Message in a Bottle
From Clay Tablets to Cell Phones

The chattering classes (a phrase coined by Auberon Waugh, son of novelist Evelyn Waugh) continue to debate the future of print. Literacy itself is on the upswing, as text messaging pushes aside voice mail and crawling chyrons take up increasing acreage on our TV screens, so pundits are less concerned than they once were about images replacing words completely. They’re still worked up about how those words will be delivered to us, though. Will everyone be reading eBooks or …. what to call them? Apparently we’ll soon need a retronym to clarify what we’re talking about, much as we now must specify “acoustic guitar” or “analog clock.” For now I’ll stick to calling them what they are, thanks—books.

The topic has been so much discussed that it’s grown more than a little tiresome. We at Island Books are happy to sell you a story in bits and bytes or on paper, as you prefer, and we try not make a big song and dance about it. More interesting, perhaps, is the question of how writers are creating their stories. That is, how does a tale turn from a mere fizzing in the mind into words that can be read?

imageThings started, of course, with the oral tradition. Bards around campfires told and retold stories for thousands of years before the idea of writing was born. The earliest examples of stories being permanently preserved in print come from around 2600 BC, when the Sumerians, Akkadians, and Egyptians began pressing cuneiform into clay tablets and carving hieroglyphs on stone walls. The most significant of these is the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, a tale of creation and destruction that still speaks to modern audiences. Papyrus, parchment, and paper were developed as the centuries passed, as were various alphabets that made writing easier, but authors continued to produce work by hand. Even after the development of the printing press in the 15th century, a story had to start as a manuscript. It wasn’t until 1883 that this changed.

imageimageThat was the year that Mark Twain employed a newfangled invention and submitted a typewritten copy of Life on the Mississippi to his publisher.  He’d handwritten it first and then had a secretary type it up. The technology took off soon after, and it wasn’t long before authors began composing right on the machine. Around the turn of the 20th century, Henry James dictated many of his novels to a typist, and fifty years later, Jack Kerouac famously bashed out On the Road in just two weeks in front of the keyboard. Harking back to ancient times, he typed onto a continuous scroll of paper instead of onto individual sheets.

Soon another innovation took root. As described in a recent Slate article, English thriller writer Len Deighton became the first person to write a novel via a word processor in 1968. The device weighed 200 pounds and had to be hoisted into his home with a crane. Much like Twain, Deighton required the assistance of a professional; it was a woman named Ellenor Handley who actually entered the words into the contraption so that fans could read Bomber.image

Nowadays we’re all using computers to write, or most of us are. A few holdouts, including Will Self and Cormac McCarthy, cling to their Underwoods and Olivettis (Olivettii?), but I certainly didn’t hand-write this before you read it. What’s next? Well, readers in Japan are enjoying something called the “cell phone novel,” consisting of short chapters of under a hundred words sent by text message. Presumably most, if not all of these are “written” by a pair of thumbs dancing across a handheld device. Can’t say I’m looking forward to the proliferation of this trend, but I won’t discount it. People probably laughed at the first scribe who switched from counting sheep to telling stories, and look how far that got us.


First Line Friday




In the last installment of First Line Friday we considered a number of very economically expressed openers, so I thought I’d try to feature a few this time that take a more florid approach. Before I get into those, though, I have to include one very short first sentence that’s always been extremely memorable to me. It comes from Seamus Heaney’s translation of the Old English epic poem Beowulf. Don’t blink, you’ll miss it: “So.” Yep, that’s the whole thing. Heaney, whose ancestors carried the name Scullion, explains more fully why that one word is significant:

I called them “big-voiced” because when the men of the family spoke, the words they uttered came across with a weighty distinctness, phonetic units as separate and defined as delph platters displayed on a dresser shelf. A simple sentence such as “We cut the corn today” took on immense dignity when one of the Scullions spoke it. They had a kind of Native American solemnity of utterance, as if they were announcing verdicts rather than making small talk. And when I came to ask myself how I wanted Beowulf to sound in my version, I realized I wanted it to be speakable by one of those relatives. I therefore tried to frame the famous opening lines in cadences that would have suited their voices, but that still echoed with the sound and sense of the Anglo-Saxon:

Hwæt w Gr-Dena      in gar-dagum
Þod-cyninga      þrym gefrnon,
H p æþelingas      ellen fremedon

Conventional renderings of hwæt, the first word of the poem, tend towards the archaic literary, with “lo,” “hark,” “behold,” “attend” and—more colloquially—“listen” being some of the solutions offered previously. But in Hiberno-English Scullion-speak, the particle “so” came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom “so” operates as an expression that obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention. So, “so” it was:

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.

After that long preamble about a very short word, let’s work our way up to the more meandering phrases by test-driving a mid-sized model. A commenter on our last post offered the unforgettable “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” That’s the beginning of George Orwell’s 1984, of course. As Lynn put it, after that line a reader’s reaction can’t be anything but “What? Why? Must read on …”

Into the thickets, then. Tristram Shandy (1767) by Laurence Sterne is the ultimate shaggy dog story, in which the eponymous narrator purports to tell us the story of his life, but first insists on preparing us by describing everything about the lives of his parents, inexorably leading up to the strange circumstances that influenced the critical moment of his conception. Of course, we never learn much about Shandy himself, instead spending almost the entire book following one digression after another. The first line gives the flavor:

I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly considered how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost:—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that, in which the reader is likely to see me.

How true. If his mother hadn’t stopped to ask whether the clock was wound, Tristram might have turned out to be someone else entirely, and the book would have been a whole lot shorter.

John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor is a product of recent times that pays tribute to early novels like Sterne’s, and he starts his comic adventure in much the same style:

In the last years of the Seventeenth Century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke, more ambitious than talented, and yet more talented than prudent, who, like his friends-in-folly, all of whom were supposed to be educating at Oxford or Cambridge, had found the sound of Mother English more fun to game with than her sense to labor over, and so rather than applying himself to the pains of scholarship, had learned the knack of versifying, and ground out quires of couplets after the fashion of the day, afroth with Joves and Jupiters, aclang with jarring rhymes, and string-taut with similes stretched to the snapping-point.

More fun to game with the sound of English than labor over the sense of it? Stretch a simile to a snapping-point? Barth is talking about himself as much as he is his protagonist, obviously.

Sometimes an opening line is a fairly plain thing that grows richer when it’s supported by its close followers. Take the innocuous scene-setting start of Bleak House by Charles Dickens: “London.” That turns out to be the beginning of a series of fragments that together pack quite a wallop:

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborne Hill.

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian achieves a similar effect:

See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a last few wolves. His folks are known for hewers of wood and drawers of water but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster. He lies in drink, he quotes from poets whose names are now lost. The boy crouches by the fire and watches him.

By itself, “See the child” is a decent enough way to establish the ageless atmosphere McCarthy’s after, but it’s the rest of the passage, with its rhythmic repetition and archaic diction, that really sets it off.

Another 20th-century novel with a 19th-century setting, Steven Wright’s The Amalgamation Polka is a Civil War picaresque that shares McCarthy’s Faulknerian flair for the antique and the grotesque, but adds a sense of comic parody to the mix. It starts off with a solid kick and keeps right on going strong:

The bearded ladies were dancing in the mud. Outsized country feet that just wouldn’t keep still, strutting and reeling all along that slippery stretch of flooded road. Yellow paste clung to the hems of their gowns, flecked sunburnt arms and whiskery cheeks, collected in thick earthen coins upon the lacy ruffles of their modest chests like a hero’s worth of medals artlessly arranged. A cold rain fell and continued to fall over the lost hills, the yet smoking fields, the rude, misshapen trees where light—vague and uncertain—struggled to furnish the day with the grainy quality of a fogged daguerreotype. And at the center of this dripping stillness these loud animated women without origin or explanation, refugees from a traveling circus perhaps, abandoned out of forgetfulness or deceit or simple spite, the improvised conclusion to some sorry affair of outrage and betrayal, and as they danced, they sang and reveled in the rain, porcelain pitchers of ripe applejack passing freely from hand to unwashed hand, the echo of their song sounding harshly across that desolate country.

After those verbal marathons, these lines will seem like sprints:

  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
  • The same author’s Love in the Time of Cholera: “It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.”
  • Robert Graves’s I, Claudius: “I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as ‘Claudius the Idiot,’ or ‘That Claudius,’ or ‘Claudius the Stammerer,’ or ‘Clau-Clau-Claudius’ or at best as ‘Poor Uncle Claudius,’ am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the ‘golden predicament’ from which I have never since become disentangled.”
  • John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany: “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”
  • Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
  • Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter: “In the town there were two mutes and they were always together.” 
  • H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds: “No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were being scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”
  • Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love: ” ‘When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets,’ Papa would say, ‘she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing.’ “

That last is one of my all-time favorites. It takes such delight in language that the odd subject matter becomes weirdly attractive, goofy yet almost noble. How does that sentence do its work? Indeed, a crystal mystery. 


PNBA Award Winners

The Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association has just handed out awards to six of the finest books published by regional authors in the past year. Congratulations, winners! 

In my earlier post that ran down the shortlist for the awards, I included cover pictures of five of the twelve nominees. Four of those books won prizes—sorry, Diana Abu-Jaber—a result I can only attribute to my remarkable insight and prescience. Or dumb luck, you be the judge. Either way, the final results offer an interesting, eclectic assortment. There’s popular science writing, a graphic novel, memoir, and fiction. You can read the official announcement and some lovely blurbs about each winner at the PNBA site.


Two of these are already in my to-be-read pile and may get a bump toward the top thanks to this news. The Sisters Brothers has been getting spectacular reviews from all over the country, many of which compare its style and blackly comic sensibility to the movies of the Coen brothers. The novel recounts the exploits of gunslingers Charlie and Eli Sisters as they leave a trail of destruction across the western landscape of the 19th century. It’s certainly violent, and it pushes all the buttons a traditional Western would, but it’s also thoughtful, with an captivating narrative voice. As a fan of Cormac McCarthy and Charles Portis, I’m really looking forward to it.

Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water also came to my attention through stellar reviews, the kind where readers talk about how life-changing a book can be. Yuknavitch has survived a great deal of trauma, but her memoir is the furthest thing possible from a tale of victimhood. Despite all the vulnerabilities she doesn’t hesitate to expose, she retains a strong, almost swaggering voice. People often talk about authors who tackle tough personal subjects as being fearless, and Yuknavitch would certainly qualify, but I don’t want to use that word. Better to say courageous, because she shows her fear and carries on despite it. Even when it comes to choosing a cover for her work, she’s characteristically forthright and unapologetic. I can’t wait to see what’s inside.


Genius For All Ages

There’s a book I’d been planning to mention somewhere on the blog this holiday season, and I’m going to do it today, but I’m going to talk about a couple of others first that might not seem to have much to do with each other, so bear with me.

The first is a classic picture book most of you will probably remember, either from your own childhood or from your children’s bookshelves. It was first published in 1964, and it’s as fresh today as it was then. It stars Frances, who decides one day that there’s only one meal she wants to eat. Instead of drawing a line in the sand, her parents decide to indulge her wish, so thereafter it’s Bread and Jam for Frances morning, noon, and night. It’s not surprising to adults, though it may be to kids, that the delight Frances feels at exercising her will and getting exactly what she thinks she wants soon wanes. There’s a lesson in the book, obviously, but it’s not at all heavy-handed. What’s at stake, while important, especially to the young, isn’t exaggerated, and Frances has a real childlike quality that makes it all wholly believable. To this day I can’t help thinking of her as a person even though she comes from a family of cute, furry badgers.


The second book dates from 1980, and it’s a science fiction novel for adults called Riddley Walker. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic future where civilization has deteriorated to subsistence level, and it’s one of those books that some people would (rather insultingly) say “transcends its genre.” This is because it’s written in a rich, unusual style that teaches you how to read it as you turn the pages. To give you an idea, the narrator begins the book with these lines:

On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly been the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt been none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen.

In terms of language it’s on par with Anthony Burgess and James Joyce, managing to suggest what really might happen to our human ability to communicate after a catastrophic event. It contains snatches of  ancient mythology and 20th-century jargon, along with bits evocative of everything from Beowulf to Chaucer and maybe even Cormac McCarthy. In the way it rolls together the history and future of English, it almost creates a genre of its own.

The third book, the one I’d planned to talk about all along, is called The Mouse and His Child, and it actually is a holiday book of sorts. It tells the story of a father and son, wind-up mice purchased as a present and later discarded when they wear out. Battered and broken, they’re rescued and partially repaired by a tramp, who sets them wandering in search of a home. Danger finds them in the form of a malicious rat and battling shrews, they find philosophy in the form of a scholarly turtle at the bottom of a pond, and thanks to their persistence, the plot eventually finds them quietly triumphant, with a new family and a place of their own to celebrate the winter season. You’ll normally see this book shelved in a section for middle-grade readers, but it has all the depth and nuance of adult literature. It’s exciting and eventful even while it occasionally touches on dark, melancholy themes—desperate parental love, war, existential angst, and poverty among them. The book begins and ends at Christmastime, and it’s filled with a pure hopefulness that’s not at all maudlin, so I always think of it in December and have ever since I first read it more than thirty years ago. 

What all these books have in common is that they’re the work of a single author, Russell Hoban. I can’t find the exact quote I had in mind, but he’s been described as the one person who has produced stone classics for every reading age, from picture books for the very young to chapter books for their older siblings to fiction for their parents. In recent years he’s even comically treated the trials of the elderly, as in his novel Linger Awhile. He’s a remarkable writer deserving of considerable attention. 

I’d just taken my copy of The Mouse and His Child off the shelf, intending to share it with my own kids for the first time, when I heard the news that inspired me to expand this post beyond its initial scope. Russell Hoban died this week at the age of 86. According to one obituary, he predicted back in 2002 that death would “be a good career move … People will say, ‘Yes, Hoban, he seems an interesting writer, let’s look at him again.’” They should.


blog comments powered by Disqus