Thursday, February 23, 2012

Travel Log - What is Happiness


"TELL ME, WHAT IS HAPPINESS?" - Iain M. Banks Use of Weapons (prologue)

On the road, I usually stop in a bookstore if there is one around. So many books. The bargain books are usually entertaining in and of themselves, leaving you wondering what prompted some people to pen such thoughts to paper. I could think of a few titles for books that would instantly be in the bargain bin (and you can probably add a few titles of your own).

Living Life Bacon Free!
Harry Potter Meets the Groovy Ghoulies
My Little Ponies - Financial Freedom through Track Bets
The Kardashian Guide to Quantum Mechanics
Bouncing Betty and the Bucket of Moonshine - A Nancy Drew Mystery
Get Off My Leg!! - A Beginners Guide to Dog Training


But good books, have been part of my life since early childhood. For my long time readers, I've written before of my love for books and why. I was lucky to have two parents who exposed us to books and music and the outdoors. Learning and discovery were elemental to them and reading and words became a quiet necessity of my life. Charlotte's Web, The Wind in the Willows, A Child's Garden of Verse, and my all time favorite, Grimm's Fairy Tales.

Books were my portal to comfort, during those inevitable awkward moments of growing up, a way of immersing myself in the world of an author. As a child, books helped me grow, stretching my mind even further. And through books and written words came friendships. I'd talk about what I read with my classmates, telling snippets of stories and passing around dog eared copies of Asimov and Heinlein and Niven and Herbert. We'd gather over our lunches, laughing about a recent share, Philip Dicks -Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. We'd sit until a teacher made us go back to class, voices raised in excitement for the vast reaches out there, limitless possibilities that, on the cusp of adulthood, we believe existed.


With that, the world opened up to me. I started recording it, in small notebooks of paper, ink drawings, loose photos, added onto their pages, a scrapbook of my life, recorded for eternity with nothing more than an old Mont Blanc pen and a camera.

Words dazzle and deceive because they are mimed by the face. But black words on a white page are the soul laid bare. Guy de Maupassant

"Soul laid bare." The sense of vulnerability in those three words is beyond reach. From these recorded pages have come my own story, tales of the possibilities of life, my soul laid out for many of you to read. Opening up something within me that made some of you take your own pen and craft your own story. I believe in the magic hidden in people and things, and these notebooks, these words bring them out into the light.

But writing, as in reading, for me is not just intellectual but embracive. I love the way the spine of a book or notebook feels in the crook of my fingers. The book an aesthetic charm of endless possibilities. The smooth, hard end boards snug on either side of the pages sewn together, their edges flush and perfect. The smell of ink, the texture of a page as my fingers gently turns it. Between 1850 and the late 1980s, books were printed on acidic paper. Conservators can't keep up with the costly restoration. Soon, millions of books in thousands of libraries the world over will be lost when their pages disintegrate into dust. Already I mourn for the loss of something that we have no control over, that of the written word.

I love blank notebooks. To me, it's hard to think of anything that represents the clean slate of opportunities more than a pristine, empty notebook. Smythson’s of Bond Street has bound ones with thin, blue, delicate paper that looks like the air mail paper my parents wrote to one another on during the War. The paper is so thin, the ink bleeds through, yet with the ink comes pleasure. The smell of the ink as well as the as the scent of paper itself, is need as defined as the capturing of a personal experience. Experiences in danger of being lost in an errant click of a mouse. In today's evolution of the tools of our expression, we've lost the very things we can hold on to. Things that can still gather dust and be passed on, to a child, to a lover, to history. So I particularly like the Smythson's ones, the way my handwriting looks on the thin paper, words scrolled from a fountain pen, dense with weight, meaning something, to me anyway, even if two hundred years from now, the paper, and the one I wrote the words for, are only dust and starlight.

Tonight I sit alone and quiet, my closest friend far away, Barkley asleep on the couch at home. I have a book, Iain M. Banks Use of Weapons. Once again, Banks takes us to The Culture, his galaxy-spanning civilization of humans, computer Minds, asteroid-sized Ships (some of the names he picks for his ships are worth the read in and of themselves) and annihilating weapons. Ah yes, weapons. Written in interwoven chapters, it is made up of two alternating narrative streams - one indicated by Arabic numerals and the other by Roman ones.

The stories are one of The Culture and one of a world not yet contacted by The Culture. The pre-contact world is the home of four children, a brother, two sisters and another boy, hidden from others. Of the two stories, one moves forward chronologically, while the other moves in the opposite direction; yet both are about the central, tragic character, Cheradinine Zakalwe. Zakalwe is a rogue, a military genius, an assassin, a sad case and an utterly sympathetic character all at the same time. A mercenary shaped by his experiences as the perfect soldier, he's taken, refined and utilised by the supposedly benign and pacific Culture for their nastier dirty tricks operations. The moral ambiguity and ethical contradictions of this are not lost on Zakalwe himself or on his Culture handler, the "Special Circumstances" operative Diziet Sma.

Gloriously grotesque, sharply observed, bleakly satirical and written with a revelation so perfect that you will only ask yourself how you didn't see it sooner. Anything, Banks is telling us, anything at all can be a weapon, and the failure of restraint in the use of weapons dooms us all. It's not the easiest book to get your mind around, some minds will find the interwoven stories confusing (but if you are reading this blog, you are not likely to be one of those). I can promise you this, after reading it you will never look at a small chair, especially a small chair painted white, in quite the same way.


I don't read a lot of "popular" fiction. I would rather be nibbled to death by ducks than read a Jackie Collins novel. I tend to read a lot of non fiction, of history. I like reading about long ago. I know more about my own life when I know more about the past. It's a sense of perspective; of days full of people that killed, tortured, struggled and suffered, agonizing for things that were of the utmost importance to them; working and living for reasons that may be well the same as ours. Now they've been gone some 500 years and all that is left to us is the essence and quintessence of their lives. To me history is more than a story, more than a book, it's the life, the heart and soul of ages long ago. It's the ultimate myth and inevitably ambiguous, but I do believe, like Lord Bolingbroke said, "History is philosophy teaching by example and also by warning." History not read is like ammo not used, someone once said, and without reading, for myself at least, the past is silence and the future is haze.


So for these many reasons, I hate being stuck somewhere with no book, no notebook or a laptop in which to record my thoughts Let the weather play God with my itinerary, let them send me to Elbonia. I've been stuck in places where my luggage did not arrive at the same time I did, and the only written word I could find in English was a ferry schedule for the River Styx. I don't care where I am, I simply need something to read and something to write in. Words in reserve, a buttress against the whims and dubiety of travel, of growing up, of life itself.

I intended to read tonight, but there is a new little notebook in my suitcase, I removed the film cover, the crackling sound awakened something in me. I stroked the oilskin cover for the first time, my future turning before me as I snapped open the elastic band to flip through the pristine pages, dreams waiting to burst out onto them. The pages were too perfect, it's almost hard to make the first mark upon the clean, fresh landscape. But then, with the thought of a face, of a hand at the small of my back, I began; splaying the words on lasting paper before they are lost in the ether. Words that are bequeathed to the page before they were forgotten, words that though not spoken, will take a corporeal shape in my heart whenever I close my eyes, even as they themselves, slumber between the closed cover that is their hiding place. - Brigid