A couple of Quoth the Scotsmans ago, I featured an excerpt from The Explorer by James Smythe—a fine novel, no?—which revolved around the inimitable feeling of reading. I'd like to return to that idea today, if I may, via a passage from The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness... coming soon from Canongate in the UK.
The main character in The Crane Wife is an older gentleman called George, and in his spare time, George is a bit of an artist. But he doesn't paint or draw or sculpt... he cuts. Not himself! No, he makes cuttings from books he finds in bargain bins at charity shops.
That's really all you need to know to follow the following, which is taken from the first act of Ness' phenomenal new novel:
To take his blade and cut into the pages of a book felt like such a taboo, such a transgression against everything he held dear, George still half-expected them to bleed every time he did it.
He loved physical books with the same avidity other people loved horses or wine or prog rock. He'd never really warmed to ebooks because they seemed to reduce a book to a computer file, and computer files were disposable things, things you never really owned. He had no email from ten years ago but still owned every book he bought that year. Besides, what was more perfect an object than a book? The different rags of paper, smooth or rough under your fingers. the edge of the page pressed into your thumbprint as you turned a new chapter. The way your bookmark—fancy, modest, scrap paper, candy wrapper—moved through the width of it, marking your progress, a little further each time you folded it shut.
And how they looked on the walls! Lined up according to whatever whim. George's whim was simple—by author, chronological within name—but over the years he'd also done it by size, subject matter, types of binding. All of them there on the shelves, too many, not enough, their stories raging within regardless of a reader.
He had seen a story once about sand mandalas made by Tibetan Buddhist monks. Unbelievably gorgeous creations, sometimes just a metre across, sometimes big as a room. Different colours of sand, painstakingly blown in symmetrical patterns by monks using straw-like tubes, building layer upon layer, over the course of weeks, until it was finished. At which point, in keeping with Buddhist feelings about materialism, the mandala was destroyed, but George tended to ignore that part.
What was interesting to him was that the mandala was meant to be—unless he'd vastly misunderstood, which was also possible—a reflection of the internal state of the monk. The monk's inner being, hopefully a peaceful one, laid out in beautiful, fragile form. The soul as a painting.
The books on George's walls were his sand mandala. When they were all in their place, when he could run his hands over the spines, taking one off the shelf to read or re-read, they were the most serene reflection of his internal state. Or if perhaps not quite his internal state, then at least the internal state he would like to have had. Wheich was maybe all it was for the monks, too, come to think of it.
And so when he made his very first incision into the pages of a book, when he cut into an old papterback he'd found lying near the rubbish bins behind the shop, it felt like a blundering step into his mandala. A blasphemy, a desecration of the divine. Or, perhaps, a releasing of it. (pp.60-61)
This is a sentiment near and dear to my heart indeed. I flatly refuse to even fold over the pages of a novel to mark my place... never mind taking a knife to one. The horror!
In any case, I'll be reviewing The Crane Wife in full on The Speculative Scotsman shortly, but it should come as no surprise to anyone who's read Patrick Ness in the past that it's simply stunning stuff.
Now, to stroke the spines of a few good books...