Saturday 9 March 2019

Random Book

Dau.I has been reshelving books for nearly six months so is nearing the end of her probationary period as a librarian for Dublin Corporation. The Beloved, her mother, was in Dublin a couple of weeks ago and went on an offspring work-place visit. Someone in there has a really nifty idea to boost readership. It is a really good idea, especially in these troubled time, to read outside your comfort zone. A few years ago I used to search through the random accession in a library basement - that protocol often turned up gems. Cabra Library Staff take sad books (books which sit on the shelves un-checked-out for longer than average) wrap them in coloured tissue and write an enigmatic tag on the outside. I was presented with a wrapped paperback saying
Adventures in China
The glory of Flight
The story of a life
Inside was Staring at the Sun by Julian Barnes [U2's take on that phrase -- Mika's -- The Offsprings' -- TV on the Radio's] . Barnes was a writer's writer back in the 1980s when I read fiction, his 3rd novel Flaubert's Parrot was a mighty success in Britain and also in France. I don't remember actually reading it but I do recall the hubbub among the chattering classes. Later he published A History of the World in 10½ Chapters to similar acclaim. Staring at the Sun came in between and was published in 1986. It was most disconcerting to read it in 2019 because it is the life-story of a near centenarian born in 1920 - like my mother in other words. The narrative tracks her adventures with a pilot [who stares at the sun] in WWII; her marriage to a different man and their childless marriage; her wholly unexpected post-menopausal pregnancy; her leaving home and raising the son as a single parent. It is peculiar but recognisably within the lived experience of that generation. But the story abruptly leaves the rails in a sort of Orwellian future fiction that is wrong because, in contrast to readers when the book came out in 1986, we know what happened in nineties and noughties and it's not like Barnes imagined it.

I'm happy to confess that it read a lot easier than most of the science books I struggle through: maybe Barnes deserves his tribs as one of the best writers of his generation. One interesting idea is that The Future creates an omniscient computer which people can interrogate about anything and everything. But much of this information is off-limits to ordinary people. There is a hint that the computer is actually a giant call-centre serviced by quite ordinary young women who answer what they can and bring down the shutters on questions that are beyond them. It's like Google / Wikipedia in the sense that you can find out a lot about what doesn't matter:
  • who won the FA Cup Final in 1953; 
  • the atomic number of Au gold; 
  • the area of a standard tennis-court; 
  • the body count at Borodino; 
  • the number of stripes on the gopher Ictidomys tridecemlineatus.
But on the Big Questions, like
  • What is Life? 
  • Is there a god? 
  • Who will win the FA Cup Final in 2020? 
the computer just offers the un-evidenced opinions of a couple of twenty-somethings.  That's okay: science doesn't do any better on those questions. But a well-written novel is given licence to explore the existential issues and may given guidance or even advice towards A Life Well Lived. Well I'm done with the Barnes Book now and returned it to the library. As we have a National Library Service, you can get it delivered to your local library - if you live in Ireland.

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