When I initially read through Perth author Robert Edeson’s responses to my Shelf Aware questions, I wondered whether any of my previous guests had given quite so much thought to my question about how their books are arranged. I laughed out loud at the images he carefully chose to accompany that particular question — and I laughed out loud several other times while reading the rest of his guest post. His intelligence and wit were immediately evident, and have combined to make me keen to start reading his new novel Bad to Worse (Fremantle Press), which promises to entertain, delight and provoke thought.
I’m not going to spoil Robert’s post by telling you any more about him, or the new novel, because he does that splendidly. I am going to suggest that, with Father’s Day looming this weekend, Bad to Worse just might be an ideal choice for discerning dads with an appreciation for uniquely clever prose with a touch of intrigue and adventure.
Q. How would you describe the work that you do and how you do it?
A. I’m not sure that what I do is work in the ordinary sense; for me, it is more home-entertainment.
Still, I would describe it as writing novels that contain embedded nonfiction (I call it parafiction) that is itself indistinctly fictitious. Parafiction, such as apparently factual author commentary or academic referencing, is intended to draw the reader into believing to be true what is false, and sometimes even incredible.
It is one thing for readers to enter voluntarily and knowingly the make-believe of a story; it is quite another to have their credulity manipulated beyond the implicit boundaries of that story. But the fact that this can happen illustrates, I think, the principle and power of fiction, and ultimately its purpose, which fundamentally is to deceive.
I’m not saying that everything I write into a novel is a lie. Some of the scientific and philosophical content, both narrative and parafictional, is serious. Even so, I think of my new occupation as being a sort of literary mischief-maker.
How do I do this home-entertainment mischief-making? Like many others, I find that most writing occurs in the imagination, with only a small amount happening at the keyboard. So I spend a lot of time gazing into the distance, thinking about stuff. This state of affairs also satisfies my lifelong ambition to be a flâneur.
I don’t agonize over characters; I cannot claim they acquire agency in their own development or any autonomy in scripting. I think about what they think, what they say, and how they act; for my purposes, those three depictions construct the person, including their psychology, emotions, and motivation. I’m generally not interested in their physical appearance, what they wear or what they eat, unless it is relevant to the story. I don’t think descriptive detail necessarily drives realism, but rather risks appearing forced. I feel similarly about emotive backstories and novelistic character flaws. Let the reader imagine.
Q. What can you tell us about this new book?
A. Bad to Worse is a sequel to The Weaver Fish, following a new crime-fighting adventure of its protagonist, Richard Worse. The settings are Perth, the Ferendes (in the South China Sea), Chicago, and Dante, Arizona. The plot centres on an executive aircraft crash north of Dante and Richard Worse’s investigation into its cause. This exposes a criminal conspiracy involving a certain Mortiss Bros corporation, and Worse is drawn deeper into a century-old Mortiss family vendetta directed at his Arizona cousins.
Bad to Worse is also a sequel in the sense that it continues to address some philosophical themes of the first novel, such as evidence, belief, and moral good.
Q. Where are the main bookcases in your home or office? Do you also keep books in other places at home (or elsewhere)?
A. Books are shelved throughout our house. My partner has her own study–library, as well as a collection of film books (and DVDs) kept in our lounge room.
I have my own library, further shelving in a home office, and a shelf of current interest and recently referred-to books in our lounge room.
There are also rogue piles that metastasize bedside or next to comfortable seating anywhere in the house.
Many years ago, when fixed abode meant books stacked on pine boards supported by rough, wire-cut builder’s bricks on rented floors, I had a bookshelf in our camper van. Its composition was fungible, but always included a Concise Oxford.
Q. How are your books organised/arranged?
A. Arrangement is one imponderable of the book-loving life that presents to us the moment we receive our second book. It is at that point, I would guess, that adult preoccupations around possession and display begin their incubation in the infant psyche.
Every bibliophile wrestles with this problem, and soon discovers that classification is a fraught business, both practically and conceptually. (This is true in general.)
As much as I like numbers, Dewey included, a personal book collection is not a public library. That is because it is sentimental. It is also idiosyncratic, incomplete, and fractured. And who amongst us doesn’t slip artifacts into or between (or even in front of) books—postcards from a national portrait gallery, theatre programmes, clippings, tourist pamphlets, maps of mystical author-places, for example?
Then there are physical problems, like the over-sized volume that can’t fit on a shelf with congeners. And even if it does, it then dominates and ruins a subliminal graphic aesthetic. Try laying it flat; that can work but may not be space efficient, or beautiful.
One might easily conclude that the obsessive personality will never find peace in any enterprise of classification, especially with books. Let’s examine just one torment of the analytic perfectionist in the following argument:
A multi-volume work should be shelved right-to-left because then, when considered as a unit, total pagination is ordered.
Consider a two-volume dictionary shelved conventionally, as illustrated.
Although the two volumes are ordered numerically left-to-right, the pages of the work, viewed as a whole, are ordered absurdly; they both begin on the left and end on the right with an M-word. So much for a dictionary presenting entries ordered alphabetically!
To ensure ordered total pagination (albeit right-to-left), we should sensibly shelve Vol II to the left of Vol I, as shown.
Most librarians would find this offending.
Must the thoughtful bibliophile choose between these alternatives of (1) ordering the spines intuitively left-to-right, and (2) properly ordering the whole work’s pages numerically (and entries alphabetically) right-to-left? No: fortunately, there is a way of ordering the volumes left-to-right while having the pagination properly ordered, and also left-to-right. But it comes at a cost.
(Incidentally, the abbess Magdalena Letterby’s mastery of these unconventional reading symmetries is alluded to on page 5 of Bad to Worse.)
At this point, some might accept defeat and try the lie-down easy solution.
Note that this is a simple transform (left rotation in the plane) of the right-to-left ordering considered above.
Finally, is it possible to arrange the dictionary such that the two volumes are upright and ordered numerically left-to-right and the total pagination is ordered and is left-to-right and the text is upright? Incredibly and beautifully, yes: there does exist a lexical-order optimum.
(Here the transform is a rotation through the plane of the right-to-left ordering. The research shelver should confirm that the same result can be obtained by a rotation of the upside-down ordering shown previously. Of course, if independent volume rotations are allowed, this is also a simple rearrangement of the conventional ordering first presented.)
It might be noted that in the simpler case of a single-volume work, left-to-right pagination with upright text is guaranteed in a similar manner. Imagine, then, our analytic perfectionist in charge of a public library and implementing this newly discovered, lexically optimal shelving solution. Good luck with finding anything!
I trust that readers might now better appreciate the suffering of a bibliophile with even just two books to organize (an anguish, as I say, that begins in infancy). Also, I think I have found an explanation as to why librarians seem always preoccupied.
We have friends who shelve books according to colour of spine. I was slightly shocked when I first heard the idea, but if this is the feature of a book that they best remember, and given a system exists for efficient retrieval, then it would seem a good high-level classification. It can also create a wonderful Mondrian wall, seen from a distance.
Anyway, I group novels and short fiction together, ordered alphabetically by author surname. Other categories are poetry, drama, essay collections, literary criticism, classical works (Graeco-Roman, ordered chronologically), history, biography, travel, education, finance, fine arts and architecture, philosophy, and general reference. Science books are grouped according to discipline. My largest single category is mathematics.
We recently had bookshelves replaced and enlarged throughout our house, and at this point I confess that they have been restocked with haste, and not yet with enough neurotic energy.
Q. What sorts of books predominate?
A. Nonfiction predominates by far; particularly general and specialized reference books. Some relate to my career interests of medicine and science, as well as general knowledge, language, and mathematics.
Q. Describe your favourite reading place.
A. At home, amongst books, with a comfortable chair, quiet, and good lighting.
Q. What book/s are you reading right now? Why did you choose that
book/those books and what do you think of it/them so far?
A. I am re-reading Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, as well as Middle English Lyrics, edited by MS Luria and RL Hoffman, out of interest and possibly toward a new project.
Q. What are your favourite books and/or who are your favourite authors?
A. My favourites have always been dictionaries and encyclopaedias. I couldn’t identify favourite authors.
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. I like to imagine rescuing a book of books: a single volume that contains my every other book in facsimile. (Many will recognize the beginnings of a Russell’s paradox here: Does the super book, being my book, contain itself? Let’s agree that it is defeated in this case by the qualifier ‘other’.)
The second is a volume of Keats given to me by my mother.
The third would be a book of survival, and depend on the nature of the emergency—fire, flood, earthquake, plague, Armageddon, say. For example, in the event of foreign invasion, it would likely be a Korean phrasebook.
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. Charles Dodgson, his alter ego Lewis Carroll, and the literary Alice. I don’t know that they are my favourites, but they would be interesting. Lewis Carroll has probably given the world more sophisticated bewilderment and entertainment than any other writer.
I would serve Indian tea and, if they insisted on eating, order in a curry.
I would ask them about their lives and times, pseudonymity, correspondence with Queen Victoria, early photography, logic, poetry, and sensuality.
Bad to Worse, by Robert Edeson, is available through Fremantle Press.