goodreads.com

So I got an invite from goodreads.com via a friend. When I still lived in the US I would exchange books with this guy on a regular basis. I was pretty much travelling every week, often internationally which meant long haul flights. You can only handle so much in-flight entertainment and you can only fly so many times before you hit the mother of all delays, so I would never travel with less than three books, replenishing my supplies at the airport bookshop. Over one month, that’s a lot of books. Although my friend didn’t travel as much, he had a lot of free time and was also an avid reader. We would typically exchange 20 books at a time. Goodreads seemed a perfect opportunity to reflect on what had been read

As you do, I invited several other friends but only one of them seemed to embrace the site with similar enthusiasm. Mind you, I’ve seen their study; every surface piled dangerously high with books and magazines.

What I like about the goodreads is the ability to rapidly rate books and then use that information to identify people with similar rating profiles to find new books you might enjoy reading. When I first began swopping books with my friend in the US, it was clear there was some overlap in what we liked to read, but some differences clearly existed. It was only when he gave me a copy of The Red Violin that the reasons for these differences became clear

“I thought that book was really shit, it was agony to finish” I said
“it was crap, wasn’t it” he replied
“you didn’t like it either?”
“hell no”
“then why the fuck did you give it to me?”
“oh yeah…”

It turned out that whereas I was carefully choosing a selection to pass on, he was giving me anything and everything. Goodreads avoids such misunderstandings.

It’s only when you start rating books that you realize how many you have read over time. The site also tells you when a friend has rated some more books. In the first few days when I checked my email first thing there would be messages saying something like “your friends have rated 287 new books” And of course, since we were exchanging books, many of the ratings were for books I had also read so I had to have my say too.

It reminded me of those news reels of footage from the battle of Midway Island in World War Two when the sky was a chaotic mass of contrails, anti-aircraft fire and shells. Hundreds of book recommendations were flying from China to UK, between the USA and UK and back to China in a adrenalin fuelled frenzy of tick box checking.

Of course, other members seem to have different ideas about the purpose of Goodreads. For many people it’s an opportunity to play the role of pseudo-intellectual art snob, writing lengthy recommendations about fashionable books to let everyone know how well read they are. I’ve also noticed some people list books they plan to read, which allows you to appear clever while sitting on the sofa watching COPS and eating microwave pizza.

I lived in a house with a bunch of literature students and only ever saw them pick up a book a night or two before a paper was due. For example, my girlfriend at the time was studying French literature and tried to read “à la recherche du temps perdu” in one night in order to write a paper that was due the next morning. But I never heard her discuss a book in the reverent tones used by some of the reviewers on goodreads.com. She considered Proust to be one of the most boring authors she ever had the misfortune to encounter.

And then there is Thomas Mann.  In 1990 during a trip to Half Price Books on NorthWest highway my mate in the US persuaded me to pick up a secondhand copy of The Magic Mountain. For 99c I could hardly refuse.

I managed to read Ulysses, War & Peace and The Brothers Karamazov but I couldn’t finish the Magic Mountain. Over the years, I tried many times but each time I failed. I even took it on a 16 hour flight from Dallas to Tokyo and found myself reading the back of the air safety leaflet rather than punishing myself with another page from Tommy Mann. Last year, 19 years after buying it, I finally finished the Magic Mountain. It was like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders but, unlike the reviewers on goodreads who raved endlessly about the beauty and insight, I couldn’t say I enjoyed it.

It was only when I was given a copy of Death in Venice that I realized that perhaps the problem lay in the particular translation I had purchased, rather than the writing style of Mr Mann. I had a copy that had been ‘processed’ by a genderless H.T Lowe-Porter, who had produced a limp and soulless style that didn’t really do justice to the original prose.

I found myself wondering about H.T.. I envisaged an Horatio Throckmorton who originated from somewhere like Bradford, obviously a belligerent personality, otherwise why would they translate the whole book from German to English but leave an entire French chapter untouched? He probably pounded his fist on the publisher’s desk, or jabbed a finger in their chest before ranting, in a thick West Yorkshire accent, about how his contract stated quite clearly that he was to be paid tuppence hapenny for each page, but it says “nowt in contract about bloody French passages”. And so they remained in French.

In reality, I couldn’t have been further from the truth. H.T. Lowe-Porter was Helen-Tracy Lowe-Porter who married a paleographer (which goes a long way to explaining the style – “too racy my sweet, pray dull it down just a tad more”) who for twenty years had exclusive rights to the works of Thomas Mann. And how did she manage to pull that one off? It conjures up an image of an aged Mann on his death bed, doped up by opium and sweetmeats, attended to by a youthful Miss Porter with a pale faced paleographer lurking somewhere in the shadows

“just sign here, here and here. Lovely. And just a teensy weensy little drop of blood. There we go…”

Okay, so it probably didn’t happen like that, but I did find the following quote

‘In her essay “On Translating Thomas Mann”, Lowe-Porter said it is not so important that the translator be a great scholar of the foreign language, as few literary practitioners are really and truly bilingual, but that it is very important indeed that he/she be a master of the resources and subtleties of his/her own’

So it sounds like I am about ready to translate some of the great Chinese literary works into English.

Water Margin anyone?

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