Portrait of Author Damon Young as a Reader

This appeared in the Irish Times on 30 December 2017, p. 24:

Portrait of Author Damon Young as a Reader

The vintage fingerprints and splashes of egg yolk adorning my Ladybird edition of The Three Little Pigs. The wild flowers pressed between the pages of a Danilo Kiš. We measure out our lives with books as well as coffee spoons. Those we have read, those we have not; above all, those that have read us. “To my right is a small stained pine bookcase,” writes Damon Young at the beginning of The Art of Reading. “It contains, among other things, my childhood.”

On the latter subject, and his subsequent development, he remains rather tight-lipped. Reading, we learn, was initially “a prop in [his] performance of superiority” and, crucially, a “liberation from school’s banality and home’s atmosphere of violence”. At the age of 11, he sought refuge from his father’s “morning screams” in ninja books and make-believe. As a teenager he was “Prufrock avoiding Prufrock”. Finally he alludes to his wife’s “grave illness” which rendered him incapable of finishing AS Byatt’s Still Life. There ends the confessional: this is a portrait of the author as a reader.

In the expository chapter Young navigates his way round the labyrinthine shelves of his own Library of Babel, travelling back and forth in time, both personal and historical. His early passion for Sherlock Holmes was shared by William Gibson, whose evocation leads — “[t]wo shelves under” him — to Orhan Pamuk’s reflections on childhood perusal and then on to Edith Wharton’s — “[t]wo rooms behind and one century before him” — and from thence to Rousseau, Sartre, de Beauvoir (close to the former “in [his] library as in life”) and so on. Taking in Batman as well as Heidegger, the breadth of reference is impressive, but never overbearing, thanks to the Australian philosopher’s lightness of touch, self-deprecating humour and endearing deployment of the word “bunkum”. Having traced a desire path through a lifetime of books, Young reflects upon six Aristotelian virtues (curiosity, patience, courage, pride, temperance and justice) that reading requires, exhibits or promotes.

The Art of Reading is not just another bibliomemoir; it is also a manifesto of sorts. The author shuns a utilitarian approach to his subject — regarded as “an end in itself” — summarily listing its ancillary benefits with a commendable degree of scepticism. After all, “bastards enjoy fiction too” and, as he cheekily points out, some of them are authors. His ambitious goal is to re-enchant an activity which, “cosmically speaking”, is very much “against the odds”. Reading, he laments, is grossly undervalued, its wonders all too soon forgotten.

It tends to be thought of as a rudimentary skill, acquired in early childhood, rather than a lifelong project to be honed from Miffy to Proust. It has the added disadvantage of being a largely invisible pursuit, incapable of competing with the social cachet conferred by authorship, or rather the “fantasy of publication”. A text, however, is “only ever half finished by the writer”; it is the reader who brings it to life. Should the human race be wiped out, books would be “lived in, eaten, buried, climbed upon, oxidised, but not read”.

Young contends that the reader’s demiurgic power is not only forgotten, but also repressed, because of the anxiety it generates in highlighting the contingency of our books and lives: “Giddiness arises as I become aware of my responsibility for affirming one world and not another, and the fragility of whatever is chosen. Every string of letters can be an existential challenge”. What Michel Foucault called the “author function” is thus “a way of making reading safe”. Words become “someone else’s job”: the book “just means this, end of story”.

If Young explores how Rousseau or Sartre became fully aware of their existence through reading, he also considers how fiction may provide an escape from the confines of the self — Dickens’s “hope of something beyond that place and time” — and the increasing encroachment of the actual upon the possible.

In order to truly appreciate a text we must also “overcome our egocentrism”, which Virginia Woolf signally failed to do vis-à-vis Joyce, whom she initially read through the prism of class snobbery and rivalry. The philosopher concedes, however, that Iris Murdoch’s notion of “unselfing” has its limits. We are “partial beings” whose “incompleteness varies” with age, so that some novels — Henry James’s in the case of Evelyn Waugh — need to be grown into.

Most importantly, perhaps, literature enables us “to stifle the little oligarch” within. Villains — in fiction as well as fact — “see all things as a means to an end”, which is always “some vision of perfection”. Reading teaches us to accept that things simply are, and that they may end without concluding: “Only the Library of Babel continues. It makes sense to restlessly move between artworks, never believing that any one is perfect.”

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Whatever Happened to 3:AM Magazine?

This appeared in Guardian Books on 10 July 2012:

Whatever Happened to 3:AM Magazine?

When the 3:AM website suddenly vanished last week, the might of social media helped track down the person who could switch the server back on. But what are the implications for online magazines?

[Turn it on again … server outages were undeniably on the rise, but this time there was no website to check. Photograph: Thomas Northcut/Getty Images]

I concluded my last contribution to this site with a quotation from Maurice Blanchot: “Literature is going toward itself, toward its essence, which is disappearance”. Little did I know that 3:AM Magazine — the literary webzine I had edited with a group of friends for more than a decade — would shortly after vanish suddenly into cyberspace. Whether it was going toward its essence is a moot point, which falls outside of our present remit.

When I am not running late, I often check the website, along with my email, before setting off for work. The last time I performed this routine, I sat, for what seemed like ages, staring, bleary-eyed, at an empty page that obstinately refused to load. Blogger’s block, as I like to call it, is a less heroic, technological version of l’angoisse de la page blanche: the agony experienced by writers in front of a blank page. The only sign of activity came from the little dotted line going round and round in vicious circles like Sisyphus‘s boulder or — rather fittingly in this instance — nobody’s business. With hindsight, I realise it should have put me in mind of the proverbial dotted line on which dodgy contracts are carelessly signed. At this juncture, however, I wasn’t unduly worried — or at least I wasn’t yet aware that my relative (and frankly uncharacteristic) nonchalance may have been (was) inappropriate. After all, this sort of thing had been happening — not happening — on and off for several months, and each time normal service had resumed of its own accord, as if by magic.

Although rare, server outages were undeniably on the rise, and downtime had gone from a couple of hours to a couple of days. This, of course, should have prompted a reassessment of my non-interventionist attitude, but there was little I could do, short of moving the entire website to a new company and server, which is precisely the kind of drastic measure I was eager to postpone for as long as possible. Attempting to make contact with our host — whether by phone, email, carrier pigeon or Ouija board — was a fruitless exercise I had long given up in favour of more fulfilling pursuits such as staring at empty web pages failing to load. Besides, these outages afforded me a few guilty pleasures, not least a little breathing space from the frenzy of online activity: they reminded me of the carnivalesque atmosphere brought about, in my childhood household, by the power cuts of the 1970s. And there was the frisson of flirting with disaster without going all the way — until that fated morning when I tried to check the website only to discover that there was no website to check. There was still no website when I came home from work that evening, nor the following day, nor the day after that. When the expected resurrection had failed, Godot-like, to materialise for almost a week, we were forced to contemplate the nightmare scenario of having lost 12 years’ worth of archives.

The web is a Library of Babel that could go the way of the Library of Alexandria. It is the last word in the quest for a book in which everything would be said — a tradition that extends from epic poetry to Joyce’s Ulysses through the Bible, the Summa Theologica, Coleridge‘s omnium-gatherum and the great encyclopedias, as well as Mallarmé‘s “Grand Oeuvre”. It is the ultimate Gesamtkunstwerk — “the catalog of catalogs”, the “total” library conjured up by Borges — but it also marks the triumph of the ephemeral.

In order to mimic the instant gratification provided by the web, Argentinian publisher Eterna Cadencia recently published an anthology of short stories using disappearing ink. Once you open the volume, the ink begins to fade in contact with light and air, vanishing completely within two months. In recent years, I have received a growing number of requests from early contributors to 3:AM Magazine, asking me to delete a poem or story of theirs. These people are usually applying for a new job, and find themselves haunted online by youthful incarnations of themselves that may jeopardise their futures. Yet it only took an instant for someone to switch off 3:AM‘s server and solve this problem. The past does not pass on the web; it lingers or resurfaces — unless, of course, it is wiped away. In our case, most of the material was retrievable via the Internet Archive, but as Sam Jordison pointed out in a recent email, how can we be sure that this site, or a similar one, will always be around? At least, in the old days of dead trees, you could safeguard copies of your journal in libraries or universities. When 3:AM was launched, I used to print out every new article we posted, but stopped when the site started running to thousands of pages. I had never imagined that the company I was paying to host, and indeed back up, our webzine would vanish without a word of warning, like disappearing ink.

3:AM‘s servers (located in Dallas, Texas) were owned by a company (based in Saint Joseph, Missouri) whose website was down. Emails bounced back and the phone had been disconnected. We naturally assumed that the owner — whose main claim to fame was his contribution to the penis-enlargement business — had done a runner. But as soon as the word was out, we were inundated with heart-warming messages of support and offers of help via social media, and within a few hours, Twitter had located the owner’s whereabouts. 3:AM readers informed us that he was now the landlord of — or an employee in (there were conflicting reports) — a tattoo parlour. Someone even kindly mailed me an overexposed picture of the aforementioned establishment.

American novelist Steve Himmer spotted that he and the alleged fugitive had a friend in common on Facebook, who was able to send a direct message. London-based author Susana Medina friended him and striked up a conversation. His mobile phone number and personal email addresses were soon unearthed and passed on by amateur sleuths. Blogger Edward Champion conducted a phone interview with the errant entrepreneur in which the latter claimed that he had wound up his web hosting business in 2008 and had no idea that he was still hosting us. He mentioned a “server admin in Bucharest” — name of Florin — who had been handling the company’s “lingering details”. If this is all true, and it could well be, 3:AM had been running on some unattended phantom server. I also wonder whom I have been paying all these years.

Thanks to our readers’ support, and to Champion’s fine detective work, the server has been switched back on (possibly by Florin) … until we migrate elsewhere.