A slight change of approach for my bookish blog this week, as I introduce a behind-the-scenes operator within the world of books and publishing. Tim Graham is the deputy editor of Good Reading magazine — and I’d like to make it known here and now that he’s right up there among the very best editors and sub-editors I’ve worked with in 30-plus years as a journalist.
I’ve been writing author interviews, book reviews and an occasional column for Good Reading for a number of years now, and one of the most satisfying aspects of this job has been recognising the great care and consideration with which Tim treats every single article I submit for publication. There’s a certain degree of pedantry required to be an excellent editor or sub-editor — getting every word and every sentence just right is not negotiable for those who excel in this role — but Tim manages to bring humanity and warmth to the task. If he has to query a particular word use of mine, or question the accuracy of information included in one of my stories, he does so tactfully and, more importantly, kindly. And, I must confess, he’s usually justified in raising the question.
I also thoroughly enjoy exchanging bookish emails with Tim, which quite often divert and meander through all sorts of philosophical and moral subjects, from the benefits of yoga to the beauty and value of Pitman’s Shorthand. I may not have met him in person, but I suspect he’s a kindred spirit, and I appreciate every opportunity to collaborate with him professionally, albeit from a distance.
Of course, all of what I’ve just written means I was particularly keen to see what sorts of books Tim has on his bookshelves at home, and what sorts of authors he admires the most. Not surprisingly, there are a lot of writing, editing, language and grammar titles to be seen. What I enjoyed most about Tim’s guest post, though, is that his wry sense of humour is also clearly evident. I’m sure you’ll appreciate the opportunity to peruse his shelves and read his responses to my questions.
Q. How would you describe the work that you do and how you do it?
A. I’m the deputy editor of Good Reading, an Australian monthly magazine filled with interviews of authors, other interviews in which we ask various well-known people questions about the books that have made a big impact on them, a book quiz and loads of book reviews.
My work involves editing book reviews and articles and writing various parts of the magazine, such as the book trivia section, the quiz and intros to many of the articles. I also write a couple of book reviews for each issue.
I do the fact-checking of almost every part of the magazine. If I were working as a subeditor at The New Yorker, then the copy would have already been fact-checked by junior staff by the time it reaches me. We don’t have the lavish resources of The New Yorker, so I do most of the fact-checking. I also download high-resolution images of book covers from publishers’ websites.
There are no stringent regulations that govern who can call themselves an editor – unlike the laws, for example, that pertain to lawyers or psychologists – so it’s possible to have a scant affinity or facility for language yet call yourself a subeditor. Nonetheless, I take the work very seriously, as indicated by the fact that I have read countless books on the topic of writing and editing. A couple of my favourites are On Writing Well by William Zinsser and Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark, as well as various style guides (The Economist’s Style Guide and The Chicago Manual of Style), and Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors by Bill Bryson.
One of the frustrating things about working with words is that many of them are in a state of flux. The meanings of many old words that are still used have changed over time, and expressions that were once considered infra dig often become acceptable. All that’s fine, but what do you do when an expression is in that liminal phase, where it is not entirely rejected by polite company but also not yet fully embraced by the guardians of the English language? An example might be the word ‘whom’, as in ‘That’s the man whom I saw yesterday.’ ‘Whom’ still has its place, but in many contexts it now sounds a bit stuffy although, strictly speaking, it’s perfectly grammatically correct.
Q. Where are the main bookcases in your home? Do you also keep books in other places at home (or elsewhere)?
A. There are bookshelves in every room except the bathroom.
In the lounge room there is a large bookshelf that I bought from a romance bookshop that was closing down, so it was going cheap. It’s about 2.4 metres wide and 1.8 metres high and very sturdy; it’s made of solid timber.
Another room has a relatively small bookshelf made by that popular manufacturer of flat pack furniture, so it consists of that cheap, nasty medium-density fibreboard, which I suspect is just euphemism for a mix of sawdust and glue. The shelves tend to sag a bit if I put a lot of heavy books on them.
The main bookshelf is also in this other room. It’s a floor-to-ceiling monster that would probably kill anyone if it fell on them. It’s 3.6 metres wide by 2.6 metres high. I had it made specially after having been driven mad for ages by piles of higgledy-piggledy books scattered around the place. I wanted a bookshelf that was going to make maximum use of the entire wall of the room, but I couldn’t find anything off-the-shelf, so to speak, that was going to fill the bill. I heard about a place called Twin Town Joinery, in the town of Forster, about 300km north of Sydney on the north coast of New South Wales. The price they quoted me for the bespoke shelves I wanted was so much cheaper than the quotes I obtained from carpentry outfits in Sydney – even taking into account the fact that they were going to have to transport this book-holding behemoth hundreds of kilometres south to Sydney.
The only thing that worried me was that the people at Twin Town Joinery weren’t going to come out to my place and measure up the wall. I had to do that myself, which made me a bit nervous. What if I got the measurements wrong? So I took the measurements – and took them again and again. And then one more time – just to be sure. Then about two more times after that. It’s the closest I’ve come to manifesting the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
After they made the bookshelves, the obliging folk at Twin Town Joinery motored down to Sydney with the disassembled shelves. Within a few hours they had converted these random bits of timber into an impressive, wall-straddling library.
I was – and I am still – very happy with it. The shelves are conveniently adjustable, allowing me to accommodate small books and large ones.
The last few paragraphs, I now realise, sound like an advert for Twin Town Joinery. But I have no affiliation with them whatsoever, apart from being a satisfied customer. The message of the story is this: if you need more shelving to accommodate your books, check carpenters and joiners in regional areas and compare their quotes to those of their big-city counterparts. You might be pleasantly surprised.
Too many book lovers, unable to find affordable shelving, either put up with inadequate space for their books or throw them out. Before you throw out your prized volumes, however, consider contacting a carpenter and getting a quote for shelving. It will be so much cheaper than the stuff you see in furniture shops and, because it’s custom made, it will make maximum use of your available space.
Q. How are your books organised?
A. Over the last year I’ve encountered two people who sort their books according to the colour on the spine. One of these people was a bit abashed about divulging her chromatic cataloguing system. It’s the sort of thing that I thought an artist or interior designer might do, but these people have nothing to do with the world of visual arts.
I would find such a categorisation system utterly frustrating, because I think of books in terms of their content rather than their appearance. The appearance of a book, however, is very important to me, and contrary to the proverb that you can’t judge a book by its cover, I know – in most cases – that you can. We receive a lot of books at work, most of which come from the big publishers. But some of them are self-published, and you can usually spot a self-published book instantly just from its cover design, which is almost always far less attractive than the covers of books from the big publishers, who employ clever and skilled graphic designers.
My fiction books are arranged in alphabetical order according to the surname of the author. My non-fiction books, which predominate, are more or less arranged according to subject matter.
Q. What sort of books predominate?
Q. Describe your favourite reading place.
A. My favourite reading place is on a train or bus. Suburban commuter trains are fine, but an intercity express gives me a lot more time to chew through the pages.
I seem to lose myself much more easily in the book I’m reading if I’m on a train or bus. If I’m at home, I always seem to be afflicted by intrusive thoughts about the various tasks I should be doing around the place. But on a bus or train, I’m removed from the visual cues that, I suspect, play on my subconscious mind and cause me to get distracted.
Q. What books are you reading now? Why did you choose those books and what do you think of them so far?
A. I’ve just finished reading The Seven Good Years by Israeli writer Etgar Keret. I loved it. It’s what I call one of my bus-stop books, which means I bought it as an e-book from Amazon and I read it on my phone while waiting for the bus. I’m not very good at reading real books while waiting for a bus, as I find it very difficult to juggle the book, plus the various bits of luggage I usually carry, while at the same time looking up every 20 seconds or so to see if the bus is barrelling towards me. If I’m reading a paper book, then I like to have a pencil with me to make notes in the margins or underline various parts. The pencil just adds to all the encumbrances that surround me as I travel to and from work (such as my pre-packed breakfast and lunch), so reading an e-book on my phone while at the bus stop enables me to get onto the bus within seconds without having to juggle a book, pencil and a ruler.
You asked me about the books I’m reading. Sorry for the diversion about e-books. Back to the Etgar Keret book, The Seven Good Years: it’s divided into seven sections (Year One, Year Two and so on). Each section contains short pieces – about three to five pages long – that deal with various aspects of the author’s life over a seven-year period. It’s bookended by the birth of his son, Lev, and the death of his father. Etgar lives in Israel but he often travels to writers’ festivals around the world, so his destinations also feature in the pieces. In one piece he writes about his job as a lecturer at a university in Beersheba and how he and the students often have to take shelter because of imminent rocket attacks. We might think it’s possible to live the full human experience in Australia, but no university student here, thank goodness, must regularly take cover against incoming bombs. Many of us say we want to live a rich, full life, filled with experiences, but some experiences you really don’t want to undergo. At Good Reading we champion the books of Australian writers, but this book makes me realise how fascinating it is to read books by writers who lead very different lives from those of average Australians.
Despite the threat of being bombed, the book is actually really funny. It’s been translated from the Hebrew, and although I have no knowledge of Hebrew, the translation seems very smooth. Some translations sound really clunky. I recently looked on Amazon at the preview pages of an English translation of a book by Ferdinand von Schirach, a German lawyer. The language sounded stilted and awkward. Translation really is an art – it shares some similarities with writing but it is quite different and requires extraordinary skills that not every speaker of the two languages in question possesses.
I’ve also read about half of The Pleasures of Leisure by Tasmanian writer Robert Dessaix. This is a pleasantly discursive book not only about the pleasures of leisure but also about its virtues. Dessaix notes that in many sectors of our society there is a deep distrust of leisure. He recounts an incident in which he was once seated next to a billionaire on a plane. The rich man blathered at length about his many achievements while Robert Dessaix politely listened. After the billionaire got tired of his own voice he turned to Dessaix and asked him: ‘And what do you do?’
‘Nothing,’ lied Robert Dessaix.
‘Nothing?’ the billionaire responded.
‘Nothing,’ Robert Dessaix said again.
That brought the conversation to a satisfying halt. Satisfying for Robert Dessaix, that is, who had tired of listening to the billionaire blowhard.
Another book I desperately want to read is Venice by Jan Morris. It was written in the early 1960s. I’ve read bits of it and loved her use of language.
Q. What are your favourite books and/or who are your favourite authors?
A. The recently deceased AA Gill, Bill Bryson, Helen Garner, Paul Theroux. Some of Susan Hill’s ghost stories (The Woman in Black, The Small Hand, Dolly). The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island by Chloe Hooper. Joe Cinque’s Consolation, This House of Grief, True Stories and The Feel of Steel by Helen Garner.
I first encountered the books of Bill Bryson about 20 years ago when a family member was sick and could not read books, but she did have the energy to listen to them. I borrowed audiobook versions of a couple of Bill Bryson books. I also ended up listening to them. They were read by an actor named William Roberts, who is an outstanding reader. I’ve since found out that many actors supplement their incomes by reading books. They have been trained in the art of using their voice, so they are natural candidates as audiobook readers. I’ve also heard Bill Bryson reading his own books. Sorry, Bill. You write great books, but you are no match for William Roberts, who reads your books much more skilfully than you do, with your soft, mumbling voice.
This discussion about talking books reminds me of another sort of audiobook that I love. It’s actually an app rather than a book. It’s called If Poems, and it features the text of dozens and dozens of well-known and well-loved poems – but also some poetry that is not so well known but which the creators thought deserved more attention. The app also features audio readings of the poems by famous UK actors, such as Tom Hiddleston, Bill Nighy and Helena Bonham Carter. The blokes on this app are good – especially Tom Hiddleston with his astonishingly good Aussie accent – but none of them can hold a candle to Helena Bonham Carter. She is a knockout reader of poetry. Her pauses, her varying speeds of delivery, the tones of tenderness and spite – she has it all. And she’s so funny. Hearing her read poems is such a delight. If you have any affinity for language, get this app – If Poems. It will cost you only a few dollars.
Q. In the event of an emergency, if you could save just three books from your collection, which books would they be – and why would you choose them?
A. Probably the first book I would grab is one that I have only ever flicked through and have never read. It has, however, great sentimental value. It’s the Finnish–English, English–Finnish dictionary that my maternal grandfather brought with him when he migrated to Australia in the 1920s. The dictionary is over 100 years old but it’s still reasonably robust.
Some years back I learned the rudiments of the Finnish language in a class at an adult education course. I was intending to go to Finland the following year – which I did – and I wanted to know at least a bit of the language. I ended up buying a small dictionary that had been published in the previous few years, but I did occasionally consult the old dictionary to see if there were any significant changes in language over the intervening decades between the publication of the two books.
The other two books I would grab – if you could call them books – are diaries that my grandmother wrote when she and my grandfather sailed to Europe in 1957. The details are fairly mundane and would be of no interest to anyone outside my family, but I love looking at the curly, distinctive, old-fashioned script in which my grandmother wrote.
I love just about all the other books I own, but I can’t think of any that I would grab in an emergency. Most of them would be replaceable – or they would be if I were one of those people who obsessively catalogue every book they own – but my grandfather’s dictionary and my grandmother’s diaries could not be replaced.
Q. If you could sit down for afternoon tea with your three favourite characters or authors, who would they be, what would you serve them, and what would you like to talk to them about?
A. This might sound a bit odd, but I have no great desire to meet my favourite authors. If a friend of mine were inviting one of my favourite authors to dinner and they also invited me, then of course I would be intrigued and go along and talk to them. But I wouldn’t make any huge effort to meet them. I’m a bit wary of celebrity and fame.
At author talks and book signings I am never one to rush up to the author at the end of the talk. The desperate need to be the first to meet an author at a bookshop always strikes me as a bit unseemly. If I happened to bump into the author on the street, I would probably strike up a conversation if I could think of something interesting to say that they hadn’t already heard thousands of times (‘I loved your last book!’). But otherwise I’d leave them alone.
That said – now that I think about it – there is one author I wouldn’t mind talking to, and that’s travel writer Paul Theroux. In one of his books he gave a bit of insight into his research process. He always carries a paper notebook and a pen with him and he constantly scribbles in it. Some writers seem to give the impression that their words magically appear on the page, as if all they had to do was transcribe the peerless prose that their brain was effortlessly conveying to their writing hand. Paul Theroux is not like that at all. Writing, for him, is not a rarefied, purely intellectual activity. He admits to the physical hard work of writing. I can see him in my mind’s eye, out in some far-flung corner of the planet, paying attention to everything around him while wielding a notebook and pen and frantically trying to get every point down while at the same time trying to observe what’s going on around him.
His practice of taking a notebook everywhere is something that many writers could benefit from. Most of us, if we don’t write down the details of what we observe or what we think, will lose those thoughts and observations. The notebook and pen (or the voice recognition app and the notes app on a phone) will counteract this tendency to forget the detail that brings writing to life.
I also wouldn’t mind talking with Helen Garner. She strikes me as such a straightforward person who isn’t reluctant to reveal her foibles and failings – unlike many people who are so desperate to impress others. Perhaps it’s this candour that contributes to the quality of her writing. I might ask her how she goes about making notes for the books she writes and what she thinks makes her such a first-rate observer of other humans.