Achtung! – Part Four – The Mindfield

Well, so far we have explored a number of ways to be horrible. As this is not a paid column I must keep some of the better ones back – they can result in money and it would not do to let this out.

But let us now deal with doing something amazing – making people think. You may not be able to make them think well, or think good things, but with a little effort you can at least get them going.

Remember we advised that books are a good mine? Well, they are, and if you select the right ones you can do a great deal of good. Okay, you can use the mindfield to get rid of all the marginal press that you have encumbered your own shelves with, and laugh at the thought of someone eagerly unwrapping a parcel that they have surreptitiously smuggled into the house…to find that it is the Road Boards Report from 1923. Laugh a minute, that one.

But who knows – the thing might inspire the reader to look up road-building on Google, or go to the Main Roads website, or ( gasp! ) go to the library and take out an engineering volume or a biography of McAdam. You might start a career in civil engineering with your mindfield.

Hard to say these days how limited people’s knowledge of the world might be. I have talked to perfectly sane young people of 25 and found that their schooling denied them any knowledge of the most basic of facts. One chap seriously did not know who Mussolini was…The discovery of a book in a mindfield might just supply something that modern society does not. Of course if the book is actual rubbish, like the quasi-mystical things that the new-agers sell, there won’t be much good done – but we can always hope that the inadvertent reader will recognise the valuelessness of the thing and fling it out of the window into the dungheap.

Note: I have rarely ever done this. The last time I can remember deliberately binning a set of books was in the 1980’s when I discarded a series purportedly written by an author called George Hayduke. It detailed ways to get revenge upon people. These were either highly imaginative pieces of humour or rather sordid encouragements to viciousness. I was willing to accept the one aspect but not the other…


Burning Through The Books Is Not Book-Burning

Book-burning is a crime and a sin. I have long held to this belief and every occasion in history when it has been done seems to me to re-enforce it. I do not wish to be guilty of it at all.


Yet, I am awash in books and I have been brought to the realisation that some of them are not good books. Not readable books, not rewarding books, not happy books. Books that perpetuate horrible philosophies and celebrate terrible deeds. Books that encourage the worst follies of humanity. The actual objects are just collections of paper and pasteboard but the possession of them seems somehow wrong.

On the other hand, there are books that are very good – enlightening books, entertaining books, helpful books, beautiful books…that sit on my shelves unread or read only once, long ago, and mostly forgotten. Books that have formed my mind, such as it is, and deserve to be seen again. Sometimes they are buried behind two layers of other books.

What to do…what to do…How to remove the mental weeds and encourage the good thoughts. How to dispose of the unwanted carriers of the former and catalogue the books that have formed the latter. A serious undertaking and one that should not be undertaken seriously…

I shall not burn the bad books. I would not do so to heretics or blasphemers or sorcerers, though bidden to it. I shall exile them. I will carefully separate them from the rest of the library and take them to places of public refuge…and leave them there. Doctor’s waiting rooms, barber shops, train stations, etc. It is the literary version of exposing unwanted infants on a Greek hillside but I shall be ruthless.

The books that are good, but dealing with topics that I no longer wish to explore, will be bundled up and given away to friends who could be reasonably expected to share an interest in their contents. This is not a kind act – God forbid I should be guilty of kindness – as it tasks them with reading, storage, and possible disposal. On each occasion I will be given coffee and biscuits by the friends I visit and will thus have made an overall gain. Mind you, eventually they will realise what I am doing and refuse to answer the doorbell when I call. The ones with big letter slots will still be vulnerable, mind…

The books that are very good I shall re-read and re-shelve as valuable friends. By the time I get to this point there should be space on the bookshelves for them, and the discipline of cataloging them can only be good for my mind.

In My Good Books And In My Bad Books

I used to think there were no such things as good books and bad books – all books were the same thing: sources of knowledge that should be treated with respect. I have come to realise that I was wrong.

This revelation was occasioned by our recent decision to get new kitchen cupboards. You might not think a number of epic IKEA sessions ( complete with cinnamon buns and salmon salad ) would affect one’s literary tastes, but they did. BTW, avoid the cinnamon buns if they are plated – that means they are somewhat stale. Get the fresh ones off the tray.

The IKEA experience is one of following the marketer’s pathway through the store so that you see everything and are tempted accordingly. I stopped at the bookshelves and picked up some of the rubbish books they keep on them as display pieces. I say rubbish, but I could be wrong. Printed in Swedish, they generally have no pictures, but massive blocks of text with careful footnotes and bibliography at the end. They could as easily have been printed in Thai, Urdu, or Swahili, for all the help and attraction they offered.

Yet, they might have been good books. All you need is the key to the language. Mind you, given the look of them, and the fact that IKEA got enough of them off the Stockholm remainder tables to fill up a store in Perth, Western Australia, you can reasonably suspect that the Swedes don’t read ’em either…

That’s the crux of the matter – readability. I realised that readability is the chief determinant of virtue in literature. The best idea expressed in the worst way makes a valueless text.

So I have determined to range through my libraries – both of them – and cull out the bad books. I am to blame for them being there, as I have bought them…and I am also to blame for them being there today as I have not had the courage to give or throw them away.

The shelves are full, sometimes three volumes deep, in things that have been saved for later. Later is now, and I am going to weed my literary garden. Wish me luck.

Browse the Shelves

Want to find out all about someone? The real info – the skinny – the down dirt?

Forget the internet. Forget the public record office. Don’t hire a private detective – save your money. All you have to do is look for a bookshelf. People can hide everything from anybody nowadays but they can’t conceal a thing from long-dead authors…

a. If there is no bookshelf in the house, because there are no books in the house, you know a very valuable thing. The householder probably doesn’t, but…

b. If there is no bookshelf in the house but there are piles of books lying about the floor and on every available horizontal surface you know a different valuable thing. Look at the books – if they are dust-covered and uncut, you may be in the presence of a collector, a publisher, or a dolt.

c. If the books are pawed – spines broken, jammy fingerprints on pages, bookmarks everywhere, marginal notes in pencil, etc. you can ask the householder questions and are likely to get useful answers. If the marginal notes are written in lipstick or blood, don’t ask the questions.

d. If there are numerous bookshelves with books neatly arranged, a big wing armchair by the window, and a smell of coffee and cinnamon buns in the air – do your utmost to ingratiate yourself with the householder. It will be worth it.

e. If, in addition, the bookshelves are labelled, numbered according to the Dewey decimal system, and sport signs reminding you that you are being watched, try not to rattle your teaspoon in your cup of camomile and be careful of making eye contact.

Now – all the above having passed, look at the titles of the books. The books most important to the householder are likely to be those closest to hand. The first three show you their mind – if you need to know it, study those books carefully. What you do with the knowledge is your own affair.

Note: To be fair to my readers I will list the three books I keep closest to hand:

  1. George Washington’s Rules Of Civility And Decent Behaviour.
  2. Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack.
  3. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. This volume also contains The Rights Of Man and The Age of Reason

Let Me EnterPain You

And I’ll have a real good time, Yessir…

I think that was a line from the hit song ” Hey Big Miser ” but I could be wrong. It had a Shirley in it but I cannot tell you whether it was a Temple or a Bassey. Memory isn’t what it used to be…*

I have been watching the television in the corner of the lounge room for the last few days – in company with the rest of the family. They seem highly amused by it and from the sounds that come crashing out of the speakers set into the rear of the cabinet, there must be a great deal going on. Apparently murder and aliens accounts for about 60% of the culture of the nation, with the rest being made up equally of football, people cooking things while being yelled at, and snide comedians.

In a few weeks I will have worked my courage up to the point of being able to go round the front of the cabinet and see what is on the screen. Up until now the reflected light has been quite enough. I am encouraged in this by my wife who has promised that there are some shows that do not involve gasoline explosions or people break-dancing. I hope to be able to trust her…

In the meantime I shall catch up on my reading. I have just finished a pot-boiler by Emil Zola and had to down a quick book of scientific quotations to quell the nerves. English novelists of the Victorian era are fine workers and I am never so comforted as when I curl up in a warm bed with a fat Trollope, but the French are altogether more dramatic in print than anything on the Dover side of the channel. I guess it is all the red wine they drink.

French or English, the thing I do like about a book as opposed to a moving screen, is the way a book will pause and wait for you to catch up. It may still take you on desperate adventures, but can do it in stages like a county bus. Televisions just whirl you away like a Greyhound in the night and if you cannot see fast, you do not see it all. Plus, I find that most screenplays are aimed at Shetlands while I am riding a higher horse.

*  It never was what it was, even when it was.

Going To Another Place

And doing another thing…*

In my case it is not really hard to do. I lead a small life that does not go to many new places nor does it do many new things – any small variant is a bit of an advance. I can get a great deal of excitement buying a new pair of shoes because the intervals between visits to the shoe shop are so prolonged as to make me forget what happens there. I am always at a loss to know what size I want and have to look inside the current pair to find out. You don’t want to get your nose too near when you do that…

It is the same with visits to food stores. I do shop more frequently for bread and cheese than for boots, but a new supermarket or small shop is akin to an unexplored continent. Some of them are so confusing and pretentious as to cure any hunger without actually selling me any food. I have literally been put off by the intensity of the styling and promotion when I walk in. It can be the same with fast food restaurants and some pubs if the human touch is missing or the human scale has been exceeded.

Yet a bookstore holds no terrors. This is not a claim for superior intellectual tastes – I can cheerfully browse in a comic store like Minotaur. It is just that I know what books I like and no-one has to sell them to me by high pressure tactics. Just rack ’em and let me walk past the titles.

I think we all cope in different ways with commercial or cultural pressures. The ones that are so far over the top that we do not even recognise them are not a problem – neither are the simple and familiar. Those we cope with easily. It is the middle ground of being in a milieu that we recognise has rules and expectations…and spectators…but that we are not familiar with that causes most anxiety.

But as long as there is a gentle welcome and patience on the part of the staff, we can cope and add one more skill to our internal resume.

* For those unfamiliar with the Victorian vernacular, this was a phrase that was employed to bid a genteel defiance to one’s enemies..

The Bookshop Of Broken Dreams

Book004 copy

Can you see James Dean in a wet overcoat drifting through the bookshop?

I got this impression one day as I idled away an hour or so waiting for a trade show to begin. I was in the central part of our city drifting from shopfront to shopfront – looking with great pleasure at all the things I was not compelled to possess. I was just congratulating myself that I own a pair of shoes already – the shoe shop window did that for me – when my eye caught a remainder bookstore on the second floor of an arcade.

I love these places. They are as good as the New York Book review in pointing out the best in literature – you look at what is sitting on the tables and then whatever is not sold there is actually, by default, good. In the case of this shop it was organised enough to categorise the books for sale into Non-desirable Fiction and Non-desirable Non-fiction. I think they had a section reserved for Gifts That Slightly Wound and Future Shelf Linings. To their credit, there was only one book that had been thrown out of a public library with its Dewey label still attached.

Don’t get me wrong – I am not dissing the entire affair, for I know that gems often lie buried in mud. This shop was no exception. I found a book that escaped me 7 years ago when I failed to pick it up in Melbourne. It was pristine, and may well have been the same copy. I am going to make the experiment of selecting the least salable of the books I see on my 2017 trip to Melbourne, mark it secretly on an interior page, and then wait to see if it lobs up in Forrest Chase. Stranger things have happened.

I daresay one sale would not have cheered up the man running the place – I can only hope that he is such an avid reader that he regards his stock as a gold mine of information, because if he hopes for fortune from it, he is going to get iron pyrites all the way. I’ll visit again soon…hopefully before the bailiff.