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Culture

Have a lover, have friends, read books. Montaigne was right about one thing | Germaine Leece

We think we are escaping ourselves when we read literature, but we might be going deeper into our interior worlds through the therapy of reading.

The understanding that literature can comfort, console and heal has been around since the second millennium BC; it is no coincidence that Apollo was the god of medicine as well as poetry.

As a bibliotherapist, I’m interested in the therapeutic value stories have to offer us, particularly during times of stress. Here the intent around reading is different; the value of the story lies solely in our emotional response to it.



One of the greatest arguments for using literature as therapy was posited by the Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne, who believed there were three possible cures for loneliness: have a lover, have friends and read books. But he argued sexual pleasure is too fleeting and betrayal too common, and while friendship was better it always ended with death. Therefore, the only therapy that could endure through life was the companionship of literature.

Why were the ancient Greeks and Romans right to suppose literature heals the soul? Why did Montaigne trust we could endure loneliness through a lifelong relationship with books? Why, despite all the distractions of modern life, do books still get published and writers festival events get sold out? The answer lies in the power of stories.

Stories have been around since time began; they tell us what it is to be human, give us a context for the past and an insight towards the future. A narrators voice replaces our stressed, internal monologue and takes us out of our life and into the world of a story. Paradoxically, we think we are escaping ourselves but the best stories take us back deeper into our interior worlds. Freud, who believed the reading cure came before the talking cure, once wrote that wherever he went he discovered a poet had been there before. It is difficult to access emotional language and this is why we have writers. They remind us of the universality and timelessness of emotions, helping us better understand our own.

What stories have shaped you? It’s a question worth reflecting on, as this shaping is often subconscious. The act of making it conscious will allow your future reading to perhaps have a different intent; you will be reading your life from now on, allowing you to live it more fully and better understand it.

Recently, more studies are telling us what the ancient Greeks and Romans already knew: reading improves our mental health. In 2009, research out of the University of Sussex found reading could reduce stress levels by 68%, working better at calming nerves than listening to music, going for walks or having a cup of tea. Subjects only had to read silently for six minutes to slow down the heart rate and ease tension in muscles.

A 2013 study found reading literary fiction can help you become more empathetic, by giving you the experience of being emotionally transported to other places and relating to new characters. Other studies have shown reading can improve sleep quality and ease mild symptoms of depression and anxiety.

As a bibliotherapist, I am continually reminded that all forms of literature can help people in all sorts of ways. A person who is grieving may need a predictable plot and an ordered fictional world; a man searching for direction or coming to terms with retirement may need a novel that reflects and explores the transience of life; a mother of young children may reach for a novel that illustrates the arc of life and reminds her she is in just one albeit messy and tiring chapter for now.

Sometimes it is not the content of the stories themselves but just knowing you have control by choosing to read or listen that provides the calming effect. All stories offer a safe, contained world with a beginning, middle and end. We have the power of when to start or stop and choose how long we stay in this story’s world.

Time spent listening to authors talk about their work and their own understanding of the power of literature also allows us, as readers, to reflect on stories that have shaped us.

:Why do stories matter so terribly to us, that we will offer ourselves up to, and later be grateful for, an experience that we know is going to fill us with grief and despair?” questions Helen Garner in her latest collection, Everywhere I Look.

Robert Dessaix, in his memoir What Days Are For, explores narrative as an optimistic form: “Is that why I’m reading a novel in the first place? It’s not a Pollyanna-ish form, it’s not devoid of unravellings and pain, but it’s optimistic in the sense that you keep turning the pages, one after the other in the hope of something transforming happening. Isn’t that it? In the hope of a transforming answer to your particular questions.”

Both authors are exploring their identity as readers and the impact reading can have. The writers festival is more than an event celebrating authors; it also celebrates the power of literature and the power of you, the reader.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/may/24/have-a-lover-have-friends-read-books-said-montaigne-he-was-right-about-one-of-them

How one woman harnessed people power to save old New York

New film tells story of Jane Jacobss battle’s against the wealthiest developers in the city.

She was a beaky, bespectacled architecture writer, hardly a figure likely to ignite protests that changed the shape of one of the worlds great cities. Yet such is the legend of Jane Jacobs and her bitter struggles to preserve the heart of New York from modernisation that a film charting her astonishing victories over some of the most powerful developers in the US is set to inspire a new generation of urban activists around the world.

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City tells the story of Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, who made herself the bane of New Yorks powerful city planners from the 1950’s to 1970’s. Her nemesis was Robert Moses, the city’s powerful master builder and advocate of urban renewal, or wholesale neighbourhood clearance what author James Baldwin termed negro removal.

Moses dismissed the protesters as a bunch of mothers, and attempted to ignore their efforts to attract wider attention, which included taping white crosses across their glasses in the style of Jacobs.

But through a combination of grassroots activism, fundraising and persistence, Jacobs blocked Moses and successive city overlords from running Fifth Avenue through the historic Washington Square, tearing down much of SoHo and Little Italy to make way for a billion-dollar expressway, and building a six-lane highway up Manhattans west side.

“Some issues you fight with lawsuits and buy time that way,” she later wrote. “With others, you buy time by throwing other kinds of monkey wrenches in. You have to buy time in all these fights. The lawsuit is the more expensive way.”

Little
Little Italy, in New York, saved from demolition for a $1bn expressway. Photograph: Maremagnum/Getty Images

Jacobs warned of the dangers of mixing big business and government, and called them monstrous hybrids. She warned, too, that huge housing projects favoured by developers from the school of Le Corbusier would only bring social dislocation to the poor while making developers wealthy.

Jacobs’s method of prevarication, says Citizen Jane director Matt Tyrnauer, wrote the manual for activism. Speaking truth to power was her great strength, and she was fearless, but she was also a great strategist and analysed how to get to politicians and threaten them in ways that were going to be effective.

Robert Hammond, who produced Citizen Jane and co-founded the High Line, a significant renewal project along Manhattan’s west side that turned an elevated rail track into a garden and walkway, says key to her protest was targeting lower-tier elected officials because they depend on you for their jobs and they know it. She understood that fighting government is a slog, and no matter how powerful you think people are, things can be changed the value of individuals coming together and working as an organism, which today we call crowdsourcing.

Those lessons, in particular Jacobs’s later studies of economics, helped shape The Indivisible Project, an umbrella organisation for thousands of protest groups that have sprung up in the US in the aftermath of the presidential election.

Tyrnauer, who previously directed Valentino: The Last Emperor, considers that Indivisible’s activism, which includes berating local officials and challenging congressional leaders at town hall meetings, is cut from the Jacobs playbook. Late last year the group’s founders, four congressional aides moved to act by the election of Donald Trump, published suggestions that have become central to democratic resistance. Six thousand groups have registered so far, seeking to follow Indivisible’s basic, Jacobs-esque credo: localised defensive advocacy; recognition that elected representatives think primarily about re-election and how to use that; efforts to build constituent power through organically formed, locally led groups; and a focus on congressional representatives via town hall meetings, district office visits and mass phone calls.

Jane
Jane Jacobs won many victories over her nemesis Robert Moses, the powerful master builder. Photograph: Library of Congress/Sundance Selects

In her academic and personal life, Jacobs looked at the power individuals have in their own communities, says co-founder and executive director Ezra Levin. Indivisible is fundamentally about constituent power, and we recommend that people assert that power on their own turf, in their own communities. But the connection runs deeper. Jacobs maintained cities are best left to be self-organising. Too much control and they become lifeless. She believed they should be messy something old, something new and warned of the concentration of money and too little diversity. Crucial to Indivisible’s success is an individual group’s basic autonomy. “It’s crucial that this is not a franchise operation. We’ve created a platform but the decisions these groups are taking, or their exact form is fundamentally driven at a local level.”

Jacobs, who died in 2006 and whose centennial falls this year, used to tell an anti-authoritarian story about a preacher who warns children: In hell, there will be wailing and weeping and gnashing of teeth.

“What if you don’t have teeth?” one of the children asks.

Then teeth will be provided.

“That’s it the spirit of the designed city: teeth will be provided for you,” she told the New Yorker in 2004.

In Citizen Jane, the documentarians seek to apply the lessons of Manhattan in the 50’s to the urbanisation of China and India. The results are inconclusive.

Many of the challenges cities now face, at least in the west, are reversals of the clearances that affected cities in the last century. “The suburbs are where the poor people are moved to, and they’re becoming more impractical than cities to live in,” says Hammond.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/apr/22/jane-jacobs-people-power-saved-old-new-york-architecture-grassroots

Can you judge a book by its odour?

Cocoa, wood, rusks every book has a distinctive smell. And each smell says something about how and when it was made, and where it has been.

What does it mean to experience a book? To a bibliophile such as Alberto Manguel, smell plays an important part. In a talk at the British Library this week, the one-time protege of Jorge Luis Borges and director of the National Library of Argentina said he was particularly partial to old Penguin paperbacks, which he loved for their odour of fresh rusk biscuits.

Audience members responded with their own sense impressions. Peter, a pensioner, said he experienced books as smelling of salt and pepper that dryness when you open the cupboard with a touch of the sea, while 46-year-old Donna confessed that she had recently bought a book for her young son partly because it smelled of the rain.

To conservators and historians, smell has always played an important role in assessing the origin and condition of historic books, and in working out how to look after them. I have no vocabulary to define this, but there is a curious warm leathery smell to English parchment, unlike the sharper, cooler scent of Italian skins, wrote the Cambridge University don and librarian Christopher de Hamel in his bestselling Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts.

But that lack of vocabulary could be about to change, thanks to a groundbreaking project by researchers at UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage, who have devised a way of relating such apparently subjective descriptions directly to the chemical composition of books. In a paper published this week in the journal Heritage Science, Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strli describe how they analysed samples from an old book, picked up in a second-hand shop, and developed a historic book odour wheel, which connects identifiable chemicals with peoples reactions to them.

Using fibres from the novel, they produced an extract of historic book, which was presented to 79 visitors to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Chocolate, cocoa or chocolatey were the most frequent words used to describe the smell of a copy of French writer Bernard Gassets 1928 novel Les Chardons du Baragan, followed by coffee, old, wood and burnt.

From the analytical perspective, and given that coffee and chocolate come from fermented/roasted natural lignin and cellulose-containing product, they share many VOCs (volatile organic compounds) with decaying paper, wrote the researchers, who combined the results with those of earlier research projects, such as studies of a 1940s visitors book at the National Trusts Knole House in Kent. Their study also took them beyond books themselves, to the places in which many of them are read: libraries. In another experiment, they asked visitors to the Wren Library in St Pauls cathedral to describe what the library smelled like to them. Everyone described its smell as woody, while 86% also experienced it as smoky, 71% as earthy and just under half (41%) reported the scent of vanilla all smells associated with particular chemicals in old books.

researcher
The smell of heritage researcher Matija Strli with his nose in a book Photograph: Supplied

The project originated in Strlis observation of the importance of smell to conservators and librarians. Librarians have told us that its the smell that hits readers first. Its the way libraries communicate, before people even get to the books; but what the books communicate through smell is also interesting. The idea is to propose a large theoretical framework of which smells hold cultural value for us as a society, he says.

Strli, a professor of heritage science at UCL, is a chemist by training. We know very well how to analyse the chemicals, but what they mean, and the emotions they trigger, is a completely different matter. For that, you need a multi-disciplinary study, he says. It wasnt until the arrival of Bembibre a PhD student with a background in communications that the project began to acquire an anthropological and cultural breadth.

Libraries such as St Paul’s, dedicated to historic books, smell different to those housing more recent literature,” says Strli. “We know that books produced before approximately 1850 have a different smell to those produced between 1850 and 1990, and that’s because late 19th- and most 20th-century printing was dominated by acid sizing the process to which pulp was subjected to reduce the water-absorbancy of paper, so that it could then be written on.”

The life of individual books also affects their smell: how far they have travelled; whether they have been kept in damp or dry environments. As De Hamel points out, some manuscripts have hardly stirred from their original shelves since the day they were completed; others have zig-zagged across the known world in wooden chests or saddle bags, swaying on the backs of horses or over the oceans in little sailing ships, or as aircraft freight.

The medieval manuscripts De Hamel was dealing with were created by hand on long-lasting parchment made from animal skins which also have their own distinctive smell. Industrialised publishing from the mid 19th-century created less-hardy books, prone to a fate that every secondhand book collector fears: foxing, the brown blotches that appear on so many old volumes. Foxing happens when small impurities left by the metal beaters used to process the paper pulp combine with fungal growth on the ageing paper.

Many people assume the blotches themselves give old books their familiar musty pong. “In fact,” says Strli, “the smell is due to the release of chemicals such as furfural and hexanol as the paper itself decays.” Hexanol is often described as smelling farmlike or of old clothing or old room, which the odour wheel consigns to a category labelled earthy/musty/mouldy.

Bembibre
Bembibre investigating the science of book smells in the lab. Photograph: National Trust/James Dobson

But foxing itself is likely to be less prevalent as manufacturing changes. In the 1980’s, the technology changed because of environmental concerns about the chlorinated chemicals emitted through the manufacture process. The happy consequence of that was that the paper became more stable again, says Strli.

The researchers believe the historic book odour wheel could become a useful diagnostic tool for conservators across a wide range of areas, helping them to assess the condition of objects through their olfactory profile. If a book smells chocolatey, its likely that it is releasing vanillin, benzaldehyde and furfural three chemicals associated with the degradation of the cellulose and lignin in paper. But the study also has wider implications, as the heritage industry grapples with a new interest in the historical importance of smell. By documenting the words used to describe a heritage smell, our study opens a discussion about developing a vocabulary to identify aromas that have cultural meaning and significance, says Bembibre.

So what can the odour wheel tell us about Manguels description of Penguin books as smelling like fresh rusk biscuits? Biscuits is a word that often comes up when describing books. Two compounds in particular: furfural (smelling of sweetness or bread) and vanillin (smelling of vanilla) could be responsible, says Bembibre. His words might indicate that the books themselves are deteriorating, but they also reveal his pleasure in them. The gift industry has long wised up to this. The British Library shop, a few metres from the theatre where Manguel was speaking, sells a candle that purports to smell of library.

“This is not just about the composition of smell itself, but about human sensibility,” Bembibre says. “By reconstructing the smell and assessing the human reaction to it, we will be able to work out what it is that we want to preserve.”

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/apr/07/the-smell-of-old-books-science-libraries

Detained on Nauru: ‘This is the most painful part of my story when you realise no one cares’

In this excerpt from the book They Cannot Take the Sky, Benjamin talks about his years detained on Nauru, and his undying hopes for the future.

Benjamin was taken to Nauru in 2013 with his family. He told the first part of this story on Christmas Day 2014. He is still on Nauru.

You just have to cope with it

We were in Offshore Processing Centre compound number 3 the family compound in the Nauru detention facility for a year and three weeks. In that time lots of things happened between us and Wilsons, the security guards running the camp, especially with my father because everyone trusted him. So if problems happened, people would tell my father and my father would try to help. But after a couple of months the Wilsons tried to somehow punish us as a family, you know, for just simple things. One day my father was in the line for food and the Wilson didn’t let him go inside he sent another family in rather than us. My father tried to just talk to them but suddenly they called the police. Police came and they sent my father straight to custody.

My father had a stroke when he was in custody. He’s a little better now, after four or five months, but he’s still really not able to use the left side of his body very well.

Because of the stroke, they sent my father alone to Darwin. They gave us a time to visit just before he left. There was a neck brace around his neck and he was in a wheelchair. I could just see him for 15 minutes and then they took him away and sent him to Darwin. I was 18 at that time and my sisters were all minors. There wasnt a guardian for us, but they let us be inside a camp. My sisters, they all got lots of problems. They couldn’t sleep at night. Me either.

I went to the psychologist and I told her, I’ve got these types of problems, and she said, “You just have to cope with it. You cannot go to where your father is. You just have to wait until he comes back.” I warned them that if they didn’t give me any answer at least tell me how my father is I would suicide, and she laughed at me and said, “Go, do what you want to do.” And so I cut my wrists and my hand, because I couldnt control it anymore. It was too much for me. And the funny thing is, they didn’t care. They said, “If you keep trying to do this we will send you to the custody too.”

My sisters came and they saw lots of blood coming out of my body and they called Wilson.

When my father heard that I cut myself, he did his own protest. He sat in the wheelchair and he didn’t eat, he didn’t move, he didn’t drink anything.

I’m still feeling that I’m not a human

After this, things happened to my father too. When he first went to Darwin he was in the family camp. He was a single male but he was in the family camp. I had a friend over there in the family camp who was looking after him. I was little bit OK because I knew my friend was helping, but after my fathers protest they sent him to the single camp. In the single camp he was totally alone. There was nobody to help him. When I heard this I tried to talk to immigration about it and tell them that this was not fair, what theyre doing to my father, that my father needs someone to help him. But they didn’t answer me, they just forgot about it.

Children
Children play near a fence at Naurus Australian-run detention centre.

After two months they sent my father back here, to Nauru. He was still the same. In that time they didn’t do any medical checks for him. He was just wasting his time over there. My case manager came and said, Your father is back in Nauru. I was so shocked and a little bit happy too because I thought that maybe hes OK. I went to OPC1 with my sisters to see him. I was sitting there with my sisters, talking with them, and suddenly one of the cultural advisors came his name was Darryl and he told me, “Your father has to go back to the gaol.” I asked him, “Why?” I tried to tell them it was against the rules if someone is not medically well, you don’t put them in custody but they didn’t care. I said, “If you want to take my father you have to take me too because I need to look after him.”

My father was in custody for three days and they just let me be with him only for one night. After that we went to OPC1. We were there for months. They kept sending my father to court for what had happened, just for a simple argument. We just kept going to the court, every day, and at the end of it they found that my father was not guilty and they sent us back to OPC3.

For now I don’t have any plan for my future because I am still feeling that I am captured. I’m still feeling that Im not a human. I’m still thinking about whats happened in the past. I can’t think about what I am now, and what I’ll do in the future.

I just need to get my freedom first, then Ill try to find my way somehow.

Nearly two years later, in October 2016, Benjamin continued his story.

We have beautiful dreams, but everything has been ruined

I’m still here.

I came here when I was 18 and now I’m nearly 22 years old. I wasted all of the best time in my entire life, the time that I was about to make my future happen, the time that I promised myself I would study hard and become the best. But I couldn’t, because of the Australian government.

Five months ago, my neighbour, his name was Omid, he burnt himself right in front of my eyes. We have beautiful dreams, we have beautiful futures, but everything has been ruined. We are all exhausted.

That day, my neighbour Omid, he burned himself in front of me and I still cannot forget it. Omid was a good person. I still feel unhappy, I still feel stressed about him. I still punish myself, “Why didn’t I make him stop?” But I didn’t know that he was gonna do it, and he did it in front of me. He burned himself. I tried to go and put the fire out on his body, but I couldn’t do it and he died. And I still punish myself because I think that if I was a bit smarter I could have saved him.

Omid,
Omid Masoumali, a 23-year-old Iranian refugee who set himself alight in protest outside a refugee compound on Nauru. He died in a Brisbane hospital on 29 March 2016.

When the UNHCR people came to our settlement to talk to refugees, Omid and his wife were the first ones they met.

I don’t know what happened but I just saw that Omid and his wife went to their house and after like five to 10 minutes Omid came back and he was soaked in petrol and he was shouting, “I’m tired and we are all tired and I cannot take it anymore.”

He was actually complaining to the government of Australia.

It’s enough. Whatever we have suffered in all these years, it is enough, for we are innocent people. We’re not terrorists. We are innocent people and we were just seeking freedom.

And then he just turned the lighter on and set himself on fire. I ran to him and tried to put him out with blankets but I … he was still conscious when we took him to hospital. He was there, he was having so much pain. The hospital here is a very, very bad hospital. When this kind of incident happens, the Australian government asks for an ambulance aeroplane to come to Nauru immediately, but for Omid it took like 12 hours or more than that. He was suffering from the pain and no one could help him. The ambulance came late and he died. After he got back to Australia, the Australian government didn’t even pay for the body to be transferred to Iran. Omid’s family paid for that.

He burned himself to show it around the world, to big countries, that there is no hope, there is no happiness, there is no life here.

Refugees
Refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru protest their indefinite detention by the Australian government.

This is not a place that I can live

The payments that we receive from the Australian government are very low. We get just $200 each per fortnight which is not enough for all of us, you know. Living here is very expensive. The food and everything is all imported from Australia. You have to spend all your money just buying your food.

We are still having stress about water. When we were in the camp we were having problems with showering we only had a right to shower for three minutes and now we are outside we still have those problems. Just today they told us that theres a shortage of water so you have to be careful with it. We were protesting and they sent me to court for unlawful assembly, which I dont understand. I should have a right to make a peaceful protest so I can tell the world that this is not a place that I can live. We are desperately seeking other powerful countries to help us and release us from this inhuman policy. This is the most painful part of my story when you realise no one cares.

I wanted to study. I put myself into danger coming to Australia. My main requirement was having freedom freedom of speech, a society where people respect human rights. My plan was to study hard. I had finished my diploma of pure maths and physics, but I wanted to study more … maybe civil engineering or electrical engineering. But with all these punishments in these three years I became so lazy I cannot even read a book right now.

I always try to forget the bad incidents that happened to me before, so I just go to the gym. Try to lose some energy so I can relax. It’s not a very good gym, but at least it is something. This is the best vocation you can have: going to the gym and coming back home.

I always try to be charming

My dad is much better … he is physically good now. But mentally he’s worse than before. Most of the time he is at home and not doing anything, because there is nothing to do. He feels guilty because he is thinking, I have ruined my children’s future.

There is a very, very cold relationship in every family here. I mean, you get frustrated very quickly. You cannot talk fairly and make good decisions, because your mind has been punished a lot. Our life is like this, you know? We are unhappy so everything goes in a bad way. For example, I always try to keep my family motivated. I always say, like, I’m 100% sure that in 2017 we are gonna get out of this island. I always say this. Every month I’ll say that next month there will be good news from the immigration department of Australia. I always try to motivate them, but they always say, “No, it’s an illusion.”

I’ll try to do something, but it always turns out that I make it worse because I have hope. They say, “No, you lied to us.” My sisters always say, “You lied to us last year. You told us that we were gonna go out of here in 2015, but we are still here and it’s 2016.” These kinds of things.

Immigration
The Australian immigration minister, Peter Dutton. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

We talk about immigration, we talk about what’s gonna happen, we read all the media. We try to make our own observations from there. It always turns out that we discuss it for two hours and we finish in a very unhappy mood. I have to say, we have those conversations every day. [Laughs.]

Sometimes time goes very quickly, but sometimes, it really kills you. Like when we reach the end of the year, because we expect something magical, like at Christmas … that Santa brings a gift. We wait to see if maybe Mr Peter Dutton will announce something that we have wanted to hear for all these years. But it never happens. [Laughs.]

I usually don’t show my pain or my frustration to my family. I try to keep it to myself. Whenever I go inside our room, I always try to be charming. This is what I do, I always try to keep the energy up, because I dont like to upset them. I am upset, but I never show it.

If I want to be honest, the only thing that I enjoy is going to gym and coming back home. But my family doesn’t enjoy that. My sisters want to go to a decent shopping mall, buy some good food, buy some good clothes. Or maybe they want to go to a cinema, or a zoo. But the only entertainment that we have here is just drinking alcohol. Forget what’s happening and just get drunk for a night.

I have good friends here, even Nauruan friends. The Nauruans I hang out with, they really understand our situation and most of them have been studying in Fiji and Australia. They are qualified people and they respect humanity. When you hang out with them, you enjoy it, because they dont get insulted if you say something about the governments of Nauru or Australia. These two governments have created all these traumas. The people are innocent, you know?

The problem with my refugee friends is we can’t really tolerate each other anymore. I mean, we live here without excitement. We see each other every day, talk about the same old things. We get tired of each other. Im not saying this in a bad way, but this is a human being you feel discouraged. Seriously, we don’t have anything to say to each other anymore! We know everything, whatever happened from when he’s born until now. It’s like time has been stopped.

aerial
Photographs of Australian-run asylum seeker detention facilities on Nauru. Photograph: Google / Remi Chauvin

It will be like I’m reborn

My situation has changed. I’ve learned how to be strong and keep myself motivated, so I’m not doing any self-harming and suicide. Sometimes the Australian government makes me worse. For example, when Peter Dutton says refugees are uneducated, or Scott Morrison says we need to live here forever so Australias borders are safe and sound. I just try to heal my pain so I don’t get really out of control. I have learned that even if I … did something crazy to myself, nothing will change. I just have to make myself healthy, so if I get out of here I could try to show the Australian government that I’m not a bad person, I’m actually a very useful person, and a very successful person. And I’m surely gonna do that.

I have read books about what successful people have done in their lives. For example, Mahatma Gandhi, Barack Obama, and also, Larry Page, founder of Google, and all of those people. So many people I cannot count them [laughing]. I’ve read their books, I’ve learned from them with all the struggles they had, they could still manage their lives and become successful.

They
The cover of They Cannot Take the Sky Stories from Detention.

I’m sure that one day I’m going to get out of here and reach my main goal, which is freedom. Yeah, I imagine I will enter a country where there are more opportunities, so I can improve myself, I can improve my education. I will start my new life it will be like I’m reborn. It’ll be a very big event. I’m sure it’s going to happen and it will be soon. It will be very soon.

Benjamin is still living in Nauru. He told his story to journalist Karl Mathiesen in December 2014 and Michael Green in October 2016. Mathiesen had travelled to Nauru posing as a snorkelling enthusiast and covertly spoke to refugees who had been released into the community. Additional editing by Angelica Neville and Andr Dao.

This is an edited extract from the book They Cannot Take the Sky Stories from Detention, edited by Michael Green, Andr Dao, Angelica Neville, Dana Affleck and Sienna Merope, and published by Allen & Unwin.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/australia-books-blog/2017/mar/24/detained-on-nauru-this-is-the-most-painful-part-of-my-story-when-you-realise-no-one-cares

Jonathan Raban: I felt pretty happy that I was still alive

The author on his recovery after a stroke and his fears for a dis-United States.

On 11 June 2011, a few days before his 69th birthday, Jonathan Raban was sitting with his daughter Julia at home in Seattle. He’d felt foggy and out of sorts since waking. Having reheated a casserole, he looked down to see that, try as he might, he couldn’t make the knife in his right hand touch the food on his plate.

His voice lifts in remembered surprise. It was very strange. I said to Julia: “I think I’m having a stroke.”

He was. A few hours later, Raban was in a hospital in the north of the city, looking at scans of his brain. The stroke was haemorrhagic, and massive: the damage to the right side of his body would be impossible to erase.

Carefully balancing a glass of red wine with his good hand, he gestures down at the wheelchair he now uses. Not quite instantly, but within a very few weeks, I was transformed into an old man. A second later, he concedes gruffly: I did feel pretty happy that I was still alive.

Appropriately for a man best known for his nautical writing, Rabans home feels rather like the upturned hull of a boat, with coffee-coloured redwood beams and a clutter of charts, sailing photos, engravings and mock-ups of the covers of his books. Every so often theres the drone of a seaplane coming in to land.

As soon as he got home from rehab,Raban did what he has always done: he began to write, and to research accounts of other peoples strokes (mostly unreadable, he grunts), English social history, his parents letters; searching for a way to braid the experience with the other skeins of his life.

I remember a doctor came to the rehabilitation ward, about my age, and said: Oh, youre the one who used to be a writer. I told him: Im still a writer, and I intend to write about this.

Raban talks in unhurried, intricately woven sentences, languid vowels barely touched by two decades in the US; it feels a little surreal to encounter him here in the Pacific Northwest. But Seattle, he goes on to explain, is as close to a home as he has found. Born in Norfolk in 1942 and educated at the University of Hull where he became friendly with Philip Larkin he started out as an academic. But as his anthology-cum-memoir For Love and Money (1989) attests, he lasted only a few years, writing fiction and journalism during University of East Anglia vacations and trying to gain a ticket of entrance to the city at the end of the line. He launched himself as a freelance writer in London in 1969, lodging with the poet Robert Lowell and becoming part of the bibulous in-crowd that centred on Ian Hamiltons magazine New Review.

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The Mississippi river, the subject of Old Glory. Photograph: Macduff Everton/Getty Images

Even the capital seems to have been a temporary halt. Within a few years Raban was flitting around the Middle East, as recorded in Arabia: Through the Looking Glass (1979); then floating down the Mississippi in an open-topped boat (Old Glory, 1981). Soon after that adventure, be bought a larger boat and piloted it around the British Isles. The project became Coasting (1986), which is as sui generis as Rabans other books part memoir, part rite of passage, part discourse on fluid mechanics, part sly satire on British islomania during the Falklands campaign. In the wake of Brexit, it is a salutary read.

Afloat, Raban writes, he found a sea-distance that matched his sense of estrangement from Britain, and the grounding stability that eluded him on land. But the thing that genuinely fascinates him, and makes his prose leap and surge, is water an eerily still North Sea off East Anglia, as calm and full of mercurial colour as a pool of motor oil; a corner of the north Pacific off British Columbia, like a bolt of grey silk, lightly undulating, that seeps its way into his brooding travelogue Passage to Juneau (1999).

The love affair began early, Raban recalls. Water, one way or another, hasbeen a means of escape for me from pretty much infancy. When Isawa river or a pond or a lake, Isawfreedom and solitude. I could behappy in those places, in a way that I couldnt be at home.

Raban has often written about his tussles with his father, an army captain-cum-cleric whose return from the second world war he brusquely resented as a child, and whose dog collar and cassock, with its greasy antique patina like the sheen on a blowfly, represented everything to rebel against. But his interest in literature is something he owes to his mother, who once wrote short stories for womens magazines.

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The thing that fascinates Jonathan Raban is water. Photograph: Alamy

She taught me to read, which was my one proficiency. My father gets all the attention, but partly thats because he intruded on this relationship with my mother. There is a curt laugh. I harboured the usual fantasy.

It seems not insignificant that his first published work, printed in John Londons Weekly when he was 17, concerned a child whose father is presented with a shattered china dog as a gift after returning from the war. Rabans writing has grown infinitely more sophisticated since then, but its leitmotifs struggles with overbearing authority, a search for refuge in a world that seems aslant have remained.

He insists his arrival in the US, tracked with droll self-scrutiny in Hunting Mister Heartbreak (1990), wasnt intended to be permanent he retains British citizenship but it seems appropriate that he alighted on the West Coast, the favoured destination for people wanting to slough off old lives and try on new ones for size. One of that books most moving chapters chronicles the time Raban spent with Korean immigrants to Seattle, whose travel-shocked recalibration to wide wide wide America is partly, one senses, his own. The section closes with Raban setting himself up downtown in a former luxury hotel; in his room is a gold-painted desk that had once been used by Elvis, and a name label reading Rainbird on the door.

Marriage to Jean, a dance critic and journalist in the city, swiftly followed; Julia was born not long after that, and is now in her mid-20s. Among the cavalcade of identities Raban has tried out during his 74 years, the one that really seems to fit him is fatherhood, which came late. Its a role he still seems enjoyably astonished by, and which has provided some much-needed anchorage. Though the relationship with Jean came to an end, Julia now lives nearby and the two see each other nearly every day.

Im interested in his thoughts on genre; though his books are filed in the travel sections of bookshops, does he feel himself to be a travel writer? He snorts. I see a travel writer as someone whos sampling other peoples holidays and writing a bright little piece about the glories of Weston-super-Mare or something. Bruce Chatwin bridled at being called a travel writer; when Songlines was shortlisted for the Thomas Cook award, he wrote a stiff letter saying that it was impossible for it to be entered because it was most certainly an invented journey. I feel sympathetic to that.

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A protest march against President-elect Donald Trump in Seattle, Washington, 14 November 2016. Photograph: Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty Images

Wait didn’t Raban himself win the Thomas Cook? His grin is lizardish. “Twice. But I was hungry for prizes.”

Though travel often features in his non-fiction and the three novels Raban has so far written, he most often uses the verb intransitively, with no obvious destination in mind. I always thought of it as escaping from genre together, the mixture of memoir and travelling not going to get anywhere, but going for the goings sake. Perhaps the notion is pretentious, but its of what a journey could really be: a miniature scale-model life, which you would survive miraculously at the end.

Though he talks with wit and candour, there is a reserve about him that Englishness, perhaps that seems at odds with the intimate scrutiny of his prose. I ask if he’s ever regretted committing something to the page. The grin reappears. “I want to say, je ne regrette rien. Not much.”

Even in Passage to Juneau, which chronicles in agonising detail the death of his father and the collapse of his marriage to Jean? Even that.

The books only begin to make sense in long recollection, he adds: Writing about journeys, I have to forget the memory in its too-precise form and dive into the experience as if it were happening almost fictionally. Its a getting away from the experience in order to be able to write about it.

I’m curious about what happened to the boat. Oh, it was sold, even before the stroke. I’d written as much as I could about sailing. Also, my appetite for it diminished sharply after 2001. Want to meet Republicans in this part of the world? They all have boats.

It is impossible to avoid the subject of Donald Trump, whose victory Raban had been dreading for months, and which still plainly nauseates him. He’s been rereading Ian Kershaws biography of Hitler, an unlikely but nevertheless effective source of consolation: The consolation comes in the very different state of Weimar Germany and the contemporary US. For all Trump’s blustering authoritarianism, he would run straight into the checks and balances of America’s state and city governments.

Jonathan
Jonathan Raban is best known for hs nautical writing. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Soon after the election, Seattles mayor, Ed Murray, held a press conference to say that the city would remain a sanctuary city for undocumented immigrants, and similar statements have been made in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and elsewhere.

So he’s optimistic, in a way?

“Trump may well turn out to be more of a danger for the rest of the world than for the dis-United States. But whatever happens is going to be a bloody, bloody mess.”

These days his journeys may be moreimaginative than real, but he fights shy of the idea that I’ve encountered Raban at rest. His thinking is as restless and ambulatory as ever; the wheelchair is another kind of narrative vehicle, a fine place in which to write and read. When we meet he’s halfway through the proofs of a biography of Jan Morris, whom he encountered in Cairo: A proper traveller, he writes in Arabia, atouchruefully.

Most of all, though, he’s mapping out the territory of the new book, and the connections he wants to draw between his early life and the lightning bolt that hit him in 2011. Progress is slower than he’d like; more meandering. There are far too many threads.

He sighs faintly, and reaches for thebottle of red. But then, a friend reminded me over email, there always are.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/dec/30/jonathan-raban-author-recovery-stroke-fears-dis-united-states

Out from the shadows: why cruising had a cultural moment in 2016

From an acclaimed novel to an immersive theater experience, the divisive sexual practice made a comeback in art amid heightened anxiety over sex and gender.

On a Saturday afternoon shortly before Christmas, I found myself in the dungeon-like basement of a sex club in Manhattan to see a site-specific performance called Adonis Memories. It was an immersive theater experience based upon oral histories with patrons of the Adonis movie theater, the once opulent movie house-turned-gay porn theater located off Times Square in the 70s and 80s. In its day the Adonis epitomized hedonistic group viewing of pornography, the kind of place where gay, queer and straight men could watch hardcore films together. Meanwhile, just offscreen, it was anything goes between the men in the audience, especially in the theaters infamous balcony.

The performance, the brainchild of Alan Bounville, a theater artist and activist, makes the audience contend with the gay art of cruising: the practice of fleeting sex between men, usually anonymously and without exchanging names, often in semi-public indoor spaces (bathrooms, saunas) or outdoors (rest stops, forests). Audience members watched actors re-enact Adonis patrons cruising each other, and made them complicit by having them follow the action around the space, deciding what they watched and what they didnt.

Cruising has been having something a moment in art over the past year or so, though its not as if it hasn’t been depicted in fiction and non-fiction for some time. The act has received heavy criticism for depicting gay life as deviant and inherently dangerous. The late George Michael was outed when he engaged in a lewd act in Beverly Hills in 1998, and Republican senator Larry Craig was lambasted in media in 2007 when he tapped his right foot, which an officer said was recognized as a signal used by persons wishing to engage in lewd conduct.

The shame was viscerally reinforced in the 1980 William Friedkin movie Cruising, in which Al Pacino must go undercover in the world of homosexual sadomasochistic sex he is assigned to infiltrate to investigate a string of murders. As Roger Ebert noted, the films controversial production did not just alarm conservatives but also the New York gay community [which] rose up in protest, worried the film would present a distorted view of gay life. It would imply the small subculture of S&M was more prevalent than it is, and that, if gays were into violence, attacks on them would somehow be justified. (James Franco was behind a less-seen riff on Friedkins film, Interior. Leather. Bar., in 2013.)

But the art of cruising is not simply about shame and self-hatred; it can also be a space of exploration and connection, as queer literature and art have reflected more recently. Its at the heart of Garth Greenwells much-lauded novel from earlier this year, What Belongs To You, in which an unnamed American narrator becomes obsessed with a sex worker named Mitko he meets in a bathroom in Bulgaria. Everything about their relationship is in the context of sex, and as Mitko and the narrator get to know one another, Greenwell presents gay male life through the prism of their complicated sex lives, moments of intimate partner violence, and the risk of sexuality transmitted disease.

That a book about cruising has been so welcomed by mainstream readers and critics, and featured on best of lists is pretty stunning. As Greenwell discussed in January, its been considered impolite to discuss not just in front of straight people, but also within gay circles until now.

cruising
Al Pacino stars in the 1980 film Cruising, directed by William Friedkin. Photograph: United Artists/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

Still, Greenwell contends that cruising spaces can be spaces of exploration and empathy, ripe for artistic and emotional study. And yet, due to its inherent corporeal hedonism that Greenwell and Bounville (and visual artists Prem Sahib and John Walter) have recently depicted, its largely been left untouched as a site of study within mainstream art or literature.

The reasons for this are many. One is that apps like Grindr and Scruff have made cruising possible on your smartphone. Another is that fear of HIV/Aids made the kind of free sexual exchange depicted in the Adonis play extremely dangerous, leading municipalities to shutter many theaters, bathhouses and saunas where cruising flourished. But as Samuel Delaney describes in his beautiful 1999 book Time Square Red, Times Square Blue, cruising was also a victim of gentrification. It was victim to the pressure from real estate developers which led cities like New York to dispatch the NYPD to clean up and crack down on any form of sexual assembly, so that places like Times Square could be rebranded as family-friendly and Disney-esque.

Mayors like Rudy Giuliani were as likely to clean up Times Square of what they saw as the filth of cruising as Republicans were to publicly decry depictions of queer sexuality in art. But what of the left? Why have they protested about such depictions, from Friedkins movie until now?

I think the marriage equality battle was important and its important that we won it, Greenwall said during an onstage interview in March. But he believes that it came at a really great cost. And that cost was a marketing campaign that took queer lives and translated them into values that could be appreciated by people who are disgusted by queer people.

So while Greenwell believes our current moment has allowed for a beautiful model of human life, and it should be available to queer people, he also worries about the effects.

I think it forecloses much of the kind of radical potential in queer life. And that radical potential, I think, inheres in spaces like cruising bathrooms and parks, where the categories by which we organize our lives, like race and class, get scrambled by desire, which is a reason why our culture is so terrified by desire, because it scrambles those things, he said.

Cruising inhabits a kind of sexuality that is about seeking fleeting pleasure, allowing for bodily expression to function as free-from commitment in the same vein that same-sex marriage is tethered to commitment. The multimedia artist John Walters addressed the disappearing act by mounting the exhibit Alien Sex Maze, a large-scale installation based on the shapes of cruise mazes, found in sex clubs and gay saunas, during 2015 Pride in London. Walters wanted to raise awareness about HIV and hosted testing onsite to decrease its stigma. He said: “I’m not actively facilitating sex, in his exhibits, I advertise my work on Grindr. If people want to have sex in the spaces I do my work, thats fine. It highlights the fact that you can repurpose any space for sex.”

Then, last fall, British artist Prem Sahib had two shows in London which explictly dealt with cottaging, though the work is so clean and precise, a viewer might not know the reference unless they knew about underground gay culture. As Vice observed, the gay aspect of the work is thrilling and affirmative to anyone whos found themselves cruising in loos, losing themselves on a dance floor (preferably Berghain) or lounging listlessly in an odd sauna.

But one reason it is so surprising to see cruising being taken seriously in theater, gallery art and literature (domains which, no matter how much they may seem to foster the work of gay men, have their gates kept by straight people) is that a fear of possible cruising has been a driving force in American cultural politics. As the writer and scientist Joseph Osmundson wrote, This has been the year that cruising has reached the literary mainstream, but also the year that gay, queer, and especially trans bodies have been made criminal entities simply for existing in public bathrooms. All over the US, the threat of cruising has created a wave of transphobia, just as cruising is getting an airing in art from North Carolina’s notorious HB2 bathroom bill to 11 states suing the federal government after the Obama administration directed US public schools to let transgender students use the bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity. As Osmundson writes, it is in bathrooms that these two trends integration into the mainstream literary canon and a rightwing backlash against gay and trans progress currently meet.

It is no surprise, then, that liberals and conservatives alike have been loth to discuss cruising, particularly as the most heralded (if tacitly secure) civil rights win for LGBT people same-sex marriage is only barely accepted on the condition of queer life being mythologically private and desexualized. Bathrooms have become such a source of sexual anxiety that, according to a large survey, a majority of transgender Americans avoid public restrooms altogether.

Good art, though, should walk us right into the mess of locations of conflict. Thats why it is so rewarding when Bounville, Greenwell, Walters and Sahib take us into these shadowy spaces, where so many gay connections have happened (and still happen). Cruising sites are spaces of gay censure and celebration alike, tense with the possibilities of danger and connection at the same time. They straddle the boundaries of the public and private, the respectable and the reviled. Cruising spaces may never be wholly resolved and thus they remain ripe for art.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2016/dec/29/cruising-gay-culture-2016

Richard Adams obituary

Author of the classic 1970’s novel Watership Down, the allegorical tale of a colony of rabbits.

Richard Adams, who has died aged 96, was the author of one of the most successful books of the 1970s. Published in 1972, Watership Down, Adams’ story about a colony of rabbits travelling across the country in search of a better home in the Berkshire Downs when their burrow is destroyed, became a cult novel, with a crossover readership.

Despite being published as an adult book, Watership Down won the two most distinguished childrens book prizes, the Carnegie medal and the Guardian childrens book prize, and sold more than 100,000 copies in Britain in its first year of publication. Unlike some such instant successes, Watership Down was not just a book of its time; it is now firmly established as a classic and has sold more than 50m copies worldwide.

The story of the publication of Watership Down is an example of the quirky nature of publishing. As a manuscript of more than 200,000 words, it was turned down by all of the major publishers and many of the smaller ones, before Rex Collings, a small independent company, picked it up. From the moment of publication, it was widely hailed as an exceptional title and almost instantly became a bestseller. At one point, it held the record for the highest sum paid for paperback rights. Its mass success and cult status was furthered by its subsequent adaptation in 1978 to animated cartoon film, with a soundtrack that included the hit single Bright Eyes.

The origins of Watership Down lay in stories Adams wrote down to entertain his daughters on long car journeys, based on his observation of rabbits from the train window on his daily commute to work. However, Adams himself did not categorise it as a childrens book. Once published, its evocation of the English countryside (the Downs near Adamss home), combined with its detailed descriptions of rabbit society much taken from RM Lockleys The Private Life of the Rabbit (1964) which includes a sharply observed study of leadership through the characters of Fiver, Bigwig and Hazel, made it as much a political allegory as a simple adventure story.

Son of Evelyn Adams, a country doctor, and his wife, Lilian (nee Button), Richard was born in Newbury, and brought up in Berkshire. He was educated at Bradfield college, Berkshire, and Worcester College, Oxford, where he studied history for two years until he was called up in 1940. He served in the Royal Army Service Corps in Palestine, Europe and the far east before returning to Oxford in 1946 to finish his studies. Adams then joined the civil service, where he worked in the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and in the Department of the Environment, before becoming a full-time writer in 1974 after the success of his first book.

Subsequent books followed quickly, including Shardik (1974), the story of a hunter and a giant bear, which was particularly poorly received by readers wanting more Watership Down; The Tyger Voyage (1976), a picture book in verse with illustrations by Nicola Bayley; and The Plague Dogs (1977). None had the same success as the tale about rabbits.

Adams was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1975 and held posts as writer in residence at both the University of Florida (1975) and Hollins University in Virginia (1976). He continued to write for both adults and children. He revisited Watership Down in Tales from Watership Down (1996) and contributed a short story to Gentle Footprints: A Collection of Animal Stories, which was published to raise funds for the Born Free Foundation in 2010, just before his 90th birthday.

For almost all his writing, Adams drew on his deep affection for the countryside and the wildlife that lives in it that was formed during his childhood. In his autobiography, The Day Gone By (1990), he describes how, as a child, he lost his heart twice, once to the River Kennet and once to the Downs, of which he writes: I cant remember ever to have done anything anything at all more delightful than walking on the crest of the Downs, looking away to the purple, heat-rimmed edge of the horizon.

Adams was invited to become president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1980, having been a lifelong campaigner for animal welfare and an active member of the society, including taking part in a lecture tour in Canada in 1977 to drum up opposition to the hunting of baby seals. In a subsequent RSPCA members watchdog publication Adams was described as giving a stirring and inspiring speech as president elect, , but his time at the RSPCA was short lived.

Already going through a turbulent time internally, as traditionalists and modernisers fought and tried to put right the 1m deficit that had accrued, the RSPCA council voted to shorten Adamss term of office as president and he resigned in protest. He later commented angrily that senior members of the council were more interested in their own careers than in the welfare of animals.

He continued to be honoured for his work throughout his life, and was the recipient of the inaugural Whitchurch arts award in 2010, given by the Hampshire town in which he lived in later years. Earlier this year, it was announced that the BBC planned a new adaptation of Watership Down for release in 2017.

Adams married Elizabeth Acland in 1949, and they had two daughters, Juliet and Rosamond. They all survive him.

Richard George Adams, writer, born 9 May 1920; died 24 December 2016

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/dec/27/richard-adams-obituary

Patti Smith falters in Stockholm tribute to an absent Bob Dylan

Representing the Nobel laureate at the prize-giving, the US singer admitted nerves in performance at Swedish academy.

A very nervous Patti Smith initially stumbled through A Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall in Stockholm on Saturday in a performance given to mark Bob Dylans Nobel prize for literature.

Making the award, Horace Engdahl, a Swedish literary historian and critic and member of the Swedish academy that awards the prize, responded to international criticism of the choice of a popular lyricist as recipient.

Engdahl said that when Dylan’s songs were heard first in the 1960s, all of a sudden much of the bookish poetry in our world felt anaemic.

The academy’s choice of Dylan, Engdahl said in Swedish, seemed daring only beforehand and already seems obvious.

And it was an unconventional prize-giving night in more ways than one. Dylan’s failure to attend the August gathering in Stockholm meant that Smith, the American singer most famous for her 1975 album, Horses, and the hit song Because the Night, was attending as his proxy.

The occasion proved too much for the singer, 69, who faltered after a few verses. Forgetting the lyric ‘I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin,’ she apologised quietly but profusely to the jewel-bedecked audience and asked if she could start that section of the song again. “I am so nervous,” she explained.

Smith was encouraged by applause from the gathered dignatories and members of the Swedish royal family.

Her performance followed Engdahl’s justificatory speech, which opened with the question: “What brings about the great shifts in the world of literature? Often it is when someone seizes upon a simple, overlooked form, discounted as art in the high sense, and makes it mutate.”

In this way, Engdahl argued, the novel had once emerged from anecdote and letters, while drama had eventually derived from games and performance.

“In the distant past all poetry was sung or tunefully recited,” he said. “Dylan had dedicated himself to music played for ordinary people and tried to copy it.”

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/dec/10/patti-smith-falters-in-stockholm-tribute-to-an-absent-bob-dylan

Stephen King attacks Bob Dylan’s Nobel prize knockers

Guitar-playing horror legend speaks out against literary authors such as Gary Shteyngart and Irvine Welsh who have scorned the singer’s award.

Stephen King has come to the defence of Bob Dylan’s Nobel prize for literature, accusing those who oppose the award of sour grapes.

According to King, no other musician has had such an impact on popular culture or remained so influential for so long as Dylan. In an interview with Rolling Stone, the horror writer defended the songwriter against his detractors, particularly the authors who had rubbished Dylan’s win: “People complaining about his Nobel either don’t understand or it’s just a plain old case of sour grapes.”

Levelling his gaze directly at novelist Gary Shteyngart, he added: “I’ve seen several literary writers who have turned their noses up at the Dylan thing, like Gary Shteyngart. Well, I’ve got news for you, Gary. There are a lot of deserving writers who have never gotten the Nobel prize. And Gary Shteyngart will probably be one of them.”

When the news of the award broke, Shteyngart tweeted: “I totally get the Nobel committee. Reading books is hard.” He was not alone in the literary world; a legion of authors were disappointed with the decision, including Hari Kunzru and Irvine Welsh, the latter writing that Dylan’s win was ill-conceived nostalgia award bestowed by senile, gibbering hippies. Chocolat author Joanne Harris tweeted: “Is this the first time that a back catalogue of song lyrics has been judged eligible for a literary prize?”

Axe
Axe man Stephen King playing alongside Amy Tan in the Rock Bottom Remainders in 1998. Photograph: Michael C York/AP

King said the musician, whose laureateship was announced in October, had opened the door for a lot of people. I would argue that without Dylan, Paul Simon maybe ends up in the Brill Building, writing songs like Hey Schoolgirl like he did in the beginning, he told the magazine.

Though King who has himself been a singer and guitarist in the writers band Rock Bottom Remainders admitted he had never met the Blowin in the Wind writer, he said his friend John Mellencamp had told him Dylan wouldn’t even turn up at the dentist when he had a toothache. He said that Bob was at his house once and he was complaining about a toothache. “I guess he doesn’t go to the doctor or anything.” He said, “Man, John, I got this terrible toothache. It’s killing me.” John said, “Well, I’ve got some Advil.” And Bob gave him this long look and said, “You trying to get me hooked?”

Dylan has seemed as embarrassed by the accolade as some of his detractors. After the announcement, the Nobel committee was unable to contact him to invite him to the award ceremony in Sweden on 10 December. He finally emerged to say thank you at the end of October after Per Wstberg, a member of the Swedish Academy, told Swedish TV that Dylans attitude had been impolite and arrogant.

He broke his silence with a call to the academy’s permanent secretary, Sara Danius, to say: “I appreciate the honour so much.” The news about the Nobel prize left me speechless. But though grateful, he said he was unable to make the ceremony and sent a speech to be read out by a member of the academy, after singer Patti Smith performs a specially arranged version of the singer’s 1963 track A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.

King said that Dylan’s writing had influenced him from the moment he heard it at the age of 14, while in the back of a car on the way home from a movie. “There was a guy on WBZ radio out of Boston; he played Subterranean Homesick Blues. Hearing it was like being electrified. It was like this pressurised dump of lyrics and images.”

His love of the singer has filtered down three generations of the King family, he added: “My kids listen to Dylan, and so do my grandkids. That’s three generations. That’s real longevity and quality. Most people in pop music are like moths around a bug light; they circle for a while and then there’s a bright flash and they’re gone. Not Dylan.”

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/dec/08/stephen-king-attacks-bob-dylans-nobel-prize-knockers

First edition of Isaac Newton’s Principia set to fetch $1m at auction

Rare European copy of key mathematics text is going under hammer at Christies in New York with record guide price.

A first edition of Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica could become the most expensive print sold of the revolutionary text when it goes under the hammer with a guide price of at least $1m (790,000) this month.

The extremely rare continental copy being sold by auction house Christies in New York is one of a handful of texts thought to have been destined for Europe and has minor differences from those distributed in England by Newton and the book’s editor, Edmond Halley.

The list price of between $1m and $1.5m is thought to be a record for the book. An English version also bound in red morocco leather, which was said to have been presented to King James II, sold for more than $2.5m in 2013. Its list price was $600,000.

About 400 copies of Principia’s first edition were printed, of which the continental versions accounted for about 20%. Halley, the astronomer best known for the comet named after him, encouraged Newton to organise his theories into a text and paid for the printing because the Royal Society of which he and Newton were members had run out of funds.

The society retains two copies of the book, including the original manuscript on which the first print run in 1687 was based, which is described as its greatest treasure.

Written in Latin, the books full title is Philosophi Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy). It laid out Newton’s groundbreaking theories in areas such as gravity and the forces of motion, and introduced a more rigorous mathematical method to physical science.

Keith Moore, the head of the Royal Society library, described it as a benchmark in human thought.

“It’s not just the history and development of science; it’s one of the greatest books ever published,” he said. “It was hugely influential in terms of applying mathematics to basic physical problems.”

Moore said the large sum set to be attracted by the book could be in part due to the growing influence of science within culture, as well as the huge earnings of some technology entrepreneurs.

“People who have big books these days maybe are the kinds of people who have made their money on the internet or the web … If you have a few million quid to spend, why wouldnt you buy a copy of Principia Mathematica?

“If you’ve made your money from a really cool algorithm, you will probably appreciate Newtonian physics.”

Despite its wide-ranging impact, and the books use as a foundational physics text being unsurpassed until Einstein’s general theory of relativity, Principia did not make a list last year of the top 20 most important academic books of all time. The list was topped by Charles Darwins On the Origin of Species.

But because it was published almost two centuries earlier, first editions of Principia are rarer and likely to continue selling for far larger amounts. One of the highest prices paid for a first edition of Darwins book laying out the theory of evolution was 103,000 in 2009, and subsequent sales have been lower.

While the prices differ, the impact of the two texts was comparable, Moore said. What Newton does in the 1680’s is revolutionise the physical sciences. The fundamental laws of physics.

Darwin’s great work published in 1859 revolutionised the biological sciences in the same way. They are similar books in the impact they had.

  • The picture caption on this article was amended on 5 December 2016 to clarify that the copy of Principia Mathematica up for sale is not the one held by Cambridge University.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/dec/05/principia-sir-isaac-newton-first-edition-auction-christies-new-york

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