May 18, 2010

AWRF 2010: An hour with Rick Gekoski

“What demographic group steals most books from Blackwell’s? Clerics!”

-- Rick Gekoski

First of all, go to the Creative Review blog to see some wonderful photos of rare book dealers in their habitats from an exhibition called The London Book Trade by portrait photographer Mike Tsang. There are many things to enjoy in the photos but the best thing is how the subjects all match their surroundings, just like that crazy “disappearing” artist who paints himself to look like a background and has his photo taken in front of it.

The London book trade is Rick Gekoski’s world, and, in fact, his is one of the portraits. In the AWRF programme Rick Gekoski is referred to as “Bill Bryson on books”, a catch phrase coined by The Tatler which blurb writers everywhere seem to have latched onto. Having now seen Rick Gekoski at AWRF 2010, and having seen Bill Bryson a few years ago at a North Shore Libraries event, I think it's a very superficial description (now why doesn’t this surprise me?)

Yes, they are both Americans living in England, and they both have beards, are funny, and write books. But there’s a major difference. At heart, Bill Bryson is always that “barefoot boy with cheek of tan” from Iowa. He’s funny about the BBC and Scandinavians with big hair, but with important people what comes through is -- leavened by a gentle quip or two -- boyish respect.

The main thing about Rick Gekoski, on the other hand, is that he has no sacred cows. He is deliciously wry about everyone, including himself. He’s a raconteur whom I picture holding forth to Samuel Johnson and Oliver Goldsmith, tankard in hand at whatever Inn it was where their literary circle, The Club, used to meet. In fact, both he and John Carey, my favourite personality at the Festival and the Chair for Gekoski’s event, would be perfect for The Club, whose membership requirement was to be the type of man that if two of  them were to meet they would be able to entertain each other without needing anyone else. It’s exactly what they did.

A biographer by trade, John Carey started off with a query about Graham Greene (Gekoski having had some dealings with Greene which he wrote about in an amusing piece in his memoir Tolkien’s gown) and his relationship with his authorised biography and with Norman Sherry, the man he allowed to write it, but only after making him promise he would visit every spot Greene had ever visited, read every letter, and so on. The finished work asphyxiates you with detail and I have yet to meet someone who has actually finished it.

“Norman Sherry is a pretty devastated chap.” John Carey proferred.

Gekoski was happy -- as indeed he proved to be on any topic-- to gave us his take, and it was a good one.  “I think Greene would have said 'He will scurry around; he will leave my inner self alone; and he will do it so assiduously that no one will ever do it again.' So Sherry produces this lunatic, pathological biography, which ends up at 3000 pages.”

Gekoski’s background is in philosophy, which he discovered when still at high school. “I told my father ‘Existentialism means you choose who you are’ and he said ‘Tell that to the Jews who died in the concentration camps.’”

Undeterred, he went on to get his PhD at Oxford. It was the time of the war in Vietnam and England was a good place to be. “I’d have been 1-A if I went to Harvard.”  He became a lecturer at the University of Warwick. It was the time of Derrida and Academe was not a good place to be. “Derrida ruined the lives and careers of a generation of academics.” Gekoski gives it the cognoscente pronunciation : Der-ri-dah' but manages to make it sound stupid. He chose book dealing instead.

“Learning through intimacy”
John Carey muses “Is there a way of studying literature?”
RG: "I think there’s a way of reading literature – with your finger on the page. Learning through intimacy.”

Great question, John; Great answer, Rick
JC: “Who is the most unpleasant author ever?”
RG: “I think Paul Theroux might take a little bit of beating.”

Horton, Holden and Huckleberry
JC: “Who are your role models?”
RG: “The first one was Horton from Horton hatches an egg. And then, Holden Caulfield. That was the first real voice in fiction that I could internalize. It was the first teenage voice in fiction.”

What about Huckleberry Finn, I thought. Should I ask? Is he going to think I'm trying to catch him out and be cutting? Too late. The Club adjourned. We put down our tankards, um, I mean put away our pens, picked up our umbrellas and headed for the door. As we filed out I asked Mark Fryer of the NZ Herald, who had been sitting next to me, and whom I know would never be cutting, “But what about Huckleberry Finn? Wasn’t he a teenager?” “That’s what I was thinking too, " he said. "What about Huckleberry Finn?”

And this from a man born on the Mississippi River! Dear Mr Gekoski, this will be the first question for the next meeting of The Club.

Rick Gekoski's books at the library:

Ditulis Oleh : tosca // 03:30


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