I started one, wasn’t getting it so wasn’t getting into it, grabbed another from the shelf, got bored with the repetitiveness, went back to the first and stuck it out.
The first choice was very left field, even though it was a Penguin. Its strangeness was grounded in an element of familiarity. It wasn’t the traditional orange, being one of the brand’s “Little Black Classics”. And it was smaller than usual. But it was a Penguin.
The single sentence on the back cover sucked me in: “The provocative early-nineteenth-century essayist casts a blackly comic eye over the aesthetics of murder through the ages.” What was black comedy like in the 1800s?
Answer: Very often out of my depth.
For brain health, we are supposed to read regularly from the unfamiliar. Although there are only so many genres in literature there must come a point when there’s not much novelty left. Perhaps an argument against the avid reader.
Back to my first choice … The general structure and premise of Thomas De Quincey’s On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts was clear enough. A newspaper editor receives a tip off in the form of written lecture notes. The lecture was given (was to be given?) at a secret society of men (it was the 1800s!) who delight in the nuances of murder. There is a differentiation in their ranks between the amateur and the professional.
The newspaper editor added an Editor’s Note that his source appears sincere in the belief that the dastardly society must be revealed to the world, but in the editor’s opinion the lecture is obviously a joke.
For me, also unable to fathom the joke, the examples in the lecture start to get repetitive. It actually got too boring for a pre-slumber read. I couldn’t be bothered to pick it up.
So instead I returned to The Oxford Book of English Short Stories, edited by A.S.Byatt.
I bought this book many years ago on the recommendation of a friend who was sure I would enjoy the writing style of A. S. Byatt. It didn’t occur to me at the time of purchase that an Oxford Book of is always a collection and that Byatt therefore was the editor, not the author.
English culture is my cultural blanket and has been for most of my life. It’s not my culture. I’m Australian. But it has always been there. Given the choice between an English, Australian or American drama, I will likely choose the English. I’m aware of the English influences around me, yet I’ve never really tried to understand them. If I had, perhaps I’d have taken more from these short stories.
Instead, the story I was reading felt very similiar to the one just read. There is variety, and a sense of satisfaction when reaching the end of each, but Byatt sought stories that would sit under an overarching, albeit a difficult-to-define, definition of Englishness.
Repetitiveness started feeling repetitive. I drifted back to the Little Black Classic and just let it be …
I picture a youngish, middle-aged man standing at a lecturn, lots of cigar smoke swirling up from the guests in their evening tuxedos. They have just finished a meal. The scent of brandy hangs in the air. The lights are dim. Would there have been electric light or only candles? I choose electric light for my recreation.
… someone somewhere will have already written on the fine arts of the televised murder mystery drama. As I plod through this Latin-infused essay, it occurs to me that in each episode of Midsomer Murder the novelty is in the manner of the murder, whereas in Vera the novelty is how the body is discovered.
What happens when you jump back and forth between two books? Is there seepage, cross-fertilisation or confusion between the two stories? There should be something.
In this case, I think the answer is nothing. At least, nothing obvious. I have no desire to return to On Murder or any other works by De Quincey, and am a little thankful that English Short Stories is sufficiently unremarkable that I can return to it again when needed and probably not remember anything previously read. Which perhaps makes it ideal pre-slumber reading.
I’ve been returning regularly to English Short Stories, at least until my next trip to the bookstore. Part way through, a sense of familiarity appears as memory identifies elements of each tale and anticipates the ending.
I think I’ve just learnt the value of re-reading.