Originality and self-discovery through reading

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Writers are always told they ought to read more: to learn the rules, to understand the language better, to figure out which stories work and which don’t. As Stephen King notes, you need to “read widely, and constantly work to refine and redefine your own work as you do so.”

Yet is there a greater power literature has that can help improve a writer’s skills? Something that goes beyond a simple ‘monkey see; monkey do’ instruction tool?

German born poet, novelist, and painter Herman Hesse touched upon this power in a 1920 essay simply titled ‘on reading books’. Arguing that reading books helps spark something within our minds that other form of media fail to do, he suggests that the act of reading helps improve our associative thinking that turns the reading material into a springboard for indiscriminate curiosity from which to leap far beyond the particular substance of the particular book. He writes:

At the hour when our imagination and our ability to associate are at their height, we really no longer read what is printed on the paper but swim in a stream of impulses and inspirations that reach us from what we are reading.”

Reading, then, can spark a person’s imagination in such a way that genuinely new and unique ideas can flourish. Just as solitary exercise can stimulate the creative energy required to produce original pieces of work (as we’ve detailed here), reading is important to writing, because it opens channels. It expands our potential and helps us grow – to better understand the world. Our minds are free to linger on thoughts they otherwise would not; in a kind of simulated – but nonetheless stimulating – solitude that helps us better understand who we are, at our very deepest levels, as human beings.

As US President Theodore Roosevelt opined when asked whether he saw there to be any ‘rules’ for the act of reading himself:

“[We] all need more than anything else to know human nature, to know the needs of the human soul; and they will find this nature and these needs set forth as nowhere else by the great imaginative writers, whether of prose or of poetry.”

Intriguingly, though reading is a solitary act, it can make a person feel less alone. As Rebecca Solnit writes in her essay ‘Flight’:

“Like many others who turned into writers, I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there. Writers are solitaries by vocation and necessity. I sometimes think the test is not so much talent, which is not as rare as people think, but purpose or vocation, which manifests in part as the ability to endure a lot of solitude and keep working. Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others.”

If it is true that the most important qualities to be a writer are imaginative ability, intelligence, and focus, reading avidly helps curate and foster these skills. Yet in the process of reading so much, we can step beyond simply doing what we ought to be doing, and discover more about the world; and also ourselves.

 

 

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Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, and a poet

As poetry enjoys somewhat of a renaissance thanks to social media, ever more aspiring writers are using platforms like Twitter to get noticed. With over 100,000 social media followers, Birmingham-based poet Maavi Raja writes about his poetic journey so far.

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When you think about poetry and making something like poetry as a career, or as a full-time passion, money or profit is far from the first thing one thinks about when getting into this field. Poetry begins as a hobby, or a natural inclination to beautify things with something as simple as the words we create, the words we speak, the words we think; manufactured and developed from the feelings we establish.

Of course, there is profit to be made, if you become a best seller. But that’s not what it’s ever been about for me. I developed my love of poetry when I was finishing school – this was 10 years ago and, back then, kids my age saw poetry as soppy and something to be looked down on.  But the last couple of decades have always been about fashion trends and pop culture phenomena. Trying to poke your head up in the classroom and make a case for poetry when everyone is obsessed with the latest celebrity trend, video game, TV show or tech gadget isn’t necessarily the easiest way to make yourself extremely popular.

But, still, poetry was something I loved. To begin with – I read and read whatever poems I could find. Then I started to write my own work – though I didn’t write an original piece until I was 18. For a long time, I tried to hide away what I’d written until my friends discovered them and told me I had a talent. They started asking why I am wasn’t sharing my work and writing with the world. Of course, I had no belief in myself or my capabilities at that point. I never went to college or university, so my level of education was no more than GCSEs.

It’s easy to point at statistics that show that our current social model often leads to inequality – for example, that children from low-income neighbourhoods are far less likely to get a higher education than those from rich areas. But the truth is, as someone so minimally educated, I genuinely never believed I could achieve anything. Yet my friends believed in me and pushed me to make a start and, so, I started to share my work on Twitter.

It was 2012 when I received my first accolade and bit of recognition, and to be quite honest, this was what changed my life completely.

I received celebrity recognition from Kim Kardashian (yes, that Kim Kardashian), who tweeted me and told me she loved my work. This resulted in the building of my own fan base and the accolades just continued to come in, year by year. I received much more celebrity recognition, just recently, from Paris Hilton. It’s a little ironic that the same sort of pop culture trends that were distracting all my classmates from poetry were the ones who helped kick start my poetry career.

In 2016, I was invited to do an interview on BBC radio. I was interviewed about my writing and the purpose of my writing, which is of course, to tend to the younger generation on the experiences I write about. This was prior to my first book “A Poetic Life”.
Now, I’ll admit this book didn’t do well. This was my first attempt and I had no idea what I was doing and the formatting was very poor. This motivated me to improve and do better. The following year, I released “The Heart’s Speech”, which sold over 300 copies with minimal marketing. I’m so thankful for all those readers who bought the book, it’s an incredible feeling to see your hard work connect with other people. This year, 2018, I released “Moonlit Verses” which I like to think is my best work (of course I’d say that, wouldn’t I?). I have no idea how well this will sell; but I can only hope that my work will reach the audience I’m hoping it will.

This year, I’ve also started performing at Poetry Jams organised by the BeatFreeks collective. They host a poetry session on the first Thursday of every month at different venues for a set time. Most recently, it’s being hosted at Waylands Yard.

To be quite honest, I never believed I’d be here today. I sit on 140,000+ followers on Twitter. I have my own author page on Amazon, a verified knowledge panel on google which basically means now, that the internet recognises me and acknowledges me as an established author. I’ve dreamt for something like this for a long time, but I continue to dream and I’ll continue to graft as I always have done and see where my writing will take me in the future.

About the author of this post

Maavi RajaMaavi Raja, 25, is a poet from Birmingham, UK. From the age of 18, Maavi has been writing and sharing his works with the social media world. Inspired and influenced by personal and external experiences, Maavi wants to contribute to the world in his own way. Now author of 3 books, Maavi has amassed over 100,000 followers on Twitter, alongside celebrity recognition and various accolades. Maavi’s dreams have slowly manifested piece by piece and continues to hope they do as he continues to write.

How poetry can make you rich

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The treasure chest? Photo courtesy of Forrest Fenn

If more people knew that poetry could make you rich, perhaps there would be fewer bankers and oil tycoons trying to destroy the planet. Yet this is a secret not often spoken: that you really can make your fortune through poetry (well, specifically, one poem).

It all begins with a treasure chest – as so many good stories do – and an ageing octogenarian with a lust for adventure, and literature.

In the late 1980s, Forrest Fenn, a billionaire art dealer, was told he had terminal cancer. Deciding to go out with a bang, he sold his art gallery, many of his possessions, and purchased a suite of ancient artefacts, gold coins, and a Romanesque treasure chest dating from 1150 AD. Within this box he placed his treasure, and prepared to walk into the desert, chest in hand, and end it all with a bottle of whiskey and 52 sleeping pills.

But his cancer never returned. In 2010, Fenn decided to go ahead and hide his treasure anyway (just this time without his accompanying dead body).

He struck out into the wilderness and hid the chest, then wrote a cryptic poem that – if deciphered – would act as a map that would lead one intrepid poetry-loving explorer directly to their fortune.

Eight years later – the chest remains resolutely hidden and unfound. While Fenn claims one hunter came within 200 feet of the treasure, the poem has not been fully deciphered.

If you fancy laying your hand upon an estimated £1.9 million treasure made up of gold coins, pre-Columbian gold animal figures, Chinese jade carvings, a 17th-century Spanish ring with an inset emerald, rubies, sapphires and diamonds, all you have to do is crack the poem, which he included in his memoir ‘The Thrill of the Chase’.

To save you time, we’ve copied the poem out for you here below in its entirety:

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As I have gone alone in there

And with my treasures bold,

I can keep my secret where,

And hint of riches new and old.

 

Begin it where warm waters halt

And take it in the canyon down,

Not far, but too far to walk.

Put in below the home of Brown.

 

From there it’s no place for the meek,

The end is ever drawing nigh;

There’ll be no paddle up your creek,

Just heavy loads and water high.

 

If you’ve been wise and found the blaze,

Look quickly down, your quest to cease,

But tarry scant with marvel gaze,

Just take the chest and go in peace.

 

So why is it that I must go

And leave my trove for all to seek?

The answers I already know,

I’ve done it tired, and now I’m weak.

 

So hear me all and listen good,

Your effort will be worth the cold.

If you are brave and in the wood

I give you title to the gold.

Seems easy, right? Well, before you embark on your epic adventure, be warned: six treasure hunters have already died in their respective quests for Fenn’s chest. Some have drowned, others have fallen down cliff faces and sheer drops.

When pushed on this matter, Fenn insists the treasure is not in a dangerous or inaccessible place – and suggests people seek the treasure in the warmer months, when the terrain is less hazardous.

Some treasure hunters have branded the entire exercise “nonsense” or “a hoax” – yet Fenn remains unmoved. He claims the chest is in the Rocky Mountains, north of Santa Fe and around 5,000 ft above sea level. Of people who have gone missing or headed out into the desert, he says they have simply misinterpreted his poem:

“If your solve is in the desert. Get a new solve.”

What is perhaps most interesting about this entire endeavor is not that thousands of people worldwide have struck out in the hope of finding buried treasure – but that even more have attempted to decipher and engage with a simple 24-line poem.

Over the years, Fenn’s poem has inspired Talmudic interpretation. One Searcher on the website Fenn Clues posits that, based on the first line, “We are almost surely looking for a location that satisfies ‘alone.’ So, a Solitary Geyser or a Lone Indian Peak would fit the bill.” Other determinations are more arcane. Some ‘searchers’ – as those who have set out to find the treasure refer to themselves – insist the “blaze” in the 13th line refers to a turtle-shaped tattoo on the chest of a character in Marvel’s illustrated version of the 1826 novel The Last of the Mohicans.

If only Alfred Lord Tennyson and Sylvia Plath had hidden more chests of ancient treasure – perhaps every English teacher’s job would have been made that much easier.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Will Eaves makes Goldsmith Prize shortlist for second time

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Will Eaves makes the shortlist of the Goldsmith Prize for the second time.

The Goldsmith Prize – the literary award for “fiction at its most novel” – has nominated the author for the second time for his acclaimed novel Murmur, inspired by the real-life tragedy of Alan Turing.

Published by CB Editions – an exemplar of quality in independent publishing – Murmur follows The Absent Therapist as the second of Eaves’s books to be nominated for the prize.

It should perhaps come as little surprise to see Eaves on the shortlist once again. His work has repeatedly pushed the boundaries of modern literary writing, with Murmur, in particular, a real treat. As Nothing in the Rulebook’s own Professor Wu wrote:

“For all that the writing is excellent (as we have come to expect with Will Eaves); and for all that the book grapples with a veritable menagerie of ‘worthy’ ideas (there are so many more we could have discussed at length in this review); and for all that it provides another worthy voice to consider in the ongoing conversations surrounding artificial intelligence – none of these are really what the book is ‘all about’, or what readers should take away as being the most important aspect of Murmur. Because ultimately, what it all comes down to is that this is a novel about love. And it is the way in which Eaves presents this most human of emotions, that really makes this novel truly intelligent.”

The Goldsmith Prize was co-founded by Goldsmiths and the New Statesman in 2013 to reward “fiction that breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. In its four years it has launched new literary stars – Eimear McBride, who won the first prize – and changed the debate around what readers and publishers look for in a novel. Ali Smith has credited the prize with altering the publishing landscape: “The change it’s made is that publishers, who never take risks in anything, are taking risks on works which are much more experimental than they would’ve two years ago,” she told the Bookseller in 2015. “That, to me, is like a miracle.”

At a time when mainstream publishing so often seems concerned with publishing novels that are little more than copies of previously commercially successful novels, literary awards like the Goldsmith Prize are vital in supporting and promoting the work of new and adventurous writers.

Eaves has been joined by five other excellent authors, each with searingly original books of their own that very much hold the potential to reshape the way we approach the construction of novels.

Indeed, as Professor Adam Mars-Jones notes: “the 2018 shortlist offers a tasting menu of all that is fresh and inventive in contemporary British and Irish fiction. There’s poetic language here, not all of it in the verse novel selected, Robin Robertson’s The Long Take.  There’s the language of the streets, fighting to be heard, in Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City and the language of an overmediated world in Olivia Laing’s Twitter-fed Crudo. There’s a cool survey of the unbalanced present in Rachel Cusk’s hypnotic Kudos, while the deceptively quiet unspooling of Gabriel Josipovici’s The Cemetery in Barnes shows the powerful effects that can be achieved without ever raising your voice.’

The full list of shortlisted books is below:

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Rachel Cusk – Kudos

Will Eaves – Murmur

Guy Gunaratne – In Our Mad and Furious City

Gabriel Josipovici – The Cemetery in Barnes 

Olivia Laing – Crudo

Robin Robertson – The Long Take

The winner of the award will be announced on 14 November. More information on the award can be found online.

Check out Nothing in the Rulebook’s interview with Will Eaves here. 

Crime and punishment: rehabilitation through reading

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“In your cell reading, it’s like meditation. You can shut off the rest of the world, your problems, and just focus.” – Anonymous prisoner, HMP Pentonville, UK.

3 years ago, the UK High Court overturned a Conservative government-imposed ban on books inside prisons. Campaigners argued that books were an integral part of the rehabilitation process for prisoners, and a number of charities, notably The Reading Agency and Books to Prisoners have long championed literature as a tool of redemption and education.

Let’s explore this in more detail.

Transformation and metamorphosis

Books that seem to be popular among many prisoners are those that hold pertinent messages of transformation, like Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts. These stories seem to help inmates craft a new identity for themselves – convincing them of the possibility of not only surviving but even thriving within the tough environment of prison.

And, with an estimated 50% of UK prisoners unable to read or write, the ability to access books, or participate in reading groups, provides not just motivation; but other practical skills, too.

Rod Clark, Chief Executive of Prisoners’ Education Trust, explains: “a seemingly simple book can be incredibly valuable to someone serving a prison sentence – from teaching him or her to read, to developing a love of learning, to feeling empathy for characters to encouraging people to tell their own stories”.

A great escape

An age-old, oft-made joke is that you can escape prison by reading a book. But it’s not simple escapism that literature offers those serving hard time; but something far more important – hope. For prisoners who are able to access and engage with literature – at whatever level, freedom doesn’t have to begin for them when their cell doors are opened and they are finally allowed to walk back out onto the streets in some distant future. It can begin immediately – whenever they open up the pages of a book.

This isn’t simple idealism. Rather, it is based on hard evidence that reading can dramatically improve the lives of prisoners. In the Critical Survey, ‘Reading for Life’: Prison Reading Groups in Practice and Theory, research concluded that another vital benefit of providing prisoners with books to read was that it helped alleviate feelings of depression. The author of the survey, Josie Billington, explains:

“A rich, varied, non-prescriptive diet of serious literature […] proved especially important in encouraging participants to engage in discussion and address their depression directly.”

The survey found that, not only were inmates starting to claim direct benefits of feeling happier, more content as a result of the literature they were reading; but that they were becoming more self-aware as a result of reading it. The authors note that there was “a significant proportion” of prisoners who found that, by engaging with specific set texts, they were able to rediscover old or forgotten, suppressed or inaccessible modes of thought, feeling and experience.

That prisoners, then, are often drawn to books about transformation may not be so surprising. For through their engagement with literature, many are undergoing a personal metamorphosis of their own.

As Wolfgang Iser recognised long ago, literature has the power to change and restore. This is because when you read a story, you can find yourself temporarily transported from bad, anxious, troubling or unhappy thoughts because of your absorption in a story. In this way, the relationship between a reader and a fictional work is different from that between an observer and an object – it is different from that between a viewer and a television set, also. It is an active relationship that requires the reader to possess a moving viewpoint which travels along inside that which it has to apprehend. Readers have to create worlds and characters for themselves, partly through their imagination, and partly guided by the author of any given text.

This is why readers become “caught up in the very thing they are producing,” as Henry James put it, which means “they have the illusion of having lived another life.”

Real rehabilitation

This is a powerful reaction to produce in a human being – and one that helps readers discover new awareness of empathy for others. When readers empathise with people in books, they are mimicking the same empathy they would feel for people in similar situations in real life. For prisoners who have often struggled with notions of the impact their actions have on others, this is a critical part of their rehabilitation.

Again, this proposition is based on hard evidence. In 2014, the UK Ministry of Justice produced a report that indicated prison inmates who had access to educational courses that focused heavily on literature and reading were 8% less likely to reoffend than those who did not have access to such courses.

Freedom through literature

What all this seems to come down to is the way prison, in its current form, is designed not only to keep inmates physically confined; but mentally restricted, too. Yet by closing down the thoughts of prisoners, you restrict the opportunity for their minds to perceive of the world as a land of opportunity and freedom; and instead only as a place of narrow paths that likely follow the same routes that ultimately lead back to prison.

Literature – and access to it – changes such a worldview. Reading helps support the inquisitive mind of the individual human to discover new ways of looking at the world. As John Steinbeck wrote:

“The free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected.”

So, let’s make the case to help prisoners free their minds through books; let’s make this the moment when prison libraries are given due attention, improved where necessary, made much more accessible for all prisoners and put at the heart of a learning culture in prisons. Through prison libraries and reading groups, it might be possible to create an oasis of sanity and a door to a new world.

 

 

 

 

Promoting a Book as a Disabled Writer – My Precarious Year, by Peter Raynard

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Peter Raynard’s debut poetry collection ‘Precarious’, is published by Smokestack Books

In a hotel room on a bright August Monday morning this year in Cork, I am near to tears. My wife and I are packing our bags – she to go home to England, me to stay in Ireland and do two readings as part of a poetry exchange programme between Cork and my home town of Coventry. We had a lovely weekend away, eating nice food, and taking in the sites, which included the Pride festival on Sunday. I was exhausted. But I was exhausted before we came away. I felt depressed. But I felt depressed before we came away. I was very anxious, but I was…. Such emotions come in waves, sometimes as a result of events like these, other times just simmering away – they rarely leave me.

Having a book published is an incredible feeling; full of excitement, joy, and fear. Precarious is my debut poetry collection, and so one reason fear raises its hydra head, is the dread that my work is no good. That my publisher was wrong believing in me, and the readers will find that out. Being working class and having never written a creative word until my early 30s, I still have to pinch myself when I say that I am a writer but ‘imposter syndrome’ persists. Luckily, those who have read my book, have really liked it – poetry and non-poetry readers alike. One of the greatest feelings is knowing that my friends, and their friends, have enjoyed it; one even took the book into work and read my poems from the factory floor.

I have poly-endocrine disorder, which means my adrenal, thyroid, and pituitary glands either don’t work at all, or only drip feed me vital hormones when they should be giving me a steady flow. Essentially, I have no fight or flight to life’s stresses, and a weird metabolism (fast, fast, slow, slow, slow, slow, st…). When I am at home, doing the day job of domestic care (a.k.a. househusband), and writing – whether it be features for my blog Proletarian Poetry, or editing another poet’s work, I am better able to manage it, even though it regularly involves retreating to my bed.

Although a publisher helps with the selling of your book, most writers know they have to get out there to promote it, and this is where the problems started for me. Thus far this year I have read in London (three times), Cheltenham, Oxford, Newcastle, Huddersfield, Ledbury, Bristol, Hay-on-Wye and Derby, with Swindon, Merthyr Tydfill and Coventry to come. I love reading to audiences. I have always enjoyed being in front of people. In my previous job, working for a charity as an organizational development consultant, I spoke in front of people from the World Bank, to small community centres in North England, to a group of fishermen on a beach in the Philippines. Before each front-facing event, I would be sick with worry (I would be sick before playing competitive sports at school). But it was not a sickness brought on by a lack of confidence, or that something would go wrong, it just felt, and still feels like a natural reaction to presenting myself and my ideas or poetry in front of strangers – albeit strangers who are nearly always lovely people.

“You deal with depression in a solitary way. You withdraw from people, social media, the news.”

My readings in Cork went well. I was very well looked after by Paul Casey from the legendary O’Bheal and my poetry partner Jane Commane. It was a great experience, meeting lots of new people, talking poetry, mental health and politics. I felt so at home in an ‘Irish’ setting, one I had grown up with in my part of Coventry (known as ‘County’ Coundon). On my return, I was unwell for about two weeks. This came in the form of bed-ridden exhaustion, anxiety, physical pain, depression, and nausea.

This has been a year of extremes. Like sliding into a warm pool with bubbling water, only to be hauled out naked by the throat and thrown into the rain lashed sea. Trying to swim back to shore involves a whirligig of thoughts; each interaction or conversation with another person is gone over endless times – did I listen to the person enough? Was I arrogant, self-centred, unempathetic? So, when meeting lots of people, or having a number of things to do, the swirl of thoughts is overwhelming. I read on that Internet somewhere that people aren’t programmed to interact with hundreds of people in one sitting.

You deal with depression in a solitary way. You withdraw from people, social media, the news. If you can, you seek help – GPs, CBT practitioners, therapists. Measures of improvement are tested by dipping a toe back in. Lurk on social media without comment. Lightly pick over benign news items, or seek out intellectual solace through books and podcasts (I listen to episodes of In Our Time and This American Life). You may then go to another person’s reading. Passing these tests, you start to re-engage.

This is a dangerous time for those recovering from depression. It has been likened to ripping off a scab, you retreat to tend to an open wound, one you knew wasn’t going to go away altogether, but hoped it wasn’t going to be as painful as before.

About two years ago, when I was not out in the world very much, I made the positive move to give up hope. My endocrine conditions were not going to be cured, and their effects would have to be managed. I did this having read the poet, Lucia Perillo’s experience of living with Multiple Sclerosis. This quote from her summed up my decision. “Hope is ravenous like the gulls, and we are being eaten alive.” I am lucky that I am not young and won’t have to deal with this for another forty years. I am lucky that I have family and friends, who although don’t really understand what I am going through, are there to support me. Importantly, I don’t need to claim benefits, as my partner works.

I have done much more than I ever thought I would in my life. I have a great set of friends, travelled the world both with work and leisure (often the two combined), got three degrees, written and edited books, married a wonderful person, have two great sons, a niece and two nephews (three if you include my sister’s dog). That must be what matters now. My health can’t cope with high levels of engagement with folk or issues anymore – I really am not up for the fight, in fact the language of fighting in ill-health terms is very damaging. People don’t lose a fight with being ill, they do as they are advised and treated, and look to a positive outcome.

All of this will happen in the next couple of years – a slow withdrawal. And, despite high levels of anxiety, I am really looking forward to the rest of the readings I’ll be doing over the next six months. But I will also look forward to not doing them, and concentrating on writing. Maybe I’ll write a book of fiction. My poetry brother Richard Skinner, Director of Faber Academy, is the master teacher of novel writing, so I may try my hand at that. I just have to make sure it is never published! Now that is something I can control. Sláinte.

About the author of this article

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Peter Raynard is the author of two books of poetry. ‘Precarious’ his debut collection is published by Smokestack Books, and ‘The Combination: a poetic coupling of the Communist Manifesto’ by Culture Matters. He is also the editor of Proletarian Poetry: poems of working class lives – http://www.proletarianpoetry.com

Book review: ‘Mumur’ by Will Eaves

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“I cannot help wondering if the real nature of mind is that it is unencompassable by mind, and whether that Godelian element of wonder – at something we know we have, but cannot enclose – may be the chief criterion of consciousness.” So opines the narrator early on in the latest terrific book from Will Eaves. Startlingly ambitious in its scope and form, Murmur invites us into a world of philosophical mathematics and artificial intelligence. What’s not to love?

Now when it comes to these topics, Eaves has touched upon these areas before – for instance, within The Inevitable Gift Shop. Yet here in Murmur he explores it with an astute intimacy from the perspective of an avatar, Alex Pryor, a character based on the father of artificial intelligence, Alan Turing.

It is not whether or not machines can think that is the main focus here; but rather, a potential inverse of the proposition – whether or not humans think like machines. Murmur is more concerned with the nature of human consciousness, how we come to be – whether we are pre-formed, destined to live pre-determined lives following a set of codes within our basic DNA, or if we are our own programmers (to stick with the computer theme).

As Turing himself argued in his seminal paper, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, when asking the question ‘can machines think?’, it is firstly of critical importance to “begin with definitions of the terms ‘machine’ and ‘think’”. Determining whether or not something possesses artificial intelligence is not based on empirical fact, but rather, decision – the decision of the human beings setting the frames of reference for any AI test (the computer can play chess; can fool a human into believing they are conversing with another human; etc.). That a machine may ‘pass’ such parameters does not necessarily mean they have acquired genuine intelligence. As Noam Chomsky has argued, conversing with a computer shows only that a piece of software can be programmed to breakdown the codes of our language and repurpose them (as it has been told to do so by a human programmer). This is not intelligence; but parroting.

Yet the notion of conversing with a machine opens up linguistic questions and challenges. Numerous pieces of research have shown that language not only shapes our culture – but also shapes and manipulates our personalities. Language programmes us, in that sense. With this in mind – and considering the subject of Eaves’s book – the Turing test, which has for so many years been the gold standard of measuring a machine’s intelligence, becomes even more central to the core of Murmur. By choosing to frequently adopt a conversational style within his writing, the reader must begin to question the formal structure of the novel, and their relationship with both the words on the page, and the characters within it. Are we, as readers, engaged in a Turing test of our own? Asked without directly being asked to assess whether we are in conversation with machine or man; or, more simply, whether we are able to assess for ourselves what does and does not have consciousness? Do characters feel, if their actions and thoughts on a page make us as readers feel? Are books themselves alive, if they contain within them what looks, feels and appears for all intents and purposes to be consciousness?

These questions of course invite further questions. For instance, is it mere coincidence that formally, there are times Murmur’s structure resembles some of the (at first) seemingly disconnected pieces of text – memories, questions, letters, and so on – that might be produced by some of the ‘AI’ writing programmes that have been developed in recent years? Coincidence perhaps; yet the fragmentary nature of the novel certainly asks us to think about the ways our own ‘intelligence’ – or consciousness – is structured.

We like to think of ourselves as straight thinking, coherent and logical beings despite all evidence to the contrary. There is no clearer feature of the mind than its willingness to construct wholes out of fragmentary parts. Our memories inevitably have gaps within them. Our focus can so easily be lost to distraction. Thoughts and memories pop up seemingly at random. A innocuous smell or sense of touch can make us involuntarily recall feelings and thoughts both good and bad; as well as those we have suppressed.

Life and consciousness are not logical (though they can of course be assessed and reviewed with logic). And this is one of the many things that Murmur does so well – it is, by its very nature, both an accurate representation of consciousness and human experience, as well as a thorough, logical analysis of these things. Through Alex Pryor, Eaves has developed a protagonist through which we may see these inherently complex ideas more simply.

This would be a triumph in itself; yet Eaves goes further – creating characters that are not simply tools through which we may explore high-level concepts, but through whom we empathise with, laugh with, and love with.

Perhaps this last part is the most important (as it so often is with a good novel). For all that the writing is excellent (as we have come to expect with Will Eaves); and for all that the book grapples with a veritable menagerie of ‘worthy’ ideas (there are so many more we could have discussed at length in this review); and for all that it provides another worthy voice to consider in the ongoing conversations surrounding artificial intelligence – none of these are really what the book is ‘all about’, or what readers should take away as being the most important aspect of Murmur. Because ultimately, what it all comes down to is that this is a novel about love. And it is the way in which Eaves presents this most human of emotions, that really makes this novel truly intelligent.

Book review: ‘Smile of the Wolf’ by Tim Leach

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Is it ironic that one of the hottest books during the warmest British summer for 40 years seems to have been written to chill you to the bone? Set in the frozen snowscapes of 10th century Iceland, Tim Leach’s Smile of the Wolf does just that – but it’s not just the harsh winters and blizzards the characters in this excellent novel must contend with that will send shivers up your spine.

This is Leach’s third novel – yet the confidence and assuredness with which he writes could deceive you into thinking this is the work of a writer much longer in the tooth. The prose is elegant and beautiful, breath-taking and evocative (matching the sweeping landscapes of the book’s setting).

Yet for all the clear literary skill on show here, what is perhaps most impressive about this book is how current it feels – despite its historical setting. Although there are centuries separating the events in the novel and today, the core themes and actions that take place in the book strike right at the heart of something timeless – calling to something within human nature that is as old as literature and shows little sign of changing. Perhaps distilled most simply into the feud that erupts following the inciting incident of the novel, the moving parts of character loyalties, betrayal, fear, and dividing battle lines drawn between opposing sides, this is a plot that could have taken place at any time or place in history – and certainly wouldn’t seem out of place in, say, the current Conservative cabinet of Brexit Britain (though such a theoretical book may feel a tad colder than frozen Iceland).

Indeed, a charge often levied against works of historical fiction is that, as Hilary Mantel once explained, “authors [of historical fiction] are ducking the tough issues in favour of writing about frocks.” Well, first of all, there are few frocks to be found in Smile of the Wolf (this is far more cloak and dagger) – and secondly, this is not a book that avoids tackling real issues – or paints characters in any false light. Impressively, there are no characters who are without flaws or without redeeming qualities. Those who have earned the name of ‘coward’ show immense generosity and care for others. Those we see as brave and steadfast are also stubborn and paranoid. Leaders fear to step in; making only limited suggestions or offers of help and advice; while even those who are manipulative and cruel show love and ingenuity. In this way, the book presents us with painfully honest and accurate descriptions of human beings in a way precious few novels ever hope to.

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Iceland’s sweeping snowscapes are brought to life in Leach’s Smile of the Wolf

To dwell on the richness of these characters for a moment, none perhaps embody the heart of both the novel and its setting more than the protagonist, Kjaran. An Icelandic skald – or poet – his profession exists to provide the novel with a literary lilt that allows Leach to lift the prose up; yet we must also consider what effect it has on the veracity of the narrative. This is a first person account, after all – and as we all know, writers and artists often have an extremely malleable relationship with, and interpretation of, ‘the truth’. In an interview with Nothing in the Rulebook, Leach himself noted that “writers tell stories to survive” – and we see this in the way Kjaran ‘the landless’ must use his craft in order to ensure he has a warm place to stay during each harsh Icelandic winter. In this way, both Kjaran and Leach can be said to be using their survival instincts, as writers, to create and exist within realities that they create for themselves.

Now, we’ll avoid getting to ‘meta’, here – but suffice to say, this epic tome has more to offer than exciting action, the scents and sounds of battle and killing, the whisper of fear and murder and the howling of storms (though it has all those things, too). This is a book that invites us to see parallels with our own world and our own realities – and encourages to question our allegiances, our loyalties, and – perhaps most importantly – our assumptions.

Smile of the Wolf is published by Head of Zeus.

Purchase a copy of the book on Amazon here https://www.amazon.co.uk/Smile-Wolf-Tim-Leach/dp/1788544102

 

 

Not to be published for 100 years: Man Booker prize winning novelist Han Kang is the latest author to join the Future Library project

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You will have to wait a century before you are able to read Han Kang’s Future Library submission. 

Man Booker prize-winning novelist Han Kang has been named as the fifth writer to contribute to the Future Library project – a 100 year artwork that will see her work unpublished until 2114.

Han Kang joins Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Sjón, and Elif Shafak as the latest writer to contribute to the public artwork, which was first conceived by Scottish artist Katie Paterson.

In an interview with Nothing in the Rulebook, Paterson said there was a familial bond between the authors involved in the project:

“I think there is a thread that connects all the authors together. There is this almost familial bond that we create with them. Like a family tree, and each author follows in the footsteps of the one before and through the annual ceremony we do create a chain of people who are connected through time and through the trees.”

Speaking about Han Kang joining the project, Paterson said:

“Han Kang expands our view of the world. Her stories are disquieting and subversive, exploring violence, cruelty, fleeting life, and the acceptance of human fragility. As 2018’s author, Han Kang makes us confront uncomfortable issues: injustice, pain, mourning and remembering; a shared loss of trust in humankind, alongside the belief in human dignity. She leads us into the very heart of human experience, with writing that is deeply tender, and transformative. I believe her sentiments will be carried through trees, received decades from now, still timeless.”

An entire forest planted to make books

As part of the project, one thousand trees have been planted in Nordmarka, a forest just outside Oslo, which will supply paper for a special anthology of books to be printed in one hundred years’ time. Between now and then, one writer every year will contribute a text, with the writings held in trust, unpublished, until 2114.

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A path through the Nordmarka forest – where the footsteps of authors past, present and future will follow. Photo by  Kristin von Hirsch

Anne Beate Hovind, the curator of the Future Library project, spoke to Nothing in the Rulebook about the ethos behind the artwork:

“Projects like this are so important for our time. Just a couple of generations back, people were thinking this way all the time. You know, you build something or plant a forest, you don’t do it for your sake – you do it for future generations.

We kind of have this fast food thinking and now we have to prepare something for the next generation. I think more people realise the world is a little lost and we need to get back on track.”

“Pray for the fates of both humans and books”

Speaking about joining the project, Han Kang said:

“My first impression of the concept of Future library, was that it was a project about time. It deals with the time scope of one hundred years. In Korea, when a couple gets married, people bless them to live together ‘for one hundred years’. It sounds like almost an eternity.

I can’t survive one hundred years from now, of course. No-one who I love can survive, either. This relentless fact has made me reflect on the essential part of my life. Why do I write? Who am I talking to, when I write? Then I imagined a world, where no-one I love exists any longer. And in that world, the trees in Norway still exist, who I once met when I was alive. The clear gap of the lifespan between humans and trees struck me. This meditation is so strong that it has the power to directly open our eyes to the impermanence of our mortal lives and all the more precious fragility of our lives.

Ultimately, Future Library deals with the fate of paper books. I would like to pray for the fates of both humans and books. May they survive and embrace each other, in and after one hundred years, even though they couldn’t reach eternity…”

Safe storage

All one hundred manuscripts will be held in a specially designed room in the new Oslo Public Library opening in 2020. Intended to be a space of contemplation, this room – designed by the Katie Paterson alongside a team of architects – will be lined with wood from the Nordmarka forest. The authors’ names and titles of their works will be on display, but none of the manuscripts will be available for reading until their publication in one century’s time. No adult living now will ever know what is inside the boxes, other than that they are texts of some kind that will withstand the ravages of time and be  available in the year 2114.

Han Kang will hand over her manuscript in the Norwegian forest on Saturday 25 May 2019, everyone is welcome.

Book review: Ghosting for beginners, by Anna Saunders

Ghosting for beginners

Anna Saunders is haunted by many things: myth, legend, her political concerns, environmental problems and, most engagingly, the ghosts of people she knows, living and dead. This diverse range of ghouls work their way into her fifth and latest poetry collection Ghosting for Beginners.

Haunting can be a tricky theme to pull off, as it’s well-ploughed territory and can lead easily to Gothic melodrama or cliché. However, Saunders avoids this by stretching the theme a long way, using the ongoing theme of ghosts to expose interesting perspectives on other ideas, rather than appearing to write strictly to a gothic or eerie theme. It feels as though the poems emerged organically, united by feeling rather than the need to stick to a particular topic. The book as a whole feels melancholy: the ghost of Saunders’ father emerges gradually over the course of the collection. There is a moving moment in ‘The Ventriloquist Dolls of the Dead’ when Saunders sees a familiar gesture of her father in a stranger. She imagines her father is somehow doing this himself, using the man’s body to reach out, briefly, from beyond the grave: ‘The gestures are identical/and he’s moving as if/he were a dummy/brought out of the box long enough/for your dead dad/to show that even though you can’t see his lips move/he still fancies a chat.’

Brexit, Grenfell and ongoing political turmoil all make appearances in the poetry. In ‘A Murmuration is Seen Above the City’, Saunders imagines the starlings above the city of London as the ghosts of Cabinet Ministers, ‘wishing that in life/they had acted differently/but airborne, and dead, it is too late.’ She doesn’t hold back. Working with an impressive command of language and a rich knowledge of myth and legend, Saunders communicates effectively and efficiently through her poems. There is a touch of Angela Carter about the way she sees people and animals, likes to examine humans through their ghosts. For me, reading Saunders reminded me of studying Carter at school – words like ‘pelage’ and ‘papillae’ had me reaching for a dictionary but, as with Carter, having to stop and take stock to soak in the words on the page didn’t hinder the experience. You’re not supposed to speed through this stuff. The more I read, the more I find some texts are like Magic Eye puzzles. You don’t see it, you don’t see it, you don’t see it and then you see it. And then you have go out and tell everyone, because you’ve done something meaningful.

But there is light in the grief, in the disillusionment. Even at her most political, Saunders has an almost Neil Gaiman-esque twinkle in her eye, bringing characters from myth and legend into our world, having the Angel of Revelation struggle with the bead-curtain hanging at the entrance of the New Age Centre, Jesus spurn the ticket barriers on the London Overground. There’s a fun side to the hauntings – not all ghosts are bad.

The strength of the collection is the portraits of the real people and the glimpses we have of Saunders’ own interiority. In its weaker moments, the poetry spirals into abstraction, tries to do too much – the ideas behind ‘The Ghost Room’ are interesting but rely on sensations too far removed from everyday experience to be profound. We hear the Ghost Room is ‘airy and immaterial as this stanza/but it will occupy your thoughts.’ Far more interesting is the plea of the wife, telling her husband to put on a dark coat so that their neighbours will not mistake him for a ghost and kill him. The poem ‘I said Thomas, There is a Piece of Work About the Ghost’ is based on real events; a man tried for killing a labourer called Thomas that he took for the Hammersmith Ghost. Thomas’ widow had reportedly warned her husband that, in his white overalls, he looked particularly ghostly. Told from the point of view of the wife as she warns her husband, the poem is urgent and moving, tragic yet bizarre. Haunting.

Saunders draws some beautiful portraits in this collection. The pheasant ‘dangling clumsy from string like a plummy yo-yo,’ in ‘Befriending the Butcher’ is startling and real. However, she has a tendency to take poems a beat too far. The lines ‘No longer able to walk, he scored the floor/with wheel chair marks as if ticking items off a list’ would make for a blistering ending, but Saunders goes on to add ‘and the single bar of the fire was a winter sunset;/a thin scarlet line, blazing with its own heat/as it slipped down silently, into the dark.’ Pretty though this image is, I’d stick with the old man, carving his achievements into the ground with the wheel of his chair, to which he is bound forever.

We have the same situation in ‘A Murmuration is Seen Above the City’, returning again to the ghosts of politicians as birds, swirling above Westminster, Saunders ends the poem by saying, ‘We shiver, as we watch them wheel and turn,/Our bones almost through our skin.’ This is haunting; but it would be far eerier if the poem was left to burn at the end of the previous stanza: ‘The sky is bruised with the bloated bodies of/Cabinet Ministers/fat with stolen fruit, they eclipse the sun.’

However, the final stanza of ‘Sowing Seeds’ is perfect. The poem is a meditation on climate change, on Donald Trump’s denial of its existence and the difference we, the little people, can make. Walking with a friend or partner on the beach, Saunders brings the poem to a close with the lines ‘The sea, its salty tongue working/like someone who will not stop speaking,/gets the final word’.

A collection occupied by the idea of what we leave behind, Ghosting for Beginners left me feeling agitated and comforted in equal measure – both aftertastes intended by Saunders I’m sure. The poems are successful in portraying the world and humanity as contradictory; friendly and unforgiving, beautiful and ugly. And who knows what we’ll leave behind.

Ghosting for beginners is available for purchase directly from Indigo Dreams online http://www.indigodreams.co.uk/anna-saunders-gfb/4594255832

About the reviewer

Ellen LavelleEllen Lavelle is a postgraduate student on The University of Warwick Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s currently working on a crime novel, a historical fiction novel and the script for a period drama. She interviews authors for her blog and you can follow her @ellenrlavelleon Twitter.