Outside of a Dog: A Bibliomemoir Paperback – 18 Aug 2011
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Think Bill Bryson, only on books. (Tatler)
Great fun. (Penelope Lively Daily Telegraph)
A wonderful account of a life immersed in books ... which reads like a performance from a seasoned raconteur: extremely funny and seamlessly structured. (Independent on Sunday)
This is an intelligent, consciously disarming book, packed with ideas, jokes, good stories, small triumphs and larger regrets. (Sunday Telegraph)
A charming memoir ... real intelligence and true feeling - and sense of humour. That makes him (Rick) a great companion, and I would be happy, on a long train journey, to sit in between Rick and Matilda, the one very big, the other very small, but made of the same stuff. (The Times)
The captivating and amusing account of the twenty-five books that have influenced the life of bibliophile Rick Gekoski.See all Product description
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Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”
There can’t be many people who don’t know this saying is one of Groucho Marx’s best epigrams, perhaps bettered only by the one that says “Marriage is a great Institution, but who wants to live in an institution.” This book, from an American who spent a great deal of his working life in Britain, is cultured, erudite and sometimes amusing, but it isn’t one of those books you might ordinarily pick up with much enthusiasm. The life of an English teacher, morphing into a bit of a rebel, a sad home-life at times and then morphing back into an English teacher of some distinction. It’s not a marvellously gripping tale but it does have moments of wonderful insight into his chosen profession. It’s sometimes pithy, often witty and even more often wise.
Writers try to suggest what other people (like us but not us) feel, says Gekoski, comparing the experience of trying to understand how a lion feels with that of a man trying to understand how a woman feels. Missing the point he goes on to say “Did Freud not admit that women were lions to him, that he could not understand, after years of observation, what it was that they wanted? There is some general truth lurking here. If lions women and blacks cannot be understood from outside the group, why is it not also true of men, or whites? After all, what woman could fully comprehend the gloopy mixture of aggression, competitiveness, insecurity and lust that drives most men?” To which my answer is: No, you don’t get out of your appropriation of power that easily. Take for instance Freud’s account of women, where a lack of a penis becomes a defining quality. The only sensible reaction to that is to say, yes, and you don’t have a vagina, and furthermore, whichever you lack is an accident of birth.
What he does suggest, however, is that reading books – novels especially – gives us a reliable place in which we can come to an understanding, where we can apprehend and participate in the inward world of another person. The secret, he insists, is to realise there is no ordinary life. We are all irremediably foreign and separate. How does literature help us?
Well, it takes us away from ourselves and into another person’s or several other people’s lives. That’ll do for me, for a start. But it has to be a really good writer that does that to us, one that embodies a powerful presence in the words.
Gekoski’s eminently sensible dismissal of what he calls “the post-structuralist miasma” rings true: “If you really want to understand your post-structuralism you have to correlate the new form of language to its essential form of life. Get yourself a table and some companions at Deux Magots, drink a lot of espresso, smoke Gitanes, talk all night, shrug and wave your hands about, purge all specificity and observation from your vocabulary and replace it with abstraction. Close your eyes, philosophize, and it will all make sense in a way quite inconceivable in a senior common room at an English university.” Nicely put Mr Gekoski.
I really enjoyed this book.
Rick's book is not just about books of course, but also about himself, and I have to say, his life has been interesting. He writes about his childhood in a way which explains his love of reading, and like so many avid readers, their literary imagaination seems to have come alive through gaining access to an adult library at an early age. I remember at age 14 being able to graduate from the junior public library to the adult library, and finding riches there beyond belief. My own interest seems to have been in humour whereas Rick Gekoski seems to have got his rocks off by exploring his parents' extensive library of psycho-sexual literature, whether Psychopathia Sexualis by Krafft-Ebing, or Sexual Anomalies and Perversions by Magunus Hirschfield.
Thankfully this stage seems not to have lasted too long and in no time Rick was deep in Holden Caulfield's life in Catcher in The Rye. And then Rick read T S Eliot, The Waste Land and his reading perceptions were changed forever. Isn't the pleasure of reading a book like Outside of a Dog so much to do with discovering shared experiences, that sense of inwardly saying, Ah yes, when the writer enthuses about one's own literary loves?
Rick progresses through some fairly esoteric stuff on his journey to Silence of the Lambs (and yes, I agree, even Robert Harris deserves a place in the canon because of his creation of Hannibal Lecter, a character so real he must jump off any page that contains a mention of him). But to reach Lecter we progress through R D Laing, Germaine Greer (this is a very 60s list at this point), and even touches on Hume, Descartes and A J Eyer.
I was quite pleased to see Carl Hiassen in Rick's list, for we must all have some lighter reads to keep us going and it was also fascinating to read Rick's encounters with the Cambridge spies - Kim Philby etc. Rick actually travelled to Moscow to meet Mrs Philby.
This really is a very interesting book which must keep any avid reader interested throughout its pages. I reached the end and could have done with more, and what greater tribute to a book is there than that? Its a great book to dip into, and also one to read from cover to cover in a couple of days. I am sure it will remain on my shelves as a regular reference point and I'm pleased I bought it.