The Desert Island aka Shackleton’s Antarctic Collection.

I doubt there could be a more real life example of the ‘What would you take to a desert island?’ than Shackleton’s trip to the Antarctic. There is an exhibition of the photographs of that trip on at the RGS in London at the moment. One of the photos shows a wall of books, his floating library. The RGS has been able to digitally enhance it, so that we now know exactly what Shackleton took on this unhappy expedition.

Shackleton

Can you judge a book by its cover? The fact is that one often can. And taking that notion a little further, surely we can judge a man by the covers of his books. That’s something, with the advent of electronic book reading, that we will never be able to do again. It is so easy and cheap to download that one can never make assumptions about the relationship of the book to the machine owner. Here, however, of course we are entitled to draw conclusions. The man bothered to take the books to Antarctica. The books mean something.

I’ve arranged the list in order into:

  • literature
  • linguistic and general reference
  • exploration

Between the general reference section and the exploration books I’ve squeezed in two non-fiction books, one by the socialist JB Askew and one by Alfred Dreyfuss.

As for literature, it is interesting to note that it is relatively light on our notion of classics. Most of them are the best sellers or maybe, to convert to our idiom, the Goodreads trending books of his time. There are quite a few murder mysteries or similar.

I’m guessing that those reading this have never heard of:

Gertrude Atherton
Amelie Rives
Montague Glass
Ian Hey
AEW Mason
David Bone
Herbert Flowerdew
John Joy Bell
Louis Tracy
William J Locke
Rex Beach
Robert Hugh Benson
H De Vere Stacpoole

Yet Atherton was compared with Wharton, Rives was the EL James of her day, and William J Locke made the best selling US novels list in five different years. His stories were made into films 24 times, including Ladies in Lavender starring Dench and Maggie Smith in 2004 and four of his books made Broadway as plays. In fact, although not one of my 500+ goodreads friends has reviewed any of these authors, Locke is still well read and loved, judging by the reviews. I confess I did not know his name.

Potash and Perlmutter, the comic rag trade merchants of Monatague Glass, were all the rage amongst New York Jews. Stacpoole is the author of The Blue Lagoon of the film fame (some would say infamy) and Flowerdew used his novels to proselytise on the rights of women:

The Woman’s View: A Novel About Marriage (1903) is a marriage problem tale with a complicated plot drawing attention to the inaccuracy with which the marriage laws relate to how people, especially women, feel about marriage. Valerie marries a fortune-hunter, and discovers he had a wife who was alive when they were married but is now dead. Philip, who has always loved her, tells her she is free, but she still feels married, and remarries her husband. He beats her and her baby dies as a result, so Philip rescues her. The husband sues for divorce on grounds of adultery, and so she is once more free, though she has not committed adultery. She marries Philip to save his political career, but refuses to sleep with him, as she still has a husband alive. Her cousin, who is in love with Philip, tells her she must: Valerie then responds by telling him to get an annulment and going back to her husband. As in Retaliation, Flowerdew sacrifices plausibility for the sake of his thesis. Flowerdew published an article, ‘A Substitute for the Marriage Laws’ in the Westminster Review (September 1899). Oxford Index

 

Rives

Amelie Rives, whose steamy best-seller The Quick and the Dead?  earned her a vigorous campaign of hate mail. And there I was thinking hate mail was just a function of the ease of modern technology. 

Personally, I find it fascinating to read up on authors who were successful in their day but subsequently forgotten. I have included links to the biographies of the lesser known authors, leaving it to you to take your exploration from there. Be brave. Be inquisitive. Shackleton would be proud of you.

Books on Shackleton’s bookshelf:

 

Does James Bond have to go through airport security?

Geneva airport, our plane is boarding. We have just got to the top of the security check queue which is so long today that they have extended it into the airport pathway. That, after a ten minute wait in the fast track of Easy Jet luggage checkin. And today, of all days, is the first time our Easy Jet flight has been on time for years. That’d be right.

But we were okay now, through the thing where you might beep but don’t. Hand on my luggage when a voice says:

‘Is that your luggage ma’am?’

And you look up and say ‘yes’ to the female security guards who ask you to ‘come this way’.

‘Do you know why we are going to search your bags, ma’am?’

I give a seriously stressed out answer because I’m seriously stressed out.

‘So that I miss my plane?’

‘It’s because you have a large knife in your bags, ma’am.’

Do they think I’m a complete idiot? What sort of dickwit would pack a knife in their carry on luggage? Manny comes over and I tell him when he asks, ‘They are looking for the large knife we packed this morning.’ Spoken with all the sarcasm I could muster, which was quite a lot.

Losing it in Switzerland isn’t a great idea. Losing it in airports isn’t a great plan either. Swiss airports? Don’t even think about it. But our plane was boarding. They couldn’t find the knife. They are inclined, in fact to believe me and turn to look at the X-ray dude who has put me in this position. He stares at me and shakes his head in a way that says ‘Think you are getting away with this? Forget it.’

I start getting a wind up, I’m ranting away. ‘Hello? Do you really think ‘a big knife’ could be in there’ as one of them unzips my purse which is maybe 2 inches wide. They are pulling everything out of my bags and I’m in the middle of ‘What are you guys doing, seriously. Why aren’t you out catching terrorists instead of harrassing innocent travellers like -‘ and I don’t actually finish my sentence because as I’m saying that, it dawns on me that one of them is pulling a knife out of my carry-on, where it is hiding in the side at the bottom, just about where you would hide a knife if you were.

Hiding a knife. Which I wasn’t. But there it was. Undeniably there was what I would not call a large knife, but a decent sized one all the same in my carry-on. If Sharia law insisted that somebody’s head had to be removed from their body during the course of our flight to Gatwick airport, this knife wouldn’t cut it. But absolutely one could see it sticking into somebody’s heart or slitting their throat.

Or…as I recollect during the horror I am feeling, cutting cheese and fruit. The weekend before we had been on a train trip and I’d taken the knife to cut things for lunch. Here it was, still in my bag.

Fucketty-fuck. Grovelling apologies. Tip to the X-ray man who was so on the job. It turns out it only looks like they aren’t really looking. How tricky can you get? I’m explaining away and these very nice security guards who have just put up with my diatribe couldn’t be, well, sweeter about it. Maybe their English wasn’t up to it, I don’t know. Or it’s because I’m short. But although they said it was all right, no problem, they did nonetheless take my particulars.

They put my name and address in a big black book whilst telling me not to worry. If they don’t want you to worry, why is it big and black?  Couldn’t they make it pink or something? And smaller. A Hello Kitty notepad, something like that.

The terrorist register. I can just see it. And my worst fears are confirmed. I’ve felt like a terrorist since September 2010 when I was given my second passport. I guess lots of people have two passports from two countries. But mine have two names on them. Now I’m a person with two passports with different IDs and a penchant for packing dangerous weapons in my carry-on. James Bond, eat your heart out.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

What can I say, when Marilyn Monroe has already said it all.

Marilyn Monroe Let's Make Love
Marilyn with the boys in Let’s Make Love

If you haven’t seen the movie, she slids down a pole into a group of (need I say adoring?) men and announces in her sexy, breathy way – ‘My name is Lolita and uhhhh….I’m not supposed to…..play with….boys’.

The song’s called ‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy’, and surely it verges on the pornographic whilst all the time she is wearing a jumper up to her neck.

It’s a fantastic statement about the book, much as the song was first written long before it first came out. You just HAVE to watch it here. Right now!!!! [Update some years later: the link has been removed and I can’t find another online. Oh, buy the movie. It’s so worth it!]

Back again? Good. What a brilliant reworking and I do not use that word lightly. Compare Mary Martin’s version …which is insipid even though it includes a striptease. It begs the question, is it just the presence of Marilyn that makes this sexy or is it sexy because it is about a subject that is still a weird juxtaposition of taboo – old men having sex with children, and accepted – the sexualisation of children, a happy marriage, as far as I can see, between capitalism, liberal views on what is acceptable practice for children, and the internet. One way or another these conflicting attitudes and behaviours have been around for a very long time – the Victorian period in English is an obvious example. But somehow it seems worse now.

Well, I have yet to read this book, but it’s in the ethos, one of those books you know about without having read a word and I’ve seen the Lolita the movie. I hope that gives me licence to have said these few words.

The Shallows What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas G. Carr

Mr Pinker, vacuous decrier of this book. I wonder if you might listen in on the salutary tale of what happened to my brain some years ago and the general relevance of this tale to the Internet society in which we now live.

About five years ago I began to be concerned that I was suffering early onset dementia. My concentration span was almost zero. Things I couldn’t do included putting on dinner and remembering I’d done that or following a whole page of Calvin and Hobbes panels. I could no longer play bridge properly, I certainly couldn’t read a book. I couldn’t listen properly to anything people said and certainly couldn’t remember what I had ‘listened’ to.

The person I was living with showed me an article about something called ‘interruption science’ and I realised that my problems emanated from how I was working and also playing. At the time I was doing a lot of work which involved keying something into a search engine and having to wait about 20 seconds for a result. Long enough not to want to wait, not long enough to do anything else properly. I’d flick to other sites, read a sentence, put a bid on ebay…a comment on a blog…and flick back again. My life consisted of 20 second-1 minute bursts of ‘concentration’ flicking backwards and forwards, to and fro. This had such a profound impact on my brain that it was simply no longer able to function properly. The effect on my bridge was stunning. As a good bridge player I should be able to recall after a session all the bids and plays that took place during it. Now I couldn’t even remember them from one second to the next. It was devastating.

Once I understood what the issue was, addressing it wasn’t so difficult. Instead of doing this work for hours at a time I cut it down into much smaller units. I stopped switching from site to site as I waited for my results to show up. I forced myself to sit down with a book for at least one uninterrupted hour each day. Even just these simple steps had immediate impact. The brain is a very forgiving thing. My bridge started recovering. I’d put dinner in the oven AND we’d eat it. This was so much better than before. I can recall one morning waking up and being put out at not being able to remember what the starter I’d baked in the oven had tasted like. That was the sort of thing I couldn’t remember and it was really quite distressing. It is hard to say whether it was good or bad news when I realised what had actually happened. I’d put the starters in the oven and then completely forgotten about them, I realised when I noticed (next morning, remember) the oven was stil on. Well, at least I hadn’t forgotten what they tasted like.

I have never understood how it is that we live in a society where we know – even if we don’t always follow the knowledge – that we need to look after our bodies and we know what that means. Nobody, for example, would jog and think that this took the place of weight training. The body needs a range of different things to keep it in good order.

It shouldn’t be rocket science to understand that the same applies to the brain. But people stupidly think that if they are still working – ‘oh, I use my brain every day’ – that they don’t need to do anything else for it. Nothing could be further from the truth. This applies particularly in our working environment which is typically so stop-start in a way it didn’t used to be. Remember when we thought failure to concentrate on one thing was something that applied to women? Now men do that too and so we have a positive name for it, it’s called multi-tasking. It used to be called ‘women can’t concentrate’. So, whereas in the old days men DID concentrate for long periods of time on one thing – and I’m sure there are still men who do – most men no longer do that any more than women did. Just as a woman did the vacuuming while cooking dinner while wiping a bottom while eating the bit of food baby just chucked up because it’s easier than throwing it away while getting them dressed while bathing then while talking on the phone while shopping while…..so too that is now how men work and play.

Television is designed around the idea – and promotes the idea – that we can’t concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time. Classrooms are organised around it too. I took a class of primary school children for chess some years ago and the teachers who sat in to observe were aghast that I never took any breaks and yet could also observe that children were perfectly capable of thinking about one thing for a long time. They didn’t even know they weren’t having breaks. I took this for granted as a chess player: I’d been raised on being part of one game for 5 hours in a row – and then often enough adjourning, thinking about it for more hours and them coming back to play again. I adored this, really it was one of the best times of my life by far, playing chess. To be absorbed and lost in something for hours upon hours, there is nothing like it. I honestly put it right up there with sex so, you know….

All people should, in the same way they respect their bodies, respect their minds by permitting them proper – workouts – might be the word, a decent run. You do this by any number of means. It could be a difficult Sudoku, a cryptic crossword, a book, chess or maybe bridge. I was asked to write a paper on the connection between staving off Alzheimer’s and playing bridge some years ago and I can assure you that there is a connection between these things. Hardly surprising.

I’m not suggesting that you don’t turn on skype to say hello to your separated loved one in the morning when you wake up. It is simply a matter of balance.

Go here to Jason’s excellent review and responding comments for links to sources including Pinker’s inane opinion here: and the full story of this book. But I figure, hey, if you are here, you’ve flicked through a source or two about it, you got the gist….didn’t you?