Category Archives: Books

You disappointed me, Jane. Don’t do it again.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, than a modern woman who fancies herself as intelligent, with a love of history, and a hint of sympathy for romance, must love Pride and Prejudice. I am not here to talk to you about Pride and Prejudice.

I, as the attentive reader might have gleaned, am in possession of two degrees, both focussed wholly or in part on the study of Literature. For a person with an MA in Literature, I am horribly ill-read. I do not love Shakespeare. Actually, I rather love Hamlet, but was put off Antony and Cleopatra as a teenager by the distinctly unattractive portrayal of middle-aged, uncontrolled sexual urges, which rather too closely resembled a situation that was exploding in my own family for comfort. As a student, I read the first half a dozen chapters of Dickens’ Great Expectations, and threw it aside in disgust. I bumbled through the essay by trying not to refer directly to much that happened beyond chapter 7, which I seemed to get away with, somehow. If you are reading this from a faculty post at LJMU’s Literature department, think carefully about what is actually possible for students to get away with on your courses, I implore you.

I first met Austen in the form of Colin Firth’s wet shirt scene in the BBC’s never-to-be-bettered adaptation of P&P, in 1996. I still love it. My 8 year old loves it, too, though hopefully not for the wet shirt. 8 seems a little young for that sort of thing. But even then, I never bothered to read the book. I know. Having come to Austen through the medium of TV, why on earth would any self-respecting student of literature not go and look up the original? But I didn’t. I was grateful for the varied (well, a bit) and interesting books that I was required to read for my course, but I read very little for pleasure, at that time, and even less for extra-curricular personal improvement. Also, I read very slowly, in those days. I was 28 before an employer put me on a Speed Reading course, which revolutionised my ability to consume long texts without dying of old age before the end. I remember asking the course leaders why no-one had taught me these skills when I was ten or twelve – it would have made an enormous difference to my academic life in the intervening period.

So, in my mid-thirties, I revisited Dickens, and discovered that he was much more palatable now I had grown up sufficiently to appreciate him. A Christmas Carol is a wonderful, and mercifully short, piece of writing, most of the direct speech of which is perfectly reproduced by Michael Caine in The Muppets’ Christmas Carol – I had no idea that the Muppets were so faithful to literature. Having mastered Dickens (though I started Bleak House, and enjoyed it, but it’s been kind of paused for about three years), I turned to Austen for the first time.

Pride and Prejudice is a very readable book. Much more of the nuance of the social mores of the time are revealed by the book, and Elizabeth remains a very likeable character, whom I am genuinely delighted to see living happily ever after with Mr Darcy at the end (SPOILERS! Oops. Ah well. It’s been out for 200 years, it’s not my fault if you hadn’t got to it yet).

When I recently finished a re-read of P&P, I decided to start another Austen novel. Knowing nothing about any of them, I selected Mansfield Park, downloaded it to my phone (free books for the win!), and read.

The first thing I learned was this: Argus Filch’s cat, in the Harry Potter books, is named after an Austen character – a busybodying, interfering woman whom nobody likes, and who thinks she’s much more important than she is. Always satisfying to discover a connection of that sort – so far, so good.

Fanny is rather annoying. She’s quite pathetic, for most of the book, vividly conscious as she is that she is less than the dust beneath the feet of, well, everyone, frankly. She’s a doormat. She garners very little respect from most of the other characters, largely, as far as I can see, because she demands none. She is plucked from home, where she was presumably more of a Somebody, as older sister to string of youngsters, she cries for weeks, it occurs to no-one that she might ever like to see her mother again, and then she settles into a role of trying not to threaten the position of her older cousins by appearing more attractive, intelligent, wise or scintillating than they. In short, she is a mouse, perpetually trying to shrink herself into invisibility in a corner somewhere. Oh, and hoping that Edmund will marry her. Which he won’t, because he likes her well enough, but only sees a mouse who sits quietly enough to let him unload the contents of his own mind, tidy them into neat piles, and put them back with a decision made.

I read it. It bumbled along. Fanny grew up, there was a long and slightly tedious episode concerning an attempt to put on an amateur play, in which I was led to believe that only Fanny and Edwin were taking the correct line, that such a thing was morally reprehensible, and should not be allowed. Anyway, Fanny’s uncle returned from Antigua, and put a stop to all that, clearly being of the same mind. I’m afraid I found it difficult to place myself in the moral and ethical belief structures of these people. I was clearly supposed to side with them, and obviously, such things had a very different hue 200 years ago than they might now, but I don’t think I quite cared enough to try – or at least, to try hard enough for the effort it would take to see things from Fanny’s insipid and rather prudish point of view.

Jane Austen on a £10 note

Jane Austen on a £10 note

Anyway, it’s not great, but I’m into it, now, so I’m still reading. I don’t so much care what happens to Fanny, than wonder how on earth Austen proposed to wrap up the story suitably, when Fanny was clearly destined for Edmund (the inclinations of a heroine, even a pathetic one, generally being honoured in these situations), but Edmund was determined to be in love with some trollop from the vicarage (and who knew that Recency vicarages were largely populated with trollops? Charlotte was no such thing!).

So, Fanny is suddenly permitted to visit her family in Portsmouth, yada yada, the guy she doesn’t want to marry follows her there for the purposes of wooing, yada yada, her family barely remember her, and don’t care much either way, she misses Mansfield Park desperately, since she unsurprisingly considers the place she’s lived since she was 9 to be her actual home. Yada yada. It’s all trundling along, and I can see that I’m only about fifty pages from the end, now, so I’m getting quite involved in just how these loose ends are going to be wound up.

And then – dramatic climax, people! Tom is suddenly dangerously ill, and everyone is worried he’ll die. He doesn’t, and it doesn’t make any material difference to Fanny, so it’s almost a wasted plot device. All it does is convince Edmund that the trollop from the vicarage is too materialistic for him – she’s a little too excited by the idea of Edmund losing his older brother, and becoming next in line for the baronetcy and associated stately home.

Then, more dramatic climax! Maria, the older of the girl-cousins, who spent the play incident flirting with the wrong man, before settling down to marry the staid and boring one she was engaged to, has run away with said Wrong Man! The same man who was, incidentally, failing to make Fanny agree to marry him. Shock and horror! Her reputation is ruined, the family is reduced to pieces. Gasp, etc. Oh, and Julia has eloped, but no-one seems that bothered about that.

This crisis, rather than that of the dying older son, brings Fanny back to Mansfield Park to offer what help and comfort she can in such difficult times. Though dying older son seems to be recovering nicely now, but they were all quite sure he had been dying.

So here we are. Fanny is back at Mansfield, Edmund is no longer in love with a trollop, so now… wait, what?

The last chapter has no dialogue. At all. In one chapter, Austen tells me that Maria and the unscrupulous young man annoyed each other, that she was divorced by her husband, and that her father, being basically a nice bloke, if a bit dull, has set her up in a cottage somewhere where she can’t embarrass them all, with the annoying aunt Norris to keep her company. Oh, and Edmund decided to marry Fanny, and she let him. And that’s it.

It’s the oddest, most anticlimactic end to a book I have EVER come across, and I sometimes read fan fiction. It feels precisely as if Austen wrote herself into a corner, and became so interminably bored with them all, that she just gave up, wrote her plot notes up in proper sentences, and called it done. It was incredibly disappointing. It’s not the greatest book I’ve ever read, but I’d invested quite a lot of energy into it by that point, and I wanted her to return my commitment, damn it.

You disappoint me, Jane. We don’t have to discuss this again, but know this – I have just downloaded Northanger Abbey, and Chapter 1 is pretty readable. I do not wish to see a repeat of this debacle.

Format Shifting & the future of your bookshelf

Most people don’t know but in the UK it is currently illegal to put a CD into your computer and copy the music to the hard drive, it’s just as illegal to copy it from that PC onto your iPod but everyone does it all the time.

The government have realised that this is a bit of an oddity and have indicated that “format shifting” (the act of changing the media the music/video etc is on) is going to be allowed when the new copyright laws are framed. Continue reading

Publishers still trying to hold back the sea

It’s another self inflicted nail in book publishers’ coffins although I doubt they think so. France has passed the law allowing the publishers to set the price of ebooks.

Apparently “Signs are, consumers expect e-books to be priced considerably lower than physical books”. Well yes, I expect that the copy of the book that just required you to a digital copy of the book you already have should be cheaper than the one you have to send to print, bind, deliver and stock.

However unlike the music industry, I don’t think digital piracy will be the problem, self publishing will. Already self-publishing in the kindle store is make some people serious money and successful authors are moving away from the publishing houses.

The reality is, most of what a publishing house does is rapidly being replaced by the web. The cost of publishing has gone, marketing is now also much easier and cheaper, the wisdom of crowds is filtering the good form the bad and you can get yourself a copyeditor online.

A combination of self promotion and the fact that the author gets more of the book sale, means self-published books are often among the cheapest on eBook stores and end up at the top of the sales chart.

In the mean time, heads are still in the sand, and we are trying to protect the ‘independent bookshop’ by keeping the price of the digital copies artificially high.

I might start buying real books again

It saddens my little heart when I pickup a book and see my Kindle lying unloved next to the bed, but until some quite fundamental things change, I think I will be do that more often in the future.

A Kindle, they're very good.

Don’t get me wrong, the Kindle is an amazing reading device, it really is one of the best thing to read on, ever. I prefer reading on it to books by quite a long way, but the efforts of the publishing industry and the reluctance of government to move with the times is beginning to get in the way of what should really be a pleasurable experience.

At the moment there are 4 main reasons why I am turning back to real books

  1. Tax: in the UK there is no VAT on real books, because sometime ago we decided books are a necessity for society to function and flourish, ebooks however are an electronic service, and we tax them – so all ebooks have a 20% VAT on them.
  2. Publishers: The net book agreement was broken sometime ago; mainly because it was price fixing, but that hasn’t stopped publishers putting a ‘pricing agreement in’ that means the publishers are setting the price of ebooks. (The EU are looking in to this)
     

    That is why eBooks are sometimes more expensive than the print ones! – Why? It can’t possibly cost more for me to download something; compared to it being printed on paper, stuck in a van, sent to a warehouse, put on a shelf, taken of a shelf, put in a package, put on a van, sent to a sorting office, put in a bag, carried to my house and shoved through my letter box!

  3. Publishers don’t like eBooks: That can be the only reason they are still not putting half the books they print out as ebooks.
  4. Copyright law: Copyright law is stifling ebooks. Now I am a firm believer in copyright as a principle, but the current law is way too aggressive. Copyright remains on a literary works for 70 years after the author dies, even if the book goes out of print! 

    Books: these a very good also.

    For the ebook world this means there are loads of books, that you can just not get, because they are out of print and no one can legally scan them in and sell them to you, and because of point 3 the publishers won’t let this slip.

    This to me is a bit of an economic nonsense, you are a publisher / author your 30 year old book is out of print, someone wants to without expense to you, digitise your book, then sell it online and give you some money – where previously you had none.

    This (oversimplified) is what the publishers and authors don’t want Google to do with it’s Google books library project.

The net effect of all this is:

  1. Books that cost more as ebooks , for example Freakenomics (paperback £5.51, eBook £7.99)
  2. Classic Books you cannot get eBook copies of for example Catcher in the Rye
  3. Books that have just fallen out of print, that can’t be revitalized online.
  4. Books you can’t share because publishers are scared of that too.

And I am being driven to put down my kindle and start buying real books again.