Good at being good

We were talking about my friend’s book group round at hers the other day.  She was grumbling about it. People keep bringing along new members, without permission. Once one got through, two others tried it. The first newcomer, said my friend, ‘talked about herself for two hours. Of course, she hadn’t read the book’.


The group’s got too big. The problem is what to do; to tell the newcomers they’re not welcome would be a bit rude. This is a group of women doing something pleasant together one evening a month, not close friends. But they have tactics in mind…


Book groups are very popular, if not problem-free. National Reading Group Day is on 30 June and libraries are signing up to showcase the good work they do in this area. Many such groups are far from homogenous all-female, middle class affairs. And the ones I know about don’t seem to have problems choosing books.


You wouldn’t think this reading the Middle Class Handbook blog which advises that you have to avoid anything published pre-1900, or you’ll kill off your book club. As they are assuming that all book clubs are women-only, this is patronising and hilariously sexist. Strange, too, because the Middle Class Handbook blog claims to be a refuge against a rising tide of bad taste, but in a ‘funny’ way – or perhaps only if you have a middleweight, middle-England SOH.


They delightfully assume that if the girls do get off-topic, presumably due to their ‘stuffy’ reading matter not quite sinking in, they will discuss ‘husbands and exes’ or slide away into ‘gossip and what’s on TV’.  What rot.


If a book is good, why should it matter when it was published?


Then I read about a ‘pop culture expert’ who says that the word ‘bad’ ceases to have any meaning in a cultural context, in an article on

‘This stuff we consider “bad” is considered bad if we look at it in terms of the criteria set for old-fashioned art. We also have to recognize that some of this stuff that is “bad” is really good at being “bad”,’ says Robert Thompson of Syracuse University.


Hmm, stuff that is good at being bad – Monster Munch crisps are nice once in a while, but if I want good food I’ll stick to wholemeal bread. Crisps aren’t bread. But I’m not sure that ‘bad’ can’t be applied to some things. Take cheese. I don’t understand mild cheddar or the people who buy it. If you like the taste of cheddar, why not get more of it by buying extra-mature? If you like satire – actually, if you like laughing – why put up with bland Rory Bremner when you can get Armando Iannucci? Some things are just better than others. Some things are indeed just weaker versions of the real thing.


You probably like good books if you’ve joined a reading group. So why would you read Shades of Grey when you can read Madame Bovary?


A book is a book, and a good book has good writing, character and plot development. I woudn’t put up with bad writing, clichéd dialogue and poor character development, so why should anyone else? It’s snobbish to say otherwise.



This blog is dedicated to my Dad, Frank Raven (1930-2012), and the times we had together discussing good books.



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I like you, not what you like

‘We’re more than what we did recently.’

A rather inelegant way of announcing the continuing growth of Facebook, I thought, til I realised that by ‘we’ Mark Zuckerberg meant ‘Facebook users’, and he was explaining the new Timeline.

Well we certainly are, but that doesn’t mean we want to put more of our lives online. Is that not the most common reaction to this new development? Yet Zuckerberg appears to be quite obsessed with everybody sharing everything online, going further and further back.

I saw him on TV enthusing about how you can share with and recommend to your ‘friends’ even more of what you do – meals you cook (this seemed to excite him a lot), films you’ve seen, books you’ve read (well, maybe not, heavy Facebook users don’t tend to read books).

As Ben Parr on the Mashable blog put it, ‘Facebook wants to chronicle your life, and now you can see the scrapbook.’

Perhaps this will appeal to groups of like-minded people who always take notice of what their friends like, and like to share everything with them, but it doesn’t really work for my group. And, let me say here, my Facebook friends are real-life friends. I’ve chatted over a drink, for far too long, with all of them, and I’ve even shared a house or been on holiday with lots of them – both, in many cases.

Then it clicked why this sort of thing excites people like Zuckerberg. Facebook was  invented by a Harvard student for other Harvard students, and there can be no more homogenous group of people in the world than Harvard students: similar age group, similar socio-economic backgrounds, similar intelligence. Perhaps similarly lacking in imagination or originality?

‘See what your friends do! You should be the same! You must do whatever your community does!’ is how internet consultant Phil Bradley sums up this latest move. In his recent blog post ‘Facebook taking control’, he is unhappy with a new Guardian Facebook app which means that if you read a Guardian article while in Facebook, it appears as news in your Timeline. ‘There is no “Liking”, no recommending – the simple fact of reading the specific article is all that’s needed to tell everyone… exactly what you’re reading,’ says Phil.

A lot of young people believe that their Facebook profiles are pored over in detail. Every  taste, choice, ‘like’ marks who you are – but at the same time it’s not really you.

And in her book Alone Together, Sherry Turkle has found that these young people are becoming worried about Facebook. They are unhappy with this ‘bad way’ of thinking in which they are reduced to fit a stereotype.

As one senior year student says, ‘You get reduced to a list of favourite things. “List your favourite music.” That gives you no liberty at all about how to say it. ‘You have to worry that you put down the right band or that you don’t put down some Polish novel that nobody’s read.’

To share his interest in political mural art in Belfast would be, he says, ‘the kiss of death. Too much… too weird. And yet… it is a part of who I am, isn’t it?’

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Time to read?

I’ve never understood the ‘holiday reading’ thing. I usually take a couple of books away but rarely read them once stepping off the plane.

You go on holiday to do things you don’t normally do, right? So why would I spend my time in exciting foreign surroundings with my nose in a book? There is time enough to do that at home.

We don’t go on holiday to relax any more! Deskbound, stationary and staring at screens or other mediums containing words during work time, surely it’s a waste of our free time to lie around on a beach, with some ‘lite’ reading.

I don’t know about you, but I go on hols for action not relaxation – mountain tramping, people watching, eating and early Romanesque church hunting.

Or I spend time with friends and family.

I’ve just spent a week in a rather lovely manor house in Northumberland with a large group of friends. We had books galore. We were happy to abandon a trip to Holy Island due to torrential rain and pile into Barter Books in Alnwick instead, one of the world’s biggest second-hand book stores. However, as the friends live in four different countries and for some of us it was a once a year meet-up, inevitably not a lot of reading was done. And the weather  improved.

And yet, I was quite attracted by the idea of a bibliotherapy holiday in a nice building and interesting location, in today’s Telegraph travel section. ‘Literary holidays: the Reading Retreat in Suffolk’ describes a type of bibliotherapy that doesn’t need to be prescribed by a doctor, however, it’s the type sought by the slightly busy and stressed person who wants to ‘rediscover reading’ in a lovely environment: a parent of young children; a newly-retired executive; or perhaps the Prime Minister of Canada.

Following a rather pricy (£40) bibliotherapy phone call, you are prescribed specially tailored reading matter.

There are also Reading Weekends run by ‘The School of Life’ including bibliotherapy and a chance to discuss books with ‘like minded lovelies’. These are around £400 a weekend.(You can also buy a course from them on How to Spend Time Alone.)

Of course, I don’t need anyone to recommend books and if you’re reading this you probably don’t either. Some of us have piles of up to 40 must-read books they’ve had absolutely no trouble discovering.

But those that do could get expert advice from their local librarian.

They won’t even charge £20; I believe it’s yet another great aspect of a free service.

Or you’re welcome to choose from my piles of books…

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Keeping reading on track

BBC Arts Editor Will Gompertz has been talking to Penguin Group Chief Executive John Makinson about the future of books.

“I don’t expect that readers will open Jane Austen on page one and read through to page 300 and then put the book down,” he says.

“I think they will go on little journeys into other media and other conversations and they will want to do research into the dance moves or recipes of the period or look up info about Jane Austen online or talk to their friends on social networks about the experience of reading the book.”

“Yuk, yuk, yuk,” I thought immediately. Who could wish to be distracted from the pleasure of reading – especially Austen – by something mundane like cooking? I’m all for keeping to the linear narrative and the way it lets you creates another world to slip into. I’m convinced it will never die out.

I’m irritated at the thought of video or other bits of media distracting from reading. And those experimental texts that ask readers to choose how the story progresses seem, to me, simply bizarre.

Even in conversations, I’ll steer them back on track, once they go off in different directions. If anyone asks, ‘What was I saying just then?’ I’m the one to tell them.

Sure, I will look up something on the internet that I’ve been reading about, but only when I’ve finished reading.

But what am I talking about? Surely staying on the straight and narrow isn’t always good? I’m the first to agree with what Eli Harris is saying in his new book The Filter Bubble: be wary of search engines that narrow down information, making it too relevant and personal to you. It means you’re less likely to come across new things.

I’m very fond of serendipity. I like rooting around in the famous ‘jenga’ style bookpiles at Glasgow’s Voltaire and Rousseau Bookshop for a gem of a book for a quid. Just two days after he died I found Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts.

I’m reading John Gray’s Straw Dogs and amongst his demolition of every political theory, philosophy and religion, so far I’m most likely to remember the point that the happiest people are those that don’t have to make choices but act as seems right, spontaneously.

So books, or novels, embody both staying on one track but also being carried along on a linear structure, one which you don’t have to choose. Why did the new medium of film persist with the fictional narrative form when it could have taken any direction?

Reading creates new worlds, without the distractions of the present one.

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Brevity lacks a soul

Professor of English Valerie Sanders writes in the THE about a question she’s been asking herself. If her students are going to pay three times as much for their university education, will they put up with being badgered into reading Bleak House or other long novels?

Will they, as her very entertaining piece says before making this serious point, only expect to be taught a more lightweight literary canon (Heart of Darkness, The Great Gatsby, A Room with a View, Treasure Island…).

People are too busy these days, she says, ‘[Some] novels… are just too long for busy people who have to earn money, manage partners and children, drink, blog, tweet and text.’

Well we’ve always done the first four, but she’s really talking about the last three. In her lighthearted way she provokes some crucial thoughts.

About the skewering of the relationship between student and lecturer in a more monetarised HE mileu.

About the infantilisation of serious university subjects if you take your lead from what young people want to receive for their cash, not what an academic expert says is good for their cultural advancement.

And the preposterous concept that ‘social networking’ is preventing people from doing things properly – because they’re too busy social networking.

It would be pretty serious if lecturers were to be overly influenced by youngsters and their obsessions with socialising online. No matter that some young people these days seem more clever and savvy than we were, the majority of them still don’t really understand everything about Facebook et al.

I’ve just come back from Berlin. Taking in a new Stasi archive exhibition I was beginning to wonder what it reminded me of.

A huge, all-encompassing, monolithic organisation that, although hiding its aims, was able to monitor and control a population? The difference between the ‘Ost-punks’ being spied on in 1980s GDR and today’s Lady Gaga fans active on Facebook is that the latter group is voluntarily participating in its surveillance, and having their lives turned into a database for the purposes of money-making by targeted advertising. If you don’t agree read Jaron Lanier’s ‘You Are Not a Gadget’.

And if you apply the ‘novel reading-lite’ concept to another of my favourite pastimes, climbing up mountains, are we therefore going to see new lists of lower peaks to achieve because people just don’t have time to climb Munros any more? That’s absurd.

I’ll have to end here, as I’m off for a walk.

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They don’t know what librarians do (yet again)…

The Guardian’s regressed a bit on its recent good record on library stories that show an understanding of what the profession really does. It lists librarians as under threat from new technology, along with city traders, military pilots and IT administrators.

A piece in its Saturday ‘Work’ section outlines technology that is taking the place of skilled professionals – even lawyers, it suggests, quoting ‘software used to process… legal documents at a fraction of the time and expense’.

It says that the library profession – public and academic, mainly – is threatened by e-books and self-service RFID, which suggests that the writer thinks a librarian’s role is limited to the date stamping of physical books.

(It also mentions a threat from Wikipedia and Google, but I can’t be bothered to rehash the arguments against this, we all know them by now.)

It obviously hasn’t occurred to them that public libraries lend e-books too, never mind academic librarians’ years of dealing with online journals and other digital material.

As you’ll know, Amazon announced last month that it’s allowing its Kindle e-reader to be used with library-loaned e-books (although just in the US, for now). The Kindle is the top-selling e-reader, so this is good news for libraries as I think, along with many other commentators, that e-book lending is a way to stimulate business.

People can’t get attached to e-books, and so are more likely to see the attraction of borrowing them from their library as opposed to buying them. Who wants to own a stream of digital characters?

And the many people who still get pleasure from owning the print-book can buy one as well, perhaps after reading it on loan from the library.

Building e-book collections still needs the professional librarian to go through the usual acquisition tasks – so how is this a threat to their job? Discoverability is more complicated than for print books. Other challenging aspects are maintaining records, dealing with unreliable metadata and standards, and taking part in the ongoing discussions between publishers and libraries about what terms and on what sort of model e-books should be supplied.

As for RFID, many libraries that have installed it are keen to point out that it frees library assistants from the repetitive job of stamping books in and out, which isn’t part of the library professional’s job anyway. Library assistants, on the other hand, can take up more rewarding and fulfilling tasks such as offering advice and information.

The thriving new Newcastle City Library is 99 per cent self-service. Staff work in a ‘proactive’ way, approaching visitors, and they say that this has allowed a friendly, professional relationship to develop. My teenaged niece took me there on a visited last month, and I saw the system in action.

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Great new guides for muddy-boot lovers

handihike guide

A rather nice little object (well three) is lying on my desk. It’s a new type of walking guide called Handihikes, and it’s only the size of those tiny pocket diaries we used to have.

I’ve yet to try them out in the field (or on the fell) but I thought the idea sounded brilliant when I read about them in a hiking magazine: all you need to guide you in your walk in a compact pack.

It combines part of an OS map with a selection of walks – 3 or 4 to each Handihike, plus extras such as hints on where the best views are, and where to get a good cup of tea or pint after your walk (‘Handilikes’). It folds out like one of those compact city-guide maps, and they’re waterproof. Anyone who walks in Britain will know how important this is.

They are the initiative of a couple called Kate and Andy who say: ‘It all started with a new year’s resolution to get out and make something of our shared love of the outdoors.’

The first 18 Handihikes cover the Lakes, and are based in various valleys – I’ve got Borrowdale and  Great Langdale – or walks from certain centres such as Glenridding.

The text includes description of the walk. This includes the way up and, something most guides neglect, the way down. Most mountain accidents occur during descents. There are   easy to navigate instructions and advice on levels of difficulty. They also all include hints on navigation and tips on staying safe walking.

I think this increases their appeal to the walker starting out on this fantastic pastime. It reminds would-be hikers that walking on the mountains is a sport that has a few easy-to- follow rules, and that going up onto the high fells is not the same as an amble in the valley.

A Handihike is sure to be part of my walking kit when I next go to the Lakes, and I’ve been walking those fells since I was 3.

I’ve long thought that traditional walking guides that contain hardcore walking route instructions and nothing else are a dying breed. These cute, tiny and lightweight newcomers can only add to the enjoyment of walking.

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