By now you’ve all probably laughed/wrung your hands/rolled your eyes over Jonathan Franzen’s supremely ill-considered remarks about how, as the Telegraph headline puts it, “e-books are damaging society.” What I wonder is, why would I read a book about contemporary middle-class Americans written by someone who seems to have so little understanding of their world?
But Franzen’s comment did make me think about what books I buy in digital form and what I still buy in paper. Do I treat some books as more impermanent than others? Almost all my romance reading is digital, and there are lots of good reasons for that: I buy and read a lot of them, and my house is already crammed with books; I became a regular romance reader after (OK, because) I got an e-reader; mass-market paperbacks aren’t all that nice or, pace Franzen, long-lasting. But I wonder if the ease of buying digital and the “invisibility” of those books in my files makes me treat them as more disposable. I read romances I love, but if I can’t see them on a shelf the way I can paper favorites, will I re-read them?
When I buy literary fiction, it’s usually in paper or even hardcover. Why? I’m no more likely to want to re-read these books than I am romance. I am more likely to know another reader to pass them on to. But I’m wondering now whether I see paper as a “superior” format, and see literary fiction as more “worthy” of paper than romance. Damn, more reading prejudices uncovered!
I bought A. S. Byatt’s Ragnarök: The End of the Gods in hardback as soon as it came out. And I don’t regret doing so. For one thing, like many of Byatt’s books, it’s a beautiful object: a red and gold dustjacket, good paper with those lovely ragged edges, a classic typeface (Van Dijck, apparently; I love notes on type in the back of books), wide margins, illustrations (annoyingly unattributed, but I suspect from the 19th-century Asgard and the Gods this book refers to).
Did my view that Byatt is a Really Good and Important writer affect my view that she’s worthy of hardback purchase? Yes, it probably did. (Are you thinking of the “sponge-worthy” Seinfeld episode now? I am.) But more significant is the fact that Byatt is Very Important to me. Possession is one of my favorite books, and the Frederica Quartet had a big impact on me as well.
I was glad of the format because Ragnarök is a book I read slowly, a bit at a time, interspersed with other books. It demanded my full attention, and I frequently found myself flipping back a few pages to re-read passages. That’s harder to do with an e-book (at least for me). The main interest of this book for me was Byatt’s prose style, and I read it the way I would poetry.
Ragnorök is an odd book. As the title suggests, it’s essentially a retelling of Norse myths about the end of the gods, woven through with autobiographical reflections on the impact Byatt’s childhood reading of those myths had on her. She says in the “Thoughts on Myths” at the end (which I could have done without; they’re interesting, but it’s as if she didn’t trust the book to speak for itself) that she didn’t want to treat these stories as allegories for the environmental destruction of our world, but that hangs over the book, and intentionally so, as a bibliography with a section headed “Warnings” makes clear.
This wasn’t the best Byatt book I ever read, by a long shot, and sometimes it bored me. But here’s what I loved:
1. The sheer voraciousness of the author’s intellect. Byatt loves dense, detailed descriptions; she seems fascinated by facts and ideas; she piles these things up in lists. Paragraph after paragraph in the early pages records the vibrant multiplicity of the life that will be destroyed in the end. There’s both the world created in the myths and the natural world of wartime England observed by the “thin child” (Byatt) reading them:
In the spring the field was thick with cowslips, and in the hedgerows, in the tangled bank, under the hawthorn hedge and the ash tree, there were pale primroses and violets of many colours, from rich purple to a white touched with mauve. Dandelion, dent-de-lion, lionstooth, her mother told her. Her mother liked words. There were vetches and lady’s bedstraw, forgetmenots and speedwells, foxgloves, viper’s bugloss, cow parsley . . .
You get the picture.
2. That “tangled bank” is an allusion to a famous passage at the end of Darwin’s Origin of Species:
It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. . . . There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
Spotting that allusion made me feel clever (the passage is much anthologized, and I’ve used it in class). It also made me wonder what I was missing.
3. If Byatt has faith (in the religious sense) in anything, I think it’s in the grandeur and multiplicity of nature. She writes about how the Norse myths spoke to her childhood imagination in a way that the Christian story (presented as bland pictures of gentle Jesus surrounded by baby animals) did not. As a not-very-good-Christian (I sometimes describe church-going as a habit I have failed to break) who has done an even worse job conveying to my children that there might be something to my faith, I was provoked to consider how poorly, as a whole, Christians have done recently at telling their stories in a way that inspires children. I loved Narnia and still do, but even as a child I wondered about some of Lewis’ judgements (so if I like lipstick and boys I won’t get into heaven??). Madeleine L’Engle, too, had a profound influence on me. But as a writer and creator of worlds, I think Philip Pullman beats them both.
4. There is some wonderful imagery here, like this at the very end of the end of the world: “All there was was a flat surface of black liquid glinting in the small pale points of light that still came through the starholes. A few gold chessmen floated and bobbed on the dark ripples.” Those chessman gave me shivers.
5. I loved the moments when Byatt’s language echoed that of Norse sagas: “The Odin said he must ride there on eight-legged Sleipnir, swifest of horses, leader of the Wild Hunt, Odin’s own horse.”
This is a minor work in Byatt’s oeuvre but there’s still a lot to like.