Summer School Review

tumblr_m28hunkihb1rqmm3jo1_1280So, the Summer School is over for another year.  This year it was bigger than ever, and I think, more successful too.  It was clear on Friday that none of us wanted to leave and the bookish talk went on long after our normal finishing time. I had to call a halt in the end just so that the person whose house we were meeting in could have her living room back.  The enthusiasm surprised me rather, because two of the titles chosen as part of the theme of books that take place in bookshops didn’t meet with universal approval.

Almost everyone had enjoyed Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop.  Most of us could remember the time period in which it was set and a number were familiar with the setting. And, it is, of course, superbly written; there isn’t a word out of place nor a word too many. I used Monday’s discussion of the novel to set up what I hoped would become a running theme throughout the week: why do we value books; by what criteria do we account their worth?  This manifests itself in The Bookshop through the question of whether or not to stock Lolita, where the issue would be the quality of the writing.  It was the only time last week when that was the criteria in question.  More pertinent to the way in which our discussion would develop was Mrs Gamart’s attitude towards the Arts in general. Fitzgerald makes it very clear that she wishes to replace the bookshop with an Arts Centre only to add to her own aggrandisement.  The intrinsic worth of the act of creation itself meant nothing to her.

This attitude was developed in respect of books in our second discussion on Sheridan Hay’s novel, The Secret of Lost Things.  This book, set for the most part in The Arcade, a large used bookstore in New York, met with less enthusiasm.  Our general feeling was that it had needed much tighter editing and was to some extent self-indulgent on the part of the writer.  However, it does present an interesting contrast between books loved for their content and those which are valued simply for their rarity, regardless of whether or not they are actually worth reading.  The prices commanded by the volumes in Mr Mitchell’s Rare Books Department when compared with what was being paid in the basement for secondhand review copies of modern novels makes it clear that it is the specific artefact that is valued, not the story that it contains.  Central to the narrative is the possible discovery of a lost work by Herman Melville, a work which had been rejected by his publisher. The price offered for this would pay for my new flat several time over and yet presumably the story itself wasn’t particularly good.  It is the manuscript’s rarity value that attracts attention; that and the fact that the buyer wishes to keep the book completely to himself.

Exclusivity of ownership in relation to pirated ebooks is just one of the themes that we tackled on Friday when we discussed our third novel, Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.  I expected that some of the group would be challenged by this book and indeed one or two had found the discussion of Google and the internet difficult to follow, however, it was actually more popular than I had anticipated. Again, we thought that for coherence sake a stronger editorial hand would have been beneficial but it certainly brought our discussion as to what it is about a book that we value into very sharp focus.  For me this novel reinforces something that I realised earlier this year.  A book is the means by which a story is transmitted to a reader, and while I can appreciate a book as a beautiful artefact it is the story that it contains that actually matters to me.  It is the words on the page, however those words and the page are created.  When I realised my move meant that I was going to have to pass eighty percent of my books on to charity shops, my criterion was simple.  If I could get a replacement copy as an ebook then the hard copy could go.

All in all, then, an excellent week of discussion. And already I’ve started to turn my mind towards next year’s topics. With so many current examples, I rather fancy a week discussing novels that are modern day retelling of Homer.  Now there’s a collection of stories that over the centuries have been transmitted in all sorts of different ways.  Any suggestions as to what I might include?

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13 thoughts on “Summer School Review

  1. A Life in Books August 19, 2018 / 5:17 pm

    I’m in complete agreement about books as artefacts v. words on the page. I can admire a beautiful book but am not tempted to buy it on aesthetic grounds if I already have a perfectly serviceable plain copy which no doubt saves me a great deal of money!

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    • Café Society August 20, 2018 / 1:24 pm

      I once came across my ex-boss paying almost a thousand pounds for a book that he could have bought in a serviceable copy for £10. His first words were, “don’t tell my wife”.

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  2. BookerTalk August 19, 2018 / 5:42 pm

    By coincidence the question of valuing a book by appearance came up yesterday when I opened my latest mailing from a book subscription service. The book was an old Penguin edition of Brideshead Revisited. Now I already have a copy of this (from the late 1980s) but when my husband and I compared the two, there was no question that it was the Penguin we wanted to keep. The fact it had no picture on the cover made it more enticing…

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    • Café Society August 20, 2018 / 1:26 pm

      But you will read it, won’t you? It is the people who buy a book just to say they own it, or even to stop other people having access to it, that leave me speechless.

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      • BookerTalk August 23, 2018 / 10:09 am

        Oh yes definitely I will re-read Brideshead. One of the few books about which I can say that thes days. I’ve not come across too many people who buy books as ornaments though if you look at any kind of magazine articles about home decorating they seem to suggest doing that

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  3. Elle August 19, 2018 / 7:59 pm

    Ideas for Homer retellings (you may well have thought of these already, but anyway): The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller; House of Names by Colm Toibin; Circe, again by Madeline Miller; Pat Barker’s new novel The Silence of the Girls. More general retellings of Greek myth are Bright Air Black by David Vann and Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie. Mary Renault’s Fire From Heaven is an excellent historical novel about the adolescence of Alexander the Great, which, although neither Homeric nor mythical, might make for an interesting counterweight.

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    • Café Society August 20, 2018 / 1:30 pm

      It was the Miller and the Barker that made me think about it as a possible theme for next year, Elle. I’m doing Home Fire next month with a group that contains a number of the Summer School members. It is particularly apposite for us as Sajid Javid is out MP. Mary Renault is an interesting thought though. I suspect many of the people who come to the School will have read her in their teens and would welcome a reason to go back and re-visit her work.

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      • Elle August 21, 2018 / 4:15 pm

        She’s an author I’d love to read – particularly appealing because of the nice new Virago paperback design of Fire From Heaven… (Also, did I mention Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under? I can’t go back and read my earlier comment. Anyway, that’s also a mythological retelling and it’s rather fantastic.)

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  4. Laila@BigReadingLife August 20, 2018 / 5:01 pm

    I’m glad your session was so fruitful! I can’t think why I’ve never read anything by Penelope Fitzgerald, but I think I should remedy that.

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    • Café Society August 20, 2018 / 5:16 pm

      I would start with Offshore, Laila. It was written immediately after The Bookshop and won the Booker. Again, it is based on her own life.

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  5. Liz August 21, 2018 / 4:41 pm

    It’s great to hear that this year’s summer school was such a success on so many levels. And such fascinating follow-up comments too! I am already looking forward to seeing how your plans develop for next year – the Homer re-tells sounds like a brilliant idea. I only wish I was near enough to join in! 🙂

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