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Which Books Would You Take With You if the House Burnt Down?

A dramatic title, isn’t it? Inspired by a wonderful post I came across this morning from Maria Popova’s Brainpickings blog, entitled The Burning House: What People Would Take if the House Was on Fire, it wasn’t so much the eye-catching title which caught my attention so much as the photographs: images of people’s treasured possessions, from camera lenses and photographs to pets, cigars and underwear! One six year old boy added a Lego helicopter, a great choice. What I found intriguing was the inclusion of many books in people’s in people’s collections. A literature teacher from Germany had included her Great Aunt’s violin, along with two letters, a journal, a New American Standard Bible, Rilke’s Book of Hours and T.S. Elliot’s Collected Poems. Popova’s own collection includes a 1935 edition of Ulysses with sketches by Henri Matisse, and a 1993 edition of Gertrude Stein’s 1938 children’s book, The World Is Round. It made me wonder which books I would take with me if I had to leave in a hurry. In an age of eBooks many of us still treasure rare or familiar paperbacks and hardbacks, books with inscriptions or notes, books with illustrations and photographs. I have compiled a collection of books:

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It’s quite a mix of authors, fiction and non-fiction. Each book has its own reason for sitting on the pile, each book its own place in memory.

The Thirty-Nine Steps was the first book I couldn’t put down. I had finally found a book which kept me up at night until I had read the last page. Originally published in 1915, this spy thriller is set in the wild mores of Scottish, a place which holds great memories and partly the reason for the story’s resonance. I’m sure you’re familiar with the plot: On the eve of World War I we meet Richard Hannay, bored with his London life until he finds a body in his flat. Before long, Hannay finds himself in possession of a little black book that holds the key to the conspiracy, and on the run from the police. The books has inspired many films and plays since, including Alfred Hitchcock’s classic adaptation. Read it!

The Alchemist holds its place in my mind for the very reason that my husband read it to me on our honeymoon. This is not a regular occurrence but it is a memory I treasure. Set in the exotic locations of Spain and the Egyptian desert, Coelho tells the magical story of Santiago, a shepherd boy who dreams of travelling the world to seek treasure. The otherworldliness of this story, with its magical realism and folklore, inspires you to dream and to think beyond the boundaries we create in our lives.

“The simple things are also the most extraordinary things, and only the wise can see them.” 

The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories was given to me by a dear friend with an inscription in the front. It is a 1964 reprint. Hemmingway’s short stories are raw and sharply observed.  I think that’s all I need to say.

Samson Agonistes might seem an unlikely choice, but this battered version has been on my bookshelf since my schooldays. Milton was taught with great enthusiasm by my English teacher, and at a point where I began to understand the many layers within a text. My copy is full of notes in a variety of colours with underlining and asterisks. I will hold on to this one.

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W.B. Yeats Selected Poetry forms a part of my long history of collecting poetry. I have been fascinated by poetry since childhood, and Yeats is a writer whose work I enjoy because it is mystical, melancholic and full of questioning. The first line of To A Young Beauty is a great example of his style:

“Dear fellow-artist, why so free

With every sort of company,

With every Jack and Jill?”

W.H Auden Poems selected by John Fuller is here for the same reason, although he is possibly my favourite poet. Most notable for Funeral Blues, beginning with Stop the clocks, his lesser known works are just as lyrical and beautifully crafted. I really enjoy the wit and irony which runs through much of his writing. Epitaph on a Tyrant is scathing and applicable to any dictator you choose to name.

“Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,

And the poetry he invented was easy to understand.”

Love and Freedom is a book I have mentioned in a previous post, so I will just say that I am so glad it is back in print. A rare gem that was originally used for research and has become one to keep. This memoir set in post-war Prague is electric; a beautiful, honest account of a life lived under communism.

The Essential Tales of Chekhov was also a gift and has an inscription in the front. I am a big fan of Chekhov’s stories. They need no explanation but this collection is really good. Edited by Richard Ford, is comes with a lengthy introduction on Why We Like Chekhov.

George Orwell Essays has been added to a list which is reasonably filled with non-fiction as well as fiction. I probably shouldn’t say this, but I almost prefer his essays to his famed 1984 and Animal Farm, to hear his unfiltered thoughts, than through the lenses of dystopia or allegory. I haven’t yet read his other fiction novels, so I should reserve judgement. His essay, Why I Write, might appeal to writers. He has also written on Kipling, Yeats, Tolstoy and Wodehouse, which I found interesting. He has bravely covered many political topics, although I think he would rather call it honesty.

Letters From Father Christmas is a wonderful find. I discovered it whilst searching for Christmas presents last year. It is a collection of letters written and illustrated by J. R. R. Tolkien between 1920 and 1942 for his children. They were released posthumously and received a warm response from critics. It has been suggested that elements of the stories inspired parts of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The stories include descriptions of the massive fireworks that create the northern lights and the illustrations are inspirational. 

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Writers and Their Creative Spaces

Some of you may have noticed the blog header change. It is a photograph I took of  W. H. Auden’s desk and typewriter at his summer house in Kirchstetten, Austria, not so far from where I live. The previous header was an image of his bookshelves which are upstairs in his study. I visited Auden’s summer house last Autumn, just as Take Me to the Castle was about to be released and just as I began to creep into the world of social media as a writer. If you searched for F. C. Malby prior to September 2012, you would not have found a thing.

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W. H. Auden’s study in the upper rooms of his summer house – Kirchstetten, Austria.

I have been interested in writing spaces for a while for several reasons:

They form the inspiration for the work of each writer, whether the space is a small desk in the corner of a room, a pocket of a cafe, a library, or a large wood desk in a grander room. Writers are natural sponges of their immediate surroundings – the views, the conversations, small objects or buildings. All of these things help to form the ideas which swirl around in our minds.

They are a slice of history. Visiting this beautiful house in a remote village, where Auden penned gems such as Stop all the Clocks, I felt a sense of anticipation as I scanned his bookshelves, coffee pots, vodka bottles, memorabilia, even his slippers left by the chair. It was almost as though he could have walked into the room at any moment. Everything he read and used has been left as it was and turned into a small museum. I sat in the chair by the desk and looked out of the window wondering what he might have thought as he looked out towards the woods.

The books say much about the author. Auden had a small selection of his own books in amongst shelves of writers such as Wodehouse, Shakespeare, Twain, Waugh, Keats and Golding, as well as a collection of atlases and books on psychology and philosophy. I looked at the books closely because I believe that what each writer reads will influence his or her writing and style to a great extent.

I have been to the Isle of Jura on the West coast of Scotland but have yet to visit the rented house where Orwell penned Nineteen Eighty Four.  He apparently worked without electricity or running water on a remote end of the isle.

If you are interested in finding out more about writers and their creative spaces, I have a board on Pinterest of well known writers, with many in their work environment.

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Agatha Christie’s study

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Sebastian Faulks’ garden work space

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 Jane Austin’s tiny walnut table

Agatha Christie surrounded herself with art. I also find art galleries a source of inspiration for some of my writing.

Beatrix Potter surrounded herself with animals as she wrote and illustrated her famous Peter Rabbit books.

E. B. White worked in a boathouse. Imagine the waves lapping against the boathouse walls as he wrote and a view into a horizon where the ocean meets the sky.

Sylvia Plath took her typewriter in the great outdoors, sitting on a stone wall with her typewriter balanced on her lap.

Louise de Bernieres writes in a shed in the garden over looking a vegetable patch with a view of pheasants, listening to music.

Sebastian Faulks uses a small room fifteen minutes from his house. He has a small cameo of Tolstoy that he bought in his house in Moscow and a bronze relief of Dickens. For each book he invokes a sort of patron saint. For A Week in December it was George Orwell.

Jane Austin worked on a fragile 12-sided piece of walnut on a single tripod, which must be the smallest table ever used by a writer. She established herself as a writer whilst working here after a long period of silence. Her early novels had been written upstairs in her father’s Hampshire rectory.


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Size Matters: On the Lost Art of Brevity

A good story is a good story no matter what the length. However, there is a trend these days that implies the bigger the better. Unless you’re trying to win a Hugo Award where a minimum of 40,000 words is a requirement, length does not actually matter to a story (although events like NaNoWriMo with its 50,000-word arbitrary goal and the books regularly getting movie deals these days would have us believe otherwise).

Brevity is a lost art.

  • Harry Potter : 7 books/4,095 pages with a 585 page average; shortest at 309 pages and longest at 870
  • A Song of Fire and Ice: 5 books, 2 more on the way/2,562 pages; the 854 page average skewed thanks to the 1056 page A Dance With Dragons
  • The Millennium Trilogy: 3 books/1,905 pages with a 635 page average

It’s not like books have never been atrociously long before – Les Miserables clocks in at 1042 pages. J.R.R. Tolkien is the king of multi-volume story with Lord of the Rings, which is 1728 pages if you include The Hobbit (more with the addition of appendices and supplementary books). Charles Dickens’ longest book is Bleak House if you go by page number (928), David Copperfield if you go by word count (358,000).

The difference between these lengthy tomes and our modern ones is that when they were written (with the exception of Tolkien), these books were everything – they were the radio, television, and internet of their day – the perfect escape for the whole family to enjoy with the occasional “after the kids are in bed” reads like The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman – it’s own length a joke, as Shandy is unable to stay on subject without several tangents to his own story. Even so, the book is only 342 pages.

Then, like today, length could mean money. Dickens certainly mastered the art of stringing the plot along for the sake of a serial, supposedly paid by the word. But length was also a product of simply having time on one’s hands; Fanny Burney’s Evelina might not have been 600 pages long if she was writing in between a day job and picking up the kids from school.

Ultimately, a book should only be as long as it takes to tell the story – no longer, no shorter. George Orwell managed Animal Farm just fine in 168 pages, while Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is only 108 pages. And while there is nothing wrong with a long novel if its length is what it takes to tell the story, just think of how much shorterTwilight (2,720 pages) could have been if an editor had told Meyer to stop with all the amber eyes/ice cold skin repetition. The story would still have had problems, but each book would have been about 50 pages shorter (yes, hyperbole). Even The Neverending Story manages to be 2,336 pages shorter than Twilight.

There’s something wonderful about a novel where the weight is in the words, not page count. Shakespeare stated that “brevity is the soul of wit,” but it is also the soul of a book where each word means something.

Recently, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s HitRecord.org released the second volume of Tiny Stories, described by the LA Times as having “haiku-like precision.” These pocket-sized books are preceded by the ultimate big meaning in tiny packaging story. Ernest Hemingway is said to have written the shortest story as part of a barroom challenge on a cocktail napkin:

For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.

Hemingway nailed the brevity with this story – it says more precisely because it says less.


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W. H. Auden

‘Stop all the clocks’ is one of many favourite poems, and I went to visit Auden’s rented summer-house at Kirchstetten, in Austria, recently.
It is where he penned many of his poems and the upstairs room where he wrote has been preserved as a museum, with his book shelves, kettles, empty vodka bottles, typewriter and slippers still in place. I really enjoy both photography and writing, so I wanted to begin this blog by sharing some of the photographs of the upper room of the summer-house, in the hope that it might inspire your writing as much as it did mine. His typewriter sits neatly on his desk, where you can look out over views of the quiet street and lush green trees, made me wonder what it must have been like for him during his writing day, working in a secluded location in the middle the most beautiful countryside. It reminded me of George Orwell’s hideaway, which he also rented on the Isle of Jura, where he penned ‘1984’. There is something about isolation for writers that seems to trigger bursts of creativity. I sometimes find that I need a cafe with noise, and people milling about and chatting, but it is in the quiet places that an idea often forms in a chrysalis, and where the words appear on the page, inviting me on a journey with characters and events.