October 2008


I just finished the Man Booker-Shortlisted and British Book Design and Production Award-Shortlisted novel Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Ghosh. Wow.  The skill with which this author writes is just breath-taking.  The story is set in 19th Century India and on the high seas, centering on a group of incredibly diverse characters drawn together one way or another on board a ship called The Ibis.  The opium trade is at the heart of the plot and it is one of those fantastic historical novels which manages to teach you something at the same time – I had never before realised, for some reason, that a lot of the British Empire’s Opium was grown and manufactured in India and then exported to China, having somehow assumed it was an exclusively Chinese trade.  I also learnt something about the transportation of indentured migrant workers from India to Mauritius – although I knew that Mauritius had a strongly Indian background, I had never really thought about why.

Rather like Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, (which is probably the longest single book I’ve ever read, but is riveting nevertheless), Ghosh’s technique of switching between different characters and his skill in fleshing out their personalities so that you have a fully living, breathing, amimated cast of characters rather than only one or two fully developed main characters, ensures that we get a sweeping insight into 19th century Indian and Colonial life.  The characters come from all works of life: a mulatto freed-man from Baltimore working as a sailor, a Raj toppled by an unscrupulous English businessman, a poor poppy farmer escaping the clutches of her brother-in-law after the death of her opium addict husband, an enterprising young French-woman who has grown up with India as her motherland, and many more.

One of the ways Ghosh manages to make his cast so vivid is through his imaginative use of language.  Each of the characters has a distinctive voice, shot through with personal idiosyncracies and Indo-English slang.  The misunderstandings that arise from the mutual incomprehension of the different characters makes for a great deal of humour alongside the darker themes arising from the historical setting.  To give a couple of examples:

” ‘Puggly, tell me the truth, I conjure you: there isn’t a rootie in the choola, is there?’

‘Why, Madame…’

Paulette was a little surprised to see Mrs Burnham making such a to-do about a matter she usually touched upon so lightly – but she was glad, too, to have the conversation turned in this new direction, since it presented a good opportunity for escape.  Hugging her stomach, she made a moaning sound: ‘Madame, you are perfectly right: I am indeed a little foireuse today.’

‘Oh dear, dear Puggly!’ The BeeBee dabbed her streaming eyes and gave Paulette a pitying hug.  ‘Of course you’re furious! Those budzat sailors! With all their udlee-budlee, you’d think they’d leave the larkins alone!’ ”

“He paused to give Zachary a broad wink. ‘From what I hear, the Rascal’s going to be in for a samjaoing soon enough.  The kubber is that his cuzzanah is running out.’

Zachary could no longer sustain the pretence of omniscience.  Knitting his eyebrows, he said: ‘Cu – cuzzanah? Now there you go again, Mr Doughty: that’s another word I don’t know the meaning of.’ ”

Ghosh spends a lot of the book – and it’s not a short book – setting the scene, introducing the characters and slowly weaving them all together.  The second half of the book therefore felt much faster-paced, and ended quite abruptly: I have to admit, after the time spent building everything up, I felt the culmination of the action was almost too rushed.  However, I just found out that it is in fact the first of a planned trilogy, so I just have to wait for the second one to come out!  Ghosh has invested so much in the characters that you are definitely left wanting to know what happens to them next!

Most of you will probably have heard of the publisher Picador, or maybe read a book without realising it was published by them – their authors include Douglas Adams, the poet Carol Ann Duffy, Bret Easton Ellis and Helen Fielding, to name just a few of the more recognisable.  They publish a fantastic range of contemporary classics and literary fiction, with lots of prize-winning authors.  Their website is very up-to-date, uncluding podcast interviews with authors, extracts from new books and, most relevantly, a blog.   To quote from their website: 

‘You can also talk about all things book-related on the Picador blog, where we will be regularly posting contributions from writers, editors, journalists and literary bloggers, and would love to hear from readers too’.

I’m not quite sure whether I fall into the category of literary blogger or reader, but, excitingly, I have been asked to contribute a post for their blog.  Of course I agreed, and am planning on writing something hopefully amusing, interesting and informative about student reading habits.

It would therefore be amazingly helpful if all my student readers out there, and anyone who has ever been a student, could contribute by answering a few questions for a very unscientific mini-questionnaire.  Leave a comment or post on the wall of my Facebook group; and go into as much or as little detail as you can!  The sooner the better as I do have a deadline…

1: Do you read fiction regularly during termtime?

2: If yes, how often, when and where?  What type of books do you read – do you have any particular favourites you always bring up to university with you?

3: If no, why not? Not enough time? Not enough money? Too boring? When do you read, if ever?

4: Do you buy fiction books regularly?

5: If yes, how often? Where from? An independent bookshop? Charity shops? A big chain like Waterstones or Borders? Amazon? Another online retailer? Why do you shop at that particular place?

6: How many fiction, non-academic, non-work-related books are sitting on your shelf/desk/floor/table in your university room at this moment? Did you bring them with you from home or did you buy them recently? How many of them do you expect to read this term?

So there you go: for obvious reasons, academic/work related reading is excluded here!

I look forward to getting your responses, and will of course point you in the direction of the finished post!

My MA application finally went in the post yesterday so should be landing on UCL’s graduate admissions doormat today!  I went for UCL in the end as the course content seemed to be more what I am after – see here for a description of the modules.  The fact that over half the course is dedicated to exploring and understanding the key skills and processes of Publishing as a business was a big bonus to me, and I also think the Publishing, Culture and Society module sounds very interesting. The Publishing Process module also requires you to work in groups to give a presentation in front of top industry professionals, which would be excellent experience.  They condense their taught classes into two days a week, giving you time to work or do work experience alongside it, and a 5 week work placement is compulsory, as is a dissertation.  For me personally, their location in Euston is far more convenient, and they have a lovely campus.

So I should be getting confirmation of my application from the Graduate Admissions Department within 5 weeks, and from the Publishing Admissions Tutor a few weeks after that, then interviews will be in the new year.  I’m glad I managed to get it sent off before term has really got going here, because now I don’t need to worry about it too much until I know if I get an interview or not!

I’m also now starting to look at the very few in-house Publishing Graduate Training Schemes available.  HarperCollins run one, but no information seems to be available yet for 2009 applications, so I can’t really tell you how their scheme works. Macmillan‘s scheme puts you straight into a real job with real responsibilities, giving you an opportunity to learn about the business from the inside and providing you with support and mentorship at the same time.  They only have 5 or 6 places available and their scheme seems quite prestigious, so I will be tackling the rather long, detailed and slightly intimidating application form this weekend!  Penguin have in the past run a scheme in which you spend three months each in six different departments, gaining on-the-job insights into the company and how different departments work, whilst also completing individual project work and participating in a business skills development programme.  However, the only information I could find on their website dates from 2004/5 and I have not yet received a reply to the email I sent asking if they are running the scheme for 2009/10, so I will probably have to try and ring to find out.  The advantage of these schemes in general is, of course, that you are doing a real job and getting paid for it whilst receiving training; the advantage of an MA is being able to gain a thorough theoretical, academic knowlege of the business before being thrown in the deep end!

At any rate, I feel very positive that I will have something interesting to do next year, and if all else fails, I’ll be going down the more traditional work experience plus hundreds of applications for entry-level assistant jobs next summer after I’ve graduated!

One of the blogs I read regularly is Scott Pack’s at www.meandmybigmouth.typepad.com.  He is Publisher at The Friday Project and used to be a big cheese within Waterstones.  One of his recent posts asked for any of his readers who blog to post a comment with a description of their blog and a link – so obviously, hoping to get more readers, I did.

The person who had commented above me, Rob, was also blogging about trying to get into a career in publishing, so I was interested to see what he had to say and touched to see that he then wrote this post linking back to me!  He has also been doing the Society of Young Publishers thing and getting lots of work experience, although I think overall he is approaching things in a slightly different way to me because he is no longer a student.

But anyway, it is good to feel that I am making my (very small!) mark on the blogging world and to link up with others in a similar position and exchange experiences and tips!

On a related note, those of you who read this regularly, I believe that if you click on the little ‘Feed on Posts’ button at the top right-hand side of the page, you will get automatically alerted by wordpress whenever I update!  And for those of you on Facebook, have a search for my group, Books and Biscuits, and join to receive update alerts from me!

With the recent release of the Sony e-Reader boosting the debate stimulated by the Amazon Kindle, it seems that digital reading devices are not going to go away.  Admittedly, I have not actually had the opportunity to see or try out any e-Readers, but I’ve been reading reviews, such as those here and here, with interest.

The main innovation seems to be the screen, which is e-paper rather than LCD, and therefore does not emit light.  This, in theory, makes it more comfortable than a computer screen to look at for a long time, though some reviews I have seen still complained about light glare in certain situations.  You can upload a far greater number of books onto it than you would ever be able to carry around; for the traveller, the student, the editor and the book reviewer, this is a major advantage.  You are also able to download ordinary pdf files to it, fact which those in the publishing world have said will revolutionise their reading of submissions and proofs and save them enormous amounts of paper.  For schools, and young children who are already so used to hand-held computer games and the internet, I suspect there will be many possible uses of e-Readers.  A school may not have room for an extensive library, but can store over 100 e-Readers with thousands of books on them on only a few shelves.

There are, of course, still technical hitches and things that could be improved.  The page-turning function is apparently a bit slow and you are not able to flick quickly backwards and forwards to find a particular reference as you would with a book – you have to know the page number.  You are not able to make notes on texts, though you can highlight paragraphs, a downside for those editors and students.  The software for downloading books and then uploading them onto the device is not Mac compatible and again is rather clunky.

I firmly believe that books will never disappear.  A physical book from 1000 years or more ago is still decipherable; as technology progresses so rapidly, how long will it be before your expensive digital library becomes inaccessible because no-one makes the necessary software or hardware anymore?  Of course, there are also situations in which the e-Reader is not ideal – any situation involving water for example.  No more reading in the bath.  Their value, as well, (not to mention the value of hundreds of books stored on them) could make them more risky.  No one is likely to be mugged for their second-hand Penguin Classics copy of Pride and Prejudice, but you might be more reluctant to read an e-Reader worth nearly £200 on the bus.

I think the future of e-Readers and of publishing depends on developing and enhancing the functions of the e-Reader in those areas in which it may have an advantage over the printed book, but also on developing, enhancing and highlighting those areas in which the physical, printed book is always going to win out.  With flexible and creative thinking, publishing can forge exciting new paths with new technologies without losing sight of exactly what is so brilliant about the old technologies that have done their job so well for thousands of years.