Sunday, 4 July 2010

Book review: "Outside of a Dog," by Rick Gekoski

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

In the past year or so, I discovered a new book geek pleasure. A friend of mine, let's call her Brenda, gave me a great Christmas present - a book journal (even more meaningful, as I know she used to despair of me wanting books for a present instead of something glamorous and girly). My new pleasure then was to scour the magazine brought out by Waterstones (a large bookselling chain in the UK), and make a note of all the books that sound interesting. "Outside of a Dog," was one of the books that I saw in a Waterstones magazine.

Rick Gekoski's book is a memoir of a life in books (as a lecturer, and then as a rare book dealer). This memoir takes Rick from his early years as a highly sexed adolescent, placing a different spin on Carlyle's dictum that "the best effect of any books is that it excites the reader to self activity," to finding his voice as a writer in later years. Along the way he meets luminaries such as Germaine Greer (a colleague when he was a lecturer), Graham Greene and the widow of Kim Philby. In addition to reading about writers and books, you also find out a great deal about Rick and his family.

This book essentially does what every good book about books should do - makes you want to read more of them. His chapter on T.S. Eliot made me want to reread "The Wasteland," which I initially didn't like as a student but have now come to admire. His chapter of Yeats, however, has done nothing to ameliorate the dislike that I felt for his poetry. As an admirer of Germaine Greer (the most interesting people are passionate, committed and a little bit mad), I found the chapter on her particularly interesting as it places "The Female Eunuch" within the context of its time.

I especially found that I could relate to his discomfort with the rise of literary theory. My inability to process literary theory, and my dislike of some of its tenets, was one reason why I decided that I was not suited to a career in academia. In modern academic life it seems impossible to lecture and not have to teach theory. Theory made my head ache; it seemed to take pleasure in asserting its intellectual superiority by being contrived and - to my limited brainpower - completely impenetrable. It was language as obfuscation, not explanation. In my attitude to literary theory - as in most things - I was terminally unfashionable. Most of all I hated Roland Barthes' idea of the death of the author: that authorial intent is irrelevant, and what matters above all else is the reader's interpretation. This, of course, is a gross simplification that proves my inability to grasp theory. I passionately took against this idea, because for me the intellect that created the work is as fascinating as the text itself. And Rick Gekoski is a very interesting author with whom to spend some time.

There is one element of this book that fascinated me and has made me think again about my reading habits. And this is something that I have still not resolved, and am working through in this blog. Rick Gekoski, on leaving academia, rebelled against its tenets by embarking on a process of "becoming less intelligent." This involved taking out a standing order for 20 thrillers a month; disposable novels that were read at speed and almost instantly forgotten. This has increasingly become my style of reading. The majority of the novels that I have read recently have been to literature what Pot Noodle is to nutrition. I recently tweeted that I hoped my policy of complete declaration of my reading might shame me into reading something more intelligent.

Although I have apparently internalised this snobbery which elevates some writing as literature and denigrates some as trash, a big part of me rebels against this. I used to be saddened by people at university who told me that they were unable to switch off their critical faculties, and just read something trashy for pleasure. Why should this be less valuable than "literature?" Do I think Dan Brown is a great author? Of course not. But do I find his books enjoyable on the basic level of a good story, which sweeps you along so that you want to find out what happens next? Yes, I do. Well, maybe not so much with "The Last Symbol." But, surely, that is what you should ask of a good thriller? A thriller that has "literary value," whatever this is, but fails to produce a compelling narrative, is surely a failure? From the earliest traditions of oral history, humanity is a storytelling species. Telling stories spans all cultures in a way that suggests it is an integral part of the development of our species, just as much as the opposable thumb. Granted oral history, myth and fairy tales are all meant to teach us something about our nature and development, but when did the ability to tell a good story become devalued?

Rick Gekoski's resolution is to be "differently intelligent." I'm not sure yet whether this phrase will help to resolve my reading habits. In being differently intelligent, he sheds his contrived academic voice and finds the more natural voice that he uses for this memoir. It is an effective and engaging voice, and becoming differently intelligent allows him to reclaim the literature which became daunting to him while also reading a modicum of thrillers. For me, I always had the distinctly unacademic belief that the most important thing was whether I enjoyed something. And I enjoyed this book.


  1. Great Blogg thank you he is one of my fav's :)

  2. Thanks, Christine - I hadn't heard of him before, but I was very pleased to discover his book.

    I was also quite childishly pleased today to find that I had a new follower!