Bartleby, the Scrivener
Bartleby is forcibly hired by his uncle Ahab as a sailor. “I would rather not,” he complains, but this isn’t accepted as an excuse in the 19th century, a time long before ennui was even invented. Completely hopeless at performing most nautical duties, he is put to work below decks as a scrivener, which job entails keeping meticulous records of weevils in the hardtack.
The captain has a thing about whales, as a particularly big and white one bumped into his ship one time and wrecked the bowsprit, which is unlucky, men of the sea being very superstitious. So he spends his days chasing after it and his nights dreaming of chasing after it. Ahab was not a well rounded individual.
At first Bartleby performs his duties assiduously, there being little else to occupy his attention. Later, for reasons generations of readers have puzzled over, he simply stops doing so, sorely vexing his uncle. When asked to explain, he once again states that he would rather not. This becomes a running joke, even though neither man is noted for having a sense of humour.
Eventually they catch up to the whale. After a terrible battle it brings the ship down, with all hands on deck lost except for Bartleby. The young man washes ashore on a desert island. Years later he is offered rescue by the captain of a passing ship. Remembering his time at sea, Bartleby says “I would rather not,” and lives happily ever after on the island.
Fyodor wants to make stone soup because he heard it was tasty and stones are abundant (and free!) in his penal servitude camp. He enlists the help of Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin, serving a life sentence for crank phone calls to the Tsar, and tells him to find stones that look like potatoes. Nikolayevich complies although secretly he feels the task is beneath him. A guard grows suspicious when he sees Fyodor licking a basalt and alerts the authorities. Fyodar and Nikolayevich are rounded up and set to be executed the following morning at dawn. They are reprieved at the last moment and instead sentenced to a further 150 years, after which Fyodor hopes to settle in a beach hut on the Black Sea.
The Mill on the Floss
The story of a 19th century dental floss mill and the lives and loves of those who worked there.
A man named Bloom spends an entire day composing a missive to the tram company for their complicity in thwarting his attempt to ogle a woman wearing stockings. Rather than writing a business-like letter setting out his position with clarity, he lapses into stream-of-consciousness and a frankly show-offy knowledge of the classics. This goes on for quite some time. When the tram company receive the letter they answer it politely.
The Seven Basic Plots
Boy meets girl or boy. Space aliens invade. Bruce Willis is unwilling savior. A helicopter appears, though not always in the form of a helicopter. The past comes back to haunt us. Friendship is tested. Zombies. These are the 7 basic plots. The ancient Greeks and other storytellers before our time obviously had fewer. No matter what you write or read, it has to fit into the matrix so the brain can understand it. (Mmmmm, brains.) This is what editors are for: to guide those who go astray. It has to be cinematic because we are visual creatures, or there will be trouble.
The images play on the screens in our heads no matter what the original medium. Even Helen Keller had a box seat. She was a tough critic. (Yes, Anne Sullivan taught her the F-word. If you were blind and deaf wouldn’t you want to know it?) We are all critics, thumbs up or down, hitching a ride to the only places roads go.
It may seem like there must be more plots. There are, but they are not Basic. Exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis. Subtitles are never good for box office.
This has been misshelved here, as I’ve actually read it.
Getting to Grips with Punctuation and Grammar
Faux pas no more. Apostrophes, hyphens, nouns, things that are subjunctive — it’s all here. Make yourself understood just as well as the greats of literature. Learn to recognise when spelling counts and when it doesn’t (more often than you might think!). Discover helpful mnemonic tricks for difficult-to-remember words for when it’s better to be safe than sorry. Particularly useful is a section on Googling for common usages, and grammar by consensus. There’s even a chapter on split infinitives hilariously interrupted by a digression into adverbial syntactic functions. Ends much too soon.
Surviving at the Top
Donald Jehoshaphat Trump, superego redefined, is struck by an apple and discovers gravity, that thing ‘At the top’, though he gives props to “That great American Isaac ‘Fig’ Newton.” Fruit is, in fact, a theme. Investors who didn’t buy into his schemes were “bananas”; those who did were “sharp as a papaya” — an aphorism which never caught on. His first wife Ivana was a “Georgian peach” (actually she was Czechoslovakian). Mayor Ed Koch was a “[antisemitic slur] kumquat,” a nickname that started a decades-long feud. I don’t think I have to tell you what he sent to David Dinkins in what he would later claim was a misunderstood gesture of peace and goodwill.
Follow-up to The Chocolate War, the first conflict fought entirely by women. This is a much needed guide to great cheeses, with an entire chapter on Stinking Bishop, an artisanal weapon in the British olfactory armoury. The American edition includes Cheez Whiz, thought by some critics to be outrageous product placement but by others to be a pungent nod to the vicissitudes of modernity.
Talk to the Hand
Not the sign language manual one would imagine, perhaps with a chapter devoted to helpful digital profanities, but a treatise on cultural mores of the current generation, ‘current’ being defined here as that generation below anyone likely to be reading this. Ears, being so preoccupied with listening to whatever is being piped into earbuds, are best avoided as portals to entertain discussion. The hand is the new ear. Thus a slap is an entirely appropriate way to close a conversation.
The Third Policeman
“Is it about a bicycle?” you ask. It is about that and everything in between. Flann O’Brien’s classic has been described as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma inside a mystery wrapped in a riddle, and with good reason. Because inside is the meaning of life, which is the greatest mystery of all except for death [see On Death and Dying, below], which is also the greatest mystery.
Set in rural semi-detatched Ireland and narrated by Schrödinger’s Cat, the story is a metaphysical tour de force involving all manner of unlikely goings on, including but not limited to non sequiturs, frankincense and myrrh being the traditional gifts for the birth of very naughty boys. Policing is also a theme, as might be expected from the title. To this day the local constabulary use O’Brien’s book as a bible and highway code.
Cyclists revere it because it speaks to them as no other. Of particular interest is the formula for determining what percentage of the body has transmogrified from human to bicycle, a process which begins when you first learn to ride and ends when you find yourself locked to a bike rack in old age, in need of a lick of paint besides. This is an actual test which can be performed in a lab. It will come as no surprise that Douglas Adams was 42.
This publication, put out by the UK Met Office, is a guide to the clouds over Britain. As weather conditions are constantly changing, it never goes out of print. Clouds are categorised by size, colour, speed, wispiness, and shape, the latter providing no end of public comment as the official classification system makes no allowances for whimsy — a cloud doesn’t “look like a rabbit eating a flower,” it is given an alphanumeric designation unintelligible to all but meteorologists and data crunchers. Available in a boxed set with the shipping forecast.
On the Origin of Species
Full title: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, wherein A Very Distinguished Procrastinator Presents Overwhelming Evidence, Painstakingly Gathered, that Evolution, Though It May Sound Like A Wild Idea to Most of You Here in the 19th Century, Is A Pretty Nifty Theory, Go On, Try to Poke Holes in It, See How Far You Get. By the Author of Nature Red in Tooth and Claw and Other Bodice Rippers.
Everyone has ancestors. Ours are apes. You can’t chose your family.
Remembrance of Things Past (In Search of Lost Time)
The narrator feeds a swan a madeleine, a type of cake which looks like a shell. Then he goes to bed early. When he wakes up he does it again, like Groundhog Day but in French. There is a lesbian scene, which is also one of the seven basic plots [see above]. On a visit to the seaside he trips over a shell. This involuntarily summons an image of the madeleine, which has turned up again back home and which he now uses as a paperweight. While at the beach he loses his watch in the sands of time. We fast forward to Sodom and Gomorrah, both of which the narrator visited as a child; they left deep impressions, like the shell of a madeleine.
The destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah (twinned like Brighton & Hove). Madeleines not to scale.
A lesbian is taken captive but released with no hard feelings. Later Swan dies: he was a man, not a bird after all. The narrator visits Venice with his mother, who complains about the plumbing. A telegram arrives informing him that there is a fugitive on the loose by mistake, but it has been spelled ‘lose’ instead, whatever the French is for that, and he ignores it. “I don’t care,” he says, but he does because he is basically a decent man. In the final volume of this masterful work the narrator visits Paris and writes a long review for TripAdvisor praising in particular the madeleines. He realises that the only way to escape from this endless series of Groundhog Days is to accept your life’s baggage and always make room for it. He then bites into the ancient madeleine and wakes up. Was it all a dream? No, he’s chipped a tooth.
He never does find his watch.
How to Cook a Wolf
An empowering manifesto from a writer at the top of her form, this book works on a number of levels, not least as actual food.
Fisher starts with her own version of the old fairy tale: Red of Riding Hood fame gets the drop on the wolf, plays out a scene reminiscent of Saw, then prepares and feasts upon him. This shocking yet delightful subversion of normative values forces the reader to consider life from the wolf’s point of view. The wounded pride of a predator just before he’s devoured teaches us that being eaten sucks, whoever you are. It is only by acknowledging that the ‘wolf’ inside all of us (even babes in the woods) has perfectly legitimate hungers that we begin to make a beginning to understand.
A large portion of the book is then devoted to actual recipes using foodstuffs available in most supermarkets. This is a frank acknowledgement of the retail imperative of a publisher keen to get a piece of that nice big cookbook pie.
Just as the reader is lulled into a false sense of security, perhaps even having gone so far as to put bay leaves on the shopping list, the author replays the opening scene, this time having girl and wolf sit down at grandma’s table and come to an understanding, even a mutual respect; thus confounding our expectations and guilty hope for more delicious mayhem. It ends with a tut, shamefully yet gratefully recieved.
A Brief History of Time
During a long dark night of the soul — a “black hole” much like one of Churchill’s black dogs — Professor Hawking postulates that not only is the universe due to end, certain cosmic effects have accelerated more quickly than forecast and The Big Crunch may arrive as soon as next Tuesday. He hurriedly dictates retractions to most of his previous theories, outlines how things might’ve been different if Planck’s Constant had stayed constant, and throws in a recipe for ossobuco.
Everyone watches the Joneses, but who’s watching the watchers watch the Joneses? de Botton is. He takes the reader on an erudite journey through the causes and effects of mass production, the psychology of human desire (with an especially piquant chapter on self-actualization “Dedicated to my Bubbie”), the oeuvre of Mel Brooks through a lens darkly, the potlatch culture of the Hieltsuk Nation, and a tour of an Apple Store to get to ‘de Botton’ of things.
On Death and Dying
There are five stages on the ultimate road trip first documented by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: Denial, FFS, Haggling, “We thought it was benign”, and FFS. [In an update to a new authoritative edition of her book, former colleague Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall adds a sixth after Haggling, ‘Tea’.] We all go through all five, though some of us are better at Haggling than others. Appendices include helpful directions to your nearest Dignitas outlet and famous last words.
“Now comes the mystery.” Henry Ward Beecher
“Friends applaud, the comedy is over.” Ludwig van Beethoven
“I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis.” Humphrey Bogart
“God bless… God damn.” James Thurber
“God, I’m bored.” St John Philby
The Hobbit-based works of J.R.R. Tolkien
Creatures called orcs wish to move into the sought-after Shire but the hobbits have priced them out. The orcs become angry and bloodthirsty yet the hobbits still won’t budge, drawing a ring around their golden catchment area and relegating the orcs to the clearly less desirable suburbs of Middling Earth. They then hire a wizard as a security guard.
50 Shades of Grey
A lowly darkroom technician stuck on halftone duty grows tired of the illusion of tonality and dreams of ’50 shades of grey’. To secure a promotion she seduces her line manager, offering forbidden pleasures. It’s all very sordid and delicious until one night her ecstasy climaxes in her shouting out his name, “Oh Ansel Adams!”, but unfortunately his name is actually Frank, so he proceeds to spank her quite vigorously with his left hand, a slave to chirality if not chivalry. They continue their affair in this vein until she gets her promotion.
It’s Not About the Bike
Before there was Lance: the disgraced champion, Lance: the champion, and Lance: the comeback kid, there was Lance: the mild-mannered stock boy at the Plano Texas Walmart. Put in charge of Sundries & Notions at a young age, he rapidly advanced to Lead-Based Cosmetics and then to Small Arms & Ammunition, where he caught the eye of Sam Walton himself when he had the idea of greeting each customer with a Howdy Pardner! gunshot into the ceiling. Unfortunately he was later caught operating a black market in Milk-Duds and fired. The future Sheryl Crow toy boy then expressed an interest in triathlons, which in the Lone Star State consists of line dancing, barroom brawling, and bowling with armadillos. Dogged by allegations that he cheated during Achy Breaky Heart, he was watching Mork & Mindy on TV one night drunk on regrets and Walmart Beer when he fatefully wrote a wildly improvisational fan letter to Robin Williams, mentioning in a PS. that he would like a bike for Christmas.
The Wind In My Wheels
Josie Dew! What a delightful name. She pedals all over the world and has alliterative adventures. This however is the story of her year as a galley cook on a Portsmouth-registered yacht run by white slavers, described as “the happiest time of my life, except for the white slaving.” Her creative juices began to simmer when she found herself making an omelet one morning for a Random House editor ravenous after a marathon session of debauchery. Encouraged to tell her own story, signed, then ordered to join the editor back in his cabin “to cross a few Ts and dot a few Is,” she slapped him playfully, then less playfully, then she locked him in a trunk with the gimp; reconsidered and released the gimp; then caught the next helicopter out. (The yacht had a helipad.) The story continues in her follow-up book, The Gimp At My Heels.
The Bicycle Book
Bikes are wonderful. We all know this. The Bicycle Book doubles our pleasure by having two of the best words in the English language in its title. (‘The’ is also popular.) The author doesn’t belabour the point; instead she lists all the bicycles in the world, alphabetised by name for those machines which have been lovingly christened; then by serial number. Note that this is only the first volume, A to B.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Noisy motorcycle. Something wrong. Must fix. No, they come that way. Life is what needs to be fixed. Must examine life. Start with Plato. Buy Phaedrus cliffs notes. No, can’t hurry this. Start from the beginning. From before the beginning. Before knowledge, before philosophy, before spark plugs. Once upon a time there was Pure Truth. Later everything went pear-shaped. The ancients knew. Oh, they knew. They shot Zeno’s Arrow into the sky and fractured reality into a million paradoxes. Vroom, Vroom. Buddha knew, too, but we don’t have time for that. Never enough time. Johnny Depp is buying the film rights. Don’t Google that, it’s an unsolvable riddle.
The Highway Code
A very important book which would keep all of us alive if only we had to sense to dedicate our waking moments to modifying our behaviour, appearance and mindset to suit the needs of the automobile. Composed of thousands of rules and heartfelt suggestions which may be used against you in a court of law should you impede its progress or drive one in such a manner as to show a lack of respect for the Code. Numbered, like our days on earth. Illustrated with stained-glass diagrams of saints and sinners. Contains important information on stopping distances under all circumstances, including when lollipop ladies are called into service as speed bumps, and when it is snowing and the council has spent the gritting fund on golden parachutes for its outgoing executives. Revised on a regular basis to reflect the changing mores of society: note crucial differences between the 1611 edition, “Ye MUST NOT take the Lord’s name in vain when being delayed by a horse answering the call of nature,” and the 2007 edition, “You MUST refrain from talking on your mobile phone while driving unless you are using it to report a Jimmy Savile look-alike to the police.” Cyclists are given their own section just after ‘Rules for animals’, as to the regret of many, they are technically road users. The two sections are to be combined in a future edition, when the government is expected to introduce legislation to enable herding lanes.