Mr Litlove’s Reading

We still seem to be in a period where everything is unnecessarily fraught. This week my attempts to write another biographical essay have been undermined by getting mad at my son for staying up too late at night texting his girlfriend. We now have a new agreement in place for his bedtime, but oh I loathe conflict so much; it makes me feel properly ill. So, given I have not finished a book, I thought you might like to hear about what Mr Litlove’s been reading lately. There’s been quite a lot of it.

the craftsmanHe was given quite a few books for Christmas, and wasted no time in consuming them. He began with The Craftsman by Richard Sennett, a curious mixture of philosophy and real world examples exploring the idea of craftsmanship as ‘the desire to do a job well for its own sake’. The reviews on amazon had been very mixed for this book but he felt interested in reading it anyway. However, the issue with the book you can see for yourself, right there in that oddly bland and limitless definition of what the practice of craft might be about. If pressed, I’d say it had something to do with creating materially pleasing or useful artefacts with one’s hands. But every time Mr Litlove put his head up from the book to tell me about what he was reading, he was talking about the NHS or playing jazz piano or working in a laboratory. ‘What’s that got to do with craft?’ I kept asking, and Mr Litlove was never sure. Afterwards, he was glad he’d read it, but not convinced he liked it.

After that he moved onto Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, Reamde. Mr Litlove often surprises me by the amount of pages he can consume. He is a fast reader who is not afraid to skip, interested in plot more than in language and able to read solidly for far longer than I can. By the time he got to Reamde, he’d developed a cold, and so he spent the next four days working through its 1,000 pages, barely moving a muscle. He was so still it was as if we’d had him stuffed. When I asked what the plot was about, he said it concerned an ex-drug runner turned computer game designer who had designed a wildly successful online role playing game. Only the game had been targeted by Chinese virus writers, and the virus had in turn had impounded the files of the Russian mafia, who happened to be living in the same house as a Welsh, black, Muslim extremist.

Right.

Well, I guess if you have 1,000 pages to fill, you have to be inventive. All I can say is that we didn’t get a peep out of him until the book was finished.

unlikely pilgrimage of harold fryAltogether more recognisable as a novel was Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, a book that seems to have garnered a fair amount of media attention. Harold Fry lives a life of quiet desperation. When he receives a letter from a friend who is dying, he knows he has to write back but struggles to find an adequate reply. Rather than posting the letter, he surprises himself by setting off to walk to her, a long, long journey over the course of which he will meet many people who have their own stories to tell him. Mr Litlove really enjoyed this one, and it even brought a little tear to his eye. It was, of course, a very manly tear, and we will not mention it again.

Then he read Quirkology by Richard Wiseman, which is basically a psychology book that takes really odd facts and offbeat topics and explores them with ‘scientific methods’. Mr Litlove showed me the epilogue, where the author had listed the 10 factoids that his friends had voted the most likely to enliven conversation at an otherwise dull dinner party. Like, for instance, women’s personal ads attract more attention if they are written by men, but this is not the case when women write ads for men. And people would rather wear a sweater that has been dropped in dog faeces and not washed than one dry-cleaned but last worn by a mass murderer. Oh academia, is this what you have been reduced to by the demands of groupthink?  Anyway, I’m sure it’s all very jolly really, though I can’t say that I have prised anything like an opinion about it out of my husband.

A couple of days ago a new book arrived in the post for me. Mr Litlove had contrived by pure chance to be there, as he always is when my sinful cheeky online purchases arrive, and he commandeered this one. It was The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz, a series of brief essays surrounding ephiphanies that occurred in therapy sessions, the distilled wisdom of 25 years Grosz had spent as a practising psychoanalyst. Instantly, he settled down with it. ‘Do you mind?’ I complained. ‘I quite like to read my own books first.’ ‘Mmm,’ said Mr Litlove, ‘and you’ll enjoy this one when you get around to it; it’s very good.’ Now, I realise I may be petty but where else can this be indulged except in one’s marriage? ‘Fine,’ I said. ‘The next woodworking tool that arrives in the post for you I will look forward to trying out myself first.’ Mr Litlove did not care for this deal and put my lovely new copy of The Examined Life down. But there was much grizzling subsequently about ‘that book you wouldn’t let me read’ and so inevitably I relented and he zipped through it in about 24 hours.

I realised this must have been a very good book as he began it at the beginning and read through to the end. There’s this odd thing he does when review books or research books arrive on the kitchen table: he picks them up and starts in the middle. My Inner Librarian is horrified but Mr Litlove is wholly unrepentant. ‘I get through a lot more of your books than you do,’ he often tells me. And this is true.  But when I read them, I remember a lot more about them than he does. After nineteen years of marriage we have now learned how to use this efficiently. From his useful initial screening, I figure out which of the books are worth reading in their entirety, and when he remembers half an anecdote from one of them, or half a theory, I can be relied upon to supply the rest. There’s a reason why opposites attract!

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20 thoughts on “Mr Litlove’s Reading

  1. I’m still giggling at the thought of Mr. Litlove being so still he looked as though he had been stuffed :D I hope he is recovered from his cold. Bookman has read and enjoyed Reamde and I hope to get to it sometime too. Stephenson is big on plot but it’s usually very intricate and well done even if it might seem outrageous.

    • Mr Litlove thoroughly enjoyed the book – I’m sure it’s one of those novels that sound odd when described, but it makes perfect sense to the person lost in the fictional world! Would love to hear your thoughts on it.

  2. I applaud Mr. Litlove’s appetite for Neal Stephenson; I’ve been defeated by three of his books so far, despite having been told that they are exactly the kind of thing I will love. I am now beginning to wonder in what light I must appear to the persons who are so convinced of this.

    • Ha, yes, I’m sure there’s a very amusing blog post for us all in there: books that have been urged upon me but which represent a total misrecognition of my taste. If it’s any consolation, he’s not an author who springs to my mind when I think of you. William Maxwell, yes. Neal Stephenson, not so much.

  3. I had forgotten I wanted to read Reamde because it is on Mr Non-Necromancer’s table. Hmm. Perhaps I should snake it out. He is actually the one who reads more slowly and carefully, of the two of us.

    • It is a tricky book to hide behind a magazine cover, but I’d love to know what you think of it. I have a semi-theory that most marriages work by balancing oppositions, and that partners end up exaggerating some tendencies precisely in order to find this sort of balance. But I could easily be wrong!

  4. It’s quite a while since I read The Craftsman, so I hope my memory isn’t too unreliable. Richard Sennett is one of my favourite sociologists and academics – he’s a visiting professor at LSE, where I used to work – but I think he may be too prolific for his own good. Such an excitingly large, diverse and humane body of work, and all on important and fascinating topics, but a lot of what I’ve read I have found frustratingly diffuse and not all that well structured. The penalties of producing at such a rate, I guess (and perhaps of editorial cuts in publishing, combined with a reluctance to edit such a prominent scholar too vigorously). So I’m not disputing your criticism, but I still loved this and think it’s an important book for our time. I think he would define craft somewhat differently from you, as work that demands great skill that can only be mastered by investing a huge amount of time and patience. In the past this meant work done by hand, but with the advent of technology and of a much more complex society that’s no longer necessarily the case. As far as I recall, the book is about the huge losses to our society and our lives as craft skills have ceased to be central and to be esteemed. It considers in the widest sense the loss of the characteristics and values intrinsic to craft, eg patience, persistence, gentleness, the capacity for concentration and absorption… and much more; and pleads for their continuing importance. I’d have to agree that it’s a frustrating book, but I loved it and will read it again.

    • Mr Litlove read your comment with much interest and said that he very much agreed with you. In many ways I’m doing something very foolish in writing about books I haven’t read myself. But I still can’t quite reconcile myself to that definition, although I do see how changing technologies may well have bumped the value of craft beyond the margins, out of sight, and that is not a good thing. I am also reminded of the difficulties of academic writing and how flaws in the structure of a piece can leave it open to misinterpretation. And that’s particularly true when someone is attempting something ambitious and experimental. If only the whole business of writing were easier!

  5. I heard parts of ‘An Examined Life’ on the radio and had marked down as something I would like to get round to eventually. Please tell Mr Litlove that his wholehearted approval has moved it up the list.

    • I’ve also read it now, and think it is wonderful. One of my books of the year, without a doubt. I’ll probably review it during the week. Would love to know what you think of it, and think that yes, you would find this interesting and moving.

  6. “or working in a laboratory. ‘What’s that got to do with craft?’”

    I work in laboratories and I certainly think there is a huge amount of “craft” skill in building and operating successful and repeatable experiments. I fully concur with Jean’s list “patience, persistence, gentleness, the capacity for concentration and absorption”. As a physical scientist I get a little upset when the view of a craft appears to be so often connected with working with wood or cloth or writing (with fountain pen …).

  7. My h is an omniverous reader and I also get irritated when he picks up a book I intend to read or worse one that I’m in the middle of…but this made me smile. I’m glad to hear about Mr. Litlove’s reading and appreciate (from experience) the benefits of complementary skills.

    • I am SO glad it’s not just me! I don’t know, breaking open a new book is a very special treat somehow… But yes, those complementary skills can come in very handy. I can’t change a light bulb without assistance, for example!

  8. Now there’s a successful working partnership! :) It’s good to have someone do a little preliminary sorting through possible reads. I sort of wish I could pick up a book wherever it seemed most interesting, but I am like you and would be aghast at the idea of a book I am reading–to not start at the beginning (and read straight through). I tend to be far too structured and should really learn to relax more! I do wish I could be such a fast reader though!

  9. Thank you for sharing Mr. Litlove’s reads with us. I read Joyce’s book and quite liked it myself. It brought a few tears to my eyes and I felt like I was being over sentimental about the story. I’m glad I’m not the only one who was moved by it. It really is a lovely story.

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