Thursday, July 26, 2007

On Reading and Commuting

An Seoigeach á léamh ag Marilyn álainnThere’s a lovely article by MJ Iles in this morning’s Guardian about reading and commuting. One of the many scandals about the current Celtic tiger inspired rapine of Galway, that one-time Emerald City, is that the only possible way to commute to work is to drive. This means that the only thing one has to distract the mind from the stresses inherent in driving is the radio, either the continually depressing news and worse, weather, on Morning Ireland, or else the unspeakable aural sewage on the quickly sinking ship that was once Fabulous 2FM. The horror, the horror.

Miserable and all as Dubbalin may be, at least you can read your book while on the DART or the bus. You might in material reality be sharing a perch on the 46A with some highly tattooed and malodorous recidivist habitual offender on day release from that Big House opposite the Mater, but your soul is in a hunting lodge in the forests of Ruritania, looking honest Colonel Zapt and noble Captain von Tarlenheim in the eye and saying dash it all, I’ll do it! How much more stimulating than listening to cretin calling to cretin, giving great shout-outs to all the gang that echo indeterminably through the ages in the barren and sterile chasms between their ears? Very much more stimulating, I’m sure.

But what book to choose? MJ Iles suggests a heuristic that matches the length of book with the length of commute, but An Spailpín contends this to be a dangerous and limiting strategy. It all depends on your ability to switch your imagination on and off – to move, in one swift moment, from the Ruritinian forest to the act of removing your companion’s hand from your pocket, politely remarking “my stop, I think” before strolling into work, and then being able to return to that Ruritanian forest after eight hours’ graft in the name of Mammon and mortgage. Once you’ve mastered this technique, 2000 years of literature is yours to peruse. Happy days.

It is An Spailpín’s contention that the question of title and size are of far more import than the question of length. That book in your fist is as a calling card that will announce to all the world just who you are and what you stand for. For instance, as the DART pulls into the station and you eye the crowd for the best position to adopt in order to lead the charge on board, may I suggest that you position yourself next to such commuters as are clutching Dan Brown novels in their hands? Their choice of literature indicates that these will not be the quickest out of the traps when the train disgorges its commuters, and you will be able to quickly board while their brains, such as they are, are desperately trying to get word to the feet that now, now is the hour.

Of course, in order to be well read, you too will need to slum it a little while, or else simply relax and enjoy a book off after a hard week’s labour figuring out just what happened to the Austro-Hungarian empire. An Spailpín makes no apologies for his taste for the impossible pulp of Ian Fleming and Peter O’Donnell (and how odd it is to see Fleming in Penguin Classics!), but I can certainly understand that discretion may be the best option when going on capers with Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin. I don’t Harry Potter myself, but I have no problem with those that do, after reading Victoria Coren’s lovely little piece in the Guardian recently. We all need a break every now and again. However, while you hunch over your ripe copy of The Silver Mistress, it’s hard to resist the impulse to behave contrarywise, holding your copy of The Master and Margarita proudly above your head, to show just what a literate and cool kitty you are. A pretty lady complimented your correspondent on his choosing of Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music on the 15B into Rathmines once; it remains a life highlight. The book is ok too (although roundly despised by a friend of mine who would know more of that strange world than I).

Of course, of even greater practical consideration than the title – slumming with Peter O’Donnell or high-living with F Scott Fitzgerald – is the question of the size of the book. It has long been a point of distress with this constant reader that paperback books, designed to be small, are now so damned big. The ideal commuting book is the size of one of the old orange Penguins from the forties, that can discretely be slipped into the jacket pocket once the bus has stopped, and withdrawn again on the journey home. This works less well with the modern paperback, whith in size seems so reminiscent of the old quarto sizes, only not as prettily bound, of course. This has been such a source of distress to An Spailpín that, in my civilian capacity, I once wrote to Faber and Faber to ask them why they printed their paperbacks so damned big. I got a long and lovely email back from someone in the company explaining that the large paperback size is essentially a compromise between the hardback size without the extra bulk of the hard covers, and the cheaper cost of producing the paperback. To my eternal shame I never replied to that kind man who took the time to write to me – I hope that, if through some process of synchronicity, he reads this blog, he can accept my apology for my unforgivable rudeness.

The final, and perhaps final, argument in favour of the paperback of classic dimensions is that it is so much easier to sneak into the office bathroom when one is considering a longer stay than the straightforward splash and go. In an office populated entirely by gentlemen, to proudly march away with the morning’s Irish Times under the oxter doesn’t cost a thought, but one can’t help but think such a display creates the wrong impression among the discrete sex. In an office where your correspondent once turned a shilling there was a roomy cupboard in the thunder room, a cupboard into which I could and did discretely stash a slim volume of Tennyson – the Dover Thrift Edition, you know. Marvellous, and only two clams. Sadly, An Spailpín has moved up in world, and the new office is more like something out of Gattaca, leaving no place for my Lord Tennyson, his lotus eaters or the six hundred. And they call this progress?

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