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I find it hard to write about classic works of literature

Yesterday, I finished reading Decline and Fall, the seminal social satire by Evelyn Waugh. I picked it up because someone⸺I cannot for the life of me remember who⸺recommended it as the funniest novel they’ve ever read. I can’t even remember whether someone said this to me in person, or whether I read it somewhere. I’m useless at this kind of thing, and haven’t come up with a good way to address my uselessness.

When I finish a book, I usually write a paragraph or so about what I thought and post it on Goodreads. This stops me from unintentionally reading the same stuff twice, acts as an aide-mémoire, and lets people know what I thought of the book. The last of these was never really an intention, but I’ve become increasingly aware of it as people in real life talk to me about what I’ve written, and sometimes tell me they’ve read books as a result. Once a month, I also reflect on what I wrote after reading each book, and post a tweaked version to my blog.

With Decline and Fall, I really struggled to think what to write. The same is true of Frankenstein, The War of the Worlds and A Christmas Carol which I read late last year. These are all very widely respected seminal works which people are very attached to⸺including some people I like, admire and respect. With the exception of Frankenstein (one of my own favourites), these are all books which I wasn’t completely wild about. That’s not to say I didn’t like them, enjoy them, or admire them, but none of them are books I’m desperate to re-read at any point.

Now, if these were pieces of music or works of art, I’d have no hesitation in writing that I found them less than earth-shattering. Indeed, I’ve no hesitation in trying (and failing) to convince Wendy that Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories is a great album, not “a bit weird”; I’ll happy tell anyone who will listen why David Shrigley is one of the UK’s greatest living artists, even as others call his work ‘mundane’, ‘spare and child-like’ or ‘quirky in the worst sense’; and this Letter of Recommendation by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman in the New York Times article got me tweeting without hesitation about how Winter my favourite of Vivalidi’s Four Seasons concerti, despite having been to plenty of weddings featuring Spring.

So, to pose a provocative question to myself: Why I am happy to disagree with people about the music they’ve chosen on the most carefully planned day of their life, but not happy to be seen to disagree with people about a book they’ve read? I haven’t got a good answer to that question, but here are some thoughts.

I think reading, more than most other art forms, is as much about the reader as the writer. I know others will say the equivalent applies to music and visual art, but I disagree. To read a book is to build a relationship over a relatively prolonged period of time with the person who wrote that book. Therefore, if I don’t think there’s much to be squeezed out of Decline and Fall as other people, I think this is as much about me as it is about the book. Yet if I say I don’t enjoy it, it feels like I’m criticising people who like it as much as the written text⸺and that’s not something I mean to do.

On top of that, I write all the time. On the other hand, I’ve never written decent piece of music in my life (except perhaps a variation on The Holly and The Ivy⸺no, this isn’t a joke⸺which I wrote when studying GCSE Music, and which I really liked, and which was performed at a school carol service⸺a high bar this is not). I cannot draw or paint to save my life: I’m colourblind, and struggle to stay within the lines at the best of times. So perhaps, despite having never written any extended works of fiction, I have slightly better insight into what goes into writing a novel, and feel worse about criticising something that I know has so much effort and soul poured into it.

Finally, I think there’s a sort of elite snobbery around books. A work colleague was recently shocked that I hadn’t ever read anything by the Brontë sisters; another was appalled that I’d never read Anna Karenina. So perhaps there’s an underlying nervousness that if I say that I don’t particularly enjoy books which are widely recognised as great works of literature, then I’ll be judged for it… which is obviously hogwash, because I’m reading for pleasure, and it’s perfectly reasonable to hate something while appreciating that it is important. I understand that Shakespeare’s work is important, but that doesn’t mean I need to ROFL like an insufferable toff at every joke which requires a fifteen-minute primer on the social strata of the time. I understand that Dracula was an important milestone in the development of Gothic horror and in challenging the suppression of women in society, but that doesn’t mean I have to love the truly terrible final third of the novel.

So each time I struggle with what to write about these books, I try to think: it really doesn’t matter. I’m not setting out to impress anyone. I read for pleasure, not to educate myself on the history of world literature. If someone thinks less of me because I enjoyed reading B.J. Novak more than Muriel Spark, then that’s their issue, not mine. “All readers are equal,” as Alan Bennett would say. I should just say what I think. I set out to do exactly that: and then second-guess myself, wonder exactly what I did think about a book, and start the whole cycle again.


The brilliant picture of Liverpool Central Library at the top of this post is by Tee Cee, and is used here under its Creative Commons licence.

This 2,406th post was filed under: Blogging, Posts delayed by 12 months.

A slightly mad personal experiment in time travel

Just recently, a few of my “internet friends” – people I’ve been digitally stalking for a decade or more – have fired up their old blogs again and started writing on a daily basis. This is also a bit Zeitgeisty at the moment: there have been lots of magazine articles and books which have mentioned the benefits of taking time to publicly air one’s feelings on a regular basis through the medium of online writing. I was finally pushed over the edge to write this post after Duncan Stephen published this post on his blog.

Years ago, I went through a phase of blogging daily: I usually commented on political events, with an inflated sense of my own importance and understanding. In fact, I blogged no less than 640 times in 2005. I don’t think much of it was high-quality stuff.

I’ve recently installed a nifty WordPress plugin which emails me daily with my own historical posts published on the same calendar date. Despite the fact that much of the content is utter bilge, I really enjoy reading these; they always bring back contemporaneous memories and make me reflect on how my life and views have changed.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that I see the benefit of regular blogging. Over the past couple of years, I’ve toyed with blogging daily, thinking about how I could emulate better bloggers by exploring whatever topic happens to be on my mind. I’ve even gone as far as to have a “dry run” of daily blogging on two separate occasions in the last couple of years, experimenting for a few days with unpublished posts just to see whether I could stick with it. I never could.

I was often inspired by things that had happened in my life (meetings, discussions, events) and this left me concerned that someone would read the post and take it the wrong way. I worried that in the contemporaneous context, people would see themselves in everything I wrote, and probably take offence. I was also wary about sharing travel plans, lest my house be burgled or car stolen!

I have occasionally tried writing a private diary or journal along similar lines, but I never stick with that because it seems self-indulgent and unproductive. I think there is something beneficial about writing content that is going be published (even if no-one reads it): there’s an element of self-editing which helps with critical thinking.

So here is my plan for a mad experiment: I’m going to blog more frequently—possibly even daily. However, I’m going to publish what I write with a delay of a year.

I’m sitting writing this in Wendy’s Ikea Strandmon winged chair on 6 March 2018: if all goes to plan, you will be reading this on 6 March 2019. Unless the whole thing fizzles out after a couple of days, in which case I’ll delete the lot and this writing will never see the light of day.


The photo at the top is by wuestenigel, edited and used under Creative Commons Licence.

This 2,397th post was filed under: Blogging, Posts delayed by 12 months.

I’ve been blogging for 11 flipping years. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way.

A week or so ago, Jessica Hagy wrote “I’ve been blogging for 8 freaking years. Here’s what I learned as I went along.” on Medium. Jessica’s post didn’t quite match my experience, but it inspired me to put down some of my own thoughts on the same topic.

Don’t just put your stuff out there.
Whatever you write, someone will like it… but if that someone isn’t you, then what’s the point? Over the course of 11 years of blogging, there’s more that I regret writing than I regret not writing. Learn from my mistake. Take time to consider what you write. Re-read it. Let it marinate. And when it’s really ready, put it online – cognisant of the fact that it will always be there. And, yes, this is coming from the bloke who wrote a book called Instant Opinion. Sorry about that.

There are people out there who won’t GET you.
There’s a subset of the population who will instinctively dislike your writing, much as there’s a subset of the population who will instinctively dislike your face. Then there’s a bigger subset of the population who will instinctively dislike the fact that you blog. Try not to be put off – but if you can’t handle unfair and unfounded criticism, blogging isn’t going to be your game.

People won’t steal everything you do.
But they will “steal” a lot of it. C’est la vie. They can’t steal the pleasure of writing it. Blog because you enjoy writing, don’t blog to be read.

Be afraid of your own voice.
Most bloggers seem to have a voice that’s slightly snide, prone to inside jokes, and which slips into shorthand and acronyms that nobody beyond their own circle of friends will understand. When I look back at my early writing, this is what makes me cringe the most. Moderate yourself. Take time to consider how best to express your ideas in terms that can be easily understood.

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Creative habits can be unhealthy.
An excess of boundless creativity can turn a respectable blog into an incoherent mess, probably with flashing GIFs and clashing fonts. Channel your creativity. And, most of all, don’t let your creative voice out-shout your critical faculties. Critical thinking that brings new ideas and perspectives is the lifeblood of a good blog.

It matters if you know that nobody reads it.
The best blogs are exercises in writing, not exercises in being read. It’s easy in the early days to get hung up on hit counts and comments. Resist. Try turning comments off for a while and not checking the stats. Don’t end every post with a question in the hope someone will answer. Don’t over-analyse what you’re doing and try to generate more hits. Write because you have something to say.

The tools change, and so do the actions.
There are people who try to use the same style and content on every platform. How many RTs and @replies have you seen on Facebook from people who try to cross-post? How many “1/6” on the end of Tweets from people who can’t keep within the character limit? Don’t be that guy. Get to know whatever tool you’re using, and tune your use of it. To play the best music, a musician must master their instrument. Fail to master the instrument, and even the best music will sound bad.

You don’t have time to make things.
Nobody has time to do anything except what they already do. If you want to start doing something new, you need to find time for it. It’s no good doing some mental calculation and thinking “I have time”. You have to make time, and that will mean making sacrifices along the way.

The vast majority of people don’t make content, they just pass on a tiny amount of what’s already out there.
By any reasonable measure, there’s already enough stuff on the internet. Your addition is infinitesimally small, and, no matter how much effort you put in, the fraction of the internet that’s yours will continue to tend to zero throughout your blogging life. Blog because you enjoy writing. Blog because you want to organise your thoughts. Don’t blog because you think your opinion is important, don’t blog because someone told you too, and – most of all – don’t blog because you want to be read.

Most people are idiots.
The internet is less than 0.0005% perverts and haters. But a substantial proportion of the other 99.9995% are people who don’t engage with debate, who don’t read past the first paragraph, and who would rather gawp at a series of photos of celebrities than read your passionate argument about something that’s important to you. Don’t blog because you want to be read.

A tiny bit of success can be the most frustrating thing of all.
By far the most popular thing I ever posted on my blog was a video I made of Gordon Brown picking his nose in the House of Commons. It even made it on to Newsnight. It was silly, not representative of me or what I do, and it took about five minutes to put together.

When in doubt, err on the side of caution.
I think blogging is great fun – but it’s fun because I enjoy writing. Before the internet came along, I used to write ‘newsletters’ on a manual typewriter that no-one would ever read. If no-one ever reads my blog, I haven’t lost anything. So, if there’s a post or two that I’m not completely happy to share, I don’t. Some of them I abandon altogether. Others I tinker with. I’ve one post that I’ve been tinkering with on an almost monthly basis for more than four years. Although, since every word has probably changed multiple times, perhaps a philosopher might say it’s not the same post at all. If I’d published it all that time ago, I’d have missed out on hours of enjoyable tinkering. Take time to consider what you write. Don’t blog to be read.



A verison of this post also appears on Medium.

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This 2,261st post was filed under: Blogging.

Nine years of blogging, and the permanence of it all

Today marks nine years since I started blogging. Nine years. Increasingly, people are becoming concerned about the permanence of stuff posted the internet. Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign was hampered by the web, and the fact that for almost everything he said, he’d previously given an equal and opposite quote to some other source at some point in the past. And, of course, there’s many other less prominent examples of people’s online history coming back to haunt them.

Anyone with a blog, like me, can essentially make a choice. I could delete a load of old stuff. It wouldn’t make it completely unavailable online, as content from this site is cached all over the place; I guess it might make it slightly more difficult to find. But I’ve chosen not to do that. I’ve chosen to keep the complete sjhoward.co.uk blog intact. And I’m sure many people wonder why.

Firstly, let me say that it’s not because I think everything on here is great. It’s not. There’s some terrible stuff. There’s stuff that’s just plain dross. I’ve written things that I’m a ashamed of, like using “gay” almost as a punchline, or referring to the entire French population as “crazy frogs”. There’s positions I’ve asserted that, at best, are altogether blunter than I’d ever express now, like saying “I’m very anti-smoking”. And that’s before we even open the can of worms labelled “unnecessarily base humour”.

So why, you might ask, do I keep this stuff online, with my name written at the top of the page in a massive font size?

This is something I’ve thought a lot about. In the end, my reasoning was fairly simple. What I wrote in 2003 might have been unprofessional, but I wasn’t a professional then. It might have been immature, but so was I. The date is clearly and prominently shown on all the posts I’ve written. Of course I don’t hold all the same opinions I did when I was 18 – does anybody? We grow, we develop, our viewpoints and opinions change.

One of the more remarkable things about this little site is that you can how it happened. You can see the softening of my opinion on Tony Blair, from barely concealed hatred, to grudging admiration, to actual respect. My changing interests are reflected, from the 2005 election, during which I published daily “swing updates” based on a complex formula weighting different polls, to the 2012 local elections which were only mentioned in passing beneath a pretty picture of a bus stop.

All of this history, and all of these changing opinions, set out the path to where my politics and opinions lie today. And, of course, both will continue to shift over time.

In the end, I guess I came to the conclusion that if someone chooses to judge me on a personal opinion I held a decade ago, then so be it. Though I’d suggest that a far more interesting and intelligent approach is to ask questions: “You once said you thought x: do you still believe that?” or “Your position used to be y, now it’s z. What changed your mind?”

I don’t know exactly when the meaning of the term “flip-flopping” in political discourse changed from being about presenting different views to suit different audiences to being about actually changing your mind on a given issue, but I don’t think it’s a helpful change. I’m vaguely suspicious of people who claim to have “always believed” something – it has a slight whiff of valuing dogma above thoughtful and reiterative consideration of the issues. I can only speculate that the increasingly tribal nature of politics has led to increasing institutional derision of free thought: we must all toe the party line.

If you ask me, the sooner we lose the vogue notion that a change of opinion or reconsideration of position represents a weakness, the better off we all will be.

This 1,638th post was filed under: Blogging, Politics, Site Updates, Technology, .

Is a blog still a blog. . .

…when it’s updated as seldom as this one?

No answer forthcoming from me, but I will be making some effort in the next little while to at least transcribe my Pod Delusion contributions to provide a sliver of nearly-new content.

My blogging has always gone through, erm, “dry spells”. I’m sure this site will spring back to life at some point in the not-too-distant future… And thanks to all the many thousands of visitors for keeping it going in the meantime – There is now far more user generated content on this site (via comments) than there is stuff written by me.

So I guess, in a very real sense, this is your site rather than mine.

Thanks for making it that way, thanks for supporting me, and thanks for your patience. New stuff is coming, I promise!

This 1,401st post was filed under: Blogging, Site Updates, .

Light blogging

This 1,339th post was filed under: Blogging, Notes, .

sjhoward.co.uk at five

Yesterday, somewhat rashly, I promised more coverage of the fact that I’ve now been blogging continuously for five years.

On reflection, I’m not sure there’s so much more to say: Five years, 1324 posts in the (newly redesigned) archive, a full spin-off site of academic stuff, and a book. Oh, and around 2000 comments – from considered to the hilarious, from the misguided to the insulting, and from the inspiring to the bizarre – from you, dear readers. Thank you for all of them.

Looking back at the last five years, much about the site has changed: I just wouldn’t write this today, but then neither would I write this – I hope that the site has progressed over the last few years, but I know there are some who would prefer the latter kind of content to that which I produce today. I guess that progress is relative and dependent on point of view. All I know for sure is that sjhoward.co.uk now reaches far more eyeballs than it ever has before, and has registered more than 3.2 million hits for 2008 so far.

Thank you to those who have stuck with me over the last five years, and thank you too to the relative newcomers who enjoy the site. There will be much more to come from sjhoward.co.uk over the next five years, so I hope you’ll all stick around.

Birthday Cake

» Image Credit: Original photograph by Daniel Catt, modified under licence.

This 1,325th post was filed under: Blogging, Site Updates.

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