The Second Reading

On Thursday of last week, I went to the cinema to watch a National Theatre Live screening of Hamlet starring Benedict Cumberbatch. I was disappointed to find it was a recording of the show I’d seen in 2015, particularly I’d specifically asked about this and was assured that it was a new live performance.

Chinatown, London. Benedict Cumberbatch during...
Chinatown, London. Benedict Cumberbatch during filming of Sherlock. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nonetheless, I’d consciously chosen to see the play again. In this case, I felt I would understand the story a little better the second time around as there’s an additional barrier of decoding the Elizabethan English. Having an actor apply inflection and pace to the words helps enormously.

This is an unusual move for me, as I normally don’t revisit works I’ve already read or seen. Yet it happened recently, when I saw the latest film version of Stephen King’s It with some friends, then I was invited again by a different person. As I’d seen it so recently, I knew very much where the story was going, but there were elements I picked up the second time and not the first.

The last time I read a novel again must have been more than 10 years ago. It was Starter for Ten by David Nicholls. At the time, I was at the end of my first degree, so the theme of university life appealed to me enough to tackle it again, though I don’t recall gaining much extra from the second occasion.

The one circumstance where I do reread old work is when it’s my own. I use this as a yardstick to measure how much I’ve learnt in the intervening time.

I recently rediscovered a 200-word story I’d written in 2012 with the intention of adapting it for a competition. While the concept is sound, I can now see where my sentences are too flabby and where I might focus on different details. I could even trim the story to just 100 words without losing any of the sense.

Of course, I might read back over this entry in five years’ time and see the same problems.

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The league of extraordinary books.

I was recently given the book Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. I never normally hurry through books, but I enjoyed this one so much – despite a few plot holes – that I finished it in 48 hours.

It’s usually an annoyance when I know an author is withholding information, but Ishiguro has the main character Kathy drip-feed us as she remembers. At times, it was hard to remember there’s a male author behind the words, as her voice is spot-on.

At some point during this 48 hours, I decided to contact the author to give my thoughts. Here’s where I hit a wall. He has an official Facebook profile, but my message was rather long and few people on the site read lengthy posts. There was also a danger that it would be buried under other comments. So I decided to look for an e-mail address.

The e-mail address on his profile, however, was for Random House, but the book was published by Faber & Faber. So I visited the publisher’s website and looked for an official way to contact Ishiguro. Rather quaintly, Faber & Faber insist that readers must contact their authors by post. The picture shows my envelope ready to be posted.image

Yet as I was writing, I realised the power of a physical letter. As more communication becomes electronic, it becomes harder to ignore the few envelopes dropping through your door, just as receiving an e-mail in the late 1990s would have stood out a mile.

The last time I really enjoyed a book, it was The House That Groaned by Karrie Fransman. Some of the twists actually made me gasp out loud, and she incrementally sets up the explosive ending throughout the story, but the reader only snaps together the pieces in the last few pages. I sent her a Twitter message to say I’d enjoyed it so much I’d finished the whole thing in one sitting.

There was a chance she might not have seen this message among tons of others, or she could have easily forgotten about it. However, Fransman did reply, and wisely took the opportunity to tell me about her next book Death of the Artist. Incidentally, I spoke to her briefly at a launch of Death of the Artist, and she jokingly told me not to finish it in one sitting as her books take so long to craft.

I’m always upfront in saying I’m not a lifelong writer, at least not of fiction and poetry. So when I read Starter for Ten by David Nicholls, it didn’t occur to me to write to him. You might know it from the inferior 2006 film.

There’s a chance I enjoyed this book so much because it’s set in a university, and either I was coming to the end of my first time in tertiary education or had recently graduated – I can’t remember which. But even aside from that, the main character Brian Jackson is someone who’s oblivious of his own stupidity, yet painted in such a way that the reader can’t help but feel sorry for him. Indeed, it’s one of the few books I’ve read twice.

Alas, I’m unable to write to the author of my final extraordinary book as Ella Cheever Thayer died in 1925. Her 1880 novel Wired Love was a real eye-opener for me. It tells the story of a young telegraph operator called Nattie Rogers who begins chatting to a mysterious male operator at another station and develops a crush on him. Just like today’s online dating, Nattie reads his messages and tries to second-guess what he really means and wants.

The novel also feels contemporary with its proto-feminist feel. Throughout the story, Nattie remains the one in control of the relationship. All the main characters are female too, with the men portrayed as slightly dimwitted, though both genders appear to run the telegraph network on an equal footing.

The best part is that the novel is now in the public domain so can be read free of charge as an e-book. This website provides more analysis and links to the book.