April 2008


Yesterday I went to the University Library (affectionately known as the UL) for what will probably/hopefully be the last time this academic year, to finish off the reading I needed to do for my last essay before exam revision starts in earnest. I somehow managed to avoid the UL entirely for my first year here, but this year it has been an indispensable resource for finding obscure articles about obscure things in obscure journals that just happen to be absolutely necessary for whatever essay I’ve been set that week.

The University Library, Cambridge, like the British Library, is one of the UK’s copyright libraries, meaning it is entitled to a copy of every book, magazine or newspaper published in the UK. It differs from the British Library in that a large part of it’s collection is open access, meaning that if you are registered as a reader, you can just go and find the book on the shelf yourself rather than having to order it in advance. Borrowing rights are restricted to third years and above, as far as I understand it, so you have to read in the library. Nevertheless, this means you can always be 98% sure that the book or article you need will be on the shelf.

Certain books are not borrowable at all and have to be ordered in advance and read in a certain room: the West Room, the Reading Room, the Commonwealth Room, the Rare Books and Manuscripts Room, the Map Room… It always makes you feel quite priviledged, as an undergraduate, to order up books in some of these rooms alongside proper academics doing serious research. Yesterday I needed to look at two facsimilies of the two earliest manuscripts of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Peoples, which for some reason were only in the Map Room. At first I was the only one in there, which felt very strange, but before long a couple of other people were in there actually looking at maps, including one woman with a very old looking map which looked really interesting – I had to resist the temptation to ask her what it was all about!

The UL is absolutely massive, and inevitably you end up needing books from all over the building and lugging a massive pile of books from the sixth floor on the north side to the fifth floor on the west side, which can be a pain. There are most certainly places I haven’t yet been to, but I think the maze-like nature of this library is part of its charm. When working there you know you are surrounded by hundreds of other people all studying incredibly diverse things, and yet at the same time you can feel completely alone and concentrate on your own work. And of course the miles and miles of bookshelves are at once comforting and awe-inspiring!

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Just finished reading Over by Margaret Forster.  She is one of my favourite authors, and although this was not my favourite of her books, it didn’t disappoint.  Her books nearly always focus on different aspects of women’s life – usually very ‘ordinary’ women – and explore the complexities and dilemmas of identity and femininity, family, motherhood and relationships.  She is also a biographer, having written on Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Daphne du Maurier, and a couple of semi-autobiographical works.

Over is quite a short book, and therefore didn’t take too long to read.  It is told from the viewpoint of Louise, a infant school teacher and mother of three children.  Forster explores the ripples that emanate through her life and family after one of her twin daughters dies in a tragic sailing accident.  She deals expertly and sensitively with the portrayal of grief, and how different characters’ differing reactions to the tragedy tear at the bonds between those left behind.  Louise’s husband Don is stubbornly set on a vendetta of blame, determined to prove the accident was not an accident but due to some fault of human workmanship that can be pinned to an individual.  When he refuses to see how his inability to let go and move on is isolating him from the rest of the family and antagonising them, Louise feels she has no choice but to move out in order to be able to deal with her grief in her own way.

Over is a novel about the complex networks of love that bind families together, and although told from Louise’s viewpoint, Forster manages not to condemn any one way of dealing with the grief that occurs when those networks are damaged.  She deals eloquently with the ramifications of each characters’ emotions and actions and in doing so has produced an insightful study of human character and emotion.

I’m now reinstalled in my lovely, if slightly chilly, student room, and have spent the day lugging heavy boxes around and unpacking. Of course the reason the boxes were so heavy was that I brought an awful lot of books back with me! It is one of the things I like most about packing for uni at the end of each holiday: going through all the bookshelves in my house picking out books I haven’t yet read and books I want to reread so that I have a shelf-full of books to distract myself with during term time. I think I’d go crazy without them! Of course doing this doesn’t stop me from being tempted by the bookshops every now and then to splurge my student loan on new books!

So here is my bookshelf for this term; I think it’s quite a good mix of fiction and non-fiction and is broadly representative of my tastes (although there’s not enough sci-fi or fantasy, but that’s usually what I splurge on in Waterstones)

Stephen Oppenheimer, Out of Eden

Stephen Oppenheimer, The Origins of the British

Alison Baverstock, How to get a job in Publishing

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun

Tom Holland, Persian Fire

Ian McEwan, Atonement

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart

Terry Pratchett, Wyrd Sisters

Anita Diamant, The Red Tent

Margaret Forster, Hidden Lives

Cicero, Selected Works (Penguin Edition)

Margaret Forster, Over

Sebastian Faulks, Charlotte Gray

Clare Tomalin, Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self

Mike Dash, Tulipomania

Lalita Tademy, Red River

Jaqueline Carey, Kushiel’s Dart

Anita Shreve, The Last Time They Met

Anton Chekhov, Plays, (Penguin Classics Edition)

Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups

Andrew Haslam, Book Design

Yolanda Zappaterra, Editorial Design

Chris Stringer, Homo Britannicus

I’ll keep you updated on how many of this selection I get through and what I think of them!

Today I took a day trip down to Winchester with a couple of friends from my Uni course to see the exhibition at the Discovery Centre entitled Alfred the Great: Warfare, Wealth and Wisdom. Winchester is an absolutely beautiful town, and I’m now hankering after the gorgeous Georgian houses there!

The exhibition was pretty small but well laid out with useful and well presented information, as well as a few fun hands-on activities for children (which we of course tried out too!). The highlights were the so-called aestel jewels, the Fuller Brooch, and the earliest surviving manuscript of Alfred’s translation of Pope Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care. All these objects are normally scattered across the country in various museums, so it was fantastic to be able to see them all together.

The Pastoral Care is the first book fully written in English, and though it is a translation it also contains one of the earliest pieces of sophisticated English prose: Alfred’s Preface, in which he sets out his vision and plan to restore the state of learning in England by teaching every young man in England who is not otherwise employed to read English, and by translating some of the books ‘most necessary for men to know’ into English to give them something to read. It is an incredible insight into a medieval mind, and should demolish for once and for all the stubborn stereotype that everything that happened before 1066 was the ‘Dark Ages’. In the Preface, and in the works he had translated, in particular the Pastoral Care, we can see a man who was deeply concerned not only with faith, but also with how to conduct himself as a good ruler, and how to enrich and improve his kingdom intellectually as well as materially.

The jewels, which are thought to be the heads of pointers used for reading, are absolutely stunning when you see them close up. They vary in size and design quite a lot, and as more of them have been found, it is becoming more and more clear that we don’t really have any idea what they were used for, but they do seem to be of a related type: variously shaped gold heads, some with glass enamelling, with sockets which give the suggestion they were once attached to something.

The Alfred Jewel is the most famous one; it it larger than the others and depicts a man; it has an inscription round the edge reading ‘Aelfred mec heht gewyrcan’ (Alfred had me made). In the Preface, Alfred states that he is sending a copy of the Pastoral Care to each of his Bishops, accompanied by an ‘aestel’ worth fifty mancuses – a lot of money. The Alfred Jewel is thought to be one of these aestels, and it would certainly fit in beautifully with the image of the intellectual warrior king Alfred seems to have been.

I also absolutely loved the Fuller Brooch, which, with its sophisticated depiction of the Five Senses and the Four Elements, also gives us a sense of the vibrant intellectual and artistic culture of the late ninth century. It is also just a beautiful object of highly skilled craftsmanship!

Yesterday was my first time at the London Book Fair, which must be a rite of passage for anyone wanting to work with books. Of course I was only there as an observer, but it was great fun wandering the aisles, watching all the meetings going on at the different publishers’ stands, reading the name badges of everyone who walked past and going ‘ooh, she works for Penguin…. ooh there’s the head of Oxford University Press’ and of course oogling all the gorgeous books. Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre is absolutely massive, and it was awe-inspiring to see it filled to the rafters with books!

I was there for two reasons: firstly, I had booked myself a 15 minute free careers consultation with the Bookseller’s (in association with Random House) Careers Centre, and I wanted to go to the seminar the Society of Young Publishers were hosting entitled ‘Getting ahead in UK publishing.

The careers consultation was with a lovely lady from the Human Resources and Recruitment department of Random House, and she gave me some useful tips about my C.V. She also gave me some advice about the advantages and disadvantages of doing a Publishing MA versus trying to get an entry level job through doing back-to-back work experience placements and temp work with agencies like careermoves.com. Personally I’m keen on the idea of doing an MA, because I think it gives you a good overview of the industry and an understanding of the business side of Publishing.

Which is exactly what the message of some of the speakers at the Seminar was, albeit they also admitted doing a further year of study after university isn’t for everybody. The panel included Alison Baverstock, Senior Lecturer at Kingson University, Ros Kindersly, the Managing Director of JFL Search and Selection, a Publishing Recruitment Consultancy, Iain Stevenson, Professor of Publishing at University College London, and Jeremy Trevathan, Publishing director at Pan Macmillan. Their overall message focused on the importance of developing a sense of professionalism and remembering that Publishing is a business that has to make money, it is not just about loving books. They also emphasised the importance of doing as much work experience as possible and of building up a network of contacts as Publishing is a very sociable industry. They also highlighted the variety of roles within Publishing other than Editorial that also provide interesting opportunities – for example, Production, Rights or Marketing – as well as the variety of tasks within any one role. Each project will be different and so you need to be flexible and creative with a wide range of skills and ideas in order to keep up. And if looking for a job, work experience, or applying for a course, make sure your C.V. is immaculate!

It was a useful and informative event, showing the SYP at their best. Alison Baverstock also launched her latest book at the event: How to get a job in Publishing, published by A&C Black, which looks like an excellent source of good information and advice.

I watched a really lovely programme on BBC 4 last night, presented by the wonderful Stephen Fry.  It was the first on a series of programmes in the BBC’s Medieval Season, which promises to be very interesting.  Stephen Fry was exploring the history of Johannes Gutenberg’s famous invention.   Printing using presses and moveable type was not new in the fifteenth century: in Eastern Asia, woodblock printing had been around for a while, but as you can imagine with Chinese characters it was quite a time consuming method.  In Europe at the start of the fifteenth century the race was on to find a way to produce the carved letter types quickly and efficiently.  This was Gutenberg’s breakthrough: he invented a special type of matrix mould which allowed hundreds of copies of a particular letter to be made very quickly –  although it still took half a day to file the metal templates used to create the mould.

Moveable type and new printing presses completely revolutionised our society and culture.  Suddenly far more people were able to access – and to create – written material.  Writing was no longer the monopoly of monastic scribes but for the first time books could be mass-produced – and each copy would be identical.  The Church was one of the first institutions to take advantage of the new technology, seeing the potential of being able to print standardised versions of the Bible and hundreds of Indulgences.  But it also allowed other men to have their say for the first time, and the modern world would not be the same without the Gutenberg Printing Press.

Stephen Fry’s programme was a very watchable exploration of the history of the Printing Press, as he went to Mainz and Strasbourg to discover more about Gutenberg’s life and work.  He also reconstructed (with the help of expert printers and carpenters) an original press, and printed an exact replica of one of the pages of the Gutenberg Bible using paper and type made in the authentic, old-fashioned, fifteenth-century method.  I always love seeing history brought to life in this way, and Fry’s excitement and awe as they printed the page was palpable.  A lot of people probably take mass-produced printed books for granted nowadays, so it was fascinating to go back to the beginning and be reminded just how revolutionary Gutenberg’s Press was.

At the talk on Literary Agents I went to at the SYP careers conference last November, Pat White described agents as ‘somewhere between solicitors and nannies’. I was interested to hear what she had to say because this summer I’m going to be doing a months worth of work experience at a literary agency.

The agent’s role seems essentially to be to represent an author, to negotiate with the publishers on behalf of the author, to secure them the best possible deal with an editor and to trouble-shoot once the book is in the process of being published. They also often deal with selling the rights to the book to TV or Film production companies, and overseas to foreign publishers. Increasingly, too, in an age when so many books are being written and published, the agent acts as the first filter for all the unsolicited manuscripts. Many publishers won’t accept unsolicited manuscripts anymore, but will only look at submissions that come via an established agent. So it is often the agent who decides what in the slush pile is worth publishing. To do all these things it is clear that you need to have good people skills, be tactful and organised with a sound financial, economic and legal sense, as well as being creative. It sounds to me like if you can do it, it would be very interesting and rewarding work.

So last Thursday I went in to the office to meet the people I’ll be working with this summer. I got the placement through my university’s excellent careers service back in October. The meeting on Thursday was not meant to be a formal interview, rather just a chance to introduce myself and be introduced to everyone there and be shown the ropes, but nevertheless you want to make a good impression! Their office is in a really lovely location in central London, not in some intimidating glass skyscraper but behind a very ordinary looking front door above a shop. The premises aren’t massive (there are only 5 full-time staff members) but they are quite cosy and welcoming, with big displays of books, bookshelves and fairy-lights round the windows. Everyone was really friendly and welcoming, even though they were pretty busy in the run-up to the London Book Fair which is on at the moment. I was told what I’d be doing in the summer (answering the phone, writing rejection letters, reading some manuscripts and submissions and writing reports on them, maybe helping with some of the foreign rights stuff) and I’m really looking forward to it – it’ll be great to have an insight into how it all works. They represent quite a diverse range of authors – from historians and scientists to children’s authors and novelists, so I don’t think I’ll get bored – or be lacking for interesting things to read!

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