The Lord of the Rings
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This book is a trusted friend. I had found it first in my parents'library at home, a three-volume paperback in Italian that looked colourful but huge. I guess I must have been around eight then. I brought it into my room with a mind of starting a ``grown-up'' library of my own. I told myself, why n
This book is a trusted friend. I had found it first in my parents'library at home, a three-volume paperback in Italian that looked colourful but huge. I guess I must have been around eight then. I brought it into my room with a mind of starting a ``grown-up'' library of my own. I told myself, why not start with the BIGGEST book I could find in the house? And so I moved it from the my parents' shelves to my own, and there it rested for years withoutever being opened. My parents noticed, of course, but since neither of them liked the book, as I found this out later on, neither bothered to pick it up from my room and return it to its proper shelf. Well I must have caught a fever or something, a few years later, for I was languishing in bed without anything to do. I'd played with my Lego, I'd read some comics. I'd already grown out of pirate adventure books, so, very bored and depressed, I picked up this book and started it. Boy oh boy never did I make a fever last so many days. I kept putting the thermometer under my bedlight lamp to convince my mum to keep me home from school, as I devoured the book. Well, its Italian translation really. I think I must have been twelve or thirteen (yes I was still playing with Lego and in fact I still do --- I'm 33 now --- if the occasion arises). What I really hate in almost all stories is that they leave you alone after they end, so I appreciate those that don't. The Lord of the Rings, for example, does not: you get a mini-story after the end of the story, and then by reading the appendices you can follow all the characters' lives until The End Of Time (so ok, I guess even I allow a story to end --- albeit begrudgingly --- after the fictional End Of Time). After reading the book once I was already a maniac. I have a knack of reading my preferred books over and over again. People often ask me whether I don't get tired of it. Well I guess my trick is that I'm a fast reader. So fast that I allow myself to skip some pages, or small parts, in order to follow the story (actually, this is starting to change now, as I savour stories' details more). Anyhow, I don't really skip them so much as glance over them. Then of course when I pick it up the next time, I have those parts left to read. I guess by now I really have read the whole of the Lord of The Rings, though there may remain some single words that have escaped my attention yet. I read it an unknown number of times ranging between 15 and 25, over two decades. Yes I did read it twice in some years. I used it as an educational tool. When I was sixteen, my family moved to the UK, as my father took up a position there; I spoke little English then, but I bought myself a second-hand copy of the second book, the Two Towers. The reason why I bought the middle part is that I simply found the lone copy at a car boot sale in Oxfordshire. Being one of a three-parter, it was sold cheap, like fifty pence or something. The rationale was that what blocked me in reading in another language was simply the laziness of having to look up words in a dictionary. By reading a book I was supposed to know almost by heart, I would not need dictionaries. And the idea actually worked pretty well. I still remember learning the word ``ridge'' as Frodo and Sam walked their long, wriggling way into the wastelands towards Mordor. I read the Two Towers in the buses that brought me every saturday from Oxford to London and back, for I attended the European School in Culham every week (sad place, don't send your kids there for goodness' sakes) and the Royal College of Music in London on saturdays. The upshot was really that I had to go to sleep early on friday nights whilst all the rest of the kids learned the art of downing pints down the pub. You might think I was the smart one, learning how to play the piano whilst the rest of the world got drunk, but well, at that age, classical music made me more of a social outcast than an educated young fellow. On monday mornings, tales at school were told (or simply fabricated) about the number of girls people got off with, the number of pints poured in people's guts, the number of riots spawned, and so on and so forth in similarly constructive pastimes. Then these very same people turned towards me, smirked, and told me ``hey ya fahcking bahstard, d'ya wanna fight?'', very aggressively. It took me around fifteen to twenty seconds to process the sentence and understand it, by which time the kids had already sniggered at me, told me to fuck off and die (``ya sad cunt''), chanted ``every saturday night begins with an E'', and lost interest. I never got involved in a fight at the European School but my social status was lower than most snails that scraped a living in the sports fields. At least they got honourably squashed by the Sacred Rugby Ball (which I never touched --- the only time I did not successfully manage to avoid the rugby session, I was busy keeping the maximum possible distance from it during the game, running about the same distance as the ``ol' pigskin'' travelled in the air). I escaped such dread in various ways, one of which was reading the Lord of the Rings over and over again: in English. I had discovered most of the lovely, old and dusty Oxonian second-hand bookshops, filled with antique curiosities in Latin, Greek and English. I chased old, leather-bound books with the passion of an old Etonian librarian, though I was just going on eighteen then. I put together a respectable antique shelf with various copies of the Aeneids dating eighteenth and nineteenth century, some odd volumes from a nice nineteenth century pictorial Shakespeare opera omnia, and other odd bits and pieces. By this time, I had purchased the other two volumes of the Lord of the Rings, and I had read it (in English) at least twice. When I finally finished high school, right before I moved to London to start my maths B.Sc. at Imperial College, I had two weeks to kill, so I bought an expensive edition illustrated by Alan Lee and spent two weeks reading it, doing nought else. London had even more second-hand bookshops than Oxford, and it was in one of these, the Gloucester Road Bookshop close to Imperial College, that I found a beautiful Unwin edition of the Lord of the Rings. It was rather worn and battered, but it had an elegant black hard binding with an elvish looking rune on the front. The fifteen hundred pages squeezed into a volume that was hardly an inch thick, thanks to a beautiful, strong and exceedingly thin paper. The print had been made by types rather than electronic typesetting. This one volume edition only cost a tenner, and practically shouted at me to buy it. But my room at Imperial was so small I could hardly afford to keep two separate copies of the Lord of the Rings --- for I had brought the three separate paperbacks, Fellowship of the Ring, Two Towers and Return of the King, with me to London of course. So I arranged with the bookseller for a swap; I think he must have given me a pound or so off the price. I never read the book in Italian again, for I found that the Lord of the Ring was a text in linguistics as well as a novel. I found the names carried with them the meaning, magic and nuances I clothed the characters with, in my head. And it is true that Elvish sounds higher and nobler than common talk. Elessar is kinglier than Aragorn. Mithrandir is more godlike than Gandalf. I came to associate the eo- prefix with horses, and shuddered at the throat-rasping sounds of the Mordor language. I noticed later on that Tolkien attached geopolitical tracts to his own etymologies, as Anglo-Saxon and Nordic roots were associated to Good and Arabic-looking words to Evil; more in general, most of what is northern is good and most of what is southern is bad. Strangely, there are scarce traces of Latin roots in his work, which is probably the reason why I found all his names so exotic and fascinating. The book accompanied me in various travels, but I never really read it through during a journey. I think it lends itself best to a mind-travelling experience whilst the body comfortably rests in one's own easy chair. Lately, after I moved to Paris, I thought I could use the same trick to learn French. Why not buy the Lord of the Rings in French and read it? But somehow the text has become inextricably linked with English, and I turned to other books for that purpose, for I don't think I'd have enjoyed it in French. The last thing I want to say on the matter is that I met a person who met Tolkien. This guy's name is Stephen Boyd, a mathematician from Stanford University whose parents were both academics. They spent a sabbatical visiting colleagues in Oxford, and a very young Stephen got to meet Tolkien at a social gathering. Unluckily, he was too young then to appreciate the event.
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My Family and Other Animals
This is one of the first books I remember my father strongly recommending me. I guess he'd already bought me many books, but they might have been adventure books that he himself had read when he was a kid, so was unenthusiastic about. For this book, however, he had an ongoing admiration, so it was o
This is one of the first books I remember my father strongly recommending me. I guess he'd already bought me many books, but they might have been adventure books that he himself had read when he was a kid, so was unenthusiastic about. For this book, however, he had an ongoing admiration, so it was one of the first times we got to share an enthusiasm in a book. Besides, he's a naturalist turned chemical engineer (and gone back to natural sciences since his retirement) so obviously he likes Gerry Durrell. It's only recently I found this second-hand copy in English in the antique bookshop of the Galerie Vivienne, in Paris. I'd only ever read Durrell's books in Italian up to this one, for they were linked to my early adolescence. But it's not one of those books that suffers badly from translation, in my opinion.
The Buddha of Surburbia
I am in love with this book. I think it's shameful how Hanif Kureishi went from writing this wonderful book, to an OK book like the Black Album (his second novel) to a long string of novels that really did not even stick in memory. Maybe this is one of those cases where good is in the eye of the beh
I am in love with this book. I think it's shameful how Hanif Kureishi went from writing this wonderful book, to an OK book like the Black Album (his second novel) to a long string of novels that really did not even stick in memory. Maybe this is one of those cases where good is in the eye of the beholder. I had met Victoria, my first girlfriend, one night in the Imperial College's Falmouth-Keogh Halls of Residence at Princes' Gate Gardens. It was the first or second month into my maths B.Sc., and was coming home late from some drinking session or other. I was only slightly tipsy. There's this cute, long-haired, very english-looking girl crying over someone's shoulder near the public telephones. I eye them a little and from the body language I understand that this someone is not anyone she's crying over, but just a passer-by. Good, I tell myself. Let's DO this! So I quickly sent him on his way (he was actually relieved, he'd had enough of her tears I guess) and proceded to console the distraught girl. We have been together for three years and then split up when I moved back to Italy after the end of the B.Sc. One and a half years into our relationship, she lent me her copy of the Buddha of Suburbia, and I've been reading it once every two years on average ever since. I have a weak spot for books relating stories from the seventies. A lot of individuals have the feeling they've been born a generation too late. From what I was told and read about being a young twentysomething during the seventies, it sure looked like a fun period to be alive in. Ideals drove politics that drove economy, whilst nowadays it's imperfect market laws driving economy driving politics. People discussed books, stories, and culture. Experimented with sex and art. Fought political battles demonstrating from the streets against the Powers That Be. When I attended demonstrations, they had already become marginal events (in the economic sense). They'd gone from the workers' struggles to the university struggles down to high school level. I was fourteen. What can a shy, sexually immature, hormone-imbalanced fourteen year old possibly demonstrate about? Like many other kids, I think I went to demonstrations partially to avoid one day of school and partially to try and catch girls' attention (going to demonstrations for sexual reasons was wildly popular, at least in Italy, as related by both Umberto Eco in Foucault's Pendulum and in Ravera and Radice's Porci con le Ali). I was successful in the first feat, largely by default, whilst I was a failure in the much more important girl-scoring area. Never mind. So I would have liked to attend demonstrations which were not just copies of copies of copies. I would have liked to see and live the real thing. I read books and books and I think I can refer to seventies' idols and trends in a hip, knowing way, without ever having been there. Now I'm an adult, I tell myself that if I'd lived during the seventies, I'd have probably stayed on the side anyway, and dreamt of how nice it would have been to be living in the fifties. The Buddha of Suburbia told me a seventies' story from two novel points of view: that of geography (I'd only ever known about the seventies in Italy) and race (which was not an issue in Italy, but was very much an issue in the UK). And it did so whilst transmitting a curiosity towards all that is Indian, for all the black (well, Indian really) characters in the book are interesting and much more alive than the white ones. This book gave me a key to interpreting a lot of current English behaviour. Having been bullied by English people myself, without really being able to explain why --- since there was very little bullying in Italy --- I'd always been extremely puzzled about it. Now I started to understand the backlash of the colonies, the poverty of the basest home-grown culture confronted with the most enterprising individuals choosing the difficult task of moving from India to England, and the resulting defeat. Jobs were robbed and competition became fiercer at the margins, but the competitors from outside had already proven to be of sturdier stock. This generated hate. Besides, England being an island, they were always somewhat prone to xenophobia. Helen's father saying ``we're with Enoch'' was a sentence that always perplexed me. I recently found out about Enoch Powell and his movement. This book had a way of introducing me to things and events that English people in the nineties did not talk about --- maybe simply because Enoch was far from making the news in the 1990s --- but all knew, and sometimes referred to implicitly. I also took in all the good hints like touching girls' ears to see if they're ready for sex (actually, after much experimenting, I think this is false). I was fascinated by the sexual relationship between the cousins, and could see the difference between real London and that described in the book. West Kensington was much less run-down, for example. But Earls' court, although more upscale, was still ambivalent about its social status. And all these places were within walking distance from Imperial College! How much better can you get huh? Furthermore, although I hate books without a definite ending, I make an exception for this one. Yes, the story actually ends without strictly needing to. But there is a sense of conclusion to it. Like an age has been told, there may be strands of the past age drawing into the new one, but fundamentally the boy's gotten out of adolescence and into adulthood.
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