Outside the Strand bookstore in New York. Photo: Kathleen Tyler Conklin on Flickr via CC
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The crack of the spine: why do we find wear and tear in books so comforting?

Objects that feel lived in give us a comforting feeling of having come a long way, of having been through the years and having done some hard work to get there.

For about fifteen years now I have been keeping a notebook, or multiple notebooks actually, ostensibly with the intention of jotting down ideas or thoughts before they escape off into the ether. Occasionally these thoughts result in something concrete but more often than not the scribblings are promptly forgotten about, never to be reread or pored over for long-lost inspiration.

In reality, this incessant note-taking is just another form of procrastination, no different nor more tangibly constructive than the 47,000 or so tweets that I have managed to post over a much shorter period of time. Dozens of the notebooks are piled in a drawer at home, ranging from neat little Moleskines to cheap spiral-bound jotters that I can’t remember buying. There are even some loose pages that were posted  back to me by a conscientious thief who ripped them out and kept the rest of the book (upon later recovering the bag they were in and which had been left on the Metro, I found the same thief had ignored a number of valuable items but took a copy of Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia and a Paris A-Z – it was as if I had been robbed by a latter-day Raymond Queneau). 

They bear the marks of occupational carelessness – crumpled or worn covers, smudged ink, coffee and wine stains – contain fragments of stories, lists, recipes, potted film reviews, heartfelt confessionals after bad break-ups, the occasional bad poem, ill-informed first impressions of whatever city or country I happened to be travelling in at the time. Everything is written in my cursive handwriting, which has got smaller and increasingly illegible as the years have progressed (some entries also bear the clear imprint of drunkenness). The writing is in a variety of coloured inks, of varying thickness, sometimes in pencil, of varying degrees of sharpness. A couple of the early ones even have an index system, dating from a time when I seriously thought these scribblings would constitute a corpus from which my future work might be drawn.

The notebooks are of little literary value and, even to myself, of limited interest. Yet I would be loth to ever lose them. Because they represent my most sustained bout of writing. However inconsequential this accrued graphomania might be, it is physical testimony to years of efforts to try and turn idle musings into something resembling literature.

This is one of the attractions of wear and tear. Objects that feel lived in give us a comforting feeling of having come a long way, of having been through the years (or months, as it might be). There is also the sense of having done some work. Even reading a book can be denoted by the physical mark you leave on it – the cracking of a spine, its progressive warping as you work your way to the end. Occasionally when reading a secondhand paperback, a bookmark or a dog-eared page shows you where the last owner gave up – you feel momentarily like Amundsen discovering Scott’s encampment.

If you’re up for a proper mental workout, you can annotate it as you read, notes that, unless you are an academic or a professional critic, you are probably never going to return to. These annotations will however provide delight and amusement for future owners: the American writer David Markson famously bequeathed his library to the Strand bookstore in the East Village and his dyspeptic marginalia regularly surface online. Even if one is not a heavyweight annotator, like Joyce editor Danis Rose or art dealer Tony Shafrazi, a written comment in a book is always worth stopping to read. One of a number of copies of Moby Dick I own is an old Dover Thrift edition, in which some diligent student has scribbled in the margin of page 100: “Ahab is obsessed by the whale” (though, to be fair, my own college annotations of Paradise Lost are not any more sophisticated). I always wonder if the loving dedication written on the flyleaf of my secondhand copy of Goethe’s Italian Journey enchanted or scared off the Japanese man to whom it was addressed in July 1993. The book certainly wasn’t deemed to be of lasting sentimental importance.

Physical deterioration though is more welcome in some contexts than in others. You might be perfectly happy to wear a frayed pair of jeans or a faded torn t-shirt but the tattered lining of an overcoat is likely to put you out a lot more. Similarly, people are less likely to annotate first editions or more expensive hardback books (though if you happen to have small children around the house, they will invariably take care of that for you).

The more valuable the artefact the less compelling the charm of wear and tear: restorers spend their entire careers trying to reverse the effects of time on antique artworks. It is no surprise that over the past 100 years, the word “pristine”, which for centuries meant “in its original condition” has taken on the additional meaning of “spotless”. And while we might have organic decomposition to thank for the joys of beer, wine and smelly cheeses, only a select few are able to stomach the extreme putridness of the Icelandic fermented shark, Hákarl, or the rotted Swedish herring, Surströmming. 

There are those who try to accelerate the process of deterioration, for aesthetic effect, most notably the forgers of the Hitler diaries, who doused the pages in tea to make them look decades old. Paul Thomas Anderson makes use of heat-damaged film in his Pynchon adaptation Inherent Vice to get the requisite 70s look. Robert Wise and Mark Robson, editors of Citizen Kane, dragged film across the floor of the cutting room to make the newsreel sequences look credible. There are also people who buy “ready-worn” jeans brand new. It will surely be only a matter of time before someone actually markets Flann O’Brien’s Buchhandlung service, which offered to appropriately scuff the libraries of those who just don’t have the time to read.

But real wear and tear takes a long time, and patience too. You’re not going to make your brand new copy of The Magic Mountain look read without working your way steadily through it. The adjective “well-thumbed” tends to suggest a certain monomania regarding a text but in many cases it can be a virtuous one. And there is something thrilling in seeing great writers in manuscript form, the crabbed minuscule handwriting of Walter Benjamin or Robert Walser or Nabokov’s index cards. There you get both the human imprint of the writer, which is normally obscured by the uniformity of print, and the sense of their toil, the crossed out words, the revisions, the messiness of creation, something that even multiple drafts typed up on a computer can’t convey. 

James Joyce, almost blinded by glaucoma in later life, composed Finnegans Wake in thick blue crayon, some of it on sheets of wallpaper. That is probably the ultimate physical embodiment of a writer’s labour, the rudest totem of all that effort and all those years of work.

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.

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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.