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Workbooks & Textual Pleasures

An enigmatic header tonight, with a somewhat retro nod to Barthes, for a post prompted by a recent request from the excellent Brittle Star magazine to keep a ‘reader’s diary’ during the month of May 2010, for publication in a forthcoming issue. It’s been fascinating to read previous diaries in the series by Anna Robinson and Fawzia Muradali Kane, and my own log of a selection of books read during those 30 days – some rather less notable in literary terms than others – will appear in issue 26 later this summer.

Writing it, after having at least half-scrupulously kept track on my own reading for a month, was an interesting process, and revealed certain truths about my approach to books in general that may or may not be typical. The first observation was that the full list I consulted on May 31 needed drastic editing, simply to create a manageable sample that could be discussed in around 1500 words. This was done by cutting books bought but only skimmed, odd chapters, single stories and poems…then trimmed again by excluding everything read for work purposes.

I won’t go into the detail of the diary (you’ll have to buy a copy of Brittle Star for that, and buying a copy or subscribing is highly recommended regardless) but something struck me quite forcefully about that vast chunk of reading defined as being for work rather than personal pleasure: I realised that since my work involves a constant stream of reading – submissions, review copies, or new books – it’s simply impossible to separate my personal reading of new writing from the context of editing Staple.

With every new voice a potential future contributor, feature or review (or at the very least a benchmark of where we might fit into the current literary landscape: does this spate of books by new authors suggest we’re converging with or diverging from the key currents of poetry in our time, or just bobbing along as we’ve always done, only occasionally troubling the mainstream with awareness of our existence?) even those books I’ve gone out and paid my own money for precisely because I wanted to read them (and there are many of those) seem to be drawn into the gravitational field of editing the magazine.

So it’s not to say that new writing isn’t still read with great personal pleasure, only that it’s now rarely the ‘pure’ pleasure of reading for its own sake, a pleasure that now seems restricted to the old books I find secondhand. Perhaps the fact that three volumes on The Meat Trade, published by The Gresham Publishing Company in 1935, picked up for a pound at last Saturday’s local market, might have been purchased with an eye to using the descriptions of cattle breeds, abattoir technology and 1930s butchers’ shops for some as yet unknown literary purpose is less significant than the fact that they are of no use whatsoever to the magazine.

Likewise, there’s no doubt that a handful of elegant late sixties volumes by DM Thomas, Edward Kissam and Robert Kelly are all a pleasure to read for their own sakes, with no significance for the future direction or content of the magazine. Except, I realise, I’m already examining the bindings and admiring the typography, paper and design of these old Cape Goliard titles, and wondering how we might learn from it. And these largely forgotten poets, perhaps we might look at them one of these days? A short feature on neglected and little-known figures, that could work quite well…

So there goes the purity of the pleasure, again. But my Grandma always said ‘be careful what you wish for in case it comes true’, and having made a living from the thing I love, the price must be that - for the moment, at least - doing the thing I love sometimes feels like being at work.

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