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

14 comments:

Tango Juliet said...

A good book opens the door to whole new worlds.

Roscoe said...

"The Kardashian Guide to Quantum Mechanics"?

That actually sounds like it would make a cool cult book.

eiaftinfo said...

I still remember the news that the bookmobile was going to start coming to my small (pop. 1200) Michigan town. Green, bus-like and lined with shelves down both sides. I loved the smell - full of possibilities. Half way down the isle, 2 shelves upp from the floor I found my very first book - "Strangers in a Strange Land" by Robert Heinlein. Strange how that particular memory is so vivid.

Now I look at by bed side, shelves upon shelves upon shelves of old friends.

Borepatch said...

"TELL ME, WHAT IS HAPPINESS?"

To crush the Blank Page, see it filled with prose, and hear the lamentations of the Copy Editors.

Err, or something.

God, Gals, Guns, Grub said...

I love my Rite-in-the-Rain notebook for jotting thoughts down... even during a cold mist or drizzle... watching for that elusive buck...

Dann in Ohio

Rev. Paul said...

The magic of words on a page, a story well-crafted by the loving hand(s) of author and editor ... old books, with perhaps a few pages loose from the binding, often-read and loved ... that is a recipe for bliss in any quiet moment.

mikelaforge said...

"Out of the corner of my eye I saw the regimental beastie reappear near one of the palm trees, by the far edge of the pool. Lehman stared at me" Robert B. Parker, Taming a Sea-Horse.

Parker was always laugh-out-loud reading for me. Still is.

Thanks again for writing.

Brigid said...

I wrote about my love for the journals before. I've got a number of them including a couple girly colored moleskins that Roberta X gave me. They collect around the house, and there's always one in my pocket.

Mike - I always loved Robert Parker, his earlier books, perhaps the much. I wasn't a huge fan of the Sunny Randall series but I liked the character he crafted that Tom Selleck played. My favorite I think, Catskill Eagle.

Old NFO said...

Travel safe... and those 'titles' needed a beverage alert! :-)

Jerry said...

One of my favorite gag gifts (every pun intended) is Kathleen Meyer's book, "How To Shit In The Woods" published by Ten Speed Press. Working at a defense contractor, I stuck volumes 1 & 2 in a binder labeled "FM 21-10; Field Hygiene & Sanitation" and stuck it on my shelf. The books are a light hearted look at a serious subject and are a whole lot easier to read than FM 21-10.

"Who knows what lurks on the bookshelves of engineers? The Shadow knows."

immagikman said...

And I thought it was:

Conan! What is best in life?
Conan: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.

Aww Nuts Borepatch beat me to it :P

DirtCrashr said...

BAck in the US I used to order and get books through some grade-school "Scholastic Program" - I remember a particular kid's detective story that involved a purple hearse.
Back in the Heat and Jungle I used to open the Book-Hatch and drop through to escape. Straight-out of whatever painfully hot and uncomfortable reality existed, from a noisy, filthy-dirty, clattery train, taxi or Jeep. Reading Biggles or MAD or anything with letter and words, ravenously displacing my current temporality - maybe that's what lead me so directly and immediately to Science Fiction, I was already using it...

acairfearann said...

I like the paragraphs on history! You are also all too right on the conservation problem... As an historian by training if not trade, working my way through the primary documents of the past can be an almost overwhelming experience: so many lives, so many passions, and somehow I must convey that passion when I write about them. I usually fail.
The written word, by chance or by fate, can confer immortality in a way no other action can. The old adage about the pen being mightier than the sword is wrong in the immediate physical sense...but who would know of the fate of Troy without Homer?

mikelaforge said...

I don't know if it is the jailbreak scene with Hawk or... "I'm with the three-letter agency" he said. 'You with the Tennessee Valley Authority?" I said. 'Well, damn, I always wanted to meet someone like you. TVA is my favorite."

Have a great weekend.