by Jean-Paul Sartre and Ernest Hemingway, and social and philosophic essays by Marshall McLuhan and Eric Hoffer. And something in-between: Dag Hammarskjöld’s Markings. 

The film, Zorba the Greek, came out the year before, and so I picked up the book. It launched me into a series of books about Buddhism (Alan Watts, Christmas Humphreys, D.T. Suzuki) which kept me going in the spring of 1966. But it also dumped me deep into Kazantzakis’s The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, which I read in my stateroom on my transatlantic shipboard trip to Norway. There was a lot of time to kill and a very fat book to murder it with. 

I imagine my teenage years were peculiar. I came from a quiet middle-class family. I doubt there were as many as a dozen books in the house, outside the grocery-store-premium Funk & Wagnalls. We lived on the New Jersey side of The Bridge (GW, that is — George Washington) and I spent as much time as I could on the non-Jersey side of that bridge, visiting art museums, concert halls and bookstores. In particular, I took the subway down to the Sheridan Square Paperback Corner, a tiny, crowded store with books piled high on all walls. (There was also the Hudson News at the 178th Street bus terminal, where I stopped every time before getting on the Public Service bus to go home to the benighted other side of the Hudson River.)

There was a time, many years later, when I was unemployed and nearly homeless (praise be to dear friends), that I dove back into the books and for a period of six months or so, read a book a day. I cannot say that such speed-reading provided the same depth of experience, but I soaked up a great deal that has served me well in the 40 years since. Reading has been my life, and has come out the other end as writing. 

I suppose I mention all this Proustian self-absorption because I look around the house now that I have turned 71 and see my walls held up by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and know that a lifetime of constant reading began in those years that — at the time — I considered a complete waste. High school was a torture I absolutely hated. Books taught me a billion times more than those classrooms ever did. It must say something that I remember so many of the books I read in that one seminal year. And have reread so many of them as a grown-up. 

These are the covers of the editions I read in 1965, click on any image to enlarge

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I began seriously reading in high school, mostly contemporary fiction. I don’t remember what I could possible have made of Saul Bellow’s Herzog at the age of 16, but there it was. I followed that with Seize the Day and The Dangling Man. I read James Purdy, James Drought, Jules Fieffer, Hubert Selby Jr., Thomas Pynchon, Terry Southern, Albert Camus, and, ahem, P.G. Wodehouse.The Secret cover

Jack Kerouac, Brendan Behan, William Golding, Kingsley Amis, Eugene Ionesco, and of course, J.D. Salinger. I was a teenager, after all.

Quite a load of words for a high school student. I doubt I understood a tenth of what I read, but I couldn’t get enough.

There were a few “classics” thrown in, some required reading for school, but it was primarily new fiction I read — almost all of it over my head.

And almost all of it in paperback. There was a rack of paperbacks in the local drug store, and I would pore over them after school, looking for the latest Bellow or Updike.

return of the native airmontAnd then, there was Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native, which was required reading in 8th grade — why, I don’t know. But I had the hardest time plowing through it. It seemed dense and impenetrable. I got bored. I couldn’t finish it.

Over the years, there were other books I had a hard time reading. The sense was always the same: They were uninviting; they were dense; they were difficult to read. I lost interest in them and didn’t finish them.return of native page

It was only years later that I realized the problem was not with the writing, it was with the printing: The cheap paperback edition of Return of the Native was really horribly designed: grey type, insufficient leading, narrow margins, bad, under-inked offset printing on grey or yellowed paper.

The problem was not with Hardy, the problem was not with me, the problem was with Airmont Classics, the paperback publisher. They had skimped on book design and created a brick.

Last week, wandering through the shelves of our local used book store, I found a copy of that noxious tome. As I began reading, I realized what a magical writer Hardy really could be. Now that I’m more mature — actually a geezer — I had a bit more patience than I had as a teenager, and I could manage to cut the furze, as it were, of the wretched typography. It is still a dank and uninviting book to look at, but I nearly cried at the opening paragraphs, as Hardy describes that particular and exact time of day and time of year when you can look down at dusk and the ground has lost any visual contrast; it dulls into the gray of evening — but if you look up, the sky is still bright. It is like that Magritte painting, only not meant to be surreal, only beautiful.magritte

“A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment,” the book begins.

“Overhead the hollow stretch of whitish cloud shutting out the sky was as a tent which had the whole heath for its floor.

“The heaven being spread with this pallid screen and the earth with the darkest vegetation, their meeting-line at the horizon was clearly marked. In such contrast the heath wore the appearance of an installment of night which had taken up its place before its astronomical hour was come: Darkness had to a great extent arrived hereon, while day stood distinct in the sky. Looking upwards, a furze-cutter would have been inclined to continue work; looking down, he would have decided to finish his faggot and go home. The distant rims of the world and of the firmament seemed to be a division in time no less than a division in matter. The face of the heath by its mere complexion added half an hour to evening; it could in like manner retard the dawn, sadden noon, anticipate the frowning of storms scarcely generated, and intensify the opacity of a moonless midnight to a cause of shaking and dread.”

What had I missed over the years by thinking that certain books were dull, when it was only the visual aspect of their presentation that had discouraged me?aeneid

I remember trying my damnedest to shoulder my way through C. Day Lewis’ translation of The Aeneid. Whoever designed that paperback managed to use a page too small to hold the average length of a line in the font size he chose, meaning that almost every other line wrapped to the next line, flush right, giving the text a kind of visual hiccups, making a very ugly page that was nearly unnavigable. It put me off Vergil for decades.

By-and-large, it is paperbacks which are the greatest offenders. Designed to be cheap — which we appreciate — they are also designed to fit as much type onto a page as possible so as not to waste space or paper. Type is small; leading is squished; margins are narrow. To say nothing of the quality of paper used and the ink rolled on.

It isn’t merely a question of type size. Some large-type books are hard to read, and some with tiny text are easy. The issue seems to be the length of the line: Small type on a small page is fine, but spread that line out over a wide page and the eye tires before turning down to the next.

walden 1One of the prettiest books I own is a copy of Walden from the Heritage Club, published in 1939, with wood engravings by Thomas W. Nason. It was proud enough of its look to credit its designer, Carl Purington Rollins. I believe every book should credit its designer: A good design makes a book better; a bad design deserves blame.

Although it is printed in 8-point type, the page is compact, and the margin wide enough that the print-line is never too wearying.

One of the things that makes this Walden so attractive is that it was printed with lead type, not run off an offset press roller.

There are so few who still get pleasure from the look and feel of ink on paper — especially the tender and slight embossment of lead type dug into the fiber, and the ink laid there in the troughs. The soy ink now used flat on offset printing seems so one-dimensional. I have a two-volume Milton printed in 1843 that is as beautiful to look at as to read, as beautiful as a Piranesi engraving or a stained-glass window.milton 1

The question is not one merely of what typeface is chosen; some books are overly “artistic,” with fancy fonts and eccentric spacings — all of which make the book harder to read. What makes it all work is a typeface that is neutral enough not to call attention to itself, but not so dull as to be banal. No one want a whole book wearing Times New Roman like fishscales — you want to take the back of a knife to it and scrape it clean.

No, the question goes beyond type: It is a question of air between lines and around the text. It is a question of the darkness of the type — the heaviness of line in the drawing of the letters. It concerns the break of chapter and the intent of the paragraph: Neither too much nor too little.

And yes, this is a matter of taste, not of metrics: What is too much or not enough? The answer requires not a rule, but an awareness: awareness of the physical properties of the page and its contents. Most of us are unaware that books even get designed, unaware that there was a choice made in type, margin, leading, initial capitals, weight and brightness of paper stock, the deckling or smooth cut of the page edge.

Americans are often chided (and most often by themselves) for being too materialistic. But this simply isn’t true: Americans are not materialistic enough — they have little sense of the material world. The acquisitiveness that infects our nation has more to do with the non-material quality of status than with any love of the sensuous world we inhabit. One might say it is a “spiritual” value, not a material one. Certainly a tedious and unworthy spiritual value, but not in any way truly materialistic.kindle

So, it is hardly surprising that we now do so much of our reading on electronic gadgets. One might say one has become one’s own book designer, since one can choose certain visual parameters on your iPad or Kindle. But aside from enlarging the type for easier reading as we venture into the world of presbyopia, few take the chance to actually “design” the presentation on their e-reader.

And as a writer of a blog, I am frustrated by the fact that no matter how I try to make my text look on the computer screen, when it reaches your screen, it is your default choices that govern its looks as you read it. We have cut out the middle man — cut out the book designer, who can make my writing fun to read or a trial to machete through.