Lost Books

On Lost Books Alexandria

I’m not big on nostalgia, but “books I once owned” is a class of memories guaranteed to induce misty-eyed reverie, if not outright pangs of regret. My eyes slide along the shelf of English language novels, L-P, then skip back to M… Mantel. Hang on.

Where is Black Books? Did I lend it out and never get it back? Or DID I THROW IT INTO A RECYCLING BIN?! (Please, hear me out / have mercy.)

Call it careless, call it idiocy, but in my time I’ve suffered a couple of episodes of large scale Book Loss. “Suffered” as in “allowed to happen”.

The first tragic book abandonment was the result of a break-up. In the heat of moving out, it seemed there were more important things to deal with (well, you live and learn). As a result, I’m not entirely sure what I read in the 90’s and early 00’s. Most of the Most Important Books went with me, as well as ones likely to be referenced this lifetime, but the losses included a number of valued gifts (A Confederacy of Dunces) and excellent reads – including Richard Flanagan’s bonkers Gould’s Book of Fish, which I would give my right carp to revisit.

The second, more traumatic bookocalypse occurred during our move from Amsterdam to Stockholm. [*AVERT EYES NOW IF SENSITIVE TO SCENES OF SENSELESS BOOK WASTAGE*] Trying to keep the shipping manageable, I talked myself into doing away with the cubic yards of scrappy second-, third-, and ninth-hand Penguin Classics I’d accumulated. Once the boxes shipped, I took the Reluctant Discards to the recycling station pile… only to find that buried underneath the Ovids and Nietsches were a couple of stacks of Keepers.

Is this where Black Books met its end? Hard to say, since, understandably, I’ve since undergone extensive hypnotherapy to wipe all memory of the incident.

In addition to these two acts of bibliographical recklessness, there have been the other, slower library erosions. Nothing wrong with books given away, especially those titles that didn’t make their mark on me and would have been more appreciated in the hands of another reader.

Then there are those unreturned lendings. Honestly, I’m not irate about those. Not at all. Honest. In fact, the only reason I can list the authors, titles, name of the lendees, and venue in which the lending took place is because I have a photographic memory or something. Must be that. *PENCIL SNAPS*

To Replace or Not To Replace? The urge is strong to binge order new copies of those most missed. It’s lunacy to do that when there are new books to be read. Right? But I *have* been meaning to do more re-reading of favourite books. Though what if the edition I knew and loved is out of print, will a different edition feel like an imposter?? Could wait to pick them up second hand, though that could take decades…

Because these lost books are the only record of my development as a reader. The humour and horror of my teens, the drama of my student years, the hardboiled crime of my twenties.

On some level, I still believe these books are still hidden somewhere on our shelves, Phantom Tomes whose spines are almost visible in peripheral vision, whose covers pass before my eyes every time their titles come to mind.

Did you hear that creak of aging paperback spine? Maybe I’ll take another look. They’re here somewhere, I know it…


Winter Light

It took a while to notice what was odd about the light that afternoon. It was 2 o’clock, and we were walking in the Uppsala countryside – well, the village roads around the converted mission house we were staying at.

Tilled field shadows

14:07 on the clock and the shadows were almost horizontal. This was on the 26th of December, so just after the winter solstice. But still, just two hours after the sun’s at its zenith, and the shadows are long to the point of strangeness. See how many times longer this house’s shadow is than its height:

House shadow

It doesn’t seem like much, it’s a subtle effect and barely noticeable, but once you do spot it, these elongated shadows give everything a faintly otherworldly aspect. Fragments of grit throw shades of 20cm and more:

Grit shadows

It was cold then, I thought. We sweated in the sauna, then drank beer and ate barbecued sausages in a hot tub under the stars, and the wooden deck was slippery with frost. Overnight, the temperature dropped to minus 9ºC. But back in Stockholm, and after New Year, the snow has finally hit, and the mercury has dropped to –14, –16, and last night –18. It’s a dry cold though, that lets you keep the heat in your bones even while your face is numbed.

Give me real seasons, give me winters of extremes, of dagger sharp temperature drops and short bursts of daylight, and alien shadows stretching over the tilled fields. Or something like that.

DISCLAIMER: Phone photography only. We need a real camera.



Big Book of Birth, theBaby prep reading continues apace. Just finishing up with Erica Lyon’s The Big Book of Birth. Had enough decent Amazon reviews. But here’s the problem with the panic-purchase: you think it’s a sensible enough book, with clear-headed advice, and then they go and recommend homeopathy.

Just in passing, only as a relaxant during a night-time early labour, but still. Sugar pills. It calls into question the thinking at work. When the author seems strongly critical of a particular drug of procedure – Piton, say – you wonder how seriously you should take that criticism.

The book is written with reference to the US medical system, so there’s some reader refiltering needed there. And it veers oddly between the poles of “know your rights” consumer-speak and nonsensical hippy woo.

Sara’s story

Although I generally consider myself a well-educated consumer, when I got pregnant I didn’t spend much time considering how I would give birth.

Ah, childbirth – the pinnacle experience of consumer society! Check the next testimonial – the “author’s note” is part of the quote from the book, btw.

Dalia’s Story

[Author’s note: Dalia is a doctor.]

These are the details of my empowering birth experience. Four days prior to my son’s birth I had a “Blessingway” ceremony. The women articulated blessings and well-wishes, and we strung the beads together to create a necklace for me to wear during the birth process. While I can’t say with any certainty that this was the case, in my heart I know that the energy we created with the ceremony and with my necklace endured though my labour and gave me special strength.

Wait, what? Dalia is a DOCTOR? Give me strength.

I’m not being so cynical as to discount the benefits of emotional support. But this is a licensed medical practitioner elevating a nice chat with friends into a nebulous mystical energy. And, I’ll go out on a limb and make a statistically-guided guess that she’s also co-opting the trappings of a Native American ceremony. It’s the “while I can’t say with any certainty that is the case” that kills me – right before she goes on to state with blind certainty that oh yes, it was DEFINITELY the case. If Dalia was my doctor, I would not be a happy consumer.

So, this book is a swing in totally the other direction from the previous parenthood book, The Expectant Dad’s Handbook, a British publication that referred to “us blokes” and therefore also made me feel I was not the target audience. (On balance, though, perhaps I would rather be talked down to than fed bullshit nonsense as revelation, so long as the patronising viewpoint was based on y’know, medical facts and not homeopathy.)

Looking forward to finally picking up a parenthood book that isn’t targetted at a specific reader, one that presents unvarnished advice without making its own judgements.

They exist, right?

Fountain Pen Emporia of Stockholm

Pen Store, Södermalm

The population of Sweden is only a nudge over 9.5 million, of whom less than a million live in the city of Stockholm. If you include the suburbs you can count 1.4mill, and the wider metropolitan area will get you up to 2.2mill. What I’m saying is: not a lotta folks.

So when I started sniffing around for fountain pen stores, shops, boutiques and emporia, perhaps I should’ve been less surprised that there aren’t so many.

NK Papper was the first name that people came up with. It’s a department of NK – Stockholm’s equivalent of Selfridges, in both quality and costliness – and they have a broad selection. The old Parker/Sheaffer/Waterman staples are well represented, plus Montblancs and (*rolls eyes*) Porsche Design. They also have a drop of Lamys and another of Pelikans, and a bunch of heavily enamelled, fancy makes whose names escape me. The ink selection was less broad, the most interesting thing here being the last remaining bottles of their exclusive Noodler’s ink, Stockholm Indigo. The service there was knowledgeable, if brisk in that department store way. Nothing doing online, though.

The most interesting online-only Swedish retailer seems to be DeskStore, who have a decent paper selection and a few inks. Pen-wise, TBH, it’s limited to a range of Lamys and Kawecos. Still, they might be the only people in Sweden with Kaweco fountain pens. Their offering is pretty stylish, and while I haven’t ordered from them I probably will sooner or later.

But my favourite to date is Pen Store. They are online, but also, smartly, already have their bricks n’ mortar shop on Södermalm, a short walk from my Hornstull neighbourhood. The guys there are knowledgable and clearly care about pens n’ stuff (I only looked at reservoarpennor but they have scads more options for technical drawing and art-type-business). There are heaps of Lamys, selections from TWSBI, Sailor, Cross, Pilot and more. Also, they seem to have more in the physical store than online: for starters, there was a display of Yard-O-Leds glittering away in one corner.

Their ink selection is good, with plenty of Pilot Iroshizuku and Caran d’Aches, workhorse inks like Lamy’s and the excellent Sailor Jentle range – I picked up a bottle of the dark red “Grenade” and it’s an utterly delicious colour. And where their ranges overlap, Pen Store is certainly less expensive than NK. But it’s on customer service where Pen Store wins. I picked up an extra fine Lamy Vista there, and after realising that it way too thin for me – after almost a week of use – they told me to bring it back so they could swap it out for a fine. The guys will happily answer any question you have, let you test out an assortment of nibs and inks to make an informed decision, and give you the skinny on which distributors are good to work with and which give the Swedish market short shrift.

IN SUMMARY: need a pen/ink while in Stockholm? Go to Pen Store.

Fun with Swedish Particle Verbs

It can be literally a living hell, having no-one to nerd out with, in my amateurish way, about grammar and linguistics. My girlfriend is helping me learn Swedish, which is great – far and away the best way to become fluent in a language, right?

But whenever I realise something fascinating about English phrasal verbs and launch into an extended monologue about the equivalent Swedish particle verbs, her eyes glaze over, and then I realise she stopped listening to me before I even got onto how my current fave Swedish PV is the elaborate att ifrågasätta, to doubt/question – literally “to in-question-set”. Ace!

Dutch is littered with verbs like that, and they’re usually separable. The preposition part and the verb part of the infinitive come right apart. (She knows all about this too, so at this point she’ll usually turn up the volume on the TV.) For example, aangeven, to indicate (lit. “to on-give”) gives you:
Vergeet niet om aan te geven (Don’t forget to indicate)
Zij gaf aan dat ze klaar was (She indicated that she was ready)

That made a lot of sense to me, as an English speaker, and the way those Dutch verbs separated felt natural. Now of course, I keep trying to do the same thing to Swedish verbs, and guess what? They don’t do the separating. Not so much. Att påpeka, to point at (lit. “to at-point”) gives you jag påpekar huset (“I point at the house”) or han påpekade det (“he pointed at it”) but trying to separate the verb creates an entirely different meaning. (Jag pekar huset på = I point out the house.)

Anyways, the fun of these phrasal verbs – and I’ll often have to shout this above the whirr of her electric toothbrush – is working out how that combo of preposition + simple verbs combines. Sometimes it’s similar to the English sense, but others you really have to reach for. Now I can keep them separate when the meaning seems clear or logical:

  • att pågå = to go on (lit. “to on-go”)
  • att påstå = to claim/state (“to on-stand”)
  • att uppstå = to arise/result (“to up-stand”)
  • att uppleva = to experience (“to upp-live”)

By this point, she might be reading a book in bed, but it will be clear that it’s not really holding her attention, so I’ll explain exactly why I keep getting confused between avgöra and anföra. Why would “off-do” mean determine, and why’s that so similar to “on-bring”, which means command or quote?

Then when the light goes out, I’ll reassure her that no doubt these things will come with practice. And I’ll soothingly recite all the Swedish particle verbs I can think of, and their English meaning and literal translations, until she drifts off to sleep.


EDIT 14-08-10: As my GF was good enough to point out, påpeka means “point at” and not “point out”…


Instagrammed selection of beard maintenance products/tools

The Guardian, in one of its more clickbaity moments, recently declared that we’d passed “peak beard”, no doubt prompting trend-sensitive liberals across the UK to reach for their razors.

It’s hard to read the recent vogue for facial hair as emerging from anything but a yearning for the authentic, shot through with a hearty nod to masculinity. First sprouting in Brooklyn circa 2005, and growing in parallel with the conceptual Gordian knot of hipsterism, the rebirth of the beard followed the dawn of the new century, perhaps a naturalistic reaction to the entrenchment of all things digital in our lives.

Previous cycles of male identity had involved Laddism (in the UK) and preening metrosexuality. A corrective to this might well blend seriousness, a seeming lack of vanity, and a masculinity that was unabashed yet unthreatening – i.e. lacking the aggressive boorishness of the Lad. (And only in so far as beards themselves have a certain inherently avuncular, warm character. Sadly, it would be impossible to assert that men in general are becoming less aggressive/threatening.)

The beard also carries the historical weight of tradition, as well as being a code for the rural and the unrefined, the artistic-artisanal. See also: folk music and local cuisine, microbreweries, manual typewriters and hand-carved spoons. Intrinsic to the beard, moreover, is a decent measure of individuality – length, coverage and curl, the patterning of white and red hairs found in most every beard, these things varying wildly from person to person. And that’s on top of a bewildering array of styles, your Boxeds, Lincolns, Ducktails, Hulihees and what have you…

The accompanying “cottage” industry of beard products reflects this mix of signs precisely, with brand names like Captain MacGuffin’s Indomitable Beard Pomade. Barbers everywhere are locked in a death match of ultimate vintage oneupmanship (like so and etc).

But like many stylistic choices that progress from niche to mainstream, the beard has suffered an ironic reversal of meaning. The unkempt, careless wild man look has been muscled out by painstakingly neat trims and artfully waxed ‘staches. Authenticity swapped out for artful pretension. Hence the Guardian declaring open season on hipster beards.

‘Come now, Epictetus, shave your beard’.
If I am a philosopher, I answer, I will not shave it off.
‘Then I will have you beheaded’.
If it will do you any good, behead me.

Luckily, the full-bore woodsman look (jeans, work boots, thermal undershirt, flannel shirt, sturdy braces and woollen cap) is a pretty sensible wardrobe for much of the year here in Sweden. And you know what? Despite the lolworthy nature of this tweet doing the rounds, a beard is genuinely a top notch aid to concentration, cogitation, and contemplation.

Thus I could claim, like Epictetus, that retaining my own beard is a principled stance. I’ve frequented each of the barbers linked above, and think the carving of wooden spoons is a fine pursuit. (No value judgement there.)

But it would be closer to the truth to admit that so long as my significant other prefers the beard, and for reasons largely tactile, the thing will remain in place.

A Round Table Is No Writing Desk


Lookit. Pushing backwards, fighting against the opposing curve of an ever-growing beer belly. Encouraging slouching. Neglecting proper support of the writing arms.

What do you write on? A dedicated desk? In your lap? Are you the kind of steel-stomached marvel that can write (*SHUDDER*) in the car?

For 7 years, in London and in Amsterdam, I made do with a round dining table that did double duty as a writing desk. And it was only in the last couple of years I realised what an absolute pain in the tuches it was to write there, how bad it was for posture and therefore for lengthy periods of scribbling. We moved in together, I ditched the round table, and enjoyed eighteen months writing at a much more cooperative rectangular dining table.

Now, in Sweden, it’s back to the round. I can feel the familiar slouch kicking in, the moulding of my torso around the curve. To be fair, it’s better than the round table I had before, with had varnished, rounded edges – you just felt yourself crumpling around it.

There’s a fix. Started taking myself off to the Stadsbibliotek, where the combination of perfectly straight desk edges, other people working silently, and no interweb connection* seems to make me about 103% more productive. Funny, that.


* They have WiFi, it’s not a library in the 18th Century. You just need a library card to connect, and while waiting on residency registration I am librarycardless.