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THE BOOK OFF – THE WHOLE STORY.

November 29, 2013

On 29th October this year noted poet, MA student and lover of literature Carrie Aaron texted the following remark to me:

“Perhaps we should have a bookoff. I mean, some sort of reading contest.”

If I remember correctly this was in the middle of a typically refined exchange bemoaning what seemed to be the very real threat – resulting from the advance of e readers and such – to the printed word as printed on the paper based book, which has for generations been the best preserver of literature of all types and, as a consequence, to the art of reading itself.

Who has not learned to love words and all they can mean through some treasured book? Perhaps it was something first read to them by a beloved parent or guardian or other loved one, or presented to them by an encouraging teacher. An unexpected find in some unlovely second hand shop or direct from the family shelf, in the beautiful package of front and back cover, joined by a spine, in a shiny or well worn paperback, embellished with colourful cover illustrations and blurb, or in slightly more imposing form – hard covers, with or without a paper “dust jacket”, perhaps with a silken tag included to indicate the reader’s progress, all enclosing a title page of the sort so often preserved through generations, usually faced by that fascinating source of information, the copyright page. Who can forget the first thrill of discovering that one is reading perfectly preserved words from a date preceding one’s own birth? To pick up such a volume, however tatty and worn it might be, and immerse oneself in the words of an author long gone, is true time travel beyond that offered by any episode of ‘Dr Who’!

And so Carrie and I, after sharing early reading experiences – Carrie of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray”, mine of the Green Dragon edition of ‘Tarzan of the Apes’ – dreamed the dream together, that of sharing, spreading and preserving for the next jilted, digitised generation the excitement, the mental stimulation, the profound intimacy and the deep peace we’d always felt and always would feel when curled up together with a good book.

I texted back at once: “Lovely idea! Will need an impartial ref and fair rules – no skimming or dog earring pages. shall we FB this for our friends amusement?”

To which the ever inscrutable Carrie replied: “Indeedness”.

That was the simple idealistic origin of what became an epic test of endurance and stamina only matched by explorers of Poles and climbers of mountains.

Accepting such a challenge forced each of us as individuals to confront circumstances that were threatening our ability to read at all. I hadn’t read a book all the way through for about two years, being seduced by the shallow pleasures of social media and constantly harried by the pressure to what is commonly referred to as “find a job”. Carrie was already exerting herself to the limit in pursuit of an M.A. course which, though run by the ‘Open University’, seems designed to crush true love of literature beneath a heavy weight of gobbledegook and exclude all but the most naturally gifted and determined, with a reading list to match.

With elaborate care, we recruited a team of talented individuals to bring our ‘project’ to fruition. First and foremost was the Ref, Sarah Phoenix, artist and creator of Festival installations, musical instruments, decor, and other funky stuff :-), confident of her ability to handle the pressure, despite reservations confessed to by Sarah herself, “You sure I’m the right ref for this?! Not that I’m not up for it, but up *to* it might be a different matter..” adding later and more worryingly: *types “epigram” and “dogearing” into Wiki*

Ah yes, the epigram, to be used as further evidence that we had engaged with our reading texts, and to encourage others to take an interest in our chosen books and authors. I’d assumed it was a witty one liner, but Carrie’s definition – “a short pithy statement which contains either an epiphany or a paradox (ideally unexpected)” – and others suggested that the addition of this to our contest would be at least as much of a challenge as the reading involved.

Additions to the group included Tamsin Sutherland, AKA The Infamous T, who offered to “run the book” on the event, and John Bruce, poet, photographer and film maker who, well, he was very supportive throughout.

So things seemed set fair. However, a close reading of the way I chose to announce the event to the world will reveal that my fatal flaw – a desperate competitive streak – was in danger of destroying the spirit of the event and driving all to distraction!:

“So, game on!

The Book Off will begin at midnight this Friday, November 1st, by which I mean Saturday November 2nd, if that’s clear.
From that hour 24 hours will be allowed to the competing readers,
Carrie Aaron, reading Kim by Rudyard Kipling
and
JPF Goodman, reading Bend Sinister by Vladimir Nabokov
Who will read as much of their respective volumes as they can in the allotted time and produce a witty, insightful, inspiring epigram encouraging others to read their choice.
The “book off” will be when each contestant lets Official Judge and Referee
Sarah Phoenix know which page of their respective books they have reached by that point, so they can submit the number of pages read , not skimmed, with no doggearing, once the 24 hours have elapsed, with their epigram.
Tamsin Sutherland will be “running the book”.
The number of pages read will account for 50% of the final mark, and the epigrams given a mark out of 50 to account for the other 50% of each competitor’s score.
Hope that all seems clear, fair and reasonable, though I would like to suggest that, as I’m getting on a bit now and have much on my mind, unlike the careless youth
Carrie Aaron,that she be given a slight handicap of, shall we say 50 pages? What do you reckon, Sarah Phoenix? This could be your first official judgement call!”

Not only that, I circulated the opinion that ‘Kim’, which Carrie had to study as part of her M.A. course, was a ‘children’s book’, and pasted the cover of the Ladybird edition as evidence.

Sarah tried to restore fair play by asking “how many pages did you say you read in an hour approximately? And Carrie, any objections to a handicap? You guys are going to have to negotiate (nicely, or I’ll apply penalties!)”

While John was pretty supportive: “Go JPF in this trial of the sexes! You’ve got my unequivocal support!” Only adding, for reasons I still cannot explain satisfactorily, “Ps forgot to mention to you when i was installing it on your PC yesterday that they suggest you can set the autoreader at up to 300 wpm for rem sleep, 150wpm for deep sleep, any faster and your waking brain won’t remember the content.”

A remark I tried to pass off by replying

“So, read your messages at above 300wpm.”

But I was rattled, and employed the usual cowardly strategy of leaving my response to Sarah till the last possible minute,

“Sorry to be late, just got back from an evening of carousing. Somewhat wined down, but I’m ready!
Sarah Phoenix please note I’m at page 44 as the Book Off begins, and it’s taken me since June 24th this year to get that far with Nabokov’s novel “Bend Sinister”, one reason why the Book Off is important to me!
I hope some leeway will be allowed for the production of an epigram, but at exactly midnight tomorrow night I will record what page I have got up to in reading.
Back in the day, Sarah, my average reading speed was 40 pages an hour. Suggesting a 50 page handicap for Carrie Aaron was, mostly, a whimsical, joking attempt to psych her out. Not sure how it would work anyway – read the first 50 pages twice?
Fear not about the reffing, Sarah – we just want an objective witness to the number of pages read over the agreed time period which is from the midnight just gone to the next one. Assessing the epigrams will be trickier, but would be subjective whoever the ref or judge is. Sure Carrie would agree that we both trust you completely Sarah, though, as it’s only a fair assumption to make that you prefer Carrie to myself as a person, a reader, a writer and member of your own sex (I do too!) then I shall of course exercise my right to lodge a formal complaint and demand your expulsion from the Book Off Referees Entente (BORE) if anything suspicious happens like me not winning!
Thanks to you, Sarah, for presiding over this contest, and to Tamsin Sutherland, for running the book on it, which we hope may produce enough profit to award suitable prizes to the winner and runner up. Cups and medals are nice but cash is usually simpler and more convenient; no doubt Tamsin can be trusted with this minor detail!
Best of luck to my esteemed opponent, enjoy that children’s book you’re reading Carrie; hopefully an epigram on “Bend Sinister” will encourage you to try reading adult literature from this century, or, rather, from within the last century.
Sorted! Just off to bed for 20 hours or so, hoping that a wine induced headache will not slow down my Reading Speed too badly”

Note that by this stage, full of drunken hubris, I was no longer thinking of the benign and harmless act of reading, but of making money.

Not suspecting the depths to which I’d sunk, Carrie responded to my gamesmanship in the only way she knows how:

I’ll happily be handicapped. BRING IT ON.”

And Sarah gave her Ref’s verdict: “40 pages handicap I reckon, that’s basically an hour or thereabouts…”

Carrie, realising the herculean task before her, gamely submitted to this additional burden, simply messaging: “*makes LOTS of coffee & settles in for the final sprint…*”

Even so, knowing what a fierce competitor I was up against and, I like to think, beginning to realise what a shoddy role I was playing in this affair, I was rattled, and did, I swear, make a sincere effort to complete reading Nabokov’s novel.

In this I found unexpected assistance from that most humble of instruments, the pencil, as this illustration shows:

Book Off Update

It’s a simple technique, devised by myself years ago when at college. Lines drawn on the edge of the text indicate a passage of some significance, while those on the inside show a liking for it, while underlinings suggest words or phrases that can be cited in the usual manner, when asked questions about plot, structure, or so on, or looking for quotable matter for an essay.

Rumours have circulated, as they always do around major sporting events, but I can assure readers that I did not “pick up a second hand copy that had been marked already” or “scribble random lines and meaningless notations without reading anything”.

My pencil proved to be an ennervating oar with which I paddled my way through the ocean of Nabokov’s prose, but by the time our deadline was reached I had to admit that “I reached p138 and read 94 pages in the time allowed. No epigram as yet, but it’s on the way and will be written without recourse to further reading of the text.”

I’d had to assume that Carrie had triumphed, but it was with a mixture of shame and relief that I read her report:

“OK, I’ve gotten to page 81 from page 17. This is not my finest hour. 64 pages. 64. (THERE WAS A VINTAGE FAIR! IT’S NOT MY FAULT! I READ THREE NOVELS IN ONE DAY, ONCE! *throws books at own head*) & my epigramy thingy is this: “The golden bull is not a golden bull, but a flag flagging the way towards Kim’s doom.”Also, I was making notes & stuff, because I’m studying the thing. So that kind of slowed me down. EXCUSESEXCUSESEXCUSES.)”

Even the thing I had become could not resist the appeal of such an innocent, and I hadn’t even composed my own epigram by this late stage, so I commented in Carrie’s direction, “The epigram provides half your final mark, Carrie Aaron, so there is some hope. I asked our Ref, Sarah Phoenix , if I could produce this after the reading deadline but haven’t had a ruling on this yet. Carrie, I suggest you take advantage of this to produce a better epigram of your own, because your initial effort is unworthy?”

Too broken in spirit to rear up at my continuing iniquity, Carrie simply put,

“Pah. You’re all too correct . *cogitates* “The prophesy prophecies the prophet.” (& it does, tho I can hardly explain HOW in under a thousand words.)”

Taking advantage of a late extension, I produced my epigram,

For Nabokov life took a sinister bend

And US academia must’ve seemed like his end.

His new masters said smile, consume, conform, don’t take the piss

He responded with Krug and the Toad’s story, said, enjoy this.

They might’ve done, but would’ve said, “we’ll talk later”

Wanting to be the greatest, fearing his butterfly wit was greater,

So Vladimir thought, too clever? Want something sweeter?

I see what you’re like, enjoy Lolita.”

Now it was all up to Sarah. Was it more bad sportmanship that made me quote the wrong version of Carie’s epigram to Sarah? Or, as I like to think, simple exhaustion?

Even so, the verdict was given as follows:

“Carrie wins in poetical terms in that case, and you on technical, but there are so many factors… I declare it a draw, what else can I do! You are most welcome to include my words, of course, in your writing… however I do insist that you find a more appropriate referee for future contests.”

Sarah, disillusioned, Carrie, suffering defeat, Tamsin, vanished with who knows what profits from the event. A disappointing result after its idealistic beginnings, I think, but I still believe in the Book Off’s first ideals, and hope that a contest such as this might be a real help in ensuring that the traditional book will continue to be loved by millions.

However, perhaps the last word should be left to the redoubtable John Bruce,

“and if it’s a tie – what about settling it with arm wrestling?”

 

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